The ten best consoles: our countdown of the greatest gameboxes of the last 20 years

Our 20th anniversary celebrations continue with the ten best consoles released in Edge’s lifetime, from 1993 to the present day.

10. Dreamcast

Origin Japan • Release 1998

The short lifespan of Sega’s Dreamcast – all but dead within two years – is made all the more tragic by the company’s final console providing much of the blueprint for modern machines. It was the first with a built-in modem, for one thing, Sega putting its dwindling money where its mouth was with the likes of ChuChu Rocket!, Phantasy Star Online and thirdparty efforts such as Quake III Arena. In-game voice chat allowed Dreamcast owners to experience the same kind of online play as PC owners, and some games even offered DLC. The controller might have been an ugly evolution of Saturn’s 3D controller, but placing a VMU into one of its expansion slots provided a second-screen experience long before the idea became fashionable.

The off-white box that would ultimately force Sega out of the hardware race also delivered the first games that could meaningfully be described as arcade perfect, including excellent ports of Crazy Taxi, Virtua Tennis and F355 Challenge, and even made amends for one of Saturn’s misdemeanours with a vastly improved version of Daytona USA. But it wasn’t just a home for conversions: Jet Set Radio, Shenmue and Rez saw Sega at the height of its creativity despite ailing fortunes, and let’s not forget that the platform was home to Metropolis Street Racer, the spiritual precursor to Project Gotham Racing.

Sega’s console was undoubtedly ahead of its time, and it suffered at retail for that reason, despite a strong – and costly – promotional campaign. But its influence can still be felt today, going alongside all those indelible memories of making crazy money against the backdrop of Sega’s patented blue skies.

9. Xbox

Origin US • Release 2001

In many ways, Xbox picked up where Dreamcast left off. Ridiculous controller, online play as standard, a launch lineup with a selection of Sega exclusives… and in the end, not enough people bought it. But where Sega’s cash ran out, Microsoft’s bottomless pockets made Xbox a platform from which to launch 360. Xbox didn’t represent Dreamcast’s tragic end but rather a stuttering beginning for the next decade of gaming.

Microsoft built its first console for the future, and threw in a hard drive and network adapter long before most game developers were ready to embrace them. Xbox was launched into a world in which broadband Internet was in its infancy, but by 2005 the notion of a console without an Ethernet adapter was absurd. Halo 2, PGR 2, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Rainbow Six 3 made the strongest possible case against the scepticism that greeted Microsoft’s ambition. By the generation’s end, the company’s message was clear: if you wanted to play with friends, you needed an Xbox. Microsoft owned online gaming. Moreover, it owned firstperson shooters. TimeSplitters and Killzone were largely unconvincing answers to Halo, Riddick, Wolfenstein and a world of online-ready Tom Clancy games on Xbox.

Friends lists built up over the console’s four years were carried over to the next generation, players’ Halo expertise migrated neatly to Call Of Duty 2 – and 13 years later every console is built to Xbox standards. Xbox was a PC disguised as a console, and when the next generation begins it will see a PlayStation-branded PC face off against an Xbox-branded PC – 2014’s consoles defined by a lump of a black box from 2001.

8. Wii

Origin Japan • Release 2006

Nintendo shelved its pre-launch Wii codename ‘Revolution’ because it was cumbersome to pronounce, but the label remains instructive. It reminds us that Nintendo intended for its console to buck the status quo. The console toppled the prevailing logic of console development by opting out of the HD graphical arms race. Instead, Nintendo would bet on the persuasive power of well-designed game mechanics, a novel method of interaction – motion control via the Wii Remote – and the belief that more intuitive controls would welcome a broader consumer audience to the table.

They did. Wii Sports would replace Super Mario Bros as the best-selling game of all time. Mainstream news ran stories about Wii Sports bowling tournaments in retirement homes. Videogames coaxing children off the couch and onto their feet was a PR manager’s dream, and gave kids a new bargaining chip with non-gamer parents. The console offered something different, and though many seasoned players would grow disaffected with the device and the company that made it, the first sight of the Wii Remote in action felt almost futuristic.

Since its specs lagged so far behind those of 360 and PS3, there was no way for developers to port ambitious titles to Wii without releasing a demonstrably inferior version. Given the vast installed base, shovelware poured in to fill the void. Yet there were diamonds to be found among the considerable rough. Wii gave the world Skyward Sword, Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel, and for those alone, never mind its other achievements, its place in console history is assured.

7. PlayStation 3

Origin Japan • Release 2006

At launch, PlayStation 3 was the game-console equivalent of ’80s arena rock: a glorious exercise in overkill. The Cell processor was pitched as if Sony engineers had forged its silicon components from ore contained within some recently unearthed Martian obelisk. Sony was on top of the world, coming off the back of PlayStation 2, which remains the best-selling videogame console in history. The company felt bulletproof.

