Of the three major console manufacturers these days—Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo—two are relative newcomers to the industry. Sony’s PlayStation won’t be old enough to buy alcohol for another two years, and Microsoft’s Xbox isn’t even a teenager yet.
Before Microsoft, there was Sega. Before Sony, there was Atari. The halls of gaming history are littered with failed consoles that—because of cost, crash, or competition—failed to capture the public’s attention.
Our tale begins way back in 1982...
Smith Engineering Vectrex
The basic idea: The Vectrex was not a bad console. At a time when many popular arcade games (such as Star Wars and Battlezone) were vector-based, the Vectrex was the first—and remains the only—console to bring that experience into the home. The device was self-contained, with a dedicated black-and-white CRT (plastic screen overlays were used for “color graphics”).
What went wrong: More than anything, the Vectrex was a victim of bad timing. Strong release sales in November 1982 prompted Milton Bradley to buy out the distributor, General Consumer Electric...just in time for the 1983 video game crash. Milton Bradley lost millions on the Vectrex, and discontinued it in 1984.
Even three decades later, however, the Vectrex retains a cult following that occasionally releases software for the device. Not bad for a commercial failure.
The basic idea: Atari made some terrible systems over the years. The Lynx was not one of them—especially since it was primarily developed by Epyx and only distributed by Atari.
Released just a month after Nintendo’s Game Boy, the Lynx crushed the competition on a technical level. The handheld device featured a backlit, full-color LCD screen with hardware support for 2.5D graphics. Keep in mind that the Game Boy Color arrived almost a decade later, in 1998, and that the first backlit Nintendo handheld didn’t emerge until 2004.
What went wrong: The Lynx was bulky and twice as expensive as the Game Boy (at least to start). Oh yeah, and it didn’t have many games people wanted. Atari had all but abandoned the Lynx to its fate by 1994, focusing instead on its similarly doomed Jaguar (discussed below).
Commodore 64 Games System
Price: £100 (sold only in Europe)
The basic idea: Considered the Ford Model T of computers, the Commodore 64 (C64) was the first low-cost home computer, and for many years it dominated the market, building up an impressive games library in the process.
Of course, it was a games library that relied on access to a keyboard. Because the C64 was a PC.
That didn’t stop Commodore International from creating the C64 Games System—with no keyboard at all. Fitted with practically the same internal hardware as the C64 proper, the C64GS could play any cartridge-based C64 game...
What went wrong: ...as long as that game was, for some reason, designed without a keyboard in mind.
The C64GS did ship with a terrible joystick known as “The Annihilator” that—besides not being a keyboard—tended to break quickly.
To give you an idea how broken the C64GS was, Ocean Software’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day game was designed specifically for the console, but was simply unplayable, as it required you to press T to start the game. Try finding a T key on your Annihilator.
The basic idea: If the future of games is “multimedia set-top boxes” as Microsoft seems to think, surely Redmond owes a debt of gratitude to the absolutely abysmal Compact Disk Interactive (CD-i).
The CD-i was a cross between a CD player and a “games console,” though I hesitate to use the word “games” anywhere near this piece of loser hardware.
Philips went all in on the CD-i, developing a new standard for compact discs (labeled Green Book) and allowing other manufacturers to create CD-I units.
What went wrong: Philips then sold the console to consumers for an exorbitant price, sticking them with some of the worst controllers and games of all time.
And in another blow to the history of games, Philips co-opted some of Nintendo’s most beloved characters and had them star in terrible games that played like some sort of freakish puppet show.
Philips had earlier agreed to help create a CD add-on unit for the Super Nintendo (later canceled), and some crazy legal twist allowed the company to make games based on Nintendo characters. Thus the CD-i became home to some of the worst Zelda games of all time.
The basic idea: The Jaguar earns the dubious distinction of “the system that killed Atari.” Despite starting out with a big lead over Sony’s PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, and despite Atari’s claims that it was “the only 64-bit system,” the Jaguar never caught on.
From 1993 to 1995, Atari sold a mere 125,000 Jaguars. In contrast, the Sony PlayStation sold 100,000 units in the United States during the first weekend of its release in September 1995.
What went wrong: The Jaguar was probably doomed before it debuted. Years of lackluster sales had tarnished Atari’s reputation in the hardware market, and the Jaguar largely fell victim to consumer trepidation. Third-party developers hesitated to make games for a system that seemed headed for failure (and also had a fair number of bugs), and players refused to buy a system without any games—the classic gaming catch-22. The console had a few standout titles, including Alien vs. Predator and Tempest 2000, but not enough to save it.
Its prospects certainly didn’t improve on the strength of the numeric keypad thrown into the center of the gamepad. The Jaguar controller may be the worst-designed mess of all time.
In 1996 the console was discontinued, and Atari’s hardware division was mercifully put away. “There, there,” said game enthusiasts nationwide, “We’ll always have Pong.”
3DO Interactive Multiplayer
The basic idea: It’s not that the 3DO was a terrible idea: Founder Trip Hawkins envisioned a CD-based media center, manufactured by licensed partners, in which developers could keep most of their games’ profits.
What went wrong: The 3DO’s failure begins and ends with one number: 699. That’s the number of dollars, in 1993, that you had to spend to own a 3DO. To justify its extortionate price, its makers pitched the 3DO as a high-end consumer device, not a games console, and it had the hardware specs to match.
Of course, taking a smaller cut of the royalties instead of subsidizing the hardware with software sales (the traditional console model) is what led to the 3DO’s insane price tag, and an audience for the machine (surprise!) never materialized to throw wads of cash at founder and lead evangelist Trip Hawkins (who had better luck with another project, Electronic Arts).
Despite some great software (many PC games were ported over), the system sold poorly and was killed in 1996. Its successor, the M2, was scrapped entirely, and the company left the hardware market.
The basic idea: Let’s be straight here: the 32X is not even a console. It is, at best, half a console—a stopgap measure. It’s an add-on for the Sega Genesis, the popular 16-bit console, that grafted 32-bit capability onto the six-year-old machine like an updated cerebellum on Frankenstein’s monster.
You plugged the 32X into the cartridge slot of the Genesis, and then plugged games into the 32X. And then, I assume, wondered why you bought a 32X, considering that there were practically no games for the system.
What went wrong: Most 32X games were simply Genesis ports with more color variation—and the few games that required a 32X were a mixed bag, from best (Star Wars Arcade, Kolibri) to worst (basically everything else).
And verily, like the Angel of Death, Sega had already announced its next-generation console (the Saturn, see below) before the 32X launched, neutering the 32X’s prospects before it was even out the door.
Speaking of which…
Next: Sega Saturn