Archive for the ‘Generation Gap Series’ Category
In 1994, the 16-bit generation in America was dwindling and gamers were ready for the 32-bit generation to emerge. With discussions of interactive CD-ROM consoles, the emergence of early 32-bit CD consoles like CD-i and 3DO and everyone wanted to know what Sega and Sony had in store for the future. Super Nintendo was only three years into its life and riding strong while the Genesis was having a tougher time competing. Not only did its age (it’s two years older than the SNES) hinder it, but with the introduction of the failing Sega CD, the Genesis still didn’t have the kick it wanted. In early January 1994, Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama wanted a 32-bit cartridge console to be released that Christmas, codenamed “Project Jupiter” (Sega used planets for its projects). Sega shortly decided that CD-based technology would be better suited for this project and it was renamed to “Project Saturn” – it would later go on to be the Sega Saturn console that released in 1995.
This installment will conclude our Generation Gap coverage. Please note that upcoming coverage on handhelds, arcades and microcomputers will follow. A lot happened just over a decade ago – the gaming market changed and one strong competitor bowed out as another took to the plate.
Fifth Generation – 1999 – Present (technically)
Sega Dreamcast – Launch Price: $199.99 – Released: 1999
Launch dates are getting more technical by this time, so from a Japanese standpoint the Dreamcast was a 1998 launch but we didn’t get it here until much later in September 1999. Although it is a 128-bit system, consoles had stopped toting the strength of “bits” and instead focused on a sleek design – most likely because Sony did it with Playstation and it worked. Dreamcast was Sega’s final nail before bowing out of hardware manufacturing and has been argued to also be its best offering. Regardless, the Dreamcast was definitely ahead of its time. It featured things that no console would dare launch without today and basically had the same features that Microsoft would include in its console just a few years later. A few years, that’s the difference between success and failure.
Until the Dreamcast most video game consoles were specified hardware that was far behind PCs. By all accounts the Dreamcast was a simplified PC, even running Windows CE, a modified version of the operating system that would be put to greater use on later pocket PCs. The Dreamcast had a built-in modem on all consoles, which supported the earliest form of online console gaming and provided a web browser service to those fortunate or rich enough to afford the high cost of long phone calls. Furthermore a keyboard attachment allowed players to truly use their console as an Internet device and even gave way to early MMOs on the console. Memory cards included LCD dot matrix screens and were called “visual memory units” or VMUs that not only held data but gave the player on-the-go mini games and Gigapet-style games. Aside from that Dreamcast boasted higher storage with the proprietary GD-rom format (1.2 GB of storage space), impressive graphics, and a slew of solid titles.
At launch one could pick up the standard Sonic release Sonic Adventure, but sports buffs also had NFL 2K1, one of the first football games to give Madden a run for its money, and fighter fans had both Marvel vs. Capcom and the still impressive Soul Calibur. Even remaining arcade fans saw near perfect ports of non-fighters like House of the Dead 2 and Hydro Thunder. Depending on who you ask, each of these games holds a special place in the hearts of the gamers who picked them up – mine was Sonic but the most popular one seems to have been Soul Calibur. With the lost time of the Saturn, releases that thrived on the Playstation made debuts like Resident Evil 2 & 3, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 & 3, Mortal Kombat Gold (a take on Mortal Kombat 4 with additional fighters) and more, all with improved graphics over previous versions. Early exclusive titles like Jet Grind Radio (later renamed to the Japanese title Jet Set Radio) was one of the first titles to utilize cell shading with an amazing soundtrack that is anticipating a re-release or remake even today. Capcom did an offshoot exclusive Resident Evil Code: Veronica, which was eventually re-released in various formats and I still feel is the definitive version of the “fixed camera, tank controls” method of Resident Evil titles. Shenmue was the first to do a sandbox-style open world that you could explore from the street level, despite being a bit bare bones for my style. Seaman was an experimental title that had you growing a tadpole to a fish by talking to it, complete with microphone and reactions from your creation. Online gaming was established by Sega first party with ChuChu Rocket! and Phantasy Star Online (technically an MMO) and third-party titles like 4×4 Evolution, Starlancer, and the extremely popular (at least at my college dorm) Quake III Arena. If you can find it, the canceled (but widely distributed on the Internet) version of Half Life is about the best you can find on a console.
