Fifth-Generation Video Game Consoles: the 32-bit Generation

Teenagers playing video games controllers

Fifth-Generation Video Game Consoles: the 32-bit Generation

Key Points

  • The fifth generation of gaming consoles introduced 32- and 64-bit technology, as well as a jump from 2D to 3D graphics. Spanning from 1993 to 2006, this generation included iconic platforms like the Nintendo 64, original Sony PlayStation, and more.
  • Other consoles included in this generation were the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, Atari Jaguar, and Sega Saturn. Nintendo also introduced the Gameboy Color during this time, marking it as their first handheld console with color graphics.
  • Sony’s PlayStation dominated this era in terms of sales. Their CD-ROM format made games cheaper to produce than the cartridges used by the N64, making them the preferred platform for game makers. However, the N64 still has a cult following for the iconic proprietary games on the platform like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

By all accounts, the fifth generation of gaming was another turning point in the industry. Running from 1993 and ending in 2006, this 32- and 64-bit era was a time of huge leaps for home gaming. This generation would notably mark the rise of the optical media format instead of cartridges for console manufacturers that aren’t Nintendo. 

3D graphics capabilities would also be a trademark of this generation of gaming as it marks a pivotal role in the jump from 2D to 3D graphics. Of course, the fifth generation of gaming consoles may also be best remembered as the era of Sony making its first leap into home console gaming. 

While not as prominent as home consoles, this era also saw a number of handheld systems looking to capture market share including Nintendo’s first GameBoy with a color screen. 

For many gamers, Sony’s entrance into gaming marks a turning point in the industry and the fifth generation began laying the groundwork for console gaming as we know it today. 

Quick Facts

3DO Interactive MultiplayerAtari JaguarSega SaturnSony PlayStationNintendo 64
Launch DateOctober 4, 1993November 15, 1993May 11, 1995December 3, 1994September 29, 1996
Launch Price$699.99$249.99$399.99$299.99$199
Consoles Sold2 million500,0009.4 Million102 million32.9 million
Notable GamesReturn Fire, Wing Commander, Need for SpeedWolfenstein 3D, Doom, Rayman, RaidenMadden NFL 97, Virtua Fighter 2, Dayton USACrash Bandicoot, Gran Turismo, Tekken 3Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, Goldeneye 007

Fifth Generation Video Game Consoles: Timeline

The fifth generation of video game consoles, better known as the 32-bit, 64-bit, and 3D era, ran from 1993 to 2003, though some accounts push that stop date all the way to 2006. This era is widely regarded as being the time period when game consoles made the leap from 2D graphics to 3D graphics as well as migrated from cartridges to optical discs. 

The most agreed upon timeline puts the start of the fifth generation on October 4, 1993, and ends on March 23, 2006, when the Sony Playstation stops development. 

It’s also important to note that the fifth generation overlaps with the sixth generation quite a bit as the Sega Dreamcast, the sixth-gen predecessor to the fifth-gen Sega Saturn, launched in 1998. If you consider the end of the original Sony Playstation was in 2006, there’s plenty of overlap between the fifth- and sixth-gen timelines. 

3DO Interactive Multiplayer

The history of the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer is an interesting one. Originally conceived by Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins who created The 3DO Company, the actual specifications for the 3DO actually came from Dave Needle and R.J. Mical of Atari fame. Sony and Sega passed on partnering with The 3DO Company, but Panasonic, Sanyo, and Goldstar (now LG) would all lend a manufacturing hand. 

The first model of the 3DO would be released in 1993 and would be named a “1993 Product of the Year” by Time Magazine. However, initially strong reviews would be too much to overcome a (really) high price tag and a console market that was already working through oversaturation. 

A few updates to the 3DO would be released in both 1994 and 1995 but, by 1996, the 3DO was finished, having sold only 2 million consoles. The launch had already been mired by missed software dates and, with only six games at launch, the 3DO couldn’t find its place in the market. Trip Hawkins would ultimately blame The 3DO Company’s decision to license hardware and software to third parties leading to a disjointed release. 

