Fourth Generation Video Game Consoles: The 16-bit Generation

Fourth generation video game consoles

Fourth Generation Video Game Consoles: The 16-bit Generation

Key Points:
  • The fourth generation of video game consoles, also known as the 16-bit era, began in October 1987 with the release of the NEC Home Electronics’ PC Engine (also known as the TurboGrafx in the west).
  • The Mega Drive/Genesis saw poor reception in Japan, but significant success in the west, much due to the Sonic the Hedgehog series – one of the most successful video game series in history.
  • The dominant force among fourth-generation home systems was definitely the SNES – the initial release of 300,000 units sold out in a few hours, and it became the best-selling system of the era.

Video game consoles had humble beginnings with systems like the Atari Pong in the 70s. We’ve come a long way since then, now being on the ninth generation, but the fourth generation of video game consoles was still a huge technological advancement from the first. Let’s dive in and take a closer look at this range of consoles that are still given much love today.


The fourth generation of video game consoles, also known as the 16-bit era, began in October 1987 with the release of the NEC Home Electronics’ PC Engine (more commonly known as the TurboGrafx in the west). Although this was the first, the generation was dominated by releases from Nintendo and Sega, namely the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and Sega Mega Drive (also known as the Genesis) respectively. Nintendo won out most of the market share in this era, mostly thanks to its Super Mario series. Sega pulled closely behind with its release of Sonic the Hedgehog, a hugely successful video game series to this day.

The video game consoles of this generation are differentiated from the third generation largely by the inclusion of 16-bit processors rather than 8-bit, the use of multi-button controllers, and a significant improvement in graphics and audio.

TurboGrafx-16 games
The 16-bit era began in1987 with the release of the NEC Home Electronics’ PC Engine (commonly known as the TurboGrafx in the west).


Fourth Generation Video Game Consoles: A Quick Comparison

TurboGrafxSNESGenesisNeo GeoPhilips CD-iNeo Geo CDGame Boy
Release date1989199119891991199019961989
Launch price$399.99$199$200$649.99$1,000$399$89.99
Add-onsCD-ROM, Arcade cardSuper Game BoyPower Base Converter, Sega CD, Sega 32XLink cable, rechargeable battery pack
Best-selling gamesBonk’s AdventureSuper Mario WorldSonic the HedgehogSamurai ShodownHotel MarioMetal Slug 3Tetris

Fourth Generation Video Game Consoles: Home Systems

TurboGrafx-16 (1989)

The console that kicked off this generation was a collaboration between Hudson Soft and NEC Home Electronics. The size of the console is notable; it is the smallest home console ever made. The controller used in the US was the TurboPad, featuring two action buttons (‘I’ and ‘II’), ‘Select’ and ‘Run’ buttons, a directional pad, and two ‘Turbo’ switches for registering continuous presses of a single button at once. The video games themselves were made on small, credit card-sized HuCard cartridges, which were inserted into the front slot of the console.

The TurboGrafx was very successful in Japan, but failed to reach the same success in the US market, mostly cited to be because of a delayed release. An official model was never released in the UK as a result.

Various updated models were made, such as the CoreGrafx, SuperGrafx, Shuttle, and TurboExpress (a portable/handheld version). Most of these models feature improved graphics and sound capabilities, but the SuperGrafx came in more expensive than the original, while the Shuttle was a cheaper option and aimed more at a younger audience. Eventually, an add-on would be released that allowed CD-ROM games to be played.

Mega Drive/Genesis (1989)

On the flip side, the Mega Drive/Genesis saw poor reception in Japan, but significant success in the west, much due to the Sonic the Hedgehog series – one of the most successful video game series in history, with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 setting records at the time for the fastest-selling game.

The controller features a ‘Start’ button, a directional pad, and three main action buttons. Variations include the wireless Remote Arcade Pad and light gun peripherals for use with compatible shooter games.

The Mega Drive also brought Sega’s first exploration into online gaming with the introduction of Sega Meganet, allowing players to get involved with 17 online games; however, this was only released in Japan as plans for a US version were scrapped. The Sega Channel was their first attempt at a video game distribution system, where players could download a game each month and demos for upcoming games. The channel reached 250,000 subscribers at the height of its popularity before being discontinued in July 1998.

