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  • On Game Design: A History of Video Games

    [01.11.07]
    - Jason Weesner
  •  The Nintendo Days

    Roughly translated from Japanese, Nintendo means "Leave Luck to Heaven". Nintendo was founded in 1889 to make Hanafuda ("Hana" means flower); a popular Japanese card game based on flowers. In the 1980's, Nintendo enjoyed a great amount of success with arcade games like Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. In 1983, Nintendo released a home gaming console in Japan called the Famicom (Family Computer) along with ports of their successful arcade titles. By the end of 1984, the Famicom was a huge success in Japan and Nintendo began to make plans for distribution in North America.

    The great video game crash officially ended in 1985 which happened to be the same year that Nintendo introduced the Famicom to North America under the name of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). With Magnavox, Coleco, and Mattel out of the videogame market and Atari struggling with the Atari 5200, the game hardware industry shifted from America to Japan with the ensuing success of the NES. One of the biggest components of Nintendo's success was the introduction of a quality assurance program which assured that any games for the system had been tested and approved by Nintendo. This program helped to solve the problem of poor quality software which had burned consumers in the past and greatly contributed to the great video game crash. Over the course of its lifetime (Nintendo discontinued the NES in 1995), the NES sold more than 50 Million units and over 350 million games making it one of the most successful game consoles of all time. Here are some quick Nintendo factoids:

    • Gunpei Yokoi was hired in 1965. He would go on to co create Mario and Donkey Kong as well as creating Kid Icarus, Metroid, and the GameBoy. He died in 1997 in a car crash shortly after leaving Nintendo and the failure of the Virtual Boy.
    • Shigeru Miyamoto (arguably one of the most famous video game designers on the planet) was hired as an artist in 1977 and co created Donkey Kong with Gunpei Yokoi in 1980. Miyamoto also created the Legend Of Zelda. The Famicom (Nintendo NES) was released in 1983.
    • Mario was originally named Jump Man.
    • The NES cost $199 at launch.


    The original 8 bit Nintendo Famicom system which
    doesn't look much like its North American incarnation!

    Nintendo wasn't the only player in town during the mid-80's. The SG-1000 Mark III sounds like one of Speed Racer's cars, but it was actually the only other major competitor to the NES. In 1986, Sega released its SG-1000 Mark III in North America as the Sega Master System. Although the SMS was technically superior to the NES, Nintendo had exclusive agreements with most of the large software publishing houses which meant that the SMS had a much smaller library to choose from and fewer high profile titles. Regardless of the SMS failure, Sega would soon come out with a product that would usher in a new era and dethrone the NES. How about some quick Sega factoids?

    • Sega stands for SErvice GAmes.
    • Sega was founded in Hawaii in 1940 to provide amusement games to American Servicemen, but made the majority of its money in Japan from photo booths.
    • Sega's first arcade game was a submarine simulator called Periscope which was released in 1965.
    • The Sega Master System sold 13 million units over its lifetime.
    • Alex Kidd was the first Sega mascot.
    • Nintendo had 90% of the game market, so Sega eventually gave North American distribution rights to Tonka (toy truck maker).


    Sega's ill-fated Saturn console. As far as game systems go, it's the king of 2D gaming, but, ultimately, lost out to a new generation of 3D games available on competing consoles.

    16-Bit Era

    Before we dive into an exciting and transitional period in home gaming history, it's probably a good time to make the distinction between 8-bit and 16-bit. These terms refer to a computer processor's ability to address information. An 8-bit CPU can address 8 bits of data in a single operation while a 16-bit CPU can address 16 bits of data in a single operation. In simple terms, the more data a CPU can process per operation, the more powerful the game system is. We'll go into greater detail in a future article.

    The Sega Mega Drive was released in Japan in 1988. In 1989, Sega released the Mega Drive in North America as the Sega Genesis at a cost of $199. The Sega Genesis came with a pack-in cartridge called Altered Beast which was a near perfect port of the Sega arcade hit. At the time of the Genesis' debut, Nintendo still commanded up to 90% of the American videogame market, so Sega made a concentrated effort to release more sophisticated, edgy titles like the Phantasy Star series and Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic the Hedgehog became Sega's mascot in 1991 and the series went on to sell over 44 million copies! The Genesis' superior graphics and sound combined with a hipness that skewed to an older audience which enabled Sega to take a chunk out of Nintendo's market share.

