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Generation Gap Pt. 4: 32-bit (with a dash of 64)

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By the time the SNES was dominating and the Sega Genesis was locked in an endless sea of add-ons to save the dying console, electronics manufacturers began to step up and create many of their own consoles.  As a result, the market was flooded with overpriced horrendous hardware.  They seemed to have everything a gamer wanted: new media format (the cheaply priced cd was preferred by developers to reduce production cost and retail price), impressive graphics and processors, and lets not forget the large numbers like “32″ and “64″ prominantly displayed on the startup screens.  Unfortunately they lacked one important thing: good games.  Still, that didn’t prevent many manufacturers from creating a loose version of the video game crash of 1983.  Thankfully one lone electronics company entered the foray with the next step in gaming – that company was Sony.

Electronics Companies Go Bananas (or Pre 32-bit Gaming)

JVC’s Xeye

I’m guessing somewhere around the Sega CD, boasting the ability to play your new audio CDs through your television as an added feature, electronic companies started to take notice of gaming systems.  As you guide through the progression of consoles the consumer electronics market grows stronger with gamers – let’s face it, they’re the perfect early adoptors.  Quickly companies scrambled to enter the gaming market including JVC, Phillips, Panasonic, Pioneer, Sony and even more.  Some of these companies licensed existing hardware, like JVC did with the X’Eye, a Sega Genesis/Sega CD hybrid that was re-branded with JVC’s logo.  On the other hand, Phillips, Panasonic and Pioneer – imagine keeping these companies straight as a consumer – released their own hardware with a (arguably) library of games.  In the end, they all sucked and had ridiculous price tags pushing back the concept of consumer electronics meeting gaming for at least another six years.  Below are the early disc-based consoles that failed so horribly.

CD-i by Phillips – Launch Price: $700.00 – Released: 1991
Although technically a 16-bit console that released around the same time as the SNES, the CD-i more directly competed with this generation given its high price tag, multiple uses and cd media.  I guess you could say it was ahead of its time, but it basically built a blueprint for what not to do.

I remember watching late night commercials for the CD-i, it seemed like the all-in-one system.  It played CDs, it had Zelda and Mario games thanks to a licensing agreement, it played movies (utilizing the “VCD” format, also known as MPEG-1, which never caught on in the US) and had mature games.  The reason Phillips had the rights to publish Nintendo properties is due to a cd add-on deal that fell through and resulted in rights remaining in the hand of Phillips.  Sadly they were barely playable - Link: Faces of Evil is a side scroller in the vein of Zelda II, Zelda: Wand of Gamelon is similar to Faces save that the player controls Princess Zelda, and Zelda’s Adventure was a live-action top down game much like the original Legend of Zelda.  Zelda’s Adventure is the most rare of the games and arguably the best (developed by a completely different company), but it’s still a guess-and-check game of horrid live action blur.  Hotel Mario is a puzzle game requiring the player to close doors in hotel floors, which starts off fun and eventually gets tedious and repetitive.  Still, a much better title than the Zelda games.  Aside from that, the CD-i was riddled with full motion video (FMV) games like Dragon’s Lair and educational titles, of these the only noteables being Burn: Cycle, a cyberpunk game, and Voyeur, a sexual murder mystery, which were both intelligently ported to PC in the mid 90s.

Click to see the list of CD-i games

Pioneer LaserActiveLaunch Price: $970 – Released: 1993
Pioneer’s LaserActive was only for the super rich and probably a failure from start to finish.  With the proud Pioneer company behind it, the laserdisc-based console was rightfully a top of the line beast with a nearly $1,000 price tag to back it up.  Technically this product isn’t even really a game console by itself, and thus is probably considered a 16-bit console at best (maybe 24-bit if you add the sound chip).  Basically it was designed as a laserDisc/CD player that also allowed you to play a limited run of video games, but everyone I know that had one either used it solely as a home laserdisc player or purchased it from someone who did.  Even the controller was a remote control, which explains why only a small number FMV titles made it to the system (like TimeGal or Road Prosecutor), which could be found on the Sega CD as well.  Then again, the quality of the video was much higher, being a laserdisc, but it would have been great if titles like the ever-ported Dragon’s Lair made it to the system or if Myst had managed to release instead of remaining a prototype title.

One smart move that Pioneer did, however, was offer a Sega add-on and NEC add-on that allowed the console to play any Genesis/Sega-CD or Turbografx-16/CD game respectively.  With the solid catalogs that both Sega and NEC had appropriately among their consoles/add-ons, it was a great boost – albeit at a hefty price.  $600.  Yep, $600 each for the Sega add-on and NEC add-on.  Combined with the initial cost, that’s $2,170 minimum for the super console above and this is before additional accessories and/or games.  Today the combo isn’t a whole lot cheaper, with eBay consoles starting at $250-$300 (topping at around $500) and the Sega add-on going for $200-$300 and Turbografx-16 add-on going more like $300-$400.  The only combo console I ever saw, which included both add-ons and a mint condition console, was a whopping $2800 (a profit even if you bought it back then) and it did sell.  These consoles were a failure and thus still extremely rare, increasing both price and value.  In truth, the LaserActive by Pioneer still remains mostly a novelty to gamers and collectors alike.

