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game systems, also known as consoles, are a popular
form of entertainment. In 2000, Sony
estimated that one out of every four households in the United
States had a Sony PlayStation. That's a huge number!
And then there are the homes with one of the many other game
In this edition of HowStuffWorks,
you will learn what video game systems are, a little about the
history of game consoles, what is inside a game console and
what the future holds for these systems. You will also learn a
little about the games these systems play.
Let's start with the most basic question: What exactly is a
video game console?
In Essence... At its core, a video game
system is a highly specialized computer. In fact, most systems
are based on the same central
processing units (CPUs) used in many desktop
computers. To keep the cost of the video game system
within reasonable limits, most manufacturers use a CPU that
has been widely available for long enough to undergo a
significant decrease in cost.
Why would people buy a game console instead of a computer?
There are several reasons:
It's usually much cheaper. Prices range from a high end
of about $200 for the Sony PlayStation 2, to less than $30
for an older, used system.
There's no long wait for the game to load.
Video game systems are designed to be part of your
entertainment system. This means that they are easy to
connect to your TV and
There are no compatibility issues, such as operating
system, DirectX drivers, correct audio card, supported
game controller, resolution and so on.
Game developers know exactly what components are in each
system, so games are written to take full advantage of the
The degree of technical knowledge required to set up and
use it is much lower. Most game consoles are truly "plug and
Most video game systems have games that allow multiple
players. This is a difficult process with a typical home
Check out the next section for a short history of the video
game (remember Pong?), or skip it and jump right into Game
A Short History Video games have been around
since the early 1970s. The first commercial arcade video game,
Computer Space by Nutting Associates, was
introduced in 1971. In 1972, Atari introduced
Pong to the arcades. An interesting item to note is
that Atari was formed by Nolan Bushnell, the man who
developed Computer Space. He left Nutting Associates to found
Atari, which then produced Pong, the first truly successful
commercial arcade video game.
Pong was a great hit when it
came out. Move your cursor to get the slides to bounce back
the moving square -- it will speed up as you
That same year, Magnavox offered the first home
video game system. Dubbed the Odyssey, it did not even
have a microprocessor! The core of the system was a board with
about four-dozen transistors and diodes. The
Odyssey was very limited -- it could only produce very simple
graphics, and required that custom plastic overlays be taped
over the television
screen. In 1975, Atari introduced a home version of its
popular arcade game, Pong. The original home version of Pong
was sold exclusively through Sears, and even carried the Sears
logo. Pong was a phenomenal success, opening the door to the
future of home video games.
The Atari 2600
Although the Fairchild Channel F, released in 1976,
was the first true removable game system, Atari once again had
the first such system to be a commercial success. Introduced
in 1977 as the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), the
2600 used removable cartridges, allowing a multitude of games
to be played using the same hardware.
The hardware in the 2600 was quite sophisticated at the
time, although it seems incredibly simple now. It consisted
MOS 6502 microprocessor
Stella, a custom graphics chip that controlled the
synchronization to the TV and all other video processing
128 bytes of RAM
4-kilobyte ROM-based game cartridges
The chips were attached to a small printed circuit
board (PCB) that also connected to the joystick ports,
cartridge connector, power supply and video output. Games
consisted of software encoded on ROM chips and housed in
plastic cartridges. The ROM was wired on a PCB that had a
series of metal contacts along one edge. These contacts seated
into a plug on the console's main board when a cartridge was
plugged into the system. When power was supplied to the
system, it would sense the presence of the ROM and load the
game software into memory.
Systems like the Atari 2600, its descendant, the
5200, Coleco's ColecoVision and Mattel's
IntelliVision helped to generate interest in home video
games for a few years. But interest began to wane because the
quality of the home product lagged far behind arcade
standards. But in 1985, Nintendo introduced the Nintendo
Entertainment System (NES), and everything changed.
The NES introduced three very important concepts to the
video game system industry:
Using a pad controller instead of a joystick
Creating authentic reproductions of arcade video games
for the home system
Using the hardware as a loss leader by
aggressively pricing it, then making a profit on the games
Nintendo's strategy paid off, and the NES
sparked a revival in the home video game market that continues
to thrive and expand even now. No longer were home video game
systems looked upon as inferior imitations of arcade machines.
New games that would have been impractical to create for
commercial systems, such as Legend of Zelda, were
developed for the home markets. These games enticed many
people who had not thought about buying a home video game
system before to purchase the NES.
Nintendo continued to develop and introduce new game
consoles. Other companies, such as Sega
and Sony, created their own home video game systems. Let's
look at the core parts of any current video game system.