3DO Interactive Multiplayer Panasonic console
The 3DO Interactive Multiplayer won Time Magazine’s “Product of the Year” in 1993.

Atari Jaguar

Released by Atari in 1993, the Atari Jaguar was billed as the first 64-bit game console while 16-bit models were still on store shelves. The Jaguar immediately struggled to compete as developers found it difficult to make games due to poor developer support tools, which resulted in a lackluster game selection. All totaled, only 50 games would see the light of the day for the Jaguar, far below that of the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64. 

Atari would attempt to stretch the life of the Jaguar by releasing the Atari Jaguar CD as an add-on but it was too little, too late. Toward the end of 1995, both Sony and Sega had entered the market with their respective consoles and Atari was increasingly at risk of diminished market share. Atari was also unable to deliver a strong marketing campaign that may have potentially drawn more attention to its console. 

Atari was a true game changer in the game industry, but its last-ditch effort at console success would result in less than 500,000 total consoles being sold. The Jaguar would be the last Atari console made by the once titan of gaming. 

Black Atari Jaguar gaming console set
The Atari Jaguar was not as popular nor successful as expected.

Sega Saturn

Sega’s 32-bit followup to the popular Sega Genesis should have been a massive success. Sega had plenty of momentum coming out of the fourth generation of consoles but it just wasn’t meant to be. Sega had a 27-member team work for two years to design Saturn’s hardware, and it’s likely the end of this development period that did Sega in. 

In response to the Sony PlayStation having two processors for additional power, Sega attempted to match with the Saturn late in the Saturn’s development cycle. The result was that it made it incredibly difficult for developers to design games compared to the PlayStation. 

What Sega did have going for them was increasing popularity in Japan. Out of the 9.4 million units sold of the Saturn, more than 6 million were in Japan alone. Even as Sega had a fourth-month lead to market over Sony, they just couldn’t capitalize with only six games available at launch. In the 30 days before Sony’s console launch, Sega only moved 80,000 Saturn units. Once both Sony and Nintendo were in the marketplace with their fifth generation consoles, the Sega Saturn was finished. 

Sega Saturn
The Sega Saturn lost out to Nintendo, although it did have solid sales.

Sony PlayStation

History will remember the Sony PlayStation as one of the best-selling consoles of all time. With more than 102 million units during its lifespan, the PlayStation is by far the de facto winner of the fifth generation of gaming. Now known as the PS1, Sony released the console in December 1994 (September 1995 in America) when it was competing against the Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn. 

It might come as a surprise to learn that there was almost a timeline in which the PlayStation never existed. Sony and Nintendo were deep in talks for a joint console only to have Nintendo pull out of the 1988 agreement that would have seen a Sony SNES CD-ROM attachment. 

In 1993, Sony finally decided to go gaming alone with the launch of the PlayStation, and, on a winter day in 1994, released the PlayStation to the world. Sony’s willingness to cater to third-party developers played a huge role in quickly bulking up its game library while also focusing on titles for a slightly younger crowd than Sega. By the end of 2007, the Sony PlayStation had a massive global library of more than 7,900 titles available. 

Sony PlayStation 1
It’s a good thing the Sony and Nintendo partnership didn’t work out because we wouldn’t have gotten the PS1 when we did!

Nintendo 64

Released in June 1996 in Japan and September 1996 in America, Nintendo’s follow-up to the Super Nintendo was its first console to make use of 3D graphics. Even though Nintendo stuck with the cartridge format (or did they?) to ensure faster loading times, it had the negative impact of the game units themselves costing more to make. 

This would end up one of the biggest pitfalls of Nintendo 64 development as games cost more to make than the PlayStation, leading many development companies to choose Sony’s console as their primary focus. The other major pitfall for the Nintendo 64 was that Nintendo still didn’t want to see game content with violence or blood. Developers who wanted to make these titles were free to do so for Sony, and make these games they would!

Even as Nintendo would go on to sell more than 32 million consoles, it still pales to what Sony would move in the same time period. The 3D technology was cool and game magazines found it to be fun, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Sony’s huge library of third-party titles. 