Click to see the list of LaserActive games

The Panasonic 3DO should be in this category as well, but unlike these other systems Panasonic focused much more on gaming and used 32-bit processing.  For these reasons it joins the console generation below.

32-bit Consoles

Jaguar by Atari – Launch Price: $249.99 – Released: 1993
If you were around when the console came out, you might be thinking, “What?  Wait, the Jaguar was a 64-bit console, wasn’t it?”  Nope, it really wasn’t.  Turns out the Jaguar slogan, “do the math,” was quite appropriate because if you didn’t know math then you probably couldn’t get there.  It used 32-bit control processor (a 68000 Motorola for those tech people out there) that passed graphics up to 64-bit through two co-processors (that’s 32 x 2) named “Tom” and “Jerry”.  Not that any of this really mattered to the mainstream, a lack of games, much more than the potential false advertising, attributed to the failure of the Jaguar.  Furthermore Atari had overcomplicated the concept of the simple controller system, instead going back to an overlay-dependent hulk of a controller that harkened back to its 5200 system.  This means that much like pre-NES consoles, without the controller overlay (at least until the Internet was widespread) you would have a hard time controlling even the easiest titles.

Developers tend to prefer a handful of buttons and a D-pad, Atari.

Jaguar’s biggest problem was that it had basically no games.  Launch title Aliens vs. Predator was the best seller, mostly because at the time the graphics were amazing and it was a Doom-clone (read: first person shooter or FPS) that featured the ultimate sci-fi battle.  Even today it holds up pretty well, allowing you to control all three races in varied level layouts.  Ports of Tempest (entitled Tempest 2000), Doom and Wolfenstein 3D were praised for building upon the PC greats or creating the closest PC-to-home conversion.  A $150 cd add-on was released for the Jaguar which added a few weak titles like Dragon’s Lair and Primal Rage but in hindsight is completely worthless.

Click to see a list of Jaguar/Jaguar CD games

3DO – Launch Price: $699.99 – Released: 1993
Ultimately the 3DO was an attempt to streamline a console that was available for homes while also using it as a hardware profile for arcades and other commercial interests.  It was also the first, and probably one of the only, consoles to act more like other media devices (ex: VHS, CD, DVD): fixed harware that allowed licensing to mutiple manufacturers with software compatible on all platforms.  This is why depending on your model, you may own a Panasonic 3DO, Goldstar 3DO or Sanyo 3DO – these are all the same console just licensed and manufactured by multiple companies.  Additionally the console was the processing unit for various arcades that played, you guessed it, 3DO titles.  With so many ways to get your hands on it, one might wonder how this console didn’t take off.  My personal opinion is the ridiculous asking price, a consistency among most early CD consoles, but others also cite the fact that it had almost no exclusive software and a ton of re-releases that were readily available elsewhere.  Life wasn’t good or especially long for the 3DO, in what started as Time magazine’s “Product of the Year” in 1994 and one of the worst launches in history, the 3DO died a prolonged death in 1996.

Way of the Warrior, a poor title by Naughty Dog of all companies, looked awesome in screen shots.

Despite its short life span, there were a lot of games released for the 3DO and in many cases they are the definitive versions of these games on home consoles.  If you’re an FMV fan you can enjoy the most crisp versions of Sega CD favs like Night Trap and Sewer Shark.  PC gamers were pleased to see Myst, D, Daedelus Encounter, Doom, and Alone in the Dark.  If you like arcade FMV titles you can enjoy Dragon’s Lair (what didn’t this come out on?), Mad Dog McCree, Crime Patrol, and more.  Arcade fighters also made some appearences with Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Primal Rage and Samurai Showdown.  This console even had some decent exclusives.  Despite their popularity Jurassic Park Interactive and Way of Warrior are two horrible examples, especially when you consider the original release of Need for Speed was on the 3DO.  In addition quirky more mature titles like Dennis Miller: That’s News to Me and Twisted: The Game Show were entertaining and Wicked 18 is still one of the only golf games I enjoy.  Even porn fans had a hefty dose of titles from the comparatively tame Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties to the hardcore Coven.  In truth there was a lot to appreciate on the 3DO, but at the time it was a saturated market that had many of its games on other consoles first.  Nowadays the harder draw is that there are very few copies of the software, but in comparison to competitors it’s still one of the more manageable consoles – about $150-$200 can net you a console with a decent collection.