SNES (1991)

The dominant force among fourth-generation home systems was definitely the SNES – the initial release of 300,000 units sold out in a few hours, and it became the best-selling system of the era. The SNES featured advancements over the Genesis, such as enhanced color palettes, tiling, and simulated 3D effects due to the graphics and sound co-processors. The system utilized ROM cartridges for its games, but these were shaped differently for each region and region-locked.

The SNES controller features 4-directional buttons instead of a pad, two shoulder buttons, and ABXY buttons in a diamond shape. Peripherals include the Super Scope light gun for shooters and the Super NES mouse for point and click capabilities. Exclusive titles that were extremely popular include Super Mario Kart, Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, F-Zero, and Starfox.

Nintendo VS Sega

The rivalry between Nintendo and Sega is one of the most noted in video game history. While the Genesis was marketed as the ‘cooler’ console of the two and featured a lower price point and larger game library, the SNES eventually pulled ahead, outselling the Genesis in the US by 1.5 million units. This is thought to have been possible with the release of Donkey Kong Country.

Neo Geo (1990)

Not one of the big two, but still worth a mention – the Neo Geo was released in 1990 and was the most powerful system at the time. Due to the high price, it saw limited success in the US but is now considered a collectible with a sizeable cult following.

The Neo Geo was originally an arcade machine, but was subsequently released as a home system, called the AES (advanced entertainment system). It featured a joystick controller with a standard 4-button layout. Programs for arcade or home use are contained in each game’s ROM cartridge, with EPROMs being movable from one type to the other. The arcade and home cartridges had a different pinout, however, to prevent arcade owners from using the cheaper home cartridges for commercial

Fourth Generation Video Game Consoles: Handheld Systems

Game Boy (1989)

While technically inferior to its competition, the Game Boy still outsold them quickly. Its lack of backlight, graphics, and design received criticism, but this made no difference to its popularity. It’s also worth mentioning the proportion of female players was higher than both the NES and SNES, reaching 46%.

Colors were minimal, with two shades of grey being the main colors, with dark magenta, black and blue used as accents. Two action buttons, ‘A’ and ‘B’, ‘Start’ and ‘Select’ buttons, and four directional buttons were featured. Physical cartridges are used, much like the competition. Many add-ons were released, such as the link cable, allowing two Game Boys to be connected for games that supported this feature. Third-party accessories to allow play in low-light conditions were also made, due to the lack of a backlight.

The most notable Game Boy games released would be the Pokemon Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow games (although Green was only released in Japan), which became its best-selling titles, selling over 46 million units worldwide. Coming in second place was Tetris, which was bundled with the console when it first came out.

Lynx/ Lynx II (1989)

The Lynx was released in North America before Japan (where it was released in 1990). The first handheld console with a color LCD screen, the Lynx had a successful launch where 90% of the units were sold within the first month.

Cartridges for the Lynx were originally flat and stackable but were very difficult to remove from the console, so the design was updated. The new design had ridges or tabs, to aid in removal, but was impossible to stack, leading to the design of a third and final model, with curved lips.

The Lynx II was released in 1991, with a sleeker design, improved battery life, better hardware, and a clearer screen. This helped to improve sales, but the market was still dominated by Nintendo and Sega.

Game Gear (1991)

Competition from Sega came in the form of the Game Gear. This also featured a backlit color screen and used 6 AA batteries for a battery life of 3 to 5 hours. Unsurprisingly, this battery life was criticized. Two types of rechargeable battery packs were released to try and mitigate this. However, the system also received criticism for its lack of original games (most being ports from Sega’s Master System).

The cartridges had a rounded front to help with removal from the console. Accessories included a TV tuner, used for viewing analog television, the Super Wide Gear, magnifying the game screen, and even the Car Gear adapter, allowing players to portably power the system through the use of a car’s cigarette lighter. Multiplayer functionality was also possible with the introduction of the Gear to Gear cable.

Like its competition, it was unable to surpass the success of the Game Boy, selling only 10 million units by 1996. The Game gear was discontinued in 1997 until its re-release in 2000 by Majesco Entertainment.

