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Third generation of video game consoles

In the history of computer and video games, the third generation (sometimes referred to as the 8-bit era) began on July 15, 1983, with the Japanese release of two systems: the Nintendo Family Computer (referred to in Japan in the abbreviated form Famicom, and later known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, to the rest of the world) and Sega SG-1000.[1][2] This generation marked the end of the North American video game crash, and a shift in the dominance of home video games from the United States to Japan.[3] Handheld consoles were not a major part of this generation, although the Game & Watch line from Nintendo had started in 1980 and the Milton Bradley Microvision came out in 1979 (both considered second generation hardware).

Some features that distinguish third generation consoles from most second generation consoles include:

The best-selling console of this generation was the NES/Famicom from Nintendo, followed by the Sega Master System, and then the Atari 7800. Although the previous generation of consoles had also used 8-bit processors, it was at the end of the third generation that home consoles were first labeled, and marketed, by their "bits". This also came into fashion as next-generation 16-bit systems like the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis were marketed in order to differentiate between the generations of consoles. In Japan and North America, this generation was primarily dominated by the Famicom/NES, while the Master System dominated the European and Brazilian markets. The end of the 3rd generation of video games was marked by 8-bit consoles becoming obsolete in terms of their graphics and processing power (compared to 16-bit consoles).



The Family Computer (commonly abbreviated the Famicom) became very popular in Japan during this era, crowding out the other consoles in this generation. The Famicom's Western counterpart, the Nintendo Entertainment System, dominated the gaming market in North America, thanks in part to its restrictive licensing agreements with developers. This marked a shift in the dominance of home video games from the United States to Japan, to the point that Computer Gaming World described the "Nintendo craze" as a "non-event" for American video game designers as "virtually all the work to date has been done in Japan."[3] The company had an estimated 65% of 1987 hardware sales in the console market; Atari Corporation had 24%, Sega had 8%, and other companies had 3%.[4]

The popularity of the Japanese consoles grew so quickly that in 1988 Epyx stated that, in contrast to a video game-hardware industry in 1984 that the company had described as "dead", the market for Nintendo cartridges was larger than for all home-computer software.[5] Nintendo sold seven million NES systems in 1988, almost as many as the number of Commodore 64s sold in its first five years.[6] Compute! reported that Nintendo's popularity caused most computer-game companies to have poor sales during Christmas that year, resulting in serious financial problems for some,[7] and after more than a decade making computer games, in 1989 Epyx converted completely to console cartridges.[8] By 1990 30% of American households owned the NES, compared to 23% for all personal computers,[9] and peer pressure to have a console was so great that even the children of computer-game developers demanded them despite parents' refusal and the presence of state-of-the-art computers and software at home. As Computer Gaming World reported in 1992, "No matter how fast your 486 is, you still can't play Super Mario XVII on it. The kids who don't have access to videogames are as culturally isolated as the kids in our own generation whose parents refused to buy a TV".[10]

Nintendo's market domination, while overwhelming in sheer number of units sold, was not global. Although the NES dominated the market in Japan and North America, Sega's Master System made large inroads in Europe, Oceania and Brazil, where the NES was never able to break its grip.[11] The Atari 7800 also had a fairly successful life in the United States.

Sega was Nintendo's main competitor during the era in terms of market share for console units sold.[4] Unlike the NES, Sega's SG-1000 (which preceded Sega's more commercially successful Master System) initially had very little to differentiate itself from earlier consoles such as the ColecoVision and contemporary computers such as the MSX, although, despite the lack of hardware scrolling, the SG-1000 was able to pull off advanced scrolling effects, including parallax scrolling in Orguss and sprite-scaling in Zoom 909.[1] In 1985, Sega's Master System incorporated hardware scrolling, alongside an increased colour palette, greater memory, pseudo-3D effects, and stereoscopic 3-D, gaining a clear hardware advantage over the NES. However, the NES would still continue to dominate the important North American and Japanese markets, while the Master System would gain more dominance in the emerging European and South American markets.[11]

In the following generation, Nintendo would also introduce the Game Boy, which almost single-handedly solidified and then proceeded to dominate the previously scattered handheld market for 15 years. While the Game Boy product line was incrementally updated every few years, until the Game Boy Micro and Nintendo DS, and partially the Game Boy Color, all Game Boy products were backwards compatible with the original released in 1989. Since the Game Boy's release, Nintendo had dominated the handheld market. Additionally two popular 8-bit computers, the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, were repackaged as the Commodore 64 Games System and Amstrad GX4000 respectively, for entry into the console market.