Game System Basics The basic pieces really
haven't changed that much since the birth of the Atari 2600.
Here's a list of the core components that all video game
systems have in common:
User control interface
Storage medium for games
The user control interface allows
the player to interact with the video game. Without it, a
video game would be a passive medium, like cable TV.
Early game systems used paddles or joysticks,
but most systems today use sophisticated controllers with a
variety of buttons and special features.
Ever since the early days of the 2600, video game systems
have relied on RAM to provide
temporary storage of games as they're being played. Without
RAM, even the fastest CPU could not provide the necessary
speed for an interactive gaming experience.
The software kernel is the console's operating
system. It provides the interface between the various
pieces of hardware, allowing the video game programmers to
write code using common software libraries and tools.
The two most common storage technologies used for video
games today are CD and
ROM-based cartridges. Current systems also offer some type of
memory cards for storing saved games and personal
information. Newer systems, like the PlayStation 2,
All game consoles provide a video signal that is compatible
Depending on your country, this may be NTSC, PAL or possibly
even SECAM. Most consoles have a dedicated graphics processor
that provides specialized mapping, texturing and geometric
functions, in addition to controlling video output. Another
dedicated chip typically handles the audio processing chores
and outputs stereo sound or, in some cases, digital
In the next section, you'll learn a bit about the games you
can play on these systems.
The Games The software used on these
dedicated computer systems has evolved amazingly from the
simple rectangular blips used in Pong. Games today feature
richly textured, full-color graphics, awesome sound and
complex interaction between player and system. The increased
storage capacity of the cartridges and discs allows game
developers to include incredibly detailed graphics and
CD-quality soundtracks. Several of the video game systems have
built-in special effects that add features like unique
lighting or texture
mapping in real-time.
There is a huge variety of games available. Here are just a
few of the games you can play on the most popular consoles:
We've created a
Video Game System Feature Comparison chart for you to
use as you research various game systems. The chart is
available to you as a PDF. You will need the free Adobe
Acrobat Reader to view it.
like the world of computers, video game systems are constantly
getting better. New technology developed specifically for
video game systems is being coupled with other new
technologies, such as DVD. Here are some system specs:
was the first console to implement online play over a phone
line, calling the system Sega
The MicrosoftXBox is the
first video game system to completely support HDTV.
Popular Science recognized the Sega Dreamcast as
one of the most important and innovative products of 1999.
The Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972, contained
40 transistors and no microprocessor.
The new Pentium 4 microprocessor contains 42 million
transistors on the chip itself!
The PlayStation 2 is the first system to have graphics
capability better than that of the leading-edge personal
computer at the time of its release.
The NintendoN64 marked
the first time that computer graphics workstation
manufacturer Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) developed
game hardware technology.
While the original Atari Football game was first
created in 1973, it wasn't released until 1978. It was
delayed because the game couldn't scroll the screen
-- players couldn't move beyond the area shown on the
monitor. When the game was finally released, it became the
first game to utilize scrolling, a key part of many games
The Atari Pong video game console was the No. 1
selling item for the holiday season in 1975.
The first console to have games available in the form of
add-on cartridges was the Fairchild Channel F
console, introduced in August 1976.
The PlayStation 2 is the first video game system to use
On the original Magnavox Odyssey, players had to keep
score themselves because the machine couldn't.
The Nintendo GameCube's proprietary disc can hold 1.5
gigabytes of data -- 190 times more than what an N64 game
cartridge can hold.
On the market from 1977 till 1990, the Atari 2600
lasted longer than any other game system in history.
The Sega Genesis featured a version of the same
Motorola processor that powered the original Apple Macintosh
Mattel's Intellivison system, introduced in 1980,
featured an add-on called "PlayCable," which delivered games
by cable TV.
Nintendo's Game Boy is the most successful game
system ever, with more than 100 million units sold
The word atari comes from the ancient Japanese
game of Go and means "you are about to be engulfed."
Technically, it is the word used by a player to inform his
opponent that he is about to lose, similar to "check" in
In the 1980s, a service called Gameline allowed users to
download games to the Atari 2600 over regular phone lines.
It was not a success, but did form part of the foundation
for America Online, the world's largest Internet service
The first color portable video game system was the Atari
Lynx, introduced in 1989 and priced at $149.
Introduced in 1993, the 3DO was the first video
game system to be based entirely on CD
The Sony PlayStation was originally intended as a CD
add-on to the Super Nintendo. When licensing problems and
other issues arose, Sony decided to develop the PlayStation
as a machine of its own.
For more information on video game systems, video games,
buying a console and related topics, check out the links on
the next page.