Dark Horse Ensemble

I’m going to be completely honest here: lately, I’ve been feeling a little burnt out in some ways when it comes to modern gaming. Not enough to drop the habit entirely, as I did during the sixth generation, but the feelings of nostalgia I felt back then have bubbled back up to the surface, albeit for different reasons. Instead of the simple statement that “games back in the old games were, like, a billion times better!” (ah, the simplicity of adolescence!), these feelings are a bit more introspective. Instead, what I long for were the paradigm shifts of yore: when every electronics company tried to break into the video game console market, when big-name companies would actually publish the weird experimental games you only see as indies nowadays, back when computer games and video games were completely different things. Back when, at least from my perspective, video games were in their “wild west” period: an era where a plucky Hanafuda card company could break into the scene and take over the entire video game market, only to be toppled down the line by the company that brought us Betamax.

Originally, I was going to write a single article to attempt to flush out my nostalgia into something worthwhile. However, just due to how nebulous everything I’m talking about is and the fact that the original concept could only come across as a bitter rant from a nostalgic millennial, I was advised to split it into two articles instead. This time, we’ll be focusing on the hardware side of things – stay tuned for the software side of things sometime soon.

Since the sixth generation, the first-party gaming companies have been, shall we say, set in stone: Nintendo, which emerged all the way back during the third generation of gaming; Sony, which burst onto the scene during the fifth in an act of unbridled revenge on the former; and wacky PC company Microsoft sliding into the sixth generation, effectively taking over for the departing Sega. In previous generations, however, there were several pretenders to the throne – even back when people would have you believe there were even less choices. Now this article won’t be, by any means, comprehensive: instead, owing to the nostalgic origin of this piece, I’ll be writing about the systems I can remember most vividly.

First, let’s start with something a bit less obscure: the Sega Master System. Released in North America in 1986, the Master System was Sega’s first console released outside of Japan – it was known as the Mark III in its country of origin, being preceded by both the SG-1000 and the SG-1000 II, technically making it Sega’s third console overall. Now obviously, the Master System didn’t do such a great job breaking into the American market (as evidenced by the fact that what most people referred to as a “Sega” was generally the Genesis/MegaDrive), it did manage to break into a very profitable niche both in Europe and Latin America, especially Brazil. Regardless, the system sold well enough worldwide for Sega to continue tinkering with console hardware, before releasing their magnum opus: the aforementioned Genesis. While I personally had no experience with the Master System itself, it still manages to hold a special place in my heart: after all, the first video game system I ever owned was Sega’s Game Gear, which was effectively a portable (and significantly more popular) Master System.

Speaking of the Game Gear, here’s a fun fact: it wasn’t even the first handheld console to serve up games in color. Predating Sega’s slimmest handheld by two years in North America, The Atari Lynx was not only the first Atari system to be named after a wildcat, it was also surprisingly long-lived, being sold all the way into 1995. Cheaper and more power efficient than the Game Gear that would push it into obscurity, the Lynx’s Achilles’ heel was critical: it had an absolutely miniscule library of games, only managing to hit 75 official releases by the time the console was discontinued. That means that for its entire lifespan (from 1989 to 1995), the Lynx averaged roughly 12 and a half games a year. The main game I remember from the console was, bafflingly, a port of Ninja Gaiden III from the NES, though it had a respectable amount of ports, such as Robotron 2084, Ms. Pac-Man, Hard Drivin’, Pit Fighter, Double Dragon and bafflingly, the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden.

Another interesting factoid generally lost on most of us was the fact that the Sega Genesis was released in North America in August 1989, thus officially starting the fourth generation of video games for the Western hemisphere. Of course, many people would think that the Genesis would have to wait until the Super Nintendo was released in 1991 for some real competition, but you’d be wrong. The ultimate in also-rans, the TurboGrafx-16, released by Turbo Technologies Inc. (or TTI, for short), was released the same year as the Genesis in North America, but actually predated it in Japan: the MegaDrive was released in 1988, while the NEC’s PC-Engine (the TurboGrafx’s Japanese counterpart) was released the previous year. NEC’s little wonder console would also manage to beat Sega to many other milestones as well. The most notable of these would have to be the TurboGrafx-CD, released in North America in 1989, an add-on unit akin to the Sega CD. There was also 1992’s TurboDuo, which combined the CD into the base unit and beefed up the system specs as well. In addition, TTI (a joint venture of NEC and primary developer Hudson Soft) released the Super System Card by mail order, which upgraded existing TurboGrafx-CDs to the same specs as the TurboDuo.

Of course, perhaps the most amazing thing about the TurboGrafx-16 was its mascot: not platformer mascot Bonk (or PC Genjin, as he was known in Japan), I’m talking about Johnny Turbo. Truly a product of the halcyon age of the ‘90s, Johnny Turbo was the totally rad alter ego of computer expert Johnathan Brandstetter who fought against the evil alien overlords over at “FEKA” who were spreading lies about how the TurboDuo wasn’t the first CD-based game system on the market. Needless to say, the TurboGrafx-16 was generally considered a loser outside of its country of origin, mainly due to the fact that the base system was weaker than the Sega Genesis (which from our perspective, came out first) and that many of the best games the system had to offer were strictly Japan-only releases, leaving us with less recognizable games and some truly abysmal Western-developed releases. The ironic thing about this was that, in Japan, the MegaDrive was actually the third most popular system of its generation, effectively being trounced by the PC-Engine and its countless off-shoots.

