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