Third Generation of Video Game Consoles
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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 (commonly abbreviated to Famicom) and the Sega SG-1000.[1][2] When the Famicom was released outside of Japan it was remodelled and marketed as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) This generation marked the end of the North American video game crash, and a shift in the dominance of home video game manufacturers 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 though both are considered second generation hardware.

Improvements in technology gave this generations consoles improved graphical and sound capabilities. The number of simultaneous colours on screen and the palette size both increased which, coupled with larger resolutions and more sprites on screen, meant that developers could create scenes with more detail. Five channel audio became common giving consoles the ability to produce a greater variation and range of sound. A notable innovation of this generation was the inclusion of cartridges with on-board memory and batteries to allow users to save their progress in a game, with Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda introducing the technology to the market. This innovation allowed for much more expansive gaming worlds and in-depth story telling, since users could now save their progress rather than having to start each gaming session at the beginning. By the next generation, the capability to save games became ubiquitous, at first saving on the game cartridge itself, and later when the industry changed to read-only optical disks, on memory cards, hard disk drives, and eventually cloud storage.

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 fourth generation 16-bit systems like the Sega Genesis were marketed in order to differentiate between the generations. 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 third generation was marked by the emergence of 16-bit systems of the fourth generation and with the discontinuation of the Famicom on September 25, 2003.


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, "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]

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 continued to dominate the North American and Japanese markets, while the Master System would gain more dominance in the emerging European and South American markets.[11]

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.[12] 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 beginning 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.[] 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.

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 discontinued in the late 1990s. However it has continued to sell in Brazil through to the present day. In Japan, Nintendo continued to repair Famicom systems until October 31, 2007.[13][14]

Home Systems


On July 15, 1983 the SG-1000 was released in Japan, the first console to be created by Sega.[15] It was released alongside the Famicom making them the first two consoles of the third generation. While it didn't sell as well as other consoles of the generation, it was considered important to the development of Sega as a console manufacturer.[16]

Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System

Released by Nintendo on July 15, 1983 in Japan as the Family Computer and in the North American region in September 1986 as the Nintendo Entertainment System,[17] it went on to become the most popular console of the generation. It was the first home system to feature a controller with a directional pad which became an industry standard.

Sega Master System

The Sega Mark III was released on October 20, 1985 for the Japanese market and was the third iteration of the SG-1000.[18] The name was changed to the Master System and the design altered for release outside of Japan. It was designed to be more powerful than the NES in an attempt to give it an edge over the competition but despite good sales, it couldn't match the success of the NES making it the second best selling console of the generation. This was the case in all regions apart from Brazil where it continued to sell for years after the end of the generation. The Master System had few third party games which was likely due to Nintendo's licensing agreements that required developers only to release games for their system.

Atari 7800

The Atari 7800 was release in May 1986[19] and was the successor to the Atari 5200[20] and was the first console to be backwards compatible without additional hardware. It was originally due for launch on May 21, 1984[21] but due to the sale of the company the launch didn't happen until two years later and coupled with a small library of games the console didn't sell well.[22]


Name SG-1000 Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Sega Mark III/Master System Atari 7800
Manufacturer Sega Nintendo Sega Atari
Console Sega-SG-1000-Console-Set.png Nintendo-Famicom-Console-Set-FL.png
Sega Mark III.jpg
Master System II.jpg
Launch prices JP¥15,000 (equivalent to ¥18,600 in 2019)[23] JP¥14,800 (equivalent to ¥18,400 in 2019)[24]
US$180(equivalent to US$420 in 2018)[25][26]
CA$240 (equivalent to CA$510 in 2018)
JP¥15,000 (equivalent to ¥17,800 in 2019)[18]
US$199.99 (equivalent to $460 in 2018)
UK£99.95 (equivalent to £280 in 2018)[27]
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)[28]
Super Mario Bros. 3, 18 million (as of May 21, 2003)[29]
Hang-On and Safari Hunt (pack-in)
Alex Kidd in Miracle World (pack-in)
Sonic the Hedgehog (pack-in)
Pole Position II (pack-in)[30]
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[34]
  • 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[35]
    (256 bytes sprite attribute table)
  • 32 bytes palette RAM[36]


