As someone who has been playing video games for well over 30 years and has an avid interest in video games beyond just the games themselves, I felt that it was worth keeping up with the overall health of the industry. Sales figures are obviously a good barometer of said health, and in looking through sales data for console hardware, I’ve come to observe that sales, while not exactly predictable in terms of numbers, are attributable to several major factors, and that we can understand how and why consoles sell what they do. By understanding the “how” and “why” of sales, we can make reasonable guesses as to the relative success of a given system even early on in a generation, and explain the relative performance of any two consoles.
The purpose of this article is to give a (mostly) complete history of hardware sales in the console market, showing the factors, trends, and data to give as complete of a picture as possible on the “how” and “why” of console sales. I hope that this will serve as a valuable reference for anyone else interested in the subject. While many of the more general points I make in this article are already well-known to most others who also regularly discuss game sales, I felt this would still be a good resource for people less familiar with the subject material, and serve as a good go-to reference for more specific information on console sales.
To start things off, if you get into analyzing and discussing hardware sales, you’ll notice that there a couple of “general rules of console sales,” that is, basic patterns and behaviors that nearly all consoles adhere to regardless of their relative success or any factors that serve to affect sales. The first and perhaps most notable “rule of sales” is that the console market is cyclical. As every gamer knows, the history of the console market is divided into more or less discrete “generations” where several platforms, usually with comparable abilities, spend nearly all of their lives contemporaneous to and serve as nominal competition for each other. Within each generation, any given system will almost always exhibit a “growth-peak-decline” pattern in its sales where sales grow from their initial levels, reach a point where they peak, and enter a period of terminal decline. There are only so many people willing and able to buy a console, after all, even a popular one, and the number of potential new buyers dwindles as the market becomes more and more saturated. Occasionally, a system might peak so early that it can’t really be said to have had a “growth” phase, while other systems don’t have a prominent and sharply-defined peak to speak of, but the general rule still remains, with systems inevitably entering a period of terminal decline after some sort of period of peak sales.
Another “rule of sales” is the stimulative effect of certain holidays. Christmas is obviously the big one. As with many other goods, console hardware sales grow substantially during the Christmas shopping season. In the U.S., fourth-quarter hardware sales are typically around half of the year’s total thanks to the Christmas holiday season. Additionally, Black Friday has had greater importance starting in the early 2010s, causing November to grow in importance relative to—and seemingly at the expense of—December. Of course, the Christmas holiday boost isn’t limited to America. December is always the biggest month for sales in Japan and Europe as well. Furthermore, there are other holidays where hardware sales see significant improvement over baseline levels. In Japan, Golden Week and Obon typically result in a noticeable increase in sales compared to weeks immediately before and after the holiday.
There are also certain non-holiday events that can stimulate sales. Most notably, in the U.S., tax season is a period where hardware sales are stronger than normal as many people spend their tax refund money on big-ticket items like game consoles. February and, to a lesser extent, March are often stronger for hardware sales than other non-holiday months in the U.S., with February usually being the third-best month of the year for hardware sales after December and November.
But console sales are a bit more complex than a couple of basic rules, and many misconceptions about sales persist in online discussions and sometimes even in professional analysis, some of which I’ll discuss later as they often involve discussions of individual systems. One misconception that has had more general appeal is that you can extrapolate sales for one system based primarily or solely through comparing it to another system. In discussions I’ve had elsewhere on this subject, I’ve argued that there are severe difficulties in projecting future sales based on these simplistic “System A is selling only x% of what System B was selling in its early weeks/months” comparisons. While Console A may only sell as well in its first few weeks or even its first year as Console B did, there’s no reason to expect that this relation will persist over a longer period (compare this graph to this one). Such comparisons assume that two systems with similar early-life sales ought to have similar sales curves over the course of their lives, a claim that lacks any basis as no two systems have sales curves that are the same shape. Furthermore, they also often fail to make basic apples-to-apples comparisons, such as by failing to take into account what time of the year the systems launched (if they launched at different points in the year), or, in the case of global sales numbers, failing to take into account regional variations in buying habits and even release dates, which are frequently staggered instead of releasing in all major regions simultaneously.
While there are many examples, which I will discuss later, perhaps the most notable examples in the 21st century are the PS3 and Wii. Early in its life the PS3 was on occasion compared to the GameCube because at the time it was selling roughly on par with what the GameCube was selling in the U.S. and Japan early in its life. Yet the PS3 went on to far outsell the GameCube in both regions (a comparison between the PS3 and GameCube in the U.S. can be seen in this chart; note how similarly they track early on versus the massive disparity after the first year). Conversely, the Wii was selling much faster than the PS2 did initially, and for a while it was the fastest-selling console ever, leading some commentators to speculate that it might outsell the PS2. But because it’s sales “legs” weren’t as strong as the PS2’s the Wii fell far short of taking its place as the new best-selling console ever. No two systems have identical or even similar sales curves (in the geometric sense), so attempting to project long-term future sales numbers of a system based purely on a shorter-term comparison of its early sales with what another system sold in the same period,
So, what causes systems to perform like they do? Why do some become hugely popular while others fizzle out? A console’s fortunes are determined by a complex relationship between several factors. Those are, in what I believe to be roughly decreasing degree of importance, games, price, regional trends, marketing, and duration of support, with hardware being a wild card. Games and price are by far the two biggest factors, but the other factors are still important. Let’s take a look at how these factors can influence sales.
1) Games. While game systems have a lot of other media functions these days, their primary purpose is for playing video games. That is their entire reason for existing. And for a system to be successful it needs a good games library. The most successful systems ever have always had a solid selection of notable titles, while consoles that are commercial failures often (but not always) have poor libraries. First-party titles and other games exclusive to just one console brand are also important as they help differentiate a system from its competition.
In addition, individual games can sometimes be “system-sellers”: titles that get people to buy the system in order to play that game. While any game, even a niche title, can technically be a “system-seller” in the sense that someone bought a system for that specific game (which is different than buying a game with a system; the distinction is a matter of intent), for purposes of this article, the term “system-seller” will be used strictly as a descriptor of games that cause noticeable growth in hardware sales of the platform on which they are released.
However, individual games appear to have an entirely short-term effect hardware sales, boosting sales for a month or two at the most. The Japanese market appears to be more responsive to software releases, with hardware sales boosts being generally more frequent and often larger than in the West. However, this may be an illusion due to differences in tracking; sales in Japan are tracked weekly by Famitsu, Media Create, and Dengeki, while sales in the U.S. are tracked monthly by the NPD Group. Monthly tracking serves to diminish the apparent effects of system-selling software on hardware sales, meaning a game would have to shift a lot more systems to make an impact on the hardware charts. For example, let’s say a system gets an anticipated game that boosts sales during the week of its release to double what it was the previous week. In a weekly chart that doubling will be more pronounced, but when subsumed into a monthly chart it results in a much less pronounced boost that could easily be overlooked as statistical noise.
2) Price. How much a system costs is arguably almost as important as what kind of games it has, if not equally important. All other things being equal, the system with the lower price will likely win. Of course, all other things are rarely equal and in some cases a more expensive system can beat a more affordable one (perhaps the less expensive one has a weak library), but price is still important in establishing a good value proposition for prospective buyers. A low price can be a big incentive to buy a system, while a price that’s too far out of reach for the average consumer can hamper sales or put a system out of contention entirely. Additionally, gamers don’t always have to pay for just the system and games. Sometimes there are other hidden costs associated with owning a system, such as necessary accessories that are sold separately.
Another price-related factor is price cuts, which have repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to boost sales. Unlike individual games, price cuts more consistently boost sales, and often do so over a longer period of time, sometimes many months. However, price cuts don’t always yield consistent results, which can vary from system to system and from region to region. Cutting a system’s price by, say, 25% could give a huge boost in America but not as big of a boost in Europe, while a later price cut could give a huge boost in Europe but only a small one in America. Meanwhile, another system getting the same price cut to maintain price parity might see better or worse results than what its competitor did.
A semi-related factor is new models for a system. Sometimes a new model is released that may offer various improvements over the original model. They are sometimes lower-priced than previous SKUs as well, thus often giving them the same effect as a simple price cut on a preexisting model. Sometimes, new models aren’t concurrent with a price cut and may not always replace previous models, but can still have a similar stimulative effect on sales due to improvements to the hardware; this is frequently the case with handhelds.
Here’s a list of console launch prices in the U.S. and Japan, as well as inflation-adjusted launch prices for the U.S. (but not for Japan as there’s barely been any inflation in the past 25 years or so). The U.S. chart covers all the consoles mentioned in the article, but the Japan chart doesn’t include prices for the TurboGrafx-16 (called the PC Engine in Japan) due to lack of available pricing data on those systems. Also due to insufficient information as well as the fact that there are multiple currencies (which goes double for pre-Euro consoles), I did not make a chart for European prices. For a more complete list of console launch prices in the U.S., consult my post on game prices here.
3) Regional Trends. Gamers in different regions have different collective buying habits, which can skew them heavily towards certain systems rather than others. This can be best demonstrated through graphs, such as these showing total console and handheld hardware sales for all major systems from the third generation to the present. Each region will have two graphs: one stacked to better visualize total sales in a generation and unstacked to better emphasize individual consoles. (Note: In the following graphs Nintendo sales for Europe may also include Australia, New Zealand, Oceania and smaller markets in Eurasia outside of Japan and Europe proper):
As a general rule, the U.S./North American market has no particular brand loyalty. Meanwhile, Europe tends to be dominated by PlayStation, with the exception of the UK, which stands out from the Continent by more closely resembling the U.S. market. Finally, Japan leans heavily towards handhelds and against non-Japanese hardware and games; to date, only Nintendo and Sony have achieved significant mainstream success in Japan.
4) Marketing and Public Relations. Getting the word out that your system exists and trying to convince consumers that it is the one they should buy can help improve sales potential. A slick and highly-visible advertising campaign can generate a lot of interest and excitement, while a bad ad campaign, minimal advertising, or some really poor PR can have the opposite effect. (Please note that the sections on marketing will focus primarily on the North American market, as that is what I’m most familiar with.)
5) Duration of Support. As games are a primary driver of sales, continued software support can keep sales continuing long after a system has peaked. Directly linked to this is how long after launch a system is discontinued. Some of the better-selling systems were also the ones that stayed in production and kept getting games long into the following generation.
Somewhat related to this is the fact that, eventually, a system in a given line of consoles will be replaced, since as mentioned earlier the console market is cyclical. When a new system is released, it usually has an immediate effect on its predecessor’s sales. While all systems inevitably peak in sales and enter a phase of terminal decline, said decline tends to accelerate once a system’s next-gen successor is released.
6) Hardware. As mentioned earlier, this one is a wild card. Things like system specs rarely figure into the average customer’s decision on which system to buy, and historically speaking the most powerful system has rarely been the sales leader.
However, while one system having a 20% more powerful GPU or the other having more RAM might not matter when it comes to influencing the buying decisions of the average gamer, this isn’t to say that hardware is totally irrelevant either. Hardware design can influence several of the previous factors, such as determining what kind of games a system gets and how much it costs. Also, notorious hardware defects can negatively influence a system’s reputation, while a well-crafted system that rarely has any issues may be better received.
Now, let’s see how these factors apply to past generations, starting with the 8-bit era, also commonly called the “Third Generation.” I thought of including a section on the Atari 2600 and its competitors, but due to how hardly any reliable data exists for that generation aside from a couple of lifetime totals, and how messy of a generation it was in general (esp. its catastrophic end in the Crash of 1983), I decided to skip it and focus on later generations. If you want to go through the history of the post-crash console market, just keep scrolling, or if you want, use the Table of Contents below to navigate to a specific generation.
As the console market is an ever-changing landscape, some information may become out of date over time. This article is continually a work in progress and subject to regular updates to keep things up to date, add new figures, correct factual matters, etc.
Table of Contents
Third Generation: NES vs. Master System
Fourth Generation: SNES vs. Genesis vs. TurboGrafx-16
Fifth Generation: PlayStation vs. Nintendo 64 vs. Saturn
Sixth Generation: PlayStation 2 vs. GameCube vs. Xbox vs. Dreamcast
Seventh Generation: PlayStation 3 vs. Xbox 360 vs. Wii
Eighth Generation: PlayStation 4 vs. Xbox One vs. Wii U & Switch
Ninth Generation: PlayStation 5 vs. Xbox Series X|S
Third Generation: NES/Famicom vs. Sega 8-bit
Notes: There are no official yearly, monthly, or weekly sales data that are readily available for this generation. The only available numbers we have are a lifetime estimate of NES sales in the U.S. from NPD, and official NES shipment figures. However, keep in mind that shipments are not the same thing as sales, though shipments do give a generally good measure of overall demand, and do usually rise and fall with sales. Shipments do have to increase to keep up with any increase in demand, after all.
Also, while the comments in this section pertaining to Sega focus primarily on the Master System and it’s Japanese counterpart the Sega Mark III, it will occasionally reference the SG-1000, the original system in Sega 8-bit family, which was only released in Japan. Essentially, the Mark III/Master System was an upgraded SG-1000: same basic hardware, just enhanced.
Games: The NES had an expansive library for its time, with nearly 700 games released by the end of its life in North America, and over 1000 titles in Japan. Many classic franchises and individual titles debuted on Nintendo’s grey box. Here’s some of the notable games that came out in the years prior to the release of the Super Nintendo (going by North American release dates):
- 1985: Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Excitebike
- 1986: Gradius, Mario Bros., Ghosts & Goblins, 1942, Commando
- 1987: The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man, Castlevania, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, Kid Icarus, Wizards & Warriors
- 1988: Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Contra, R.C. Pro-Am, Blaster Master, Metal Gear, Double Dragon, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
- 1989: Dragon Warrior, Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man 2, DuckTales, Tetris, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
- 1990: Super Mario Bros. 3, Final Fantasy, Mega Man 3, River City Ransom, Double Dragon II, Batman: The Video Game, Ninja Gaiden II, Castlevania III, Dragon Warrior II, StarTropics, TMNT II: The Arcade Game, Nintendo World Cup
The original Super Mario Bros. was bundled with the Basic Set (a.k.a. the “Control Deck”) in North America. It was instrumental in helping boost the system’s popularity, becoming one of the earliest and probably most prominent example of a “killer app” on a console. While it wasn’t the first side-scrolling platforming game (a few arcade titles in the genre predate it), it was perhaps the first game of its kind on consoles and it single-handedly popularized its genre. Furthermore, it was an absolute masterclass in game design, with outstanding level structure (World 1-1 is still studied and discussed to this day), impeccable controls, an accessible difficulty curve, and a charming aesthetic. It moved its genre, and gaming itself, forward, helping move video games away from the more simplistic, high score-focused, arcade-style titles that defined gaming in the 70s and first half of the 80s.
Super Mario Bros. quickly became a household name, and its sequels were likewise huge successes. Super Mario Bros. 2 eventually sold over 10 million copies, making it the first game not originally bundled with a system to reach that milestone. Super Mario Bros. 3 did even better, selling 17 million copies, an absolutely astonishing milestone at the time. It would remain the all-time best-selling console game not originally bundled with a console for over a decade until it was finally dethroned by GTA: San Andreas (and it’s still one of the best-selling first-party home console games not originally bundled with a system or major accessory). The NES had many classic games, but it was Super Mario above all others that put the system on the map.
Meanwhile, the Master System was relatively lacking in its game library. While it did have a few somewhat notable titles, including Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Phantasy Star, Ys, Wonder Boy, Zillion, and Space Harrier, its library was completely outclassed by the NES’s. Of course, this was in part due to Nintendo’s strict licensing policies, which were nominally intended to prevent a repeat of the conditions that led to the Crash of ’83. But it is worth pointing out that Sega did not even allow third parties to publish on their system at all until 1988, by which point the SMS was facing impending replacement by the Genesis. By 1990, third parties were developing for Sega’s systems as well, but the NES was still getting the lion’s share of their output despite Sega and NEC already having more powerful 16-bit consoles on the market.
Price: The Famicom debuted in 1983 in Japan for about ¥15,000. In North America the NES had several SKUs. For its full U.S. launch in the fall of 1986 there was the $200 Deluxe Set, which had two controllers, R.O.B., a Zapper, Gyromite and Duck Hunt, and the Basic Set, which retailed for $100 and had two controllers and Super Mario Bros. In 1988 the Action Set was released, which retailed for $150 and contained two controllers, a Zapper, and the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge (this was the version I got as a kid). Even in inflation-adjusted terms, the NES was a very affordable system at launch, especially when compared the launch prices of second-gen systems like the Atari 2600, which had an adjusted launch price of nearly $850 in 2020 dollars. In fact, the NES Basic Set holds the record for the lowest inflation-adjusted launch price of any notable console ever made.
The SG-1000 debuted in Japan on the same day as the Famicom, and for the same ¥15,000 price, while the Sega Mark III debuted two years later for ¥16,800. In the U.S., the Master System debuted in the fall of 1986 for $200, same as the NES Deluxe Set. According to old Sears catalogs from the late 80s, it maintained rough price parity with the NES in that period, with a 1988 Sears Christmas catalog showing a Master System bundle equivalent to the NES Action Set. Sears’ asking price for the Action Set at the time was $100, while the equivalent SMS bundle was $110. By time the 16-bit era was fully underway in 1991, the NES Action Set was still retailing for $99 while the SMS (which had been remodeled as the “Master System II”) was being heavily discounted, retailing for $50, but by then it was too late to affect the outcome of the generation. Despite the Master System having a comparable price point to the NES’s during the 8-bit era proper, the NES proved to be a better value during the third generation thanks to its vastly superior software library.
Regional Trends: Nintendo had a commanding lead and nearly monopolistic market share (at least 95% of all 8-bit consoles sold) in America and Japan due to the above two factors. The NES remains one of the best-selling home consoles ever in both regions. In Japan it was surpassed only by the PS2, and even then not by a massive margin (only about 13.7%). Given the current state of the Japanese home console market, it is likely to remain the #2 home console of all time in the region.
In the U.S., it too remains one of the best-selling systems ever. However, its exact rank isn’t clear due to uncertainties with the data. It is either the fifth or sixth best-selling system ever in the U.S., but which one depends on whether it sold more than the PS1, which sold about 30.2 million units. According to NPD data published in a 2014 report from Wedbush Securities, the NES sold 36.3 million units in the U.S., a total surpassed only by the PS2, Xbox 360, and Wii. However, while the rest of the numbers in the Wedbush report are consistent with other figures I have found for later generations, this number runs contrary to official Nintendo figures, which places the NES at about 34M for the entire “Americas” region, and I am inclined to agree with the official figures. The U.S.’s normal share of Nintendo console sales in the region has ranged from about 85.7% to 92.1%, with an average of about 88% across five systems from the SNES to the Wii U. Assuming the U.S.’s share of NES sales for the region is within that range, that would put the NES in the 29-31.5 million range for the U.S., with a figure of 29.9M assuming the 88% average. This puts it within about ±4% of the PS1’s lifetime sales, with the average figure being about 1% less. Regardless of the actual figure, the NES still had incredible sales in the U.S., especially considering how much smaller the overall market was at the time.
As for Europe, the NES didn’t sell very well in the region. European gamers really weren’t into dedicated video game consoles at the time. Instead, home computers like the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST were the preferred gaming platforms.
Here are official Nintendo shipment numbers for the NES in each region (“The Americas” includes Latin America and the Caribbean, while “Others” includes Europe, Australia & the Pacific, and all minor markets outside the Americas & Japan):
The Master System meanwhile had poor sales in every region, and was a niche product in Japan and North America. That being said, in many smaller markets that hadn’t yet adopted consoles en masse, the SMS had a relatively good showing in terms of market share. It was competitive with the NES in Europe, and appears to have roughly tied or even outsold the NES in some European countries. The Master System also sold 730,000 units in South Korea, just over double the 360,000 NES units sold. The SMS also did quite well in Brazil, relatively speaking, selling over 8 million units. Europe and Brazil together represent the vast majority of global SMS sales.
Marketing & PR: If you were like me and were an American kid in the latter half of the 80s, you probably never went a day of watching cartoons without seeing commercials for Nintendo products. The NES had a massive and successful advertising campaign, complete with the classic slogan “Now You’re Playing With Power.” Third parties also heavily marketed their major titles, which further benefited Nintendo since nearly every third-party game was an exclusive back then, and nearly every third party published exclusively for Nintendo. In addition, Nintendo had their own vanity magazine in the form of Nintendo Power, one of the most iconic gaming mags of all time, and certainly the most popular dedicated to a single console brand. Nintendo first proved themselves to be marketing geniuses in that era. However, this only applies to America and Japan. A commonly cited reason for the NES failing to do better than it did in Europe was due to how Nintendo of Europe handled marketing and distribution of the system in the region.
Meanwhile, the SMS was poorly marketed, at least in America. While it did have TV advertisements, they simply didn’t get the air time Nintendo’s commercials got. If it wasn’t for Sears Christmas catalogs (I loved looking through those things as a kid so I could pick out what toys I wanted), I would never have been aware of the system.
Duration of Support: The NES had strong software support well after the SNES was released, including notable titles like Kirby’s Adventure, Mega Man 4, 5, & 6, Dragon Warrior III & IV, and TMNT III: The Manhattan Project. The last title released in North America was 1994’s Wario’s Woods. The NES remained in production in North America until 1995, the year before the N64 was released.
In Japan it was produced even longer; it wasn’t discontinued until 2003, giving it a whopping 20-year lifespan. Its lifespan in America was the longest of any Nintendo system ever, while in Japan it is by far the longest-produced system ever. However, only 480,000 units were produced in Japan between April 1995 and when it was finally discontinued, and thus the absurdly long production time had only a small impact on its total lifetime sales in Japan.
As for the SMS, Sega discontinued it in Europe in 1996, while it was discontinued in America in 1991 and in Japan it had a even shorter lifespan, being discontinued in 1989. It still received games until the mid 90s, however. Brazilian manufacturer Tectoy apparently still produces the SMS under license to this day, which if true technically gives it the longest production life of any system ever at nearly 30 years. To date it has accumulated over 8 million unit sales in Brazil.
Hardware: The original front-loading NES had a notorious issue where over time the cartridges would have difficulty making contact with the terminals, resulting in the infamous blinking screen/power light issue. This in turn resulted in 80s kids developing a habit of blowing on cartridges to try to get them to work (which actually didn’t help, as it turns out). However, this issue did not have any apparent impact on the system’s sales. This was not an issue in Japan, as the Famicom was a top-loader, a design that was later implemented in the America-only NES-101 model (not released until 1993) as well as the SNES.
The SMS was more powerful than the NES, but without any other kind of advantage to back it up its superior horsepower was irrelevant.
Conclusion: With an incredible games library, solid marketing in America and Japan, an affordable price, the NES utterly dominated in terms of global sales. It went on to sell nearly 62 million units worldwide, thus supplanting the Atari 2600 to become the new best-selling home console ever, a title it would retain until 1999 when it was finally surpassed by the PS1. The system essentially single-handedly revived the console industry in the U.S., which had been presumed dead after the Crash of ’83, and established the console market in Japan. However, it didn’t sell as well as it could have globally due to under-performing in Europe.
Meanwhile, the SMS was completely engulfed by the NES’s massive shadow. It failed to get anything beyond a niche audience in America and Japan, the two biggest markets of the day, though in Europe and Brazil it did considerably better, relatively speaking.
