In the crowded marketplace of video games, not every console is going to get its due. This article counts down ten of the most under-appreciated machines we've seen on the market.
10. Sega CD/Mega-CD (Sega, 1991-1996)
Full disclosure: there is a lot of Sega on here. Hey, I've always been a Sega girl, and they honestly did get a bit of a raw deal in the console wars, so they were always gonna be represented here.
This is basically an "honourable mention" -- the Sega CD, a CD-rom drive add-on for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive was released in Japan in 1991, North America in 1992, and Europe in 1993. It was moderately successful, getting okay critical notices and selling quite well before Sega kneecapped it by rushing the Saturn out early, but it definitley didn't set the world on fire.
Why is it here, then? Because of all the misbegotten CD-rom consoles and CD-rom peripherals, this was the one that came the closest to getting it right. It was miles ahead of the 3D0, the CD-i, Commodore's inept CDTV, the woeful TurboGrafx-CD, and the only slightly better PC-FX, The Sega CD took the hardware of the Genesis to within an inch of its life, and while a lot of the titles released on the system are mediocre ports or FMV shovelware (hello, Night Trap), some of the games are classics: Sonic CD, Virgin's excellent Dune adventure game, and of course Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side.
9. WonderSwan (Bandai, 1999-2003)
The WonderSwan only came out in Japan, but I have played a number of ROMs for the system (a girl's gotta get her anime-game fix!), so I'll mostly be commenting on the game library and its reception.
There are more than a few handheld systems on this list, and there's a reason for that: in the handheld market, Nintendo is king. And queen. And prince, duke, duchess, earl, baron, viscount, landed gentry, etc. Nintendo's dominance, essentially unbroken since the very first Game Boy was released, means that the rubbish heap of history is filled with challengers.
Bandai actually didn't do too badly with their effort -- the WonderSwan was released in 1999 to challenge the Game Boy Color's dominance, and it did pretty well until the superior Game Boy Advance smashed it into itty-bitty pieces.
The system worked on the strength of its library -- a number of strong anime titles, remakes of classic Square JRPGs, and a number of visual novel and light RPG titles that appealed to casual gamers. In short, a very Japanese system.
8. Master System (Sega, 1985-present)
Okay, it seems weird to include the Master System because, as discussed on this website before, it's the longest running continuous console of all time. But this is basically an anomaly -- other than its mega-success in Brazil and a very respectable run as a budget machine in Europe, the Master System got profoundly murdered by the Famicon/NES worldwide in the 8-bit console wars.
And it should have been closer! The Master System could do some things so much better than the NES, and has a library full of some really spectacular games. Shinobi, Kenesiden, the original Phantasy Star, Aleste, Zillion -- it's a great library, and a really strong system.
7. Sega Game Gear (Sega, 1990-2001)
Another handheld challenger that fell to Nintendo, though this along with Sony's PSP were definitely the closest to dethroning them. The Sega Game Gear is, essentially, a handheld version of the Master System (it could play Master System games with an adapter, though it did have a unique library of its own).
The system isn't without flaws -- it's big and bulky, especially when compared to the Game Boy, and it has a famously short battery life that was the bane of every Game Gear owning kid's existence when it came to long plane or car trips.
But it was a powerful system, capable of recreating the colorful 8-bit worlds of the Master System, and it came at a time where the Game Boy couldn't have looked more primitive in comparison. But hey, the Game Boy had Tetris, so it's just wasn't a contest.
6. PlayStation Vita (Sony, 2011-Present)
A console caught between two worlds: the mobile smart phone boom of the late 2000s and the eighth generation of video consoles. High-end and portable, triple-AAA all the way.
It's not an entirely successful console, but Sony's second handheld system is probably the stronger attempt over the PSP, though the Vita did considerably worse in sales. It's hamstrung a little by a game library that could be stronger, but it's a solid system that plays very well.