Click for our list of 3DO reviews

Sega Saturn – Launch Price: $399.99 – Released: 1995
Depending on where you lived, the Saturn was either a strong competitor or a complete flop, but regardless it was dethroned by Sony.  Releasing before the Playstation in both Japan and the US, it was an extremely hard console to develop for.  Without getting too technical, it sported two Hitachi 32-bit processors, two graphics processors (one for 3D, one for backgrounds), a geometric processor, a Motorola 68000 sound chip/controller and a Yamaha sound processor.  That’s just a lot of pieces trying to come together, but from what I’ve heard from developers the biggest issue was the dual processors because they shared the same bus and thus couldn’t access their individual RAM.  As for 3D, Saturn used squares to create its polygonal effects, which Playstation and N64 both used triangles in contrast, so the visuals always had to be re-worked.  As a result, the best titles on the console were 2D visuals and sprites with titles like shoot-em-ups (shmups) and fighters.  Most of the fighters and shmups remained in Japan, which resulted in poor ports of Playstation titles in the US and a handful of mostly crappy exclusives.  This is why the Saturn still lives strong as an import console but with a hefty price tag for the collection.  If you want to remain in the US, the titles to get are Panzer Dragoon Saga, Guardian Heroes and Shining Force III, but unfortunately they all hold a near $100 price tag, as do most imports worth picking up.

A hybrid RPG/shooter, Panzer Dragoon Saga may look ugly, but it was awesome back in the day.

Aside from that, the Saturn was most hurt by the story of its launch.  In what is regarded by many as the stupidest move by a console manufacturer in history, Sega announced in its 1995 Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) press conference that the console was releasing the same day.  This was done without filling in most big box retailers and before the Internet was widespread.  Without going into details this screwed everyone.  Developers that were planning launch titles, like Tomb Raider, would now release 3 months into the console’s life and lose that launch stride.  Retailers didn’t have anything on order (a handful of exclusive retailers were selected and informed in advance), so they had no shelf space for nationwide distribution and no consoles on order in the first place.  Customers had no web sites, live streams, Twitter, or other way to find out and all newspapers and magazines at the show wouldn’t run the story for weeks.  Furthermore, it had previously been announced that Saturday, September 2, aka “Saturnday” would be the official launch date.  As a result, the Saturn launched to limited distribution and only 6 games, which was all that the console had until closer to the official release date.  To combat this horrible idea, Sony called checkmate by coming on stage at their press conference and muttering a few numbers, “Playstation…$299.99″.  With the $100 cheaper price tag and no mad 3rd parties on its back, the Playstation instantly won over the Saturn, more than 3 months prior to its release.

Click for our list of Saturn reviews

***Where is the 32X?  Sega’s final add-on to the Genesis that completed “frankenconsole” was technically a 32-bit console (even codenamed “Mars”), but it has separate coverage here.***

Sony Playstation – Launch Price: $299.99 – Released: 1995
It’s ironic that Playstation’s main significance has nothing to do with Nintendo or Sega, but that with it Sony toppled both.  The Playstation began life as a cd add-on for the SNES that even had a prototype showing at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 1991.  In an act that is all too common for Nintendo, they announced that year that they would be dropping Sony and going with Phillips for the SNES add-on.  After both deals fell through, we saw what a great job Phillips did with the Nintendo license, but Sony instead decided to develop a console of its own.  Ken Kutaragi, the “father of Playstation”, envisioned a console that used 3D graphics as the next step for games and an inexpensive cd medium.  Once that vision came to fruition Sony launched its console much to the amazement of the community.  Nintendo’s then named Ultra 64 console was in development hell and with one sentence the Playstation took a strong lead over Sega’s Saturn and gave Playstation just the “in” it needed.

Unlike almost every other console, Playstation used cd-like cases that fit easily on a shelf and conserved space. That’s why all PS1 collections look like this.

Not only did the Playstation make sound release decisions, the design of the console also had that spin of professionalism and elegence.  It didn’t try to be a new electronic component, although it was capable of cd playback on the TV, which had been around for a few years.  It had some interesting and experimental initial software like Parapa the Rapper, Wipeout, and even early platformer Crash Bandicoot.  Furthermore it featured more adult themed titles like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil, both strong 3rd party titles that assisted in building steam for the console.  With hardware that was easy to program for, sophisticated copyright protection (it was one of the only consoles at the time to have it) and plenty of 3rd party support the Playstation had everything it needed to secure success.

