By Greg Newbegin
Welcome to part five of our feature covering the history of video game consoles. Again, let me clarify the dates we've chosen - we've defined each generation as lasting from the release of the first system, to the release of the first system of the following generation (therefore, it's not reflecting lifecycle, just the length of time that each generation was the most advanced).
Stick with us over the next few weeks (only a couple more to go!) as we cover off the difference between console generations—we’ll take a look at what’s changed and what hasn’t from a general perspective, as well as what was going down in the market at the time. Hopefully this will provide some insight into where we are at currently. That said, some of what was happening in the larger electronic entertainment market may well apply, but don’t be TOO despondent if we only gloss over something you’re really interested in.
Note: This series was written with the assistance of Noel Wheatley, the Stevivor.com TopGeek (@furysevensix), whose vast knowledge of videogame history and large collection of vintage and retro consoles are, in our opinion, second to none.
Generation 5: 1993-1998
In our last article, we mentioned the 32X peripheral for the Mega Drive. However, we did gloss over a couple of pertinent facts—for that we apologise. (This was mostly for the flow and content of that particular article.) In reality, the 32X was released in 1994 as a result of first fifth generation machines, which came to market in 1993. The 32-bit era had begun, and Sega wanted a piece of it straight away - the idea was that the many Mega Drive/Genesis owners would happily fork out for a lower-priced peripheral than for a high-priced new console. Of course, with the Mega CD (which was released the year prior), as well as announcements regarding potentially two new Sega systems, Sega had saturated their own market, shooting themselves in the foot in the process…
So… what prompted this frantic rush to market? On one hand, there were a couple of new 32-bit systems released in 1993 (in fact, the fifth generation saw the release of the most number of different systems since the early 80s), but more than that, there was a bit of a wildcard. Atari had returned to the fold.
As you may have noticed, Atari sat out of the 4th generation. They had focused on their portable—the Atari Lynx—and had tried to collaborate on a couple of projects, none of which actually resulted in anything going to market. However, they had also started some internal development—one team was working on a 32-bit machine codenamed Panther, and the other on a 64-bit machine to be released in the late 90s. Given the rapid successes achieved by the team developing the 64-bit machine, the former was scrapped, and the 64-bit machine was released as the Atari Jaguar in 1993.
There were, however, several issues. Atari had not taken the recent controller developments into account and released the system with a three-button controller – that said, it did include a number of buttons that could allow for individualised overlays much like those seen in the second generation. In addition, though, Atari had created a cartridge-based machine at a time when systems were tending towards CD. While this was not necessarily a problem (as you’ll see – they weren’t the only company to take this approach), the sincerity of the claim to 64-bit also came into question (while the system architecture was 64-bit, most processors were 32-bit or less) and as a result the system never ended up doing well. Atari finally bowed out of the console market only two short years later (poor availability didn’t help either)…
Also in 1993, Amiga released a home console – the Amiga CD32. It came as a surprise to many that the PC powerhouse would try their hand at the home console, but a lack of support meant the system only ended up selling 100,00 units worldwide (less than half of what even the failed Jaguar sold), and the CD32 faded away into obscurity. Similarly, 1993 saw the release of the FM Towns Marty in Japan – while it never made it across the seas, it finds its place in this article as the first 32-bit machine, given its release in February (the CD32 was released in September, and the Jaguar in November).
There was, in the ‘90s, a great deal more hullaballoo around another new player, though. Potentially some of the biggest buzz ever seen in regards to a console release (particularly impressive as this wasn’t an existing market player), the 3DO was released in October 1993. It was brought about in part by Trip Hawkins of EA, who was looking to circumvent the restrictions that hardware manufacturers put on third-party developers, as well as to reduce the royalties paid. His idea was to decentralise the hardware in order to make the software developers the stars – the machine was really just a means to an end. In addition, the system was the first to use standard AV/S-video cables, and could also utilise any controller with a 9-pin connector. An admirable goal; however, without being able to subsidise certain costs, 3DO manufacturers (including Panasonic, Sanyo and Goldstar) found they had to price the machine quite high in order to maintain some margin. Nintendo and Sega didn’t have this issue as they made their money on software royalties, and often sold the hardware at a loss – or at least at cost. As a result of the exorbitant pricing, the 3DO also failed to make the impact its marketing strategy expected, still managing to sell 2 million units before being discontinued in 1996.
Given the success of Nintendo and Sega in the fourth generation, clearly there were a number of parties interested in claiming a cut. For the most part, many of these newly introduced machines failed, as outlined above (there was even collaboration between Apple and Bandai called the Pippin… Needless to say, it was a disaster). However, one of these systems—born from the failed partnership between two major technology manufacturers—went on to take the industry by storm.