Fourth Generation: Super NES vs. Genesis/Mega Drive vs. TurboGrafx-16 vs. Neo Geo
Notes: This is the first generation that I have been able to find any yearly NPD data regarding sales in the U.S. However, there are some caveats with that data, which I will detail later on. Also, the data is incomplete as I have been unable to find any NPD figures for the TurboGrafx-16 (though I have found some rough lifetime estimates for the system). As far as I’m aware of, no monthly NPD data exists for 16-bit systems. All other data provided is shipment data.
Games: The 16-bit era brought us even more classic series, as well as popular sequels to franchises established in the 8-bit era. The SNES had numerous now-classic games like Super Mario World, Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, Super Mario Kart, Yoshi’s Island, F-Zero, Final Fantasy IV & VI, Chrono Trigger, Mega Man X, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, Earthbound, Super Street Fighter II Turbo (considered by many to be the definitive home version of SF2 at the time), and many, many others.
Meanwhile, Sega finally got their first popular mascot character franchise (something that seemed to be quite important in those days) with the 1991 release of Sonic the Hedgehog, the most successful game series on the Genesis. In addition, the Genesis had many games that were either ports of their arcade games or titles made just for the console. Among the more notable Genesis games outside the Sonic franchise were Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, Altered Beast, ToeJam & Earl, Afterburner, Phantasy Star II, III, & IV, some excellent Disney games (some of which were arguably better than their SNES counterparts), and the bloody version of Mortal Kombat. The Genesis also had a strong library of sports games, and was widely considered the better choice for fans of sports games. However, the add-ons for the Genesis were lacking in notable quality software, though the Sega CD did have a couple of gems with Sonic CD and the Lunar duology.
NEC’s TurboGrafx-16 also had a pretty decent selection of games, including Splatterhouse, R-Type, Devil’s Crush, Blazing Lazers, The Legendary Axe, Super Star Soldier, Dungeon Explorer, and the Bonk series. The CD models also had titles like Gate of Thunder, its sequel Lords of Thunder, Dungeon Explorer II, and Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. However, its library was outclassed by the SNES and Genesis due to the others getting superior third-party support.
The Neo Geo likewise had a few solid titles as well, most notably SNK fighting series like Fatal Fury, King of Fighters, Art of Fighting, and Samurai Shodown, but overall its library was much smaller than those of the SNES and Genesis.
Price: In North America, the Genesis debuted for $190 in 1989 while the SNES debuted for $200 in 1991. By the time the SNES debuted, the Genesis’s price had been cut to $150. It did not enjoy the price advantage for long, though. By Christmas of 1992, both systems could be purchased sans any bundled games for $100 (though the Genesis w/ Sonic bundle retailed for about $10-20 less than SNES w/ Super Mario World bundle), and as far as I could tell they maintained price parity for the rest of the generation. The TurboGrafx-16 was launched in 1989 as well for $200, and by the end of 1991 its price had declined to only $100.
Finally, the Neo Geo launched with two SKUs: a basic “Silver Edition” retailing for $400 that included just the system and a controller and a “Gold Edition” that retailed for $650 and included two controllers and a game. While that might not seem exorbitant today, it was completely outrageous by early 90s standards as a dollar was worth almost twice as much as it’s worth today, and SNK effectively priced the Neo Geo out of contention (though they were not targeting a mainstream audience). Adjusting its July 1991 launch price to current (March 2018) dollars, the Gold Edition’s inflation-adjusted price is about $1190, making it the second most expensive console ever, just behind the 3DO, while the Silver Edition’s inflation-adjusted price is over $730. A further complication with the Neo Geo’s price was the games, which could retail for $100 to $200 (about $190 to $380 in 2020 dollars, adjusted from 1991). This was later resolved with the release of the Neo Geo CD, as the cheaper cost of CDs brought software costs for the system on par with other console games of the time. However, the Neo Geo CD was also still very expensive by the standards of the era, and it came out too late in the generation to change things.
Regional Trends: Sega remained a niche brand in Japan, and though the Genesis did perform considerably better than the SMS, the Super Famicom still utterly dominated the Japanese market, with nearly two-thirds of all home console sales. The PC Engine actually placed second in Japan, outselling the Mega Drive, and remains the second best-selling home console not made by Nintendo or Sony in the country, after the Sega Saturn. Overall, the PC Engine sold 5,840,000 units in Japan across all models (3.92M for the HuCard-only models, 1.92M for the CD-ROM² and Duo models). While I cannot find annual sales figures for Japan for the 16-bit era, I have been able to find annual shipment figures, shown in the following chart:
While Europe still hadn’t started widely adopting consoles yet, the Mega Drive did perform better than the SMS and actually just barely edged out the SNES to take first place in the still-smallish market. The TurboGrafx-16 was never officially released in the region, though a small amount of units were quietly dumped onto the market.
Meanwhile, in America the Genesis and SNES had the first real “console war,” with the two fighting for supremacy in a very tight race. Sega did manage to make it a very competitive generation for Nintendo, with the Genesis and SNES in a dead heat. The Genesis even took the top spot in annual sales in 1993 and 1994. While the SNES ultimately won, it wasn’t until later in the 90s after the fifth generation was well underway, and thanks mainly to the SNES’s better sales legs.
According to NPD data referenced in the Wedbush report mentioned in the previous section, the SNES sold 20 million units lifetime (roughly congruent with the U.S.’s share of Nintendo console sales in the larger “Americas” region seen in later generations) while the Genesis sold 18.5 million. Meanwhile, former NeoGAF user Square2005 claims smaller lifetime quantities for both systems, and has provided yearly sales figures for them, as seen in the following chart (note that the figures for 1989-1992 are approximations due to some claimed uncertainties with pre-1993 data, and thus may not be 100% accurate, perhaps explaining the discrepancy with the lifetime totals in the Wedbush report):
The TurboGrafx-16’s sales in the U.S. are uncertain, but definitely quite small. Famitsu reported at least 1.8 million units across all models (1.7M for the original model plus 100k for the TurboGrafx-CD and TurboDuo) for all regions outside of Japan. The U.S. market appears to have accounted for nearly all of the global market outside of Japan, as it was never officially released in Europe, with limited stock offloaded onto the market in the UK, France, and Spain. Assuming Famitsu is correct, that means that the 1.8M figure is the absolute upper limit for TG-16 sales in the U.S.
However, the actual total may be considerably less than 1.8 million. NEC employee John Brandstetter claimed that 750,000 units of the original HuCard model were produced for the U.S., and that not all of those sold, with 100-200k of those being shipped off for sale in Brazil, which if true would mean that at most the base model TG-16 sold 650,000 units in the U.S. Brandstetter did not mention any numbers regarding the TurboGrafx-CD and TurboDuo, but, given the Famitsu figure from earlier, it stands to reason that the number represents a small minority of total sales for the TurboGrafx platform.
Marketing & PR: This was extremely important in this generation. Nintendo and Sega showed that they were serious about gaining market share in the first major console war. Nintendo ramped up their advertising efforts, which were already strong in the 8-bit era. “Now You’re Playing With Power” came with the addendum “Super Power” for the SNES. They also had other campaigns like “The Best Play Here” and later on the more “edgy,” quirky, attitude-filled, and oh so very 90s “Play It Loud.”
However, Sega showed that they could pull off some capable marketing of their own. Much of their advertising was very confrontational, making frequent direct attacks on Nintendo. Back when their only competition was still the NES, they had “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t,” and when the 16-bit era was fully underway, we got the “Welcome To The Next Level” campaign that brought us the famous “SEGA!” yell. Sega’s marketing resonated well with younger gamers, with the Genesis’ ads attempting to position it as the “cooler” alternative to Nintendo.
Meanwhile, the TurboGrafx-16 was poorly marketed by comparison. While it got a decent amount of exposure and coverage in gaming magazines like GamePro and EGM (and there were even short-lived mags dedicated solely to the TG-16) and its games even showed up on the old Nickelodeon show Nick Arcade, it had comparatively little TV ad time, and it didn’t have any memorable ad campaigns in general. The video game ad space in the early 90s was utterly dominated by Nintendo and Sega.
Duration of Support: The SNES remained in production in North America until 1999 and in Japan until 2003, giving it a very good production run. However, this mainly benefited it in North America. While it had a longer production run in Japan, late-life shipments were much lower; according to official Nintendo shipment data, only 310,000 units were shipped from April 1997 to the time it was discontinued. Meanwhile, based on available data the SNES sold over 2 million units in the U.S. from 1997 to 1999. As for software, while it still received games until 1998 in North America (the last game being an enhanced port of the original Frogger game) and until 2000 in Japan, there weren’t many major titles released after the N64 came out. The most notable ones were Donkey Kong Country 3, Kirby’s Dreamland 3, Harvest Moon, and Street Fighter Alpha 2. While the SNES had no notable releases after 1997 in North America and the rate of releases for the system were overall a massive drop from 1996, in Japan it actually fared better. Overall, long-term support for the system was considerably weaker than it was for the NES, though still better than it was for subsequent Nintendo consoles.
The Genesis had a longer overall lifespan than the SNES thanks to its two-year head start (which it was unable to capitalize on despite its only nominal competition being the NES, perhaps due to Nintendo’s de facto monopoly at the time), though its life ended at around the same time. It remained in production by Sega until 1997, though in North America it was produced under license by third-party company Majesco as the “Genesis 3” until 1999.
The Genesis continued to get a decent amount of software support for a number of months after the Saturn was released, though very few of those were quality, high-profile releases, with Mortal Kombat 3, Vectorman, and Earthworm Jim 2 being the only real standouts of 1995. The number of games released in total declined quickly in 1996, with the only notable titles that year being Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, Vectorman 2, and the poorly-received Sonic 3D Blast. Only a handful of titles were released in 1997, and 1998 had only one: the aforementioned Frogger. Based on available data, from 1996 to 1999 the Genesis (including the Genesis 3) sold just under 2 million units in the U.S., a somewhat slower overall late-life sales rate than the SNES.
Hardware: While the SNES was overall more advanced than the Genesis, the Genesis managed to hold its own and had some technically impressive games of its own. However, this technically isn’t a case of “the most powerful system won” because both systems were totally outclassed by the Neo Geo. Of course, the Neo Geo was essentially an arcade machine with interchangeable boards and without the huge cabinet, and at the time arcade games were still considerably more advanced than console games. But that power came with a steep price tag that guaranteed that SNK’s system would never be more than a niche product that was out of reach to most consumers, thus showing that power is not only meaningless with nothing to back it up (as we saw with the SMS in the previous generation), it’s also meaningless if the system costs too much.
Conclusion: With both systems having very solid libraries, good marketing, and approximate price parity, the SNES and Genesis gave us the first true console war, with the two being the most closely-matched systems in the history of the U.S. market. Despite some missteps with the Sega CD and especially the 32X, Sega managed to take it to Nintendo, who previously was thought to be untouchable after the massive success of the NES. It was a battle for the ages, one that brought us some of the best games ever. However, Nintendo remained a strong enough brand to edge out the Genesis, thus showing that Nintendo could retain decent momentum even when faced with their first real competition. Of course, this first great “Console War” wasn’t much of a war outside the U.S., as Europeans still hasn’t widely adopted consoles yet, while in Japan Nintendo remained dominant and Sega remained a niche brand.
Meanwhile, despite a competitive price point and a solid-but-not-massive library of titles, the TurboGrafx-16 placed a very distant third in the U.S., perhaps in large part because of weaker marketing, though it actually beat the Genesis in Japan to place a distant second. Still, it remains the best-selling system ever that wasn’t from any of the five major console makers (those being Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Sony, and Microsoft). In 1994 NEC would try their hand at another console, the Japan-only PC-FX. However, it was a commercial failure, and the company withdrew from the console market in 1998.
Finally, the Neo Geo found minor success as a high-end niche product tailored towards gamers that had a lot of disposable income. Many if not most gamers knew of it, but few actually owned one, with lifetime global sales just shy of a million units (including the Neo Geo CD). Despite its very low install base, I still considered it a notable console worth discussing as it was still well-known and widely covered in the gaming media in the early 90s, and it helps illustrate the importance of pricing and how horsepower isn’t everything.
Fifth Generation: N64 vs. PlayStation vs. Saturn
Notes: This is the first generation where I have been able to obtain complete yearly NPD data for all major systems for the whole generation, as well as mostly complete monthly data for the PS1 and N64. I am still missing monthly sales after 2001 for those systems, and I don’t have any monthly Saturn sales.
Please note that NPD uses the National Retail Federation’s “4-5-4” calendar, which breaks the fiscal year into 52 weeks and counts March, June, September, and December as five-week periods and the remaining months as 4-week periods. They do have an occasional “53-week year” where January is also a 5-week period. Those 53-week years were 1996, 2001, 2007, 2013, and 2018.
Because of the existence of 4- and 5-week months, I have decided to make all monthly U.S. sales charts show the weekly average sales for each month in order to make for more accurate month-to-month comparisons. Raw monthly data will only be shown in the charts combining all systems for the generation that I have data for.
This is the first generation where weekly Japanese sales figures became available. While Media Create figures will be used for all sales from Jan. 2003 to March 2019 (see the notes in the section for Gen 6 for more details), Famitsu was the only source available for Gen 5 sales. However, weekly and yearly Sega Saturn sales for Japan are unfortunately nearly impossible to come by, and what I do have is too incomplete, so the charts for Japan sales will lack anything for the Saturn.
While Japanese sales trackers do have 53-week years as well, due to differences in how they determine which sales years have 53 weeks, I have decided to instead align yearly Japanese sales figures to NPD’s sales years. This is not exact as NPD’s sales periods end on Saturdays while both Famitsu and Media Create end their weeks on Sundays, but even with the one-day discrepancy this should yield more accurate comparisons between yearly sales in the U.S. and Japan.
Monthly/weekly charts for each system will be annotated to show the effects of software, price cuts, and new hardware models on sales.
Games: The Nintendo 64 had a ton of great games, including Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, Super Smash Bros., Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark, Star Fox 64, Banjo-Kazooie, F-Zero X, Turok 1 & 2, Blast Corps, and Rogue Squadron, among others. Many of those came out early in the system’s life, with Super Mario 64, the best-selling game for the system, being a launch title. However, most of its major titles were either made by Nintendo or by second-party partner Rare, with a few third-party exclusives here and there. Nintendo lost a lot of third-party support this generation, and while the N64 still did get some third-party games (LucasArts, Acclaim, and Activision supported it fairly well), Sony’s debut console ended up getting most of the major third-party titles.
The PS1 ended up getting Final Fantasy VII, VIII, & IX, Dragon Quest VII, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil 1-3, Tomb Raider, Tekken, Driver, Need for Speed, and Crash Bandicoot (Naughty Dog was third-party back then), among numerous other third-party titles, many if not most of which were exclusive. Sony didn’t have nearly as many first-party games as Nintendo at the time, but they did have a few of them. Notable first-party PS1 games included Syphon Filter, the in-house output of 989 Studios (e.g., Twisted Metal 3 & 4 as well as several sports titles), and Gran Turismo 1 & 2. Gran Turismo is the second-most successful racing game series ever after Mario Kart, and the original GT was not only the best-selling PS1 game ever, it was the first non-Nintendo game and fourth game overall not originally bundled with a console to sell over 10 million units. Overall, the PS1 had a larger library of major titles, and while almost all of its biggest titles were third-party, those games proved crucial in making the system a success. The loss of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest to Sony was particularly devastating to Nintendo in Japan as those were by far the two biggest third-party IPs in Japan at the time (and are still among the biggest today). Final Fantasy VII was also a massive system-seller for the PS1 in the U.S. and Japan, causing major sales growth the month of its release and propelling the system to truly mainstream status.
The Saturn, meanwhile, struggled in the software department. While it had some notable Sega-produced or published titles like NiGHTS Into Dreams, Virtua Fighter 1 & 2, Sega Rally Championship, Panzer Dragoon, and Sakura Taisen, it lacked any major Sonic titles, which is odd considering Sonic was Sega’s biggest first-party IP (a game titled Sonic X-treme was planned, but ultimately cancelled).
In addition to weaker first-party support compared to the Genesis, third-party support was also lacking compared to the PS1, though some major companies did support it better than they did the Genesis. In the mid 90s, Japan was still the center of the gaming world, with the largest and most successful publishers of console games at the time being mostly Japanese companies. And while Sega was never a mainstream brand in Japan, some Japanese companies did give the Saturn a decent amount of support compared to the Mega Drive, though most of them supported it considerably less than they did the PlayStation or even the Super Famicom, even during the brief period the Saturn had any sort of relevance in Japan. By the start of 1998, most Japanese third parties that did support the Saturn had mostly or completely dropped support for the system. Furthermore, most of the Saturn’s library was exclusive to Japan, with numerous games not getting a release for the system in North America or Europe.
Square and Enix both ignored the Saturn entirely, just as they did with Sega’s previous systems. Namco also did not release a single title for the Saturn. Capcom and Konami gave the lion’s share of their support to the PS1, though they did support the Saturn somewhat better than they did the Mega Drive. The Saturn did manage to get a few ports of some notable Capcom games released on the PS1, including Mega Man 8, Mega Man X4, Street Fighter Alpha, X-Men vs. Street Fighter (Japan only), and the original Resident Evil. Additionally, the sequel to Darkstalkers was a Saturn exclusive. Konami also ported some of their PS1 and PC Engine titles to the Saturn.
As for some of the smaller Japanese third parties, Banpresto released two Super Robot Wars titles (F and F: Final) for the system as timed exclusives, the Treasure-developed cult classic shoot-’em-up Radiant Silvergun was exclusive to the Saturn (Treasure having been one of the very few Japanese companies to support Sega but not Nintendo in the previous generation), and Atlus actually released more titles for the Saturn than for the PlayStation in the period of 1995 to 1997, with several games being exclusive to the Saturn.
As for Western publishers, EA and Acclaim were the only major ones at the time to strongly support the Saturn. EA released 25 games for the Saturn by the end of 1997, half of what they released for the PlayStation in that time frame, while Acclaim supported the Saturn about as equally well as the PlayStation during the 1995 to 1997 period. Activision, which had a much smaller presence in the console market early in the generation than they would in later years, only released five titles for the Saturn, with Return to Zork and MechWarrior 2 being the only notable ones (both titles were also available on the PS1). Like most Japanese third-parties, Western third parties dropped all or nearly all support for the Saturn after 1997.
Price: The PS1 launched in the U.S. at a price of $300, which was a good bit more expensive than the Genesis & SNES even in inflation-adjusted terms. The N64 launched a year later for a price of $200. However, the PS1 had already received a big price drop to $200 some time in May of ’96, several months before the N64 launched, which did stimulate sales a good bit, though even after being reduced to $200 the PS1 still struggled to catch on in the U.S. for a while. Both systems maintained price parity with each other their entire lives in the U.S. Finally, the Saturn launched for $400. Adjusted for inflation that’s roughly $670, making it the second most expensive system ever from any of the “Big Four” post-crash companies (only the 60GB PS3 was more expensive). It had its price slashed to $200 in 1996 in a futile attempt to compete with the PS1 and N64, but by then its fate was sealed.
In Japan, the PS1 launched for ¥39,800, much higher than the ¥25,000 the Super Famicom launched at just over four years earlier, which may have been a contributing factor for its poor early performance. A series of price cuts over the next two years reduced it to about half that. The Saturn had an even higher launch price, initially retailing for ¥44,800. Sega likewise issued some deep price cuts over the next two years, and by March 1996 it was retailing for ¥20,000. The N64 launched at the same ¥25,000 price as the SNES did. However, the day before the N64 launched Sony issued a price drop to undercut the N64’s price by ¥5000, which resulted in the N64 becoming the most expensive console in Japan for the next several months until Nintendo issued a price cut of their own.
In Europe the PS1 launched at a price of £299/1990₣/599DM. It was reduced to £199/1490₣/399DM in May of 1996 and again to £129/990₣/299DM in March of 1997. The N64 was launched in the UK for £249 and in Germany for 399 DM. It was quickly reduced in price in the UK to only £150 to keep its price more competitive with the PS1’s, and it presumably received comparable price cuts elsewhere in the region (when it was released in France six months after it was released in the rest of Europe, it had a price of 990 francs).
Sony released a slimmed-down model of the PlayStation, named simply the PSOne, in July 2000 in Japan and Sept. 2000 in America and Europe. In the U.S. it retailed for the same $100 price the original model was at the time. The PSOne caused a fairly large uptick in sales in the U.S. in October that year, but the subsequent release of the PS2 near the end of the month quickly sucked the wind out of the PlayStation’s sails. In Japan, the PSOne actually came four months after the PS2. It had a more pronounced effect on the PS1’s sales than in the U.S., though after a few months its effects evaporated and the PlayStation continued the downward slide that started to accelerate with the launch of the PS2.
Here are some charts with monthly sales figures for the PS1 and N64 in the U.S., with the effects of price cuts and any major system-selling games highlighted. The charts were reconstructed from this chart; there is a margin of error, which should be within 1300 units, or one pixel in the PS1 graph and two pixels on the N64 graph. However, due to the low sales of the Saturn, that margin of error becomes extremely large, so I decided to not make a separate chart for the Saturn; monthly Saturn sales are instead integrated into the combined generational chart posted later on.
And here are some charts showing weekly sales for the PS1 and N64 in Japan. Note that weekly data for the PS1 from launch through Q3 of 1996 are weekly averages over the course of each month, hence the oddly blocky shape of the part of the graph that covers that period:
Regional Trends: North America was the closest region between the N64 and PS1. The N64 actually sold only a little bit less than the SNES did, but it had a much lower market share than its predecessor (the SNES had slightly over half the U.S. market share by the end of the 16-bit era, while the N64 only had a third). America still liked Mario & Co., and it proved to be the best region by far for the sturdy dark grey box. In fact, the N64 was for a while the fastest-selling system the U.S. at the time, at least for systems we have solid sales data for, having sold about 6.26 million units by the end of 1997. The only other home consoles to have sold more than that in their first 15 months in the U.S. are the PS2, Wii, and PS4. But despite its strong start in the U.S., it quickly fell behind the PS1.
Meanwhile, the PlayStation debuted to extremely sluggish sales. For its first 16 months in the U.S. it was selling at a slower rate than even the GameCube did a generation later. In fact, prior to its first price cut it was tracking lower than even the Wii U did in its first few months. Overall, the N64 sold nearly as much in its first 13 weeks as the PS1 did in the whole of 1996, and it looked like the N64 was on track to be the top console of the generation in the U.S. However, PS1 sales gained a decent boost thanks to the price cut to $200 it got in May of ’96, which kept the N64 from completely blowing it out of the water in 1997. From January through August of ’97, the N64 had a solid but not insurmountable lead over the PS1 in year-to-date sales.
But in September of 1997, the month Final Fantasy VII debuted, the PS1 experienced massive sales growth, as seen in the chart above. Roughly three-quarters of its sales in 1997 were in the last four months of the year, well in excess of the norm. In fact, the PS1’s lifetime sales in the U.S. nearly doubled in just that single four-month period, making it perhaps the single biggest sales improvement of any system ever. 1998 and 1999 would continue to see extremely good sales for the system, and it would go on to outsell the N64 by a very comfortable five-to-three margin.