Playstation was all good and well from a tech perspective, but frankly every strong console in history is defined by its library.  There wasn’t a game released in the late 90s that the Playstation didn’t get its hands on.  You could play basically everything from Sony exclusives to old school arcade titles to strong RPGs and everything in between.  Square Enix was finally done with Nintendo by the end of the SNES era and the launch of Final Fantasy VII, weiging in over 1 GB and 3 discs in length, made the Playstation the new standard for RPGs.  Whether it was the re-released of Lunar, the sequel Chrono Cross, an entire collection of Final Fantasy games, Arc the Lad, and oh so many more that I am forgetting, there were literally hundreds of games for you.  Major franchises of today began life on the Playstation like Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Rayman, Spyro, Crash BandicootNeed for SpeedMetal Gear Solid just to scrape the surface.  PC games like Diablo, Theme Park and Command & Conquer that had never been imagined on other consoles before released with ease on the Playstation.  Furthermore, even when the N64 did release a year later and had the gusto to intrigue the Nintendo crowd, everyone eventually found their way back (or over) to Playstation.

Click for our list of Playstation reviews

Nintendo 64 (N64) – Launch Price: $199.99 – Released: 1996
Nintendo had been bogged down with developmental delays for a couple of years when the N64 finally launched, but when it finally hit the market, it hit hard.  The first console I ever had to pre-order, those not in the know began to hunt in November for Nintendo’s console (which launched in late September) only to find empty shelves.  While the $200 initial price tag was low to the gamer, parents that were used to consoles being bundled with two controllers and a game for $100 were shocked to see the nearly $300 ticket required to get the console, Mario 64 (the first time a Mario game, or any game for that matter, wasn’t packed with a Nintendo home console), and a second controller.

Thanks to the comparatively low price and Mario 64, Nintendo managed to sell out the holidays and eventually move over 30 million units, but the N64′s success was short lived.  It was the first actual 64-bit console and utilized a 64-bit co-processor that allowed for 128-bit games and made it the most advanced of the generation.  All that power was wasted, however, by developers that had their hands tied.  Small ROM space provided by the proprietary carts (all other consoles were using larger capacity cds) and the fact that visuals for most N64 ports only required 32-bit 3D renders.  In addition the co-processor was required for audio channels, so everytime you wanted a sound channel you had to compromise computing resources – perhaps this was because Nintendo had burned bridges with a few audio companies and had no sound chip option.  In addition, there was a very small 4KB texture cache, only allowing for small simple textures that most developers stretched way too far and resulted in that hazy blur effect that all N64 games have.

This is the first thing that all Mario 64 players saw, and a great intro they would all see time and time again in 1996.

While some of the Nintendo first party titles like Mario 64, Zelda: Ocarina of TimeStar Fox 64 and several Rare-published exclusives like Killer Instinct Gold, Goldeneye, Donkey Kong Country 64, and the late titles Perfect Dark and Conker’s Bad Fur Day make up a solid list, it all paled in comparison to the Playstation.  Nintendo’s choice to stick with cartridges raised game prices to $50-$70 per title whereas the Saturn and Playstation usually only charged $40 for a cd title.  Thanks to some poor relations choices Square Enix was releasing RPGs (including Final Fantasy VII) on Playstation and carts didn’t have enough space for the epic titles the N64 wanted.  Even Nintendo’s Earthbound 64 (Mother 3 in Japan) was canceled (and later moved to Gameboy Advance in Japan only) costing the N64 any chance at a strong exclusive RPG.  Most ports were weaker on the N64 because lack of storage space resulted in items getting cut as we saw in titles like Mortal Kombat Trilogy, Resident Evil 2, and Megaman 64.  LucasArts had created some amazing titles with the Super Star Wars trilogy on SNES only to let down most gamers with Shadows of the Empire and a very mild improvement with Rogue Squadron.  Even later impressive games like Perfect Dark were held back by a required RAM expansion cart that wasn’t included in any titles other than Donkey Kong Country 64.  If you were unlucky enough to receive a game like this without the pack, it would simply display a blank screen with “RAM pack required” when you boot up the console.  Nintendo did make some great hardware and began to popularize the rumble feature along with Sony, but only first party titles took true advantage.  Thus began a long running trend that exists even today where Nintendo appears to be the only innovators on its consoles and third parties either create garbage or avoid the console altogether.

Click for our list of N64 reviews

It’s after this time that we finally see the inevitable next step – a computer software manufacturer, Microsoft, decides to enter the market.  In addition another veteran manufacturer drops out and Nintendo has one of its first major flops in the console market.  Our story concludes in Generation Gap Part 5!

