- The sixth generation of consoles is often referred to as the Golden Age of Gaming.
- The sixth-generation consoles were briefly considered 128-bit hardware; however, it was mostly a marketing gimmick.
- Additionally, some of these consoles introduced concepts that are now the staple of modern gaming.
Just like the second generation, the sixth generation of video game consoles also revolutionized gaming in its own way. It ceased the trend of defining system performance by bit rating, introduced multiplayer to consoles, and produced some of the most memorable games in history.
However, it also established PlayStation’s dominance on the market, prompting Microsoft to release its own console. Thus, the power wars began between the two titans, and have lasted to this day. But despite the pristine graphics and thousands of DLC associated with modern gaming, most gamers look back at the sixth generation with fondness and nostalgia.
So, what made the sixth generation into what it was? Why is it still remembered by gamers to this day? Well, to answer these questions, we need to take a trip down memory lane and discuss what exactly made this generation so great.
Sixth-Generation Video Game Consoles: A Timeline
The sixth generation of video game consoles officially started on November 27, 1998, with the release of Sega Dreamcast, which set some of the basic foundations for modern gaming. For example, Dreamcast was the first to incorporate an add-on modem into its design, allowing for easier multiplayer gaming.
Following the success of Sony’s first console, the original PlayStation, the company launched the legendary PlayStation 2 in March 2000. It was originally touted as a home entertainment device, as it was capable of DVD video and audio CD reproduction and gaming (even online). It became the best-selling video game console of all time.
Nintendo GameCube followed soon in 2001. However, the company has struggled to maintain its market position since the mid-90s. And its reliance on family-friendly titles didn’t do the company any good. Despite being a reasonably built home gaming system, the GameCube ultimately failed to meet the sales of its predecessor, the Nintendo 64.
Last but not least to the race was the original Xbox, also released in 2001. Microsoft felt threatened by PlayStation’s increasing dominance in the gaming market, so it made its own gaming console. The Xbox was never really a match for PlayStation 2, but just like Dreamcast, it pioneered certain aspects of modern gaming.
Sega Dreamcast: The Beginning of an Era
|1998 — Japan
1999 — worldwide
|200 MHz SuperH SH-4
|100 MHz NEC/VideoLogic
PowerVR CLX2 “Holly”
|Main RAM 16 MB SDRAM
Video RAM 8 MB
Sound RAM 2 MB
|1998’s Sonic Adventure
|March 31, 2001
Sega had a strong impulse to create a good home gaming system following a string of failures after the release of the Genesis/Mega Drive in 1988. For comparison, the Genesis sold over 40 million units, more than the next five iterations — Game Gear, SegaCD, 32X, Saturn, and Dreamcast — combined.
Sega Saturn, Sega’s fifth-generation console, was a particular disappointment for the company due to its commercial failure. Sega saw it as an immediate need to invigorate its brand, prompting them to create the first sixth-generation console, the Sega Dreamcast.
Dreamcast was a ground-shattering release at the time, especially due to its support for online multiplayer gaming. Online multiplayer support was already present on its Saturn model, but it was severely underdeveloped and had very little support from the game developers.
At the time of its release, online multiplayer was mostly reserved for the PC gaming market. So, we can say with a degree of confidence that Dreamcast brought online multiplayer mode on home video game consoles to the forefront.
But online gaming wasn’t Dreamcast’s best feature — its graphics were. Though considered potato graphics by today’s standards, Dreamcast’s graphics were quite revolutionary at the time of its release. It was the first console that was capable of displaying SD resolutions, which were 480i for NTSC regions and 576i for PAL video regions.
Sega’s decision to use GD-ROM, a 1.2GB optical disc, which allowed developers to store larger and more detailed game environments and assets, was partially credited for Dreamcast’s revolutionary graphics. Unfortunately, all that innovation wasn’t enough, and the console faced very stiff competition from PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo.
