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Article - 'History of Videogames (part 3)' by GaZZwa

An item about Miscellanious posted on Aug 8, 2003


The third and final nostalgic look back into the golden age of gaming; a world of super heroic plumbers, of crime fighting turtles, of a strange looking yellow family and of the battle betweent the SNES and the Genesis.


Hello, and welcome The History of Videogames Part 3. In this instalment I will be going back to 1990, and exploring what is widely considered as the ‘Golden Age of Gaming’. This was a time when great classics were released such as Final Fantasy VI, Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Metroid and Street Fighter II, the former being considered by many as the best game ever. Whilst the previous instalments of this series focused on the build up towards this period, when gaming had a strong foothold in society, most of you were probably too young, or not in existence to remember them. This article should prove better reading, as I expect many of you can actually remember the SNES and Genesis and the war they waged.


If any one company seemed poised to commandeer control of the video game industry from Nintendo, it was NEC. With a huge and imposing market share in the computer and communication industries, NEC had been driving their developers since 1988 towards the production of a new video game system. Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi saw NEC as a threat due to their successful semiconductor business, which would give them a “direct [and] inexpensive source” for chips. Backed by impressive resources, NEC had been able to saturate any and all industries it wanted, and when the PC-Engine was released in Japan in October of 1987, it appeared as though they would do the same for the video game industry.

After refinement of the PC-Engine it was released in America in 1989, with its name changed to TurboGrafx-16. As the first 16-bit system in a market ready for a new format, the TurboGrafx-16 initially sold quite well, selling more consoles in its first month than its competitors had during the same period.

Video game players are a capricious lot. Trends in popular genres change yearly, with nearly as much modishness as the fashion industry. A particular type of game or system that is popular today, can become an embarrassment to own tomorrow. Unfortunately for NEC, the TurboGrafx-16 was to become the poster-child for this phenomenon.

When the Sega Genesis was released, its dramatically more impressive graphics, sound and gameplay turned the TurboGrafx-16 passé overnight. The TurboGrafx became a stigma.

Ultimately, NEC was to blame for this. Having never produced entertainment software before, NEC designers had taken a casual approach to producing games. Many games had all the flash of a 16-bit title, but with little by way of depth of gameplay. NEC also depended on third-party developers to build a library of games. However, most developers were contractually obligated to Nintendo, and could not produce software for NEC. In addition to all of this, the TurboGrafx was not true 16-bit. While its graphics processor was 16-bit, its main CPU was merely 8-bit (a 6820, to be exact).

Despite the poor sales of the TurboGrafx, NEC continued to promote the system. A CD-ROM upgrade made it the first CD console, and a refined, scaled down version would be released as a portable system. Its CD capabilities would give one very well known CD producing company, Working Designs, their start. However, NEC would never achieve much success with their TurboGrafx CD. The reason, as Sheff put it, was that “NEC has arrived too soon with too little.”
The TurboGrafx would later be reincarnated as the equally ill-fated TurboDuo, once again in direct competition with Sega. During its life, however, less than 1 million TurboGrafx-16 units were sold.

Sega Genesis (Megadrive)

Processor: 680000
Processor Speed: 7.6 MHz
Resolution: 320 x 224
Colours: 64 / 512
Max Sprite Estimation: 90
Sprite Size: 32 x 32
Debut Price (1989) $189.99

When Sega first announced that a 16-bit system was on the horizon, Nintendo executives did not take them very seriously. To them, Sega was no threat. Sega had been demolished in the 8-bit era, and the only profits keeping them afloat were coming exclusively from their arcade base (only to be swallowed by the black hole of debt surrounding the Master System). Despite Nintendo’s nonchalance on the matter of 16-bit systems, other industry players were enthused. Trip Hawkins of Electronic Arts figured that Sega was creating a promising market, with a real future, “for which the price of admission was far less than Nintendo’s.”

Sega was beaten to the punch when NEC’s Turbographix-16 was released 6 months before the slated Genesis release. However, the Genesis would obliterate the Turbographix when it was released because of one key point: games.

NEC, who had a previous history of electronic entertainment such as CD players, VCRs, and computers, had never actually produced a video game. NEC executives did not know what to look for in a video game designer. Thus, the initial offering of Turbographix titles were very weak. Many game players marvelled in the store over displays of “Keith Courage” only to be greatly disappointed when they finally got the system home and found the shallowness of the game.

Realising their folly for not designing a 16-bit system, Nintendo attempted to save the Turbographix, in hopes of turning it into the next Nintendo home console. They allowed certain third party developers to produce Turbographix titles. But this was too little, too late because Sega debuted its technically superior Genesis shortly thereafter, and quickly seized control of the market.

The Genesis debuted with a smash hit Sega arcade game packed inside (Altered Beast.) Several companies, including Electronic Arts, would initially leave Nintendo to produce Genesis titles. They would be followed by many more as time went by and a 16-bit Nintendo system was merely a rumour.