This era contributed many influential aspects to the history of the development of video games. The third generation saw the release of many of the first console role-playing video games (RPGs). Editing and censorship of video games was often used in localizing Japanese games to North America. During this era, many of the most famous video game franchises of all time were founded that outlived the third generation and continued through releases on later consoles. Some examples are Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Quest, Metroid, Mega Man, Metal Gear, Castlevania, Phantasy Star, Megami Tensei, Ninja Gaiden, and Bomberman.

The third generation also saw the dawn of the children's educational console market. Although consoles such as the VideoSmarts and ComputerSmarts systems were stripped down to very primitive input systems designed for children, their use of ROM cartridges would establish this as the standard for later such consoles.[citation needed] Due to their reduced capacities, these systems typically were not labeled by their "bits" and were not marketed in competition with traditional video game consoles.

Market shareEdit

The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)/Family Computer (Famicom) sold by far the most units of any third generation console in North America and Asia. In North America in 1989, between Nintendo and Sega, there was a 94% to 6% split between the two in market share between the NES and the Master System, in Nintendo's favor.[12] By 1992 in North America, Nintendo had a market-share of 80%, followed by Atari's 12% and Sega's 8%.[13] This was due to its strong lineup of first-party titles (such as Super Mario Bros., Metroid, Duck Hunt, and The Legend of Zelda), and Nintendo's strict licensing rules that required NES titles to be exclusive to the console for two years after release, putting a damper on third party support for other consoles.[14] Atari, on the other hand, fared a bit better than the Master System in North America, but still finished a distant second place. In Europe, competition was tough for the NES, and was outsold by the Master System despite the hegemony that it had in the North American and Japanese markets.[11][15]

In North America The Atari 7800 and Master System were discontinued in 1992, while the NES continued to be produced for several more years. In Europe, The Master System was finally discontinued in the late 1990s. However it has continued to sell in Brazil through to the present day. In Japan, Nintendo Co., Ltd. continued to repair Famicom systems until October 31, 2007.[16][17]



Name SG-1000 Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Sega Mark III/Master System Atari 7800
Manufacturer Sega Nintendo Sega Atari
Launch prices ¥15,000 (equivalent to ¥18,600 in 2019) ¥14,800 (equivalent to ¥18,400 in 2019)
US$199.99 (equivalent to US$470 in 2018)
CA$240 (equivalent to CA$510 in 2018)
¥24,200 (equivalent to ¥28,800 in 2019)
US$199.99 (equivalent to $460 in 2018)
£99.99 (equivalent to £280 in 2018)
US$140 (equivalent to $320 in 2018)
Release date
  • JP: July 15, 1983
  • NZ: 1983
  • JP: July 15, 1983
  • USA: October 18, 1985
  • NA: September 1986
  • EU: September 1986
  • WW: 1987
  • JP: October 20, 1985
  • NA: October 1986
  • WW: June 1987
  • NA: May 1986
  • WW: July 1987
  • Cartridge

Famicom Disk System:

  • Cartridge
  • Data card (first model only)
Top-selling games N/A Super Mario Bros. (pack-in), 40.24 million (as of 1999)[18]
Super Mario Bros. 3, 18 million (as of May 21, 2003)[19]
Hang-On and Safari Hunt (pack-in)
Alex Kidd in Miracle World (pack-in)
Sonic the Hedgehog (pack-in)
Pole Position II (pack-in)[20]
Backward compatibility None None Sega SG-1000 (Japanese systems only) Atari 2600
Accessories (retail)
  • Bike Handle Controller
  • Card Catcher
  • Sega Handle Controller
  • Sega Rapid Fire Unit
  • SK-1100
CPU NEC 780C (based on 8/16-bit Zilog Z80)
3.58 MHz NTSC (3.55 MHz PAL)
Ricoh 2A03/2A07 (based on 8-bit MOS Technology 6502)
1.79 MHz (1.66 MHz PAL)
Zilog Z80A
4 MHz
Custom 6502C (based on 8-bit MOS Technology 6502)
1.19 MHz or 1.79 MHz
GPU Texas Instruments TMS9918 Ricoh PPU (Picture Processing Unit) Yamaha YM2602 VDP (Video Display Processor)
Sound chip(s) Texas Instruments SN76489

Famicom Disk System:

Japan only:

Optional cartridge chip:



4.277344 KB (4380 bytes) RAM

  • 2 KB main RAM
  • 2 KB video RAM
  • 256 bytes sprite attribute RAM
  • 28 bytes palette RAM