While its GD-ROM allowed for better graphics, it couldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with PlayStation 2’s DVD capabilities. The company was either financially unable or unwilling to compete with Sony on that front. It’s worth noting that even Sony was at a loss when it came to DVD, but the Japanese giant pushed it to gain market share.
By the time Xbox and GameCube were announced, Dreamcast was already considered outdated. Paired with the poor commercial performance of its previous five hardware iterations, Sega decided to close down its hardware shop. Dreamcast was discontinued, and all the associated services were subsequently shut down.
PlayStation 2: The Rise of the Legend
|2000 — worldwide
|294 MHz MIPS “Emotion Engine”
299 MHz later models
|147 MHz “Graphics Synthesizer”
|Main RAM 32 MB dual-channel RDRAM
Video RAM 4 MB eDRAM
Sound RAM 2 MB
|2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
|December 12, 2012—Japan
January 4, 2013—worldwide
Sony had massive success with its fifth-generation console, the original PlayStation, which sold over 102 million units — three times more than its main competitor, Nintendo 64. This helped Sony establish a massive fan base that was eagerly awaiting the new console. In turn, this helped establish PlayStation 2’s market dominance soon after the console was launched.
In fact, PlayStation 2 made more than $250 million in sales on its launch day. The console was known for its powerful Emotion Engine processor, which included three separate execution units, each capable of executing two instructions per cycle.
The engine itself was very capable and allowed for highly detailed and complex game environments. However, the PS2’s Graphics Synthesizer, which had a really fast memory, was limited by the chip’s memory capacity. Thus, the graphics looked pretty impressive, especially compared to Dreamcast, which was limited by its use of GD-ROM and a slower graphic chip.
The limited memory associated with the GPU also caused poorer lighting in in-game environments, especially when compared to what Xbox and GameCube GPUs were capable of outputting. But even then, the PS2 was, and still is, a massive success for Sony.
The biggest key to the success of PlayStation 2 was a massive library of titles. In addition to its ability to play both CD- and DVD-ROMs, the console built upon its predecessor’s successful and rather big game library. Not to mention the fact that Sony managed to acquire licensing deals with some of the best gaming franchises on the market, further consolidating its position.
Now, more than two decades later, PlayStation 2 remains the world’s best-selling console, having sold over 155 million units. This position is currently challenged by the still rising sales of Nintendo Switch, which is currently approx. 30 million unit sales away from taking over the lead.
With that said, the PS2 is still hailed as one of the best gaming consoles ever made. The fact that it has an ever-growing and very active modding community only attests to the fact.
Xbox: The Challenger Arrives
|November 15, 2001 — North America
Early 2002 — worldwide
|733 MHz x86 Intel Celeron/
Pentium III Custom Hybrid
|233 MHz Custom Nvidia NV2A
|64 MB unified DDR SDRAM
|2004’s Halo 2
|2005 — Japan
2006 — worldwide
With the success of the original PlayStation, and PlayStation 2’s ability to play both CD- and DVD-ROMs in addition to playing games, Microsoft saw gaming consoles as a threat to PC’s dominance as the home entertainment devices.
Thus, the company announced its first gaming console, the Xbox, in 2000, with the console’s release in 2001. Most consoles up to that point were made using custom-built hardware components, but Xbox was built using standard PC components, such as the 733MHz Intel Pentium III CPU and customized Nvidia GeForce 3-based GPU.
Additionally, the console used a Windows NT-based OS. This, paired with the widely available hardware, made the development of the Xbox titles incredibly easy for both first- and third-party developers due to the similarities in the OS and hardware architecture.
Speaking strictly from the hardware performance point, Xbox was by all accounts a better and more powerful machine compared to PlayStation 2. It had a more powerful CPU and GPU, more RAM, an internal Hard Drive, and a built-in Ethernet port for online gaming.
Xbox also pioneered online subscription services for video gaming via its Xbox Live. Dreamcast did have its own Dreamcast Network, which allowed players to connect the console online and play with other people. However, it was fundamentally different than modern live service gaming, as it lacked many functionalities which are considered basic nowadays.
