Fourth generation of video game consoles

In the history of computer and video games, the fourth generation (more commonly referred to as the 16-bit era) of game consoles began on October 30, 1987 with the Japanese release of NEC Home Electronics' PC Engine (known as the TurboGrafx-16 in North America). Although NEC released the first console of this era, sales were mostly dominated by the rivalry between Nintendo's and Sega's consoles in North America: the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES; the Super Famicom in Japan) and the Sega Genesis (named the Mega Drive in other regions). Handheld systems released during this time include the Nintendo Game Boy, released in 1989, and the Sega Game Gear, first released in 1990.

Nintendo was able to capitalize on its success in the previous, third generation, and managed to win the largest worldwide market share in the fourth generation as well. Sega, however, was extremely successful in this generation and began a new franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog, to compete with Nintendo's Super Mario series of games. Several other companies released consoles in this generation, but none of them were widely successful. Nevertheless, there were other companies that started to take notice of the maturing video game industry and begin making plans to release consoles of their own in the future.

The emergence of fifth generation video game consoles, circa 1994, did not significantly diminish the popularity of fourth generation consoles for a few years. In 1996, however, there was a major drop in sales of hardware from this generation and a dwindling number of software publishers supporting fourth generation systems,[1] which together led to a drop in software sales in subsequent years. Finally, this generation ended with the discontinuation of the Neo Geo in 2004.

Differences from third generation consoles

Some features that distinguish fourth generation consoles from third generation consoles include:

Additionally, in specific cases, fourth generation hardware featured:

Home systems



The PC Engine was the result of a collaboration between Hudson Soft and NEC and launched in Japan on October 30, 1987, under the name PC Engine. It launched in North America on August 29, 1989.

Initially, the PC Engine was quite successful in Japan, partly due to titles available on the then-new CD-ROM format. NEC released a CD add-on in 1990 and by 1992 had released a combination TurboGrafx and CD-ROM system known as the TurboDuo.

In the United States, NEC used Bonk, a head-banging caveman, as their mascot and featured him in most of the TurboGrafx advertising from 1990 to 1994. The platform was well received initially, especially in larger markets, but failed to make inroads into the smaller metropolitan areas where NEC did not have as many store representatives or as focused in-store promotion.

The TurboGrafx-16 failed to maintain its sales momentum or to make a strong impact in North America.[2] The TurboGrafx-16 and its CD combination system, the Turbo Duo, ceased manufacturing in North America by 1994, though a small amount of software continued to trickle out for the platform.

Mega Drive/Genesis

Second version of the Sega Genesis

The Mega Drive was released in Japan on October 29, 1988.[3] The console was released in New York City and Los Angeles on August 14, 1989 under the name Sega Genesis, and in the rest of North America later that year.[4] It was launched in Europe and Australia on November 30, 1990 under its original name.

Sega built their marketing campaign around their new mascot Sonic the Hedgehog,[5] pushing the Genesis as the "cooler" alternative to Nintendo's console[6] and inventing the term "Blast Processing" to suggest that the Genesis was capable of handling games with faster motion than the SNES.[7] Their advertising was often directly adversarial, leading to commercials such as "Genesis does what Nintendon't" and the "'SEGA!' scream".[8]

When the arcade game Mortal Kombat was ported for home release on the Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo decided to censor the game's gore, but Sega kept the content in the game, via a code entered at the start screen. Sega's version of Mortal Kombat received generally more favorable reviews in the gaming press and outsold the SNES version three to one. This also led to Congressional hearings to investigate the marketing of violent video games to children, and to the creation of the Interactive Digital Software Association and the Entertainment Software Rating Board.[9] Sega concluded that the superior sales of their version of Mortal Kombat were outweighed by the resulting loss in consumer trust, and cancelled the game's release in Spain to avoid further controversy.[10] With the new ESRB rating system in place, Nintendo reconsidered its position for the release of Mortal Kombat II, and this time became the preferred version among reviewers.[11][12] The Toy Retail Sales Tracking Service reported that during the key shopping month of November 1994, 63% of all 16-bit video game consoles sold were Sega systems.[13]