With all this going for it, it’s a shame that the Dreamcast was discontinued in March 2001, just a few short months after the powerhouse release of Playstation 2 (PS2). Poor overall sales is what I’m guessing was Sega’s reason, although the console sold out its initial launch, and at the time of the announcement the Dreamcast had a much stronger library than the PS2. It was a bittersweet moment for me, being a Sega faithful since the Genesis, because Sega announced it would no longer be in console development but also that it would clearance out the Dreamcast. As a then poor college kid I collected as much money as I could and with $100 managed to grab a Dreamcast bundle that included Sega Classics (a 6-in-1 collection), a VMU, an extra controller, Code: Veronica, Mortal Kombat Gold, and Jet Grind Radio. It was a killer find and resulted in a long life for the Dreamcast in my living room (I wouldn’t get a PS2 until a year after its release). Dreamcast was also host to a slew of homebrew and independent titles that continue to release as early as last year. Sure, piracy was a bit of an issue, but the console was discontinued way before that was discovered and got out of control.
Sony Playstation 2 – Launch Price: $299.99 – Released: 2000
Sony had done a great job of hyping the release of its successor console and with gaming magazines and the Internet beginning to gain momentum, gamers were willing to hold out. Not only was it the next Playstation console, but it was announced that the PS2 would embrace the DVD format, capable of playing DVD movies as well as being backwards compatible with the original Playstation. Thanks to disc-based formats and the fact that DVD was the same size as CD and also read CD format, Sony just tossed the PS1 hardware into the PS2. With DVD video starting to become the dominant format, it was an easy decision for gamers to go with the Playstation 2 as an all-in-one solution. As a then college student, I can tell you that many dorms and student apartments had groups of guys all chipping in for a group-owned PS2.
There was another problem obtaining the coveted Playstation 2: quantity. At this point most big box retailers didn’t have a pre-order option (GameStop and EB Games being the exception, but pre-orders were limited) so gamers had to line up at Target, Wal-Mart and Best Buy for a console. Just before release word got around that manufacturing delays limited the amount of shipped US PS2s and I assure you these suburban retailers had no idea how many eager gamers would be lining up. I lived in Chicago at the time and chose to go to a northern suburb to line up only to find that some idiot had pulled a gun in an attempt to get to the front of the line. As a result, local police were preventing anyone from lining up until 9 am, an hour before opening. We all just basically hung out in cars and camped out on hillsides in the massive parking lot that made up the strip mall this retailer was attached to. At 9 am sharp the cop on guard did one final lap and took off, beginning 2000’s famous “running of the nerds” as we all darted to the front for our shot at a PS2. It was brutal. Fat guys tripping each other, drinks flying wildly as they were forgotten to gain pace on the line, people struggling up against the locked glass doors. A frantic and pissed off manager quickly emerged and said that he would not be selling the PS2 given the events of the day and told us all to disperse lest we want the cops called again. I walked away ashamed, knowing that I would never get caught up in such shenanigans again (I would six years later camp out at a Wal-Mart for 3 days for a PS3). To top it off, the PS2 never restocked all holiday season and I watched consoles sell for around $600-$800, some I hear even made it over $1000 on eBay.