And it looks great -- when it first hit North American shelves in 2012, this was seriously a looker. Handheld graphical displays had never looked so good. Unfortunately, with high-powered mobile phones and especially tablets making their way up in processing power and graphical muscle, it seems that there was no real room for the Vita. A shame.
5. PC Engine/Turbo-Grafx16 (NEC, 1987-1994)
NEC and Hudson Soft's 16-bit console (well, sort of -- it used an 8-bit CPU) is generally considered a success: it was a consistent #2 in Japan behind Nintendo, trouncing whatever Sega threw at them. It also didn't flop miserably in the US, though it certainly wasn't as big of a success as the Genesis was.
For the most part, the PC Engine is remembered as a bit of an also-ran for the generation. It couldn't match the power of Nintendo and Sega's 16-bit consoles, but it was a significant upgrade compared to other consoles of the time. It may have been a dressed up 8-bit console, but it had a great game library and contrary to its reputation as a machine for RPGs and little else, it played arcade-style action quite well and developed a balanced roster of games. A solid machine.
4. Sega Dreamcast (Sega, 1999-2001)
I bet a lot of you thought the Dreamcast would end up at #1, what with my Sega fandom and retro gaming's general drooling over the Dreamcast -- it was ahead of its time! Cut down in its prime! Online gaming! Tons of great exclusives!
All these things are true. And yes, the Dreamcast did have its life prematurely cut short by Sega's financial woes. But the machine isn't without flaws -- it read CDs as opposed to DVDs which made the system quite underpowered compared to the Xbox and Playstation 2. And the online play did not roll out smoothly at all -- in fact, it was quite a disaster on launch.
But with these considerations out of mind, yes, the Dreamcast was an excellent machine. For its short run it did have a very good library of games, especially some wicked exclusives.
3. Atari Lynx (Atari, 1989-1995)
Sorry to everyone who was expecting the Jaguar on this list (it's...not a good console, sorry), but the Lynx is gonna be Atari's only entry. An ambitious handheld system, the first full-colour handheld on the market, the Lynx was capable of rendering beautiful games in a way the Game Gear and especially the Game Boy couldn't dream of. Originally developed by Epyx as the Handy Game in 1986, the system was acquired by Atari in 1989.
Though the system sold fairly well early on in its life, its high cost and the total dominance of the Game Boy stalled its worldwide growth. It was also quite difficult for third party programmers to develop for it compared to the Game Boy or Game Gear (even Atari had to buy a number of Amigas from Commodore to program for it, something that must have infuriated them), which in the end hurt its game library.
The Lynx may be mostly a forgotten relic today, but it was a great piece of hardware that just had the misfortune of going up against the juggernaut that is the Game Boy.
2. Sega Saturn (Sega, 1994-2000)
Entire books have been written on how the Saturn's launch was botched, so I'm not going to get into that here. Yes, it's inferior to the PS1 in some ways. But when it came to the 2D games, especially RPGs, it was the prettiest and smoothest machine on the market. During its life Sega screwed the pooch royally with the Saturn. pissing off EA and other third developers to pull support. But its amazing game library comes to light if you're willing to look at Japan-exclusives, where the Saturn was #2 for most of its life -- it's a seriously good machine, and it's a reputation as an also-ran of the 32-bit years is undeserved. It's not the 3D0 or Atari Jaguar, folks.
1. Nintendo GameCube (Nintendo, 2001-2007)
Is this a hot take? Eh, who knows. The GameCube ruled. It was an improvement over the N64 in virtually every sense, but especially it improved the N64's awful controller; the GameCube controller is a stunning, efficient work of art that can be used with an adapter for every subsequent Nintendo machine.
The GameCube saw so many excellent, unexpected games: Resident Evil 4, Pikmin, Luigi's Mansion, the underrated Super Mario Sunshine, and of course Super Smash Brothers: Melee, a fighting game so interesting and unique that a whole e-sports scene sprung out from it.
Great system, great counterpoint to the PS2 and Xbox, different but still great.