PlayStation 3 was expensive – so expensive that its chief architect, Ken Kutaragi, told aspiring owners to get a second job so that they might be able to afford one – and its launch model enormous. Perhaps you feel that these are reasons to walk the console up to the edge of this list and push it screaming over the precipice, but here’s the thing: Sony set out to make a luxury item. This console was built to be the biggest, the best, most muscular console on the market, and it was all of those things. Anyone who’s played Uncharted 2 remembers the sense of amazement that such a console game was even possible.

Sony has suffered grave financial misfortunes for its conceit with PlayStation 3, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the fruits of that hubris. History will remember Giant Enemy Crabs and the PSN hack, of course, but PlayStation 3’s legacy will be most defined by its diverse, brilliant catalogue of games. Games like Demon’s Souls, The Last Of Us, PixelJunk Shooter, Journey and Metal Gear Solid 4. Speaking of that final example, anyone who can appreciate the self-indulgence of Kojima’s oeuvre will similarly recognise that Sony’s console will be remembered with a sense of admiring bafflement.

6. DS Lite

Origin Japan • Release 2006

Apple may be synonymous with touchscreen gaming today, but Nintendo delivered the proof of concept back in 2004. Early advertising latched on to that innovation and piled on the erotic subtext. One of the first TV ads had a sultry female voice pleading, “Touch the bottom rectangle… please. Go ahead, touch it. You might like it”. The suggestive slogan – ‘Touching is good’ – would prove a more awkward fit in a Nintendogs ad, but nothing could halt the ascent of what would become the best-selling handheld of all time.

The touchscreen revolution had arrived, and the public greeted it with wallets wide open. Nintendo launched its DS in North America ahead of Japan, so it was available for the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy in late November. By year’s end the console had shipped nearly three million units worldwide. Today, that number has climbed north of 150 million.

A handheld console with two discrete displays. If you try hard enough, you can remember the initial gut-level confusion: why two? What Nintendo did with the DS hardware took vision. It was hardly an obvious choice.

Developers took advantage of its possibilities. The stylus allowed for precision input, which has been lost to Apple’s ‘sausage stylus’ paradigm. There was something gratifying about sliding out the stylus, chewing its tip as you pondered a Professor Layton game. Tracing the path for Link’s boomerang in Phantom Hourglass felt sublime. And the battery life was amazing. You could take it with you on a day trip and leave the charger at home. It was the perfect handheld. Maybe it still is.

5. GameCube

Origin Japan • Release 2001

That purple might have been more conspicuous than it was tasteful, but even a questionable colour scheme couldn’t detract from what is arguably the most appealing console design of the past two decades. Nintendo’s GameCube was perfectly formed, striking a remarkable aesthetic balance between toy and desirable tech: deceptively powerful silicon housed within a squat little box that sports a playful carry handle; buttons that sit perfectly flush with its top; a lid mechanism so satisfying that you’ll occasionally open it for no other reason than to feel it click shut again.

Its distinctive controller might not have had the impact on games its predecessors did, but those curved triggers and prominent A button contributed to a pad that felt like it was tailored to your hands alone. The console can’t match N64’s Edge 10s or Wii’s commercial success, but it represents a period of creativity and quality Nintendo hasn’t been able to rekindle since. Games such as Luigi’s Mansion, Super Mario Sunshine and Wind Waker, squeezed onto those 8cm discs, saw a company fearlessly experimenting with cherished series and characters in a way it largely hasn’t since – thanks, ironically, to the conservative tastes of those it sought to delight.

It was an infectious ethos, however, as thirdparty developers pushed their own boundaries with the likes of Resident Evil 4, Killer7 and the note-perfect Super Monkey Ball. Divisive it may be, and certainly not as cool as many of the consoles on this list, but GameCube delivered entertainment in spades. And isn’t that what you want from a console?

4. Nintendo 64

Origin Japan • Release 1996

Wii and DS may have captured the hearts and wallets of the public, but it was Nintendo’s N64 that truly set in motion the company’s experimentation with input devices. The console’s three-pronged controller gave the world the analogue stick in the context of a game console, which has had a more profound impact on the way games are designed and played than even the DS touchscreen and the Wii Remote. In many ways, Nintendo’s 64bit hardware defined 3D console gaming.

And the 3D platformer, too. PlayStation’s esoteric Jumping Flash! may have come first, but N64 launch title Super Mario 64 set the template that scores of others would follow. Nintendo would repeat the trick with the much-delayed Ocarina Of Time, which has proven as influential within the company as Mario 64 has on everyone else. While Nintendo has consistently sought to reinvent the Mario series, Link’s adventures have adhered to the Ocarina formula for a reason: it is the work of genius.

