A Brief History of Game Consoles, as Seen in Old TV Ads

The first piece of tech gear that I could call my own wasn't a computer; it was a game console--an original Sega Master System. I remember it, and the often-cheesy marketing that so appealed to my eight-year-old-self, as fondly as I do my first kiss (sorry Kathryn from fourth grade). So, inspired by our recent look at old computer ads and the launch of the Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3, I've compiled a list of classic console commercials spanning three decades.

But first, some ground rules: I've included only consoles, not gaming PCs, in my coverage. And I've focused on advertisements for the consoles themselves. Sure, some classic ads for various games have hit our screens over the years, but the focus here is on the hardware.

Though you'll find plenty of cringe-worthy moments, I couldn't locate an ad for every unit I had in mind. But this story is a living document: If you can find your favorite console's TV spot on a video sharing site such as YouTube, shoot me a link. Most notably, I couldn't find ads for the original Magnavox Odyssey, the Coleco Telstar, the RCA Studio II, the Emerson Arcadia 2001, the Amstrad GX4000, the World of Wonder Action Max, the Bandai PiPPiN @World, or the C64GS (a console version of the Commodore 64 computer). To spice things up a little, I threw in a few obscure Japanese consoles and commercials, and some European ones, too.

Finally, because it's hard to pinpoint exactly when each commercial originally aired, I've used the console's year of release as the time frame. Let the games begin!

1975: Atari PONG

Though Atari PONG comes first on our list (because I could find some ads for it), it certainly wasn't the first console available. That honor goes to the original Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972--a product that the first Atari has a direct link to.

Ralph Baer, who has come to be known as father of video game consoles, headed the team that conceived and developed the Odyssey. In 1966, while working at Sanders Associates, Baer developed the revolutionary concept of a game box that would work with any TV set. By 1968, his team had created a prototype that came be known as the "Brown Box," complete with ball-and-paddle-style games, and even the first light-gun, styled after a rifle. In 1970, Magnavox contracted to make a commercial prototype, and in 1972 it unveiled the original $100 Odyssey console and 12 games.

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The Birth of Atari

Enter a young electrical engineer named Nolan Bushnell, who was partly responsible for the first coin-operated arcade machine: Computer Space. Bushnell attended a demonstration of the Magnavox Odyssey and was intrigued by the simplicity of its tennis game. In 1972, he cofounded a company called Atari and set about improving on Magnavox's tennis game. The result: The coin-operated, Atari-branded PONG arcade machine, which went on to become a smash hit.

Magnavox soon sued Atari, claiming infringement of Ralph Baer's patents; eventually Atari wound up licensing the concept. After PONG's success at the arcades, a home-console version was unveiled at the 1975 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), complete with sound and on-screen scoring.

Over the 1975 Christmas buying season, customers waited for hours to pay $100 for a Sears Tele-Games PONG machine. Following this success, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976 for an estimated $30 million. This gave Atari the infusion of cash it needed to release its own PONG C-100 console and become a household name.

Throughout the 1970s, a plethora of Pong-playing clones (in a multitude of variations, shapes, and sizes) appeared on store shelves around the world.

1976: Fairchild Channel F

Gamers were tiring of PONG consoles, and Fairchild Instrument and Camera's Channel F console offered a fresh new alternative. It featured programmable "videocarts" containing ROM chips and code, as opposed to the dedicated circuits that the Magnavox Odyssey's plug-in cards used. The cartridge concept emerged as an industry standard, and is still used in handheld gaming devices today.

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The Channel F featured a 1.78-MHz Fairchild F8 CPU, invented by Fairchild cofounder Robert Noyce, who later left the company to start a little outfit called Intel. The $170 Channel F came with two built-in games (Pro Hockey and Tennis Champ), and some 20 different videocarts were available at $20 a pop.

1977: Atari VCS/2600

As sales of its PONG console waned, Atari began work on the "Stella" project--a CPU-equipped, cartridge-based console intended to compete with Fairchild's Channel F. After acquiring Atari, Warner had high hopes for the project and reportedly invested $100 million in its development.

