How Video Game Systems Work

By: Jeff Tyson  | 
Video game gadgets, virtual reality simulator, headphones, mobile phone, digital tablet, remote controller and joystick. Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

Home video game systems, also known as consoles, are a popular form of entertainment. In 2000, Sony estimated that one out of every four households in the United States had a Sony PlayStation. Since then the numbers have only increased, with systems like the Nintendo Wii luring the Holy Grail of the video game market: the casual gamer.

In this article you will learn what video game systems are, a little about the history of game consoles, what is inside a game console and what the future holds for these systems. You will also learn a little about the games these systems play.


Let's start with the most basic question: What exactly is a video game console?

Video Game Consoles: A Definition

At its core, a video game console is a highly specialized computer. In fact, most systems are based on the same central processing units (CPUs) used in many desktop computers. To keep the cost of the video game system within reasonable limits, most manufacturers use a CPU that has been widely available for long enough to undergo a significant decrease in cost.

Why would people buy a game console instead of a computer? There are several reasons:


  • A video game console is less expensive than a tricked-out computer designed to run video games. Current generation consoles cost between $200 to $500, whereas a fully-loaded gaming computer can cost more than $10,000.
  • Consoles tend to load games faster than most PCs -- expensive gaming computer rigs are the exception, of course.
  • Video game systems are designed to be part of your entertainment system. This means that they are easy to connect to your TV and stereo.
  • There are no compatibility issues, such as operating system, DirectX drivers, correct audio card, supported game controller, resolution and so on.
  • Game developers know exactly what components are in each system, so games are written to take full advantage of the hardware.
  • The degree of technical knowledge required to set up and use it is much lower. Most game consoles are truly "plug and play."
  • Most video game systems have games that allow multiple players. This is a difficult process with a typical home computer.

Check out the next section for a short history of the video game (remember Pong?).

The History of Video Games

[b]The Atari 2600[/b]
The Atari 2600

Video games have been around since the early 1970s. The first commercial arcade video game, Computer Space by Nutting Associates, was introduced in 1971. In 1972, Atari introduced Pong to the arcades. An interesting item to note is that Atari was formed by Nolan Bushnell, the man who developed Computer Space. He left Nutting Associates to found Atari, which then produced Pong, the first truly successful commercial arcade video game. Pong was a great hit when it came out.

That same year, Magnavox offered the first home video game system. Dubbed the Odyssey, it did not even have a microprocessor! The core of the system was a board with about four-dozen transistors and diodes. The Odyssey was very limited -- it could only produce very simple graphics, and required that custom plastic overlays be taped over the television screen. In 1975, Atari introduced a home version of its popular arcade game, Pong. The original home version of Pong was sold exclusively through Sears, and even carried the Sears logo. Pong was a phenomenal success, opening the door to the future of home video games.


Although the Fairchild Channel F, released in 1976, was the first true removable game system, Atari once again had the first such system to be a commercial success. Introduced in 1977 as the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), the 2600 used removable cartridges, allowing a multitude of games to be played using the same hardware.

The hardware in the 2600 was quite sophisticated at the time, although it seems incredibly simple now. It consisted of:

  • MOS 6502 microprocessor
  • Stella, a custom graphics chip that controlled the synchronization to the TV and all other video processing tasks
  • 128 bytes of RAM
  • 4-kilobyte ROM-based game cartridges

The chips were attached to a small printed circuit board (PCB) that also connected to the joystick ports, cartridge connector, power supply and video output. Games consisted of software encoded on ROM chips and housed in plastic cartridges. The ROM was wired on a PCB that had a series of metal contacts along one edge. These contacts seated into a plug on the console's main board when a cartridge was plugged into the system. When power was supplied to the system, it would sense the presence of the ROM and load the game software into memory.

Systems like the Atari 2600, its descendant, the 5200, Coleco's ColecoVision and Mattel's IntelliVision helped to generate interest in home video games for a few years. But interest began to wane because the quality of the home product lagged far behind arcade standards. But in 1985, Nintendo introduced the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and everything changed.

The NES introduced three very important concepts to the video game system industry:

  1. Using a pad controller instead of a joystick
  2. Creating authentic reproductions of arcade video games for the home system
  3. Using the hardware as a loss leader by aggressively pricing it, then making a profit on the games themselves

Nintendo's strategy paid off, and the NES sparked a revival in the home video game market that continues to thrive and expand even now. No longer were home video game systems looked upon as inferior imitations of arcade machines. New games that would have been impractical to create for commercial systems, such as Legend of Zelda, were developed for the home markets. These games enticed many people who had not thought about buying a home video game system before to purchase the NES.

Nintendo continued to develop and introduce new game consoles. Other companies, such as Sega and Sony, created their own home video game systems. Let's look at the core parts of any current video game system.

