The console wars, back to the 16bit era

On: October 29, 2010
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About Frank Molenaar
Born in 1986, Frank graduated from Stedelijk Gymnasium Arnhem in 2005. After a year off studying art history at the Vrije Universiteit decided to join the Media and Culture New Media department. For his bachelorproject he worked for Westergasfabriek to create a GPS game based in the Westerpark. Very sceptical and highly nostalgic, Frank is an avid doomsday specialist, conspiracy theorist and classic nintendo game collector. Also served in the salvation army as m60 machine gun operator. Enjoys: Orwell, Adams, Thompson, Vonnegut

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Bits. Eight of them or sixteen meant a world of difference to me when I was a kid. I didn’t know what a bit was and actually I still don’t. I tried looking it up but it’s a very tech savvy story I will never be able to reproduce here myself. But luckily it doesn’t appear to matter anymore since modern day consoles don’t seem to be marketed by their number of bits anymore. The whole competition of todays home consoles fought out between Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo is the seventh console war being fought out. However, should we still speak of a war? I mean, of course they’re competing for market share but they’re hardly actually fighting for it like in ye olden days of the 8 and 16 bit generation wars I was just remeniscing about. Just look at this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaVsmnpEtE0

Okay so it’s funny but it’s got nothing to do with the other systems. Remember SEGA’s commercials back in the day? You were a loser if you were still playing Nintendo. Nintendo was for kids, SEGA was awesome. Because SEGA had blast processing:

So yeah, Blast processing! Now, 17 years later we still don’t know what blast processing was supposed to mean. Bits may be a difficult concept but blast processing actually doesn’t seem to mean anything. According to SEGA’s commercial it does but apparently we, as kids, were all tricked. It has no technological meaning in any way, whatsoever. It does nothing but tricking the minds of little children into wanting to buy this hot air.

Okay let’s back up here for a bit and assess the situation. SEGA was in trouble. Their previous machine, the SEGA master system, had lost the battle from Nintendo’s Famicon in the eighties. While the worldwide sales figure of the Nintendo Entertainment System lies over 60 million units, SEGA’s counterpart only managed to sell 13 million. Graphically the systems didn’t differ much but Nintendo had access to a bigger pool of developers since they were the market leader and banned third party developers to work together with other systems. This lack of games led to decreasing sales figures for the Master System which in turn led to fewer game releases etc. etc.

This  is something very important in this war but also in the ones that followed it because this concept of exclusive games is something that didn´t exist before. For example: Every company was allowed to make games for the Atari 2600 and did you know you can plug in a SEGA Megadrive (1990) controller into an Atari 2600 (1977) and it will work? The market for videogames and consoles was an open one where every manufacturer and developer could try their luck and all sorts of things would be compatible with one another. Then after the video game crash of 1983 and the dominance of Nintendo following that these things changed and it became a very tough market for competitors with small market share.

SEGA knew it had to change strategies so when the MegaDrive (Genesis in the US) was launched they hired a new CEO and charged at Nintendo with aggressive campaigns and a very North-America oriented line of arcade games usually promoted by some American sports hero: Joe Montana Football and Arnold Palmer Tournament Golf are good examples of this. However these steps were not enough to really threaten Nintendo’s dominance over the market, mainly because gamers were not seeing the significant difference in graphics SEGA’s blast processing had promised them. The company then had to follow up their promises and hurried the production of the three nails that eventually sealed their videogame coffin.

The first was the SEGA cd an add-on for the Megadrive/Genesis and for many gamers the first experience they had with a cd operated console. The storage capacity of cd’s was much greater than that of cartridges and one cd could easilly fit hundreds of original Megadrive games on one but, as the system was hurried along there was no developer yet trying to program games that big so SEGA opted for “full motion video” games where actual filmed footage would serve as the game. However, as the Megadrives CPU was graphically incapable of displaying video it usually looked very grainy and the size of the screen would be reduced to one fifth of the original size. Some decent games were released but nothing shocking came of the SEGA-cd and in combination with their renewed ad it became another big failure.

Now instead of focussing on their new game system – the Saturn – they made another add-on for the Megadrive: The 32x, one of the biggest marketing failures ever in video game history. Also, the Saturn was due to release 6 months after the release of the 32x. In summary, SEGA made a mess of the 16bit wars and promised gamers mountains of gold but couldn’t follow through. It’s a perfect analogy to say Genesis does what Nintendon’t if you look at their marketing stategies. The leader sits quietly at the top and let’s SEGA go ahead and kill itself.

It’s been fifteen years and you know what? SEGA is making games for Nintendo. Yes, Sonic on a Nintendo platform alongside his longtime rival Mario. If you told people that in 1995 they’d have put you away, I’m dead sure. I really like the analogy to the Apple vs. Microsoft debate I went into in an earlier post. Compare Apple’s agressive commercials to SEGA´s a decade and a half ago. Claiming all sorts of technical superiorities that are very difficult (if at all possible) to pinpoint technically and trying to dethrone king Gates from computerland? What can Apple learn from SEGA or will we soon see Apple programming for Microsoft as well? Let’s find out.

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