The first video game console was the Magnavox Odyssey. The follow up to that system was a series of consoles that appended a number after the word Odyssey. This was just good business sense. Why confuse customers by changing the name of your product? Atari saw the wisdom in maintaining a name and followed the 2600 with the 5200, publicly declaring it twice as good. There are other generational products beyond consoles but my mind jumps to the automobile as a template for how to treat new models. It would be bizarre to rebrand the Honda Accord next year with a new name (the Honda Discord, obviously) and then continue to do so with each significant rehaul. It would just be bad business.
Unique console names ended when giant corporations Sony and Microsoft moved into the video game space, but where did they start? As with most things, I believe we have Sega to thank. [In full disclosure, I began working on this post when I was struck by non-branded curiosity – I actually didn’t know where unique major console names came from. That it further improves this site by making it indiscernible from a Sega fansite was a happy coincidence that I certainly leaned into.]
The Master System/Mark III had little cachet and so not much value was lost by ditching it to go with the Genesis/Megadrive name. Maybe this was not a bold move because they had nothing to gain and likely something to lose by tying a new system to a failed one. But then they did it again with the Saturn and Dreamcast. Succeed in America? Fuck it, throw out the name. Succeed in Japan? Fuck it, throw out the name.
Behold this list of Sega console names and despair:
This is a bold list by a brave company who was terrible at business.
Playstation naming has always been the most conventional, boring, and clear. As sleep-inducingly standard as they are, everyone from children to the mythical confused parent trying to buy a Christmas present can easily understand them. Microsoft, knowing numbers are useful branding tools but too late to the party to use them coherently, has cast aside all logic in their console naming conventions. Letters, shapes, numbers made way for other shapes and numbers spelled out, as well as letter based series. I thought Xbox was the series of consoles, but apparently not.
What then do we make of the cowardly Nintendo’s console names? They are technically unique but still clearly rely heavily on the name recognition of the prior machines until a specific point – the Gamecube. NES to SNES and then Super Nintendo to Nintendo 64 are in the same boring middle ground the Xbox has always lived in (Xbox Series Z60ne). But when the N64 failed to dominate the market because I rented Quest 64 and told the world how bad it was, Nintendo did a hard branding reset and finally gave a console a unique name, the Dolphin. I mean Gamecube. The Wii was another reset after the GC failed, this time because I bought Space Raider. They succeeded that generation and thus stuck with the Wii name for another. The Wii U was so bad it sold as well as the amazing and best-selling-console-of-all-time the Dreamcast, and so Nintendo needed another new name – the Switch. Given the resounding success of the Switch I predict we see a Switch 2/Super Switch.