    The successor to the NES was the 16-bit Super Famicom which was released in Japan in 1990. Several months later, Nintendo released the North American version of the Super Famicom as the Super Nintendo for $199. The Super Nintendo offered a slight increase in performance over the Sega Genesis, but also became the home to a lot of arcade hits (Street Fighter made its home debut on the SNES) as well as some very famous RPG's like Square's Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger.

    A third contender in the 16-bit era was NEC's PC Engine. The PC Engine came in a variety of formats, but, most importantly, was the first home console to have CD-based games. The PC Engine enjoyed a great deal of success in Japan, so NEC released it's North American counterpart, the Turbografx, in 1987. Even though it came out before either the SNES or the Genesis, poor North American marketing and a small library of games killed it before it could make a dent in the 16-bit market. In retrospect, the Turbografx was ahead of its time especially when it came to CD-based software. Games like Y's featured fully animated cinematics, CD quality sound (music AND speech!) and a considerably bigger game experience due to the increased storage capacity of the CD over the traditional cartridge.

    But wait! There was actually a fourth 16-bit home console that enjoyed a moderate amount of success even thought it was never really a contender. SNK (Shin Nihon Kikaku is Japanese for "New Japan Project.") Playmore was founded in 1978 and produced a string of arcade hits: Vanguard, Athena, and Ikari Warriors. In 1989, SNK debuted a cartridge-based arcade system called the Neo-Geo MVS (Multi-Video System) which featured a wide variety of fighters, sports titles, and shooters that were arcade quality and cost about $500 each. The Neo-Geo home system was release in 1990 at a cost of $649. Later, the system was reintroduced with CD's instead of cartridges which lowered the price of the software. Most of the hit SNK titles for the Neo-Geo were Street Fighter style brawlers like Samurai Shodown, Fatal Fury, and Art Of Fighting.

    Towards the end of the 16-Bit era, both Sega and Sony tried out various upgrades to prolong the shelf life of their consoles. Sega introduced the Sega CD which ended up as a dumping ground for poor quality, full motion video titles like Night Trap and Ground Zero Texas and ports of cartridge-based games with shoddy cinematics tacked on. On a personal note, I was especially bummed by the lack of quality software since I had to take out a line of credit in order to pay close to $400 for the damn thing! Sega also introduced a "32-bit" (in reality a 16-bit add on to the Sega Genesis processor) called the 32X which died a quick death with only a few titles in its library. Nintendo approached both Phillips and Sony to produce a CD add-on for the SNES. Unfortunately (for Nintendo), they ended up choosing Phillips which ultimately left the scorned Sony to create one of the most successful home consoles of all time.

    The importance of the switch to CD-based software can't be stressed enough. Prior to the advent of the CD as a medium for game development, games were limited in scope by the size of the cartridge they came on. While some of the larger cartridges like Strider for the Sega Genesis reached sizes of 8 megabits (8 million bits = 1 million bits per megabit), a single CD could hold up to 650 megabytes (5452595200 bits = 8,388,608 bits per megabyte)! In future articles, we'll take a closer look at just what bigger and better storage capacity means to video game design and production.

    The "Next" Generation

    The next generation of home consoles was initially defined by three big hardware manufacturers and later joined by a large software developer. We've already talked a bit about Nintendo and Sega, but the king of the first couple of rounds of the next generation wars was ultimately Sony and their revolutionary Playstation. Sony originally had a deal with Nintendo to produce a CD add on to the Super Nintendo, but when Nintendo pulled out of the deal (which their lawyers said favored Sony too much) to sign a deal exclusively with Phillips, Sony decided to develop their own home console.

