Truly Terrible Game Consoles
Since the appearance of the first video game console--the Magnavox Odyssey--in 1972, dozens of companies have tried their hands at crafting successful and lucrative game platforms. Each new machine brought with it the promise of a compelling, novel gaming experience, but the vast majority failed miserably to deliver. For every blockbuster like the NES, the Atari 2600, or the Sony PlayStation, there are a bunch of duds that never made it far in the marketplace. And for good reasons: Some of the consoles I've listed here were ridiculously overpriced, some were woefully underpowered, some worked only with a stable of pathetically bad games. And a special few possessed every one of those characteristics.
I don't want to be uncharitable, though. Even the worst console here had at least one redeeming quality (well, maybe not the RCA Studio II), so I've tried to point out the bright spots in this otherwise dark and melancholy history.
(Note: For this list, I've only considered video game "systems," which I define as platforms designed to play many different interchangeable games.)
Interested in more historical appraisals of game consoles? Check out "A Brief History of Game Consoles, as Seen in Old TV Ads." And while you're at it, take a look at "The Goofiest Game Gear Ever Made."
10. Apple Pippin
Year released: 1996
Apple Computer designed Pippin as a "multimedia appliance" and licensed it to other companies for manufacture (Only Bandai and Katz Media signed on). Unfortunately, Apple's new platform had a bit of an identity crisis: it was a game console, a Web-browsing network computer, and a multimedia player--but it did all of those tasks poorly. Our colleagues at Macworld actually named it one of the six worst Apple products ever (it came in at number three).
Signature problems: Severely underpowered, with a slow 66MHz processor and a slow 14.4-kbps modem. Poor user experience. Too expensive ($600). Small game and software library. Designed for a market that didn't exist.
Redeeming features: A good concept in theory, the Pippin was in some ways far ahead of its time.
9. Tiger Game.com
Year released: 1997
By the late 1990s, Tiger was well established as a maker of handheld electronic games. Every toy store had a cheap Tiger LCD handheld in stock, and it stood to reason that Tiger would eventually come out with a product to challenge Nintendo's Game Boy preeminence in the handheld gaming universe. It did so with the Game.com, the first handheld game console with a touchscreen and Internet connectivity. The Internet part of the program fell a bit flat, though: It ran through a terminal emulator cartridge that supported text only and then through a serial cable linked to an external dial-up modem--in other words, 1980s technology. Not exactly a portable setup either.
Signature problems: Terrible, terrible game library, most titles plagued by choppy animation. Blurry, low-resolution touchscreen. Silly name that attempted to capitalize on Internet mania.
Redeeming features: First touchscreen console. Built-in solitaire game (best game on the system) and primitive PDA functions. Could double as a tiny serial terminal.
Photo courtesy of Empani.
8. Nokia N-Gage
Year released: 2003
As the 21st century dawned, a new class of multiuse handheld devices entered the marketplace, including this console from Nokia. The N-Gage combined a cell phone and a handheld video game console into a single device that performed neither function very well. Nokia subsequently redesigned the N-Gage hardware to correct many of the original model's mistakes.
Signature problems: User had to remove rear door and battery to change game cards. Poor game library. User had to engage in "side talking" during phone conversations because the microphone and speaker were on the side of the unit. Poorly designed control buttons. Dumb name. Critics ridiculed device for looking like an electronic taco.
Redeeming features: Incorporated wireless multiplayer gaming, Internet connectivity, multimedia playback, game machine, and cell phone in a single device.
7. Mattel Hyperscan
Year released: 2006
The Hyperscan was a marketer's dream--a product that incorporated video games and the game card collecting craze. For every Hyperscan game available on CD, Mattel also sold booster packs of paper trading cards, each card embedded with an RFID chip. During a playing session, the user could scan the trading cards to load new characters or abilities into the game. Theoretically, Mattel could have continued to make and sell new cards forever, putting an essentially infinite tail on sales of any game.
Signature problems: Flimsy construction. Terrible games. Flaky RFID reader. Extremely long loading times.
Redeeming features: First game console to use RFID technology. Admittedly, Mattel set its sights low for this system, so its fall to earth was far less spectacular than it could have been.