Here’s how the fifth-gen consoles stacked up to each other on a yearly and monthly basis in the U.S.:
In Japan, however, the N64 saw Nintendo’s market share drop like a rock. The loss of popular third-party Japanese titles, especially Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, was catastrophic, and it was a loss that Nintendo would not soon recover from. Nintendo’s loss was Sony’s gain, and just like in America the PS1 became the new king, and by an even wider margin than in America, outselling the N64 by a roughly four-to-one ratio lifetime. As in America, the PS1 had a relatively slow start, but unlike in America it started to experience significant growth and attain a healthy level of sales before Final Fantasy VII was released.
Here’s how the PS1 and N64 sold relative to each other in Japan on both a yearly and weekly basis (for shipment data, which includes Saturn shipments, click here):
Europe experienced perhaps the most notable shift in that it finally became a console-friendly market this generation. Nintendo still didn’t have much of an audience in Europe, and just like its predecessors the N64 languished in the region. However, the PS1 became the first home console to really hit the mainstream there. It was not only the first console to sell 10 million units in the region, it far surpassed that milestone by selling over 30 million units. It sold more than the NES, SNES, Master System, and Mega Drive combined.
Like in America and Japan, the PS1 wasn’t an instant success in Europe and took a while to really take off, but when it did it quickly established rapid market dominance. Unlike in America and Japan, the PS1 appears to have begun experiencing significant growth before FFVII was released, for reasons that are not entirely clear. The home computer market had begun to collapse in the mid 90s, and the PS1 did receive a price cut in March of 1997, so those could be factors, but there were really no major games released in that time period, so there was no real killer app that was pushing the system at the time. Perhaps Nintendo’s lack of any real sales presence in Europe (for home consoles, at least) combined with pricing and game library factors as well as the vacuum formed by the demise of the home computer market was what initially propelled the PS1 to mainstream success in the region.
As for the Saturn, it was utterly rejected by America and Europe both, coming in a distant third in both regions. Just look at the regional graphs shown near the beginning of the article and see how small of a share of total generational sales the Saturn comprised. Also, look at how it compares against the PS1 and N64 in the U.S. sales graph earlier in the section. It sold a mere 1,360,000 in the U.S. by the end of its life, less than many consoles have done in a single month. It sold somewhat fewer units than that even that in Europe.
It did find a relatively decent market in Japan, though, selling selling slightly better than the N64 and in a shorter time period. Based on shipment data, it appears to have posted decent numbers during 1995 and 1996, though still nothing close to what the PS1 sold at its peak, and it was likely beaten by the SNES in 1995 and definitely beaten by the PS1 in 1996. But despite having a better performance than the Mega Drive, it never came close to putting up sales that might have made Sega a serious contender.
Marketing & PR: Nintendo continued producing solid ad campaigns well into this generation. “Change the System” and “Get N or Get Out” were among its more notable slogans in the North American market. The games themselves had plenty of ads as well, and some of them, such as the Super Smash Bros. TV commercial, are still remembered quite well.
Sony fought back with some impressive marketing of its own, with “You Are Not Ready” (often stylized as “U R Not e“) as an early ad campaign. They also took a page out of Sega of America’s book, with ads in the U.S. & Canada earlier in the PS1’s life that took a confrontational stance towards Nintendo. One TV ad for Crash Bandicoot had a guy dressed as Crash visiting Nintendo’s headquarters to brag about the game. Sony also ran a two-page print ad for Final Fantasy VII, which, while not mentioning them by name, lambasted Nintendo’s decision to make the N64 a cartridge-based system. This would be the last generation where direct attack ads were used regularly and prominently.
The Saturn, meanwhile, seemed to have comparatively little marketing, a sharp contrast from the heavy ad presence for the Genesis. Of course, that was the least of its troubles. Sega utterly bungled the Saturn’s launch in North America, which damaged public opinion of them and their new system. The much-hyped release date of Saturday, Sept. 2, 1995, dubbed “Saturnday,” was unexpectedly scrapped, and on May 11 at E3 1995 there was a surprise announcement that the system was being released that very day. While this gave Sega a four-month head start on the PlayStation, the Saturn was initially released only at select retailers. The surprise early release caught third-party developers off-guard and angered retailers who were excluded from the launch. That curve ball combined with the high price point didn’t help it any. The whole thing was a disaster and as a result the Saturn stalled right out of the gates.
Duration of Support: The PS1 enjoyed a very long life, and was not discontinued until March 2006, giving it a decade-plus production run. Over 20 million units were shipped globally from 2000 when the PS2 was released to when production was halted. While major titles were rare after 2000, it still got a fair amount of games all the way until 2004.
However, the N64 was supported for an even shorter duration than the SNES. It was discontinued in Japan in 2002, just shy of its sixth birthday, while in America it lasted until November of 2003. Software support was weak in 2001 and nearly nonexistent after the GameCube was released later that year (Wikipedia lists Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 as the only 2002 release for the N64). As a result, it had a lack of sales “legs,” completely dropping off a cliff after the GameCube was released. While the SNES managed to pull decent numbers after the N64’s release, selling over 2 million units from 1997 to 1999 in the U.S., the N64 sold less than 200,000 units from 2002 to 2003, and order of magnitude difference in terms of sales post-replacement. This is illustrative of the importance of long-term support for a system impacting its late-life sales.
Finally, the Saturn didn’t even survive to the end of the generation in the West due to how poorly it sold. It was discontinued in North America and Europe in 1998, leaving Sega without an official market presence in both regions until the Dreamcast debuted in late 1999. The Saturn wasn’t discontinued in Japan until 2000, however, a good while after the Dreamcast was released in the country, but it started to have significant declines in software support after 1998.
Hardware: Many gamers are familiar with the story about the mid 90s format debate over cartridges vs. CDs. Nintendo decided to stick with cartridges when the industry was beginning to move towards optical discs, specifically CDs. Officially, there were several reasons that were given for the choice of format:
- Cartridges had negligible load times, as opposed to discs, which had significant load times back then. Nintendo felt their game development goals were better suited to the speed of cartridges.
- The N64 being cartridge-based allowed Nintendo to make a less expensive system, as they were targeting a $200 launch price (CD drives still cost a fair amount back then).
- Cartridges were much harder to pirate than discs.
Unofficially, other likely contributors to the choice of format are the issues of money and control. Cartridges are proprietary formats and thus gave Nintendo more control over third-party publication on the system, plus the licensing and sale of cartridges to third parties yields additional profit that Nintendo would not gain with CDs, which third parties would not be dependent upon Nintendo to obtain, make, and publish games on.
Nintendo’s decision to make the N64 cartridge-based instead of disc-based was perhaps the most significant and far-reaching instance of how hardware design decisions can not just change a company’s fortunes, but also change the face of the entire industry. CDs not only offered vastly more storage space than the ROM carts of the day (700 MB for a CD vs. 64 MB for the largest N64 carts), thus allowing for larger, more cinematic games with full-motion video cutscenes, but were also much cheaper to produce. A disc might only cost a buck or two to manufacture, but an N64 cart could cost well in excess of $10 to make. On a cost-per-byte basis, CDs outclassed the largest carts of the time by two whole orders of magnitude. While carts did have the advantage of greater durability and no loading times, these proved to be inconsequential in the face of the CD’s greater data capacity and lower cost, and the lack of any dependency on the console maker for acquiring and publishing on the format.
As a result of Nintendo’s refusal to go with CDs for the N64, most of the major third parties of the era largely abandoned Nintendo in order to make games for the PlayStation, and the loss of key developers and franchises is perhaps the biggest factor that knocked Nintendo off its perch as the top dog in the console market.
Conclusion: The fifth generation marked a massive shift in the console market. The PS1 unseated the NES to become the new best-selling system ever in terms of global sales. Nintendo’s decision to stick with cartridges lost them a lot of third-party support. Sony meanwhile made a concerted effort to court third parties, capitalizing on Nintendo’s mistakes. Of all the studios that jumped ship to Sony, Square and Enix were particularly bad losses as it resulted in the N64 selling quite poorly in Japan due to that country’s love of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. The release of Final Fantasy VII was also the point where the PS1 started to dominate in the U.S.
The N64 did manage to sell fairly well in America thanks in part to still having a solid library of games despite weaker third-party support than the SNES, as well as good marketing, a low price that stayed on par with the PS1’s, and of course being a respected brand that had become nearly synonymous with gaming in America for over a decade, the U.S. was responsible for over half of the global sales tally for the N64, with 18 million of the nearly 33 million N64’s sold worldwide. That’s 54.7% of the global total, making it the largest U.S. share of a Nintendo system’s worldwide sales to date.
However, the PS1 was able to take America and Japan because it simply had more games that people wanted to buy and it had better long-term support. That’s what gave it the edge in those regions. While it started off far more slowly than the N64 in America, it had a far better peak and significantly stronger sales legs, and in Japan it was no contest, with the PS1 outselling the N64 four-to-one. However, combined U.S. and Japanese PS1 sales were roughly on par with of those of the NES.
What pushed the PS1 to be the first console to sell over 100 million units globally was European gamers finally deciding to embrace a console en masse, and the console they chose was the PlayStation. It was a huge hit in the region and its success was the first indication that Europe would be PlayStation Country.
Finally, Sega just imploded. The Sega CD and 32X add-ons for the Genesis in the previous generation didn’t do so hot and probably cost Sega a lot of money, but even compared to them the Saturn was a disaster. A bungled launch, high launch price, and lackluster library caused it to fail miserably. It actually did semi-decent in Japan, selling better than the Genesis and even the N64, but it wasn’t enough for the system to break the 10 million mark in global sales. The Saturn would prove to be the beginning of the end for Sega as a console maker.
Sixth Generation: PS2 vs. GameCube vs. Xbox vs. Dreamcast
Notes: This was the first generation where I was able to acquire complete sales data for all systems in Japan. From what I understand Media Create is generally considered more accurate than Famitsu for tracking hardware (and Nintendo uses MC for reporting sell-through numbers, which lends additional credibility to their numbers; neither Sony nor MS appear to have a preference for either Famitsu or Media Create). For that reason, when I first started collecting sales data (initially for Gen 7 systems, then going back to older systems) I collected MC data for Japanese sales figures. While MC has apparently been around since the 1990s, 2003 was the first known full year where any of their sales data was publicly available, so MC numbers apply only from 2003 onward.
Games: The Dreamcast kicked off the sixth generation with a solid pair of launch games in Sonic Adventure and Soul Calibur, the latter of which is often regarded as one of the best fighting games of all time. It also got games like Crazy Taxi, Power Stone, Jet Set Radio, Skies of Arcadia, NFL 2K, the cult classic Shenmue and its sequel, and the (at the time) only home console ports of Street Fighter III, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and Ikaruga. While some of these games were eventually ported to other systems after the Dreamcast was discontinued, during the system’s life they were exclusive. Despite having amassed a decent library in its first couple of years, however, the Dreamcast was unable to propel Sega back to the level they were at in the 16-bit era.
The PS2 had perhaps the most massive games library ever. Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Metal Gear Solid (all new titles in the series, anyway), Crash Bandicoot, and Tekken remained exclusive. Square would also release their then-new IP Kingdom Hearts as a PS2 exclusive. Sony would also get Grand Theft Auto III, GTA: Vice City, and GTA: San Andreas, the biggest third-party games of the generation, as timed exclusives. Gran Turismo would continue being Sony’s biggest first-party IP. SCE Japan Studio, while around in the PS1 era, made some of their most acclaimed games for the PS2, including ICO and Shadow of the Colossus through its Team Ico subdivision. Also, Sony would invest in new in-house studios as well as buying up third-party studios. They acquired Naughty Dog, who shifted from making Crash games to creating the Jak & Daxter franchise. SCE Santa Monica gave us God of War. Psygnosis, the developer of Colony Wars and Shadow of the Beast, was bought out and became SCE Studio Liverpool, and they mostly made Wipeout and Formula One games for the PS2. Bend Studio was acquired, making the Syphon Filter franchise a first-party PS2 series. Meanwhile, Insomniac and Zipper Interactive continued working as de facto second-party studios to Sony, the former giving us Ratchet & Clank and the latter creating SOCOM: US Navy SEALs. While GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas were the only notable system-sellers for the PS2, at least in the U.S., collectively the PS2’s library was a tremendous selling point for the system.
Nintendo meanwhile would continue to struggle with obtaining major third-party titles. The GameCube did have better third-party support than the N64 and did receive a fair number of multiplatform games, but often those ports came months after their PS2 and/or Xbox releases. But more importantly the GC missed out on many major third-party titles that came to PS2 and/or Xbox. It would never get GTA, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Dragon Quest, Tekken, Kingdom Hearts, Star Wars: Battlefront, and dozens of other popular or semi-popular games and game series. They did manage to nab a couple of notable third-party exclusives, such as Rogue Squadron II (and its sequel, thus making the whole series Nintendo-exclusive), Resident Evil 4 (which was only a timed exclusive; it came to the PS2 nine months later), and Tales of Symphonia, but it wasn’t enough to make a difference.
Still, Nintendo’s selection of first-party titles was quite strong and included games like Super Mario Sunshine, Mario Kart Double Dash, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Luigi’s Mansion, Pikmin, and Metroid Prime, among others. However, some of these titles received initially mixed receptions from audiences at the time of their release, even if they were critically acclaimed and are better received among audiences today. But because Nintendo was still reliant mostly on their own output the GC’s overall library was lacking compared to the PS2’s, at least in terms of sheer quantity.
Microsoft’s debut console had perhaps the most important launch title since Super Mario Bros. accompanied the NES’s North American launch 16 years earlier. Halo: Combat Evolved was crucial to the Xbox’s success. According to some estimates, this revolutionary console shooter was attached to some half of all Xboxes sold in its first year on the market. Had MS not bought out Bungie, making Halo a first-party exclusive in the process, it’s quite possible that the Xbox would have completely stalled in sales and failed, in which case it may have never gotten a successor, meaning we may not have ever gotten an Xbox 360 at all. Halo was a definite system seller and was solely responsible for putting Xbox on the map. Later in its life the Xbox would get its best-selling game, Halo 2, which helped push the system to its best year in America and was the main catalyst for the popularization of Xbox Live.
Of course, Halo wasn’t the only thing the Xbox had. Fable and Project Gotham Racing were other notable first-party IPs. It also got Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six 3 as timed third-party exclusives. It had the only console ports of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Doom 3. Dead or Alive 3 was an early third-party exclusive. It did eventually get belated ports of all the GTA games (though the PS2 was the series’ flagship system). It also got a fair number of multiplatform games released at about the same time as their PS2 versions, including various Medal of Honor games, Burnout 3, and the usual parade of sports titles. Like the GameCube, its library didn’t have quite as much to offer as the PS2 did, but it had enough to keep this newbie from ending up as another historical footnote.
Price: The Dreamcast launched in the U.S. for $200, a very reasonable price, and that was reduced to $150 in the summer of 2000. This was probably a major factor in the system performing better than the Saturn in the U.S. In Japan it had a higher launch price of ¥29,000 (about $240 at then-current exchange rates), but in mid 1999 it received a steep price cut, reducing it to ¥19,900, which boosted sales. Despite its low price, it struggled to compete against the much more expensive PS2. Another price cut was issued in early 2001 prior to Sega announcing they were discontinuing the Dreamcast; the system was reduced to $100/¥9900. This helped sales a bit, but even then it still fell far short of the PS2 that year.
The PS2 launched for $300 in the U.S. and ¥39,800 in Japan, same as its predecessor (though its inflation-adjusted launch price in the U.S. was lower than the PS1’s). Its price was reduced to $200 in the U.S. in May 2002, just a few months after the GC and Xbox debuted. This price cut created a significant stimulative effect, with sales that month double that of April ’02, and the PS2’s average monthly sales for the rest of that year were far greater than monthly average prior to the price cut. Overall, sales grew 40% in the May-December period compared to the same period in 2001.
The Xbox launched for $300 as well, but that price was quickly slashed to $200 in May 2002 to maintain parity with the PS2. This helped improve sales considerably for the next two months in the U.S. It would receive two more price cuts, one in May 2003 to $180 and one on March 29, 2004 to $150. While the cut to $180 did not have any observable effect, the price cut to $150 resulted in a significant boost for the Xbox in April 2004, propelling it to the number-one spot for the month, the first time the PS2 was beaten in a given month. April 2004 was also the best non-holiday month in the Xbox’s life. Overall, Xbox sales in the U.S. for the April-October period of 2004 were up nearly 60% over the same period in 2003.
The GameCube was launched at $200/¥25,000, same as the N64. Adjusted for inflation this makes it the second least expensive system ever at launch in the U.S. after the NES Basic Set. It too had a price cut in May 2002 which brought it down to $150; it received a second price cut, this time to $100, in October 2003. Both price cuts did stimulate sales for a while, with its average sales from May through October of ’02 being far better than they were in the first third of the year, and the fourth quarter of 2003 was the GC’s best quarter ever by far (Mario Kart Double Dash, released in November, probably helped as well). While the GameCube remained the more affordable system for most of the generation, the PS2 wasn’t terribly expensive either and it had more games. The GC’s lower price might have helped it some, but not by much.
The effects of price cuts, new SKUs, and certain games can be seen here in these monthly U.S. sales charts and weekly Japan sales charts:
Regional Trends: The PS2 saw Sony continue its utter dominance of Europe. The Xbox did not gain much traction in the region and the GameCube saw Nintendo continue being largely irrelevant in the European console market, and the PS2 ended up comprising over 80% of all sixth-gen hardware sales in the region. The Dreamcast, despite its short life, performed much better than the Saturn in the region relatively speaking, with 1.9 million units sold vs. the Saturn’s 1.1 million.
Sony also continued dominating in Japan, with the PS2 capturing over 77% of the total market share that generation. The GameCube placed a very distant second, and it never came close to touching the PS2 outside of a handful of weeks (it beat the PS2 in its launch week and the weeks Smash Melee and Tales of Symphonia came out, the lattermost only barely). In terms of annual sales, the GC experienced a rapid decline after 2003. However, even though the PS2 dominated its generation in Japan just as it did everywhere else, it did not surpass the PS1 to the degree it did elsewhere, selling about 22 million units to the PS1’s 18.85 million.
As for the Xbox, it failed miserably in Japan, selling about half a million units, the majority of those being sold in its first year. The PS2 sold more than that its first week, and even the GameCube only took three months to pass what the Xbox did its whole life. Japanese gamers showed that collectively they really don’t much care for Western-made systems, or Western-made games for that matter, and with precious few Japanese-made games in the Xbox’s library there wasn’t enough to generate any appreciable amount of interest for the system. The top three best-selling Xbox games in Japan were all from the Dead or Alive series: DoA3 was by far the best-selling game on the system, followed by DoA: Xtreme Beach Volleyball and DoA Ultimate. Overall, there wasn’t much incentive for Japanese gamers to buy the system.
Also, as a side note, the market in Japan did something nobody expected: it shrunk. Total home console sales for the sixth generation were lower than in the fifth. However, this was almost entirely on Sega’s end, with Nintendo making up a minority of the decline. The Dreamcast actually sold considerably worse than the Saturn in Japan, pulling in only 2.3 million units, less than half the Saturn’s 6 million. The GameCube meanwhile sold just over 4 million units, about 1.5 million short of the N64’s total. While the PS2 did outsell the PS1, and the Xbox did add a small amount to the Gen 7 total, it wasn’t enough to offset the losses on Sega and Nintendo’s end. Furthermore, the PS2 only experienced a small amount of growth over the PS1. While the PS2 sold 54.6% and 49.9% more units than the PS1 in the U.S. and Europe, respectively, in Japan it sold only about 16.6% more units than the PS1.
Between Japan’s share of PS2 sales being smaller than their share of PS1 sales and the overall decline in total home console sales from the previous generation, it was clear that the home console market in Japan was going to have rough days ahead of it. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but the decline in home console sales is likely due to a combination of various economic and societal factors (e.g., lack of population growth, an aging population, and economic stagnation since the 90s), as well as factors specific to the video games industry itself (e.g., an increased focus on games made by or appealing to audiences in North America and Europe, which are not popular in Japan outside of a tiny handful of series like Grand Theft Auto).
The PS2 dominated in North America as well, though not to quite the same degree as in Europe and Japan. While in terms of total lifetime sales the PS2 comprised about 64% of all sixth-gen console sales in the U.S. (not including the Dreamcast), in terms of annual sales the PS2 actually failed to get a majority in both 2003 and 2004, though in 2003 it had a commanding plurality. In 2004, the Xbox, driven by an effective price cut and the success of Halo 2, had its best year in the U.S. and actually came only about 300k units short of the PS2 for the year, and actually came in first place in April, November, and December that year. However, this wasn’t entirely due to the Xbox’s own merits, and the PS2’s unusually poor holiday performance appears to have been largely due to a shortage of the new PS2 Slim model.
While the PS2 was still overall the dominant system in the U.S., and even in launch-aligned terms the PS2 was performing far better than the competition (by the end of 2002 it had already sold more units in the U.S. than either the GC or Xbox would their whole lives), Americans showed that they had a good deal of interest in the Xbox, which would be a portent of things to come for the brand. North America would also once again prove to be the best region for Nintendo. Even though the GameCube sold a third fewer units than the N64 and Nintendo lost even more market share, of the nearly 22 million GameCubes sold globally, nearly 12 million were sold in the U.S. In the U.S., the GameCube had a differently-shaped curve than it did in Japan. It did not peak until 2003, and it had a more gradual tapering off than in Japan. As for the Dreamcast, despite its short life and low sales, it still managed to sell almost three times as many units as the Saturn.
Here’s how each system compared to each other on a yearly and monthly/weekly basis in the U.S. and Japan:
Marketing & PR: Sony continued their strong marketing of the PlayStation brand this generation, with “Live In Your World, Play In Ours” being the primary ad campaign in the U.S. The system and its games enjoyed a large amount of TV ad time.
The GameCube was heavily marketed as well, though Nintendo went with a campaign that used more eccentric commercials than normal. It was definitely a different style of marketing than was the norm for Nintendo. A common refrain is that the GC had image problems (it was “too kiddie” or “family-friendly” or “something-something purple lunchbox”), and while the American ad campaign certainly didn’t imply that supposed image, it’s still a definite possibility that it was perceived that way despite the ads.
The Xbox had a fair amount of ads as well, though maybe not to the same degree as the PS2 (I personally don’t recall seeing that many), plus the system never had a catchy slogan until later in its life (they introduced “It’s Good To Play Together” in 2003 to help promote Xbox Live). Perhaps the biggest Xbox advertising blitz was not for the system itself, but rather for a single game: Halo 2. Commercials for the game ran in heavy rotation, and there was even a short trailer that played in theaters. It was quite effective, and the game had the biggest debut of any game ever at the time, selling 2.4 million copies and grossing $125 million in its first 24 hours in North America.
Duration of Support: This was a major factor that helped propel the PS2 to reach its monumental 155 million units sold. It was supported better and longer than any system since the NES. It had already surpassed the PS1’s lifetime sales before the PS3 was even released, but instead of letting it die there and devoting all effort to the seventh generation, Sony continued producing it in good-sized numbers and it continued to get solid software support well after the PS3 was released, mainly from third parties but also including a major first-party title in God of War II. The last game released for the system was FIFA 14, which is the only game in history to have a simultaneous release across three different generations (it came out on PS2, PS3, and PS4, as well as several non-PlayStation platforms). Approximately 40 million PS2s were shipped globally from 2007 to when it was discontinued.
