Architecture of Consoles

A practical analysis by Rodrigo Copetti

Languages available: 🇬🇧 - English, 🇩🇪 - Deutsch, 🇪🇸 - Español, 🇮🇹 - Italiano, 🇷🇺 - Русский, 👋 - Add translation


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Looking at the evolution of video game consoles is fascinating. While conventional PCs tend to evolve ‘incrementally’, new generations of consoles introduce completely new ways of working. What you see here is a series of articles that will hopefully uncover the rationale behind the latest trends in technology. They will also demonstrate why each system can’t be summarised by its ‘bits’, megahertz, amount of RAM and whatnot.

This is not a developer manual, just an in depth introduction to how each system worked internally. Bear in mind that tech has gotten really complicated lately, so if you struggle to follow my latest articles, try reading the early ones first. They introduce many concepts and definitions that are constantly revisited.

Basic knowledge of computing is preferable, however, I try really hard to adapt my content for wider audiences, so please don’t be afraid to give it a try! But if that’s not enough, you may want to look at the supporting readings.

While I try to be as accurate as possible, if you find any mistakes please give me a shout or propose changes.

Without further ado, here they are!

3rd generation

Known as '8-bit' consoles, these machines brought more sophisticated graphics and richer sounds than their predecessors. After all, a big market crash just occurred and newer standards had to be set.

Outstanding GPU features: Scrollable tile maps and larger colour palettes.

NES

More than a 6502 machine

Sega Master System

Powerful as it is

4th generation

DMA, horizontal interrupts, multiple modes... These are some examples of the new concepts that brought the new '16-bit' generation, opening the door to new genres of games.

Notable CPU advancements: Multiplication and division instructions, DMA and dual-processing.
Outstanding GPU features: Affine transformations and horizontal interrupts.

PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16

A small but quick leap

Mega Drive / Genesis

New techniques of composition

Game Boy

Simple and portable

Super Nintendo

Old hardware with mind-blowing features

5th generation

3D gaming has become a need but 'how' is not clear yet. The response? Every company presented their own different vision.

Notable CPU advancements: Pipeline stages and L1 cache.
Outstanding GPU features: Programmable vertex pipelines, Z-buffering and perspective corrections.

Sega Saturn

What can you do with 8 processors?

PlayStation

A promising newcomer

Virtual Boy

Hidden potential with an unfortunate ending

Nintendo 64

Powerful and complicated!

6th generation

Most of the graphics limitations from the previous generation are no more. Portable consoles start to resemble familiar systems.

Notable CPU advancements: Superscalar architectures and SIMD instructions.
Outstanding GPU features: Programmable pixel pipelines and anisotropic filters.

Dreamcast

One last attempt

PlayStation 2

Overshadowing the rest

Game Boy Advance

One chip to rule them all

GameCube

Powerful and compact

Xbox

A feared competitor

7th generation

Consoles have become multimedia platforms, this machines are now more capable than just playing games, which is why security is now a critical factor.

Nintendo DS

Novel forms of interaction

PlayStation Portable

'Portable' does not imply 'Limited'

PlayStation 3

A supercomputer from another planet

Wii

New ways of innovation


Roadmap

There are many consoles I could write about... If you are wondering what's next on my list here it is:

Next articles

Retro consoles / In-between the next articles

Modern consoles / More research needed

Will consider once the ridiculous scalping is over

Honourable articles / For another series

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