In complete contrast, the launch games themselves were mostly garbage (debatable) and the PS2 spent the first year of its life with a weak catalog. Tekken Tag Tournament was a great arcade fighter that looked almost identical and was my top choice for a launch title. Ridge Racer V came out because a Ridge Racer always launches a console, Fantavision looked okay and shooters Unreal Tournament and Timesplitters also premiered, but FPS titles weren’t mainstream yet. Sure, there was a Madden (2001) and Dynasty Warriors 2, but for the most part none of these titles are really stand out classics in hindsight. Most of my friends who managed to nab a console in 2000 used it as a combo DVD player/PS1. That didn’t last too long, though, for the PS2 is responsible for a slew of must play titles. Strong series continued to exclusively support the Playstation platform like Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Gran Tourismo, Tekken, Virtua Fighter, and Twisted Metal. PS2 was also the launching platform for many franchises still successful today like God of War, Guitar Hero, Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (in the US), Devil May Cry, Onimousha and who can forget probably the biggest PS2 franchise Grand Theft Auto III and its offshoots.
Depending on when you jumped into the cycle, there were several reasons to grab a Playstation 2 and with total worldwide distribution of over 153 million units plenty of people have. In fact, technically the console is still on sale today although I don’t think any new games are being released, but I definitely see them on store shelves. Sony attempted to include backwards compatibility for the Playstation 2 in the Playstation 3 hardware, but with higher costs involved that feature was quickly dropped, making new and used PS2s still marketable with a vast library of inexpensive classic titles. Furthermore the PS2 was able to release several add-ons as it attempted to compete over its 10+ year lifespan including a 40 GB hard drive, modem/high-speed internet port, multimedia software and even homebrew/independent development. Unlike the Dreamcast, many more games supported online play with an impressive list of supported titles – although most of them are currently offline – including the launch of SOCOM: Navy Seals. There was even a true MMO with Final Fantasy XI, which required both the online add-on and hard drive. Sony’s little PS2 has clearly withstood the test of time.
Nintendo Gamecube – Launch Price: $150 – Released: 2001
After being burned by the Nintendo 64, many of us gamers were hesitant about Nintendo’s consoles, but the Gamecube appeared to be trying to remedy the problem. Gamecube was the first Nintendo console to use discs, although they were low storage (1.5 GB) mini discs intended to make piracy harder and avoid DVD license costs. This doesn’t seem like much of an issue until you consider the much larger 8.5 GB storage a dual-layer DVD can offer – Gamecube ports became difficult. Although the cheapest on the market, Gamecube was also the least attractive due to its lack of DVD playback (by Gamecube’s launch Microsoft had already announced the Xbox’s compatibility with DVD playback as well). Those that wanted to pony up the $700 cash for a Panasonic Q, a hybrid DVD player and region-free Gamecube, could be purchased, but other than the incessant Nintendo collector there seemed to be little reason.
Nintendo’s usual suspects of first party titles were there, but much like the boxy design, everything was just a bit off compared to other generations. Luigi’s Mansion may have starred the classic mascot’s brother, but was more of a kid-friendly ghostbusting game than a platformer. The same could be said for series staple Mario in Mario Sunshine and the integration of co-op and motorcycles in Mario Kart: Double Dash made less popular than predecessors. Even the standard staple Zelda title Wind Waker was seen with mixed feelings, many criticizing its childlike nature. Still, there were strong first party pleasers like Metroid Prime, Super Smash Bros Melee and Pikmin. Nintendo’s charming Animal Crossing made its debut on Gamecube and I still remember goofy things like rushing home on the 4th of July to get a gift and the painstaking journey of unlocking all 19 hidden NES games (each fully playable). Some great exclusives also migrated to the console like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, Star Wars Rogue Squadron, and Capcom’s re-release of all Resident Evil titles (including the gorgeous remake of the first) as well as new titles like Resident Evil 0 and 4 in addition to the Viewtiful Joe series. As usual, many 3rd parties attempted to support Nintendo’s console but usually at the expense of forced offline versions (many Xbox/PS2 titles had online whereas the Gamecube version did not) or the removal of content and addition of discs to accomodate streaming content. After poor sales time and time again companies like Eidos and EA stopped support for the console altogether. The only exception was the amazing inclusion of Link from Legend of Zelda in Gamecube’s version of Soul Calibur II, which was significantly more enticing than PS2’s Heihachi (from Tekken) or Xbox’s Spawn.