PC Engine GT/TurboExpress (1990)

In essence, the TurboExpress is a portable version of the TurboGrafx, and was technically advanced compared to the Game Boy; a backlit full-color screen and a TV tuner were included. Only 1.5 million units were sold, meaning the TurboExpress fell far behind its competitors in sales.

Cartridges used were the same as the TurboGrafx home console, and the screen size was the same as the Game Boy (even the keypad layout is similar). Unfortunately, new TurboExpress systems often experienced pixel failure and sound failure, as well as text often being hard or impossible to read, as fonts were designed to be viewed on a TV screen.

The battery life of the TurboExpress was criticized like much of its competition, requiring 6 AA batteries and only lasting around 3 hours.

CD-Supported 16-Bit Game Consoles

CD-supported consoles actually arrived in the fourth generation, before the release of the Sony Playstation. These included The Commodore CDTV, Philips CD-i, LaserActive, Sega Genesis CDX, and Neo Geo CD. Aside from the Neo Geo CD, these systems failed to make a commercial impact compared to their competitors.

Commodore CDTV

The Commodore CDTV was originally designed as a home media system, rather than solely a video game console. Discontinued in 1993, it was generally considered a failure for Commodore, especially since they were mostly marketed towards Amiga owners; the Amiga received a CD-ROM add-on for the Amiga, meaning there was little motivation to buy a CDTV.

Neo Geo CD

The Neo Geo CD offered the same platform as the Neo Geo, but with cheaper CD formats rather than cartridges. The original joystick controller is still used.

Philips CD-i

The CD-i was originally designed to influence the education and home entertainment industries, but largely became known for its video game consoles instead. Co-created with Sony, it was made to be an extension of the CD-ROM but failed to make a big impact. Thus, it was mostly abandoned by Philips in 1996. By 1994, it was outsold by cheaper multimedia PCs.

Genesis CDX

Sega released the Genesis CDX bundled with Sonic CD, Sega Classics Arcade Collection, and Ecco the Dolphin. This console was semi-portable and featured a small LCD screen. The current track being played is displayed on this screen when used to play audio CDs. The CDX was marketed as a portable CD player, due to its lightweight (two pounds).


LaserActive was Pioneer’s attempt to break into the video game market. The console featured no regional lockout, so software from any region could be played. Games were contained on LD-ROMs (LD standing for LaserDisc), and add-on modules could be used to play Genesis and TurboGrafx games, as well as CD-ROMs. However, these were viewed as too expensive and contributed to its subpar performance.

Which Console Was The Best?

As you can probably tell by now, the answer to this isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem at first. By sheer sales alone, the SNES outperforms all of its competition and has significant improvements over the Genesis in terms of graphics and audio. However, the Neo Geo had the best graphics of the 16-bit game consoles but failed to make as much of an impact due to its high price point. Most of the handheld systems introduced had issues with battery life, apart from the Game Boy, which sold the most units despite its technical drawbacks. CD-supported consoles also came to life in this era but did not reach competitive success until the Sony Playstation.

Overall, in terms of popularity, the SNES takes its rightful spot at the top, with the Game Boy securing the number one place for handheld consoles. Nintendo definitely dominated this era with its entries into the video game world.

Up Next…

Fourth Generation Video Game Consoles: The 16-bit Generation FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What consoles were in the fourth generation?

The TurboGrafx, Genesis, SNES, Neo Geo, Game Boy, Lynx/Lynx II, Game Gear, TurboExpress, were the main consoles of this generation. CD-supported consoles include the Commodore CDTV, Genesis CDX, Neo Geo CD, LaserActive, and the CD-i.

Which was the first console to come out?

The first fourth generation console to be released was the TurboGrafx in October 1987.

What was the best-selling console of the generation?

The SNES, selling 49.1 million units worldwide.

What is the current video game generation?

We are currently in the ninth video game generation.

What was the best-selling game of the generation?

The best-selling game of the generation was Tetris for the Game Boy, selling 35 million units, closely followed by Pokemon Red/Blue/Green and Super Mario World, selling 20 million units.

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