The very first games consoles did not think very much of resolutions. Indeed, unlike our modern displays, CRT TVs were not fixed resolution and the "standards" for resolutions varied and were sometimes arbitrary. At the time, this wasn't really an issue; developers were more concerned about how they managed their sprites than the overall pixel counts. However, flat panel TVs started to change all of this; I'll be covering everything from the low resolution consoles of old, the old handhelds' resolutions and even some newer, surprising low resolutions.
The first big games console was the Atari 2600. Unlike its predecessors like the Magnavox Odyssey, the 2600's success was rampant and during its prime it was making waves unlike almost any other console for many years. Back then, video games had a very distinct, blocky look - which could be covered in an entirely separate article. Regardless, take this screenshot to illustrate if you don't know what a 2600 game looks like for whatever reason.
The 2600 had a maximum resolution of 160x192 (which could only really be achieved with some programming hacks anyway) and there were many restrictions as the Atari 2600 was effectively designed to be a "Pong" machine; you could only have 2 8-bit sprites, 2 missile and 1 ball object on one scanline. Despite this, developers have found fascinating ways of squeezing great visuals out of this 1MHz "Pong machine" with 128 bytes of RAM and cartridges no larger than 4KB; look no further than the stellar remake of Donkey Kong, called "Donkey Kong VCS", made by homebrewers in 2013.
Enough about the 2600 though - that's for another article. The next big milestone was the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. Released under the name "Famicom" in Japan in 1983 (releasing elsewhere in the following years), the NES was a substantially more capable system than the 2600. Capable of 8 sprites per scanline, 60 frames per second graphics, exponentially more colours and massive cartridge sizes (the largest licensed Famicom release was a 1MB cartridge, with unofficial games going as large as 64MB!), it was an eye-opening upgrade. The NES ran at 256x224 with a 1.79MHz CPU and the graphics it pushed out were simply a massive upgrade, and with classic games such as Super Mario Bros, Zelda and Contra, the NES revolutionised the industry forever.
The Master System was a similar story, and even the SNES offered a 256x224 resolution as standard, with a limited 512x448 even possible. However, the SNES had 32,768 colours compared to the much smaller palette of NES games. The Mega Drive actually one-upped the SNES in this regard, offering a higher standard resolution at 320x224 (320x240 in PAL territories) - few arcade boards at the time could produce this resolution! However, it only had a palette of 512 colours, of which 61 could be displayed at once (though this is increased using tricks such as dithering).
Around this time, the first portable systems also started to emerge. Nintendo introduced the GameBoy; a simple monochrome device with a 4MHz CPU, 8KB RAM, hours of play time and graphics somewhat comparable to the NES. The GameBoy was 160x144 in resolution and had a long battery life, and was a big hit for bringing classic console games to the portable arena.
However, the GameBoy was not alone. I'll touch on one of many of the competitors of the time; the Atari Lynx, launched in the same year - 1989. Equipped with a slightly lower resolution screen, 160x102 (but a wider aspect ratio), two 16-bit chips @ 16MHz each, a dedicated "Blitter" chip for doing all imaginable sprite effects, a 4MHz DSP and a staggering 64KB of RAM, the Lynx was out of this world and was closer to a Super NES than a GameBoy. In fact, the Lynx was capable of more advanced sprite effects than the SNES, and could do SNES's famous "Mode 7" effects better than the SNES itself! Unfortunately, the Lynx was too far ahead of its time for its own good; this astonishing hardware ate through batteries much faster than the GameBoy and offered less battery life, ultimately dooming it to second place compared to the much more battery-friendly GameBoy.
There were a few consoles between the SNES and N64 era which are often overlooked. The Atari Jaguar, Atari's miserable commercial failure of a final console (<250,000 units sold) was in fact an incredible - if complex and flawed - piece of hardware. (Another article, perhaps?)
Capable of over 16 million colours and true 3D rendering with techniques such as Gouraud shading, the Jaguar was unfortunately stuck between 2D and 3D consoles; it was more geared towards 2D as it was believed 2D would maintain an appeal for the coming years and 3D was not quite viable in 1993. The Jaguar was incredibly capable - outdoing even idTech programmer (responsible for a lot of Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein 3D) John Carmack's own computer at the time; however, it operated differently to other machines. It didn't have a typical "frame buffer"; simply object lists and minimum/maximum X and Y values. It output at 320x224, but it was possible to achieve up to 1400x480 @ 60Hz or something in that region (however, to use 24-bit 16.7 million colour mode, the horizontal resolution could not be any higher than 720) and 1280x480i is a working VGA mode, though the aspect ratio is.. a little unreasonable.
