Many gamers are familiar with the sting of buying the “wrong” console. The one that ends up with fewer players, fewer great games, or just not the games you really want to play. If you had a chance to go back in time, with full, advanced knowledge of when consoles would be released and discontinued and what games would come out when, which console should you have owned each year from then till now? What would be the right path to take in order to play as many classic console titles as possible?
Three years ago, I took a shot at mapping out the perfect console ownership timeline. Since that original article was written, a lot has changed in the console world. We’ve seen the rise of retro consoles, the foundations of the battle between Xbox One X and PS4 Pro, and the release of the Nintendo Switch. We now have the benefit of additional years of perspective on the previous generation of consoles, and the success of PSVR has thrown an interesting wrinkle into the modern console wars.
Three years later, it’s time to revisit our quest. Time to once again attempt the grand work of constructing The Perfect Timeline.
The rules of the game
First, a reminder of our ground rules.
1. We’ll deal with North American console release dates (if you aren’t from North America, feel free to do this with the dates in your area).
Similarly, we’ll focus on U.S. release dates for games.
2. You can only ever own one console at a time. When you get a new one, the old one goes into the garbage.
Maybe you’re fabulously wealthy and this seems ridiculous to you, but if that’s the case I’m not really interested in your perspective, Archduke Moneybags. Picking the “right” console at each point in history is what makes this a real challenge.
Whether or not you should have to get rid of your previous console when you get a new one is open to debate, but in my experience old consoles usually don’t stick around very long once you move on to a new generation, due to hardware failure or simply because they get packed away to make room for your new best friend.
3. You must own a console for at least five years. You may keep it for longer than five years if you choose.
Console generations have fluctuated in length over the years, but five years is a reasonable expectation of time for one to last. Once again this whole experiment becomes far too easy if you can jump to a new console whenever you want.
Because of this “one in, one out” rule, we do allow for consoles to share a calendar year. You could get rid of your NES in 1990 and also buy a Genesis in 1990, for example, but the day you bring home your Genesis the NES goes in the trash. That year would count as one of the required five years for both consoles.
4. If you buy a console later in its life cycle you’re free to play any games that came out before you purchased it.
It’s often the case that the first year of a console’s life there are few essential games released for the platform, so picking a new system up later on, once the library is more fleshed out, can be a smart move.
5. You can own a PC and whatever portables you want along the way, but that’s not the focus of this project so that shouldn’t determine your choices.
Owning a PC capable of playing games provides an alternate way to play many titles that were otherwise exclusive to a single console. We’ll be aware of that, but it will be just one of many factors we consider.
The Full Timeline
I’ve created the timeline below to help you play along with this experiment. You can use it to visualize when consoles were released, and I highlighted a few of the most memorable games released for each system.
We’re starting with the 1985 release of the Nintendo Entertainment System, as the consoles released prior to the NES are very different beasts than the ones that have followed. I also only included consoles on this timeline which I could imagine someone honestly, in good faith making the case for being the “best” console to own at a given point in history, which means the Jaguar, Virtual Boy, and others have been omitted.
Sorry, Jaguar fans. Your fight is with history, not with me.
A year by year breakdown
Last time I did this I mapped out three different potential timelines and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. This time, I’ll go year by year and discuss the different decisions you might face at each point. I’ll also bring up some big game releases from each year, focusing on those that were only available (or were best known) on a particular console.
The only game in town was the NES, so your choice is easy. Buying a Nintendo in 1985 is exactly the right move, and you have an unbelievable library of classic titles to enjoy. The Sega Master System hit the North American market in 1986, but can hardly be considered a worthy replacement for the NES. ’85 through ’89 is five full solo years with the NES, so we’re free to move on any year afterwards.
In 1990 you face your first significant choice. The Sega Genesis was released in 1989, and though Sonic won’t hit the scene until the following year, you are already able to play games like Alex Kidd, Golden Axe, and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. The only reason NOT to make the jump to the Genesis this year is because our five-year rule means buying the Genesis will lock you out of the Super Nintendo.
The NES is on the way out, so if you haven’t made the jump yet, this is the year to do it. The Super NES comes out this year, and while its launch year lineup isn’t packed, Super Mario World will likely hold you over until more hits arrive. Genesis games released this year include Sonic the Hedgehog, ToeJam & Earl, and OutRun, so this is a very good year to own that console.