No matter what, Nintendo just couldn’t seem to grasp the market share for this generation. Without DVD support and having the weakest versions of almost all multiplatform games, Gamecube owners were forced into the now all-too-familiar predicament of solely owning the console for Nintendo first party. Even after the price drop to $99.99 and the fact that Gamecube games were often $10 cheaper than their PS2/Xbox counterpart, none of it swayed sales. Like the Dreamcast the Gamecube supported a weak amount of unadvertised online games – which ironically mostly started life on the Dreamcast. Only six games were available, the most popular being the re-release of Phantasy Star Online and it was so difficult to get a network adaptor that it wasn’t even worth it. Assuming you did, disconnection issues and game-breaking glitches tarnished your gaming, sometimes after 50+ hours of leveling up. Still, Resident Evil fans got an entire catalog of games, each one in the best fidelity possible. Nowadays owning a Gamecube and buying the Gameboy Advance adaptor that allows you to play GBA titles on your console can be a cheaper alternative to finding the high-priced handheld online. It also allows those coveted titles that are better suited for the big screen to find a home.
Microsoft Xbox – Launch Price: $299.99 – Released: 2001
As Nintendo was getting revved up in the launch of the Gamecube, which was budget-based in both price and technology, Microsoft decided to enter the console market with a heavy brick of a machine that was roughly a low-spec PC. It was rumored that Microsoft took quite a hit with the hardware of each of the giants – each equipped with an ethernet port for online support, the strongest hardware lineup that included a 733 mhz Pentium III, and an included 8 GB hard drive – hoping to recover those funds on licensing fees for software. In addition, it also had the biggest freaking controller I have ever seen on a console, making a second smaller controller a necessity after a while, and 10 input buttons along with a d-pad and dual analogs.
From a hardware standpoint the Xbox also had the most going for it if you had the right components to hook it up to. Xbox titles were in native 480p resolution and 5.1 Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound (while PS2 did support both Dolby Digital and DTS, it had to be encoded on the game, which was rare). In addition the Xbox Live service launched to provide an online PC-like atmosphere for the first time on consoles. With the service you would always know which of your friends was online and have access to play online. In fact, the only thing the Xbox did lack was exclusive titles. Save a few notables discussed below, you could find almost every game from Microsoft’s console on either PS2, Gamecube or both. This didn’t matter if you owned multiple consoles, but it was a tough sell for regular gamers who already had a PS2. In addition, DVD playback required a kit that was basically a remote control, sold at a premium MSRP of $30-$40. I don’t believe the add-on infrared sensor in the controller port was necessary for the box to actually play DVDs, but rather that Microsoft wanted to charge for that feature.
In terms of games, the biggest compliment I can grant the Xbox was that it was my preferred system because all multiplatform games looked best on Xbox. As someone who had a HDTV early as well as 5.1 surround sound, I got to enjoy most multi-console titles in the best graphics with full surround sound. As for exclusives, there weren’t really many to speak of. The biggest and best, which is most likely responsible for a large chunk of the 24+ million units sold, is definitely Halo: Combat Evolved. In one simple Bungie launch title, Microsoft brought the world of the first-person shooter out of the keyboard and mouse crowd and into the living rooms of console gamers. Since online wasn’t fully integrated in the original (LAN parties were a big hit in college dorms), the addition of online in Halo 2 kept many console players home instead of at work and in testing classrooms for probably the first time in history. In keeping with the ultra-hardcore mentality of the ideal Xbox gamer, another console exclusive Ninja Gaiden released a solid hack-and-slash title that was tough as nails. Not since the 16-bit generation had a game brought me to my knees with crippling difficulty than this title – many of my friends giving up on the first boss alone. Other exclusives like Project Gotham Racing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (although the sequel was multi-console), and Steel Batallion would get some notice but nothing to sway console buyers. Xbox also has some strong re-releases as well including an updated version of the stellar Conkers Bad Fur Day after Microsoft acquired Rare and they picked up the reigns of some of Sega’s series with Panzer Dragoon Orta, Sega GT, and Jet Set Radio Future. As a first time console Microsoft did a decent job with the Xbox, but given market factors it’s not surprising that Sony’s PS2 ruled this generation. Microsoft would definitely get back its momentum by releasing the successor, the Xbox 360, only four short years afterward in 2005.
