Over the years, successful game consoles tend to slim down to keep costs in check, including these classic game platforms—from Atari, Sega, and more—which saw one or more major hardware revisions during their lifespans.
At launch, video game systems start out with so much potential.
Before any console’s cultural role becomes defined in the market, manufacturers hedge their bets with ports galore: plentiful video output, expansion, and accessory options. They basically always say, “You can do anything with this console.” It can turn into a computer, you can plug in some funky drive to it, you can network with it, look at these wacky new controllers, etc.
But then the competitive price wars start, and suddenly all those extra bells and whistles don’t look so good for the company’s bottom line. Or perhaps the console is growing old and looks less attractive on the shelf next to its higher-tech competitors. Hardware cuts have to be made to keep costs down so they can sell again at a lower price point. Smaller consoles have fewer parts, require less packaging, and cost less to ship, so game systems tend to shrink. And while they’re at it, the vendor might as well modernize the console’s industrial design to match the fashions of the day.
And that’s how, through market forces, successful game consoles tend to slim down to their essential parts over time. Vestigial features fall away. We’ll call these console revisions. In the slides ahead, let’s take a look at seven classic game platforms that saw one or more major hardware revisions during their lifespans.
Note: Special thanks to photographer Evan Amos for capturing all of these wonderful images.
Atari VCS / 2600
Atari manufactured the original model of the legendary Atari Video Computer System console (not pictured) in Sunnyvale, CA starting in 1977. Nicknamed the “heavy sixer” by fans due to its weight and six switches on the front, this initial VCS sported a slightly less angular design and different woodgrain pattern than the cost-reduced “light sixer” (seen here as #1, 1978). But the two looked generally similar.
To further cut costs, Atari introduced the 2600-A (#2, 1980), which moved the difficulty switches onto the back of the unit and repositioned the game control ports to accommodate a simplified single motherboard design. Then Atari moved away from woodgrain in 1982 with a black-fronted revision (#3, often nicknamed “Vader” by fans). It was also the first unit to be officially branded “Atari 2600” instead of VCS, which brought it in line with branding for the Atari 5200 console.
Finally, in 1986, Atari launched a much smaller and sleeker 2600 (#4, often called 2600 Jr. by fans) for about $50. Its design language closely matched the Atari 7800 and 5200 consoles.
First launched in 1979, the original model of the Intellivision sported a very 1970s brown-gold-woodgrain look. Its controllers came attached to the console, and it included an internal power supply, increasing its bulk. In 1983, Mattel updated the console to the Intellivision II. Changes included a modern 1980s gray/red color scheme, smaller footprint, detachable controllers, a combination power-reset switch, and lower cost. Around the same time, Mattel released several accessories (such as the ECS and System Changer) styled to match the new design.
Nintendo Entertainment System
The original NES (1985, upper left) sported a boxy look with an unusual cartridge insertion mechanism that tended to wear out. In 1993, Nintendo released a curvy redesigned unit (model NES-101) with a smaller footprint, no expansion port, new “dog bone” controller, and RF video output only. Users now inserted games cartridges vertically into a simpler cartridge slot. It also removed a lockout chip that often caused a blinking screen issue when the cartridge contacts became dirty. Around that time, the Family Computer received a similar update in Japan (AV Famicom) with differences that accommodate Famicom accessories.
Sega Master System
The Master System originated as the white Sega Mark III in Japan. In America, Sega’s 8-bit console launched with a futuristic black angular design in 1986 (upper left). Four years later, Sega released a cost-reduced model called the Master System II (1990) with a smaller, rounded form factor. It achieved reduced parts cost by omitting the expansion port, game card slot (reducing compatibility with some accessories), power light, and reset button.
Unlike the Master System, the Sega Genesis kept a similar initial design (#1, 1988) across regions. It included a headphone jack with its own volume control and an expansion port that accommodated the Sega CD. The Genesis 2, released in 1993, reduced the cost of the system by slimming down the footprint, omitting the headphone jack, and combining RF and AV output into a new smaller jack. In 1998, Majesco Sales re-launched the console as the compact Genesis 3, omitting the side expansion port and dramatically reducing its size. Internal circuitry changes also reduced compatibility with certain accessories like the Power Base Converter.
Nintendo Super NES
The Super NES launched in America in 1991 as a boxed-up version of its smoother, sleeker Japanese predecessor, the Super Famicom. The “New-Style” SNS-101, launched in 1997, added rounder edges, shrunk down the general size, removed the cartridge eject button, and omitted the RF output jack in favor of the standard SNES AV output connector (although it lacks S-Video and RGB support). The SNS-101 also lacks the expansion slot present on the bottom of the original SNES (which was never officially used in the US).
The Sony PlayStation first launched in Japan in 1994 with an already compact gray design. Its original model, SCPH-1001 (#1 above), included dedicated RCA jacks for composite AV output and also a parallel port for accessories. Over the years, Sony removed little-used features from the console to cut manufacturing costs in the face of competitive price drops. In the SCPH-5000 series model (#2, 1996), the RCA jacks disappeared. In the SCPH-9000 series model (#3, 1997), Sony took out the parallel port as well. These were matched with aggressive internal redesigns to cut costs as well.
In 2000, the PlayStation received its only major cosmetic update in the form of the PS One, which sported a redesigned smaller white case with gentle rounded corners. This unit lacked the parallel port, RCA jacks, and the serial port (used for link games). But it sold like hotcakes and was often paired with a specially designed LCD that could attach to the unit for semi-portable play.