By this point you’re committed to either the Genesis or the SNES, and will be for the next few years. On the Genesis you can play Ecco the Dolphin, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and Streets of Rage 2, while on the SNES it’s the year of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time
Genesis highlights in ’93 include Disney’s Aladdin, NHL ’94, and Mortal Kombat with actual blood. On the SNES side there is Star Fox, Secret of Mana, and a version of Aladdin that was good, but maybe not quite as good as the Genesis one, depending on who you talk to. There are great games to play on both systems, and a lot of big hits available on both platforms with some small differences.
If you made the jump to the Genesis in 1990 this could be your last full year with the console, so enjoy Castlevania: Bloodlines, Shining Force II, and both Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. At the same time, the SNES offers Super Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, and Super Punch-Out!!
Things are about to get a lot more complicated with the arrival of the PlayStation. If you switched to Genesis in 1990 you’re free to make the leap to PS1 now, though the new console’s launch year lineup isn’t especially strong (Jumping Flash! and Twisted Metal are highlights).
If you stick with Genesis one more year you can play late-era hits that pushed the console to its limits like Comix Zone and Vectorman, while on the SNES 1995 brings Chrono Trigger and Killer Instinct.
The Sega Saturn also comes out this year but…come on. You didn’t go back in time so you could buy a Saturn.
The Nintendo 64 bursts onto the scene with both Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64. If you picked up the SNES in ’91 or ’92 you’re clear to jump to the N64 right away, and by this point the right move is definitely to own either that or the PS1, on which you can play Resident Evil and Tomb Raider.
Another year of PS1 and N64 dominance. You’re already committed to one or the other at this point, so you can play either Final Fantasy VII, Monster Rancher, and Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee or GoldenEye 007, StarFox 64, and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter.
1997 is the most difficult years ever to be forced to choose just one console, as it means missing out on all-time classic titles no matter which side of the divide you fall. This challenge is one of the reasons I proposed my “Let’s Try Something Crazy” console ownership path in my original article, which involves picking up the N64 at the end of its life in 2000, but that path has plenty of problems of its own.
This isn’t an easy job we’re doing here.
The Saturn is discontinued (aren’t you glad you didn’t buy it?) and the hits keep coming for both PS1 and N64. PlayStation offers Resident Evil 2, Gran Turismo, and Azure Dreams while N64 owners can enjoy The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario Party, and Banjo-Kazooie.
This year sees the introduction of the Dreamcast, another troubled console for Sega. Though it had some great games, its short lifespan makes it impossible to justify if we’re going to have to keep it as our primary console for five years.
On the PS1 you can play Silent Hill, Syphon Filter, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. N64 offers Donkey Kong 64, Mario Golf, and Superman (in case you want to play one of the worst games of all time while it’s fresh and new).
PlayStation 2 comes out this year, and though the console will eventually offer one of the strongest game libraries of all time, its launch year highlights didn’t include much beyond SSX and Tekken Tag Tournament. Jumping to the PS2 now means you’re committing to it rather than the Xbox and GameCube, which are still on the horizon.
It’s worth noting that most PS2 models had the ability to play most PS1 games thanks to built-in backward compatability. So if you spent the previous five years locked into an N64, you could move to PS2 now and play a lot of the best previous-gen PlayStation titles you may have missed. I won’t discuss backward compatibility for the remainder of this article (mostly because it makes an already complicated project way more complicated) but it’s worth keeping in mind.
If you stick with the PS1 this year you can play Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 and Spyro: Year of the Dragon, while N64 loyalists can enjoy The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Mario Tennis.
You have a big decision to make in 2001, as the PS2 enters its second year and both Xbox and GameCube are released. The majority consensus would probably go with the PS2 for this generation, but that choice will lock you out of Halo and Metroid Prime. Realistically you’re only going to be able to own one of these consoles, so choose wisely.
PS2’s highlights this year included Twisted Metal: Black, Ico, and Grand Theft Auto III (which would eventually come to the Xbox in 2003). The Xbox launch-year lineup features Halo: Combat Evolved, Dead or Alive 3, and Project Gotham Racing, while GameCube brings Luigi’s Mansion, Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, and Super Smash Bros. Melee.
2002 is a busy year full of games which are often released for multiple different consoles but which don’t always come out for the different consoles on the same day.
PS2 players can enjoy Ratchet & Clank, Rez, and Kingdom Hearts. On Xbox we see Jet Set Radio Future, Steel Batallion and its infamous controller, and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (which would come to other platforms the following year). GameCube might actually have the strongest year of the big three consoles, and releases titles including Eternal Darkness, Super Mario Sunshine, Animal Crossing, and Metroid Prime.
Your game choices explode in 2003, with the PS2 in particular adding legions of games ready to please all sorts of gamers. It’s hard to narrow the highlights down this year, but PS2 offers SSX 3 and Silent Hill 3, Xbox has Panzer Dragoon Orta and Knights of the Old Republic (also available on PC), and GameCube has The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Viewtiful Joe (which PS2 will get next year).