This concludes our Generation Gap series, but we will update with supplemental material from time to time. Also be sure to check out our history of portable consoles, arcades, and microcomputers coming soon.
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)
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.
Pioneer LaserActive – Launch 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
***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.
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 Bandicoot, Need for Speed, Metal 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.
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.
While some of the Nintendo first party titles like Mario 64, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Star 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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Turbografx-16 – Launch 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.
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.
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.
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!
Amidst the video game crash of 1983, it seemed pretty unlikely that home consoles would have a future. Fortunately a Japanese toy maker had figured out how to re-sell video games to the masses despite the world economy turning its back. That company was Nintendo.
8-bit Generation (1985 – 1995)
Nintendo Entertainment System – Launch Price: $200 – Released: 1985
Depending on your age, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) probably needs the least introduction or background, but there were many things going on behind the scenes that assisted this console in becoming the giant it was. Initially Nintendo had to figure out how to overcome the world economy’s opinion on video game consoles, which the Famicom/NES clearly was. In Japan, where personal home computers were all the rage, it was marketed as a computer for your family, hence the name Famicom (for “family computer”). In America the better way to sell it was as a toy, which everything from the console’s marketing to the simple boxy aesthetic suggests. It worked and in both regions this little 8-bit system assisted Nintendo in virtually running the 8-bit era.
Among the most substantial difference was the changing of games as a whole. Launch title Super Mario Bros. was very different from previous generational titles because it actually scrolled and the player had a sense of moving along a broader space than the screen in front of them. Most arcade and console games from the generation before worked screen to screen with predominantly repetitive concepts for a higher score. In the case of Super Mario Bros. the score was inconsequential, being ignored by many players. It added versatility to the games. For this same reason, most console ports of arcade games were expanded, creating longer experiences in comparison to its coin-op counterpart. A great example is Double Dragon, which consists of levels more than twice the length of the arcade title, a simple leveling system to unlock moves, and areas never previously conceived. This trend continued during the life of the NES with varied results, but it changed the face of games from a single screen concept to a more connected, linear experience.
Nintendo was smart enough to learn from previous companies’ mistakes, so various things were implemented into the NES to assure success. It’s important to note moving forward that while similar, the Famicom and NES are completely different pieces of hardware, exchanging strengths and weaknesses with various multi-region releases. For starters, the NES had controller ports that allowed its accessories to be expanded beyond the two controllers. Over the years a myriad of first and third-party accessories would sell for the system to broaden the overall experience and appeal.
Another large difference was the fact that many games released in both Japan and America had various differences for various reasons. It is for this reason that the process of bringing video games from one region to another is regarded as localization rather than translation. Due to cultural and social differences, simply translating the game wouldn’t quite fit. In some cases it was because games were seen as too hard or easy for a region, many were edited for content, some received updates or upgrades due to years difference in release windows, and some simply got stuck in licensing hell. In America, Nintendo of America (NoA) was in charge of what Japanese titles we got in the US, but since Japanese companies at that time were basically run from Japan the ultimate decision was made back home in the East.
As for non-localized US releases, Nintendo placed some very stringent rules on would-be developers to prevent the issues apparent in the video game crash of 1983. If you wanted to create a game for the NES, you would have to pitch the title to NoA for approval and a contract would have to be signed. Nintendo would license permission to make your game into a cartridge, but you would have to put up all the capital to manufacture and release the game. Nintendo owned and controlled all the chips and carts, so they initially made money on your prepaid order of games (which you were forced to decide the quantity to purchase). This resulted in occasional chip shortages that delayed many titles here in the US and also explains the rarity of some titles that weren’t able to get another print run. In addition you could only produce 5 games per year, per company, which is why companies created second labels to release more games – Konami’s second branch was Ultra and Acclaim’s was LJN. Some publishers straight up refused to conform to the system, choosing instead to reverse engineer unlicensed titles in their own cartridges. The most popular among these being Atari software, under the name Tengen, who was responsible for a port of Tetris that later led to a heavy lawsuit between the two companies for who actually owned the rights to release the game on the NES. Not that it mattered, but of course Nintendo won.