The end result was 1977's Atari Video Computer System (VCS). It was renamed the Atari 2600 (from its CX2600 part number) when succeeded by the Atari 5200 in 1982.

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The VCS featured an 8-bit, 1.19-MHz MOS Technology 6507 CPU, coupled with 128 bytes of RAM. A single chip engineered by Jay Miner (who would later be critical to the development of Commodore Amiga computers) delivered four-channel sound and 16 on-screen colors.

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The Atari VCS initially sold for $200, bundled with two joysticks, a joined pair of paddle controllers, and a cartridge game. In the first few years of its existence, it competed with the graphically inferior Fairchild Channel F; but both units generated mediocre sales despite several price drops. By 1980, Fairchild had discontinued the Channel F, and the Atari VCS had become a hit after licensing the arcade game Space Invaders. Retailers continued to sell the Atari VCS/2600 through 1990.

The late, great comedian Phil Hartman (of Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and NewsRadio fame) freaks out for Atari 2600 Ice Hockey:

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In 2005, PC World named the Atari VCS the seventh-greatest gadget of the past 50 years.

1978-1981: Magnavox Odyssey 2, Mattel Intellivision

The four-year stretch from 1978 to 1981 saw the emergence of two significant game consoles: Magnavox's Odyssey 2 and Mattel's Intellivision.

1978: Magnavox Odyssey 2

In 1974, Magnavox merged with Philips and four years later released its own $200 cartridge-based console. Though the new Odyssey 2 (aka the Philips Odyssey 2 or Philips Videopac G7000) had lower specs than the Atari 2600, it produced less-flickery graphics; notable features included an alphanumeric membrane keyboard and voice synthesis.

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1980: Mattel Intellivision

For a while, superior graphics and sound made Mattel's $300 Intellivision (and a succession of rebadged versions) the major competitor to the Atari VCS. Mattel's product was the first console to use a 16-bit microprocessor, but poor controllers and--more importantly--a lack of third-party games limited its success. Mattel eventually released an adapter for Atari 2600 games, but the adapter worked only with the later Intellivision II console.

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1982: Milton Bradley Vectrex, Coleco ColecoVision, Atari 5200

In 1982, a number of companies took a shot at the game console sweepstakes. Among the contestents were board-game heavyweight Milton Bradley, leather supplier and Cabbage Patch Kids mass-producer Coleco, and Atari, back for another round and ready to up the ante.

Milton Bradley Vectrex

The unique, portable Vectrex came with a built-in 9-inch vector monitor. Instead of relying on the sprite/raster-based methods that other consoles used, it incorporated wireframe-like vector graphics. Though this idea provided sharp lines, the Vectrex depended on plastic screen overlays to add color to games

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Coleco ColecoVision

At its launch, the $175 ColecoVision qualified as the most technologically advanced console ever. Games like Defender, Frogger, and Zaxxon came closer to "arcade-quality" than did competing titles for the Atari VCS or Intellivision. And many units came bundled with a near-arcade-quality port of Nintendo's Donkey Kong.

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Coleco offered several hardware expansion modules that delivered extras such as Atari VCS cartridge support, driving controls (including a steering wheel), and a trackball-like roller controller. Another expansion module transformed the ColecoVision into a PC. Though the ColecoVision was a market success, Coleco chose to focus on its ill-fated Adam PC instead, and stopped production of the ColecoVision in 1984.

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Atari 5200

Essentially an Atari 400 computer without a keyboard, the 5200 Super System succeeded the Atari 2600 console. Among its innovations were a pause button, automatic switching between TV viewing and game play, and a new controller that combined an analog joystick with a numeric keyboard and two fire buttons. Unfortunately, the joystick proved unreliable, and gamers were unhappy that their older Atari 2600 cartridges were incompatible with the new console (a separate adapter was released the next year).