    Towards the end of the 16-bit era, one of the growing trends in gaming was 3D (polygons and textures) which gave games a greater level of immersion and realism. 3D had been used to great effect in arcades (Battlezone, Star Wars Arcade) as early as 1980 and on home computers since the early flight simulators back in the late 1970's. In the early 1990's, Sega introduced Yu Suzuki's Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing which revolutionized the genres of fighting and racing games. In 1994, Sony released the Playstation 1 which was the first home console to be built around 3D graphics and gaming. Here are some quick Sony facts:

    • 1986: work started with Nintendo on a CD based console.
    • 1991: Nintendo CD announced at CES (precursor to E3).
    • 1994: Playstation 1 launched. $299. 102 million units shipped.
    • 1997: Sony introduces the Dualshock controller which featured dual analog sticks and, later, a force feedback rumble feature.
    • 2000: Playstation 2 launched. $299. 106 million units shipped.
    • 2006: Playstation 3 launch. $499

    Each generation of Playstation has built upon the foundations of the previous generation with improving graphics and sound as well as greatly improved storage capabilities. The first Playstation was CD based. The Playstation 2 was DVD based. The Playstation 3 has adopted a new media format called Blueray which supports high definition video and even more storage capability than DVD. In future articles we'll talk about the various formats as well as some of the more noteworthy titles that have been released for the different models of Playstation.

    In 1993, Nintendo debuted Star Fox for the Super Nintendo which used a special Super FX chip to power rough 3D graphics and game play. In 1994, Nintendo partnered up with Silicon Graphics to produce the Ultra 64 hardware which powered two 3D arcade games: Cruisin' USA and Killer Instinct. By 1996, the Ultra 64 hardware was available in the form of a home console called the Nintendo 64 with Mario 64 as a pack-in cartridge. Mario 64 was not only the first title to come out on the N64, but also one of the finest examples of 3D platform game play ever created. Camera, controls (Nintendo's analog joypad), and incredibly consistent level layout and game mechanics redefined the genre and opened the doors for future titles in the genre like Spyro, Ratchet & Clank, and Jak & Daxter. In 2001, Nintendo introduced the Gamecube which marked the end of Nintendo's cartridge days in favor of a mini-disc format and 3D graphics that were comparable to the Playstation 2.

    • 1996: Nintendo debuts the N64 for $199. 32 million units sold.
    • 2001: the Gamecube hits the shelves for $199. 21 million units sold.
    • 2006: the Wii debuts in November of 2006 featuring only a slight performance upgrade over the Gamecube, but a revolutionary control scheme that targets a mass market, casual audience.

    The start of the 16-bit era was the also the start of the decline of Sega as a hardware manufacturer and their ultimate transition into a software publisher / developer only. After the success of the Sega Genesis, Sega's first response to the oncoming threat of Sony's Playstation was an add-on for the Genesis called the 32X. The 32X featured its own processors that piggybacked onto the Genesis' hardware and provided rough 3D game play similar in style to Sega's first 3D arcade games (Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter). Shortly after, Sega debuted the true successor to the Genesis called the Sega Saturn. In comparison to the Playstation, the Saturn was underpowered in the 3D department, but was a real powerhouse in the 2D department. Unfortunately, 2D style games were quickly becoming a dinosaur in comparison to newer 3D titles like Toshinden, Ridge Racer, and Wipeout which were all initially exclusive releases for the Playstation. The Saturn quietly died over the next few years until it was retired and Sega released its final home console; the Dreamcast. Though the Dreamcast was a vastly superior machine in comparison to the Playstation, Sony's dominance of the market left little room for any competitors and, as a result, Sega bowed out of the hardware market in 2001 to concentrate exclusively on software for multiple platforms.

    • 1995: the Sega Saturn appears on store shelves at a cost of $399. It goes on to sell 10 million units.
    • 1998: the Sega Dreamcast debuts at $199 and sells 10 million units over its lifetime.

    In 2001, Microsoft jumped into the next generation console wars with their introduction of the Xbox. The Xbox was not only graphically superior to the Playstation, but also featured an internal hard drive and access to a robust online multiplayer network called Xbox Live. The Xbox debuted at $299 and went on to sell over 24 million units in its lifetime which put Microsoft firmly in second place between Sony and Nintendo. In 2005, the successor to the Xbox, the Xbox 360 debuted to usher in the third round of next generation consoles to compete with the Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii.

    So there we have a "quick" tour the history of the home console. Some of you may be grousing at this point that I've skipped all the handheld gaming systems, but I'll actually cover these in a future article. As it stands, almost all of the consoles I've mentioned are important in one way or another even if they aren't readily available anymore. Luckily for the budding video game designer, recent years have seen extensive selections of the software libraries for these home consoles released on a variety of compilations for most of the current generation of home consoles. Computer based emulators also do an admirable job of emulating just about every home console and game ever created!

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