This might not be a surprise, but the ’70s were a long time ago. Some things, like disco, lived there and died there. But, one little novelty managed to outlive the decade, twisting, changing, rising, falling, and rising again to become the next great entertainment medium – the video game. We’re in the nascent days of the eighth generation of video game consoles – arguably the first generation introduced to a world where video games have sloughed off niche status, having finally plunged into the mainstream.
We’ve moved on from a time when video games were something those nerds did to a time when the word ‘gamer’ has become as formless and obscure as ‘movie-goer.’ That means we have a lot of history in the rear-view mirror, much of it dominated by the legendary consoles that made the medium great – the original NES, or the Sega Genesis, or the PlayStation 2, at the risk of leaving out others more worthy of mention. But, as we get ready for the battle between the Nintendo Wii U, the PlayStation 4, and the Xbox Whatever-They’re-Going-to-Call-It, it’s also time to take a look at the company those three consoles don’t want to keep – the disasters that changed fortunes, wrecked reputations, or brought titans to their knees.
Apple Bandai Pippin
Sales: 42,000 units
Apple tried to enter the console war, once. It ended badly. Apple and Bandai teamed up to release the Pippin in the mid-’90s, which was supposed to be both a simple network computer and a video game console. It even had a built-in modem and wireless controllers! In the ’90s! Problem is, it also cost $599. In the ’90s! The modem was also terrible (14.4 kbps) and no one released any games on it, because it was based on Mac OS, which no one ever made games for in the ’90s. That’s only slightly less true today.
Nintendo Virtual Boy
Sales: 770,000 units
There’s some early consternation about the Wii U, but for now, Nintendo’s only true console failure was the legendary Virtual Boy, killed off after one year of meager sales. 3D gaming and virtual reality were promised. The actual reality was a huge headache for Nintendo. That was largely because of the headaches of their customers – the ones caused by playing games on the Virtual Boy. Turns out, squinting into tiny screens and getting bombarded with red light for several minutes isn’t easy on the eyes.
Sales: 30,000 units
Released in 2005, the Gizmondo had a camera, internal storage, GPS, and email support. That, and it was a fully-fledged handheld gaming console. Not bad for 2005, right? Well, there were a few bad parts. Namely, there were no good games, it cost $400, and the head of the company (Tiger Telematics) had interests including the Swedish mafia and wrecking Ferraris. Pretty much no one bought the Gizmondo, and of those who did, I’m guessing not too many were happy about it afterwards.
Sales: 665,ooo units/6 million units
Many like to make cracks about the Sega Saturn being Sega’s major train wreck, but it was the two add-ons for the Sega Genesis – the 32X and the Sega CD – that really set the stage for Sega’s fall. Both were supposed to show off Sega’s technical prowess, up against the increasingly popular Super Nintendo. Instead, the world was exposed to the horror of those routinely awful movie-video game hybrids put out for the Sega CD. Still, that’s better than the 32X. Those who threw down $200 for it were barely exposed to anything – only six games were ever released for the would-be harbinger of the 32-bit era.
Sales: 3 million units
This list wouldn’t be complete without arguably the most beloved laughingstock of the handheld console world, the Nokia N-Gage. Nokia tried to upend the world of console gaming by fusing a handheld gaming console and a mobile phone into one device. Today, we could probably say that Nokia was conceptually ahead of its time with the N-Gage, but there’s no denying that the execution was also less than stellar. Turns out, traditional mobile phone keypad buttons and a tiny, portrait screen are not conducive to handheld gaming. It also turns out people don’t like holding ridiculously-shaped objects up to their heads.
Sales: 250,000 units
The Jaguar was a 64-bit console coming out at a time when the major 32-bit consoles were still being prepped for launch. Unstoppable, right? Not so for Atari’s final true entry into the console wars. At the time, third party exclusives were being snapped up by Sony, Sega, and Nintendo, leaving Atari out in the cold. The Atari Jaguar ended up all dressed up with nowhere to go. It was an overpowered console that lacked the biggest feature that sells consoles – good games, and lots of them.
Sales: 1 million units
The Sega Nomad took a different approach to handheld gaming – it was a portable Sega Genesis that actually played Genesis cartridges. There was a second controller port at the bottom for multiplayer, and the screen was backlit and colorful. Not a bad system, but by the time it came out in 1995, the 32-bit PlayStation and the Sega Saturn were already out, and the 64-bit Nintendo 64 was on its way. No one cared about 16-bit anymore, and it showed in the sales numbers.
Sales: 570,000 units
Good heavens. If you want the black sheep of the video gaming world, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than the Philips CD-i. Schadenfreude alone usually makes talking about even the worst consoles a little fun. The CD-i, on the other hand, is something most long-time gamers would sooner cast into oblivion. The machine could play discs of any format, and cost a rough $700 when it came out in 1991. Most of the games were those horrendous full-motion video interactive movie games (see also: Sega CD), and were the opposite of fun. Of course, the true black mark is that Nintendo licensed out their greatest franchises – Super Mario Bros and the Legend of Zelda – for CD-i games. The results were…unfortunate.