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1983-1985: Magnavox Odyssey 3 Command Center, Sega SG-1000 Mk II

During this period, Sega--which would go on to become a major player in the home-console market--first made its presence felt.

1983: Magnavox Odyssey 3 Command Center

Previewed at the 1983 Consumer Electronic Show (CES), the Odyssey 3 Command Center held out the promise of an improved keyboard, a built-in joystick holder, a voice synthesizer, and a 300-baud modem. It was never released. Nevertheless, I stumbled upon this promotional ad for it. (The analog synth soundtrack is kinda catchy.)

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1984: Sega Game-1000 Mk II

The original SG-1000 was Sega's first foray into the home-console market. Despite achieving a measure of popularity in Japan, Australia, Italy, and Spain, it never reached U.S. shores. In 1984, Sega launched the 15,000-yen (roughly $125) SG-1000 Mk II, with an improved CPU, a redesigned case, and a detachable keyboard. It remained a stranger to the Americas as well. Not until 1986's Master System did Sega arrive in U.S. homes.

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1985: Nintendo Entertainment System

By 1984, Nintendo's Famicom (Family Computer) was the most popular game console in Japan. After a North American release through Atari fell through, Nintendo decided to go it alone, unveiling the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) at the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). By 1990, the NES had become the best-selling video game console in the United States, thanks to hot titles like Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, The Legend of Zelda and Donkey Kong Jr.

The ad below provides a great look at the original $250 "Deluxe Set" NES bundle. The pack included a Control Deck (the console itself), R.O.B. the robot, the NES Zapper gun plus two games: Duck Hunt and Gyromite.

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And of course, who could forget Mattel's Power Glove accessory...

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...or Nintendo's own Power Pad? "Now you're playing with body power!"

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Last but not least: the infamous "NES rap" commercial. "It's the Legend of Zelda and it's really rad..." I can't believe I ever used that word.

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Reportedly, Nintendo sold over 60 million NES consoles and 500 million NES game cartridges worldwide.

1986-1987: Sega Master System, Atari 7800, Atari 2600 Jr.

Over the next two years, with the NES dominating the market, Sega and Atari slugged it out for second place.

1986: Sega Master System

Sega began distributing the $200 Sega Master System in the United States only a few months after the NES had become widely available. But Nintendo had a trump card: Its strict game developer contracts prohibited developers from releasing any NES game on any other console for two years. Because the NES had become the dominant console, a developer had to choose between maximizing its game's sales and gambling on the success of a new console. This contributed to the limited game offerings Sega could muster. Nevertheless, the Master System was cheaper than the NES and became popular in Great Britain, Brazil, and Australia.

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Years later, in 1990, Sega released its Master System II. This sleeker, cut-back version initially featured the built-in game Alex Kidd in Miracle World.

1986: Atari 7800 Pro System

Shortly before the scheduled release of the Atari 7800 in 1984, Warner Communications sold Atari to Commodore computers founder, Jack Tramiel. He immediately shifted Atari's focus to personal computers, and only when Nintendo's NES breathed new life into the console category did Tramiel decide to launch the 7800 (at a price of $140 each). By then, however, Nintendo had captured the hearts and minds of gamers, and its severe restrictions on software developers meant that the already-geriatric 7800 received little third-party game support.

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1986: Atari 2600 Jr.

Maybe this was when Atari jumped the shark. Around 1986, Atari repackaged its classic Atari 2600 console in a series of Atari 2600 Jr. revisions. The idea was simple: Make it cheap ($50) and keep Atari's balance sheet in the black. "The Fun is Back!...it's the 2600 from A-tar-i!"

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1988-1989: NEC TurboGrafx-16, Sega Genesis

As the 1980s drew to a close, so did the era of the 8-bit game console.

