Fourth Generation (1988-1999)
Building upon the previous generation's unprecedented innovation, the fourth generation of gaming consoles brought marked improvements in performance, design and game development. It began in 1988 with the release of the Sega Genesis, a 16-bit console that premiered such popular games as Sonic the Hedgehog and Mortal Kombat. The following year, Nintendo debuted the Game Boy, an 8-bit handheld gaming device that would dominate the portable console market. The Game Boy compensated for its lack of hardware capabilities in its novelty and extensive game market, which ultimately exceeded 800 titles. The Game Boy was an immediate success, selling 40,000 units on the first day of its North American launch.
Sega responded in 1990 with its own 8-bit handheld, the Game Gear, which attempted to divert some of the Game Boy's success. It distinguished itself from its predecessor with a color display and horizontal orientation, both of which were praised as significant advancements. Though it had a smaller game library than its competitor, the Game Gear featured titles like Madden NFL 95 that the Game Boy couldn't support. This edge in functionality led to impressive sales figures of 11 million units worldwide. Nonetheless, the Game Gear never reached the Game Boy's monstrous sales figure of 118 million units.
Following the success of the Game Boy, Nintendo entered the 16-bit market with the Super Famicom, known in the United States as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Its launch in 1990 made an immediate impact on the Japan's video game market, which Nintendo expanded to North America the following year. If the Master System initiated the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo, the SNES brought it to its boiling point. The two developers took opposite approaches to marketing, with Nintendo taking a more family-friendly approach to offset Sega's edgy, youth-focused campaign.
The two consoles were very competitive in the United States, but the SNES outsold the Genesis worldwide, reaffirming Nintendo's dominance in the gaming industry. This was largely due to the SNES's vast library, which boasted titles like Street Fighter II, Super Mario World and Super Mario Kart. With the help of the innovative developers at Squaresoft, the SNES also helped to pioneer the roleplaying genre with Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana and Super Mario RPG, as well as the first story-centric installments in the Final Fantasy franchise. This impressive combination of variety and quality helped the SNES edge its competitor.
As the '90s progressed, 32-bit consoles like the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn began to emerge. Unwilling to concede obsolescence, the Super Nintendo began to release 3D games using the Super FX coprocessor, which was built into the cartridges. This led to Star Fox, the first 3D console game, and Donkey Kong Country, which would become the third most successful game for the SNES. The Super FX processor (and the Donkey Kong franchise in particular) helped Nintendo remain competitive until it released its own Fifth Generation system, the Nintendo 64.