The console was never popular in Japan (being regularly outsold by the PC Engine), but still managed to sell 40 million units worldwide. By late 1995, Sega was supporting five different consoles and two add-ons, and Sega Enterprises chose to discontinue the Mega Drive in Japan to concentrate on the new Sega Saturn.[14] While this made perfect sense for the Japanese market, it was disastrous in North America: the market for Genesis games was much larger than for the Saturn, but Sega was left without the inventory or software to meet demand.[15]

Super NES

The North American version of the Super NES (first model).

Nintendo executives were initially reluctant to design a new system, but as the market transitioned to the newer hardware, Nintendo saw the erosion of the commanding market share it had built up with the Nintendo Entertainment System.[16] Nintendo's fourth-generation console, the Super Famicom, was released in Japan on November 21, 1990; Nintendo's initial shipment of 300,000 units sold out within hours.[17] The machine reached North America as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System on August 23, 1991,[cn 1] and Europe and Australia in April 1992.

Despite stiff competition from the Mega Drive/Genesis console, the Super NES eventually took the top selling position, selling 49.10 million units worldwide,[24] and would remain popular well into the fifth generation of consoles.[25] Nintendo's market position was defined by their machine's increased video and sound capabilities,[26] as well as exclusive first-party franchise titles such as F-Zero, Starfox, Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario Kart, Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Metroid.

Compact Disc Interactive (CD-i)

Philips CD-i

The CD-i format was announced in the late '80s, with the first machines compatible with the format being released in 1991. The Phillips CD-i's main selling point was that it was more than a game machine and could be used for multimedia needs. Due to an agreement between Nintendo in Philips about an abortive CD add-on for the SNES, Philips also had rights to use some of Nintendo franchises. The CD-i was a commercial failure and was discontinued in 1998, selling only 1 million units worldwide despite several partnerships and multiple versions of the device, some made by other manufacturers.

Neo Geo


Released by SNK in 1990, the Neo Geo was a home console version of the major arcade platform. Compared to its console competition, the Neo Geo had much better graphics and sound, however the prohibitively expensive launch price of US$649.99 and games often retailing at over $250 made the console only accessible to a niche market. A less expensive version, retailing for $399.99, did not include a memory card, pack-in game or extra joystick.


Nintendo, NEC and Sega also competed with hardware peripherals for their consoles in this generation. NEC was the first with the release of the TurboGrafx CD system in 1990. Retailing for $499.99 at release, the CD add-on was not a popular purchase, but was largely responsible for the platform's success in Japan.[27] The Sega CD was released with an unusually high price tag ($300 at its release) and a limited library of games. A unique add-on for the Sega console was Sega Channel, a subscription-based service (a form of online gaming delivery) hosted by local television providers. It required hardware that plugged into a cable line and the Genesis.

Nintendo also made two attempts with the Satellaview and the Super Game Boy. The Satellaview was a satellite service released only in Japan and the Super Game Boy was an adapter for the SNES that allowed Game Boy games to be displayed on a TV in color. Nintendo, working along with Sony, also had plans to create a CD-ROM drive for the SNES (plans that resulted in a prototype version of the Sony PlayStation), but eventually decided not to go through with that project, opting to team up with Philips in the development of the add-on instead (contrary to popular belief, the CD-i was largely unrelated to the project).

European and Australian importing

green – NTSC
blue – PAL, or switching to PAL
orange – SECAM
olive – no information

The fourth generation was also the era when the act of buying imported US games became more established in Europe, and regular stores began to carry them. The PAL region has a refresh rate of 50 Hz (compared with 60 Hz for NTSC) and a vertical resolution of 625 interlaced lines (576 effective), compared with 525/480 for NTSC. This means that a game designed for the NTSC standard without any modification would run 17% slower and have black bars at the top and bottom when played on a PAL television.[further explanation needed] Developers often had a hard time converting games designed for the American and Japanese NTSC standard to the European and Australian PAL standard. Companies such as Konami, with large budgets and a healthy following in Europe and Australia, readily optimized several games (such as the International Superstar Soccer series) for this audience, while most smaller developers did not.