In terms of actual sales, by the end of 2006 it had sold over 37.2 million units in the U.S. and 19.5 million in Japan; we don’t have actual sales for Europe, but by that date it had shipped about 44 million units, which puts an upper limit on its sales at the time. By the end of its life the PS2 had reached a total of over 46.4 million units in the U.S., meaning it sold over 9 million systems from 2007 onward. In Japan its final tally was about 20.4 million and in Europe it ended at around 55 million units, meaning that in the time since the PS3 launched it added 2.5 million units in the former region and at least 11 million in the latter. Overall about a quarter of all PS2s ever sold globally were sold from 2007 and after.
Interestingly, PS2 sales did not immediately start to experience significant decline once the PS3 was released, at least not in the U.S. It wasn’t until the PS3 dropped to $400 that we started to see the typical post-replacement acceleration in post-peak sales decline. Seeing as this didn’t happen until after the PS3 got a major price cut, this suggests that the PS3’s high price might have kept it from eating into the PS2’s sales. The PS2 continuing to have strong post-replacement support also likely contributed.
Meanwhile, the GameCube and Xbox were not supported for that long, and were essentially abandoned software-wise after 2005, effectively killing any sort of longer-term sales potential. In 2006, combined sales of the two systems in the U.S. was a mere 1,130,000 units, only 27.7% of their combined 2005 sales. In Japan the GC only sold about 80,000 units in 2006, with the Xbox barely registering that year. The GameCube was discontinued in 2007. Meanwhile, Microsoft had ceased manufacture of the Xbox in August 2005 due to Nvidia ceasing production of the system’s GPU, thus explaining why Xbox sales rapidly cratered in 2006; essentially, the lack of software support wasn’t the primary factor behind the Xbox having far weaker legs than the GameCube.
Hardware: The PS2 was the first game console that could play DVDs straight out of the box. While entry-level standalone DVD players had gotten fairly inexpensive by late 2000 (they could be bought for $150 or so), they had not really been adopted in large quantities by the general public yet (total DVD penetration in 2000 was less than 13% in the U.S.), and the fact that the PS2 was a DVD player and game console in one may have encouraged gamers to buy the system over the competition as they not only got to play games on the follow-up to what was then the best-selling system ever, they could watch movies on DVD on the system as well. However, non-gamers probably wouldn’t have bothered with the system at all since as mentioned standalone DVD players had gotten pretty cheap by then. It’s uncertain how much DVD playback actually helped the PS2’s sales, but it may have provided an added incentive over the Xbox (which required an adapter, which was sold separately, to play DVDs) and GameCube (which had no DVD support at all) by virtue of that added value.
The Xbox was the first console to have a built-in Ethernet port. This allowed for LAN play at first, which made Halo LAN parties a thing, and later on it made Xbox Live a possibility, with Halo 2 being the first massively successful online game on consoles. The Dreamcast could connect to the internet out of the box as well, but it only had a 56k modem, while the PS2 and GC had no built-in networking capabilities; all three required additional accessories to connect to a broadband service. LAN play and Xbox Live, when coupled with the Halo series, probably significantly increased the perceived value of the Xbox.
The GameCube, like its predecessor, used a non-standard format for its games. Sony and Microsoft used DVDs as their format of choice due to said medium having a much larger capacity than CDs (4.7GB for a single-layer DVD and 8.5 for dual-layer, thus giving DVDs up to 12 times the capacity of CDs). More storage meant bigger games and making having to split titles into multiple discs a rarity (of the few multi-disc games on PS2 & Xbox, most were some kind of special edition).
However, Nintendo chose to go with a proprietary format based on the mini-DVD, which at 1.5GB (some sources alternately claim either 1.4GB or 1.35GB) was only about twice the capacity of a CD and less than a third the capacity of a single-layer DVD. While this is much closer than the gap between an N64 cartridge and a CD, a three-fold difference was still pretty significant given how big games were getting. Some PS1 games were already big enough to where they had to be spread across three or more CDs and thus couldn’t fit on a single miniDVD (Final Fantasy VIII is over 1.8GB), so the larger size of many third-party sixth-gen games (PS2 games frequently ran from 2 to 4 GB) would have necessitated two, three, or even four discs on the GC, which may have been impractical if not outright nonviable for some games (GTA is meant to be a single contiguous world, for example, and thus couldn’t be broken into multiple discs). Having to split games across multiple discs would also likely have proven a significant complication when porting certain multiplatform games to the GC, thus discouraging some developers from making games for the system. While splitting games into multiple discs was far more common with the PS1, it was a matter of practical necessity as CDs were the highest-capacity format available when the PS1 debuted in 1994. Only a tiny handful of PS2 and Xbox games were released on multiple discs, and most of those were special editions that had the bonus content on the second disc.
While many third-party games could and did fit on a single GameCube disc, there were many others that most likely could not, and like the N64’s cartridges before it the miniDVD format may have been a major reason for the GC having inferior third-party support compared to the other systems. Furthermore, at least one developer cited the GameCube’s lower main RAM (24MB, vs 32MB for the PS2 and 64MB for the Xbox) as a reason for why they didn’t port their game to the system despite releasing it for the PS2 and Xbox.
Conclusion: The PS2 became the best-selling console in the history of gaming, utterly dominating every market (aside from that brief hiccup during the 2004 U.S. holiday season I mentioned earlier). By the end of 2001 it had already cemented itself as a being a great value with tons of popular games. It had nearly every major third-party title, some of which were either totally exclusive or timed exclusive (the incredibly popular Grand Theft Auto games fell into the latter category), and it could play DVD movies right out of the box.
The biggest incentive to buy the Xbox and GameCube was their exclusives, and if you weren’t a fan of Nintendo games and weren’t interested in Halo, then you probably got a PS2. While both the Xbox and GC had decent libraries, they received less third-party support than the PS2. Both systems did the majority of their business in America, which continued showing that it was still the most Nintendo-friendly region and establishing itself as having a far greater amount of interest in the Xbox brand than the rest of the world.
The Xbox also served to remind us once again the importance of having a major killer app for a new console brand. Master Chief was Microsoft’s Mario, thus demonstrating not only the importance of games in general in determining the success of a system, but also of a major “killer app” in helping establish a console brand.
Seventh Generation: Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3 vs. Wii
Notes: More detailed data regarding European sales data will be introduced in this section. Due to the lack of complete data sets, the sales figures I have are cobbled together from multiple sources. Some data comes from either GfK Chart-Track or IDG figures that have been published in various places online, but when those sources are unavailable VG Chartz data will be used.
However, there are some important caveats regarding VGC. Their numbers are often considered unreliable, a claim that has some basis in reality as many of their numbers have significant margins of error attached to them. However, based on comparisons with “official” sales trackers (e.g., NPD, Media Create, Famitsu) their lifetime-to-date hardware sales figures are, after adjustments, usually—but not always—very close to figures from those trackers, typically with a margin of error of 1-2% at most. Their adjusted yearly figures are also usually relatively close, though sometimes with a larger margin of error than their lifetime-to-date figures. Their yearly U.S. figures within a few percentage points of NPD numbers, though there have been some years where they over- or under-tracked a system by a considerable margin (to see how their yearly U.S. figures stack up against NPD figures for Gen 7, click here). However, their monthly figures are where the large errors tend to show up. Their monthly figures for the U.S. frequently have a significant margin of error from known NPD data, sometimes over- or under-tracking by as much as 20-30% even after adjustments. Therefore, I will not be using VGC for monthly figures for Europe, only yearly.
So, keep in mind that VGC’s data is likely to not be entirely congruent with sales from “official” trackers, and that a margin of error likely exists. Still, the yearly European graphs should provide reasonably close estimates, likely within a few percentage points of what the graphs show. If better data ever becomes available, it will replace the NPD data.
Games: Halo continued being the biggest first-party series for the Xbox brand, with Halo 3 beating Halo 2’s day-one sales record and being one of the biggest games not just of 2007, but of the generation as a whole. In addition to selling very well, Halo 3 moved a decent amount of hardware the month of its release, with a smaller residual effect in October (Halo 3 also assisted a price cut that was issued in August 2007). Forza and Fable also continued getting new installments. In addition, the 360 obtained Epic’s Gears of War as a major third-party exclusive. Microsoft also managed to obtain exclusivity rights to many other third-party titles early in its life (some were temporarily exclusive, like with BioShock or Mass Effect, while some were permanent, including many titles released in 2005 & 2006 when the 360 was the only seventh-gen system on the market). They also managed to obtain exclusivity rights to several noteworthy JRPG titles, including Blue Dragon, Infinite Undiscovery, and Lost Odyssey; additionally Tales of Vesperia and Eternal Sonata were timed exclusives for the 360.
The strong selection of exclusives was likely critical in expanding the Xbox brand’s appeal. However, by 2009 the number of major exclusives it would receive each year was greatly reduced as third parties were likely more reluctant to ignore the potential sales from the expanded install base of the PS3. Halo, Gears, Forza, and Fable represented the bulk of the exclusives the 360 would receive in its last three years prior to its replacement by the Xbox One. However, by then the 360 was already sufficiently popular to where the reduction in the frequency of exclusives did not damage the system’s sales.
Sony continued to expand their first-party efforts during the seventh generation. Studios like Naughty Dog, Santa Monica Studio, Sucker Punch, Media Molecule, and Guerrilla Games produced some of the most popular and acclaimed games of the generation. Sony also got a few third-party exclusives of its own, most notably Metal Gear Solid 4, which gave PS3 sales a tremendous short-term boost in all regions.
The Wii had quite a few popular games of its own, including the Wii Series (with Wii Sports being bundled with the system in North America and Europe), New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Mario Kart Wii, Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Some of these would go on to be among the best-selling games of all time, with Mario Kart Wii becoming the best-selling first-party home console title of all time, excluding games originally bundled with their system and/or a major accessory.
Third parties started to really show off this generation, giving us some of the biggest games ever not just in terms of scale and scope, but also in popularity. Call of Duty, after several years of relative obscurity, truly hit the mainstream with the 2007 release of CoD4: Modern Warfare. Grand Theft Auto would remain as hugely popular as ever, with GTAV rapidly becoming one of the best-selling console games ever with some 35 million copies sold between the 360 & PS3 in less than a year after launch. New series and individual titles like Assassin’s Creed, BioShock, the Batman: Arkham series, Red Dead Redemption, and Borderlands would prove to be quite popular, as would new entries in existing franchises like Final Fantasy, Elder Scrolls, Resident Evil, Battlefield, Far Cry, and Fallout. With such a wealth of content to be found on both the PS3 and 360, it’s no wonder they were successful.
However, nearly all of these games were absent on the Wii, which was largely lacking in major third-party games. Not to say it was totally lacking, as it had several Sonic and LEGO games, Epic Mickey, MadWorld, and The Conduit. However, most third-party Wii games were party games (though Just Dance was really popular) and disposable shovelware, and the Wii was mainly reliant on Nintendo’s own first-party output to sustain the system.
Price: This proved to be a huge factor in this generation. The 360 debuted at $400 (though it had an HDD-less SKU as well for only $300), which adjusted for inflation is not too much more than the launch prices of the original Xbox and the NES Deluxe Set, and about the same as the PS1’s launch price. Meanwhile, the PS3’s price was announced as the infamous “Five Hundred Ninety-nine US Dollars!” At $600 for the 60GB SKU and $500 for the 20GB SKU, the PS3’s launch price was one of the highest ever, and the highest seen since the Saturn debuted over a decade earlier. This was perhaps the one thing above all others that served to negatively impact the PS3’s sales potential. At the other end of the spectrum was the Wii, which at $250 was among one of the least expensive systems ever when adjusting for inflation and was a significant price advantage over the others. The initial price disparities between the three seventh-gen systems were unlike any seen before between any other major systems from prior generations.
Interestingly, the PS3 and 360 exhibited greatly delayed peaks relative to every other console that preceded them, with the 7th Generation being the most protracted to date, and I believe that was mostly the result of launch prices, the timing and size of price cuts, and the release timing of new models for the systems. Not only were the price cuts more spread out on average for the PS3 & 360, they were proportionally smaller than the norm in previous generations. As a result, both the PS3 and 360 were, even when adjusted for inflation, more expensive at any given point in their lives than any mainstream console before them was at the same point in their lives.
For example, in the U.S. the PS2 was reduced to $200, a 33% drop from launch price, only 19 months after launch. In just over 3-½ years it had dropped to half its launch price. Meanwhile, though the PS3 got a price cut only a year after launch, it was only a 20% drop from its $500 launch price, and it retained that $400 price point until Aug. 2009, a whopping 33 months after launch. This is 80% more expensive than the PS2 was at the same point in its life in inflation-adjusted terms.
As for the Xbox 360, it took almost three years for the standard Pro/Premium model to be dropped to $300, an only 25% reduction from launch price. The 360 S retained that price, and never got a price cut during the generation proper. There was the 360 “Core” model without a hard drive that cost less than the Pro/Premium model, and while technically cost less at launch than the PS2 did, that did not last. While the PS2 had a third of its price slashed after only 19 months, it took 21 months for the Core to get a price cut, and it was a paltry $20 cut, a reduction of only 6.7% from its launch price. So, the 360 Core (and future HDD-less SKUs) was, adjusted for inflation, actually more expensive than the PS2 was for a good portion of its existence.
To complicate things, the 360 Core was not a good deal when compared to the Pro/Premium. It required a proprietary memory card, which was sold separately for $40 and had a meager 64MB capacity for storage of game save files and Xbox Live profiles, it had a wired controller as opposed to the wireless controller that was bundled with the Pro, and it only came with composite AV cables (the Pro came with component cables, which are better), plus the 360 lacked backwards compatibility functionality without a hard drive. And it seems that most were willing to pay more for the Pro/Premium SKUs as, according to an old GamePro article from August 2007, only 20% of 360 owners did not also own a hard drive for the system. The Core was replaced with the “Arcade” model in Oct. 2007, which was a better deal than the Core, coming bundled with a memory card (and later a small amount of on-board memory; support for USB drives was also added in April 2010), a wireless controller, and a disc with five Xbox Live Arcade titles, but it still was not as good of a deal as the Pro, and it too was more expensive than the PS2 in inflation-adjusted terms of most of its existence.
In addition to price cuts, newer slimline models for the PS3 and 360 were responsible for sales growth as well. The PS3 Slim, released in Sept. 2009, was also effectively a $100 price drop to the system, and was concurrent with the 80GB original model PS3 getting the same price cut as well (though for the latter that was effectively a clearance price as older SKUs were discontinued when the Slim launched). As the Slim was the first $300 standard-production model PS3, that lower price point helped grow sales a lot.
Meanwhile, the Xbox 360 S was released in June 2010 for a price of $300. While it was not the first HDD-equipped 360 SKU to retail for $300 standard, the Pro/Premium having been reduced to $300 in Sept. 2008, the 360 S was a considerable improvement on previous 360 models, which were plagued by technical issues. The 360 S was a far more reliable machine, with hardware failures being much more rare. It also had other improvements, including being quieter, consuming less power, and having a built-in WiFi adapter (older models required an optional add-on WiFi adapter accessory for wireless internet connection). It was generally just a much better piece of hardware than older models.
Overall, the relatively high initial prices (and hardware issues in the 360’s case) likely helped to depress early-life sales for the PS3 & 360, while price cuts that were typically smaller and more spaced out likely resulted in slower overall growth and thus delayed peaks relative to other systems.
The Wii meanwhile exhibited a more traditionally “normal” sales curve, similar to many systems from previous generations. Sales peaked early and, like the N64 and GameCube before it, declined relatively quickly. Interestingly, sales in the U.S. grew over the course of the 2007-08 period, and they did so without a price cut, which is something that typically doesn’t happen. Most likely, it was the result of gradual improvements to stock. The Wii was notorious early in its life for having stock issues, never having enough supply to fully meet demand and stores frequently selling out almost instantly when they got a shipment. The Wii did get a $50 price cut in Sept. 2009, which gave a boost to sales for a few months.
One final observation about price cuts and their impact on sales for this generation is the sudden shift in the balance between November and December for holiday sales. Starting in 2011, aggressive Black Friday promotions started to be issued for consoles. In addition to official bundles that offered the system plus extra games (and sometimes other bonuses) at no additional cost, several retailers offered steep discounts to those bundles, some of them retailing for under $200, considerably lower than the standard MSRP. These big Black Friday deals caused November sales to nearly catch up with December sales, and even exceed them in terms of weekly averages. While these temporary price cuts were not official, both Sony and MS would start offering official Black Friday price cuts with the PlayStation 4 & Xbox One the following generation.
The effects of price cuts (excluding unofficial price cuts issued by retailers) as well as of various software releases on hardware sales are shown in the below graphs:
Regional Trends: The Wii was the big surprise success story of the generation, with the system performing well in every region. In less than five years it sold enough to become second best-selling home console in U.S. history at the time, surpassing both the PS1 and NES. In Japan it sold over three times as many units as the GameCube and retained a majority market share in lifetime-to-date sales throughout the entirety of the generation. However, it fell well short of becoming a contender for the top-selling system of all-time of as the home console market in Japan continued to shrink. Even Europe, which had historically rejected Nintendo’s home consoles, bought the Wii in large numbers. It was the first non-Sony system to sell over 10 million units in Europe, and in fact far exceeded that mark by selling well over 30 million units.
The biggest regional difference this generation was how each of the three major regions bought the PS3 and 360. While Sony suffered significant losses in market share in every region and Microsoft greatly expanded their own, those losses and gains were not equally distributed.
The 360 was especially strong in North America. In late 2014 it passed the Wii to become the new second best-selling console ever in the U.S., and as of the end of 2016 it has sold over 43.2 million units. This marked the second time a different console brand became the overall market leader for the generation in the U.S. (the previous switch was PlayStation taking over in the fifth generation). The 360 was also the seventh system overall to have been a sales leader on a yearly basis in America, coming in first place every year from from 2011 to 2013.
Meanwhile, Sony was hit especially hard. The PS3 was in third place in the U.S. for the entire generation in terms of lifetime-to-date sales. Though there were two periods (Jan.-Aug. 2008 and Sept.-Dec. 2009) where the PS3 was the overall sales leader, once the 360S was released the PS3 once again fell way behind the 360 and would never catch back up. As of the end of 2016 the PS3 had sold only 26.84 million units in the U.S., only 62% of what the 360 sold and a massive 42.5% generation-over-generation drop for the PlayStation brand.
As for Europe, despite losing considerable market share, the region still showed that it was “PlayStation Country.” While it did not pass the Wii in lifetime sales in the region until late 2014, it has been the top-selling seventh-gen console there every year since 2011. It has also consistently outperformed the 360 even earlier in the generation when it was struggling with a higher price and other disadvantages. Overall it sold over 34 million units, roughly 40% of the global total and far higher than the U.S. total. Such is the strength of the PlayStation brand in Europe. Finally, while it struggled for a couple of years, the 360 eventually rebounded in Europe, and while it always remained in third place in terms of lifetime sales in the region for the generation, it still managed to sell over 25 million units, over triple what the original Xbox sold.
However, the UK market broke with the continent in buying habits and more closely resembled the US market, preferring the 360 over the PS3 by a considerable margin. The Xbox 360 outsold the PS3 by a roughly 3-to-2 ratio, the inverse of what it was in markets like France and Germany. Overall, the UK represented approximately 35% of 360 sales in Europe, but only about 18% of PS3 sales.
In Japan, the PS3 struggled early on, and while it rebounded in 2009 and had rather strong sales legs, as of the end of 2017 it was still trailing the Wii in lifetime sales by 2.5 million units. At about 10.4 million units sold to date it has also only managed to sell just over half of what the PS2 did. Meanwhile, the 360 always placed a very distant third, selling less than 1.7 million units lifetime, thus confirming that Japanese gamers by and large don’t care for Western hardware. However, it did manage to sell three times as many units as its predecessor, perhaps thanks in no small part due to MS acquiring exclusivity rights to several notable JRPGs as well as its early price advantage over the PS3.
Marketing & PR: Nintendo’s brilliant “Wii Would Like To Play” ad campaign really sold the gaming public on their vision of a system that offered fundamentally new ways to play games. Microsoft likewise really cranked up their advertising efforts considerably, with frequent TV ads exhorting us to “Jump In.” Aside from some bizarre commercials around launch and a now-infamous press conference at E3 2006 (which gave us classic gaming memes lines like “599 U.S. Dollars!” and “Giant Enemy Crab”), Sony also did a respectable job of marketing the PS3.
Duration of Support: Nintendo more or less abandoned the Wii after the Wii U was released. While the Wii Mini model was still in production at least until 2017, Nintendo stopped supporting the system in any meaningful way well before that, leaving an ever-dwindling output of second- and third-rate games from third parties to fill the gap. Major software titles became ever rarer over time after the system peaked, with the last major first-party title being 2011’s The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword. While the Wii was initially selling quicker than the PS2, its sales declined much faster (see the chart below) and had a much shorter lifespan, one more on par with the N64 and GameCube. This is at least in part due to lack of meaningful long-term software support.
Meanwhile, the 360 and PS3 continued to receive strong software support from third parties through 2014, though support began to dwindle in 2015 as developers shifted to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. 2016 was even worse, with only a handful of indie games and the usual annualized EA Sports games. The final game released for both systems was FIFA 19. The 360 was not discontinued until 2016, and the PS3 not until 2017. Overall, both system were not as strongly supported as the PS2 was. However, the protracted nature of the generation, complete with the late sales peaks for the systems, meant that by time the PS4 and XBO were released they had already gotten close to exhausting their maximum sales potential, with hardware sales declining rapidly after 2013. Sony and MS had already fully shifted support to the PS4 & XBO, and third parties made just about all they cared to make for the system, at least when it came to big AAA titles.
Hardware: The original model 360 had perhaps the highest failure rate of any major console in history. The “Red Ring of Death” became the most infamous icon of the early seventh generation, and it may have damaged the 360’s reputation. While the 360 did manage to sell very well, it may have sold even better had there been no major hardware issues to discourage potential buyers.
Meanwhile, Sony’s decision to use Blu-ray (which was still new and expensive at the time, with the HD format war just starting) and a unique, powerful, complex, and expensive processor was responsible for the PS3’s high launch price, which is the primary reason Sony lost so much market share this generation.
Finally, the Wii was underpowered, being only marginally more powerful than the original Xbox, plus it had an unconventional control scheme (though there was the “Classic Controller” that did have a conventional layout, but it wasn’t bundled with the system as a standard controller). As it was a seventh-gen system with sixth-gen power and a control system considerably different from the norm, third parties by and large didn’t bother releasing any of their major “AAA” games for the system (several COD games were released, but received significant downgrades), opting rather to release games that are easier and less expensive to develop and more suited to motion controls like party games, if they offered any support at all. However, its use of motion controls did offer completely new ways of playing games, helping to generate interest in the system, and its low specs also resulted in a low price.
Conclusion: Whereas the previous two generations were marked by the clear dominance of the market by a single system (though the PS1 and N64 were fairly close in America for a while), this generation saw every major system perform remarkably well. The Wii, PS3, and 360 were respectively the third, fourth, and fifth best-selling home consoles in history as of the start of the Eighth Generation.
