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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Evolution of Game Console Design—and American Gamers

From technical constraints to designer flights of fancy, video game consoles have had a wild history, often mirroring—or establishing—the aesthetic sensibilities of the American gamer. Here’s a look back through nine generations of plastic boxes that dominated US living rooms for nearly 40 years.

The ninth generation of consoles is here—and, wow, are they hideous. There’s the large black rectangular prism with the cheese grater top that Microsoft is calling the Xbox Series X, along with it’s diminutive 1080p counterpart, the Series S, that looks like a pretentious bookshelf sound system in an equally pretentious NYC creative director’s office (or his child’s dorm room). Sony has abandoned the big-black-slab approach and instead given us a nightmare real estate developer who saw a Frank Gehry coffee table book once and then decided to use that as inspiration for “bringing Dubai to Atlantic City on a budget.” Yes, it’s a tacky casino-hotel in miniature. But only so miniature, because it’s the biggest and heaviest of the new class.

Were these designs always so lacking in inspiration or a sense of reasonable aesthetics? Has there ever been a video game console that wasn’t an embarrassment in the household? Or have they always been graceless monstrosities?

The truth is as complicated as America’s evolving sense of taste and style (and in some ways, how console manufacturers see the audiences they’ve created). But first we have to go back to the wood-paneled 1970s …

Atari Had to Fall so Nintendo Could Rise

Released on September 11, 1977, the Atari 2600 is a classic. It’s the classic in some ways. The original US video game console took its aesthetic cues from the early personal computers of the ’70s. Wedgelike and clad in fake wood paneling, the Atari 2600 featured a grilled plastic top with a prominent angular ridge at the back. It’s more of a ghastly vintage digital alarm clock than anything else. But it was right at home in the wood-paneled, high-pile carpeted dens of the ’70s.


Unfortunately, the Atari was too popular. Other companies quickly flooded the market with Atari-like consoles. Oversaturation in the market happened before even half of American households had a video game console, and by 1983 the industry imploded.

When planning to bring its Famicom over to Western markets in 1985, Nintendo knew it couldn't market its console in the same way. After the video game crash of 1983, there was major concern about a game console looking like a game console.

People didn't want those anymore. So Nintendo made the Nintendo Entertainment System to look like a hybrid between a children's toy and a VCR. Even the choice of name communicates how urgent the need was to distinguish it from a "game console."

Sturdy and rectangular, the NES featured a lidded door that hid a tape-deck-like, hinged-spring cartridge slot. Instead of black and wood-grain laminate, it was clad in two-tone gray plastic panels that stood out from previous consoles. It might not have been cute, even by the standards of the time, but it stood out—and Nintendo's gambit worked. Games were back in US households, baby!

All-American Death Drive

Where Nintendo saw the opportunity to disguise the video game console, Sega took the exact opposite approach. They peered deep into the American psyche and saw a nihilistic impulse to dominate. The Sega Mark III was a pleasing rectangular slab, like a portable Casio keyboard. Done in white plastic with hints of blue, bright yellow, and black elements—in Japan. But when marketing it to the West, changes had to be made.

The Sega Master System became a vision of menace. Transformed in glossy black and danger red, the Master System boasted sharp, aggressive triangular lines. This wasn’t just a game console. This was the entertainment machine that would lay waste to your friends. The Mark III came with a “Joypad,” but the Master System rebranded it to the “Control Pad.” Sega was marketing a piece of hardware to the grandchildren of the only country to ever use nuclear weapons on a population, who export imperialism and violence with reckless abandon. Sega knew there could be only one winner in the American imagination. And they moved to capitalize on this destructive national egomania, churning these feelings into the marketing strategy of sectarianism that would be named the Console Wars.

Capitalism Is OK Because My Consoles Are Cuter

(With apologies to Michael Lutz)

The ’90s ushered in the 16-bit fourth generation of consoles that gave birth to marketing slogans like “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.” Sega continued to appeal to the edgy gamer by keeping the Genesis gloss-black, now more polished and smoothed down. The console brought continuity over from the underperforming Master System, while adopting the sleeker lines of early portable CD players (which Sega would eventually spawn in the form of the Sega CDX, basically a huge Discman that could play Genesis and Sega CD games). Genesis wanted to be the cool console for bad boys—and Sega of America executive Michael Katz would be the one to sell this position to the American public, kicking off a mass marketing strategy that we’re still not free from.


