Fifth generation era

History of video game consoles (fifth generation)

The fifth-generation era (more commonly known as the 32 bit era and occasionally, after the release of the Nintendo 64, the 64 bit era and more rarely the 3D era) refers to the computer and video games, video game consoles, and video game handhelds available at the close of the 20th century. The fifth generation lasted approximately from 1993 to 2002 and was dominated by three consoles, the Sega Saturn (1994), the Sony PlayStation (1994), and the Nintendo 64 (1996). Demographics in console sales varied widely, but these three consoles, especially the PlayStation, defined the system wars of this era. The 3DO, the Amiga CD-32, and Atari Jaguar were also part of this era, but their sales were poor and they failed to make a significant impact on the market. This era also saw three updated versions of Nintendo's Game Boy: Game Boy Color, Game Boy Light (Japan only), and Game Boy Pocket.

Bit ratings for consoles largely fell by the wayside during this era, with the notable exceptions of the Nintendo 64 and the heavy usage of references to the 64-bit processing power of the Atari Jaguar in advertisements. The number of "bits" cited in console names referred to the CPU word size and had been used by hardware marketers as a "show of power" for many years. However, there was little to be gained from increasing the word size much beyond 32 or 64 bits because once this level was reached, performance depended on more varied factors, such as processor clock speed, bandwidth, and memory size.

The fifth generation also saw the rise of emulation. During this period, commonly available personal computers became powerful enough to emulate the 8 and 16-bit systems of the previous generation. Also, the development of the Internet made it possible to store and download tape and ROM images of older games, eventually leading 7th generation consoles (such as the Xbox 360, the Wii, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Portable) to make many older games available for purchase or download.

Console systems

What makes a fifth generation system

If one only examine the history of a single console manufacturer it is easy to determine one console generation to the next. The Nintendo 64 is clearly a generational leap above the Super Nintendo, and the Sega Saturn is clearly a generation above the Sega Mega Drive. But when contrasting consoles from different manufactures it is no longer as clear. Is the Saturn in the same generation as the 3DO, or is it a generation above or below?

To determine this one can look to gaming magazines of the nineties. These magazines usually described the fifth generation in terms of 32-bitness of the CPU, ability to output 24-bit texture mapped 3D graphics, high quality full motion video and the use of optical media for storage.

A fifth generation system does not need to share all these traits. The Atari Jaguar does not feature a 32-Bit CPU, the Nintendo 64 does not have a CD-Rom, the FM Towns Marty has no explicit support for 3D Graphics and to make matters confusing a fourth generation system may have a CD-Rom, 3D graphics and Full Motion video.

There is no definite rule that says if a console is in the fifth generation or not, but the general trait is the presence of one or more 32-bit or 64-bit chips. Expansion chips such as the 32-Bit SuperFX chip does not count, as it is not part of the base console.

Transition to 3D

The 32-bit / 64-bit era is most noted for the rise of fully 3D games. While there were games prior that had used three dimensional environments, it was in this era that 3D interaction largely replaced the traditional 2D games of the 16 and 8-bit eras. Super Mario 64 on the N64, Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation and Tomb Raider on the Saturn (later released on the PlayStation as well), are prime examples of this trend. Their 3D environments were widely marketed and they steered the industry's focus away from side-scrolling and rail-style titles.

CD vs cartridge

As Nintendo prepared to launch its newest console, they decided to make the Nintendo 64 a cartridge based system like its predecessors. Publicly, Nintendo defended this decision on the grounds that it would give games shorter load times than a Compact Disc (and would decrease piracy). However, it also had the dubious benefit of allowing Nintendo to charge higher licensing fees, as cartridge production was considerably more expensive than CD production. Many third-party developers viewed this as an underhanded attempt to raise more money for Nintendo and many of them became more reluctant to release games on the N64.

Nintendo's decision to use a cartridge based system sparked a small scale war amongst gamers as to which was better. The "media war" was spurred on no less by statements from top company executives themselves; one Nintendo magazine ad placed a Space Shuttle (cartridge) next to a snail (a CD) and dared consumers to decide "which one was better". At the time, CD-ROMs did suffer from long load times. However, in subsequent generations of consoles, load times became less of an issue as optical drives became faster.