The Wii was the biggest surprise of the generation. It managed to obtain a majority in annual sales in 2008 in each of the three major regions, as well as in 2007 in Japan and 2007 & 2009 in the U.S. In less than a year after launch it became the #1 seventh-gen system globally in terms of cumulative lifetime-to-date sales, a position it held for the rest of the generation. While many analysts dismissed it prior to launch, assuming it would perform about as well as the GameCube, it far exceeded everyone’s expectations.
A non-trivial portion of the Wii’s sales were due to it having a significant periphery demographic of non-gamers and “casual” gamers. In other words, people who normally would never buy a console. In addition to this often having led to caricatures of the system being bought mainly by grandparents and health-conscious soccer moms, many commentators assumed that so-called “core” gamers were only a minority of the Wii’s user base. However, the data suggests that the size of the Wii’s periphery demographic may be overstated by many, and that the Wii’s primary audience was likely traditional gamers.
The overall sales trajectory of the Wii is roughly consistent with other Nintendo consoles (just larger in size), its software attach rate is comparable to other consoles even after accounting for bundled games like Wii Sports (in North America it’s something like nine games per system not counting games bundled with the system, very impressive considering the lack of major third-party “AAA” titles). This indicates the average Wii owner’s spending habits were similar to those of owners of other systems. Furthermore, excluding bundled software, the list of best-selling games on the Wii is not too dissimilar from those of other Nintendo systems.
There is also good evidence showing that very large portion of PlayStation and Xbox players also owned a Wii. A Nielsen study from February 2015 suggests a significant overlap between Wii owners and owners of PlayStation and Xbox systems (systems usually considered more “hardcore”), with nearly three-quarters of PS4 and XBO owners at the time having also owned a Wii. While that was very early in Gen 8, it still supports the idea that gamers were likely the primary audience for the Wii. Nearly a quarter of all Wii owners in the U.S. were also early adopters of the PS4 & XBO. Even if that ratio has dropped to only a third by the end of 2020, that would still mean that nearly half of all PS4 & XBO owners were also Wii owners at some point.
According to another Nielsen survey from March 2012, 56% of households in the U.S. at the time owned a 7th-gen console. Given that there was about 121 million households in America at the time according to the U.S. Census Bureau, that amounts to about 67.8M console-owning households. There were 93.9M Gen 7 consoles sold in the U.S. between the 360, PS3, and Wii as of March 2012, giving us a consoles-per-console-owning-household ratio of about 1.386-to-1. If we can determine the rate of cross-ownership between 360 and PS3 owners, that should give us an idea of how many Wii owners were also owners of one or both of the other two systems.
An NPD Group survey conducted in January 2009 indicated that 18% of 360 owners in the U.S. also owned a PS3. The data also showed 42% of 360 & PS3 owners owned a Wii. Given NPD sales data as of that month, that means that about 43% of Wii owners in the U.S. at that point were owners of a 360 and/or a PS3. However, the same survey showed that at most 40% of Wii owners owned either a PS3 or 360, showing that the respondents of the survey were not quite 100% representative of all console owners in the U.S. This is understandable, as all surveys have a margin of error associated with them.
In any case, assuming that the percentage of 360 owners that owned a 360 stayed at around, say, 20% over the following three years, then by the time of the March. 2012 Nielsen survey about 45% of Wii owners in the U.S. also owned a 360 and/or a PS3. This data suggests that the a very large portion of Wii owners were core gamers that also owned a 360 or PS3. And if we assume that a large chunk of Wii owners were “core” gamers that are Nintendo fans that exclusively buy Nintendo consoles, that leaves even less room for Wii sales to be attributable to non-gamers. If, say, 10% of Wii owners at any given point (about 3.9M people as of Jan. 2012) were core gamers that exclusively buy Nintendo systems, that would entail that only about 45% of Wii units sold by Jan. 2012 were sold to people who would normally never buy a video game console.
There was another Nielsen survey published in early 2009 measuring not sales, but rather time spent playing on particular consoles by age and gender (download the PDF further down the page for details), and while it implied that the Wii was more popular among players aged 35+ and among women based on the metric being used, there was nothing to indicate that the Wii’s demographics were drastically different from that of the PS3 & 360.
Also, in a Dec. 2007 conference call, former Nintendo of America president and CEO Reggie Fils-Aimé stated that “Our internal research shows that the average age of all Wii players is 29 years old. On the other hand, the vast majority of these people who’ve purchased a system are, so far, active or ‘core’ players. They’re the ones willing to wait in line outside of retailers before dawn.”
Finally, the Japanese market measured in terms of core gamers owning a console would have shrunk by an unreasonably huge amount if Wii sales in the region were driven mostly by a large influx of casual non-gamers.
It just seems implausible that 50+ million non-gamers around the world would line up in droves, wait eagerly for new shipments of a system that was continually sold out for over a year, and ultimately invest an average of $700 on a game system ($250 for the system plus an average of nine games at a standard MSRP of $50 each).
Without any hard numbers on the actual demographics of Wii owners more recent than 2009, it’s hard to say for sure exactly how big of a portion of the Wii’s lifetime sales came from “casuals” and non-gamers, but what evidence we do have suggests and is fully consistent with at least a slim majority of Wii sales being due to “core” gamers buying a Wii either as a complement to the PS3 and/or 360, or buying just the Wii if they were exclusively Nintendo fans. I think it succeeded not because of an influx of casuals/non-gamers (though that certainly helped a lot), but rather for the same reason every other system succeeded: it had the right combination of games, pricing, and marketing. Nintendo finally perfected motion controls, which had existed at least as far back as the 8-bit era but never quite worked (the Power Glove for the NES, which was immortalized in the 1989 road trip movie/feature-length Nintendo commercial The Wizard, was the most notable early example). Coupled with slick advertising, a bargain price, and the right software titles, by successfully selling gamers on a fundamentally new way of playing games Nintendo managed to finally achieve success once again after two generations of losing to Sony. It was something new, something fresh, and something done well.
Despite the Wii’s tremendous success, it had the same problems the N64 and GameCube faced, namely the fact that it relied primarily on first-party games, which dwindled in frequency later in the generation. As a result the system had a similar problem with rapidly dropping sales after it peaked. The system’s lack of power and the inherent limitations of “waggle”-based motion controls (there’s only so much you can do with them, and for most “traditional” gaming experiences standard game pads will do a much better job) meant it didn’t get much in the way of meaningful support from third parties. To complicate things, as Nintendo started to gear up for the Wii U’s release, they reduced their support for the Wii. The relative lack of major releases, especially past its peak years, had the same effect it had on the N64 and GameCube, causing it to have relatively weak post-peak legs.
The 360 and PS3 were surprises as well. The original Xbox only sold a bit over 2 million more units than the GameCube globally, ending up a very distant second place to the PS2. Even in the U.S., which generated the vast majority of global Xbox sales, the PS2 still easily outperformed the Xbox, even in just the generation proper (i.e., the 2002-2005 period). Some thought that scenario would play out again in the next generation. For example, in 2008 the IDC thought the PS3 would dominate the 360 and would have surpassed the Wii in lifetime sales by 2012. However, price, games, and regional differences in gamers’ buying habits completely overturned those expectations. The 360 had a noticeable advantage early in the console cycle. It cost less than the PS3, which suffered due to an abnormally high price tag. It had a significant advantage in its games library, with the PS3 not getting any major exclusives until Uncharted in Nov. 2007 and Metal Gear Solid 4 in May 2008 (though it had moderately successful exclusives before them). Xbox Live was at the time an arguably better service than the PlayStation Network. While XBL Gold cost money and PSN was free, the old adage “You get what you pay for” held true for much of the generation in the eyes of many. Finally, the notoriously fickle US market, which had switched allegiances more than any other region, simply saw the 360 as a better value than the PS3. The biggest problem with the 360 was the high failure rate, which may have negatively impacted sales growth (annual sales remained relatively flat from 2006 to 2007 in Europe and in 2006 through 2009 in the US), but nevertheless MS expanded their market share considerably in the seventh generation.
While the PS3 did start to close the gap in annual sales in the U.S., in 2010 the 360 experienced massive sales growth with the launch of the slimmer “S” model. Sales of the 360 in the June-December period of 2010 were up 56% year-over-year, and the 360’s baseline remained strong throughout 2011. While some think that the Kinect was responsible for the rapid increase of 360 sales in America, with the story often going along the lines of “casuals are abandoning the Wii and switching to the Kinect,” there are some problems with that hypothesis. First off, as we can see in the sales graphs shown earlier in this section, the boost in baseline sales for the 360 began with the the launch of the 360 S, which came out five months before the Kinect. Meanwhile, the Kinect did not seem to further enhance sales after the 2010 holiday season.
Furthermore, total sales of conventional consoles (Xbox + PlayStation) in the U.S. in Gen 7 relative to adjacent generations does not seem to indicate an incursion of non-gamers/casuals that bought such systems, whether it be the 360 for the Kinect or the PS3 for the PS Move. While combined 360+PS3 sales were higher than combined PS2+Xbox sales, this could easily be attributable to factors such as a longer generation overall and the premature death of the original Xbox (the 360 was replaced in eight years and the PS3 in seven; the PS2 was replaced in only six years and the Xbox in only four), as well as possible continued growth in the size of the market. And combined sales of the PS4 & XBO have outpaced those of the 360 & PS3 in aligned terms, though they may fall a bit short of the PS3 & 360 due to a slightly shorter generation.
Sales data for Japan also shows that the Kinect was not a major driver of 360 sales. As the charts posted earlier show, there was a surge in sales the week the 360 S was released (which also was concurrent with the release of Monster Hunter Frontier Online), with sales being over eight times what they were the previous week. Meanwhile, the release week for the Kinect saw a far more modest boost to sales over the previous week, and there was no apparent effect on baseline sales after the holidays.
The available data indicates that 360 S was the major stimulative factor at play here, and that the Kinect did not suddenly bring in piles of casuals. If the Kinect was a sales driver, we should have seen additional boosts to baseline sales, and we should have seen a roughly proportional boost in all regions given the global popularity of the Wii. There’s no reason to think that Americans were the only ones who would go out in substantial numbers to buy a 360 just for Kinect. As with similar claims involving the Wii, the claim that the 360 owes a very large portion of its success to “casuals” and non-gamers who bought the system for Kinect seems to be greatly overstated at best. Just like every other system, factors such as price, games, marketing, and so on fully explain why the 360 sold how it did, not possibly imaginary legions of “casuals” that appeared out of nowhere, bought a ton of 360s for the Kinect, and then disappeared before the start of the next generation, presumably to go back to playing mobile phone games.
In any case, the seventh generation showed us perhaps better than any generation before it the importance of pricing, games, and marketing in determining a system’s success. Position your system as a good bargain and you can expect great sales. Charge too much for your system and don’t offer enough to compensate, and sales could stagnate. And third-party support is crucial for keeping sales healthy past a system’s peak.
Eighth Generation: PS4 vs. Xbox One vs. Wii U & Switch
Notes: Since this generation is ongoing, sales charts will not always be up to date. The charts will be updated semiannually so long as data is available to add to them. The first update will be some time during the first quarter and will reflect sales at the end of the year that just concluded, while the second update of the year will occur some time in the third quarter and reflect sales as of mid-year.
Availability of NPD has been intermittent since early 2017. As of Dec. 2020, all figures posted in the graphs should be accurate and up-to-date. However, accurate data is not guaranteed to remain available. If they stop becoming available again for future months, then starting from then U.S. sales figures will be estimates only, based on best-guess figures in ResetEra NPD threads. Based on comparisons of these estimates with official numbers, they should be on average reasonably close to the actual numbers, typically within a couple of percentage points (visually, this means the data points on most of the graphs usually shouldn’t be off by much more than two or three pixels). I will update this notice if accurate figures cease becoming available again, though if they do become available the charts will be updated to reflect that and this notice will be updated to reflect that.
Starting with April 2019, the Japanese hardware charts revert back to using Famitsu data as Media Create ceased making their data available to the public.
For the sake of argument, the Switch will be included with this generation, rather than being placed into the section on handhelds or into a “9th Generation” section by itself. While it is technically a “hybrid” home console/handheld, Nintendo has stated that it “is a home gaming system first and foremost.” Also, its unusual launch timing makes classification into a specific generation controversial, but for matters of convenience, as well as the fact that it is for now serving as nominal competition for the PS4 and XBO and has been designated as “current-gen” alongside those systems by the NPD and Wikipedia, it shall be classified as a Gen 8 console in this article. DO NOT message me to argue about this!
Games: One of the biggest problems faced by the Wii U was a severe lack of major titles for most of its first year. At launch it had New Super Mario Bros. U, ZombiU, and Nintendo Land (the latter a pack-in with the Deluxe SKU), and it didn’t get anything else of note for another eight months when Pikmin 3 was released in summer 2013. This wouldn’t have been a problem if it wasn’t having to rely mainly on first-party games like its predecessor did. Most of the third-party games it got were either niche titles, or they were something that could already be bought on the 360 or PS3, so, like the Wii before it, the Wii U depended solely on Nintendo’s own in-house output, and that output was sorely lacking in the Wii U’s early months.
While the Wii U eventually amassed a solid if small-ish library of strong titles, it was insufficient in and of itself to keep the system from failing. Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. 4 were the last games that had the capacity to be huge system-sellers, and while MK8 did appear to help, it wasn’t nearly enough to turn the system around. Splatoon was also a system-seller in Japan, and in the months following the game’s release Wii U hardware sales improved noticeably (making Splatoon that rare system-seller that arguably affected sales past the first several weeks after it was released). However, it too was not enough to completely reverse the system’s fortunes.
Its successor, the Switch, has amassed a far more impressive library. Nintendo did a far better job of supporting it than they did with the Wii U in its first year, and have released many highly-popular titles to date. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was one of the most critically acclaimed games in history and was a hugely successful launch title, and Super Mario Odyssey, released in Oct. 2017, was an equally highly-rated and successful game. Nintendo also had other notable titles for the Switch released in 2017, including Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, ARMS, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and Splatoon 2. In 2018, the Switch had two highly-successful games in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Pokemon Let’s Go, with some smaller titles rounding things out throughout the year. 2019 saw the releases of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Yoshi’s Crafted World, Luigi’s Mansion 3, Super Mario Maker 2, a remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and most notably Pokemon Sword & Shield, which as of the end of 2019 has already sold over 16 million copies, making it one of the fastest-selling entries in the franchise.
Notable first-party titles that have been or will be released in 2020 include Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a remake of Xenoblade Chronicles, Paper Mario: The Origami King, and Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. But most notable was Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which is already one of the best-selling Nintendo titles ever (22,400,000 copies shipped globally as of June 30, 2020) and was a major system-seller, contributing to significant growth in Switch sales when it was released in March 2020. The Switch’s performance that month in the U.S. was one of the largest ever for a non-holiday month, and in Japan the Switch sold more units the week of Animal Crossing’s release than any other system has ever done outside of December or a launch week.
Future first-party Switch games of note with no firm release date as of yet include Metroid Prime 4 and a sequel to Breath of the Wild.
Nintendo has also been filling in the gaps between new titles with ports of Wii U games, including the aforementioned Mario Kart 8 Deluxe as well as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Pokken Tournament, Hyrule Warriors, Captain Toad Treasure Tracker, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, Pikmin 3 Deluxe, and Super Mario 3D World, games which many Switch owners may not have played as they may have passed on buying a Wii U.
As for support from third parties, a semi-decent selection of third-party games have either been released so far or are on the way, though little in the way of major current-gen cross-platform AAA titles. Because the system is much weaker than the PS4 & XBO, third-party support for the Switch has not been the same as those systems in either degree or kind, and most major recent and forthcoming AAA titles do not have a Switch port yet (or even a planned port, with some publishers making explicit “not going to happen” statements), including major titles like Destiny 2, Red Dead Redemption 2, Far Cry 5, Star Wars Battlefront 2, Borderlands 3, Resident Evil 2 Remake, Kingdom Hearts III, Monster Hunter World, and all current-gen Call of Duty and Battlefield titles. The only current-gen cross-platform AAA games of note to be ported to the Switch are Doom 2016, Wolfenstein II, and Doom: Eternal, all from Bethesda, as well as Mortal Kombat 11, The Witcher III, and the PS4 version of Dragon Quest XI (which had additional features included). These games are all noticeably downgraded from the PS4 & XBO versions, a trade-off for being able to play them on a less powerful system designed to be a quasi-portable.
However, the Switch is getting plenty of ports of smaller-budget games (including indies and compilations), as well as re-releases of older seventh-gen games (most notably Skyrim and Dark Souls) that are often marketed on their ability to now be played on the go. The Switch has also gotten a couple of major sports titles, namely NBA 2K and FIFA, and has also gotten a handful of third-party exclusives. Square-Enix has released Octopath Traveler, with Bravely Default II in development. Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei V is also slated for release as a Switch exclusive in 2021. Capcom is releasing the Switch-exclusive Monster Hunter Rise, also in 2021. Finally, PlatinumGames is still supporting Nintendo, having released several Nintendo-exclusive titles for the Switch, namely Astral Chain and a re-release of Bayonetta 2 (originally a Wii U exclusive), with Bayonetta 3 currently in development.
Meanwhile, as expected the PS4 and XBO have been getting the full support of third parties. In addition to high-profile annualized series like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Madden, and FIFA, there has been a wide selection of third-party titles for both systems being consistently released throughout the generation. Among the more notable third-party multiplatform games released so far are Destiny, Battlefield 4, Far Cry 4, Alien: Isolation, Grand Theft Auto V (an enhanced port of the PS3/360 version), Metal Gear Solid V, The Witcher 3, Batman: Arkham Knight, Mortal Kombat X, Star Wars: Battlefront, Rainbow Six: Siege, Final Fantasy XV, Battlefield 1, The Division, Dark Souls III, Doom, Overwatch, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Nier: Automata, Prey, Resident Evil VII, Tekken 7, Injustice 2, Wolfenstein II, Dragon Quest XI, Monster Hunter World, Far Cry 5, Red Dead Redemption 2, Kingdom Hearts III, Soulcalibur VI, Battlefield V, Resident Evil 2 Remake, Mortal Kombat 11, Devil May Cry 5, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Rage 2, Doom: Eternal, Cyberpunk 2077, and the long-awaited remake of Final Fantasy VII (a timed PS4 exclusive; the XBO version is slated for April 2021).
Of course, there are also first-party games and other exclusives in addition to the plethora of third-party titles. Earlier in the generation MS was still hedging their bets on third parties to provide the bulk of their exclusives instead of investing in first-party development. They managed to get Dead Rising 3, Ryse, Titanfall and Sunset Overdrive as major third-party exclusives for the XBO’s first year, while Remedy continued to be a de facto second-party with the release of Quantum Break. Rise of the Tomb Raider was a notable timed exclusive, with the PS4 version being released a year after the XBO version. Currently, their only major AAA first-party games are Halo 5, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Halo Wars 2, Gears of War 4, the Forza series, Sea of Thieves, Gears 5, and Crackdown 3, with Halo: Infinite (a cross-gen title being released as an Xbox Series X launch title) scheduled for release in 2021. As MS has not greatly expanded their first-party efforts, the XBO’s slate of exclusives hasn’t been as impressive as that of Sony and Nintendo.
Meanwhile, Sony has continued to invest heavily in in-house development. Their most notable first-party titles have been Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack, Infamous: Second Son, The Last of Us: Remastered, Driveclub, LittleBigPlanet 3, Uncharted 4, the long-gestating The Last Guardian (originally planned as a PS3 game), Horizon Zero Dawn, Gran Turismo Sport, God of War, Insomniac’s Spider-Man (Insomniac having recently been purchased by Sony), Dreams, The Last of Us II, and Ghost of Tsushima. Current second-party titles and third-party exclusives include Bloodborne, The Order: 1886, Street Fighter V, a new Ratchet & Clank game, Nioh, Detroit: Become Human, Persona 5, and Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding.
Needless to say, neither the PS4 nor XBO are lacking in the kind of games that are in demand by console gamers. With both systems sharing over 90% of the same games, exclusives have probably been more important than ever to make the difference between the two.
However, it’s worth pointing out that only a couple of games have had caused significant boosts for either the PS4 or XBO, at least in the U.S. Halo 5, the first heavy-hitter exclusive released this generation, was a modest system-seller for the XBO, causing a month-over-month increase in weekly average sales of 34.8% in the month of its release (and sales of the game itself, while good, were nowhere close to previous main series entries). Uncharted 4 only caused a slight bump to PS4 hardware sales when it was released. God of War and Spider-Man caused decent hardware increases for the PS4, but nothing massive. So far, the biggest system-seller on either system in the U.S. has been Destiny, a multiplatform game, and it benefited the PS4 considerably more than the XBO (weekly average sales for the PS4 in Sept. 2014 were 182% higher than in August, compared to only 42% for the XBO), likely thanks to a deal between Activision and Sony which gave the latter exclusive marketing rights and timed exclusive content.
In Japan, the biggest system-sellers by far for the PS4 were Monster Hunter World, Final Fantasy XV, Final Fantasy VII Remake, and Dragon Quest XI, though there were a handful of other more modest system-sellers spread throughout the system’s life.
Price: While the Wii U did have a price advantage over the PS4 & XBO, it wasn’t as significant as the Wii’s price advantage. At $250 the Wii cost only a bit over 60% what the $400 Xbox 360 “Pro” SKU did early last generation. Meanwhile, the Wii U debuted in the U.S. at $350 for the Deluxe SKU and $300 for the Basic SKU. The Deluxe was the most popular SKU since despite costing more than the Basic SKU as it was a far better deal; the Basic SKU was discontinued in the spring of 2015 due to lack of demand. While adjusted for inflation that $350 price tag was no more than the SNES’s launch price, it was still the highest sticker price of any Nintendo system ever and their most expensive launch SKU since the NES Deluxe Set, which may have discouraged people who thought the Wii’s $250 price tag was a steal.
More importantly, the relative price gap with its more powerful competitors is much smaller. While the Deluxe SKU was reduced to $300 in September of 2013, ahead of the launch of the PS4 and XBO, that $100 price advantage over the PS4 (and the Kinect-less XBO SKU released in May 2014) was not as significant in absolute or relative terms compared to the Wii’s price advantage over the 360 & PS3, and even that price advantage was whittled down. Perhaps to keep the troubled system profitable, Nintendo did not issue any further price cuts to the Wii U, the system remaining $300 for the remainder of its life. Meanwhile, the XBO had been reduced to $350 in late 2014 and the PS4 followed suit in late 2014, erasing a huge chunk of the Wii U’s price advantage. As with the GameCube, the Wii U having a price advantage was by itself not enough to save the system, and this time the advantage wasn’t nearly as pronounced, and it is yet another example of why merely having the lowest price isn’t enough in and of itself to guarantee success.
The Nintendo Switch, meanwhile, had a launch price of $300, comparable to the Wii U. But when adjusted for inflation that price point makes it slightly less expensive than the Wii U Basic Set and the N64 and about the same as the Wii, keeping it within historical norms for Nintendo home consoles. While this does not give it a price advantage against the PS4 & XBO, the $300 retail price has not prevented it from being a very successful system. The Switch Lite was released in Sept. 2019 for $200, which is a much lower entry price point than the base model, but it is in a lot of ways a downgrade from the base model, and it hasn’t exactly done wonders for sales, at least not in the U.S. (it’s had a far more pronounced effect in Japan).