As frustrating and limiting as the licensing system was, it definitely kept a mild sense of quality among games (although this is highly debatable) and prevented the flood of games that ruined the industry in 1983 from happening again. At the same time there was definitely no lack of games in the NES library, with titles being released well into the next generation of consoles. The NES had many bundles over the years, the most popular being the Action Set, which included a console, two controllers, the light gun Zapper, and a Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt combo cart for $100. Eventually in 1993, during the rush of the Super Nintendo (SNES), the NES 2 (model NES-101) released with the top-loading look of both the SNES and Famicom in a hybrid form. This new design helped secure the 72-pin connection that failed so often with the NES and caused the all-too-common “blinking console” issue.
Sega Master System – Launch Price: $200 – Released: 1986
Mostly unknown to the American audience, Sega’s Master System (SMS) is actually an adapted version of the Japanese console the Mark III and chose probably the worst possible time to premiere in the United States. Releasing the summer of 1986, approximately one year after the NES, the SMS launched with just as much versatility as the NES and boasted better graphics. Unfortunately Sega made the big mistake of minimizing the on-the-box advertising and everything looked incredibly bland. With an all-white box that had blue grids on it, the SMS came with everything in the Nintendo Action Set (console, game, two controllers, light gun) but just looked cheaply made. That wasn’t the Master System’s worst problem by far, its biggest problem was that by this point Nintendo already had the US game market on lockdown.
You could play the SMS in two different ways: either by the Sega Cards that loaded in the front and looked basically like credit cards or via top-loading cartridge. Sega Cards had less storage space and thus contained smaller, less expensive experiences that were all but concepts of the past and still reminded gamers of the horrid Atari titles that led to the crash of 83. Cartridges provided increased space that led to higher graphical fidelity that could look better than any NES title. Unfortunately there were very few games to put on the console due to US licensing agreements. In the US, Nintendo made its 3rd parties sign agreements to license games that prevented them from putting any title on another console. With the already vast Nintendo library, that meant very bad news for Sega. For the most part, the SMS library consisted of first party Sega titles and arcade ports, with a few odd exceptions. The Wonder Boy series, which continued on both SMS and Genesis for a few sequels was basically a sprite swap with Master Higgins in the NES series Adventure Island.
As time went on, Sega was partially responsible for the apparent lack of support on the hardware side of the SMS. This led to an ongoing trend with Sega for supporting hardware concepts ahead if its time and resulting in console sales issues. In 1989 Sega released the Genesis, its next generation 16-bit console, and released an inexpensive piece of hardware that allowed the console to play SMS carts and cards thanks to the SMS chip being used as the sound chip for the Genesis. In 1991 when the Sega Game Gear released, which was basically a portable SMS, ports of its various best-selling titles, like Sonic the Hedgehog, were released on SMS as well. However by that time most SMS gamers were either in other countries or were using their Genesis to play the updated versions of these games. Mind you, the failure of the Master System in America is much more attributed to the poor number and quality of games and short shelf life, making it less than worthwhile in the US.
While Sega may have screwed up in the 8-bit era, they certainly came out much stronger in the 16-bit era with the Genesis. At one point the Genesis actually held a 55 percent market share over the Super Nintendo and was the catalyst for the first console war. Read about it in Generation Gap Part 3!
It’s difficult to understand and discern the various console generations that have existed, so here’s a brief overview of each one and the consoles that spawned in North America during these generations. Please note that these posts cover home consoles only (and goes into broad detail on specific larger market share, not every console that released) – while arcades and PCs were a signficant part of gaming in the respective 80s and 90s, they will be covered in different posts.