Indeed, N64 had as profound an effect on Nintendo’s own practices as its controller did on the industry at large. As thirdparties flocked to PlayStation, Nintendo was more reliant than ever on firstparty games – a rule that has held ever since. The company’s prized external asset was Rare, delivering some of the best N64 surprises, from GoldenEye to Banjo-Kazooie, Blast Corps to Perfect Dark. The $375m Microsoft paid for the studio may seem a lot given its lacklustre Xbox 360 output, but Rare was pivotal in the life of a console which defined how the modern Nintendo works. That is: entirely to its own agenda, the desire to please consumers as strong today as it was when a decision was made to give N64 four controller ports as standard.

3. PlayStation

Origin Japan • Release 1994

PlayStation was the right console with the right games at the right moment. Sony built a 3D-capable console, made it thirdparty-friendly, and sold it at the right price to 20-somethings who were ready to grow out of Super Mario Kart and into Ridge Racer.

For the first time, console games were for grown-ups. Sony took Wipeout clubbing, Resident Evil wore its 18 certificate like a badge of honour, Tomb Raider was a pop-culture phenomenon and Final Fantasy VII was the best movie ever made as a game. Sony had Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, Medal Of Honor, Syphon Filter, PaRappa The Rapper, Driver, Tekken and Grand Theft Auto – games about guns, cars, music and blood-curdling horror. Sega gave up on Saturn; Nintendo put Diddy Kong Racing on shelves one month before Sony released Gran Turismo. The world had changed, and only PlayStation was ready for it.

Tabloid newspapers covered PlayStation games, and Lara Croft starred on the covers of lifestyle magazines. It’s a cliché to say that PlayStation made gaming cool, but in reality it was more a case of PlayStation games being cool. For almost a decade, every thirdparty game that mattered came to Sony’s machine. Enthusiasts raved about Vib Ribbon, casual console players – all but invented by Sony – made FIFA a post-pub game, kids played Crash Bandicoot and nagged their parents for Resident Evil 2. Sony built a platform on which arcade ports, original games and niche projects could shine. Is it any surprise that PS4 is looking back to move forward? PlayStation was for all players, for all developers, for everyone.

2. Xbox 360

Origin US • Release 2005

Xbox 360 has been the industry’s benchmark for eight years, and no console has ever burned so brightly for so long. In many ways it followed PlayStation’s lead, hitting every sweet spot required for success. It had its own social network, cross-game chat, new indie games every week, and the best version of just about every multiformat game. Ask any thirdparty console developer about their lead platform and they’d invariably give the same response: Xbox 360.

In a generation with few thirdparty exclusives to separate them, 360 still places ahead of PS3. Killzone is no Halo and nowadays Gran Turismo is no Forza, but it’s not about the exclusives – there’s nothing to trump Naughty Dog’s PS3 output, after all. Rather, it’s about the choices Microsoft made back in the original Xbox’s lifetime. The PC-like architecture meant those early EA Sports titles ran at 60fps compared to only 30 on PS3, Xbox Live meant every dedicated player had an existing friends list, and Halo meant Microsoft had the killer next-generation exclusive. And when developers demo games on PC now they do it with a 360 pad – another industry benchmark, and a critical one.

There were hardware problems, of course, but Microsoft spent a billion dollars repairing and replacing broken machines, escaped the PR disaster largely unscathed, and got almost every other decision and message right. Now, at the end of the generation, it seems to have lost its way thanks to distractions, but for eight years it’s been the best place to play the best games in arguably the best console generation ever.

1. PlayStation 2

Origin Japan • Release 2000

One look at the pop charts will tell you sales are rarely an accurate measure of quality, but PlayStation 2 is an exception to that rule. The highest-selling videogame console of all time – 155 million and counting – is also the best system the industry has ever seen. It may not have produced a single Edge 10, and its firstparty exclusives may not have had the raw system-selling clout of its generational rivals, but the breadth, depth and quality of its software – all 3,800 games – may never be surpassed.

Ask ten people for their PS2 top fives and you’ll get a different list from each of them. The console showcased Japanese development at its absolute peak, before its vision was shattered by the schizophrenic desire to appeal to western audiences it neither knew nor understood. Fumito Ueda (Ico, Shadow Of The Colossus), Hideki Kamiya (Okami) and Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy) delivered games for the ages; genre specialists like Team Persona refined and reinvented. They were at it
in the west, too: Harmonix with Guitar Hero, Sony’s London Studio with SingStar and, of course, Rockstar with the 3D GTAs.

This was the last great hurrah of the pure videogame console, the apex of a period before the proliferation of online and media services, before microtransactions and DLC, and before the HD era’s development costs gave rise to a new culture of risk aversion. It’s hard to imagine a console ever again amassing such a lead over its peers, its huge installed base empowering such unfettered experimentation and creativity. Whatever the next 20 years may bring, PlayStation 2 will forever deserve to be treasured – and in the meantime it stands as the finest videogame console ever released.