Written by Fred Rojas

November 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Supplement: Video Game Violence Heats Up

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I remember going to the roller skating rink on Thursday nights and even though I was an avid gamer, puberty had started to kick in and girls were much more interesting to me.  That is, until Mortal Kombat.  I had already seen and gotten my butt kicked by most of the Street Fighter II players, but that game was too cartoon-like and I didn’t much care for it.  Mortal Kombat was different.  It had digitized actors playing as each of the fighters, heavy blows to the face would result in large globs of blood spraying across the floor and I’ll never forget the first time someone won a round with Johnny Cage and the words “Finish Him!” flashed on-screen.  The player walked up to his opponent and did what looked like a complex combination of buttons, the screen darkened, and Johnny Cage straight up punched the guys freaking head off.  Blood erupted from the severed stump while the head bounced on the floor and Johnny Cage merely put his sunglasses on and struck a pose.  That was my first experience with a “fatality”, which would go on to be quite the controversial subject.

Senator Joseph Lieberman

In the arcades it was all good and well, but once it hit home 16-bit consoles in 1992 suddenly governmental groups took notice, namely senators Joe Lieberman (Connecticut) and Herb Kohl (Wisconsin).  They decided that video game companies were pandering violence to children, using these video game console “toys” as the vehicle, and in December 1993 decided to take it to congress.  At that time both Nintendo and Sega had versions of Mortal Kombat on the market, but each had its own way of handling the questionable content.  Nintendo thought it was taking the moral high ground by converting the mild hints of blood to gray sweat – hardcore SNES players of the time used Game Genie to turn it back to red – and changed the fatalities to bloodless “finishing moves”.  Sega, being the more salacious of the bunch, kept all the violence and fatalities intact on its consoles and instead opted for a code to unlock it – every Sega player remembers “ABACABB” and “DULLARD” for the Genesis as well as “212DU” for Game Gear.  Sega had decided to self-police its titles and implemented a rating system on its games, mostly taking queues from the motion picture industry.  There were 3 ratings: GA (general audiences), MA-13 (parental advisory under 13), and MA-17 (parental advisory under 17).  For one reason or another Mortal Kombat received an MA-13 from Sega.  Not that any of this mattered.  To the

Senator Herb Kohl

senators changing fatalities were finishing moves didn’t change the fact that Scorpion would still char the opponent to bones and a rating, especially one that was self-established, may as well have been a promotional logo.  To further explain their opinions, the senators screened what they claimed was the Sega Genesis version of Mortal Kombat, but since anyone who played that version knows how crappy and fake it looks, they opted to show off the much more crisp and clear arcade version.  Semantics, sure, but still valid.  It’s important to note that Mortal Kombat was not alone in these hearings – Night Trap, Lethal Enforcers, and Doom shared the spotlight.

The fallout of these initial hearings was actually quite large.  For starters, USA Today, the Washington Post and New York Times, each one capturing the scene in Night Trap where a young woman in a nightgown is assaulted and taken away.  Night Trap was pulled from Toys R Us shelves, which at this time was exclusive for the recently released Sega CD console.  No matter how much developer Digital Pictures CEO Tom Zito contested that the controversial scene in the title was to protect the girl from getting kidnapped and not to cause it like the hearing claimed, it fell on deaf ears.  For those that go back and look up the game and/or scene in question (it’s linked in the photo above), you can see it’s rather tame and pointless even by the standards of 1993.  In addition senator Lieberman penned the Video Game Ratings Act of 1994 and introduced it to congress in February ’94.  It’s important to note that this Act sought a governmental body, the Interactive Entertainment Rating Commission, that would provide an industry-wide standard for video game ratings.  Congress had stated that if the industry themselves would agree to set up one central body to do this job, then this law would not be passed.

Click on the picture to see what all the fuss was about concerning this scene

As a result, Congress held hearings in 1994, to get “video games” to explain themselves.  Before Nintendo and Sega spoke there were the expected experts explaining how video games are basically training serial killers with every new title.  The National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV) stated a strong case for Mortal Kombat and Doom as “training early killers”¹, which they have continued even today.  According to an article by Wired’s Chris Kohler, a college professor attacked Nintendo at not only being violent but also “sexist and racist”¹.  Even more interesting, however, is the fact that after this bombardment of hate, Nintendo’s Howard Lincoln and Sega’s Bill White chose to trade blows with each other over their competitor’s wrongdoing instead of teaming up to defend the industry.  This is by far the most significant and unfortunate factors of these hearings.  Once again Night Trap fell under the limelight as Lincoln hammered away at its content while also taunting Sega and its other titles².  White, on the other hand, chose to explain how responsible Sega was being with its rating system and attacked Nintendo for having inappropriate content without any rating or warning to parents².  Not only that, both Lincoln and White chose to slam each other outside of the courtroom and in public papers with statements that would have been Twitter fodder nowadays².