1988: NEC TurboGrafx-16

NEC decided to capitalize on the success of its Japanese PC Engine console by launching it in the United States as the $200 TurboGrafx-16. This 8-bit system used a custom 16-bit graphics chip to deliver graphics that were clearly superior to those on the NES, and early commercials (like the one below) took pains to point that out. But the TurboGrafx-16 also had to compete against the Sega Genesis, which in the United States, at least, eventually proved more popular.

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Back in Japan, the PC Engine had been the first console to boast a CD-ROM add-on; and many games were beginning to take advantage of the extra capacity. But when the TurboGrafx-CD add-on arrived in America, it was expensive and hard to find.

1989: Sega Genesis

The $200 Sega Genesis (known as the Mega Drive outside North America) debuted in the United States in 1989. The first true 16-bit console, it pushed the NEC TurboGrafx-16 into obscurity and quickly began eating into Nintendo's NES sales.

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It would take Nintendo two years to compete on a technical level with the Genesis, via the 16-bit Super NES, which appeared in 1991.

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Yet even in 1992, Sega had firm control of the North American market, thanks to a combination of aggressive promotions, solid conversions of arcade hits like Golden Axe and After Burner, marquee games like Sonic the Hedgehog, and strong third-party software support (including sports titles from Electronic Arts).

"Genesis does! You can't do this on Nintendo!"

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At the 1992 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Chicago, Sega announced its Sega CD, a CD-ROM add-on for the Genesis. Unfortunately, the prohibitive cost of Sega CD and subsequent public confusion regarding it and 1994's Sega 32X (a 32-bit processor add-on) hurt both concepts and signaled the beginning of the end for Sega.

1990-1991: SNK Neo Geo, Nintendo Super NES, Philips CD-i

The rise of 16-bit graphics capabilities increased popular interest in game consoles and drew new companies to the party.

1990: SNK Neo Geo

Gaming enthusiasts revered the Neo Geo for its high-color 2D graphics, superb sound, excellent joystick controllers, and top-notch conversions of games like Fatal Fury, Samurai Showdown, and Art of Fighting. That said, it's probably most vividly remembered for its pricing: The console cost $650 at launch (with two joysticks and a game), and individual games were priced at roughly $200 each.

SNK would later release an updated Neo Geo CD console in both Japan and the United States for a more palatable $250, but by then it was competing with 32-bit 3D consoles like the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation.

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1991: Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Despite enjoying immediate success in Japan, the 16-bit SNES faced stiff competition in North America from Sega's 16-bit Genesis. These two rivals became the center of the notorious console wars, a conflict fought more intensely in schoolyard and media debates than today's Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3 rivalry. Generally, you were either a Mario maniac, or a Sonic the Hedgehog kid.

The $200 SNES boasted in-game effects such as scaling and rotation, as well as peripherals like the Super Scope (a bazooka light-gun) and the Super Game Boy (which enabled users to play games from the popular Game Boy handheld on a TV). The SNES also got an early exclusive on the prized arcade hit Street Fighter II.

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For a time, the SNES even held its own with later 32-bit 3D consoles like the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation. This surprising tenacity was due largely to certain games that had built-in Super FX chips (serving as a graphics accelerator) and to others, like Donkey Kong Country, that used rendered 3D graphics.

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1991: Philips CD-I

Costing about $700 at launch, the Compact Disc Interactive played interactive CD-I software (including several Zelda games from Nintendo) plus music, video, graphic (CD+G), and karaoke CDs. Philips, Sony, and Nintendo co-developed the CD-I format, and a variety of vendors introduced several series of players, but the concept never achieved widespread success.

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1992-1993: TTi TurboDuo, Amiga CD32, 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, Atari Jaguar

In 1992 and 1993, a wave of new entries joined an already crowded field; but few showed much staying power.

1992: TTi TurboDuo

The $300 TurboDuo combined 1988's NEC TurboGrafx-16 and an enhanced version of the TurboGrafx-16's CD add-on in a single unit. But consumers considered the console overpriced, despite its being bundled with seven games.