Video Resolution 256×192 256×224 or 256×240 256×192, 256×224, 256×240 160×200 or 320×200
Palette 21 colors[33] 53 colors 64 colors 256 colors (16 hues, 16 luma)
Colors on Screen 16 simultaneous (1 color per sprite) 25 simultaneous (4 colors per sprite) 32 simultaneous (16 colors per sprite) 25 simultaneous (1, 4 or 12 colors per sprite)
Sprites 32 on screen (4 per scanline), 8×8 or 8×16 pixels, integer sprite zooming up to 16×32 pixels 64 on screen (8 per scanline), 8×8 or 8×16 pixels, sprite flipping 64 on screen (8 per scanline), 8×8 to 16×16 pixels, integer sprite zooming up to 32×32 pixels[37] Display list, 100 sprites (30 per scanline without background)
Background Tilemap playfield, 8×8 tiles Tilemap playfield, 8×8 tiles Tilemap playfield, 8×8 tiles, tile flipping[36]
Scrolling Smooth hardware scrolling, vertical/horizontal directions
Smooth hardware scrolling, vertical/horizontal/diagonal directions,[38]IRQ interrupt, line scrolling, split-screen scrolling[37]
MMC chips: IRQ interrupt, diagonal scrolling, line scrolling, split-screen 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 consoles

Sales comparison

The NES/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.[39] By 1992 in North America, Nintendo had a market-share of 80%, followed by Atari's 12% and Sega's 8%.[40] 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.[41] 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][42]

Console Units sold worldwide Japan Americas Elsewhere
Nintendo Entertainment System 61.91 million (December 2009)[43][44] 19.35 million (December 2009)[43] 34 million (December 2009)[43] 8.56 million (December 2009)[43]
Sega Master System 17.8 million (2016) 1 million (1986)[45] United States: 2 million (1992)[46]
Brazil: 8 million (2016)[47]
Western Europe: 6.8 million (1993)[48]
SG-1000 2 million -- -- --
Atari 7800 0.1 million -- -- --