At this point you’re definitely committed to one of the three consoles, so all you can do is look longingly at the games you aren’t able to play (and maybe plan ahead to pick up next-gen remasters).
We’re getting closer to the end of this console generation, and you have fantastic games to play no matter which console you’ve chosen.
PS2 gets Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas this year, before any other consoles, along with Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. On Xbox you can play Halo 2, Ninja Gaiden, and Knights of the Old Republic 2 (again also on PC). GameCube gets Tales of Symphonia, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.
In 2005 the first next-generation console arrives with the Xbox 360. This has been a long generation, so your five required years are almost certainly up, meaning you’re free to jump to the 360 right away. You might want to wait a year, though, unless you’re really excited to play Call of Duty 2 and Condemned: Criminal Origins. If you want to hang on to your original Xbox this year you can play Forza Motorsport, Jade Empire, and Doom 3 (but you really should have played that on PC).
This year also sees the release of Resident Evil 4 on the GameCube in January, and while the title eventually comes to the PS2 in October it’s a long and painful wait for PlayStation fans. PS2 owners can also play God of War, Guitar Hero, and Shadow of the Colossus this year, which might make 2005 the PS2’s best year ever.
RE4’s temporary exclusivity is the big highlight for GameCube owners this year, along with other interesting titles including Donkey Kong Jungle Beat and Killer 7.
Looking ahead to the coming generation of consoles with full knowledge of what’s to come, you might consider holding on to this era a little longer, because the Xbox 360/PS3/Nintendo Wii generation goes on for well over five years. In fact there’s potentially an ownership path to be taken that involves buying the PS2 the year it comes out, then jumping to the GameCube towards the end of that system’s life to play some of that system’s great titles you would otherwise miss. That wacky experiment would bring us up to somewhere around 2010 before we can upgrade to a next-gen system.
The new generation arrives in full force with the release of both PS3 and Nintendo Wii, so it’s time to pick a horse for the next five years. The Nintendo Wii outsells the competition by a substantial margin this generation, but that’s largely due to people picking up Nintendo’s console in addition to a 360 or PS3. If you have to choose one as your only gaming console, can you still justify the Wii?
Xbox 360’s lineup gets a lot stronger this year with the release of Gears of War and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. PlayStation 3’s launch year lineup is weak, and includes Resistance: Fall of Man and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, which means it might be worth keeping your PS2 while longer to play Final Fantasy XII and Guitar Hero II.
The Nintendo Wii launches with Wii Sports to show off its new motion controls, but the real star for the new console is The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. If you really hate motion controls you can also play that title if you hold on to your GameCube a little longer.
Xbox 360 owners can enjoy Halo 3, Mass Effect, and Forza Motorsport 2, while the Wii offers Super Mario Galaxy and Resident Evil 4, which made great use of the consoles innovative controls.
PS3 continues its very slow start, though we do get the foundations of future greatness in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, while any die-hards sticking to the PS2 can play God of War II, a game which will eventually make the leap to the PS3 as part of a remastered collection.
So far this generation it’s hard to make the case for the PS3 as the correct console to own, but the dry spell won’t last much longer.
The PS3 finally shows up to the new-gen party with the release of LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, and MLB 08: The Show. Xbox 360 releases include Gears of War 2, Fable 2, and Ninja Gaiden 2, while Wii offers Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Mario Kart Wii, and Wii Fit (does that count as a game?).
2008 is a good time to talk about being the “odd console out,” as both PS3 and Xbox 360 get Grand Theft Auto IV this year. The Wii offers a number of fun titles that neither other console can play, but it is also frequently left out in the cold when it comes to big multi-platform releases. This issue never really goes away for Nintendo, and so committing to a Nintendo console often means missing out on games it seems like everyone else is enjoying. If you have a gaming PC this issue is mitigated somewhat, but PC ports often have their own issues.
PlayStation 3 continues its strong run with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Killzone 2, and Demon’s Souls. On the Wii you can play Wii Sports Resort, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and Metroid Prime Trilogy, which provides a great way to play some wonderful games you may have missed from the GameCube era.
Xbox 360 hits include Halo 3: ODST, Forza Motorsport 3, and the only console version of Left 4 Dead 2. This sort of release pattern becomes more common for Xbox consoles from this generation forward, as we see a number of “console exclusive” releases for Microsoft’s system. If you’re a PC-first gamer this might not matter much to you, since you can always just play these games on your computer, but if you prefer the console experience then that’s an added bonus
Wii owners can enjoy the highest-rated game of the year in Super Mario Galaxy 2, along with modernizations of classic characters with Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Donkey Kong Country Returns. PS3 brings God of War III, Gran Turismo 5, and Heavy Rain. Xbox 360 offers Fable III, Halo: Reach, and a year of console exclusivity for Mass Effect 2.
