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Eras of Gaming / Game Collecting


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Graphics Team · Posted

I recently listened to an older Collector's Quest podcast about distinguishing between modern and retro gaming, and I'm curious to hear everyone's take on this:

How would you personally categorize video games into different eras?

There's obviously no right answer, but it's a fun mental-exercise in organizing the relatively brief history of gaming and game collecting.


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Graphics Team · Posted

I'll start off with my take on it:

Origin Era - everything from the first 'video games' through early arcade classics, Atari, and the crash of 1983. It was the wild west of game development, and the formative years of gaming as we know it today.

8-Bit Era - encompasses the age of 8-bit consoles and computers. Game genres started to take shape and video games established themselves beyond the scope of a 'trend/fad'.

16-Bit Era - defined by the console wars of 16 bit machines. Games were more refined and more mainstream, with a push towards better processing and graphics. This era would also include early-90s arcade games and later console and computer games that technically evolved beyond '16 bit', but retained the same aesthetic characteristics. 

Early 3D Era - all the games and consoles that served as the starting-point for 3D. Graphics were chunky and proper 3D control schemes were in their formative stages, but the foundation was quickly established for a new wave of video games.

Online Era - signaled by the push toward cooperative online gameplay in the mid-2000s. 3D gaming was well-established, and many consoles began to incorporate motion-controls. This era also served as the origin for indie games, which often brought gaming back to basics but fit nicely in the 'online' age given their primarily-digital distribution.

Digital Era (modern) - the modern era of gaming cannot be properly categorized without a retrospective of its defining assets, but the trend towards digital-only gaming seems to be the next big step in the industry.


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That was a really fun episode.  Currently, I tend to bucket eras into four general groupings.  I stay away from the retro/modern dichotomy because it will always be relative to whatever is current gen at any given time.

  • Atari Era - All consoles released pre-NES
  • Sprites Era - 8-bit and 16-bit consoles
  • The Shitty 3D & FMV Era - Primarily the 5th and 6th gen consoles (but I also typically include the early CD stuff in the 4th gen here as well like Sega CD, CD-i, etc).  Man this era has generally not aged well.
  • HD Era - 7th gen and beyond
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I don't think my opinion has changed since the show, but to write it down, something like this. If you divide it down much finer than 4-5 periods, I think you might as well talk about console generations:

Prehistory: Mainframes, oscilloscopes, tic-tac-toe, draughts, b&w arcades, Pong, Odyssey. We don't even know what video games are yet.

2D: Atari 2600 through SNES. Nearly all the 2D genres were created, brought home, then refined.

Early 3D: Between Virtua Racing and Super Mario 64 through Xbox. We figured out how genres work in real polygonal 3D. Games still have a lot of aspects of the "player vs game" 2D era like game overs, score, lives, etc.

Online/Story Era: Xbox 360 is the clear start here, although Wii Sports and Farmville are decent spots too. Games are now broadly more about guided linear narrative, open worlds, casual gaming, online play, and monetization than gameplay-based challenge. Consoles are becoming more like PCs with little distinction between each other, exclusives are rarer, graphics made a huge jump to HD and now have diminishing returns, physical media is dying but not dead.

I still can't fathom an end to the current era. Things like Atari 2600, Super Mario 64, and Xbox 360 were smacks in the face technologically and creating new genres. After the PS5 and Xbox Series X, do we just get a PS6 and Xbox Super XS One X with the latest CPU and GPU? When do I wire a cable directly into my brain already? Maybe when physical games are completely gone that's the next one.

Edited by DefaultGen
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To me, it's less about eras, and more about branches into trees.  You start with the early stuff that is more proof-of-concept that got wild attention.  This gave way to the very-early arcade era with games like PONG, but then we quickly managed to get single-game home consoles.  Again, like pong.

We soon got to the console era with cartridges.  Considering the that games were so quickly and cheapily made, the home console cartridge era starts with early systems and ends with the crash.  Meanwhile, during that same time frame (1978ish-1983) there was IMHO the "golden age" of the arcade.  While the console market was getting to bloated to support itself, the arcades were taking off like gangbusters and these were truly some amazing games.

After the crash, is the "Nintendo" era, which is really the era where home consoles were consolidated by the dominate forces in the markets--Nintendo and SEGA. You can start dividing the console eras by the direct competitors. NES/SMS, SNES/Genesis.  Mean while, the arcade is past the golden age.  It's still doing well, it's diversifying experiences but, even then, they are slowly dying in popularity due to the popularity of home consoles.

But, in 1989, another branch is starting to flourish--handhelds.  Going all the way back to the early console era, we'd had handhelds, like Game and Watch units but it was the new-era that started mostly with the Game Boy.  I guess I would consider the GB/Game Gear/Lynx era a golden age.  The tech game between them was wide, but it was still in essence the same period.

I could keep going on and on, but new "branches" emerge, and will have eras that don't align with the eras of the other branches.

So... to me you're better off drawing a tree diagram, rather than a list of dates when era X ended and era Y began.  Sure, you can use that terminology, but you have to look at it as sub-eras, happening independently of one another. And to further complicate it, I think you can consider that some eras do overlap.  The crude, early 3D era did exist along-side the best years of the 2D era.  Some development studios were struggling with the question whether they play to their strong capabilities and stick with 2D gaming for a while during that early PS2/N64 era, or did they simply jump in and go with making early 3D games.  There are a lot of solid 2D titles that came out in the mid 90s.  That era definitely overlaps the early 3D era, which we could take all the way back to Star Fox.

Edited by RH
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I look at it this way:

2D Gaming

  • Early Era - 1st and 2nd gen systems.  Atari 2600 is the obvious big one here.  Most games have basic graphics and sound.  Most of the time, you wouldn't know what the graphics were supposed to represent without the box or instructions telling you.
  • Mid Era - 3rd generation systems. NES, Master System, ect.  Graphics have taken a huge leap forward and many things look recognizable now.  However, graphics can still be pretty blocky with lots of hardware limitations.
  • Late Era - 4th gen systems and 5th gen 2D games.  SNES, Genesis, ect.  Graphics look much better and smoother.  Despite a huge leap forward from the 3rd generation, we start to see diminishing returns on graphics since 5th gen 2D games really don't look much better than 4th gen.  

3D Gaming

  • Early Era - 5th gen systems.  PS1, Saturn, N64, ect.  First generation of truly 3D games.  While cutting edge for the time, most games haven't aged well visually.  Textures often look "grainy."  The controls for many games are also all over the place since many developers hadn't determined the best way to control characters in 3D environments.
  • Mid Era - 6th generation systems. PS2, Dreamcast, GameCube, Xbox, ect.  3D graphics take a huge leap forward here.  Characters can be designed to look like people in real life.  However, everything is still low resolution. Controls for 1st person and 3rd person games start to become more standard.
  • Modern HD Era - 7th generation onward.  PS3, PS4, ect.  Graphics really aren't much different from the previous era other than the fact that the resolution is higher with smoother frame rates.  HD remasters are common now since the game engines from previous generations aren't all that different.  Like the late era of 2D gaming, we are starting to see diminishing returns again as the jumps from generation to generation become smaller.  Digital media is starting to replace physical media.  I believe this era will be surpassed by the next era which will not only be purely digital, but also primarily cloud based.  
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