Microsoft’s Xbox Live prompted Sony to boost its online capabilities of the PlayStation 2, which were previously side-lined. Additionally, the service also inspired Sony to launch PlayStation Network on its subsequent PlayStation console while also providing Xbox with a competitive edge over GameCube, which had a near-lack of online games.
Despite its powerful hardware and live service gaming, Xbox was unable to compete with PlayStation’s dominance in the console market. Though it sold six times fewer consoles than its competitor, Xbox was far from a commercial failure. In fact, Microsoft built upon the console’s success with successor consoles.
A particular console that stands out is the Xbox’s successor, the Xbox 360, which was released in 2005 and signaled the beginning of a seventh generation of video game consoles.
Nintendo GameCube: The Underdog
|2001 — Japan and North America
2002 — worldwide
|485 MHz PowerPC “Gekko”
|162 MHz ATI “Flipper”
|Main RAM 24 MB 1T-SRAM, 16 MB DRAM
Video RAM 3 MB embedded 1T-SRAM
|Game Boy family
|2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee
GameCube was a successor to Nintendo 64, one of the most recognized video game systems in history. It was Nintendo’s first console to use optical discs instead of cartridges, and unlike its major competitors, it didn’t play optical media discs.
To be entirely fair, the GameCube was very well received initially due to its affordable price tag and a whole slew of gaming titles. The controller was redesigned as a two-handle while retaining the combination of a D-pad and a two-thumbstick combo first introduced with the N64.
It’s worth mentioning that no video game consoles had dual thumbsticks prior to the sixth generation. In fact, Nintendo was the only console inside the fifth generation to feature a single thumbstick on its controller by default. Sega Saturn also had a single thumbstick, but it was an accessory that was sold separately from the console and the controller.
Regardless, the GameCube launched a massive number of critically acclaimed titles from well-known and praised franchises. Nintendo actually re-kindled its relationships with the developers and, as a result, the console had more first-party and subsidiary releases than any of its competitors.
Unfortunately, both the console and its maker had their own issues, which led to the downfall of the GameCube. The system was often criticized for its toy-like design and near-complete lack of online titles. Additionally, Nintendo struggled with the conflicting brand image, especially the family-friendly image it developed in the early ’90s.
At the same time, the gaming market skewed towards more mature gaming content, so the sales and the development of Nintendo’s family-friendly titles stagnated. So, despite the console’s initial success, it failed to compete with PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and it failed to match the sales of its predecessor, the Nintendo 64.
As a result, Nintendo lost the market share it had in the console gaming market. For context, Nintendo held a 90% market share in the fourth generation, between 30% and 50% in the fifth generation, and a mere 15% to 20% in the sixth generation video game console market. The release of Nintendo Switch in 2017 increased Nintendo’s market share to nearly 30% in 2022.
Sixth Generation: A Golden Age of Gaming
According to many gamers old enough to remember playing on sixth-generation consoles, the era between 1998 and 2006 was a truly golden age of gaming. Not for the graphical fidelity facilitated by the prowess of the gaming hardware crammed into plastic housings, but due to the sheer excellence of the titles released on the aforementioned systems.
And there are plenty of reasons why that’s so. The main reasons are processing power, budget, and diversity — when these three aligned, excellence was born.
The sixth generation of consoles happened between the dawn of 3D gaming and the rise of HD graphics — which ended up glorifying graphical fidelity. The transition to 3D was weird for many game developers in the late ’90s despite the fact that the first 3D game for consoles, Virtua Racing, was released in 1994.
The previous generations were mostly limited by processing power and storage capacity, which led to some compromises regarding graphics and gameplay. A similar thing happened with the seventh generation of consoles, but given a large technological leap, the main constriction became the budget.