Cast your memory back to our last article, and recall the paragraph on the attempted collaboration between Nintendo and Sony. Bitter from the turn of events, Sony decided to capitalise on their hard work – they had a working prototype after all. There were a number of hurdles to be jumped in terms of legal battles with Nintendo (regarding naming rights and Nintendo’s breach of contract), but Sony managed to shake off these hindrances, announcing the US release of “PlayStation” at the very first Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 1995 (the system had been released in Japan in December 1994, and was released in September 1995).
The PlayStation saw almost instant success, with publishers and third-parties impressed by its technical capabilities, and consumers impressed by the technology itself. In a similar manner to Sega’s approach with the Mega Drive, Sony targeted a more mature audience. The CD-based system could also play music CDs, and the system was priced extremely competitively (around half of what the 3DO was released at). In addition, Sony was aiming to release the PlayStation worldwide in 1995, and manufactured the system in large numbers—they didn’t want to face the problems their competitors faced with poor retail availability. The system went on to be the first home console to sell over 100 million units, and was finally discontinued 11 long years later.
The PlayStation controller button layout was similar to that of the SNES, but Sony had sculpted the controller to more comfortably fit a player’s hands—this particular style has remained unchanged through several revisions, and in some ways is representative of the PlayStation brand. Given advances elsewhere in the industry, Sony later released a new version of the controller, dubbed the “DualShock” – this new controller included force feedback (vibration) and two front facing thumbsticks for analogue control, something that was to quickly overtake the d-pad in terms of popularity, as it provided far more precision.
Released just prior to PlayStation in 1995 was Sega’s new machine, the Sega Saturn. Announced in 1994 along with the 32X, Sega had confused the market and the Saturn never sold well. The 32-bit machine utilised CDs and came with a controller that closely resembled the Arcade Pad for the Mega Drive. Although the system was quite powerful, its complicated architecture meant that it never received the developer attention that previous Sega machines had. Strangely, the system also contained a cartridge slot – not necessarily for gaming experiences, but more for expansion by way of RAM modules or memory cartridges. Seeing their prior strength weakening in poor Saturn sales, Sega knew something had to be done, and put the development wheels in motion. The Saturn was discontinued after only three years, having sold 9.5 million units worldwide.
Late to the party, but never ignored, Nintendo had been building up hype around their forthcoming console under the monikers “Project Reality” and “Ultra 64” since 1993—announced as a “true 64-bit machine” under partnership with Silicon Graphics. Not long after, Rare’s Killer Instinct and Acclaim’s Cruis’n USA were released to arcades, both claiming to use Ultra 64 architecture – although the reality was this wasn’t necessarily the case. They were impressive titles, however, and were considered reference points for the new Nintendo system.
An interesting point to note, however, is that Rare used the same techniques applied to the development of Killer Instinct to create another title—Donkey Kong Country—which was released for SNES in 1994. It was to bring about a second wind for the SNES, reportedly becoming the second best-selling SNES title while also being one of the last.
In 1995, at Nintendo’s irregularly held trade show in Tokyo, Japan (which is held… whenever the hell Nintendo wants to hold it), the new 64-bit system was finally put on display under its final name – the Nintendo 64 (N64).
Contrary to the rest of the market, the N64 was a cartridge-based machine, primarily as Nintendo had already seen what Sony was facing in terms of piracy. While this was a positive for Nintendo, it did somewhat hamstring the company – given the reduced capacity of the cartridges in comparison to CDs, as well as the increased cost to manufacture. As a result, despite its popularity, N64 only sold about a third of what the PlayStation sold, totalling around 32 million in its lifetime.
What the N64 did bring to market, however, was innovation in terms of its controller. It was the first controller to include an analogue control stick (Sony’s DualShock controllers were initially released in 1998), and the controller layout was really quite radical, including a rear trigger when using the control stick. Still, given that games were tending towards 3D, the controller made perfect sense.
Nintendo also released one other machine during this generation. Not QUITE a handheld, and not exactly a console, we were unsure whether to include it here or not… Regardless, the Nintendo Virtual Boy was a humungous failure, selling less than one million units. With little support, few titles, and terrible graphical capabilities, the Virtual Boy was little more than a footnote in the fifth generation.
Seemingly unhindered by the competition, Sony’s PlayStation powered on through the late 1990s. As a result of this new player, and their own recent loss of market share, Sega reacted by releasing a new machine only three years after the release of their Saturn (which was in turn discontinued). A new generation was born – one that didn’t care how many bits were being pushed.
Primary Changes from Generation 4 to Generation 5
GEN4: cartridge-based systems
- GEN5: CD-based systems
GEN4: primarily RF video/audio connection
- GEN5: introduction of AV/S-video as standard
INTRODUCED: Requirement for memory cards (based on uptake of CD storage media)
INTRODUCED: Rumble (as add-on packs for controllers, initially)
INTRODUCED: Multimedia functionality
POPULARISED: 3D environments in games
FIRST E3 (1995) AND TOKYO GAME SHOW (1996) IN THIS GENERATION