6. Gakken TV Boy
Year released: 1983
In 1983, Japan experienced a boomlet in home-grown game consoles, among which was this oddity, the Gakken TV Boy. Not too long after the TV Boy's brief flowering, the Nintendo Famicom (the Japanese NES, also released in 1983) became a stunning success and swept most of its competitors out of the marketplace.
Signature problems: Awkward, T-shaped joystick built into main unit (the handle on the left side was not detachable; it was designed for the user to grip while playing, to help stabilize the system). Small library of bad games.
Redeeming features: Its quirky design has plenty of charm.
5. RDI Halcyon
Year released: 1985
Released in limited quantities and priced at a credit-line-denuding $2500 (that's the equivalent of $4954 in 2009 dollars), the RDI Video Systems Halcyon was destined for obscurity before it left the gate. Its entire purpose was to enable users to play branching laser disc video games similar to the 1983 arcade hit Dragon's Lair (another RDI product) at home. RDI incorporated primitive speech recognition and speech synthesis capabilities into Halcyon and compared the machine to HAL from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the comparison was far from compelling.
Signature problems: Obscenely expensive. Designed around the false premise that pseudo-interactive Dragon's Lair-style games are actually fun to play. Only two games released--both bad.
Redeeming features: You have to admire the ambition squeezed into this mid-80s product.
Photo courtesy of 98PaceCar and Marriott_Guy
4. Philips CD-i
Year released: 1991
The Philips CD-i was in interesting idea: a CD-ROM-based consumer multimedia gaming/edutainment machine that would occupy a spot next to the VCR in the living room. Positioning the CD-i almost as a commodity device, Philips created new CD standards for its content and licensed the platform to other manufacturers. As a result, in the early 1990s, many consumer electronics companies created their own CD-i players. To avoid conflicts with Nintendo and other firms, Philips prevented traditional console fare (aka "good games") from showing up on its platform. Oops.
Signature problems: Large, miserably bad software library. Poor video quality. Poor controller designs. Hosted the travesty that is Zelda on CD-i.
Redeeming features: Notwithstanding my deep shame at owning such a terrible system, I’ve found that those horrible Zelda games sell well to die-hard collectors on eBay.
3. Tandy/Memorex VIS
Year released: 1992
During the rush-to-multimedia enthusiasm of the early 1990s--prompted in part by the Philips CD-i platform--other manufacturers found the pitter-patter of little lemming feet irresistible. Tandy was among the companies that joined the multimedia procession, with its Video Information System (VIS)--essentially a lackluster knockoff of the already horrendous CD-i platform.
Signature problems: Virtually no software. Underpowered hardware--despite being asked to handle CD media, the VIS ran on a 286 CPU loaded with a special version of Windows 3.1 that was antiquated even for that era.
Redeeming features: Neat-looking wireless controller. And Links (you know, the golf game).
2. Tiger Telematics Gizmondo
Year released: 2005
If there were ever a complete train wreck of a game console, Gizmondo would be it. But its tarnished name in the gaming world has as much to do with the audacious, profligate, and illegal behavior of Tiger Telematics' executives as anything else. Well, that and a terrible game library.
Signature problems: Abysmal games. Monumental marketing hubris. A Ferrari Enzo-splitting executive. Dumb name.
Redeeming features: Console incorporated a GPS receiver and multimedia playback.
1. RCA Studio II
Year released: 1977
The RCA Studio II was second game console in history to use interchangeable ROM cartridges. Unfortunately for RCA, the first and third game consoles in this category--the Fairchild Channel F and the Atari VCS--worked much better. Both the Fairchild and the Atari consoles used color graphics and remote hand controllers on cords, features conspicuously absent from the Studio II. And what's up with the name? As far as game historians know, RCA never released a Studio I.
Signature problems: No joysticks here: the only controllers were two numeric keypads built into the base console--a setup worse than most of the dedicated Pong machines that preceded it. Super-blocky black-and-white graphics. Audio from a speaker embedded in the console. Power supplied through an annoying custom RF-switch that also handled the video signal to the TV set. Games were mediocre at best.
Redeeming features: No reports, even 32 years later, of console exploding when touched. (Or is that a bad thing?)