When it comes to video games, it’s easy to pick your favorites, but it’s even harder to determine whether it is good and if it was popular?
“Good” is subjective and also ever-shifting. However, popularity can be measured and quantified. Look at sales, critical reception, consumer appeal, and longevity. But it’s hindsight that gives us even more insight into those numbers and opinions.
So with the 9th generation of consoles looming on the horizon, let’s press pause to take a look back at the best selling consoles of all time.
Staying Current: 8th Generation Consoles of the 2010s
We’re currently in the 8th generation of video game consoles, an era that began around 2012. This generation saw few groundbreaking innovations. Instead, these consoles focus on social and streaming features, plus improved graphics, performance, and storage in order to keep up with the increased demands of modern games.
The most significant technological shift came in the form of mass-market, virtual reality gaming, with the Oculus Rift tackling the niche first in early 2016. But these machines are wearable tech like headsets and gloves, not traditional gaming consoles.
For classic systems, the big three below are still the major manufacturers to beat.
The PlayStation 4 was launched in North America in late 2013, with Slim and Pro variants introduced in 2016. They offered more compact packaging and increased performance and graphical capability, respectively.
The original PS4 already featured a markedly powerful processing unit, which was the best on the market at its introduction. And Sony also didn’t lag far behind on virtual reality, releasing the PlayStation VR in 2016 for use with PlayStation 4 systems.
While this radically updated PS console is not backward compatible, there’s no shortage of its compelling titles:
- Red Dead Redemption 2
- God of War
- Marvel’s Spiderman
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
- Nier: Automata
Microsoft’s Xbox One, the system’s third iteration, had a limited worldwide launch in late 2013. A revised model, the Xbox One S, supplanted the original in 2016, and a high-end model with improved graphics and specs, the Xbox One X, went on sale in late 2017.
It’s a solid system that is mostly refined and carried on the work of its predecessors. Interestingly, the Xbox One can have a set-top box plugged into it, allowing it to display a live TV feed without exiting to your television.
While this console does have backward compatibility for select games — many Xbox 360 games, in particular — it arguably lacks compelling exclusive titles. Despite that, you should never find yourself wanting for a great selection:
- Forza Horizon 4 or Forza Motorsport 7
- Grand Theft Auto V
- Sea of Thieves
- Ori and the Blind Forest
Nintendo is known for portable gaming systems and making the best game console for kids, due to their family-friendly titles. They kicked off the 8th generation of gaming consoles with the Wii U — the successor to the original Wii — in late 2012. It came standard with a GamePad controller, which had a touchscreen that allowed certain games to be played with a dual-screen style or entirely on the GamePad itself.
Sound a bit familiar? The Wii U had a relatively short run, and the product was discontinued at the beginning of 2017. That’s because a couple of months later, Nintendo launched the Switch, a hybrid home console/portable device. In 2019, the Switch Lite came to market as a handheld-focused version without TV docking abilities.
Although this is a future-facing leap for Nintendo, there are plenty of comforting old friends along for the ride. Aside from a robust selection of franchise and cross-platform titles, the Switch also has a sizable indie game and remastered library.
- Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- Pokemon Sword and Shield
- Sonic Mania
- Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
- Super Mario Odyssey
A Brief History of the Best Selling Video Game Consoles
When it launched, the Nintendo Switch became the fastest-selling console in multiple regions, and sales outpaced those of both its competitors, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. But the Switch benefitted from excitement after stagnation, and loyal fans taking the plunge.
According to lifetime sales, Nintendo’s own previous entries — the DS and Game Boy/Game Boy Color — have a better claim to the title of the best portable gaming system. Maybe in 10 years, the Switch will rank among them — only time will tell.
But enough time has passed for us to see which systems have stood the test of time, remaining best selling game consoles after all these years.
That 70s ‘Sole: The First Gaming Systems
Honestly, the competition was slim. The first home video game console was the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972. A dizzying 28 games were designed for the modest and soundless little box, one of which inspired Atari’s Pong.
- In order to compete with the Odyssey, Atari released their own system in 1977 — the Atari 2600. This was a revelation, as it turned out.
- Though they were not the first to utilize them, the 2600 popularized the use of external cartridges.
- Pac-Man was developed for the console in the 80s, and the 2600 ran in production until 1992 (thus 1992 is the official end of the second generation console era, though it only truly existed throughout the late 70s).
With 30 million sales as of 2004, the Atari 2600 is an impressive old school best selling console. It actually cracks the top 20 best selling of all time, wedged between the Nintendo 64 and original Xbox.
Trying to Get By: The 80s
In 1983 there was a video game industry crash, with America feeling the brunt of this oversaturation-and-low-quality-fueled recession. It proved a somewhat short-lived problem, as the industry recovered by 1985, aided by the successful launch of third-generation gaming consoles.
The most successful of these was the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Sega Genesis.
- The NES was a refinement of the Japanese market Famicom, which launched in 1983 just as the North American market went downhill.
- Testing the waters, in late 1985, Nintendo held limited launches in big cities before deciding to move ahead with a full American release by 1986.