      

When all was said and done the industry had made a mess of itself and no one within video games looked good.  It was high time to establish a universal rating system for fear that the government would get involved and potentially senator Lieberman deciding the fate of future video games.  Despite Sega hoping that its rating system would be employed, many of the big companies in video games came together to establish a new organization: the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA).  On July 29, 1994, the IDSA went in front of congress with plans for its own unique rating system and the establishment of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which still exists today.  I must admit I find the ratings to simply be more dissective, complicated versions of Sega’s original concept, but they have been in use for more than 15 years now.  Additionally the ratings board has begun displaying highlights of what content a parent can expect in a game with full (and often hilarious) descriptions on the main website.

ESRB’s current ratings and descriptions

The battle over violence in video games continues even today, a simple Google search will net you endless amounts of articles, each trying to dissect what I believe is an unprovable case.  Nowadays video game journalists scour the pages of the ESRB more to find games that haven’t been announced but are submitted for rating rather than any arguments over validity.  It may not be perfect, but the self-governed video game industry has been able to keep back attempts at censorship as recently as this year.  Video games will probably never be seen as anything but a toy by some generations, much like rock music and television before them, however they have come a long way to legitimizing their place since a senator took issue with something he had never taken the time to play himself.

Citations:
1: Although linked, all statements regarding the professor and NCTV’s statements are from Kohler’s Wired article: http://www.wired.com/thisdayintech/2009/07/dayintech_0729/
2: Proof of the attacks and mud-slinging surprisingly showed in a Chicago Tribune article in early 1994: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1994-04-03/business/9404030307_1_video-game-violence-nintendo-sega-enterprises

Written by Fred Rojas

November 8, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Generation Gap Pt. 3: 16-Bit

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By 1989 the NES was a powerhouse not to be reckoned with.  Sure, there were other consoles out there, but if you were doing home gaming it was predominantly on the NES.  That is, until Sega introduced the first 16-bit system to the market.  Billed as the Genesis (Mega Drive in other regions, but due to an US copyright it was renamed to the Genesis), Sega hit the ground running bringing near-perfect arcade ports of popular titles like Golden Axe and Altered Beast.  This spawned the popular “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” campaign, the onslaught of the console wars, and the second true generation of consoles since the crash.  For those simply wondering what 16-bit (and other “bits”) means is the type of processor working within the system at a given speed (think “Pentium 4″ for a basic comparison).

16-bit Generation (1989 – 1999)

Sega Genesis – Launch Price: $189.99 – Released: 1989
It came literally out of nowhere.  Back then the only place to purchase Nintendo games in the Chicago suburbs was Toys R Us – you’d go see a slew of Nintendo box art in closed plastic sleeves, remove a ticket with a large price on it, and take it up to a booth that was enclosed and caged like a casino redemption.  There wasn’t a “video game” section, just a “Nintendo” section, because at that time Nintendo was synonymous with video game (and for my grandparents, it still is).  On that faithful summer day in August 1989 I walked into the Nintendo section and a slot was missing from the game display, replaced by a big blue logo that read “Sega” and a television that had a commercial playing.  In the commercial games like Golden Axe were getting compared to Bionic Commando, a truly unfair comparison from a graphics standpoint alone, despite hindsight revealing Bionic Commando the better title.  This upbeat guy was chanting “Genesis…” and a bold deep voice finished the sentence “Does!” as the commercial cross-cut the great visuals of Sega’s new console versus Nintendo’s clearly dated NES.  Then my eyes wandered down to the price: $189.99 – available soon!  I immediately forgot about it.

The Genesis may have been great for those that could afford it, but my parents took tons of coaxing to purchase the NES Action Set for my sister and I, which was only $99.99 the year we got it and came with two controllers, a zapper, and Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt.  When I asked about the Genesis, the guy told me it didn’t come with any games (which never made sense to me, especially back then) and I’m fairly certain it only came with one controller.  As a result, the Genesis was a lost thought to me – without a game, which my budget ensured would be the case even if I could swing it for a Christmas/birthday combo present, there wasn’t a point.  It wasn’t until later on, specifically two years later, when the Super Nintendo (SNES) was due to come out and Sega dropped the Genesis to $99.99 with Sonic the Hedgehog, that I finally got to hang up the old NES.

It’s important to note that I may have loved my Genesis because it was the console you got when your parents said they definitely wouldn’t pay the steep price of an SNES.  It might have also been that I was introduced to a heavy library already two years old when I bought it, so clearance games were already easy to find and FuncoLand had a slew of cheap used Genesis titles.  It may have been the fact that all Genesis games seemed to be “faster” than SNES games with its “blast processing” (the processor clocked a whopping 7.67 Mhz compared to the 3.58 Mhz of the SNES).  Either way, I cherished my Genesis.  Original games like Sonic, Kid Chameleon, and Toe Jam & Earl always kept my attention and made me proud of my Sega black box.  For many other gamers it was the fact that EA had entered the game and was making an amazing library of sports games that non-geeks like me were enamored with.  Later in time it would be the fact that Sega allowed blood and other adult content into its games (see the ratings board supplemental post).  Unfortunately the biggest mistake that Sega made, especially considering it entered 1992 with a 55 percent market share, was that it couldn’t stop making add-on hardware.  Instead of discontinuing the Genesis or sticking to carts to do all the dirty work of innovation, Sega provided far too many add-on consoles for the Genesis that segmented its market down to a useless pulp.