Milestone titles

See also


  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 2011.
  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 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 2013.
  7. ^ Keizer, Gregg (July 1989). "Editorial License". Compute!. p. 4. Retrieved 2013.
  8. ^ Ferrell, Keith (December 1989). "Epyx Goes Diskless". Compute!. p. 6. Retrieved 2013.
  9. ^ "Fusion, Transfusion or Confusion / Future Directions In Computer Entertainment". Computer Gaming World. December 1990. p. 26. Retrieved 2013.
  10. ^ Reeder, Sara (November 1992). "Why Edutainment Doesn't Make It In A Videogame World". Computer Gaming World. p. 130. Retrieved 2014.
  11. ^ a b Travis Fahs. "IGN Presents the History of SEGA: World War". IGN. p. 3. Retrieved 2011.
  12. ^ Altice, Nathan (2015). I Am Error: The Nintendo Family Computer / Entertainment System Platform. MIT Press. p. 115. ISBN 9780262028776.
  13. ^ . ITmedia News (in Japanese). ITmedia. October 16, 2007. Retrieved 2008.
  14. ^ RyanDG (October 16, 2007). "Nintendo of Japan dropping Hardware support for the Famicom". Arcade Renaissance. Archived from the original on February 9, 2012. Retrieved 2008.
  15. ^ Pettus, Sam; Munoz, David; Williams, Kevin; Barroso, Ivan (December 20, 2013). Service Games: The Rise and Fall of SEGA: Enhanced Edition. Smashwords Edition. p. 12. ISBN 9781311080820.
  16. ^ Plunkett, Luke (January 19, 2017). "The Story of Sega's First Console, Which Was Not The Master System". Kotaku. Gizmodo Media Group. Archived from the original on March 6, 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  17. ^ Wolf, Mark J. P. (2012). Encyclopedia of Video Games: A-L. ABC-CLIO. p. 449. ISBN 9780313379369.
  18. ^ a b "Mark III" (in Japanese). Sega Corporation. Archived from the original on July 16, 2014. Retrieved 2014.
  19. ^ Top 25 Videogame Consoles of All Time: Atari 7800 is Number 17, IGN.
  20. ^ "Atari Video Game Unit Introduced", New York Times
  21. ^ Goldberg, Marty (2012). Atari, Inc. Carmel, NY: Syzygy Co. ISBN 0985597402.
  22. ^ AtariAge: Atari 7800 History, AtariAge.
  23. ^ "SG-1000" (in Japanese). Sega Corporation. Archived from the original on July 16, 2014. Retrieved 2014.
  24. ^ Sendov, Blagovest; Stanchev, Ivan (May 17, 2014). Children in the Information Age: Opportunities for Creativity, Innovation and New Activities. Elsevier. p. 58. ISBN 9781483159027.
  25. ^ Levin, Martin (November 20, 1985). "New components add some Zap to video games". San Bernardino County Sun. p. A-4.
  26. ^ "Video Robots - The Nintendo Entertainment System, now at Macy's". New York Times. November 17, 1985.
  27. ^ ACE Magazine- Master System Advert. November 1987. p. 85.
  28. ^ "Best-Selling Video Games". Guinness World Records. Archived from the original on March 17, 2006. Retrieved 2008.
  29. ^ "All Time Top 20 Best Selling Games". May 21, 2003. Archived from the original on February 21, 2006. Retrieved 2008.
  30. ^ "Pole Position II for Arcade (1983) - MobyGames". MobyGames (in German). Retrieved 2016.
  31. ^ "-Sega Emulation Overview - another overview". Archived from the original on April 23, 2010. Retrieved 2010.
  32. ^ Maxim, Charles MacDonald (November 12, 2005). "SN76489 sightings". SMS Power!.
  33. ^ a b "SG-1000 data". (in Japanese). Retrieved 2015.
  34. ^ "NES Specifications". Retrieved 2015.
  35. ^ "RAM - Development - SMS Power!". Retrieved 2015.
  36. ^ a b Charles MacDonald. "Sega Master System VDP documentation". Archived from the original on March 18, 2014. Retrieved 2011.
  38. ^ . (in Japanese). Retrieved 2015.
  39. ^ "How Sonic Helped Sega to Win the Early 90s Console Wars". Kotaku UK. October 30, 2014. Archived from the original on August 13, 2014. Retrieved 2019.
  40. ^ "COMPANY NEWS; Nintendo Suit by Atari Is Dismissed". May 16, 1992. Retrieved 2019.
  41. ^ "The 25 Dumbest Moments in Gaming". Archived from the original on March 20, 2008. Retrieved 2018.
  42. ^ Welsh, Oli (February 24, 2017). "A complete history of Nintendo console launches". Retrieved 2019.
  43. ^ a b c d "Consolidated Sales Transition by Region" (PDF). Nintendo. January 27, 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 24, 2011. Retrieved 2010.
  44. ^ "NES". Classic Systems. Nintendo. Archived from the original on August 4, 2007. Retrieved 2007.
  45. ^ Nihon K?gy? Shinbunsha (1986). "Amusement". Business Japan. Nihon Kogyo Shimbun. 31 (7-12): 89. Retrieved 2012.
  46. ^ Sheff, David (1993). Game Over (1st ed.). New York: Random House. p. 349. ISBN 0-679-40469-4. Retrieved 2012.
  47. ^ Azevedo, Théo (May 12, 2016). "Console em produção há mais tempo, Master System já vendeu 8 mi no Brasil" (in Portuguese). Universo Online. Retrieved 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.
  48. ^ "Sega Consoles: Active installed base estimates". Screen Digest. Screen Digest. March 1995. p. 60. (cf. here [1], here [2], and here [3])
  49. ^ Junior Sagster (June 2012). "Alex Kidd - O mascote "renegado" da Sega". Neo Tokyo. Editora Escala (77). ISSN 1809-1784.
  50. ^ ? ? ? (in Japanese). Bandai Namco Entertainment.
  51. ^ Semrad, Steve (February 2, 2006). "The Greatest 200 Videogames of Their Time". Archived from the original on January 18, 2014. Retrieved 2014.
  52. ^ Pettus, Sam; Munoz, David; Williams, Kevin; Barroso, Ivan (December 20, 2013). Service Games: The Rise and Fall of SEGA: Enhanced Edition. Smashwords Edition. p. 26. ISBN 9781311080820.
  53. ^ "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.
  54. ^ GamesRadar - Why Super Mario Bros 3 is one of the greatest games ever made

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