It's been a while since I dropped in on Penny Arcade, so I had some catching up to do. I eventually got to this post and its accompanying comic.
I grew up during the console wars and it left very real marks on me. My memories are not as traumatic as Gabe's; I was Sega fan firmly entrenched amongst other Sega fans. Rivalries were bitter then. Sega's initial shot across Nintendo's bow from all appearances should have been fatal.
16 bits. Those of us who had been unknowingly wandering in the 8-bit desert of the Nintendo Entertainment System had seen a river and been told to drink deep. I remember the first time I saw a commercial from that set (the above being a later one); me and several other kids were sitting at the kitchen table of the woman who watched us after school. Our jaws fell open. We went downstairs and turned on the NES already dissatisfied. We had seen the promised land and knew we weren't in it. We had all just placed one item at the very top of our Christmas wish list and underlined it. Several times.
God, it seems so quaint now. These days no one talks about bits anymore. Any console from the original Playstation on doesn't sell you on hardware jargon, but features and screen shots. Bits are a thing of the past. But during the console war bits, colors, and processing speed were what it was all about.
Nintendo responded to the Genesis with the 16-bit Super NES and the console wars raged. It seems like forever that it was just those two behemoths slugging it out. Genesis trying to capitalize on it's superior speed, SNES trying to capitalize on it's bright colors. Nintendo added a new piece of hardware to the SNES cartridges, the Super FX chip, which made the SNES as fast as the Genesis. Sega released its first add-on to the Genesis, the Sega CD, which increased storage capacity (though not bit processing power). It's mostly known for a seemingly endless barrage of comedically bad live action games. Like Night Trap:
By this point other companies had started to get into the race and Sega released its second add-on to the Genesis, the 32x. (Feel free to skip the theme song.)
The height of the console wars (the 32-bit battle) saw Sony, Atari, Phillips, and Panasonic enter the fray. The Phillips CDi crashed and burned because it was an over-priced piece of dreck which had all of 5 games because it was more interested in being an entertainment center than a gaming platform. The Panasonic 3DO had more games, but only one was any good. No wait, I'm thinking of the Atari 64. The 3DO didn't have anything worth mentioning aside from low sales and a short life span. Sony stuck around with the Playstation because (I grudgingly admit) it was a good platform, but also because Sony is the seven-headed dragon and they own large portions of a ton of third party licenses which brought game exclusivity to meaningful levels. We'll get back to that later.
The 64bit Sega Saturn marketed itself as a 32bit platform because while Sega made brilliant stand alone consoles their marketing department should have been keelhauled and then shot for good measure. Nintendo was content to let the SNES carry the load during the 32-bit era and...that didn't fail spectacularly.
Atari's 64 hung in for a little while, but the real battle was between Sony's PS and Sega's Saturn:
Sony's entry into the console wars was a game-changer though. Before Sony, the majority of exclusive games for any given platform were those that were made by it's company. The same third party titles were essentially available on all platforms. It wasn't necessary to own every system. One would suffice. Hardware was the primary reason to buy a console and that created fierce brand loyalty. Sony's financial power over many third party developers would eventually result in the end of the console wars. There's no war when your average gamers has all available platforms. Now having exclusive third party titles is the norm, and instead of missing out on a good gaming experience most gamers just own multiple consoles. Sometimes that makes me a little sad.
Jeebus. This post is way longer than I intended. Sorry folks.