That simply wasn’t the case with the sixth generation of video game consoles. By the time 3D technology took over the gaming industry entirely, developers that had survived the transition to 3D rendering already had a pretty solid grasp of 3D to start experimenting and developing some really good — and, now, iconic — gaming titles.
The technology of the sixth generation lifted many technological limitations plaguing the previous generations, thus allowing the visuals and gameplay to coexist in perfect harmony. The hardware was capable of outputting decent graphics; good enough to make them believable but not high enough that developers had to sacrifice the gameplay.
Admittedly, the technology of the sixth generation had limitations of its own. The graphics, while still impressive and believable, were still pretty far from true-to-life graphics associated with recent generations of game consoles.
This balanced asset development with gameplay, allowing both to fit into budgets that are considered ridiculously low by today’s standards. For the purpose of this argument, we’ll mention that the estimated budget for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla — a gaming masterpiece — was between $100 million and $120 million.
Anything lower than that would have to compromise either the graphics or the gameplay of AC: Valhalla. But most games from the sixth generation of consoles didn’t have such massive budgets. For example, 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a masterpiece of gaming, but it only took around $6 million to produce.
Of course, there were some exceptions to this rule. It’s estimated that GTA: San Andreas had a budget of up to $70 million, but that game was released in the subsequent generation, as well. As a result, the development costs for the sixth generation alone were probably smaller.
Diversity and Quality
Games of that period simply had to be great, or at least good enough to turn some profit for the developer and publisher. Widespread internet wasn’t a thing, so online patching was out of the question, meaning that games had to ship out finished — almost a stark contrast to today’s industry practices.
Having both the gameplay and graphics fitting the budget provided developers with the opportunity to create some really unique titles. Ones that, given today’s focus on blockbuster titles alone, wouldn’t even get greenlit. 2003’s Beyond Good & Evil, which took nearly 15 years to be recognized as an absolute gem, is one such title and is definitely worthy of a sequel.
Both the diversity and quality dipped significantly once we entered the seventh generation. And while we got significant improvements in graphics, the gameplay became poorer, and games became shorter. This prompted developers to add DLCs and put their hands into the gamers’ pockets once again.
Sixth-Generation Consoles: 5 Must-Know Facts
Here are five must-know facts about sixth-generation consoles:
- Sony was the first to introduce mid-generation upgrades in the sixth generation. Admittedly, these didn’t actually increase the console’s computing power. Instead, they built in the Ethernet port and reduced the console’s size and weight by approximately 45%.
- Out of all the consoles from the sixth generation, PlayStation 2 has a very active modding community. GameCube is also a very popular console among hardware modders.
- Sega Dreamcast featured a visual memory unit, which was a handheld memory card used to save game data.
- Xbox was originally supposed to be named DirectX Box due to Microsoft’s DirectX technology. However, it was later shortened.
- GameCube relied on miniDVD optic discs — a 3.15-diameter disc that could store approx. 1.4 GB of data.
Sixth-Generation Consoles: Final Words
The sixth-generation consoles gave us some of the best gaming titles in the history of gaming, and some of those are still worth playing today. Does that warrant purchasing an old gaming console from 20 years ago? Well, that depends. We live in an era of remakes and remasters, and some of the biggest hits from the sixth generation have already been reworked for newer hardware.
However, there are still titles that are definitely worth playing, and you’ll need an original PlayStation 2 for that. Luckily, the console still maintains a very active modding community. Used consoles in near-perfect condition can be found online at various prices, going as low as $20 and as high as $1,000 or more for some super-rare models, such as the all-pink PlayStation 2.
The console has a massive library of titles that you’d likely have to visit a used games shop to obtain, but the modern modding hardware and software allow users to run downloaded games (which is illegal, by the way) and upscale the resolution to 1080p. It won’t improve the graphics quality, but at least you won’t have to tug a 50+lbs CRT TV to your living room to enjoy some oldies-but-goldies.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Vladimir Sukhachev/Shutterstock.com.