Nintendo dominated the market with the NES, and its foray into the 16-bit era had it moving to a more traditional game console style. Dove gray and gentle indigo buttons were the defining palette of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Abandoning the burly look of the original console along with its spring-loaded tray and top-hinged door, the SNES had the visual appeal of a gentle spacecraft. Not as sleek and demure as the Japanese counterpart, however; the SNES maintained some adherence to an American need for bulk and solidity. This was the time when SUVs began flooding suburban roads, after all.

Nintendo’s popularity gave way to other people wanting in. Arcade titan SNK gave us the Neo Geo, and NEC arrived in the West with a boring, needlessly sized-up version of the PC Engine in black—the TurboGrafx-16. Both borrowed Sega's design concept of bigger and edgier for American sensibilities.

No one proved a real challenge until …

Enter the PSX

Sony put all its might into the launch of the PlayStation. Surreal, psychosexual, edgy advertising nightmares that only the late ’90s could appreciate birthed into the American console landscape a rather sedate neutral gray slab, low and sleek with serrated edging on all sides. It ushered in the era of CD gaming on the console in ways both NEC and Sega had failed to take flight with. To say the PlayStation was a big deal is as much of an understatement as the console's shell.

The PlayStation was never truly rivaled by Nintendo's misfire of the N64 in 1996 and its reliance on the now outdated cartridge design. The 64 had a Bowser-claw shaped controller that baffled many (even if it was fine) and a wobbly wave shape. Abandoning the soft grays for dusky black, it looked weird and dated in a way—a late ’90s update on a beloved but dead aesthetic end. It would be the last time Nintendo would make such a critical error.

This was also the last time Sony would do anything that receded into the small space of a laminated pressboard TV stand at launch. Things were about to get so much bigger.

Small Friends in the Land of Big Boys

Sega struck first in the sixth generation of consoles with the Dreamcast. Embracing the Y2L aesthetic popularized in the US by Steve Job's i-Era of Apple. Soft white, diminutive, and adorned with a cryptic orange spiral. It echoed back to older consoles while looking to a more optimistic future. The controller was big, weird, and held memory cards that were complicated and sometimes rudimentary gaming devices of their own. This might have been as close to visual design perfection as video game manufacturers ever came, rivaled only by Nintendo's later offering. Sadly, this would signal the end of Sega as a console manufacturer. We stan a lost king.

It was Sony that crushed this generation, however. The hotly anticipated, much loved PlayStation 2 launched as the first optionally vertically oriented game console. An angular dark tower. It carried over the fins from the original PSX and shifted to an IBM edgy stealth black. This is what we did in the late '90s. Beige was done for (thank God). Even the inset PS2 logo element could be rotated to maintain brand coherence whether you laid it flat or stood it up.

It seemed bulky at the time, especially after the Dreamcast, but that wouldn't last long. (And it would eventually see revisions in the form of Slim models that reduced the size while maintaining the same skyscraper aesthetic, and establish the revised console release paradigm officially.)

The PlayStation 2 received its first real challenge for platform supremacy as Microsoft entered the console landscape with the truly massive Xbox. It had a giant X sculpted into the box, looking more like a disastrous X-Men costuming decision than anything you'd want in your living room. Where the structural elegance of Silicon Graphics computers and cyberpunk skylines formed the basis for the PlayStation 2, Microsoft knew it had to go big; this was basically a purpose-built gaming computer powered by Nvidia and vented to keep it from melting. Microsoft wanted dominion over the dorm room and first college apartment. Black and Matrix green. Loud. Even the controller was gigantic (and often mocked). It was a console that played out the beliefs that created the Sega Master System in spectacularly un-self-aware form. Microsoft would prove the American gamer was truly a product of a ghoulish worldview by further playing right into it.


A direct affront to designs before and largely since, the GameCube signaled a new approach for Nintendo: Let the big tech companies duke it out for graphical supremacy, let them make bids for the edgy gamer audience. Follow Apple steadfastly through the era of Y2K aesthetics and make consoles that were themselves visual curiosities. In Aaron Sorkin terms, "Let Nintendo be Nintendo."