Inside Game Systems

The basic pieces really haven't changed that much since the birth of the Atari 2600. Here's a list of the core components that all video game systems have in common:

  • User control interface
  • CPU
  • RAM
  • Software kernel
  • Storage medium for games
  • Video output
  • Audio output
  • Power supply

The user control interface allows the player to interact with the video game. Without it, a video game would be a passive medium, like cable TV. Early game systems used paddles or joysticks, but most systems today use sophisticated controllers with a variety of buttons and special features.


Ever since the early days of the Atari 2600, video game systems have relied on RAM to provide temporary storage of games as they're being played. Without RAM, even the fastest CPU could not provide the necessary speed for an interactive gaming experience.

The software kernel is the console's operating system. It provides the interface between the various pieces of hardware, allowing the video game programmers to write code using common software libraries and tools.

The two most common storage technologies used for video games today are CD and ROM-based cartridges. Current systems also offer some type of solid-state memory cards for storing saved games and personal information. Systems like the PlayStation 2 have DVD drives. The PlayStation 3 goes even farther -- it has a Blu-ray DVD drive.

Microsoft, a rival to Sony, attempted to outmaneuver the PS3's Blu-ray drive with an HD-DVD drive designed for the Xbox 360. Unfortunately for Microsoft, they backed the wrong horse: the HD-DVD format fizzled in early 2008.

All game consoles provide a video signal that is compatible with television. Depending on your country, this may be NTSC, PAL or possibly even SECAM. The Xbox 360 and PS3 support HDMI cables. Those two and the Nintendo Wii support composite, component and S-video connections. Most consoles have a dedicated graphics processor that provides specialized mapping, texturing and geometric functions, in addition to controlling video output. Another dedicated chip typically handles the audio processing chores and outputs stereo sound or, in some cases, digital surround sound!

In the next section, you'll learn a bit about the games you can play on these systems.

Video Games

Metal Gear Solid 4
Metal Gear Solid 4

The software used on these dedicated computer systems has evolved amazingly from the simple rectangular blips used in Pong. Games today feature richly textured, full-color graphics, awesome sound and complex interaction between player and system. The increased storage capacity of the cartridges and discs allows game developers to include incredibly detailed graphics and CD-quality soundtracks. Several of the video game systems have built-in special effects that add features like unique lighting or texture mapping in real-time.

There is a huge variety of games available. Here are just a few of the games you can play on the most popular consoles:


Playstation 3

Grand Theft Auto IV
Grand Theft Auto IV
FIFA Soccer 08
FIFA Soccer 08
Marvel Ultimate Alliance
Marvel Ultimate Alliance

Xbox 360

Halo 3
Halo 3
Call of Duty 4
Call of Duty 4
LEGO Star Wars II
LEGO Star Wars II
Guitar Hero III
Guitar Hero III


Mario Kart Wii
Mario Kart Wii
Super Mario Galaxy
Super Mario Galaxy
Rock Band
Rock Band
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Now let's compare console specs.

Video Game System Comparison

The PlayStation 3 has a processor that acts like a biological cell in an organism.
The PlayStation 3 has a processor that acts like a biological cell in an organism.
Image courtesy 2005 Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

Just like the world of computers, video game systems are constantly getting better. New technology developed specifically for video game systems is being coupled with other new technologies, such as DVD.

So how do the big three match up against each other? Let's take a look at each system based on specific criteria. We'll start with processors.


The PlayStation 3 uses a Cell processor. Developed by Toshiba and IBM specifically for the game system, the concept behind this processor was to create a chip that acted like a biological cell in an organism. It's distributed computing on a single chip. Cell processors can cooperate with each other, making it possible to create virtual supercomputers by linking multiple cell processors together.

The Xbox 360's processor is a customized Power-PC based CPU from IBM. It has three symmetrical cores that run at 3.2 gigahertz (GHz) each. This processor has a lot of horsepower, but it lacks the Cell architecture of the PlayStation 3 design.

The Nintendo Wii's processor isn't quite as impressive. It's an IBM Broadway 729 megahertz (MHz) processor. While the chip isn't in the same league as its competitors, Nintendo executives say the processor is more than powerful enough to provide a fun gaming experience.

Next let's look at graphics. The PlayStation 3 uses an RSX graphics processing unit (GPU) that runs at 550 MHz. The Xbox 360 has a 500 MHz ATI GPU. The ATI Hollywood 243 MHz card powers the graphics for Nintendo Wii. The PlayStation has the edge on the specs, though some gamers say they feel that the Xbox makes better use of its capabilities than the PlayStation. Meanwhile, Nintendo claims that the company wants to focus more on making games fun and less on beefing up graphics.