The PS4 was launched at $400 in the U.S. Adjusted for inflation it was slightly less expensive than the PS1 and PS2 and thus the least expensive PlayStation console to date at launch in the U.S. In Europe it launched for £350/€400, less than the launch prices of the PS1 & PS2 after taking inflation and franc/mark/etc.-to-euro conversion rates into account. In Japan it launched for just shy of ¥40,000, about the same as the PS1 & PS2. The PS4 received a permanent $50/€50/£50/¥5000 price cut in October 2015. The PS4 Slim, released in September 2016 for $300, was concurrent with a $50 price cut that reduced all older SKUs to $300 as well.
The XBO was launched with a price of $500 (£430/€500 in Europe), giving it the highest launch price of any eighth-gen system. The sole reason it cost $100 more than the PS4 at launch was because of Microsoft’s insistence on bundling Kinect with the system. As the two systems share roughly 90% of their game libraries, the biggest differences between the two were price and exclusives, and price definitely appeared to be the biggest factor by far. If one was a fan of Xbox in general and/or established Xbox series like Halo and/or was more interested in new IPs like Titanfall than anything on the PS4, then there wasn’t much incentive for a gamer to buy an XBO in the early months of the generation. As a result, the system lagged behind the PS4 a great deal for most of 2014.
However, MS did not keep the XBO at that price for long. They released a Kinect-less SKU in June 2014, which was effectively a $100 price cut. This provided a boost to sales, though even at price parity the XBO still could not beat the PS4 even in the U.S. The following November the XBO’s price was dropped to $350 in the U.S. By undercutting the PS4 by $50, it received a massive boost to sales during the 2014 holiday season, actually beating the PS4 that November & December in the U.S. However, MS raised the price of the XBO back to $400 in early January 2015 after the holiday promotional period as they had planned, but in less than a week they had reinstated the price drop, making the $350 price point permanent. But being $50 below parity with the PS4 did not cause it to retain the lead in sales in the U.S., with the PS4 selling about 19.1% more units than the XBO through the first three quarters of 2015 in the U.S. Still, this was a much closer gap than in the first three quarters of 2014.
When the XBO was released in Japan, Kinect-less SKUs had already been out in the West, and the system launched with two SKUs: a standalone model that cost the same as the PS4 and another with Kinect that cost an additional ¥10,000. The XBO received a ¥5000 price cut in Japan in October 2015, but it was ineffectual at increasing sales; the price cut was rescinded after the end of the year.
Both the PS4 & XBO have received temporary price cuts during the holidays each year since 2015 in the U.S. While the 360 & PS3 received big deals and price cuts during Black Friday, those were all unofficial. This time around, the price cuts were official. They have had varying results, but as a general rule they have resulted in the holidays representing a bigger chunk of the year’s sales than in prior generations. As of the end of 2019, combined PS4 & XBO sales in Q4 have averaged 57% of annual sales. Meanwhile, in the previous two generations Q4 represented only about half of combined PlayStation & Xbox sales for the year during the generation proper. The PS4 and XBO haven’t had amazing sales outside the holidays in the U.S., but their holiday sales have been consistently strong, with total Q4 sales being in excess of 4.5 million for four consecutive years, three of those years being over 5.5 million. None of their predecessors were able to consistently produce holiday quarter sales that strong. Overall, combined PS4+XBO sales averaged nearly 5.3 million units in Q4 during the 2014-2019 period, compared to 4.73 million for the PS3 & 360 in the 2007-2012 period.
While the rise of big Black Friday deals since 2011 resulted in the balance of holiday sales shifting towards November, the addition of official, substantive, temporary price cuts throughout the holidays has seen sales in general for any given year shift towards the holidays and away from the non-holiday months this generation.
Here are the effects that price cuts, software releases, hardware revisions, and bundles have had on system sales so far this generation, excepting the XBO in Japan as a full weekly sales graph would show little appreciable movement outside the first several weeks:
Regional Trends: As one would expect from previous generations, PlayStation remained a strong global brand. With 106 million units sold as of Dec. 31, 2019, the PS4 is only the fourth home console to date to have passed the 100 million mark. The PS4 has so far managed strong sales in both North America and Europe. While it hasn’t set any notable records in the U.S. beyond having the best launch of all time, it has sold about 33.6 million units as of June 2020, making it the fourth best-selling system ever behind only the PS2, 360, and Wii. Meanwhile, in Europe it is on track to sell over 50 million units, which would put its lifetime total close to that of the PS2. Overall, the PS4 has done very well and is the unquestioned sales leader not only in the U.S. and Europe but globally as well, and Sony has regained much of their lost market share.
In Japan it’s had a rougher time. It had a solid launch, but baseline sales for 2014 were not too far ahead of Wii U levels. However, sales rebounded in 2015, and after the price cut in October 2015 it consistently sold over 20,000 units per week for almost all of the following two and a half years, and in terms of cumulative lifetime sales has maintained a lead over the PS3. Perhaps the biggest problem facing the PS4 in 2014 was that for a good while it had precious few games exclusive to the system that were developed by Japanese studios. Meanwhile, the PS3 was still getting decent support from Japanese publishers, which may explain why Japanese gamers were initially hesitant to switch over. This became less and less of an issue in 2015 and an almost insignificant issue in 2016 as seventh-gen systems were gradually abandoned by developers. Overall, at its current rate of sales it will likely fall just short of the PS3’s lifetime sales.
The XBO is likewise conforming to what we’d expect from regional differences. Its best market remains North America. While it’s still trailing the PS4 in the U.S. the two are much closer than in other regions. With approximately 28.6 million units sold as of June 2020, the U.S. accounts for well over half of all Xbox Ones sold globally.
In Europe the XBO has experienced significantly greater declines than it has in the U.S. On the continent in particular, the XBO has performed very poorly. In most major markets on the continent, the PS4 has outsold the XBO by an over 4-to-1 ratio. Considering that the 360 was performing worse than the PS3 in launch-aligned terms despite having a considerable price advantage and being first to market by 15 months, the fact that the XBO was released in the same month as the PS4 and had a launch price that was €100/£80 more than the PS4’s, it’s no surprise that it’s struggling in PlayStation Country. If the XBO can’t win in the U.S., there’s no way it’s going to be even remotely close in Europe, especially on the continent.
But as before, the UK is the one place in Europe that’s more like the U.S. in terms of the Xbox-to-PlayStation ratio. While the PS4 outsold the XBO on the continent by a significant margin, in the UK the gap is much closer, comparable to what it is in the U.S. In addition, the UK accounts for nearly half of all XBO sales in Europe, and even larger share than its share of 360 sales.
Finally, the XBO has predictably suffered from poor sales in Japan. It has practically no exclusive games that appeal to Japanese audiences, likely because Japanese third parties gave the 360 a chance and it didn’t really work out. As a result, it’s had an even worse performance than the original Xbox. It sold only 20,624 units for the whole year in 2015, comparable to what the PS4 typically sold in one week that year, and in 2016 it sold less than 12,000 units. It had a modest rebound in 2017, increasing to nearly 13,000 units, and in 2018 its sales grew to over 16,000 units. Excluding its launch week, as of the week ending July 5, 2020 the XBO has averaged less than 300 units per week over the course of its life, and has exceeded 1000 units in only 16 separate weeks. By comparison, the 360 was averaging several thousand units per week at its peak, and did not consistently drop to below 1000 units per week until 2012. Even the original Xbox took about 1-½ years to start consistently dropping below 1000 per week and took over three years to drop below 300 in a week. The XBO is the worst-selling console ever in Japan from a major console maker, and as of the end of June 2020 has sold about 114,000 units, a number that is not likely to increase much after the system is replaced by the Xbox Series X & S. This is a staggering 93% drop from the 360’s lifetime total of nearly 1.65 million units.
The Wii U reflected the likes of the GameCube and N64, with the struggling system performing best in America. The U.S. represents over 40% of all Wii U sales globally, a significant plurality. Even when Nintendo is dead last, they still have a reliable contingent of a few million dedicated fans in America. Japan continued its apparent love-hate relationship with Nintendo with the Wii U. The brand is still one of the only two relevant brands in Japan that make dedicating gaming hardware, and despite its poor performance it ended up selling not too much worse than the GameCube. It even rebounded a good bit in 2015 thanks largely to Splatoon. Europe is more of a mixed bag. While European sales of the Wii U are weaker than in the U.S., they were actually better than in Japan in 2014 despite trailing Japanese sales in 2013, having grown a fair amount year-over year.
So far, the Switch has done well in every region. In 2017 it sold nearly 4.9 million units in the U.S. and 3.3 million each in Japan and Europe. Furthermore, in the U.S., sales for the first half of 2018 slightly exceeded combined 3DS+Wii U sales for those systems’ respective second years (2012 & 2013). Combined with 2017 sales data, it’s clear that the Switch is more than capable of supporting Nintendo’s hardware market in the U.S. by itself. It is overall continuing to sell quite strongly, and as December 2020 it has sold about 26 million units, making it the second fastest-selling Nintendo home console ever in the U.S. after the Wii (it’s uncertain if it’s selling faster than the NES due to the lack of sales data for that system). While it’s still to early to tell how much it will sell lifetime, it should easily be able to become one of the best-selling systems ever in the U.S., possibly making it into the top five.
The Switch is also easily outpacing combined aligned 3DS+Wii U sales throughout Europe, and is the second fastest-selling home console in the region after the Wii. It has done especially well in France, which seems to have a soft spot for Nintendo systems. In absolute terms, as of the end of 2019 it has sold more units in France than any other European market we have data for, and in relative terms it has already exceeded half of the PS4’s lifetime-to-date sales. It appears to be the only major European market where the Switch is outpacing the PS4, however. While the Switch may not be performing the PS4 in Europe as a whole, it certainly has the potential to end up among the top five home consoles ever in the region.
The Switch’s sales are also very strong in Japan, which is almost certainly a result of the Switch’s dual nature as both a home console and a handheld. However, it had a much slower start than the 3DS, selling only 6.84 million units by the end of 2018, compared to 9.78 million for the 3DS at the end of 2012. As the Japanese market appears to be reacting to it more like they would towards a handheld, perhaps the relatively high price of the Switch was a factor for its slow start. The Switch retails for ¥30,000 in Japan, double what the standard 3DS model retailed for after its big price cut in August 2011 and higher than any other Nintendo system before it, console or handheld. Prior to that price cut, the 3DS’s sales in 2011 were comparable to what the Switch’s were in the March to July period of 2018, which lends further support to the idea that the Switch’s price was holding it back at the start. Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that the 3DS was posting massive numbers for the 2011-2013 period, some of the best in the history of the Japanese market (the 3DS’s 2012 performance in particular was the third-best year for any single system, after the DS’s showings in 2006 & 2007), and it’s the #3 best-selling system ever there after the DS and Game Boy.
So, the Switch’s performance relative to the 3DS in Japan like it has in the West is understandable given the unique conditions of that market. However, its initial deficit did not stick, and the Switch is proving to be far less front-loaded than the 3DS. After the Sept. 2019 release of the handheld-only Switch Lite, which retails for only ¥20,000, the Switch’s sales rapidly grew and its deficit against the 3DS stopped growing. Continued strong sales in 2020 (further aided by the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons) combined with the 3DS having experienced a significant drop in its fourth year has resulted in the Switch rapidly narrowing the gap, which had nearly closed entirely by the end of 2020. It’s nearly certain that the Switch will outsell the 3DS, but by how much exactly remains to be seen. Given its current deficit against the DS, however, it is unlikely (but not impossible) for it to be able to challenge the DS for the title of new #1 system ever in Japan. However, even if it only beats the 3DS that accomplishment will still put it well ahead of any other home console in the history of the Japanese market.
Marketing & PR: This generation is a great example of why successful marketing and good PR are essential.
The Wii U’s problems weren’t limited to a serious games drought in 2013 and a less significant price advantage over the competition than what the Wii enjoyed. It also suffered from poor marketing. Commercials for the system and its games were uncommon leading up to launch and almost nonexistent for months afterward. The commercials it did have were focused heavily on the touchscreen controller and not enough on the games or even the fact that it was a new system. There wasn’t any heavy ad presence until the holiday season of 2013, and even then they only tried to target kids and families, not once attempting to go after core gamers. After the 2013 holidays, Wii U commercials essentially evaporated once again. However, starting with Smash Bros. 4, Nintendo began to more actively promote their major Wii U games, though by that point it was too late to do anything to help hardware sales.
Considering the brilliant and omnipresent marketing for the Wii, Nintendo’s failure to properly market the Wii U came as a surprise and likely worked against the system. For example, it is frequently claimed that many lower-information consumers were unaware that the Wii U was a new-generation system, but rather thought it was a tablet peripheral for the Wii. Given the 2012 ad campaign it’s easy to see how one could come to this conclusion. Nintendo themselves effectively admitted this in the aforementioned Holiday 2013 commercials for the Wii U, which made a point in stating plainly that, yes, the Wii U was an entirely new system.
The Switch meanwhile has seen Nintendo improve their marketing efforts considerably. The official announcement/reveal video for the system in October 2016 did a remarkably good job of differentiating the system from its predecessor and of clearly illustrating what the system is and what it can do. TV ads for the Switch and its games are in much higher rotation than those for the Wii U ever were. Even the system’s name, while still quirky in a very Nintendo-ish way, serves to separate it from the Wii brand, and helps illustrate its ability to seamlessly switch from console play to handheld play.
Meanwhile, Microsoft and Sony have aggressively marketed their systems and games throughout the generation. Ads for the XBO, PS4, and their games are a common fixture on TV programs viewed by the 18-35 demographic. However, it can be argued that it’s not quite a wash for the two.
The XBO suffered some big hits prior to launch due to various PR debacles ahead of launch. Before its official reveal, there were rumors that the system would require an internet connection to function, with mandatory daily check-ins to be able to play any games. Public opinion was negative regarding this, which prompted then-creative director of Microsoft Studios Adam Orth post a series of tweets telling gamers to “Deal with it,” which further exacerbated the backlash (Orth later resigned, presumably as a result of the backlash). When the system was finally officially unveiled in May 2013, MS hosted a press conference that was also negatively received. It was satirically summarized as “TV. TV. TV. Sports. Sports. TV. TV. Call of Duty.”
Between Orth’s tweets and the announcement event, as well as MS’s showing at E3 2013 several weeks later, the system garnered a negative reputation in the eyes of many gamers and made the less expensive PS4 seem that much better of a value. MS eventually relented and made strides to correct for that, most notably by removing onerous DRM that would have placed restrictions on second-hand games and required XBO owners to check in with MS’s servers once every 24 hours to be able to play their video games. While the removal of “almost-always-online DRM” likely saved the system from being an utter sales disappointment—given the facts that broadband penetration rates are less than universal in the U.S. (the Xbox brand’s best market) and that, based on MS’s own data from not too long before the XBO was announced, almost 40% of all Xbox 360 owners weren’t connected to XBL at all at the time, MS’s original plan would have limited its potential market greatly—it still seems to have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many gamers and may have encouraged some early adopters to switch to Sony, perhaps explaining why even when it was reduced to price parity and later even undercut the PS4’s price it still failed to outperform the PS4 outside a handful of months.
In addition, MS initially made a big to-do about the XBO being an “all-in-one” system (hence the “One” in its name). While modern consoles already combine some multimedia functionality of the kind you see in set-top boxes like the Roku (e.g., having streaming video apps like Netflix and Hulu), MS tried going a step further by having the XBO also double as a secondary cable box that you can run your existing cable box through (though it lacks DVR capability, which to some seems to render the feature pointless as you still have to switch to the actual cable box to view recorded programs). They also tried to push various Kinect-aided navigational abilities in the XBO’s user interface.
However, in the actual ad campaign, they didn’t really emphasize the multimedia features all that much, though they did kind of give them a passing mention. Granted, there’s only so much you can do in the typical time span of a TV ad, but still, it was incumbent on Microsoft to convince those who haven’t yet decided between PlayStation and Xbox that the higher price tag is worth it, and in that regard they failed. The PS4 can do nearly everything that the XBO can do. It’s not like MS has a monopoly on apps like Netflix or Hulu, not to mention the PS4 has its own camera accessory. While the PS Camera may not be quite as robust as Kinect 2.0, at least Sony gave customers the option to choose whether or not to get one from day one. A couple of exclusive apps and the ability to connect to a cable box was insufficient to justify that $500 price tag plus the $60 per annum cost for XBL Gold (though MS later removed the requirement to have Gold to access non-gaming apps). And non-gamers weren’t going to bother, either. Not when there were far cheaper set-top boxes as well as smart TVs available at the time.
Overall, MS did not do as good of a job as Sony did with with convincing people that their new system was the one to get and, combined with lingering suspicions after the debacles of spring 2013, the XBO suffered from serious image problems. Nevertheless, they still aggressively marketed the XBO, and its reputation improved considerably after the first year thanks to the actions of new management. For example, they had a very well-received showing at E3 2015 and at Gamescom later that summer, and more recently the Xbox One X is widely considered a better upgrade than the PS4 Pro, with the $100 higher price tag widely considered as being worth it.
Duration of Support: Support for the Wii U slowed dramatically after 2015, with the only notable first-party titles in 2016 being Twilight Princess HD, Star Fox Zero, and Paper Mario: Color Splash. Breath of the Wild was the last first-party Wii U game and was released at the same time as the Switch and its version of the game. What little third-party AAA support it got had already dried up by the end of 2016. And to put the final nail in the coffin, the Wii U was itself discontinued in January 2017.
As for the Switch itself, it is highly likely that it will have a comparable life cycle to most other Nintendo systems, probably taking 6-7 years to be replaced. First-party support will likely diminish rapidly within a year prior to its replacement being released. It is unlikely to have any strong long-term third-party support, especially once the next-gen PlayStation and Xbox systems are released.
Meanwhile, the PS4 and XBO will likely continue to get decent support once they are replaced in fall of 2020. Third parties will continue to release cross-generation titles just as they’ve done at the start of the previous two generational transitions. Also, unlike in previous generations, both Sony and Microsoft are releasing many of their games as cross-gen titles for at least the first year of the lives of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S. Both systems will likely stay in production until 2022 or 2023. While first-party efforts will likely quickly shift to the ninth-gen systems, based on what we’ve seen with the previous PlayStation systems as well as the 360, the PS4 & XBO will likely continue to get decent support from third parties for at least a year or two after their successors are released, with residual support (e.g., sports games and assorted low-budget titles) continuing for maybe another year or so after that. Thus, we can expect hardware sales for the PS4 and XBO to be at least semi-decent after they are replaced.
Hardware: The PS4 marked the first time the most powerful system of its generation was also the sales leader. However, it was not the sales leader because of its overall superior specs. Both it and the XBO are similar enough in terms of both power and system architecture to where they can run the same games at similar levels of quality. While multiplatform titles sometimes run at a higher resolution and/or framerate on PS4, the difference does not appear to have been enough to affect the buying decisions of the average low-information consumer, though it may have swayed more discerning gamers.
Of course, that has changed somewhat with the release of enhanced versions of the PS4 & XBO. The Xbox One X has a GPU considerably more powerful than the PS4 Pro’s, and 50% more RAM to boot. The power gap is enough to where more games can hit higher resolutions, including native 4K, on the One X than on the Pro. While the Pro does have the price advantage, the fact that many games don’t hit native 4K resolutions on it is apparently viewed by some as making the upgrade not as “worth it” as the One X is.
While sales data for the One X and Pro in the U.S. and Europe are nearly nonexistent, with no information on the exact percentages, what information we do have suggests that One X had a stronger start than the Pro in both the U.S. and the UK. Given that the XBO has generally not been selling as well as the PS4 in the U.S. or the UK, if the One X is doing at least as well as the Pro, that means the One X represents a larger share of XBO sales than the Pro does of PS4 sales in those countries. Furthermore, in terms of impact on sales, the Pro produced no obvious increases in PS4 sales in the U.S., while the One X resulted in substantial year-over-year increases that produced the largest first-quarter and second-largest second-quarter sales ever for the XBO (Q1 2018 was also the XBO’s largest non-holiday quarter overall in the U.S.).
In Japan, the One X is a significantly larger portion of XBO sales than the Pro is for the PS4. The One X’s share of total XBO sales was 69% in 2018 and 62.4% in 2019, while the Pro’s share of total PS4 sales was 22.9% in 2017, 27.7% in 2018, and 35.3% in 2019. However, given how different Japan’s buying habits are compared to the West and how small the market for Xbox is (the XBO has been selling less than 1% of the what the PS4 has sold every year since 2016), it’s unsure if this massive disparity extends to North America and Europe.
If the One X did indeed outsell the Pro in the U.S., this could potentially be the first time one system outsold another because it was more powerful, even if it is only involving higher-end upgraded models geared more towards videophile gamers that own 4K TVs. Even if it stopped outselling the Pro at some point, if it still represented a larger share of XBO sales than the Pro’s share of PS4 sales, that too would suggest that people looking to buy an XBO (or trade in their older model XBO for a newer model) are more likely to buy the One X despite the higher price because of its power, while people looking to buy a PS4 (or are considering upgrading their older model PS4 for a newer one) are less likely to buy a Pro despite the lower price. If gamers feel like they’re getting what they’re paying for, they may very well be inclined to spend more on a system.
As for the Wii U, Nintendo’s decision to go with the touch-screen gamepad contributed to the higher cost of the system relative to the Wii. The cost of the Wii U’s components in 2012 was estimated to be around $228, with the gamepad being responsible for $79 of that, a third of the total cost. That is at least $60 more than the typical conventional first-party gamepad costs to make. While the Wii U gamepad arguably has more potential practical value than the Wii Remote did, it was a much tougher sell, and Nintendo’s marketing department had a hard time with proper messaging. Thus, the gamepad is almost certainly a direct contributing factor to the Wii U’s lackluster sales. Had they not made the gamepad an integral part of the Wii U, they could have released a SKU with the Pro Controller for a price much lower than the SKU with the gamepad, perhaps no higher than $250, same as the Wii. They could have also had the advertising focus more on the games and system itself, rather than the gamepad.
And as for the Switch, it is unique in that it’s the first console-handheld hybrid. By putting all their eggs in one basket with the unification of their home console and handheld development efforts, Nintendo took an awful risk, but it ended up paying off. While Nintendo’s consoles are all over the place in terms of relative success, their handhelds consistently perform well. This appears to be especially important in Japan, where traditional home consoles have declined in popularity but handhelds continue to do very well. While officially a home console, the portable aspect of the Switch has so far garnered it far better sales than one would normally expect from a console in the current Japanese market, with the system selling more like a handheld. Also, the Switch gives Wii U/PS3/360-quality experiences on the go, with a high-quality 720p screen. Handheld gaming has never looked this good, and the huge leap from the 3DS means bigger and better experiences can be had. Of course, even on a good HDTV the Switch’s first-party games aren’t anything to scoff at, as even though the Switch is outclassed by the PS4 & XBO in terms of power, Nintendo has always made very good use of their hardware’s capabilities to make some visually impressive games.