It was small and took tiny little discs compared to the DVDs of rival Xbox and PS2. It came standard with four circular ports for controllers, and most notably, a handle.

Yes, a handle. So you could carry it to friends' houses. And it was small and light enough that you could do this easily. Designed to be charming, an adorable portal to digital joy, this was a console to be shared. Gathered around and huddled over. The ostentatious-by-being-unassuming life of the party. It could be a centerpiece or be tucked away on a TV stand unobtrusively.

Eventually it came in more colors. Allowing an unusual expressivity for game tech consumers.

Nintendo may have arrived late, and never had the raw sales numbers of the PS2, but it was making an entirely different play, one that continues to this day. Fully embracing the tweeness of its Family Friendly, Veblen Good reputation.

How We Got to Now, or Video Games Were a Mistake

The seventh and eighth generations have largely been a holding pattern, carried over from what came before.

Microsoft slimmed down (by taking the massive power supply out of the box and attaching it to the cord instead) and opted for a gentle white and silver plastic option with the Xbox 360. Eventually, Microsoft would decide to appeal to the base impulses of “core gamers” and produce the Elite version. A split SKU which gave consumers a choice between edgy or sedate. Removing the X from the molding, Microsoft opted for a pinched casing design, dubbed the “inhale”—because the console was taking a deep breath before exploding with force. I’m not kidding.

Sony got bigger and fumbled hard with the truly colossal and domed PS3 that promised unequal power (but no one really wanted to expend the effort in programming for the much less straightforward hardware).

And this gave way to the PS4 and Xbox One. Both bigger, louder, and frankly boring.

The chisel-shaped slab of the PS4 looked more like an edgy turntable than a game console, and its weight was surprising. And the Xbox One would simplify down into your choice of snow white or piano black oversized DVD player. Gone was trying to make the X shape happen; it didn’t need to breathe. The brand was known. And we could move into a more stately, if not exactly enthusiastic, design.

During this time Nintendo continued to be Nintendo, opting for lower-powered, smaller consoles that had unique ways of interacting. The motion-controlled Wii became a runaway success and gave way to the underperforming WiiU with a controller that doubled as a mini-console (and formed the basis for the Switch). Barely bigger than the disc drives they contained, the Wiis allowed Nintendo to compete with the likes of Sony and Microsoft by pretending not to compete. The plan paid off and paved the way for its next hybrid console, the incredibly desired Switch.

Met with both enthusiasm and mockery, it's the smallest and friendliest of the current generation. The idea is simple. Make a big phone and slap controllers on the side of it. This is how Nintendo figured out top-tier gaming in a mobile format. (Something neither Apple nor any of the Android manufacturers could wrap their heads around.) Opting for gray and unobtrusive, with a variety of colored controllers (Joy-Cons) to suit the console to your personality (within reason). This was Nintendo's most powerful declaration of buying into its own bullshit, that it would do its own thing, become a status symbol, and win at being Nintendo. Screw Sony and Microsoft. Eventually being offered in the highly sought after Animal Crossing edition that brought a touch of cottage-core gentleness to the unassuming winner of its own race.

Nintendo hasn't made its ninth-generation intentions known yet. A souped-up Switch is likely on the horizon, but will it still retain the form factor? Or will Nintendo break with its winning strategy of small and acceptably quirky?

There's no doubt that eventually Sony will trim down the PS5 into a hopefully manageable size and shape. But who knows if we'll ever return to a time when consoles weren't embarrassing. Though as the global pandemic continues unchecked and financial meltdown blankets the world, are consoles even something we should maintain? Aren't these objective correlates of disposable consumer culture, with labor and environmental consequences that tower over even the relative size of the boxes themselves, better left discarded in the past?

If there's one thing we can say for sure about the aesthetics of consoles, it's that they mirror the times and ideologies they find themselves in. Consumer electronic design explains a lot about how we see ourselves, how companies see us, and how we want to be seen. The indulgent mass and exorbitant pricing of the PS5 and Series X couldn't be more representative of the hands-over-eyes adherence to the dying gasps of capitalistic self-importance. Regardless of what we think of how the current generation looks, it has nothing pleasant to tell us about ourselves.

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