Also, few RPGs were released in Europe because the market for the genre was not as large as in Japan or North America, and the increasing amount of time and money required for translation as RPGs became more text-heavy, in addition to the usual need to convert the games to the PAL standard, often made localizing the games to Europe a high-cost venture with little potential payoff.[28][29] As a result, RPG releases in Europe were largely limited to games which had previously been localized for North America, thus reducing the amount of translation required.[29]

Popular US games imported at this time included Final Fantasy IV (known in the USA as Final Fantasy II), Final Fantasy VI (known in the USA as Final Fantasy III), Secret of Mana, Street Fighter II, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG. Secret of Mana and Street Fighter II would eventually receive official release in Europe.


Name TurboGrafx-16 Mega Drive/Genesis Super NES Neo Geo
Manufacturer NEC, Hudson Soft Sega Nintendo SNK
Console PC-Engine-Console-Set.png
Launch prices (USD) US$199.99 (equivalent to $404 in 2018) US$189.99 (equivalent to $384 in 2018) US$199.99 (equivalent to $368 in 2018) US$649.99 (Gold version) (equivalent to $1,196 in 2018)

US$399.99 (Silver version) (equivalent to $736 in 2018)

Release date
  • JP: October 30, 1987
  • NA: August 29, 1989
  • EU: 1990
  • JP: October 29, 1988
  • NA: August 14, 1989
  • EU: November 30, 1990
  • JP: November 21, 1990
  • NA: August 23, 1991[cn 1]
  • EU: April 11, 1992
  • JP: June 18, 1991
  • NA: June 18, 1991
  • EU: 1991
  • Cartridge
  • Cartridge
  • Data card (Japan/Europe)[30]
Best-selling games Bonk's Adventure[31] Sonic the Hedgehog (15 million)[32] Super Mario World, 20 million (as of June 25, 2007)[33] Samurai Shodown (video game)
Backward compatibility N/A Master System (using Power Base Converter) Nintendo Entertainment System (unlicensed, using Super 8)

Game Boy (using Super Game Boy)

Accessories (retail)
  • Neo Geo Controller Pro
  • Neo Geo Memory Card


SA-1 enhancement chip:

  • Nintendo custom 65C816
    10.74 MHz (4.5 MIPS)
  • Hudson Soft HuC6260 Video Color Encoder (16-bit)
  • Hudson Soft HuC6270A Video Display Controller (16-bit)


  • HuC6260
  • 2× HuC6270A
  • HuC6202 Video Priority Controller


Enhancement chips:

  • SNK LSPC2-A2 (line sprite generator & VRAM interface)[46]
  • SNK PRO-B0 (palette arbiter)[47][48]
Sound chip(s)

CD add-on:


Sony APU (Audio Processing Unit)
  • S-SMP (8-bit Sony SPC700)
  • S-DSP (16-bit DSP)
Yamaha YM2610


  • CD add-on: 64 KB main DRAM, 64 KB audio DRAM
  • Super System Card add-on: 64 KB DRAM, 192 KB SRAM
  • Super CD add-on: 256 KB SRAM, 64 KB DRAM, 2 KB Back-up SRAM
  • Arcade Duo Card add-on: 2048 KB FPM DRAM, 192 KB SRAM[50]
  • Arcade Pro Card add-on: 2240 KB+192 kB
  • SuperGrafx: 32 KB main, 128 KB video RAM
  • Duo: 256 KB SRAM, 64 KB Video RAM, 8 KB Work Ram