Audio is a similar story. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 can provide Dolby surround sound. The Nintendo Wii can produce stereo sound and simulate surround sound, but again its specs fall short of the other two.

All three systems can connect to the Internet. Microsoft's Xbox Live service is arguably the strongest presence in console Internet gaming, but Sony is trying to change that. Nintendo made loyal fans very happy when it announced gamers would be able to purchase and download many classic games to the Wii system. All three companies are also exploring social networking applications through these video game systems.

The PlayStation 3 is also a Blu-ray DVD player, which might give it the edge over the other two consoles. For people who want a Blu-ray player and a game system, the PlayStation 3 is a tempting choice. Before the end of the high-definition disc wars, Microsoft released an external HD-DVD drive that users could connect to its Xbox 360 console, but discontinued production in February 2008 after the HD-DVD format gave up the ghost [source: GamerScore Blog]

For hardcore gamers, the choice usually boils down to either the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox 360. While the specs seem to favor Sony's console, other considerations like game libraries and online play can lure gamers to Microsoft. ­Some gamers like to look at backwards compatibility -- can the new systems play the games designed for older systems? The PS3 can play some games designed for the original PlayStation but not PS2 titles. The Xbox 360 can play most Xbox games but there may be compatibility issues with some games.­

The Nintendo Wii is a different beast entirely. It appeals to casual gamers -- people who aren't necessarily interested in devoting hours of time to hone their skills and become gaming masters. Hardcore gamers can enjoy Wii games too. While the 360 and PS3 satiate gamers' bloodlust, the Wii seems to have a more broad appeal.

Which video game console will reign supreme? Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all claim that their respective console will sell the most units. But no matter which company comes out on top, it's safe to say that all gamers are winners.

Next, we'll look at some interesting facts about video game consoles.

Cool Video Game Facts

  • The Sega Dreamcast was the first console to implement online play over a phone line, calling the system Sega Net.
  • The Microsoft Xbox was the first video game system to provide full support for HDTV.
  • Popular Science recognized the Sega Dreamcast as one of the most important and innovative products of 1999.
  • The Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972, contained 40 transistors and no microprocessor. The Pentium 4 microprocessor contains 42 million transistors on the chip itself!
  • The PlayStation 2 was the first system to have graphics capability better than that of the leading-edge personal computer at the time of its release.
  • The Nintendo N64 marked the first time that computer graphics workstation manufacturer Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) developed game hardware technology.
  • While the original Atari Football game was first created in 1973, it wasn't released until 1978. It was delayed because the game couldn't scroll the screen -- players couldn't move beyond the area shown on the monitor. When the game was finally released, it became the first game to utilize scrolling, a key part of many games today.
  • The Atari Pong video game console was the No. 1 selling item for the holiday season in 1975.
  • The first console to have games available in the form of add-on cartridges was the Fairchild Channel F console, introduced in August 1976.
  • The PlayStation 2 was the first video game system to use DVD technology.
  • On the original Magnavox Odyssey, players had to keep score themselves because the machine couldn't.
  • The Nintendo GameCube's proprietary disc held 1.5 gigabytes of data -- 190 times more than what an N64 game cartridge could hold.
  • On the market from 1991 till 2004, the SNK NeoGeo AES has tied the Atari 2600 (1977-1990) as the longest supported gaming console in history.
  • The Sega Genesis featured a version of the same Motorola processor that powered the original Apple Macintosh computer.
  • Mattel's Intellivison system, introduced in 1980, featured an add-on called "PlayCable," which delivered games by cable TV.
  • Nintendo's Game Boy was the most successful game system ever, with more than 100 million units sold worldwide.
  • The word atari comes from the ancient Japanese game of Go and means "you are about to be engulfed." Technically, it is the word used by a player to inform his opponent that he is about to lose, similar to "check" in chess.
  • In the 1980s, a service called Gameline allowed users to download games to the Atari 2600 over regular phone lines. It was not a success, but did form part of the foundation for America Online, the world's largest Internet service provider.
  • The first color portable video game system was the Atari Lynx, introduced in 1989 and priced at $149.
  • Introduced in 1993, the 3DO was the first video game system to be based entirely on CD technology.
  • The Sony PlayStation was originally intended as a CD add-on to the Super Nintendo. When licensing problems and other issues arose, Sony decided to develop the PlayStation as a machine of its own.

For more information on video game systems, video games, buying a console and related topics, check out the links below.


Originally Published: Oct 16, 2000

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More Great Links

  • Microsoft. "Xbox 360." (Dec. 1, 2008)
  • Nintendo. "Wii." (Dec. 1, 2008)
  • Porcaro, John. "Xbox 360 HD DVD Support Statement Updated." Feb. 23, 2008. (Dec. 1, 2008)
  • Sony. "PlayStation 3." (Dec. 1, 2008)