First Generation (1972 – 1983)
Magnavox Odyssey – Launch Price: $75-$100 (retail dependent) – Released: 1972
Designer Ralph Baer’s team started working on the console, codenamed “brown box”, in 1966 and completed a prototype in 1968. I wasn’t even remotely alive when the Odyssey was on the market, so my experience with the console is limited to a few brief and clumsy plays of Ski at various Midwest Gaming Classic conventions.
The Odyssey had interchangeable cartridges that were purchased individually, much like more modern consoles, and also included an overlay for the television. Since it was unable to generate graphics necessary for the games itself, it would instead use the TV overlay to create the playfield and dots or lines would be the only true visual created by the console. Each cartridge would trigger jumpers in the console to generate the desired images or items on the screen. Some games would also include dice and various other items, creating a virtual board game of sorts. One of the most popular among the Odyssey titles was of course Pong, which was actually named Tennis on the console. Unfamiliarity with a device of this sort and co-branding with Magnavox stores created a public perception that the Odyssey would only work with Magnavox televisions, which wasn’t true.
Pong Clones – Launch Price: (Variable)
Although Atari and Magnavox were making “official” versions of Pong various clones began to flood the market made by a whole slew of manufacturers. Eventually the demand for the simple paddle game dwindled and companies that had invested large sums of money were seeing a staggering drop in sales as the bubble burst. Some refer to this as the “video game crash of 1977”, a clear foreshadow to the eventual crash of 1983. After 1977 only Magnavox and Atari remained in the market, dug out by the arcade release of Taito’s Space Invaders.
Atari 2600 – Launch Price: $199 – Released: 1977
You may know this console also as its original name, the Video Computer System (or VCS) to compete directly with the Video Entertainment System (or VES), later being renamed to the Fairchild Channel F. Both consoles were essentially Pong clones upon release until after the crash of 1977 forced developers to put the hardware to work on other potential projects. Ironically enough, the title that the console launched with was Combat as well as two classic joysticks with a single red button.
With the exclusive content and the bowing out of Fairchild for what they considered a dwindling market, Atari became the front-runner for video games by 1979, taking home markets by storm. In January 1980, a licensed version of Space Invaders hit the console and by 1982 the console had also acquired another arcade pleaser, Pac-Man, which sold over 7 million copies itself. 1982 was also the year that the console officially was renamed to the Atari 2600 to make way for the Atari 5200, which also released the same year. This new model was completely black, removing the signature 70s wood paneling and moved two of the dipswitches to the back of the console. Several updated versions of the system would release, including a slim-lined version named the 2600 Jr., and even co-branded products like the Sears Video Arcade (which was the Sears brand of the VCS/2600).
Mattel Intellivision – Launch Price: $299 – Released: 1979-1980
This can technically be considered the first console intended for multiple title and cartridge distribution, although the 2600 had clearly planned for multiple cartridges upon its initial market release. Mattel decided to go right for the throat with the Intellivision (standing for an “intelligent” and “television” hybrid), doing side-by-side screen comparisons with the VCS/2600 in its 1980 commercials for mass market release (although it started in test markets in 1979). It launched with the title Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack, possibly suggesting an older target market (especially in combination with price).
Titles for the Intellivision would include overlays for the odd 12-button numeric keypad located at the top of the controller and a multi-directional pad on the bottom. Intellivision’s list of games provides an impressive combination of licensed arcade ports and original games. Its best-selling title, Astrosmash, also managed to top 1 million sales. In an attempt to find its place in the market, the Intellivision announced a keyboard peripheral and teased add-ons to make it a full computer, but the peripheral was eventually recalled and plans for the computer add-on were canceled resulting in several customer complaints. There were two revisions, the Entertainment Computer System (ECS), which was basically an Intellivision with limited programming capabilities, and the Intellivision II, released in 1983 and not actually new hardware, was manufactured to be cheaper and more sleek with disconnecting controllers.