  • SVP chip: 128 KB DRAM, 2 KB cache, 1 KB DSP RAM[53]
  • CD add-on: 512 KB main, 256 KB Video, 64 KB Audio, 16 KB cache, 8 KB Internal Back-up[54]
  • CD BackUp Ram Carts: 8 KB to 512 KB [34]
  • 32X add-on: 256 KB main RAM, 256 KB video RAM
  • 128 KB main DRAM
  • 64 KB video SRAM
  • 64 KB audio PSRAM

Enhancement chips:

  • SA-1: 2 KB RAM
  • Super FX: 32 to 128 KB SRAM[45]
  • Super FX 2: 64 to 128 KB SRAM[45]
  • 64 KB main SRAM
  • 74 KB video SRAM
  • 2 KB audio SRAM[46]



  • Resolution: 256×224 to 256×239 (progressive), 512×448 to 512×478 (interlaced)
  • Sprites: 128 on screen, 32 per scanline, 8×8 to 64×64 sizes, 16 colors per sprite, sprite flipping[42]
  • Tilemaps: 2–4 parallax scrolling planes (lo-res), or 1–2 scrolling planes (hi-res), or 1 scaling/rotating plane (Mode 7)[42]
  • Colors on screen: 256 (1–3 lo-res planes), 128 (4 planes), 128 to 160 (hi-res)[42]
  • Color palette: 32,768 (15-bit high color)

Enhancement chips:

  • Super FX: 2,000 flat shading polygons/sec, 1,000 texture mapping polygons/sec[66]
  • Super FX 2: 4,000 flat shading polygons/sec, 2,000 texture mapping polygons/sec
  • Capcom Cx4: Sprite rotation/Calculations for wireframe effects
  • DSP-1: Advance Scaling and Rotation via Mode 7
  • DSP-2: Dynamic Scaling Capability and Transparency effects
  • DSP-3: Bitstream decompression, and bitplane conversion of graphics
  • DSP-4: Draw Distance

CD add-on:

Stereo audio with:


  • SVP chip: 2 PWM channels[39]
  • CD add-on: 8 PCM channels (16-bit, 32 kHz),[40] 1 streaming CD-DA channel (16-bit, 44.1 kHz)
  • 32X add-on: 10-bit PWM, surround sound
Stereo audio with: Stereo audio with:
  • 4 FM synthesis channels/voices
  • 3 square wave channels/voices
  • 1 white noise generator
  • 6 ADPCM channels (12-bit) @ 18.5 kHz sampling rate[72]
  • 1 ADPCM channel (16-bit) @ 1.8 to 55.5 kHz sampling rate[72]

CD Supported consoles

Worldwide sales standings

Console Units sold
Super Nintendo Entertainment System 49.1 million[74]
Mega Drive/Genesis 35.25 million[cn 2]
TurboGrafx-16 10 million[80]
Philips CD-i 1 million[81]
Neo Geo AES 980,000[82]

Handheld systems

The first handheld game console released in the fourth generation was the Game Boy, on April 21, 1989. It went on to dominate handheld sales by an extremely large margin, despite featuring a low-contrast, unlit monochrome screen while all three of its leading competitors had color. Three major franchises made their debut on the Game Boy: Tetris, the Game Boy's killer application; Pokémon; and Kirby. With some design (Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Light) and hardware (Game Boy Color) changes, it continued in production in some form until 2008, enjoying a better than 18-year run.

The Atari Lynx included hardware-accelerated color graphics, a backlight, and the ability to link up to sixteen units together in an early example of network play when its competitors could only link 2 or 4 consoles (or none at all),[83] but its comparatively short battery life (approximately 4.5 hours on a set of alkaline cells, versus 35 hours for the Game Boy), high price, and weak games library made it one of the worst-selling handheld game systems of all time, with less than 500,000 units sold.[84][85]

The third major handheld of the fourth generation was the Game Gear. It featured graphics capabilities roughly comparable to the Master System (better colours, but lower resolution), a ready made games library by using the "Master-Gear" adaptor to play cartridges from the older console, and the opportunity to be converted into a portable TV using a cheap tuner adaptor, but it also suffered some of the same shortcomings as the Lynx. While it sold more than twenty times as many units as the Lynx, its bulky design – slightly larger than even the original Game Boy; relatively poor battery life – only a little better than the Lynx; and later arrival in the marketplace – competing for sales amongst the remaining buyers who didn't already have a Game Boy – hampered its overall popularity despite being more closely competitive to the Nintendo in terms of price and breadth of software library.[86] Sega eventually retired the Game Gear in 1997, a year before Nintendo released the first examples of the Game Boy Color, to focus on the Nomad and non-portable console products.

