Generation Gap Pt. 3: 16-Bit
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!