List of our Genesis reviews

In 1992 the Sega CD launched, but like so many other consoles I completely ignored it with the hefty $300 price tag.  Considered mostly useless, even by retro gamers, Sega’s add-on was mostly geared at giving the Genesis that graphical and storage push to compete with the top SNES titles.  Yeah, it was cool that we could finally get arcade ports of Final Fight, Mortal Kombat, and Samurai Showdown, but when you consider it required a new console that was three times the price of the Genesis no one was still listening.  Sega CD is also responsible for a flurry of horrid full motion video (FMV) titles that would plague gaming in the early-mid 90s.  Still, there was some merit to the console.  Without Sega’s add-on we wouldn’t have the only English version of Hideo Kojima’s epic Snatcher and Working Designs chose the Sega CD as the first console to get Vay and the Lunar series.  As one of the few who had the console (a rich friend traded it to me for a small fortune in Magic cards), it was quite the crap shoot when you were at the store trying to judge games by more than graphics.

Click to see a list of Sega CD reviews

Turbografx-16Launch Price: $200 – Released: 1989
The Turbografx-16 (TG-16) supposedly launched only two weeks after the Genesis in 1989, but I never saw it on store shelves until the massive clearance of 1994.  It was controversial because it was actually an 8-bit processor working with a 16-bit graphics processor, so it was rather last generation on a technical scale.  Software developer Hudson (of Adventure Island fame) decided to get together with hardware manufacturer NEC and launch a gaming console that would compete with the overpowered graphics of microcomputers (PCs) in Japan.  Dubbed the PC-Engine overseas, NEC’s console was called the Turbografx-16 in America (probably touting the 16-bit graphics for advertising in the midst of the emerging 16-bit Genesis).  Like the NES before it, Hudson Japan really handled the release schedules and software released for the Turbografx-16, making for a rather lackluster US library, especially when compared to the PC-Engine.

Games that did release, like Vigilante and Legendary Axe had that off-brand arcade feel to them – these two games felt like budget versions of Double Dragon and Rastan respectively.  Other titles like the pack-in Keith Courage in Alpha Zones and the great pinball title Devil’s Crush had clear Japanese influence, which may have discouraged US buyers.  It wasn’t until Bonk’s Adventure that we finally got a cartoony platforming hero that US gamers had come to expect out of their consoles.  It was an interesting console with bright colorful graphics, horrid airbrushed paintings for box art and games that looked like credit cards.  In addition you could easily use a conversion cart (which oddly enough was also identical to an adaptor on a sewing machine) to make Japanese games playable on the US system.  Given the Japanese influence and the easy import potential, Turbografx-16 spawned one of the first and probably most loyal import gamers.

Like the Genesis, part of the failure of the TG-16 can be attributed to the various versions of the system available in the US.  The CD add-on released for a whopping $300 and provided a pathetic library to the US gamers, but again, thanks to a lack of region lock you could easily import and play Japanese titles.  The TurboDuo later released, which combined both systems for a $250-$300 price tag, and the final Turbo Express gave you an impressive handheld version of the console for around the price of three Gameboys.  Even though the TG-16 had some advertising, which foolishly tried to fool gamers by comparing Super Mario Bros. to Vigilante (again ignoring the fact that Mario is the better game) didn’t have much of an effect.  Hudson also had a short run of comic books starring the great Johnny Turbo to assist in getting the system’s name out there, but it eventually was a lost cause.  The Turbografx-16 didn’t discontinue until 1995 in the US but a year or two before Toys R Us started selling off the console for about $50.  This was when I got mine and just like most other gamers, there was a slim pick of titles left.  Then again, I got a new console and five games for like $100, so I really can’t complain.

Click to see a list of Turbografx-16 reviews

Neo-Geo AES (Advanced Entertainment System) - Launch Price: $650 – Released: 1990
Premiering in Osaka, Japan in 1990, there’s no true release date for the Neo Geo mostly because of its steep price tag.  Marketed as a 24-bit system (it’s plastered all over any cartridge for the console), it’s really a 16-bit processor with an 8-bit co-processor that mostly handles sound.  This is significant because both the Genesis and SNES had the same setup: 16-bit processor and 8-bit sound co-processor.  More importantly the Neo Geo had stellar sprite graphics and the same internal components as the MVS, the Neo Geo stand-up arcades that premiered the same year.  Basically for a huge price tag (not only was the console more than $600, each game could be $100-$300) you could own an actual arcade game on a console in your home.  Due to the price, I rarely saw these consoles in stores and no one I knew owned one.