Other handheld consoles released during the fourth generation included the TurboExpress, a handheld version of the TurboGrafx-16 released by NEC in 1990, and the Game Boy Pocket, an improved model of the Game Boy released about two years before the debut of the Game Boy Color. While the TurboExpress was another early pioneer of color handheld gaming technology and had the added benefit of using the same game cartridges or 'HuCards' as the TurboGrafx16, it had even worse battery life than the Lynx and Game Gear – about three hours on six contemporary AA batteries – selling only 1.5 million units.[85]

List of handheld consoles

Console Game Boy Atari Lynx Game Gear TurboExpress
Manufacturer Nintendo Atari Sega NEC
Image Game-Boy-FL.png Atari-Lynx-I-Handheld.png Sega-Game-Gear-WB.png NEC-TurboExpress-Upright-FL.png
Launch price ¥12,500[87]
US$89.95 (equivalent to $179.89 in 2019)[88]
US$189.99 (equivalent to $382.01 in 2019) ¥14,500
US$149.99 (equivalent to $274.08 in 2019)
A$155 (equivalent to $249.00 in 2019)
US$299.99 (equivalent to $550.01 in 2019)[89]
Release date Japan April 21, 1989
United States July 31, 1989
European Union 1990
United States October 11, 1989
European Union 1990
Japan 1990
Japan October 6, 1990
European Union April 26, 1991
United States April 26, 1991
Australia 1992
Japan December 1, 1990[90]
United States 1991
Units sold 118.69 million,[91] including Game Boy Color units[92] 0.5 million[85] 11 million[85] 1.5 million[85]
Media Cartridge Cartridge Cartridge Datacard
Best-selling games Tetris, 35 million (pack-in / separately).[93]

Pokémon Red, Blue, and Green, approximately 20.08 million combined (in Japan and the US) (details).[94][95]

RoadBlasters Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Bonk's Adventure
Backward compatibility N/A (Original Cartridges compatible with later models) N/A Master System (using Cartridge Adapter) TurboGrafx-16 (HuCard only)
CPU Sharp LR35902
4.19 MHz
MOS 65SC02
4 MHz maximum, average 3.6 MHz
"Suzy", custom CMOS chip
16 MHz
Zilog Z80
3.5 MHz
HuC6280A (modified 65SC02)
1.79 or 7.16 MHz
Memory 8 KiB internal S-RAM, up to 32 KiB
8 KiB internal video RAM
64 KiB DRAM 8 KiB main RAM
16 KiB video RAM
8 KiB work RAM
64 KiB video RAM
Video 2.6 inch
4 shades of olive green
3.5 inch
16 simultaneous colors per scanline; can be increased by changing palettes after each scanline
4096 color palette
3.2 inch
32 simultaneous colors
4096 color palette
2.6 inch
64 sprites, 16 per scanline
482 simultaneous colors (241 each for backgrounds and sprites)
512 color palette
Audio Stereo audio (using headphones), with:
  • Two square wave voices
  • One programmable WS voice
  • One white noise generator
  • Optional sampling through the WS channel
Stereo audio with:
  • Four square wave voices
  • A built-in DAC for each channel
Stereo audio (using headphones), with:
  • Three square wave voices
  • One white noise generator
Stereo audio (using headphones), with:
  • Six programmable WS voices
  • White noise generation
  • Optional streaming of samples



Milestone titles

See also