Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Generation Gap Pt. 2: 8-Bit

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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.

Click here to see a list of our NES reviews

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.

Click to see our list of Master System reviews

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!

Written by Fred Rojas

October 21, 2011 at 12:18 pm

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