The Switch Lite meanwhile offers a pure handheld experience, and at a lower cost than the base model. However, as a pure handheld it cannot be connected to a TV, being incompatible with the base model’s dock. The controllers are fully integrated into the system and cannot be removed like the Joy-Cons can on the hybrid model. And with the release of a base-model Switch with improvements that give it a longer battery life when undocked, even longer than the Lite’s, the Lite cannot even claim to be better-suited for playing on the go, even if it is somewhat more compact (the Lite is about the size of the PS Vita). In nearly every way, the Lite is a downgrade. It is yet another case of getting what you pay for. So far, the standard model Switch is by far the most popular model.
There haven’t been any severe hardware issues affecting any of these systems, and failure rates seem to be within historical norms for such electronic devices.
Conclusion: While this generation isn’t quite over yet as of this writing (the PS4 & XBO aren’t scheduled to be replaced until Nov. 2020, and the Switch will almost certainly not be replaced before 2022), we have more than enough data to inform us why things have played out the way they have. Having learned from the mistakes they made last generation, Sony positioned the PS4 to be the dominant force this generation. It was quite simply the best overall value proposition for months after launch, enough to gain considerable momentum over the XBO, and coupled with the fact that PlayStation is the strongest global console brand the PS4 has dominated in terms of worldwide market share.
Meanwhile, the XBO has had more mixed results for various reasons. Earlier in its life it was hobbled by a high launch price that was a result of forced bundling of Kinect, plus the E3 2013 debacle and other PR mistakes still lingered in the minds of many. While it is still doing relatively well in the U.S. and UK, the XBO simply doesn’t have any of the advantages its predecessor had over the PS3. Due to stalled momentum, the XBO struggled to expand its market share. While first unbundling Kinect and then undercutting the PS4 by $50 did help boost its sales, it was still being outsold by the PS4 in the U.S. through most of its life. Except for the 2014 holidays, the August-October period of 2016, and a handful of other months, the Xbox One has consistently placed second this generation in the brand’s biggest and best market.
This battle was Sony’s to lose this time around, and they most certainly did not lose. But for what it’s worth, the XBO’s drop in sales from the 360 was, at least in the U.S., not as large as the drop in sales Sony saw from the PS2 to the PS3 a generation prior. It has already surpassed the PS3’s lifetime total in the U.S., and is on track to sell over 30 million units lifetime, on par with the PS1’s U.S. total. Things could have gone a lot worse for the Xbox One than they did.
As for Nintendo, it is clear that the “Wii model” of lower-powered hardware that is in turn lower-priced and heavily focused on an unconventional/”gimmick” controller is not a guarantee of success, and that a console maker makes underpowered hardware (which ensures third parties won’t ever be fully behind it) at their own peril. Sure, it worked last time, but last time they had a bigger price gap and a gimmick that was a far easier sell than the Wii U’s gamepad, which simply doesn’t have the novelty or “Wow!” factor of the Wii Remote.
Despite attempting to salvage the situation, there was precious little they could do. Price cuts, Mario Kart, and Smash Bros. helped a bit, but by the end of 2014 it became painfully obvious that it didn’t stand a chance of matching even the GameCube. The Wii U ended up selling only 13,560,000 units globally, making it Nintendo’s worst-selling home console ever.
Nintendo stuck to the same basic “low-price, low-power, gimmick-based” strategy with the Switch, but their tactics changed a bit. The Switch is “gimmicky” in the sense that it is not a conventional console, but it is oddly enough more conventional than the Wii & Wii U. Its “gimmick” is that it is a home console that can be played as a handheld (or a powerful handheld that can also serve as a home console, if you prefer). And Nintendo has had conceptually similar products before, with the Super Game Boy for the SNES and Game Boy Player for the GameCube, which allowed for their handheld games to be played on their consoles. But there’s more to the Switch than a gimmick. In terms of controls, the Switch represents a return to something far more traditional. Motion controls, while present, have a greatly reduced presence on the system (though there are a handful of games like 1-2-Switch, ARMS, and Ring Fit Adventure where they feature prominently), and there is no 3DS/Wii U-style dual-screen functionality. This move back toward standard controls for most games makes this unconventional (and first-ever) hybrid console-handheld system rather conventional in many ways compared to the Wii and Wii U.
Finally, the eighth generation was, like most industries, impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the film industry, which was greatly harmed by the months-long shutdown of movie theaters, video games benefited from the pandemic due to increased spending on at-home entertainment, something that has been written about extensively by multiple media outlets.
Most notably, the U.S. saw an across-the-board increase in sales of all three extant consoles beginning in March 2020, which was further fueled by most U.S. households receiving a stimulus check of $1200 or more starting in April.
The PS4 and XBO had been experiencing declines in sales throughout 2019 and into early 2020, which is normal for aging systems approaching replacement. But they both experienced a significant month-over-month increase in sales in March. While March is almost always down from February in terms of weekly average sales for every system, the PS4 was up 79.3% and the XBO was up 69.9%. In April, they experienced continued growth, posting massive year-over-year increases (+178% for the PS4 and +210% for the XBO) that resulted in some of the best non-holiday sales ever for both systems. Sales remained up from 2019 for both systems in May, though to a far lesser degree than in April, and sales continued to remain strong until stock issues caused them to drop off. In June, both systems were back to being down year-over-year, but by a far smaller degree than either the PS3 or 360 were in 2013, the year they were replaced. The XBO’s stock was exhausted by July and sales experienced a massive decline (restocks in August helped, but sales never fully recovered to May or June levels), while the PS4 didn’t exhaust its stock until October, but prior to that they were selling quite well. Despite
The PS4 sold about 863,000 units in the U.S. in the May-September period of 2020, the second most about of units sold of any console in the same period in its replacement year after the PS2. This is a decline of only 8.5% for the May-September period of 2019, where the PS4 sold 943,000 units. This is the lowest decline in baseline sales of any system ever in its replacement year in the U.S. For reference, the Xbox 360 sold 626,000 units in the May-Sept. period of 2013 compared to 1,083,000 in the same period of 2012, a decline of 42.2%. Under normal circumstances, throughout all of 2020 the PS4 likely would have been down from 2019 on average by at least 30-40% given what the 360 & PS3 were doing in 2013 and where it was at itself at the start of 2020. Even the PS2, which declined slower than pretty much every other system ever, declined 19.1% in the May-Sept. period of 2006 (its replacement year) compared to the same period in 2005, far more than what we saw with the PS4.
As for the XBO, it managed comparable month-over-month changes to the PS4 for the March-May period, and though it experienced a decent drop in June (both from the previous month and from June 2019), considering its abysmal sales in July, that may indicate that stock issues began some time in mid to late June. It’s uncertain how well it would have done had stock not been depleted so early, but it stands to reason that the overall market split between it and the PS4 would have been more similar to where it was from March through May, i.e. no less than 80% of PS4 sales.
Between the two of them, they managed to sell about 1,282,000 units in the May-September period of 2020 versus 1,528,000 units in the same period of 2019, a decline of 16.1%. Compare this to the 360 & PS3, which sold 1,186,600 units in the May-Sept. 2013 period versus 1,885,000 units in the same period in 2013, a decline of 37%. Combined PS4 & XBO sales managed considerably smaller drops than combined 360 & PS3 sales and even outperformed them in their respective replacement years despite lagging behind the prior year, and that’s with the XBO’s stock issues and the PS3 and (to a lesser extent) the 360 both getting a solid bump from Grand Theft Auto V in September 2013. The PS4 alone sold upwards of 50% or more units that it should have in that period. This indicates higher demand for the PS4 & XBO than what one would have normally expected, which appears to confirm that the “COVID bump” was not limited to just March & April.
The Switch almost certainly benefited from the “COVID bump” as well, and was also assisted greatly by the release of Animal Crossing, which caused an even larger spike in March than the ones seen for the PS4 & XBO. While it is hard to say exactly how much of the Switch’s growth in 2020 in the U.S. is attributable to the “COVID bump” and how much is attributable to Animal Crossing, given the degree of growth seen with the PS4 & XBO and the typical growth caused by software releases, Animal Crossing was likely the primary factor for the growth seen in March while the “COVID bump” was likely responsible for the continued strong sales in April (with Animal Crossing still having some sort of residual effect). The available body of data indicates that individual games have never caused any hardware sales growth lasting more than two months, the pandemic is likely the sole driver of the sales growth seen from May 2020 onward. Overall, the Switch grew 76.8% for the May-October period in the U.S., and 38.5% for the year as a whole.
Japan is a more interesting case, with mixed results. Aside from the brief spike caused by the release of FFVII Remake, the PS4 didn’t seen any real year-over-year growth through most of 2020 and in fact has seen a very large drop from 2019. However, it did see some anomalous and statistically significant growth in weekly sales from late February through to the week prior to the release of FFVII Remake (that game helping drive April to 177.7% growth over April 2019), and its year-over-year drops in March, May, and June were lower than in other months, similar to how the March-June period was relatively strong for the PS4 in the U.S. This suggests that there may have been some increased spending on the PS4 as a result of the pandemic. It is also worth pointing out that the PS4 had already been declining at a much faster rate in Japan than in the U.S.; in 2019, the PS4 declined 38.8% from 2018 in Japan, but only 27.4% in the U.S., and the Jan.-Feb. period of 2020 was down 70% in Japan but only 45.7% in the U.S. This could partially explain why the PS4’s relative performance in Japan in 2020 wasn’t all that impressive compared to what it did in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the Switch has seen significant growth in 2020, which was up 31.1% from 2019. While much of that was due to the spike Animal Crossing caused in March (47.6% of the Switch’s net year-over-year improvements came from just the first three weeks of AC being on sale), the general baseline in 2020 was considerably better than it was in most of 2019. Sales of the Switch in the period of April 6 to August 30 (equivalent to NPD’s April-August period in 2020) increased 87.4% from the same period in 2019, which is higher than the increases seen from October 2019 through January 2020. While the Switch was slightly down year-over-year during the latter third of 2020, that was because the Lite gave the Switch a much bigger boost in Japan during the latter third of 2019 than it did in the U.S. Overall, the Switch averaged nearly 85,000 units per week from the April to October period, considerably better than its baseline prior to the Lite’s release.
How much of the improvement in the Switch’s sales in 2020 is due to possible pandemic-induced increases in spending on video games and how much is due to the possible residual effects of the Switch Lite is uncertain, but the sheer size of the growth relative to previous increases and the overall trajectory of the Switch when compared to the long-term impact hardware revisions typically have on sales in Japan suggests the pandemic was the primary driver of the observed growth. For example, the Switch’s sales in the first six weeks of 2020 were 35% higher than in the first six weeks of 2019, which while significant is still considerably less than the growth we saw in the April-August period. Looking at the impacts of past growth caused by the release of new hardware models, the general pattern is for sales to trend downward over time, never upward.
Europe has also seen a general increase in sales of consoles and games as a result of the pandemic. However, due to the lack of reliable monthly sales data, no good comparisons can be made regarding year-over-year changes in Switch sales in 2020.
Ninth Generation: PlayStation 5 vs. Xbox Series X|S
Notes: As this generation has just started as of this writing, we can only make educated guesses as to how it will play out. Things could change quickly early on because of unforeseen circumstances, and this section may be overhauled extensively to account for new events.
The successor to Nintendo’s Switch will be included in this section, though it is unlikely to release prior to 2023.
When applicable, all other notes from prior sections, including those regarding data availability, hold for this section as well.
Games: As in the previous two generations, both PlayStation and Xbox will have strong software support from all the major third parties. Notable third-party multiplatform releases that have been released or announced for Gen 9 systems include Resident Evil Village, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Far Cry 6, Gotham Knights, Hogwarts Legacy, and the usual roundup of annualized franchises like Call of Duty and all the notable sports games.
Sony continues to invest heavily in first-party development. Spider-Man: Miles Morales and a remake of Demon’s Souls were both launch titles. Announced games being developed for the PS5 by Sony-owned studios include Horizon: Forbidden West, God of War: Ragnarok, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, and Gran Turismo 7; as of this writing, all of those named titles are expected to be released in 2021, except for GT7 which is slated for 2022. Some third-party titles, like Kena: Bridge of Spirits and Godfall, have/will come to PS5 but not the Series X|S, though they will be available on PC. Other third-party titles like Deathloop, Ghostwire: Tokyo, and most notably Final Fantasy XVI (and likely future installments of FFVII Remake) will be timed PlayStation exclusives.
Microsoft, after having struggled with first-party support for most of the Xbox One’s life cycle, has invested heavily in expanding their repertoire of first-party studios. In addition to 343 Industries (Halo), The Coalition (Gears), Turn 10 (Forza Motorsport), Playground Games (Forza Horizon & a forthcoming Fable game), and Rare, their newer acquired or created studios include The Initiative (Perfect Dark), Obsidian Entertainment (Grounded and the forthcoming Avowed), Double Fine (Psychonauts 2), Compulsion Games (forthcoming projects unknown), and Undead Labs (State of Decay).
But perhaps most notable was their acquisition of Zenimax, the parent company of Bethesda Softworks, id Software, Arkane Studios, and MachineGames. This is the single largest acquisition of a third-party publisher by a console maker in the history of gaming. As a result of the buyout, Microsoft now owns notable video game IPs like The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Doom, and Wolfenstein, among others, as well as future releases like Starfield. Aside from launch window titles like Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo that have already been contracted to be timed PS5 exclusives, all future releases from the studios acquired in the ZeniMax buyout will not be released on other consoles.
As mentioned in the section on Generation 8, many games, both third- and first-party, released within the first year or two of the PS5 and Series X|S will be cross-generation titles. How the newfound prevalence of cross-gen first-party titles (once a rarity) impacts sales of the new-gen systems remains to be seen, though the Gen 9 versions of those titles will likely be the best-looking and best-performing.
Given that Xbox will likely be highly competitive with PlayStation when it comes to their first-party libraries, this will likely have some sort of impact on the dynamics between the PS5 and Series X|S, perhaps narrowing the market share gap between them.
Pricing: The PS5 and new Xbox launched with two differently-priced SKUs. Focusing on U.S. pricing, the Xbox Series X and Blu-ray-equipped PS5 both retail for $500. Adjusted for inflation, that is not much more expensive than the Xbox and PS2 were at launch, and slightly less expensive than the PS1 and Xbox 360, which given how powerful the systems are is a reasonable price.
Meanwhile, the digital-only PS5 retails for $400, a significant price difference from the Blu-ray model given how inexpensive Blu-ray drives are now compared to a decade ago. This may have been done because Sony both A) wants to heavily push digital and lock buyers who don’t care for physical into the PlayStation digital store (consoles being closed platforms/”walled gardens”), and B) wants to be more price-competitive with the second, cheaper of the new-gen Xbox models. That model is the Xbox Series S, which has a launch price of $300. The Series S is itself a digital-only platform, but unlike the digital-only PS5, which possesses the exact same specs and therefore power as the Blu-ray-equipped model, the Series S is less powerful than the Series X. While it will play the same games as the Series X, it will run many if most games at lower resolution, with a target resolution of 1440p instead of 4K.
Both digital-only models are incredibly affordable. The digital-only PS5 has the lowest inflation-adjusted launch price of any PlayStation system to date, and is about on par with the adjusted prices of the Sega Genesis, Xbox 360 “Core” SKU, and Wii U Deluxe SKU. Meanwhile, the Series S is the third-least expensive console at launch in the history of the U.S. market when adjusted for inflation (only the NES Control Deck SKU and the GameCube had lower adjusted launch prices). How much this will impact sales, including both overall sales and their own shares of sales their respective platform, remains to be seen. We don’t yet know how many gamers who still buy physical media and are considering buying a PS5 will be willing to sacrifice owning physical copies in order to save $100. Likewise, we don’t yet know how enticing the Series S’s $300 price tag will be to prospective Xbox buyers as we not only don’t know how many don’t care about owning physical copies and/or being able to play games in 4K.
As in the Eighth Generation, it is possible that U.S. sales of both the PS5 and Series X|S will respond more to temporary price cuts issued during the holidays than to permanent price cuts, thus maintaining the high percentage of sales represented by the holiday season relative to years prior to 2010, and likely resulting in both platforms having relatively flat sales curves during most of their primary life cycle.
Regional Trends: The U.S. market will once again be Xbox’s best market. Given their competitive pricing and Xbox’s expanded roster of first-party titles (now including popular series like The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Doom), the PS5 and Series X|S will likely be highly competitive, perhaps the closest generation we’ve seen since the 16-bit era, and it’s not out of the question for Xbox to once again become the overall market leader.
Europe could also see the market share gap between PlayStation and Xbox narrow, though given PlayStation’s dominance of continental Europe, the PS5 will almost certainly be the clear winner between the two. However, in the UK things could prove to be competitive like in the U.S. market, which the UK has tended to closely resemble.
Japan meanwhile will likely see Xbox continue to struggle for relevancy. Given the brand’s history, even under a best-case scenario the Series X|S will likely not breach one million units sold, and initial sales are more in line with the Xbox One. The PS5, meanwhile, will probably see Sony retain the same approximate level of sales they had with the PS3 & PS4, selling somewhere between 9 and 11 million units.
Marketing & PR: Neither Sony nor Microsoft engaged in heavy TV advertising for their new systems ahead of launch. Sony has released a short ad touting the PS5’s visuals and other advancements, as well as teasing several titles being released for it, and MS has released a TV spot of their own, and there’s been a few other ads for both systems here and there. Some of the more notable games are getting a fair amount of ad space, though. Much of TV advertisement for both systems has been cross-promotional deals with other companies like Burger King, Taco Bell, and Walmart. However, despite the relative death of TV ads made specifically by Sony or MS, there is still a lot of interest in the systems, which indicates that TV advertising likely has greatly reduced importance for promoting new hardware releases compared to what it used to have.
In the buildup to and months following the respective reveals of their new systems, neither Sony nor MS have made any major PR blunders, the first time both have avoided doing so since Gen 6. While minor mistakes were arguably made regarding things like game showcases and reveals, neither company has done anything that might alienate large numbers of gamers. Perhaps the only thing that’s generated significant negative buzz was how the initial wave of preorders for both systems were handled, or rather mishandled, as it was extremely difficult to obtain a preorder for either a PS5 or Series X|S due to limited allotments of systems and other issues (though much of the mess surrounding preorders arguably falls on retailers, especially Walmart, who jumped the gun on PS5 preorders).
Duration of Support: Given the length of the past two generations, the PS5 and Series X|S will likely be replaced in Nov. 2027, giving them a primary life cycle of seven years just like the PS3, PS4, and XBO. They will likely be supported in late life and after their inevitable replacement to the same degree as their predecessors.
Hardware: Both the PS5 and Series X|S are powerful systems by the standards of the technology that exists at the time of their launch. Both are equipped with solid-state drives, as opposed to the magnetic hard drives that defined the previous two generations (and the original Xbox). In addition to providing much shorter load times, certain developers will be designing some their games around the speed of these SSDs, ushering in new gameplay mechanics not possible on older systems (notable examples include the new Ratchet & Clank game for the PS5 and The Medium for the Series X|S). Such advancements could be enticing for gamers. The PS5’s SDD is apparently somewhat faster than that of the Series X|S, but the Series X appears to have a somewhat more powerful GPU. These differences will likely be too slight to make any difference, at least when it comes to multiplatform titles.
While they are still new systems and unforeseen complications may arise, so far neither platform has seen any significant hardware issues that could harm their reception, and most issues have been relatively minor so far.
Conclusion: This is the first generation where neither PlayStation nor Xbox went into a generation with no clear advantage over the other. The original Xbox had the disadvantage of being a system from an as-yet unproven brand running against the already-popular PS2, which was riding high off the success of the PS1. The PS3 had the disadvantage of launching with an excessively high price, both in absolute terms and relative to the Xbox 360. And the Xbox One had the disadvantage of negative PR plaguing it in the months ahead of launch, whereas Sony was on-point with their messaging on the PS4, not to mention the XBO cost 25% more than the PS4 because Kinect was force-bundled with the system for its first few months.
But there are no real potential momentum-killers this time. The PS5 and Series X|S started off on as close to even footing as possible. This could make it the most interesting showdown between the two to date. Will they retain about the same amount of market share, or will the balance shift? Only time will tell, but Sony and MS are both putting forward impressive-looking systems that will both have solid first-party libraries.
However, as of early 2021, both systems have been struggling with stock issues, so it’s too early to make any real judgement calls regarding their performance.
As for Nintendo, while they have yet to announce a successor to the Switch and are unlikely to do so any time before the end of 2021, they are always a wild card, constantly trying to reinvent themselves, often to mixed results. They hit on a winning formula with the Switch being a home console-handheld hybrid. Will they continue with that in Gen 9, or will they go back to making two separate platforms again? There are only so many routes they can take with the latter, and the results of going with two separate platforms has resulted in consistent success with their handhelds but wild swings in the popularity of their home consoles, so going back to that would be a huge gamble. Also their only choices for home consoles are either A) make a new Wii-style system, which has been done before and is almost certainly no-go for them after the Wii U’s failure, or B) go back to making powerful, conventional consoles, which is something they haven’t released since 2001 and would serve no other purpose besides siphoning market share from Sony & MS. Personally, I think given that consolidating their development efforts into a single platform is more efficient and that the Switch is a proven success, they will play it safe and continue making hybrid systems. But since we are still at least a couple of years away from the Switch’s successor being released, we’ll have to wait and see. Nintendo is after all a company full of surprises.
Handheld Systems: Game Boy vs. Game Gear, et al., Game Boy Advance (unchallenged), DS vs. PSP, and 3DS vs. Vita
Notes: Because handhelds don’t always neatly fit into the same generations as home systems, nor do they really compete directly with home consoles, I decided to split them off into their own section.
All the prior notes that apply to availability of sales data for consoles also apply to handhelds. Additionally, I am lacking monthly U.S. sales figures for the GBA for Feb. 2006 and the entirety of Q4 2007. The annual figures for the GBA in 2006 & 2007 are estimates based on approximations of sales figures for the missing months. There is likely a negligible margin of error for 2006, too small to make a difference on the yearly chart, as only that one non-holiday month is missing. However, the margin of error for 2007 may be upwards of 5% or more as the entirety of Q4 is missing for that year. I also have insufficient reliable monthly NPD data for the Vita, and monthly NPD figures for the 3DS after 2016 are incomplete.
Also, as mentioned in the section on Eighth Gen consoles, the Nintendo Switch is being excluded from this section, as despite being a console-handheld hybrid it is “officially” a home console. All commentary and charts regarding the Switch’s sales are in the section on the Eighth Generation.
Games: Nintendo’s handhelds have always possessed very strong game libraries. The original Game Boy had Tetris, one of the most popular games ever, as a launch title. It also had entries from many popular NES and SNES series, including Super Mario, Metroid, Mega Man, and The Legend of Zelda. The Game Boy also saw the debut of the Kirby series earlier in its life. Later in its life the Pokemon franchise debuted. Pokemon was a runaway hit, and to this day the original game in the series, Pokemon Red & Blue, remains the all-time best-selling handheld game not originally bundled with its system (Tetris is still #1 overall, but was bundled with the Game Boy at launch and for a long time afterward). Pokemon appears to have had a very strong effect on sales of Nintendo handhelds, especially in the U.S. where Game Boy sales spiked sharply in 1999 (also the first full year for the GB Color) and GBA sales remained extremely strong.