- It revolutionized the market with the early adoption of third-party licensing, allowing outside developers to make content for their system.
The NES is the 12th best selling console, around 62 million lifetime sales.
- Sega’s Genesis console had a warm North American reception and boasted an incredible library of around 900 games.
- Many of them were Sega’s own, like Sonic the Hedgehog.
- Or, like John Madden Football, developed by third-party partners such as Electronic Arts (now known as a little outfit called EA Games).
The Genesis is the 16th best selling console, around 35 million lifetime sales.
The 90s: An Old Game Systems Renaissance
Consoles were cropping up left and right by the 90s after the video game industry was far out of its infancy and beginning to outgrow its poor North American mid-80s reputation. This environment spawned many fan favorites — like the Sega Saturn, Dreamcast, and Game Gear, and Nintendo 64 — but only a few best selling consoles.
The ones that did well did very well, however.
- The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), a direct successor to the NES, launched in 1990/91 and brought the console into the 16-bit era. It featured entries in beloved franchises like Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Street Fighter. It was such a hit, Nintendo offered a modern Classic Edition for retro gaming diehards.
- The original PlayStation in 1994 was the first platform to hit 100 million units sold, after 9 years on the market, and is the fifth best selling of all time. It was an especially nice platform for third-party developers, as Sony purposefully made it easier for them than Sega and Nintendo’s strict policies, which ultimately lured over the Final Fantasy franchise.
The PlayStation also popularized optical disc usage over cartridges for home consoles (when they outperformed the Nintendo 64), and haptic feedback DualShock controllers, which they package with their systems to this day.
- Finally, the Game Boy Color in 1998. It followed from the mid-1989 original and was backward compatible, making it a good choice for upgrading and giving it an immediate large library of favorites like Kirby and Mario. But Pokemon Red and Blue coming out later that year for American audiences definitely provided a boon. Additionally, they were relatively cheap game consoles compared to their contemporaries.
Discontinued in 2003, its run was rather brief, but the Game Boy Color and original Game Boy launched at least two generations of children into the joys of gaming. In 2003, the handheld pair were the best selling consoles of all time, and still today sit at number 3 (and perhaps number 1 in many hearts).
Hitting Their Stride: The 2000s
1. The best selling console of all time made its debut in the year 2000. That console is the PlayStation 2 and really solidified Sony as a major competitor — not just a flash in the pan with the original PlayStation. It was the fastest-selling console at the time, moving 70 million units in its first year, and today has a lifetime total of more than 155 million sold.
- In 2006, the PlayStation 3 dropped, and brought with it social gaming integration, Blu-Ray standard, optional PlayStation Portable connectivity, and a gigantic price tag compared to contemporaries, which sullied initial hype. However, that didn’t stop it from ultimately becoming the seventh best selling console, one notch above its Xbox 360 competitor. The best selling PS3 games are far and away Gran Turismo 5, Uncharted 3, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Grand Theft Auto IV.
2. The long-running Nintendo DS line would begin in late 2004 and become the second best selling console with 154 million units moved. Dual screens, one of which was a touchscreen, set this device apart and was a huge innovation at the time. Along with that unbeatable library of comforting Nintendo titles, the DS successfully carried handheld gaming into the future and continued with the 3DS in 2011 and 2DS by 2013.
- Nintendo’s other notable 2000s entry, the 2006 Wii, was surprisingly popular. It was the only console of its kind — where the selling point was the necessity to move around, or at least swing and point the Wii Remote controller — and basically retains that niche today. Wii Sports, which shipped with the system, had a lasting cultural impact and remains one of the best-remembered features of this sixth best selling home console.
3. Microsoft brought its original Xbox console to market in 2001, creating its rivalry with PlayStation as it competed directly with the PS2 (the Nintendo GameCube was another competitor, but though it initially sold at a faster rate, total sales couldn’t surpass Xbox). The Xbox launch established the popular Halo franchise, which was a massive boon to the console itself. Halo 2, from 2004, was actually the best selling first-generation Xbox game with over 8 million copies sold.
- 2005’s Xbox 360 with Kinect motion capture fared much better overall despite technical hiccups (remember the rings of death?) and ranks as the eighth best selling console of all time. It paved the way for Microsoft to legitimately compete on the video game scene despite being the major player latest to the game. The best selling Xbox 360 games sold millions of copies in their first year, and include Call of Duty 2, Saints Row, Gears of War, and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
If we were to examine this data, there are a few things of note.
First, you can consistently count on Nintendo to make the best gaming systems for kids. They know their demographic and cater to it well. They’re a mainstay of the industry, with a best selling hit in nearly every decade the industry has existed. The best handheld game, if we voted, would probably be from one of Nintendo’s systems.
Then, you can count on Sony to make popular systems that resonate with their consumers. How else can you explain every PlayStation making the list of top 10 best selling consoles? They may be a relative newcomer, but since their console debut, they’ve always brought the heat. But newest newcomer Microsoft isn’t too far behind — at least in that they’re in the running, while most everyone else has had to drop out of the race along the way.