Architecture of Consoles

A practical analysis by Rodrigo Copetti

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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 works 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. Finally, if you prefer reading using an eBook reader, check out the eBook edition.

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.

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

More than a 6502 machine

Sega Master System

Competent out of the box

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 / Color

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?


A confident newcomer

Virtual Boy

Hidden potential with an unfortunate ending

Nintendo 64

A constrained performant

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, SIMD instructions and L2 cache.

Outstanding GPU features: Programmable pixel pipelines and anisotropic filters.


One last attempt

PlayStation 2

Overshadowing superiors

Game Boy Advance

New partnerships powered by two AA batteries


Eloquent engineering


A feared competitor

7th generation

Consoles have evolved into supercomputers and multimedia hubs. These machines are now more capable than just playing games, which is why security is now a critical factor.

Notable CPU advancements: Thread level parallelism and symmetrical multi-core architectures.

Outstanding GPU features: Unified shader model and HDR rendering.

Nintendo DS

Novel forms of interaction

PlayStation Portable

'Portable' does not imply 'Limited'

Xbox 360

A supercomputer for the rest of us

PlayStation 3

A supercomputer from another planet


Unique techniques of innovation

8th generation

The entertainment market has now been conquered by cheap smartphones and tablets. Social media capabilities become the first priority of every peripheral. It's time for traditional video-game companies to renovate their status quo, and they better do it quick.

Nintendo 3DS

Abundant tech, confusing marketing

Wii U

Innovation under pressure


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

#### Personal computers repackaged as consoles

Modern consoles / More research needed

Honourable articles / For another series

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