  • MMC chips: Up to 8 KB work RAM and 12 KB video RAM[24]
  • Famicom Disk System: 32 KB work RAM, 8 KB video RAM

24.03125 KB (24,608 bytes) RAM

  • 8 KB main XRAM
  • 16 KB video XRAM[25]
    (256 bytes sprite attribute table)
  • 32 bytes palette RAM[26]


  • Resolution: 256×224 or 256×240
  • Sprites: 64 on screen (8 per scanline), 8×8 or 8×16 pixels, sprite flipping
  • Colors on screen: 25 simultaneous (4 colors per sprite)
  • Palette: 53 colors
  • Background: Tilemap playfield, 8×8 tiles
  • Scrolling: Smooth hardware scrolling, vertical/horizontal directions

MMC chips: IRQ interrupt, diagonal scrolling, line scrolling, split‑screen scrolling

  • Resolution: 256×192, 256×224, 256×240
  • Sprites: 64 on screen (8 per scanline), 8×8 to 16×16 pixels, integer sprite zooming up to 32×32 pixels[27]
  • Colors on screen: 32 simultaneous (16 colors per sprite)
  • Palette: 64 colors
  • Background: Tilemap playfield, 8×8 tiles, tile flipping[26]
  • Scrolling: Smooth hardware scrolling, vertical/horizontal/diagonal directions,[28] IRQ interrupt, line scrolling, split‑screen scrolling[27]
  • Resolution: 160×200 or 320×200
  • Sprites: Display list,[29] 100 sprites[30] (30 per scanline without background)
  • Colors on screen: 25 simultaneous (1, 4 or 12 colors per sprite)
  • Palette: 256 colors (16 hues, 16 luma)
  • Scrolling: Coarse scrolling, vertical/horizontal directions
Audio Mono audio with: Mono audio with:

Japan only upgrades:

Mono audio with:
  • Three square wave channels
  • One noise generator

Japan only:

Mono audio with:
  • Two square waves

Optional cartridge chip:

  • Four square wave channels
  • One noise generator

Other consolesEdit

Sales comparisonEdit

Console Units sold worldwide Japan Americas Elsewhere
Nintendo Entertainment System 61.91 million (December 2009)[31][32] 19.35 million (December 2009)[31] 34 million (December 2009)[31] 8.56 million (December 2009)[31]
Sega Master System 17.8 million (2016) 1 million (1986)[33] United States: 2 million (1992)[34]
Brazil: 8 million (2016)[35]
Western Europe: 6.8 million (1993)[36]
Atari 7800 N/A