Thanks to the high price tag and solid list of games, including a strong lineup of fighters like Samurai Showdown and King of the Fighters, kept the Neo Geo alive for a long time.  I can’t say that the system ever sold, I even ignored it with the “drastically reduced” $299.99 price tag in the late 90s.  Nowadays the console is a mildly affordable $200 and common carts go for $25-$50 and the console still lives on a the closest thing to an “arcade” console in existence.

Click to see a list of Neo Geo games

Super Nintendo – Launch Price: $199.99 – Released: 1991
Rumors were abound with the Super Nintendo (SNES) prior to its launch in 1991.  At one point in time it was going to have a cartridge slot to support NES titles, then there were rumors it would have an online streaming component (which technically did happen in Japan with the Satellaview) and even a CD system made by Sony called, you guessed it, the Playstation.  While all of these things sound great, perhaps the strongest assistance in sales other than Nintendo’s myriad of properties was the fact that the SNES was the only hardware you ever needed.  In hindsight, consider that the Genesis had all these things: it was backwards compatible (with an add-on) with the Master System, it had a CD add-on, it even had a game streaming service called the Sega Channel.  That didn’t stop the Genesis from suffering a rough end as the SNES claimed commercial and critical victory.

No one purchased an NES, save maybe those lucky few in FAO Schwartz during Christmas 1985, without getting a free copy of Super Mario Bros. packed in.  That is why Mario is such a cultural phenomenon and holds a strong place in gamers’ hearts.  Similarly, no one purchased an SNES without a packed-in copy of Super Mario World.  As a result, a whole new generation of young gamers had a new mecca, another milestone game that all gamers had in common.  Regarded by a multitude to be the best in the series, Super Mario World both introduced the great new system to the masses but also showed off some of the new capabilities like Mode 7 graphics (when Bowser flies at the screen).  Nintendo also had a slew of solid titles at launch, some for the classic gamer, Contra 3 and Super Castlevania IV come to mind, and others to show off the new tricks the SNES could do, like Pilotwings and F-Zero.  In truth, there really was something for everyone, and at twice the price of the Sega Genesis (at the time) the SNES still managed to sell out Christmas 1991.  I still feel the biggest draw was the pack-in, Super Mario World was such a big game that it could occupy a family for the few months or even year until birthdays or Christmas came around again.

Not only that, it seemed like everything came out on the SNES.  From a 3rd party perspective most games released on both consoles and the trend was always the same: SNES looked better while Genesis played faster (could be read “better”).  At the same time, SNES usually received things earlier or more of them – a perfect example is the very popular fighter genre of the 90s, SNES had exclusives on some Neo Geo fighters, Killer Instinct (Rare was a Nintendo developer), and Street Fighter II nearly at launch.  In addition, JRPGs were really reserved for the SNES where games like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana and oh so many more.  Phantasy Star, while impressive in its own right, wasn’t an equal trade-off so the RPG fans flocked to the SNES in droves.  I’m still blown away that late in the SNES life cycle a version of Street Fighter Alpha 2 released and even though the cart cost nearly $100 and is the only one I know that has load times, it was a solid port.  For the most part, if you were to own just one system in the 16-bit generation, the SNES was clearly the no-brainer decision.

Click to see a list of SNES reviews

Big Carts
At the end of the cartridge era, which was really the only format for 16-bit until the CD add-ons hit in 1993, developers were making these little plastic gems do all kind of crazy things.  The consumer was forced to pay the extra cost, something that I doubt would fly nowadays, to get some of these advanced titles on your console.  Titles like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III would retail for $90, and I will admit it did hurt the bank, but those games were so very worth it.  It wasn’t just for the SNES either, thanks to the heavy chip sets required to make Neo Geo games, titles as small as Samurai Showdown still had retail prices of $150 and no one seemed to care that it was mostly wasted real estate.  Even the Genesis got on board at the end, making a fair arcade port of Virtua Racing that cost a whopping $100 and the $90 return to form Fantasy Star IV.  It was just one of those things you endured if you wanted the newest and best games – we just sucked it up and paid it.  This is why you’ll see so many issues with emulation nowadays and countless single games easier to simply pick up on the used market than preserve in remakes or re-releases.

As if nothing was learned in the early 80s, the next generation, the 32-bit consoles, flooded the market with a slew of crap hardware and software.  It was a dark time to have video game systems unless of course you were lucky enough to wait out a solid new console that ushered in a new generation of gaming.  Before we get to all that, though, feel free to check out our supplemental piece on the violence debate in video games that spawned in the early 90s during this very generation.  Of course if it’s all old news to you, feel free to continue on to Generation Gap Part 4!

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