Nintendo could have increased its sales further if it had been open to a higher diversity of games.

Portable Consoles

Game Boy Color 

Try as Nintendo would with the Nintendo 64, it couldn’t beat Sony in the home. However, not all was lost for Nintendo during this fifth console generation, as the Game Boy Color was a huge success. The successor to the hugely successful Game Boy, the Color was as powerful as the original NES and was the final 8-bit console made in the gaming industry. 

The color screen was a huge draw as was its slightly smaller size than the original Game Boy. Boosted by games like Pokemon Gold and Silver, which sold 23 million copies worldwide, the Game Boy Color would combine with the original Game Boy to sell 118 million units making it the third most successful console of all time. 

Gameboy Color
The Game Boy Color was one of the most successful handheld consoles.

Neo Geo Pocket Color

Neo Geo was never a huge player in gaming, but its Pocket console was the other major portable console during the fifth generation of gaming. Competing against the Game Boy Color was a tall order but it would manage to sell more than 2 million units, which is enough to make it a best-selling competitor of the Game Boy Color. 

With a 40-hour battery life and a number of top-tier games, the Neo Geo Pocket Color remains highly regarded. Titles like SNK vs. Capcom and King of Fighters R-2 were big names that drew in fans of arcade games. Released in 1999, the console would last almost two years before being discontinued at the end of 2001. 

Neo Geo Pocket Color console
The Neo Geo Pocket Color was a close competitor to the Game Boy Color.

What Defined the Fifth Generation of Video Game Consoles?

There are two clear highlights that would become the backbone of the fifth generation of gaming.

The first is the introduction of 3D-style gaming. This would be the catalyst that would move the gaming industry away from side-scrolling titles and open the door to far more complex games. Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64 remains one of the best-known examples of how impactful the switch to 3D has been on games when compared to the original 2D Super Mario titles from the NES and SNES. 

The other major factor that defined this generation was the move from cartridge games to optical discs. Not only were optical discs cheaper to make, but they also held more data so games could be bigger and longer, making them more fun to play. That optical discs were also less expensive to consumers was another big factor in Sony taking the crown this generation. 

And the Best Fifth Generation Console is…

The numbers don’t lie and, with Sony outselling its next biggest competitor by more than 3 to 1, the PlayStation is the easy winner of this generation. Not only did it usher in the age of the optical disc but it also laid the groundwork for the Sony PlayStation controller we know and love today. Plus, with such a large library of titles available, there was something for everyone in the family to play. 

The Nintendo 64 was a relevant competitor during this time and arguably the only real competition Sony had. Even if it didn’t match Sony’s sales, the N64 kept Nintendo in the “game” so to speak, and would allow it to continue as one of the three primary console makers still around today. 

Up Next…

The Absolute Best PlayStation Real-Time Strategy Games of All Time – Take a closer look at the original PlayStation console with our top picks for strategy games on the platform.

The Absolute Best Nintendo 64 Action Games of All Time – Some of the most well-known Nintendo 64 titles were action games. See which ones made the top 7!

Sonic the Hedgehog: Every Game with Timeline – Discover the entire timeline of one of Sega’s most iconic and lasting franchises.

Frequently Asked Questions

What consoles are fifth generation?

The consoles best known as the fifth-generation home systems are the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, Atari Jaguar, Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, and Nintendo 64. 

What is the best-selling console of the fifth generation?

Selling more than 102 million units between 1996 and 2007, the Sony PlayStation is the best selling console of this era. 

Were there any other consoles released during this time?

Yes. Lesser known consoles include the Amiga CD32, Neo Geo CD, PC-FX, and the Apple Bandai Pippin.

Are any of these consoles still available for purchase?

Unfortunately, no. You can still find them at retro game stores or online through the likes of eBay, but none of the fifth-generation consoles are still sold as new. 

What makes optical discs so much better than cartridges?

Optical discs offer a 1-2 punch that makes them better than cartridges. They are cheaper to produce, so developers gravitated toward the format, and they can hold more data so games can be larger. 

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