Later Nintendo handhelds have continued to offer strong libraries as well. In addition to older Nintendo series that continued to have portable versions, other series would make the leap to portable. Mario Kart made its portable debut on the GBA with Super Circuit, New Super Mario Bros. debuted on the DS, proving the commercial viability of 2D Mario games even 20 years after SMB debuted, and Animal Crossing experienced incredible success with its DS and 3DS installments. Some third-party titles have experienced success on more recent Nintendo portables as well, mainly in Japan. Dragon Quest IX debuted on the DS and was huge in Japan. The 3DS has received entries in the Monster Hunter series, which is also very popular in Japan. Another 3DS series with decent popularity with Japanese audiences is Yōkai Watch.
Non-Nintendo handhelds in the 80s & 90s tended to have rather lackluster libraries compared to the Game Boy, with few if any games on them becoming classics. The Game Gear did have ports or remakes of notable Sega titles, including Sonic, and probably fared the best of the others, but even its library simply couldn’t come close to matching the Game Boy’s. Meanwhile, the Lynx and TurboExpress had libraries that have proven to be largely forgettable to most gamers.
However, the PSP managed to build a solid library of games, becoming the first non-Nintendo handheld to have an impressive software lineup. Both third parties and Sony themselves had many original titles and spin-offs of popular console games, including portable entries in the GTA, Gran Turismo, God of War, Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, LittleBigPlanet, and Metal Gear Solid series. Monster Hunter also had its portable debut on the PSP, with that entry in the series proving to be extremely popular in Japan.
The Vita suffered quite a bit in the software department, though. It received fewer games that appealed to Western audiences, though it fared better with games that appealed to Japanese audiences. Its launch window lineup wasn’t exactly anything to write home about, either. Overall, the Vita’s library was not as strong as its predecessor.
Price: In addition to having a strong software library, the Game Boy also had the benefit of being a very affordable piece of hardware, much more so that its more powerful full-color counterparts. Later models were quite affordable as well. The GBA was likewise dirt cheap at launch, retailing for a mere $99. The DS was somewhat more expensive than previous Nintendo handhelds at launch, with a retail price of $150. The DS Lite was the least expensive DS model at $130, while the DSi XL launched at $190, a rather hefty price tag for a Nintendo handheld. Incidentally, the DS Lite was when DS sales really started to take off.
The 3DS meanwhile had by far the highest launch price of any Nintendo handheld ever, tipping the scales at $249, which is likely the main factor in its sluggish early sales. It received a substantial price cut of $80 after being on the market for only a few months, which caused sales to rebound. Standard 3DS models were still a tad high as Nintendo handhelds go, but adjusted for inflation it’s no longer that bad off in terms of pricing. The 2DS is actually quite cheap, but it has its own issues that may negate its price advantage (more on this later). The New 2DS XL is also quite affordable, but released too late in the system’s life to make a significant impact.
The Game Boy’s would-be rivals were far more expensive than it. The Game Gear was the least expensive of the bunch, but it was still 67% more expensive than the Game Boy. Meanwhile, the Lynx and TurboExpress cost over twice as much as the Game Boy and remain the most expensive handhelds ever when adjusted for inflation.
The PSP had a rather high launch price, and while it had respectable sales it wasn’t exactly breaking any records. It continually lagged far behind the much less expensive DS, at least once the DS Lite came out. The lower-priced PSP-2000 did help boost sales for the PSP, though.
The Vita meanwhile was one of the most expensive handhelds ever at launch, with the base model retailing for $250 and the 3G model retailing for $300. In addition to the unit itself, the system had a significant hidden cost: its proprietary memory cards, which were sold separately. While you could get a small 4GB card for relatively cheap, larger cards were more expensive, with a 32GB card potentially running you $60-80, so you’re talking about spending over $300 at minimum. Even though the Vita eventually had its price reduced to $200, at over a year and a half after launch the price cut was too little, too late, and it doesn’t change the fact that when you take memory cards into account you’re still looking at potentially spending over $250 for the system. By that point in time, the 3DS could be bought for $150. The Vita’s high initial price was almost certainly a factor keeping it from reaching the heights of its predecessor.
Here are price charts showing launch prices of notable handheld systems in the U.S. and Japan, including inflation-adjusted U.S. prices:
The effects of software releases, price cuts, and new models of major handhelds released in the 21st century can be seen in the following charts for the U.S. and Japan:
Regional Trends: The handheld market has always been strong relative to the size of the console market in each of the three major regions, even in Europe where consoles didn’t really catch on until the fifth generation. For example, the Game Boy is one of the most successful platforms ever. It sold 44 million units in the Americas (based on ratios of NPD data for the U.S. to Nintendo shipment data for the Americas, that gives us an estimated 37.5 to 40 million units sold in the U.S. alone). Meanwhile, in its native Japan it sold nearly 32.5 million units, and in Europe it sold over 40 million units.
But there were some noticeable differences in handhelds between each region. Probably the most significant regional variations were seen with the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance. Sales of the GBA in the U.S. were at least 43% of the global total (“the Americas” region as a whole represented slightly over half the global total). While that’s comparable to the U.S.’s average share of global sales of Nintendo home consoles, this is by far the U.S.’s highest share of the global sales of any major handheld. It is uncertain why this disparity exists, but for whatever reason the GBA was absolutely massive in the U.S. compared to its predecessor.
Perhaps not incidentally, the GBA did follow the Game Boy Color, which also over-performed in the U.S. relative to other markets. The GBC represented about 28.6% of the Game Boy’s lifetime sales in Japan, while in the U.S. its share was well over 40% (Europe is an uncertain case; while I cannot find sales data, shipment data, while it doesn’t differentiate between the GBC and older Game Boy models, does suggest a surge in sales following the release of the GBC not quite as big as the one in the U.S. but much bigger than the one in Japan). Despite its brief life, the GBC sold over 17 million units in the U.S., compared to only 5.67M in Japan. This is nearly as high as the lifetime sales of the N64 and Genesis, and greater than the lifetime sales of the Xbox, GameCube, and Wii U. Its sales in the U.S. in 1999 & 2000 approached peak PS1 sales; in those two years combined, it sold over 13 million units, which at the time was the best two-year span for any system in the U.S. (the PS1’s sales in 1997 & 1998 combined fell just short of 13M units, though its 1998 retained the top spot for best single year).
The GBC’s popularity may be due in large part to how incredibly popular early Pokemon games like Red & Blue (9.85M copies sold), Yellow (5.1M copies), and Gold & Silver (7.6M copies) were. However, Pokemon was also very popular in Japan as well (Red, Green, & Blue sold nearly 8M copies, and Gold & Silver sold over 6M), yet the GBC was nowhere near as popular as it was in the U.S. In the absence of monthly NPD sales data for the GBC, it’s impossible to appropriately measure the impacts of any one title on its sales in the U.S.
Regardless of the reasons for its greater relative popularity in the U.S., it is clear that the GBC’s success carried over to the GBA. While the GBA sold only half as well as the original Game Boy (including the Color) in Japan and Europe, in America the GBA sold almost as much in six years as the Game Boy did in 13 years. In the U.S., the GBA outsold the PS2 in 2003 & 2004 and almost matched it in 2005, while in Europe the GBA couldn’t even touch the PS2. And while the GBA performed favorably against the PS2 in Japan, it was arguably only because console sales were slowing down there. By the end of 2007 the GBA had sold over 36 million units in the U.S., making it the #3 best-selling system ever at the time behind only the Game Boy and PS2 (it has since been surpassed by the DS, Wii, and Xbox 360). Though the GBA’s overall performance was still strong in Japan and Europe, it wasn’t a runaway success like it was in the U.S. Had the GBA’s performance relative to the Game Boy in North America been about the same as in Europe and Japan, the system may have sold only 20-21 million units lifetime in the U.S. instead of 36 million, and ultimately would have resulted in maybe 63 million units or so globally instead of 81.5 million.
The DS was a massive hit in both North America and Europe, selling about 35% and 30% more units than the Game Boy, respectively. It under-performed in Japan relative to those other regions, though. While it still sold extremely well, and is to date the best-selling system ever in Japan, it just barely outsold the Game Boy, the previous all-time #1 system in the country, pulling in less than 2% more units than its grandparent did.
The 3DS over-performed in Japan relative to America and Europe. With a lifetime total of over 24.5 million units, it has comfortably exceeded the GBA, PSP, and even the PS2 in lifetime sales, making it the #3 all-time best-selling system ever in the country. Overall, Japan represents one-third of global 3DS sales, considerably larger than Japan’s share of sales of previous Nintendo handhelds (it represented 27.4% of Game Boy sales, 20.8% of GBA sales, and 21.4% of DS sales).
In the U.S., the 3DS looks quite bad due to how much the GBA over-performed. Its failure to replicate the GBA’s sales in America makes the overall handheld market in the region look almost as if it has imploded. However, by most other standards the 3DS is performing relatively well. While it hasn’t posted anything truly remarkable in the U.S., it has still sold about 23 million units as of the end of 2019, meaning it has surpassed the SNES, N64, GameCube, Genesis, Xbox, and PSP by comfortable margins. It currently stands as the #12 best-selling system ever in the U.S.
In Europe, the 3DS has managed to surpass the GBA, and is currently Nintendo’s fourth best-selling system ever in the region. It is also currently the #10 best-selling system ever in the region, with the only non-Sony platform to sell better than it being the Xbox 360. Within specific markets in Europe, the 3DS performed incredibly well in France, where it has sold 5.4 million units as of the end of 2019, its best performance in any major European market in both absolute numbers and relative to the size of total market. In fact, the 3DS managed to outsell the PS3 by the end of 2019 to become the #4 system released in France since 2004, falling less than 900,000 units short of the #2-ranked Wii.
On Sony’s end, the PSP sold about 20 million units each in the U.S. & Japan and over 24 million in Europe, a fairly equitable share. However, the Vita had more pronounced regional differences. The system absolutely bombed in the U.S. At the end of 2014, where it was just a few weeks shy of its third birthday in the region, it had just barely passed the 2 million mark. While no NPD numbers past that year exist, IDG Consulting data indicates that it sold 2.44M units by the ends of its life, indicating that the Vita did not increase its lifetime sales much after 2014 in the U.S. It has performed better relative to the size of the market in Europe, selling about 5.2M units as of the end of 2017.
Its best performance has been in Japan, where it sold nearly 5.8 million units as of the end of 2017, and was overall the #3 best-selling system in 2013, 2015, and 2016, and was actually #2 overall in 2014. Relative to the size of the market, the Vita has been far more successful on its home turf than it has in the West, perhaps because of how handheld-friendly the Japanese market is.
Here’s how each handheld compared to each other on a yearly basis in the U.S., Japan, and Europe (note that European data only covers the DS, PSP, 3DS, & Vita):
Marketing: As was the norm for Nintendo in the era, the Game Boy was heavily marketed with a catchy ad campaign. Just as the Super Nintendo had the addendum of “Super Power” added to their “Now You’re Playing With Power” slogan, so too did the Game Boy have its own addendum: “Portable Power.” Nintendo continued having strong marketing for the GBA and DS as well. However, the 3DS appears to have had weaker marketing earlier in its life, at least in the U.S., though beginning with the release of Super Smash Bros. 4 in 2014 it has been getting more frequent TV advertising time.
The Game Gear was heavily marketed by Sega, with the ads often having the same aggressive in-your-face attitude present in their Genesis commercials. One of the more notable ads came in the form of both a two-page magazine spread and a TV commercial, which stated quite bluntly and snarkily:
“If you were colorblind and had an IQ of less than twelve, then you wouldn’t care which portable you had. Of course, you wouldn’t care if you drank from the toilet, either.“
The PSP was marketed heavily by Sony and included the familiar “Dude, Get Your Own” TV spots that ran on American TV. The PSP may have also been riding on the waves of the PlayStation brand name, the PS2 having proved to be well on its way to becoming the best-selling system ever when the PSP was released. However, the Vita was never heavily marketed, at least not in the U.S.
Duration of Support: The Game Boy had an incredibly long run, with a product life of 14 years including all hardware revisions. This longevity was at least one major factor for its high lifetime sales. The GBA was not supported for nearly as long. When the GBA’s sales began to decline Nintendo released the DS as a “third pillar” meant to complement both the GBA and GameCube, but the DS quickly took on a life of its own and completely supplanted the GBA, thus resulting in the GBA being discontinued in roughly half the time the original Game Boy was. The DS enjoyed a longer lifespan than the GBA, remaining in production for over eight years. The 3DS has been officially discontinued as of Sept. 2020, giving it a lifespan of 9-½ years, a very good run for a Nintendo system.
In all cases, though, software support for every Nintendo handheld quickly dried up after its successor was released, thus at least partially explaining why Nintendo’s handhelds tend to die off quickly and get discontinued so soon after the next handheld is released. The 3DS is the one exception. The Switch isn’t officially its replacement, but is rather the Wii U’s replacement, and Nintendo was still releasing titles for the 3DS over a year after the Switch’s launch. Still, Nintendo’s support for the 3DS slowed down significantly after 2017 as Nintendo began to have all of its studios focus on the Switch. The 3DS had only seven first-party releases in 2018, down from 15 in 2017, and it had only two first-party titles released in 2019, with none planned for 2020 or later. The last game on the 3DS to sell over 5 million copies was 2017’s Pokemon Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon. The 3DS apparently continues to get token third-party support from small-time publishers, but the only notable third-party titles it received in 2019 were Etrian Odyssey Nexus and Yokai Watch 3.
The PSP experienced a long lifespan as well, roughly nine years. Like Nintendo’s handhelds, it did not get much software support after its successor debuted either, and as a consequence its already declining sales dropped even more quickly once the Vita was released. Meanwhile, the Vita was discontinued on March 1, 2019, giving it a production life of a little over seven years, though by that point it was essentially dead in the U.S. and on life support in Japan and Europe. Software support for the system, even in Japan, declined rapidly after 2017, and as of the end of 2019 only two games remain scheduled for release for the Vita: the pixel-art puzzle-platformer Balthazar’s Dream and the long-delayed visual novel Anonymous;Code (both games are/will be on the PS4 & Switch as well).
Hardware: While the Game Boy wasn’t as impressive as its contemporaries, with a simple black & white display (well, black & green for the original model, anyway), it was yet another example that specs don’t always mean everything. In addition to the factors mentioned in previous sections, the Game Boy’s relatively low power meant it had a lower price and a respectable battery life. Meanwhile, its more powerful full-color opponents had superior specs, but as a result they struggled with terrible battery lives and higher prices, and this was a time when disposable batteries were the norm (though all four major handhelds of the era did have bulky battery packs and/or AC adapters that were sold separately). The Game Boy Color finally took the Game Boy out of its monochrome phase, but it was essentially the same basic platform with upgraded specs, and it had the same respectable battery life of older Game Boy models.
The GBA was simply a next-gen Game Boy, not doing anything particularly special, but it still incorporated the same robustness and generally good quality of hardware Nintendo has come to be known for. However, the DS did do something special. It introduced dual-screen tech to gaming and also utilized a touchscreen interface for the lower screen, which allowed for new ways of playing games. This innovation may partially explain why it was such a huge success.
Sony went for a more conventional single-screen setup with the PSP and had more powerful hardware than the DS. It was also the first and only handheld to use optical discs. It’s uncertain how or even if this may have affected the system’s overall sales. The system’s greater power relative to the DS was also responsible for the PSP’s higher price, which may have been a factor for the PSP lagging behind the DS during the peak years of that generation.
The 3DS was basically a next-gen iteration of the DS and retained the same dual-screen setup. It did introduce glasses-free “auto-stereoscopic” 3D, but this is arguably mostly a gimmick with little to justify itself outside the gee-whiz factor (and it has been claimed to cause eye strain and headaches for some users). It is unknown exactly how many 3DS users regularly utilize the 3D functionality, but a survey from Sept. 2011, just six months after the system was released, showed that 13% “preferred playing with the 3D effect turned completely off” and 28% felt that “it actually detracted from the experience,” while only 22% felt that it “improved gameplay.” Furthermore, a significant portion of 3DS sales (though still a minority) were from the 2DS and New 2DS. Overall, it is unclear how much or even if the 3DS’s 3D capabilities helped its sales.
Finally, the Vita was insanely powerful for a handheld, with a high-quality OLED screen to boot for the original model, but it may have been too powerful for its own good. The high specs were almost certainly the primary reason for the high initial base price of the system (the expensive memory cards didn’t help things, either). It also meant much higher development costs for the games, or at least games that took full advantage of the superior hardware, and many developers may have felt it was too risky to support the system, especially with it struggling early on, which in turn created a software drought. This may have helped initiate a “death spiral” of sorts, a feedback loop where poor hardware sales resulted in decreased software support, which in turn further hurt hardware sales, and so on. The Vita may have simply been doomed by its own power, a theory posited by Extra Credits in a video from mid-2014.
Conclusion: Nintendo effectively cornered the market on handheld game systems for over a quarter of a century. They have done well in every major market, and between 1989 and 2017 they have shipped over 426 million handheld hardware units across four platform families. They succeeded not only by simply being pioneers in the market and being savvy enough to understand how to sell their products to consumers, providing good hardware at a reasonable price with solid software support, but also because their competitors have generally done a poor job of replicating Nintendo’s success. Sony was by far the most successful of Nintendo’s competitors in the handheld market, with the PSP selling some 80 million units globally, but they were unable to continue that success with the Vita, and they have entirely withdrawn from the handheld market.
While the Vita has sold rather poorly in most of the world, the 3DS has done rather well despite its slow start, with over 75.7 million units shipped by the end of 2019, this despite many analysts and gamers claiming that handhelds were directly competing with smartphones and tablets. While the 3DS failed to replicate the massive success of the DS, it was unrealistic to expect anything to ever match that sales juggernaut ever again.
With Sony apparently having no interest in releasing a successor for the Vita, Nintendo is now the sole force in the handheld market. While there is no “true” 3DS successor on the horizon, the Switch does fill in the gap as it can be played away from home (and it has recently had a handheld-only model released, as detailed in the Gen 8 section earlier). Perhaps the increasing costs of developing games for handhelds (see again the Vita) combined with Nintendo’s struggles to consistently succeed with home consoles contributed to their decision to go with a hybrid system that’s a cross between a home console and a high-powered handheld.
(Note: This list may be incomplete. Any data provided in the article that is not in any of the below links was otherwise published in public forums unless stated in the article.)
VG Sales Wiki. Contains various sales and shipment data, including complete NPD data for seventh-gen consoles from 2005 to 2012.
Wedbush Securities Report from Feb. 2014. Contains lifetime NPD numbers for major home consoles going back to the NES on page 36.
Media Create & Famitsu Sales Data Archive @ NeoGaf (goes through Week 43, 2017; some older threads may require forum membership to view)
Media Create Sales Data Archive @ ResetEra (starts at Week 42, 2017)
Famitsu and Media Create Sales Database (.xlsx spreadsheet file contained in a .rar file provided in the MC/Famitsu threads on ResetEra; red tabs in spreadsheet contain Famitsu data, while blue tabs contain MC data)
Famitsu Archive. A database of Famitsu hardware and software data going back to the 90s.
Garaph. A website with tools that allow one to produce charts for game sales in Japan. Based on Media Create and Famitsu data.
Nintendo Historical Shipment Data (1983 – present) @ Neogaf. Alternate charts showing shipment figures prior to 1996, including those for the NES and SNES.
VG Chartz. Used as a tertiary source only. Annual sales for consoles & handhelds in Europe in the seventh & eighth generations use VGC data due to lack of other reliable sources.
Appendix: Measuring the Impact of Software on Hardware Sales
As stated in the article, one of the primary drivers of hardware sales is software. While the overall strength of a library is important for the long-term healthy of a system, it was also demonstrated that certain games can by themselves spur hardware growth, at least temporarily. But by much and for how long? The purpose of this addendum to the article is to go into further details regarding those questions, and estimate how much surplus hardware sales a typical major software release generates.
There are some difficulties associated with this. First and foremost is regional differences in tracking. As mentioned early in the article, the effects of software on hardware sales are more noticeable in Japan where hardware sales are tracked on a weekly basis. However, in the U.S. sales are tracked monthly. As such, the impacts of individual games are harder to measure as a game needs to move more hardware to cause noticeable sales growth during an entire four- or five-week period. Also, it’s possible that a single month could have multiple major system-sellers released, or a major system-seller and a price cut. Because of this, there will be fewer example games listed in the table on U.S. sales.
There are some other complexities associated with determining the effects of individual games on hardware. Factors to consider include:
- Limited edition systems themed after the game. Many limited editions systems spur hardware sales on their own, and many are released alongside a game. It’s highly likely that the presence of a LE console caused an increase in sales beyond what the game did by itself.
- A game being released during the holidays. Various holidays and other annual occurrences routinely cause hardware sales growth, and when a game is released during such a holiday it may be difficult to tell how much surplus hardware units were moved by just the game. This is especially the case during November and December as sales grow throughout the holidays on up through Christmas.
- Games releasing close to each other. When a game causes sales to grow, this typically manifests as an initial spike the week of its release, followed by a decline in sales as a system’s sales move back to the level they were prior to the game’s release (barring any holiday sales growth adjacent to the game’s release). When a second major title is released before hardware sales return to the baseline it was at before the first game, it can be difficult to tell how much surplus hardware was moved by the second game as we don’t know how much the system would have sold that week in the absence of either game.
- Games releasing alongside or right after the release of a hardware revision or price cut. This has many of the same issues as all three of the above factors.
Let’s start off by measuring the initial impacts of a game in its first week (Japan) or month (U.S.). While the game’s impact will be measured in terms by how much of an increase there was over the previous week/month of the game’s release, as we cannot know with 100% certainty what a system would have sold without that game, there is a margin of error associated with this, especially in cases where a game is released during a major holiday. Due to the impossibility of differentiating their impacts, games released in the same sales period as a major hardware revision are excluded.
First up is Japan. This list will focus mainly on popular systems from Gen 7 & 8, though games from other systems may be added later. Titles included in the list are games that had high launch week sales (esp. if they sold over one million copies) or are associated with significant increases in hardware sales in the same week as their release. Japanese software sales are retail-only, so more recent games will on average have a higher portion of their sales come from digital than from retail sales of physical copies, which means that the ability of a new game to move hardware may seem higher for some newer titles.
Note: For users with 4:3 monitors, these tables may not display correctly.
While the relationship is not strict by any means, and the variation is to a large extent explicable when you take into consideration the complicating factors I mentioned earlier, on average it does appear that the more copies a system-seller moves, the more surplus hardware it moves. However, there are a few games on the list that are counter-examples to this. Some popular titles with outstanding debuts have failed to move a lot of hardware relative to others of similar performance. For example, Yo-Kai Watch 2 and the first three Pokemon remakes all had outstanding debuts, each selling well over one million copies, yet caused little growth in sales of their respective platforms relative to even many less popular titles.
What’s perhaps more interesting, though, is relative selling power. In terms of percent increase in hardware sales from the week prior to a title’s release, there appears to be no correlation of any kind to how well a game sold and how much relative growth in hardware sale it was capable of producing. The biggest relative system-seller in the list in percentage terms was Metal Gear Solid 4, which sold 476,334 copies in its release week yet caused sales to increase nearly seven-fold. It also had the distinction of being the first major blockbuster for the PS3, with a debut that was well ahead of anything that came before, it had a limited edition MGS4-themed console released alongside it, and it was released at a time when the PS3 wasn’t doing particularly well.