When the 16-bit Nintendo was finally released in 1991, two years after the Sega Genesis, many predicted it to take control of the market. However, because of the SNES slow processing speed, Sega was able to remain a strong player in the industry. Capitalising on this, Sega produced a game based on speed. Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s new mascot, was born. Incorporated in the game play of this revolutionary title, were various environmental themes that had become so popular in the media of the time. This little blue character would cause Sega’s sales to soar, keeping the Genesis alive and well. Critics were charmed by the blue critter, but could not decide between him or Nintendo’s Mario. Most chose Mario as the better game.

During this era, Sega used their popularity to experiment with alternative mediums. They produced several popular portable LCD games based upon their popular arcade and home games. Sega ventured into educational software and even designed a system specifically for this purpose. A CD system was produced (despite a failed attempt by NEC to do the same) which became quite popular.

One of the few legal battles Sega was involved in during the Fifth Generation was one that can hardly be called a battle. During the 16-bit era, Sega executives decided that the best way to compete with a company that used key-chips in their hardware was to include key-chips of their own in the Genesis. While the first shipments of Genesis systems lacked this chip, later shipments did not. Accolade, still under contract with Nintendo, but desirous to produce Genesis titles, created a sub-division of their company (calling it Ballistic, to avoid any conflict with Nintendo) to produce Genesis titles. However, they had not become an official licensee with Sega. Ballistic, exploiting the fact that most Genesis systems out at that time lacked the key chip, ignored Sega’s requests that they cease production until a contract was signed. Because of this, a legal battle almost ensued. However, before it was taken to court, the two reconciled their differences and a contract that was beneficial to both parties was contrived. The contract dictated that for every one game Accolade produced on another system, they must produce five for the Genesis. While this seemed like a very good agreement at the time, later many would complain that this “created a situation where Accolade felt obligated to [produce] titles for the Genesis, whether they sucked or not.”

Some Genesis games were so great that nu-metal bands wrote songs about them.

Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Processor: 65816
Processor Speed: 3.58 MHz
Resolution: 512 x 418
Colours: 256 / 32,768
Max Sprite Estimation: 60 before slow-down, 128 max
Sprite Size: 64 x 64
Debut Price (1991) $199.99

During the Fourth Generation, Nintendo had dominated the industry with control of 85 to 90 percent of the market on both sides of the Pacific. They had ruled supreme. Smaller video game companies feared and respected them, none with the clout to usurp their autocracy. This made Nintendo executives feel their company was imperishable. Concerning this, Sheff wrote,
“Nintendo ... suffered from a malaise typical of industry leaders. Fat and happy, it had been lulled into a sense of invulnerability. Yamauchi and Arakawa felt they didn’t have to react to competitors simply because they were Nintendo.”

Thus, when Nintendo’s competitors began buzzing with rumours of 16-bit systems, Nintendo continued unabated in their production of 8-bit hardware. Nintendo did not believe that Sega with their 16-bit Genesis was a hazard to the NES preponderate market. While NEC was seen by Yamauchi as a potential threat, the lack of quality programmers for the TurboGraphix-16 was known to (and even somewhat orchestrated by) Nintendo. Thus, Nintendo did not feel a need to enter the 16-bit market.

Nintendo’s lack of aggression cost them dearly. While the TurbGraphix-16 did in fact fail, it was not beaten out by Nintendo’s fame, but by the tremendous popularity of the Sega Genesis. Sega’s dream machine went on further to knock the NES out of first place the following Christmas. Long-time Nintendo licensees began to leave to pursue contracts with Sega. Subsequent injury was evident in Total Research Corp.’s annual survey of brand equity that showed Nintendo dropped from its 27th place to 103rd, while Sega had leaped from 131st to 67th.

Irma Zandl, president of The Zandl Group, a New York-based firm that specialised in youth marketing, said in regard to this, “Sega has basically clobbered Nintendo. Sega has been much more aggressive in developing technologies [and its ads were much] more fun and really honed in on what [game players] liked.”

By mid 1991 sales of the Genesis were in excess of 1 million with cart sales ten times that, and while Nintendo of America had sold 31.7 million NES units in the United States alone, it had become evident to everyone (including Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi) that Nintendo was quickly on their way out if something was not done.

Yamauchi had set Masayuki Uemura in charge of producing the 16-bit Nintendo, and after two years, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) was released to the public. Continuing the belief that they were still unbeatable, despite this upstart company, Sega, Nintendo advertised the SNES, while confidently ignoring the danger of a Genesis retaliation. Twenty-five million dollars were spent on TV commercials. Gail Tilden at Nintendo Power (Nintendo of America’s system exclusive propaganda machine) “hyped the SNES shamelessly.”

Initially, Nintendo’s management were not the only ones confidant that the SNES would bring control of the industry back to Nintendo, many video game magazines chimed in, touting on the supremacy of the SNES. This was, however, short-lived.

Sega, preparing for the onslaught of its long-time rival, had discovered a flaw in the SNES hardware, the CPU speed, and had designed a game specifically to expose that flaw. Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s new mascot, was born. The game propelled the Genesis to even greater heights, but did not kill the SNES as Sega had hoped. Instead, the market became split two ways, with dual systems having fairly equal dominance of the industry.

