Bits and Video Game History

The IET on Flickr

Dive into the first “console wars” and learn how more bits led to bigger and better games.

If you own a games console, you’ve probably seen people arguing about whose console is best. Perhaps they’ll say their console has better games, or the games are cheaper. Back when video game consoles were new, there was a different kind of debate: the bits war.

“Bits” sound a little weird, but they’re what defined how much thinking a processor can do, so they’re very important. Back in the day when games consoles were a very new concept, more bits meant more potential, and thus more ambitious games.

Have you ever heard of “8-bit” before? It’s a term used to refer to the really old consoles, like the Nintendo Entertainment System. 8-bit means that the console’s processor could calculate and store numbers at or lower than what 8-bit could handle.

So, what was the maximum number that 8-bit processors could handle? To work this out, you take the number 2 (which represents the two states of binary; 1 and 0) and multiply it by itself equal to the number of bits the processor is. For 8-bit, we take the number 2, then we multiply it by 2 to get 4, and then multiply that by 2 to get 8, then multiply that by 2 to get 16, and so on. We repeat this process 8 times in total to see what 8-bit’s limit was.

Really smart, boffin-type people have a quick way of writing out this process. It’s called the “power,” and it’s represented by a teeny tiny number next to the number you’re multiplying by. If we were super smart, we could write the above calculation as 28. That little 8 tells us to multiply 2 by itself eight times over. If you want to type this equation into a calculator, you need to type this: 2^8.

If we type 2^8 into a calculator, we get 256. This was the maximum number the NES could hold. As such, games on the NES revolved around this number; for example, each pixel could only be one of 256 pre-selected colors, and characters could only hold 256 of a specific item.

In the very first The Legend of Zelda game, players could only hold up to 255 rupees because of this limitation. It wasn’t 255, because computers are weird and start counting from “0” instead of “1” like we do.

Of course, the console has to “remember” all these different numbers. There’s a number for each pixel color on-screen, one for the money the player has, one for the amount of life they have, and so on. As such, the console used memory to store all these numbers between 0-255, so it could keep track of everything.

But what if we wanted to go bigger? The best way to do this is to increase the number of bits; that way, the processor can handle bigger numbers, and you can do bigger and better calculations without pesky 256 restrictions. This is how the “bit wars” started, with console makers trying to stuff as many bits as they can to impress people.

The first step was to 16-bit, which the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System used. If you use the fancy-pants calculation above, you’ll see that 16-bit processors could handle numbers up to 65536. That means they had 65536 colors to choose from, players could score up to 65536 points, and hold up to 65536 of an item; much bigger than 256!

The next step up was 32-bit, which the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation both used. Their processors could hold numbers up to 4,294,967,296, which was a lot more than 16-bit!

Nintendo, however, had other plans; they released a console with a 64-bit processor called the Nintendo 64 — hence the name! Its maximum number was — are you ready? — 18,446,744,073,709,551,616. Wow!

So how many bits do today’s computers use? Well, as it turns out, we have no real use for numbers bigger than the really big one above, so the processors we use in everyday life come to a stop at 64-bit.

There was a need to upgrade past 32-bit, as it couldn’t use more than 4GB of RAM (you can see above how 32-bit’s biggest number was 4 billion, and 4GB of RAM has around 4 billion ‘spaces’ in its memory). 64-bit processors can handle up to 16 Exabytes of RAM — that’s 17,179,869,184GB! We clearly don’t need that much RAM yet, so we don’t have a need to upgrade past 64-bit processors.

Learn More

Sega and Nintendo Console War: Greatest Moments

https://primagames.com/feature/15-greatest-moments-sega-and-nintendo-16-bit-console-war

What Is a Bit?

https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/bit-binary-digit

Definition of Power in Maths

https://www.mathsisfun.com/definitions/power.html

Author

  • Simon Batt

    Simon Batt is a UK-based tech enthusiast and all-around geek. His favourite things are cups of tea, cats, and new gadgets, even though they never mix well.

Also In The December 2019 Issue

30+ ideas for STEAM-theme gifts for kids of all ages!

Visual storytelling apps are a great way for kids to document and explore their lives.

Meet 16-year old Astronaut StarBright, whose activism is inspiring the next generation of STEM fans.

Dive into the first “console wars” and learn how more bits led to bigger and better games.

From the start of computing history, people have tried to optimize the software programming process. This includes having two coders work together to code software.

Explore the solar system and test your knowledge of space through this fun coding activity.

Learn how procedural generation can be used to create infinite maps, music, and worlds to explore.

The Wayback Machine lets you travel back in time to see old websites. Plus the Internet Archive has thousands of vintage games, software, books, and more.

Online research skills are critical for software programmers. It's how you learn any language, by searching for error messages and looking up reference material.

How rural America connected itself to the phone grid using barbed wire, glass bottles, and even corncobs!

Meet Cozmo, the clever new robot that’s bringing AI concepts to life for kids as young as 5-7 years old.

Throw some festive ornaments on a virtual Christmas Tree in this fun introduction to functional programming.

How the Internet of Things could improve education, from VR to accessibility to facial recognition.

No one wants to deal with viruses over the holidays. Here’s how to protect your new devices!

Some digital tools to help you create your own unique, ever-changing symphony with nothing but some code and a computer!

Take a peek into the importance — and the struggle — of getting truly random data.

Interesting stories about computer science, software programming, and technology for December 2019.

Links from the bottom of all the December 2019 articles, collected in one place for you to print, share, or bookmark.

Interested but not ready to subscribe? Sign-up for our free monthly email newsletter with curated site content and a new issue email announcement that we send every two months.

No, thanks!