Despite these and other moves by Nintendo, almost every other contemporary system began to move to the new CD-ROM technology (the Nintendo 64 was the last major home video game console to use cartridges). Also appealing to publishers was the fact that CDs could be produced at significantly less expense and with more flexibility (it was easy to change production to meet demand), and they were able to pass the lower costs onto consumers. In particular, the fifth generation marked a turning point for optical-based storage media. As games grew more complex in content, sound, and graphics, the CD proved more than capable of providing enough space for the extra data. The cartridge format, however, was pushed beyond the limits of its storage capacity. Consequently, many game developers shifted their support away from the Nintendo 64 to the PlayStation.

Console wars

The 32-bit / 64-bit era was a paramount staging ground of the continuing "console wars" between the large game hardware manufacturers. "Console wars" were a phenomenon in which people would attempt to evaluate the upcoming hardware of a system and purchase the system for that reason alone, speculating that the best games must be made for that hardware. Since the length of time systems spent in development had been steadily growing since the 8-bit era, consumers were left with a lengthy period of time in which to speculate about the strengths and weaknesses of the consoles to be released in the next generation.
Overview of the fifth generation consoles
Many events transpired to mislead gamers during this era, causing much bitterness and confusion over which console superior to the others. Adding to the uncertainty was the fact that there were more competing consoles in this era than at any other time after the video game crash of 1983. In addition, video game magazines constantly performed side-by-side hardware-specification comparisons of the systems using dubious statistics. Also, console makers routinely boasted theoretical maximum limits of each system's 3D polygon rendering without accounting for real world in-game performance.

Despite massive third party support and an unprecedented amount of hype for a first-time entrant into the industry, the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer's US$700 price tag prevented it from reaching the demographic of more casual gamers who chose instead to purchase one of the 3DO's more affordable contemporaries.

The Sega 32X, an upgrade for the Mega Drive/Genesis and Sega Mega-CD, was released a year prior to the release of the Sega Saturn, and the Sega Neptune was also started as a more efficient version of the 32X. However, after the release of the Saturn, the Neptune was cancelled and Sega failed to deliver a steady flow of games for the 32X platform. This angered owners of the 32X as they felt Sega failed to live up to the promises given early in the console's life. This fiasco damaged Sega's public image, and has been considered to be a major contributor in Sega eventually dropping out of the console hardware market.

The Atari Jaguar was released in 1993 with a surprisingly successful start, but quality software for the platform arrived few and far between, with only Tempest 2000, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Alien vs. Predator being standout games. Atari's claims of the system itself being 64-bit were also controversial.

The Nintendo 64 was announced as "Ultra 64" and two arcade games (Killer Instinct and Cruis'n USA) were released claiming to use the hardware. A famous TV ad for the Super NES port of the game Killer Instinct showed a gamer using a chainsaw to open the arcade cabinet so he could take out the console inside. This caused many gamers to refrain from buying the 3DO, Saturn, or PlayStation because they thought the commercial showed what was in the Nintendo 64's hardware, and it appeared to be clearly superior to any of the competing systems. In the end, the arcade system turned out to be completely different from that used for those games (albeit of comparable capability), disappointing those who had expected the images from the ads.

Nippon Electric Company (NEC), the creator of the TurboGrafx-16 and TurboDuo in North America, and the PC-Engine, Coregrafx, PC Engine Duo, and SuperGrafx in Japan; also entered the market with their first completely new console in seven years. Their 8-bit systems had competed quite well with the other companies' 16-bit systems because of their custom graphics chipsets that allowed the 8-bit system to run 16-bit graphics. The PC-Engine actually outsold the Famicom in Japan in 1988; however, the TurboGrafx-16 did not achieve the same success in North America.

NEC then decided to make a new console and released the PC-FX in 1994. The system's specs were impressive; it had a 32-bit processor, 16-bit stereo sound, a 16,777,000 color palette, and it featured the highest quality full motion video (FMV) of any console on the market at the time. The PC-FX also broke away from traditional console design and included a tower system which allowed for numerous expansion points, including a connection for NEC's PC-9800 series of computers. However, despite the system's impressive specs, it was marked as the ultimate side scrolling console and could not match the sales of the 3D systems currently on the market.

Results of the fifth generation
After the dust settled in the fifth generation console wars, several companies saw their outlooks change drastically. Atari, which was already on shaky ground after setbacks to Nintendo in the previous generation, ended up being purchased by JT Storage and stopped making game hardware. Sega's loss of consumer confidence (coupled with its previous console failures) in North America set the company up for a similar fate in the next round of console wars.