However, perhaps the most incredible thing to come out of the TurboGrafx experiment was the TurboExpress. Released a whopping 4 years before Sega’s own portable Genesis the Nomad, the TurboExpress was a fully functional portable TurboGrafx-16 that could play all of the TG-16’s games. It also had a TV tuner, which allowed owners to transform the TurboExpress into a portable TV, much like the Game Gear had and even offered a link cable to allow for two-player play. In fact, a few TurboGrafx-16 games even had unique multiplayer modes for the TurboExpress.

Next up, we come to what was perhaps the biggest loser of any of the consoles I’ll be talking about in this article: the 3DO. Conceived by EA founder Trip Hawkins and developed by the aptly named 3DO company, the 3DO wasn’t so much a console as it was a series of specifications. Panasonic manufactured the first units back in 1993, but both Sanyo and GoldStar (later LG) would begin producing their own models in 1994. In essence, it was effectively the predecessor to Valve’s current model for its Steam Machines. The 3DO was a technological powerhouse back when it was initially released in 1993. Unfortunately, it was also launched at a whopping $699. Likewise, the game’s library generally consisted of some fairly unwieldy PC ports though there were a few gems on it. My main memory of the 3DO was playing Super Street Fighter II Turbo on it at a short-lived game shop near my house and I was literally blown away: my young mind was so impressed because while the Genesis and SNES couldn’t handle Super Turbo, this behemoth could! Unfortunately, developers never really adapted to the hardware and by the time both the PS1 and Saturn came out, the 3DO’s impressive technology had aged like an internet meme. It just couldn’t compete and bowed out entirely in 1996. 3DO did plan a successor, dubbed the M2, but eventually bowed out of the market and sold the concept to Panasonic who eventually abandoned their planned concept. The technology lived on in ATMs and coffee vending machines and Konami would also license its use to build an arcade board in the late 1990s.

Speaking of expensive powerhouses, what list would be complete without the NeoGeo Advanced Entertainment System. Now, while I’m sure most gamers are at least marginally aware of the NeoGeo Multi Video System, a proprietary arcade board built by SNK, substantially less should be familiar with its home console variant. Released in 1990 at a whopping $649.99, The NeoGeo AES was quite literally worth the price of admission, as it had the exact same specs and library as the MVS. Think about that, you could literally play arcade-perfect versions of arcade games from the comfort of your home at a mere $200 and without the hassle of trying to stash multiple arcade machines in your garage or basement. Of course, while the AES didn’t enjoy mainstream success, it did have a dedicated fanbase and an extremely long lifespan, with the last title being released in 2004. Then there’s the NeoGeo CD, released in 1994 at a much more reasonable $399, with games costing $50 apiece. Unfortunately, the NGCD was marred by extremely long load times, though the Japan-exclusive NeoGeo CDZ doubled its disc-read speed and its last game was released in 1999. The NeoGeo CD did have its fair share of exclusive titles however, the most well-known being Samurai Shodown RPG, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Last but not least, I’ll be talking about the also-ran that’s the closest to my heart. The one system on this list, I not only own, but owned while it was still alive and kicking. Despite relative success in the arcade and enthusiast gaming markets, SNK decided to branch out even further – into the handheld market. The Neo Geo Pocket was originally only released in Japan as a black-and-white handheld, but its successor, the Neo Geo Pocket Color saw a much wider release, including North America. A simple system to say the least, the NGPC was unique in many ways. It had the best selection of fighting games on a handheld EVER (yes, I’d say it’s even better than the Vita in that respect), but it also managed to push SNK out of their arcade-style comfort zone, allowing them to develop more refined gameplay experiences: classic turn-based RPGs like Card Fighters’ Clash and Biomotor Unitron, the turn-based strategy game Faselei!, the action RPG Dark Arms: Beast Busters 1999 and even third party support from Sega in the form of Sonic Pocket Adventure. Alas, when SNK closed down for the first time in 2000, the NGPC fell by the wayside, leaving several titles in limbo, including a revival of Ikari Warriors, a third game in the King of Fighters R series, NFL Blitz, Magician Lord and perhaps most heart-breaking of all to me, Windjammers. As an aside, ever since SNK announced that they’re looking through old IPs to revive in the near future, I’m personally hoping they consider giving another shot to ladies-only fighting game Gals’ Fighter, an NGPC original.

In the end, talking about these old failures scratched that nostalgic itch ever so lightly, which is kind of ironic. Back when they existed, I generally considered the majority of them as pathetic imitators attempting to encroach on the territory of “real video games”, but when I think back on them, they were just a part of what made the environment so exciting back then. After all, no one thought Sony was going to become a powerhouse during the fifth generation and everyone expected Microsoft to drop out after the initial Xbox’s lack of success, only for the 360 to best the PS3 for the majority of its lifespan. Lately though, the closest we’ve seen to these competitors of old have been Valve’s line of Steam Machines and the Ouya, the crowd-funded failure of an Android console. More depressing still, this was even more action than we saw in the previous two generations. For the reasons I’ve stated, I’m actually somewhat excited to see what happens with Fuze Entertainment’s Tomahawk F1, which was released in China back in June. I’ll be honest, I agree with the general consensus that it looks a bit lame, and yet, that’s the reason I’m excited for it. I’m getting the warm fuzzies of nostalgia for this thing because it almost looks like the modern-day equivalent of the Atari Jaguar. Of course, who knows? It could surprise us.

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