Review scores are already a contentious subject amongst game developers, publishers, marketers, media, and ultimately the consumers themselves. For today, let us just put aside those arguments, consider it as a data set - a somewhat messy data set.
The data here was gleaned from the review aggregators Metacritic, for newer games, and GameRankings, for older games.
The systems shown here represent a 17 year period in the video game industry, and a tremendous amount has changed over that time. When the original PlayStation launched in 1995, the video game industry was much smaller than today, and the number of reviews for those early systems is quite small. The reliability of the data really starts around the time of the Sega Dreamcast, but I've included the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 as interesting artifacts.
I should mention that I took a rather liberal view of Nintendo 64 launch games. I've included everything that launched in 1996. After all, only Pilotwings 64 and Super Mario 64 were available the day the system came out in the U.S.
The data for the latest system, Nintendo's Wii U, is still changing. Just this week, several more reviews were recorded for some of the system's games. But as the number of reviews for each game goes up, the average review score begins to settle down. In many cases there are already dozens of reviews for each Wii U game, so the averages shown here are at least a strong indicator of where the average will end up eventually.
Finally, I've not tried to measure digitally-distributed launch games. So anything that launched on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, or Nintendo's eShop hasn't been considered.
With all that out of the way, let's just get down to the numbers and graphs.
In the figure below I've shown the consoles released in the U.S. since 1995 from top to bottom in release order.
The bar itself shows the spread of the scores, from the lowest average score to the highest. The purple dot in each bar shows the average score across the system's launch games. Further, the color of the bar indicates the platform holder. Blue is Nintendo, red is Sony, green is Microsoft, and orange is Sega.
This particular view shows that the last three systems released in the U.S. market, the PlayStation 3, Wii, and Wii U, all had an extraordinarily wide spread of launch review scores. The PlayStation 3 and Wii U are also noteable for having their launch game review averages skewed toward the upper end of the range of all their review scores.
On the other hand, the Xbox 360 and the GameCube both had an exceptionally narrow range of review scores for their launch titles. Also, we can see that the Dreamcast had the fortune of having the best-reviewed launch game ever, SoulCalibur. The second-best was Halo: Combat Evolved on the original Xbox.
If we sort the systems by their launch review averages, we get the following figure.
An interesting split appears between the Wii U and Wii and Nintendo's earlier systems. The GameCube has the best-reviewed launch slate of any system while the Nintendo 64 comes in third behind the Xbox 360. Yet the Wii is near the bottom, near the PlayStation for which little data is available. And the Wii U is currently just above the Wii, albeit with a lower maximum and a much lower minimum.
There is perhaps a discussion to be had there about what that means. Does it represent a cultural shift away from Nintendo and its brand? Have reviewers simply become more discerning? Or, perhaps we can point to an increasing number of licensed titles and sequels as dragging generally on the novelty of a system's launch. I'm at least willing to ascribe some of the Wii's lower scores to both developers not quite knowing how to utilize motion controls and reviewers not knowing how to score motion control games.
Finally, I thought it might be interesting to look at the number of games released at launch for each of these systems.
The Wii U has had the most titles available at retail for launch since the PlayStation 2 over 12 years ago. Before it launched, the Wii held that particular spot. And for the Wii U, this total doesn't count the handful of titles available exclusively online in Nintendo's eShop.
The GameCube and Nintendo 64, both of which had highly-respected launch titles, also managed to have nearly the fewest.
So it does appear that Nintendo and its third-party partners have spent some effort to offer more software at launch. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft and Sony manage the software for their launches, which I currently expect sometime in late 2013.
In fact, the Wii U could be the last major system whose main method of distribution is through retail. When new Sony and Microsoft consoles arrive, the average early adopter will likely also be a heavy network services user. When that happens, the distinction between retail and digitally-distributed software will largely disappear.