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1993: Commodore Amiga CD32

Released in September 1993, the Amiga CD32 was the first 32-bit CD-ROM console to reach North America. Using third-party add-ons (a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive, a hard disk, and a PC keyboard), a dedicated owner could turn the console into a pseudo-Amiga computer. The system became something of a cult hit, but it never caught on with the masses, and expired when Commodore International went bankrupt in 1994.

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1993: 3DO Interactive Multiplayer

Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronics Arts, conceived the 3DO and took the unusual step of franchising its technology to multiple companies (most notably Panasonic and Goldstar, now LG Electronics). The first to arrive in the United States was Panasonic's pricey $700 Real 3DO. Like the Philips CD-I, it could play various multimedia CD formats. Though the 3DO hosted a number of top games (including Return Fire, Alone in the Dark, Need for Speed, and Street Fighter II Turbo), many other titles were dominated by poorly received, pixelated video footage. An interesting side note: Creative Technology even launched a 3DO-Blaster ISA card add-on for PC gamers.

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1993: Atari Jaguar

After several years of watching Sega and Nintendo dominate the home console market that it had helped create, Atari Corporation launched its $250 Jaguar system. The console benefited from popular games like Wolfenstein 3D and Alien vs. Predator, yet it developed a reputation for lacking compelling titles. Atari eventually introduced a Jaguar CD drive add-on, but soon thereafter the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn overshadowed the Jaguar. Is that Vin Diesel doing the end-of-commercial voice-overs?

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1995: Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Virtual Boy

For game consoles, 1995 was a watershed year, beginning with the promising but ill-fated Sega Saturn, reaching a pinnacle with Sony's original PlayStation, and sinking to irrelevance with the Nintendo Virtual Boy.

Sega Saturn

The powerful Sega Saturn console came equipped with two 32-bit CPUs and various other multimedia processors. It debuted with a hefty sticker price $400, several months ahead of the $300 Sony PlayStation. Though its games included Sega Rally, Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter 2, Quake, and Duke Nukem 3D, many developers had difficulty squeezing the most from its complex hardware. By 1997, it had fallen to third in popularity among consoles, behind the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64 (released the following year).

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Sony PlayStation

Sony's 32-bit PlayStation sold in record numbers right from the get-go. Aided by the Japanese giant's well-oiled marketing machine and a great lineup of launch titles (like Battle Arena Toshinden, Wipeout, and Ridge Racer), the $200 PlayStation soon became the number one console in most of the world.

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Sony has now sold over 100 million PlayStation/PSOne units, which are still available at retail in a slimmed-down format.

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Nintendo Virtual Boy

The motivation behind Nintendo's poor old Virtual Boy remains obscure. This unique portable 32-bit console required the player to peer through rubber eye goggles to get the illusion of 3D graphics. The problem was that those images were in monochromatic black and red. As antisocial as gaming can be sometimes, having your head stuck in a headset may have set a new standard. It launched at $180 in 1985, and Nintendo killed it off the following year.

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1996-1999: Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast

In the latter half of the 1990s, Nintendo raised the curtain on 64-bit gaming, and Sega had its last hurrah as a console maker.

1996: Nintendo 64

This is the point at which Nintendo started bucking trends. Rather than launching its own 32-bit/CD-ROM-based console (as Sega and Sony had), Nintendo surprised gamers by introducing a cartridge-based system that featured the first true 64-bit processor.

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Priced competitively at $150, the N64 accommodated a huge array of popular games--among them, Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, Resident Evil 2, and (of course) the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Though it couldn't match the PlayStation, the N64 became far more successful than the Sega Saturn.

1999: Sega Dreamcast

Still reeling from the mistakes it had made with the Saturn, Sega made sure that its $200 Dreamcast would be a trailblazer. Launched on 9/9/99 to great fanfare, it was the first 128-bit game console, and the first to have a built-in modem. This permitted Internet browsing (with mouse and keyboard accessories in place) and online gaming through SegaNet.