The Sega Saturn, although the most technically advanced console of the generation, suffered from poor marketing and comparatively limited third-party support. Sega's decision to use dual processors was roundly criticized, and some wrongly believe the second CPU was added as a "panic" response to the PlayStation's specifications. Regardless of their reasons for including it, only Sega's first-party developers were ever able to use the second CPU effectively. The Saturn was far more difficult than the PlayStation to program for, and the 3D graphics on its 3rd party games often lacked the luster of the PlayStation or Nintendo 64 (N64), a severe disadvantage at the dawn of 3D games.

Sega was also hurt by the plan to have a surprise four-month-early US launch of their console. This head start failed for several reasons. One of the major reasons being there were few software titles ready. Also, the fact that the Sega Saturn was US$100 more costly than the PlayStation pushed many potential buyers into purchasing the cheaper PlayStation.

Sony took an early advantage by tapping the mass market and positioning the PlayStation as a "lifestyle accessory" for males in their late teens to late twenties. Sega and particularly Nintendo's offerings were characterized as appealing more to children (both companies, for instance, featured mascots that appeared in Saturday morning cartoons). The securing of this new market is widely credited as the key to the system's success. Sony carried this momentum over into the release of the PlayStation 2.

Due to numerous delays, the Nintendo 64 was released one year later than its competitors. By the time it was finally launched in 1996, Sony had already established its dominance and the Saturn was starting to struggle. Its use of cartridge media rather than compact discs alienated some developers and publishers due to the space limits and the relatively high cost involved, US$3.50 for an N64 cartridge versus US$0.35 for a PS disc, despite the fact that the Nintendo 64 had virtually no load times because of its cartridge media. In addition, the initially high suggested retail price of the console may have driven potential customers away, and many early adopters of the system who had paid the initial cost were angered by Nintendo's decision to reduce the cost of the system within a few months of its release. However, the Nintendo 64 was successful and home to highly successful games including The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and Super Smash Bros.. In the end, while the Nintendo 64 sold more units than the Sega Saturn, it failed to surpass the PlayStation, which dominated the market.


Name 3DO Interactive Multiplayer Amiga CD32 Atari Jaguar Sega Saturn Sony PlayStation Nintendo 64
Launch prices (USD) US$700 US$399.99 US$250 US$399 US$299.99 US$199.99
Release date
Best-selling game Unknown Unknown Unknown Virtua Fighter 2, 1.7 million in Japan Gran Turismo, 10.85 million shipped (as of April 30 2008) Super Mario 64, 11.62 million (as of May 21 2003)
Media CD-ROM CD-ROM (cassette, floppy disc, hard drive (software), data card via add-ons) Cartridge, (CD via add-on) CD-ROM, cartridge (limited, Japan only) CD-ROM Cartridge, (magneto-optical via Japan Only add-on)
Accessories (retail)

  • Keyboard
  • Floppy Drive
  • Mouse
  • MPEG card
  • Atari Jaguar CD
  • Team Tap (up to 8 players)
  • JagLink - 2 console networking
  • CatBox - 8 console networking, additional video output options
  • Memory Track, for Jaguar CD only
  • Saturn digital gamepad
  • Analog gamepad
  • Lightguns
  • Multitap (up to 10 players)
  • Sega NetLink - modem and keyboard
  • keyboard
  • mouse
  • 1.44 MB 3.5" disk drive
  • DirectLink
  • MPEG cards
  • RAM expansion cartridges
  • Multitap (up to 8 players)
  • Fishing reel controllers (Bass Landing and Reel Fishing)
  • Dual Analog Controller
  • DualShock
  • GunCon
  • Jogcon
  • Konami Justifier
  • NeGcon
  • PocketStation
  • Flightstick
  • Dance pad
  • Memory Card
  • Controller Pak
  • Memory Expansion Pak
  • Rumble Pak
  • Memory Card
  • Fishing Reel
  • Transfer Pak
  • Nintendo 64DD(Japan only)
  • Microphone
  • Other consoles