No longer able to control its licensees like they had in the fourth generation, Nintendo was forced into new agreements with the third party producers. While some would still buy cartridges from Nintendo (as had been done with the NES) many would wind up manufacturing their own games (although purchasing SNES security chips was still mandatory) and produce titles for both systems. Attempting to still control this new breed of licensees, Nintendo now required that each company produce three SNES titles a year that achieved a rating of at least thirty points on Nintendo’s game rating system. This encouraged many companies to produce games that Nintendo executives “wanted” for their SNES.

In late 1991, Galoob Toys released the Game Genie, which infuriated Nintendo. The device allowed players to cheat in NES games and win more easily. Nintendo saw the Game Genie as a tool that reduced the long-term value of its games, and it attempted to prevent Game Genie sales. The Game Genie was the first “cheat card” accessory for a console. These have survived even to now, despite the console manufacturers disliking them, in the form of the Xplorer and others.

In spite of Nintendo being intensely competitive during the fifth generation, many mistakes on their part left their reputation tarnished. Rumours of a SNES CD system and other vapourware reduced much of the esteem for Nintendo that the consumer had during previous years.
Ultimately, during the last few years of the fifth generation, as the industry started booming about the forthcoming sixth generation and its 32-bit hardware, Nintendo attempted one last ditch effort to reign the 16-bit market. Designers and programmers worked overtime to push the SNES beyond the established limits. The war was not just with the hardware, however. In 1992, Street Fighter II kicked off the fighting game craze on the consoles, just as it had in the arcades. In 1993, Mortal Kombat hit home along with Street Fighter II Turbo. A year later, an uncensored version of Mortal Kombat was released onto the SNES, which helped propel Nintendo ahead in the battle against the Genesis.

An unprecedented deal was struck with Rare, a long-time contractor with the Pentagon that produced several big hit games. In 1994, Nintendo unveiled the Rare developed Donkey Kong Country, whose Advanced Computer Modelling wowed the crowds. The game went on to sell more than 9 million copies worldwide, cementing Nintendo’s lead in the battle and paving the way for two hit sequels. Games being released on the SNES were popular (Zelda, Mario, Metroid…) but none were as amazingly successful as those of the 8-bit era, and the SNES did not dominate the market as the NES had.

Today, many debate which system actually “won” the 16-bit wars. During the final two years, the SNES had sold more systems than the Genesis (barely), but there have been far more Genesis systems purchased since 1989. Some say that because the SNES came from behind (competing with a system that had been firmly established for two years) it deserves the honour. Others say that because the Genesis (with its older technology) was able to supply heated competition to the younger SNES it should be the winner. However, if all of these arguments are considered together, it becomes evident that neither system “beat” the other, and that this era benefited greatly from the multi-system market.

Having said this, it is widely considered by most gamers that the SNES was a better console with better games than the Genesis. It is home to games such as Final Fantasy VI, Street Fighter II Turbo, Chrono Trigger, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Super Mario World and many, many more games hugely popular even today.

But, then there’s always the what-if’s. What if Nintendo didn’t back out of their proposed agreement with Sony to create and market a hybrid SNES/SNES CD System xalled, ironically, “The Playstation”? The deal was virtually complete when Nintendo decided to quietly withdraw from the project on the very morning it was going to be revealed to the gaming world. This probably made Sony a tad angry, leading them to eventually construct their own console (the PlayStation we all know and love) which went on to beat the crap out of Nintendo’s next console, the N64. So, enough on that, what if Nintendo hadn’t backed out? The PlayStation we know now probably wouldn’t have existed, and half the games on it certainly wouldn’t. The N64 may not have been created, and if it was, it would have been a CD-based system. Square (the most critical third party due to their huge influence in Japan – and subject to much controversy after leaving Nintendo for Sony) may have stuck with Nintendo, for better or for worse. Hell, a 3D version of Final Fantasy VI was very much in the works, and I’ve seen screenshots to prove it! If this had happened, then chances are Nintendo would have continued their monopolistic reign in Japan, and Sony may have been working under the Imagesoft label still. And as for Sega? Well if Sony alone could beat the Saturn, then a Sega-Sony hybrid would flatten it like a paper cup. All in all, things have worked out well for everyone (except Sega). But who knows what would have happened if Nintendo hadn’t been so stubborn with keeping with the dated cartridge format for the N64? Perhaps Square would never have left them, and FFVII would have been so much different, and would the follow-ups even have existed in their current state?

Well, that’s all from me. It’s been fun revisiting a world where Micheal Jackson topped the charts, where ET made people cry, Tom Selleck was adored by everyone’s mother, console graphics were blocky, kids cried “Kowabunga!” and dressed up as turtles wearing bandannas, a certain yellow dysfunctional family were taking the world by storm and Sony made everything but game consoles. I won’t write an article on the next generation, as you know what happens. The rest, as they say, is history.

-- GaZZwa