Although they can sometimes feel like a relatively recent invention, games, and the consoles that run them, have actually been around for a surprisingly lengthy amount of time.
But if you want to embrace the medium’s rich history by playing some retro games, you’re going to need some hardware to run them on.
Thankfully eBay has a large selection of games consoles from both past and present, so you can get your retro gaming fix in no time at all.
But where exactly should you start? We’ve prepared a short guide to each of the eight commonly recognised console generations and happily only the first generation is going for the kind of money that’d make Sotheby’s lick their lips.
The 1st Generation: Gaming hits the home
This is where it all started. The Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972 was the first home video game console. Its graphics might seem ancient by today’s standards, it wasn’t capable of outputting sound, and its controller was a strange collection of knobs and just a single button but for a generation that couldn’t shovel money into Pong fast enough, the Odyssey was a revolutionary device.
Atari, the makers of arcade hit Pong, soon had a home console of its own. The result was the Home Pong, a small system that allowed users to play just one game, Pong, on their home television.
Interestingly the idea for the game had actually been taken from a very similar electronic ping pong game produced for the Magnavox Odyssey, which then resulted in a lawsuit from the latter company.
The 2nd Generation: Beyond Pong
The 2nd generation of video game consoles saw a huge number of other competitors enter the market, but the biggest fight was between Atari’s first home console capable of playing more than a single game and the Colecovision.
The Atari 2600 hit the shelves in 1977 and is perhaps best known for its pack-in game Pacman, but it also had a number of other great games including home versions of Space Invaders, Asteroids and Missile Command.
But it was the Colecovision (1982) that saw the first console appearance of an early version of Super Mario in Donkey Kong. He might not have been called Mario at the time (instead the character is commonly referred to as ‘Jumpman’), but the small Italian plumber nevertheless already had the red and blue dungarees combination that has continued to exist to this day.
The 3rd Generation: Nintendo steps up its game
Nintendo didn’t make the first popular games console (that award goes to Atari), but it was the third generation of consoles that really helped video games to take off.
The Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES as it came to be known), laid the foundations for many of the games we take for granted today. It was the NES (released in Japan in 1983 but not until 1986 in Europe) that saw the first ever Super Mario Brothers game, the first Legend of Zelda, and it also had a version of the first Metal Gear game.
The NES had some stiff competition in the form of Sega’s first console, the Master System (1985 Japan, 1987 Europe), which had its fair share of excellent games including arcade racer Out Run and shoot ‘em up R-Type.
The 4th Generation: Two Titans Thrash it Out
Heading into the fourth generation, both Nintendo and Sega continued to duke it out in the console arena.
Nintendo released a new console, called the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1990 Japan, 1992 Europe), and with it came one of the best pack-in games of all time in the form of Super Mario World, which remains one of the best Mario games ever made. Other classics include The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid.
Not to be left behind, Sega’s Mega Drive (1988 Japan and 1990 Europe) also had a slew of great games including the start of the Sonic the Hedgehog series, Streets of Rage 2, and a surprisingly good movie tie in version of Jurassic Park.
The 5th Generation: Say hello to Sony
Gaming was already becoming mainstream with the fourth generation, but Sony’s entrance in the fifth generation took its popularity to the next level.
The original PlayStation (1994 Japan, 1995 Europe) is considered by many to be a major step forward for gaming. It finally brought 3D gaming to the masses and moved us away from the 2D sprites that had ruled up til then. PlayStation owners enjoyed some excellent games including Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider and Crash Bandicoot.
In a fateful twist, the PlayStation started life as a partnership between Nintendo and Sony to develop a CD-upgrade for the SNES. The deal fell apart but Sony continued their work, unleashing the PlayStation on an unsuspecting world and eclipsing both Nintendo and Sega as the No.1 console maker in the space of one generation.
Sega’s entry into the 5th Generation came with the Saturn (Japan 1994, Europe 1995). But the Saturn’s games library was dwarfed by PlayStation’s and ultimately failed to deliver the killer apps needed to compete with Sony’s massive marketing blitz.