    Add-ons and remakes

    Worldwide sales standings

    Console Units sold
    PlayStation 102.49 million shipped (as of March 31 2007)
    Nintendo 64 32.93 million (as of March 31 2005)
    Sega Saturn 17 million (as of May 4 2007)
    3DO 2 million (as of May 4 2007)
    Virtual Boy 770,000 (as of May 4 2007)
    Atari Jaguar 500,000 (as of May 15 2007)
    Apple Pippin 42,000 (as of May 4 2007)

    In 1996-97, when all three consoles were fully available, Sony managed a 51% market share of the worldwide market, following by Nintendo with 40%, while Sega lagged with 9%. Production of the Sega Saturn was prematurely discontinued in 1998, with its demise being accelerated by rumours that work on its successor was underway, which hurt sales in late 1997. The N64 was produced until 2001 when it was succeeded by the GameCube; however, PlayStation production had not ceased as it was redesigned as the PSOne, further extending the life of the console around the release of the follow-up PlayStation 2.

    Handheld systems


    Milestone titles

    • Ape Escape was the first game to require the use of both of the two joysticks on the Dualshock analog controller on the PlayStation.
    • Dragon Quest VII was the number one best-selling title on the PlayStation in Japan, released in 2000. The game was the first main installment of Japan's national RPG series released in 5 years since 1995. It featured graphics similar to its predecessors.
    • Final Fantasy VII was the first game in the series to make use of full motion videos (FMVs) and it opened the door of the mainstream US market for Japanese-origin RPGs. It signaled the convergence of film and interactive media and raised the bar in terms of production value for games. Final Fantasy is now one of the biggest franchises in video gaming, with FFVII in particular having several spin-offs known as Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, including two sequels, a movie and an Action Adventure game.
    • Gran Turismo broke away from the mold of traditional arcade style racing games by offering realistic physics and handling as well as a plethora of licensed vehicles. The best selling game ever for the original PlayStation, GT is also credited as increasing popular awareness of certain Japan-only sports cars such as the Mitsubishi Evolution, Subaru Impreza WRX and Nissan Skyline and eventually paved the way for their importation into the US.
    • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the most critically acclaimed game of all time, and often listed as the greatest video game of all time. It smoothly transferred the playing mechanics of the previous 2D Zelda adventures, now making it 3-D with a 3rd person perspective that could switch to 1st person. It also featured mini-games such as fishing & horseback riding.
    • Metal Gear Solid was released on the PlayStation in fall of 1998. It received critical acclaim for its involved storyline, believable voice acting, and cinematic presentation. The series remains a best seller for the PlayStation after many incarnations.
    • Nights into Dreams... was developed by Sega's Sonic Team. The game was sold with the needed controller, which looked similar to that of the Dreamcast. With its innovative gameplay and graphics, Nights, an exclusive title, aided in the selling of a number of Saturns. It was a Saturn exclusive and despite the overall failure of its console, it nevertheless became a cult video game.
    • Panzer Dragoon Saga was the final game developed by Sega's Team Andromeda before it was disbanded. Upon release, the game was met with unanimous praise from international gaming publications and has in time come to be considered to be among the most significant of the Saturn releases. The game relatively well known as a result of being released in very low quantities in the US and Europe, which has resulted in the game becoming arguably the most sought after Saturn game.
    • PaRappa the Rapper, although only a modest success at its time of release, was highly influential in creating the music video game genre, which would grow in popularity throughout the fifth and sixth generations, thanks in large part to the popular Dance Dance Revolution.
    • Nintendo's Pokémon titles for the Game Boy led to massive success in both video game sales as well as licensed merchandise. This success was assisted in part by the Pokémon anime series, which was localized for North America. In addition to establishing a wildly popular franchise, Pokémon arguably helped extend the life of the handheld Game Boy system.
    • Super Mario 64 was the first game released for the Nintendo 64 and one of the most innovative games of its time. It helped prove that analog controls, as opposed to the D-pad, were almost a necessity for 3D games.
    • Resident Evil and Silent Hill helped popularize the survival horror genre, which was previously confined to relatively obscure titles such as Alone in the Dark and Sweet Home. This genre continued to grow in to the sixth generation of video games, as new games such as Fatal Frame achieved cult status, and the two original series in the genre, Silent Hill and Resident Evil went on to produce many successful sequels. Both have since been adapted for films.
    • GoldenEye 007 is a critically acclaimed game that helped popularize the first-person shooter genre on the consoles, paving the way for future franchises such as Halo. The first-person shooter genre had until now been popular only on personal computers.

    See also


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