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The Dreamcast did fantastically well during its first year on the market, and games such as Soul Calibur and Sonic Adventure helped it shine. Other highlights over the console's lifespan included Shenmue II, Quake 3, and Crazy Taxi.

But Sony had already announced the impending arrival of its 128-bit PlayStation 2, so gamers and software developers who had been burned by the short-lived Sega Saturn remained wary of the Dreamcast's ability to compete.

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Sega still hadn't made enough inroads when the PlayStation 2 appeared a year later, and the public had new consoles from Nintendo and Microsoft to look forward to as well. So Sega dropped the Dreamcast's price to less than $100 in early 2001, and shortly thereafter announced its exit from the hardware business.

2000: Sony PlayStation 2

The U.S. launch of the $300 PlayStation 2 saw it become the fastest-selling console of all time. It quickly overshadowed the Sega Dreamcast and more than held its own against the Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox. Even today, vendors sell more slimmed-down PlayStation 2 units than they do Xbox 360, Wii, and even PlayStation 3 consoles.

The trippy TV spot below was directed by Stanley Kubrick protege Chris Cunningham, who has created visually arresting music videos for the likes of Bjork, Aphex Twin, Portishead, and Leftfield:

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Critical to the PlayStation 2's original success was its backward-compatibility: Not only could it play games created for the original PlayStation, but it could make them look a little better. The PlayStation 2 also introduced a DVD-ROM drive, enabling users to play DVD movies and music CDs, and encouraging developers to craft larger games.

If Sony wanted strange, it did well in choosing David Lynch (Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) to direct this "Third Place" commercial:

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The PS2 uses a multiprocessor design, including a 128-bit "Emotion Engine" CPU, co-developed with Toshiba. Though such power contributed to the console's success, it took game developers some time to harness (early PS2 games didn't look as good as later Dreamcast games, for instance).

The infamous "PlayStation 9" commercial:

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Unlike the Dreamcast, the PS2 initially had no connectivity. Later, however, Sony released a modem/ethernet adapter to match the online-capable Xbox. Other notable PlayStation 2 add-ons included a DVD remote, a hard disk, a mouse, a keyboard, a Linux kit, a headset/microphone, an Eye Toy camera, a Singstar microphone, and game-specific peripherals such as the controller that accompanied Guitar Hero.

Sony has reportedly sold more than 110 million PS2 consoles worldwide so far, supported by the release of over 8000 PS2-compatible games. In 2005, PC World named the PlayStation 2 the 11th-greatest gadget of the past 50 years.

2001: Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo GameCube

As the new millennium dawned, Sony's PS2 found its preeminence contested by two worthy challengers: the Microsoft Xbox and the Nintendo GameCube.

Microsoft Xbox

After supplying the operating system for Sega's Dreamcast console, Microsoft ventured directly into the console race--with the PlayStation 2 squarely in its sights. Unlike the PS2, the $300 Xbox boasted a built-in 8GB hard disk and was broadband-ready out of the box (the Xbox Live Online gaming service launched a year later).

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The powerful Xbox had a PC-like design and used a modified Pentium III processor (running at 733 MHz). One of its launch titles, Halo: Combat Evolved, ranked as the best-selling game of 2001.

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Nintendo GameCube

The GameCube arrived in the United States just days after the Xbox; and at $200, it was $100 cheaper than either Microsoft's offering or the PlayStation 2. The GameCube was notably compact (it even had a handle) and featured a 128-bit "Gekko" CPU designed by IBM.

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Though Nintendo had finally stopped using game cartridges, it again bucked the prevailing trend by choosing a unique 8-cm disc format that could store only half as much information as the DVDs that rival consoles used. For the same reason, the GameCube couldn't play DVD movies or music CDs either. Even so, it more than held its own in sales against the Xbox (though both lagged behind the PlayStation 2), and Nintendo subsequently released separate dial-up and broadband networking adapters.

2004-2005: SSD Company XavixXport, Microsoft Xbox 360

Following several years of shared dominance among the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube, the big three of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo began gearing up for their next round of innovations. Meanwhile, an underpublicized console from SSD Company did some innovating of its own.