ColecoVision – Launch Price: $200 – Released: 1982
Launching in summer 1982, the ColecoVision had a short but sweet life. With a design similar to the Intellivision, the only real difference was that the directional pad was replaced with an arcade-like analog nub and relocated to the top of the controller. It’s marketing goal was simple: take any arcade ports that Atari hadn’t nabbed and gobble up the licenses. Even more significant was the fact that it could create near-perfect arcade ports and in some cases even create ports that were superior to the arcade. With an impressive pack-in at launch, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, the console was able to move more than half a million consoles by Christmas of 1982.
Arcade ports included Donkey Kong Jr., Zaxxon, and even held responsibility for popularising less known arcade titles like Mr. Do! Of the titles considered superior to the arcade was the standout Space Panic alongside a handful of other titles that continued the trend. Unfortunately the short life of the system can also be attributed to its lack of true original exclusive titles and a decent number of its titles (including those on the console box) that are considered “vaporware”, meaning no version of the game was actually seen by 3rd parties and its unclear whether the game(s) ever existed at all.
Atari 5200 – Launch Price: $270 – Released: 1982
In the grand scheme of things, the Atari 5200 was a waste of consumers’ time and money, directly demonstrating the cause of the video game crash of 1983. Released to compete with the Intellivision and boasting higher graphics than its predecessor and Intellivision, it unfortunately launched only a few months after the ColecoVision as direct competition. With a hefty price tag and little innovation, it was a hard sell to the most enthusiastic of gamers.
The 5200’s controller was nearly identical to the ColecoVision (which mostly copied the Intellivision) save for the more pronounced joystick. Anyone who owned a 5200 remembers the non-centering joystick that would cause all kinds of problems if not centered before turning on the console. Main reasons for the console’s failure was that it did not offer backwards compatibility with the 2600, which was twice as bad when you consider that at this point Intellivision had a cartridge adaptor that allowed it to run 2600 titles. It also featured few games, Atari pumping more time and effort into its ever-expanding 2600 library and doing little more than higher graphical ports of 2600 games with sloppy programming. Finishing off the console’s future was the fact that compared to ColecoVision the pack-in game, Super-Breakout (an adaptation of Arkanoid), was far less intriguing than Donkey Kong. Thanks to the improper handling of the console, it died a quick and painful death.
Video Game Crash of 1983
With the market skyrocketing with video games, the early 80s had no shortage of options, many of which had become overwhelming. At the time of the crash one could enter a store and see a slew of consoles: Atari 2600, 5200, ColecoVision, Coleco Gemini (2600 clone), Intellivision (II), and even a new version of the Odyssey (second generation). This doesn’t even include store specific items like the Sears Tele-game series and the Tandyvision (RadioShack). Mind you, in 1982 $200-$300 was much more than it is today and with many titles ranging from $30-$40 in price, gaming was no cheap hobby. Companies overestimated sales and manufacturing, flooding the market with games. In order to produce games quickly, titles were severely rushed and not given proper treatment – most noteable the poor 2600 port of Pac-Man (which did celebrate commercial success at the price of unhappy consumers) and the pathetic 2600 title E.T. also rushed to meet the release of the movie and a rumored 2 million carts were buried in the New Mexican desert.
With all of this going on, companies were going out of business at an incredible rate and retailers were unable to sell back unsold and returned games to these bankrupt publishers. Everyone suffered from the console manufacturer to the publisher to the retailer. Even the consumer suffered as low-priced software hit the market in droves, enticing gamers away from the high-priced $40 quality software to virtually unplayable $5 carts. By summer of 1983 every store was overwhelmed with unsold clearance software only to hear from both Atari and Magnavox that the 7800 and Odyssey 3 respectively were dated to release the following year. The entire market came crashing down and by 1984 retailers didn’t even want to think about video games again. If it weren’t for Nintendo having the intelligence and foresight to hold back on bringing the Famicom (Japan’s version of the NES) to US until 1985 and selling it as a toy and not a video game, we may not have home consoles today.
Our coverage of video game generations continues in Generation Gap Pt. 2!