If you decided to attempt the PS2 -> GameCube alternate path we discussed in 2005, then this is the year you finally get to join the new-generation bandwagon. You’ve missed a few golden years of cutting-edge console gaming, but on the plus side there is a rich library of titles to choose from no matter which console you pick at this point.
The console generation without end continues, and it has now been going on for long enough that its actually feasible that you could have jumped onto one of the new consoles at launch and now have time to switch to a new platform without it eating into too much of the following generation. Because PS3 was so slow to get going you probably wouldn’t want to have started with that one, but Xbox 360 or Wii -> PS3 are both interesting, viable paths.
Most of the biggest games this year are multi-platform (though they often leave out the Wii), but console exclusive hits include The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Kirby’s Return to Dreamland for Nintendo, LittleBigPlanet2 and Killzone 3 for Sony, and Gears of War 3 and Forza Motorsport 4 for Microsoft.
In a move that seems questionable in retrospect, Nintendo is the company that makes the first step into a new console generation, leaving behind an era that saw the Wii outsell the competition for the troubled era of the Wii U. Knowing what we know about the future it’s hard to make the case that the Wii U was ever the best console to own, but die-hards can enjoy New Super Mario Bros. U and Scribblenauts Unlimited in the console’s launch year. Picking up a Wii U at launch will require you to keep it all the way up through the release of the Switch, which means you’ll endure some lean years as the price to pay for Nintendo loyalty.
Holding on to your Wii lets you play Xenoblade Chronicles and not much else, as Nintendo moves their focus totally to the new console. PS3 serves up Journey and the Ratchet & Clank Collection (a great way to play games you may have missed on previous PlayStation consoles), while Xbox 360 offers Trials Evolution and Halo 4.
Our current console generation begins with the arrival of the Xbox One and PS4, though as we’ve learned over the years it often isn’t the right move to pick up a new console right at launch. The Xbox One’s launch lineup is highlighted by Dead Rising 3 and Ryse: Son of Rome, neither of which make a particularly strong case for jumping off of your existing system, and indie darlings Flower and flOw don’t make the PS4’s launch year any more appealing.
If you’ve been enjoying the Xbox 360 Microsoft makes your decision to move on a bit easier by basically releasing no good exclusive games for the console in 2013. If you’ve been gaming on a PS3, though, it’s worth holding on to the system to play Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and The Last of Us. If you’re taking the road less traveled and gaming on a Wii U, this is the year you can enjoy Pikmin 3 and Super Mario 3D World.
Taking a broad view, 2013 is a down year for Microsoft consoles and a good year to be playing on the PS3, but your selection of quality exclusives on any single console is limited in this transition year.
New generation offerings become more attractive in 2014, so there’s really no justification for remaining on a previous-generation console in 2014 unless you’re doing something very strange. Xbox One’s lineup includes Forza Horizon 2, Sunset Overdrive, and The Master Chief Collection, another way to catch up on previous-generation classics you may have missed along your console journey. PS4 brings Infamous Second Son, Transistor, and Guilty Gear Xrd.
The Wii U hits a high point this year with Super Smash Bros. Wii U, Bayonetta 2, and Mario Kart 8. This isn’t a console you’ll want to be stuck with for the five years required in our thought experiment, but in 2014 it doesn’t feel like a terrible choice—provided you can ignore the huge multi-platform hits (like Grand Theft Auto V) that leave the system out in the cold.
Hey, this really wasn’t that long ago, was it? I hope you’ve enjoyed your adventure through time, Traveler. Have you made good choices along the way?
Xbox One owners can play Ori and the Blind Forest, Massive Chalice, and Halo 5: Guardians. PS4 offers you another chance to play Journey, along with Bloodborne and Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. Wii U follows up its best year ever with a bit of a step down, though Mario Maker, Xenoblade Chronicles X, and Splatoon offer plenty of fun for different sorts of gamers.
The PS4 emerges as the leading console of the current generation in terms of overall sales, driven to success by games including Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Ratchet & Clank. This year also marks the release of PlayStation VR, making Sony’s console the only one to offer console-based virtual reality (so far). Xbox One’s 2016 lineup was topped by Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4, along with a number of big multi-platform titles such as Overwatch.