2004: SSD Company XaviXport

Two years before the Nintendo Wii's bundled sports title had gamers bumping into furniture and playing Van Gogh tennis, the XaviXport console used sensors and game-specific controllers (shaped like such implements as golf clubs and fishing rods) for a variety of games including golf, bass fishing, bowling, tennis, and boxing.

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2005: Microsoft Xbox 360

Microsoft had slowly gained traction with its original Xbox, and its more-attractive successor reached stores a full year before either Sony's or Nintendo's counterthrust. The Xbox 360 features a 3.2-GHz Xenon CPU (with triple IBM PowerPC-based cores) and a custom ATI graphics chip; both of which share the system's 512MB of RAM.

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At launch, the Xbox 360 was available in two configurations. The complete Xbox 360 package ($400) included a detachable 20GB hard disk, a wireless controller, a media remote, an Xbox Live online gaming headset, and component video cables (for 720p high definition). The Core System ($300) came with a wired controller and composite video cables.

The Xbox 360 possesses Media Center-geared abilities and accessories such as an HD DVD-ROM add-on (for playing high-definition DVD movies), a wireless networking adapter, a wireless steering wheel, and a wireless Webcam.

2006: Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3

Updating the competitive landscape, Nintendo and Sony brought two impressive consoles to market in 2006.

Nintendo Wii

Arriving just days after the PlayStation 3 swaggered into town, the Wii has already proved to be a hit with casual gamers and longtime Nintendo fans alike. It costs $250 and builds in Wi-Fi (but not ethernet). Like the PS3, it has an SD Card slot and can display photos, but its standard-definition DVD drive can't yet play movies (Nintendo and Sonic Solutions are working on that shortcoming).

The Wii's most noteworthy innovation is its motion-sensing controllers. To throw a pass in Madden 07, for instance, you mime the movements of a quarterback. A joystick-style controller called the Nunchuk connects to the Wii Remote for further game control. In practice, it's addictive, and everyone wants to try it. Nevertheless, the $20 "classic" controller is quite handy for retro games.

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My favorite Wii feature is its friendliness toward consoles of yesteryear: Through the Wii, users can go online and download games from the Nintendo 64, the NES, the Super NES, the Sega Genesis, and the TurboGrafx16.

For more information, see our in-depth Wii review (complete with video).

Sony PlayStation 3

Sony's latest console hit the United States in November 17 like the marketing spawn of Tickle Me Elmo and a Cabbage Patch Kid. Though observers criticized the PS3's high cost, supply has not kept pace with demand. The console has next-generation features such as HDMI output (for 1080p HD) and a built-in Blu-ray disc drive. It's available in two configurations: The $599 version features a 60GB drive, 802.11b/g wireless networking, and media slots for Memory Stick, SD Card, and CompactFlash. The $499 version lacks wireless capabilities and has a 20GB drive.

Okay, what's up with the creepy baby in this ad, Sony? Maybe it's an homage to the end of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Maybe it symbolizes rebirth. Maybe it's evidence of the aforementioned Elmo/Cabbage Patch tryst. Whatever the particulars, it's pretty twisted.

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Though the PS3's updated wireless controller lacks force feedback, it's lighter than the PlayStation 2's controller and improves on the older model's L2 and R2 triggers. And because the PS3's controller can sense motion along six axes, you can turn and tilt it to steer in driving or flying games.

The dulcet voice of Lance "Bishop" Henriksen explains the PlayStation 3's six-axis controller:

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Both PS3 models feature a 3.2-GHz Cell Broadband Engine CPU (developed jointly by Sony, Toshiba, and IBM). Additionally, both include gigabit ethernet and built-in Bluetooth, and both let users copy photos, MPEG-4 videos, and music files to the hard disk.

For more-detailed coverage, read our in-depth review of the PlayStation 3 (complete with video).

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