Milestone titlesEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Fahs, Travis. "IGN Presents the History of SEGA: Coming Home". IGN. p. 2. Archived from the original on March 14, 2012. Retrieved March 27, 2011.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  2. ^ Mark J. P. Wolf, The video game explosion: a history from PONG to Playstation and beyond, ABC-CLIO, p. 115, ISBN 0-313-33868-X, retrieved April 19, 2011
  3. ^ a b Daglow, Don L. (August 1988). "Over the River and Through the Woods: The Changing Role of Computer Game Designers". Computer Gaming World (50). p. 18. I'm sure you've noticed that I've made no reference to the Nintendo craze that has repeated the Atari and Mattel Phenomenon of 8 years ago. That's because for American game designers the Nintendo is a non-event: virtually all the work to date has been done in Japan. Only the future will tell if the design process ever crosses the Pacific as efficiently as the container ships and the letters of credit now do.
  4. ^ a b Katz, Arnie; Kunkel, Bill; Worley, Joyce (August 1988). "Video Gaming World". Computer Gaming World. p. 44.
  5. ^ "The Nintendo Threat?". Computer Gaming World. June 1988. p. 50.
  6. ^ Ferrell, Keith (July 1989). "Just Kids' Play or Computer in Disguise?". Compute!. p. 28. Retrieved November 11, 2013.
  7. ^ Keizer, Gregg (July 1989). "Editorial License". Compute!. p. 4. Retrieved November 11, 2013.
  8. ^ Ferrell, Keith (December 1989). "Epyx Goes Diskless". Compute!. p. 6. Retrieved November 11, 2013.
  9. ^ "Fusion, Transfusion or Confusion / Future Directions In Computer Entertainment". Computer Gaming World. December 1990. p. 26. Retrieved November 16, 2013.
  10. ^ Reeder, Sara (November 1992). "Why Edutainment Doesn't Make It In A Videogame World". Computer Gaming World. p. 128. Retrieved July 5, 2014.
  11. ^ a b c Travis Fahs. "IGN Presents the History of SEGA: World War". IGN. p. 3. Retrieved May 21, 2011.
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on August 31, 2018. Retrieved January 25, 2019.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ "COMPANY NEWS; Nintendo Suit by Atari Is Dismissed". May 16, 1992. Retrieved January 7, 2019.
  14. ^ "The 25 Dumbest Moments in Gaming". Archived from the original on March 20, 2008. Retrieved August 30, 2018.
  15. ^ Welsh, Oli (February 24, 2017). "A complete history of Nintendo console launches". Retrieved January 7, 2019.
  16. ^ 初代「ファミコン」など公式修理サポート終了. ITmedia News (in Japanese). ITmedia. October 16, 2007. Retrieved January 20, 2008.
  17. ^ RyanDG (October 16, 2007). "Nintendo of Japan dropping Hardware support for the Famicom". Arcade Renaissance. Archived from the original on February 9, 2012. Retrieved January 20, 2008.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  18. ^ "Best-Selling Video Games". Guinness World Records. Archived from the original on March 17, 2006. Retrieved January 31, 2008.
  19. ^ "All Time Top 20 Best Selling Games". May 21, 2003. Archived from the original on February 21, 2006. Retrieved January 31, 2008.
  20. ^ "Pole Position II for Arcade (1983) - MobyGames". MobyGames (in German). Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  21. ^ "-Sega Emulation Overview - another overview". Archived from the original on April 23, 2010. Retrieved April 30, 2010.
  22. ^ Maxim, Charles MacDonald (November 12, 2005). "SN76489 sightings". SMS Power!.
  23. ^ a b "SG-1000 data". (in Japanese). Retrieved December 10, 2015.
  24. ^ "NES Specifications". Retrieved December 10, 2015.
  25. ^ "RAM - Development - SMS Power!". Retrieved December 10, 2015.
  26. ^ a b Charles MacDonald. "Sega Master System VDP documentation". Archived from the original on March 18, 2014. Retrieved July 5, 2011.
  28. ^ マスターシステム 各種データ. (in Japanese). Retrieved December 10, 2015.
  29. ^ "7800 SOFTWARE GUIDE: OVERVIEW OF 7800" (PDF).
  30. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on June 28, 2014. Retrieved September 29, 2014.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  31. ^ a b c d "Consolidated Sales Transition by Region" (PDF). Nintendo. January 27, 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 24, 2011. Retrieved February 14, 2010.
  32. ^ "NES". Classic Systems. Nintendo. Archived from the original on August 4, 2007. Retrieved December 4, 2007.
  33. ^ Nihon Kōgyō Shinbunsha (1986). "Amusement". Business Japan. Nihon Kogyo Shimbun. 31 (7–12): 89. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
  34. ^ Sheff, David (1993). Game Over (1st ed.). New York: Random House. p. 349. ISBN 0-679-40469-4. Retrieved January 16, 2012.
  35. ^ Azevedo, Théo (May 12, 2016). "Console em produção há mais tempo, Master System já vendeu 8 mi no Brasil" (in Portuguese). Universo Online. Retrieved May 13, 2016. Comercializado no Brasil desde setembro de 1989, o saudoso Master System já vendeu mais de 8 milhões de unidades no país, segundo a Tectoy.
  36. ^ "Sega Consoles: Active installed base estimates". Screen Digest. Screen Digest. March 1995. p. 60. (cf. here [1], here [2], and here [3])
  37. ^ Junior Sagster (June 2012). "Alex Kidd - O mascote "renegado" da Sega". Neo Tokyo. Editora Escala (77). ISSN 1809-1784.
  38. ^ "Sega Master System:Alex Kidd in Miracle World". Retrieved November 18, 2009.
  39. ^ ラインナップ ドラゴンボール ゲームポータルサイト バンダイナムコエンターテインメント公式サイト (in Japanese). Bandai Namco Entertainment.
  40. ^ Semrad, Steve (February 2, 2006). "The Greatest 200 Videogames of Their Time". Archived from the original on January 18, 2014. Retrieved January 18, 2014.
  41. ^ Montgomery, Chris (2004). "History of The Phantasy Star Series". Sega-16. Retrieved January 27, 2010.[permanent dead link]
  42. ^ "Getting That "Resort Feel"". Iwata Asks: Wii Sports Resort. Nintendo. p. 4. As it's sold bundled with the Wii console outside Japan, I'm not quite sure if calling it "World Number One" is exactly the right way to describe it, but in any case it's surpassed the record set by Super Mario Bros., which was unbroken for over twenty years.