Architecture of Consoles

A practical analysis by Rodrigo Copetti


Looking at the evolution of video game consoles is fascinating. While conventional PCs tend to evolve ‘incrementally’, new generations of consoles introduce completely new ways of working. What you see here is a series of articles that will hopefully uncover the rationale behind the latest trends in technology. They will also demonstrate why each system can’t be summarised by its ‘bits’, megahertz, amount of RAM and whatnot.

This is not a developer manual, just an in depth introduction to how each system worked internally. Bear in mind that tech has gotten really complicated lately, so if you struggle to follow my latest articles, try reading the early ones first. They introduce many concepts and definitions that are constantly revisited.

Basic knowledge of computing is preferable, however, I try really hard to adapt my content for wider audiences, so please don’t be afraid to give it a try! But if that’s not enough, you may want to look at the supporting readings.

While I try to be as accurate as possible, if you find any mistakes please give me a shout or propose changes.

Without further ado, here they are!

3rd generation

Known as '8-bit' consoles, these machines brought more sophisticated graphics and richer sounds than their predecessors. After all, a big market crash just occurred and newer standards had to be set.

Outstanding GPU features: Scrollable tile maps and larger colour palettes.

4th generation

DMA, horizontal interrupts, multiple modes... These are some examples of the new concepts that brought the new '16-bit' generation, opening the door to new genres of games.

Notable CPU advancements: Multiplication and division instructions, DMA and dual-processing.
Outstanding GPU features: Affine transformations and horizontal interrupts.

5th generation

3D gaming has become a need but 'how' is not clear yet. The response? Every company presented their own different vision.

Notable CPU advancements: Pipeline stages and L1 cache.
Outstanding GPU features: Programmable vertex pipelines, Z-buffering and perspective corrections.

6th generation

Most of the graphics limitations from the previous generation are no more. Portable consoles start to resemble familiar systems.

Notable CPU advancements: Superscalar architectures and SIMD instructions.
Outstanding GPU features: Programmable pixel pipelines and anisotropic filters.

7th generation

Consoles have become multimedia platforms, this machines are now more capable than just playing games, which is why security is now a critical factor.


There are many consoles I could write about... If you are wondering what's next on my list here it is:

### Next articles

- Microsoft Xbox 360
- Nintendo 3DS
- Nintendo Wii U
- Sony PSVita

### Retro consoles / In-between the next articles

- Panasonic 3DO
- Atari Jag
- Atari 2600
- WonderSwan

### Modern consoles / More research needed

- Sony PlayStation 4
- Microsoft Xbox One
- Nintendo Switch

### Will consider once the ridiculous scalping is over

- Sony PlayStation 5
- Microsoft Xbox Series X/S

### Honourable articles / For another series

- Commodore 64
- Amiga 500 (featuring the Original Chip Set)
- Amiga 3000 (featuring the Enhanced Chip Set)
- Amiga 4000 (featuring the Advanced Graphics Architecture)

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