Enter the true advent of 3D graphics on consoles. The Nintendo 64 and PS1 both had a standardised resolution of about 320x240. However, the PS1 and N64 had "High Res" modes which were typically 320x480 and 640x240 (even 640x480, on either platform, though VERY few games used this) respectively. The PS1 and N64 had different problems, however; on the N64, a 4KB texture cache meant that coloured textures (4bpp) could be no bigger than 32x32; (32 x 32 x 4) takes up all 4096 bytes. 2bpp (2 colours, ie. black and white) textures could be 64x64, however. Games worked around this and many other of the N64's problems using various techniques which I won't touch upon here.. yet
The PS1 had less memory and due to this, oddball resolutions like 320x480 and 512x480 were common for "high res" games. The Saturn was no stranger to weird pixel counts, either, with 704x448 (compensating for overscan on both sides to be effectively 720x480).
The Dreamcast was the first console to truly standardise a resolution such as 640x480. Games run at this resolution with no notable exceptions and most support 480p via VGA, with 480i/240p games being the exception rather than the rule. It was capable of downsampling from higher resolutions than this through Super Sampling Anti Aliasing (SSAA) but officially, 640x480 was the standard, with 320x240 being the alternative.
The PS2 is where things got a bit more interesting. Developers effectively had free reign over their resolution, which could be anything from 256x224 to 1920x1080. Yes, 1920x1080 - 1080p! Most PS2 games were either 640x448 or 512x448. However, some were exceptions; ICO was 512x224, while games such as BLACK switched to a proper 640x480 in progressive scan (where overscan was not an issue) and some games like Gran Turismo 4 even used a mode estimated around 640x540 in 1080i output mode.
The GameCube was similar to the Dreamcast in that anything but ~640x480 was unusual. The Xbox was also like this, but it also had some games that ran at a full 720p! The Xbox's memory allowed it to use such high resolutions in a select few titles which opted for this mode, and it supported 1080i output as well. However, these games didn't tend to run at such high resolutions. Many were simply upscaled from 640x480.
The PS3 and 360 is where things got interesting for the last time in the home console scene, really. The Xbox 360 had a 10MB pocket of very fast VRAM, so fitting a frame buffer in here helped to make post processing and MSAA very cheap. However, the highest realistic resolution you could use here was approx. 1024x600, or 880x720. The COD games used this with MSAA to make things clean, with the 360's specialised upscaling chip scaling the final image to the output resolution. The PS3 was weirder; the PS3 did not support AA on resolutions unless they had a vertical resolution of 1080, and the PS3 only supported 960x1080, 1280x1080, 1440x1080 and 1920x1080 as these resolutions. Any game below this had to be software scaled to this resolution.
The PS4 and XB1 use pretty straightforward resolutions.. unless you're counting the Pro/One X models. While the base models stick to fairly standard resolutions such as 900p and 1080p, the PS4 Pro in particular tends to use resolutions such as 1920x2160 to give half-resolution 4K which is reprojected into 4K output. This generally works fine but can have issues with rectangular or non-square pixels. The One X tends to be powerful enough to avoid these techniques, but instances can occur of checkerboarding and similar techniques on One X as well.
The Switch is a totally different story altogether. The Switch is not very comparable to the PS4/XB1 and is closer to the PS3/360; this is where things get very curious. It is close enough to stay relevant, with modern GPU features and such, but it is not actually very powerful. Games often use dynamic resolution as especially on a small screen, you tend not to notice. Wolfenstein 2 goes as low as 360p, which doesn't sound great, but the most glaring example yet comes from ARK: Survival Evolved. Averaging at 360p-432p - docked - the game can go as low as approximately 304x170 even docked, making it the lowest resolution Nintendo home console game to date. In 2018. It averages at 212p in portable with figures too low to report as well.
Where are resolutions likely to go from here? Microsoft and Sony's upcoming consoles are likely to be consistent in achieving 4K, but for Nintendo there is really no telling what direction they will take based on their avoidance of technology trends. Handheld resolutions are a different story altogether, as past a certain pixel density there is no use in using such high resolutions; 720p is already somewhat pushing it on Switch. Time will have to tell; thanks for reading this long post! If you enjoyed it, leave a like and some feedback.
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