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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.