The Wii U struggles in its last full year as Nintendo’s flagship console, with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD serving as a lonely high point and a reminder of the glory days (as well as a preview of better days to come).
Our current year has already seen the release of the Nintendo Switch, which so far looks to be a step back in the right direction for Nintendo. Breath of the Wild has been an enormous hit already, Splatoon 2 and ARMS have plenty of fans, and if Super Mario Odyssey isn’t amazing a lot of people are going to be very surprised. If you bought a PS4 or Xbox One at launch you could potentially leap to the Switch this year, but its more likely you picked up the current generation in 2014, so you might have another year to wait before you can join the Switch party.
2017’s other major console development will be the release of the Xbox One X later this year. The upgraded PS4 Pro made a modest impact when it launched in 2016, but the Xbox One X is expected to do much more, both because it’s the most powerful console ever and because Microsoft is fighting to come from behind this console generation.
In terms of releases so far this year, it’s hard to argue against a PS4 lineup that includes Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5, and Nier: Automata. Xbox One’s library has been decidedly weaker thus far in 2017, with little to speak of other than Halo Wars 2, but games like Cuphead and Crackdown 3 coming later this year will help even the playing field somewhat.
At this point if you were following the rules of our experiment you’d likely be either a new Switch owner or several years into your time with the PS4 or Xbox One. The Xbox One X and PS4 Pro will give this generation additional life, so it remains to be seen how long it will be before we see a truly distinct generation from Microsoft and Sony (with some speculation pointing to 2019 as a likely target).
Based on industry trends, though, it’s possible this could be the last generation of consoles as we have known them for several decades. You can already see this transformation happening on Microsoft’s side, as they work to blur the lines between their Xbox and PC platforms. Sony has much more to lose than Microsoft from this hypothetical move away from traditional consoles, since they are in a very strong position this generation, so could we potentially see a PlayStation 5 as the only real console of the next generation (with the Switch existing in its own world, as Nintendo always does)?
The perfect path?
So, after all that…what’s the perfect path? With full knowledge of console lifespans and game releases, what was the best console to own at each point along the way?
I don’t know, man. It’s hard. Do I have to do everything?
Okay, okay, I’ll take a few stabs at it. The correct answer for you personally will vary according to your taste, of course, but there are a few different paths on which I think we could get some widespread agreement.
Path 1: 1985 NES -> 1990 Genesis -> 1995 PS1 -> 2000 PS2 -> 2005 Xbox 360 -> 2010 PS3 -> 2015 PS4
The biggest problem with this path is its lack of Nintendo platforms, which means we’ll miss out on a ton of great Zelda and Mario titles along the way. It’s also strange to jump from Xbox 360 to PS3, but that generation lasted for such a long time (and the PS3 had such a slow start) that we really maximize our access to great games this way.
It hurts to miss the GameCube and the Wii, but when you look at the titles you would be giving up by choosing either of those systems as your only gaming console, this is likely a path that many gamers would choose to walk.
Path 2: 1985 NES -> 1991 SNES -> 1996 N64 -> 2001 PS2 -> 2006 Xbox 360 -> 2011 Wii -> 2017 Switch
Nintendo die-hards will be happier following a path like this, though it still skips the GameCube in favor of the PS2 and doesn’t pick up the Wii until late in that console generation. As great as some of the games on the GameCube were, the PS2 is the best-selling console of all time for a reason, and it’s hard to argue against owning that console for five of its glory years.
This path also ditches the Genesis for the Super Nintendo, a move that’s likely to stir up ancient memories of console war arguments for gamers over 30 years old. I personally can’t imagine missing out on the Genesis library, but I know there are plenty of people who feel just as passionately about what the SNES had to offer.
Path 3: 1985 NES – > 1990 Genesis -> 1996 N64 -> 2001 PS2 -> 2006 GameCube -> 2011 Xbox 360 -> 2016 PS4
This unorthodox approach is something we discussed in our year-by-year breakdown, with an added diversion into N64 territory. The key here is to enjoy the backward compatibility of the PS2 to play as many great PS1 games as you can, then pick up the GameCube at the end of its life so you can play its library highlights while waiting for the Xbox 360 generation to mature.
Now it’s your turn
Now that I’ve done the hard work of laying out the year-by-year highlights, you should have all the information you need to define your own Perfect Console Ownership Timeline. Follow the rules we outlined at the start (one console at a time, five years minimum, sharing a calendar year is okay) and share your perfect timeline in the comments below, along with reasons supporting your choices at different points along the way.
Make sure to bookmark this page, because at some point in the future when time travel is invented, you can come back and check your comment and know exactly what you need to do in order to go back to 1985 and live the perfect console gaming life.