The Nintendo 64 (1996 Japan, 1997 Europe) was more powerful than either of its main rivals but was expensive and late to the party. Still it was blessed with an exceptional library of games including The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye, Super Mario 64 and many more.
The 5th Generation also marked the final throw of the dice for Atari as a console force. The Atari Jaguar was released in 1993 but flopped due to a lack of game support. It was the end of the road for the company that produced the seminal Atari 2600 - they lost their independence in a corporate merger in 1996.
The 6th Generation: Microsoft plays its hand
Sega followed Atari into hardware oblivion in the 6th Generation. Sega’s Dreamcast (Japan 1998, Europe 1999) got the jump on its rivals and was ahead of its time as the world’s first internet-enabled console. It also boasted an original and daring games library including the likes of Crazy Taxi, Soul Calibur and Shenmue. But it lived in the shadow cast by the oncoming PlayStation 2 (2000).
Nobody could compete with the hype surrounding the powerful PS2 which became the biggest selling home console of all time, delivering gaming classics from Cold War spy thriller Metal Gear Solid 3 to God of War and three epic Grand Theft Auto games.
Nintendo released the family friendly but forgettable Gamecube in 2001 but the 6th Generation was most notable for the return of the US as a serious console player - this time in the gargantuan shape of Microsoft.
Microsoft was synonymous with PCs but realised in the 90s that home consoles were an ever-growing threat to computer gaming. Its answer was Xbox (US 2001, Europe 2002), the most powerful console of the 6th generation that introduced gamers to the amazing Halo, Halo 2, Star Wars Knights Of The Old Republic and the madness of Steel Battalion - a Mech game piloted by a bespoke 40-button, three-pedalled, two-joystick controller that cost £120.
The 7th Generation: Online play goes big
Nintendo returned to the head of the console pack for the first time since the SNES thanks to the motion-controlled mania of the Wii (2006). The mainstream popularity of Wii Sports - second only to Super Mario World as the best pack-in game of all time - captured a new breed of casual gamer but the most consistent gaming experiences of the generation were to be found on the Xbox 360 (2005) and PS3 (Japan 2006, Europe 2007).
Sony’s PS3 was late out of the gate, but it soon picked up steam with the arrival of a trilogy of Uncharted games from Naughty Dog, another excellent Metal Gear Solid game, and two excellent Killzone games.
Meanwhile the Xbox 360 saw the excellent Forza Motorsport series come of age, Gears of War (which introduced the world to cover-based third-person shooters) and of course Halo 3, which many see as the definitive Halo experience.
But it was perhaps the multi-platform games that were the biggest highlights of the 7th generation: from Assassin’s Creed to The Orange Box and of course the blockbuster Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series.
The 8th Generation: The last generation?
The 8th generation of video game consoles are perhaps the most capable gaming machines ever produced, which is a bittersweet realisation because this could be the last console generation.
Not that gaming is going away anytime soon, but the arrival of PS4 Pro this year and Project Scorpio next year tells us that both Sony and Microsoft are embracing a more evolutionary model of video game development, which might end up seeing smaller hardware steps replacing the generational leaps of yesteryear.
But let’s talk about games. The PS4’s (2013) early years were dominated by a slew of remasters of the previous generation’s best games, including definitive versions of The Last of Us and Journey. Later on we saw all new entries in the Uncharted series, and the epic Bloodborne.
Meanwhile the Xbox One (2013) continued its excellent run of Fora Motorsport titles, Sunset Overdrive, and the breathtaking indie title Ori and the Blind Forest.
Finally an honourable mention has to go the Wii U (2012) for Mario Kart 8, the best game in the series since its outing on the Nintendo 64, not to mention Splatoon.
Keeping up to date with the most recent consoles can be expensive, but buying refurbished can save you a great deal of money while still getting a piece of hardware that’s fully functional. eBay has a wide range of refurbished consoles available.