Transitions: The Launch Games/End Games Blog

Posted on Jul 23rd 2013 at 10:51:06 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under launch game, Sega 32X, Star Wars, Doom, Sega Visions

We have dissected a number of console launches thus far in the Transitions Blog, but thus far each one has been for what could probably be considered a "successful" console.  For the first time then, in this entry, we will be examining a console that, by most measures, was considered a failure: the Sega 32X.

The 32X, of course, is not even a "proper" console in the traditional sense as it is technically an add-on like the Sega CD before it or like other peripherals before and since which have been tied to a primary system (the Atari Supercharger, Nintendo 64DD, etc.). Nonetheless, it has its own library of games, was marketed and sold much like a system, and has a distinct set of features that distinguish it from other pieces of gaming hardware.

The 32X, to many, represents the first tragic misstep in the long-running decline of Sega. Confusingly marketed as something of a stop-gap enhancement for the Sega Genesis prior to the release of the Sega Saturn, the console was seen by many to be over priced and under-powered. Released in November of 1994, a little less than a month after the release of the Sega Saturn in Japan and a little less than a year from that system's U.S. launch, it was almost destined to have a short life from the start.

The sordid tale of the 32X has been covered many times on many other gaming websites, so this entry will attempt to do something a little different and specifically examine the official build-up and launch of the console.  Even if gamers and analysts were skeptical of the systems prospects from the start, it is still interesting to think about how Sega tried to market and launch the 32X in and against this context.

The Launch Buildup

Like other consoles of its era, much of the buildup and hyping for the console occurred in the pages of gaming magazines. If you could sell the product well to readers in the pages of EGM or GamePro, you had a real shot to get them into the store on launch day. Sega of America had the most control of this message in the pages of Sega Visions, which they used to promote the 32X for several issues before its debut. Here's how they did that:

April/May 1994 Issue

Poor NBA Jam gets booted off the front page for a "Late Breaking News Blast!" about what the article would refer to as the "Genesis Super 32X." The article itself, despite its prominence on the cover, is a mere single page in the issue. On that page, readers learn interesting tidbits like "Sega has over 30 games in development and expects 60 will be released in the first year" and that the system, despite using "2x32-bit chips" that allow an arcade experience, will cost less than $150. Sega Visions promised its readers a "complete rundown" on the system and a "sneak peak" at its games in the next issue.

June/July 1994 Issue

Far from the "complete rundown" that the previous issue promised, readers were greeted with two whole pages of information on the 32X in the June/July issue of Sega Visions. There's actually less information here on the whole, though some games are listed and the $149 price point is reiterated as well as the promise of "30 games" in development by Sega. In terms of buildup, there's not much new here to see other than the picture of the console.

August/September 1994 Issue

Four months out from launch, this is the first issue to really provide any kind of detail on the console. 20+ third-party publishers are listed as working on games for the system and screenshots and blurbs appear for several titles.  In addition to the sub-$150 price point, interesting promises include "you're gonna have a large selection of hot titles to choose from" and "by the end of the year you could be playing arcade-perfect versions of mind-blowing games like Virtua Racing Deluxe, Star Wars Arcade, or Cyberbrawl. Or any one of the other totally sensational Genesis 32X games available at launch." Most impressive is the claim that "As a matter of fact, 60 new games will ship by the first of next year." Here the hype train is starting to leave the station and go off the rails...

October/November 1994 Issue

Doom takes front and center here, and in the issue published before the 32X's release, Sega Visions offers some substantial information on the cover game, an ample amount of screen shots of the 32X in action, and pictures of 36 Great Holes, Star Wars Arcade, Virtua Racing Deluxe, Metal Head, and Super Motocross. Perhaps the overload of images was meant to take away from this little detail: the system would now cost $159, not $149 as prominently suggested previously.

The boast of "an estimated 60 titles" to be released in the first year is a bit of a retraction of the earlier claim, and the five games previewed  are listed as games that "should be ready when the system ships in November."  Anyone paying close attention to the shifting language in the coverage from issue to issue should have noticed that things were starting to look shaky for the viability of the system even before launch.

December 1994/January 1995 Issue

Hitting the holiday season, the 32X launched in November 1994 in the US and Europe and in December in Japan (a few weeks after the Saturn's launch there).  Instead of highlighting the system in the issue that likely would have been arriving in Visions subscribers' mailboxes around the time of the 32X's release, the staff of the magazine relegated 32X coverage to sneak peaks of four games, two of which were already released. Importantly, the 32X was the only Sega system to not feature any reviews, so subscribers were left with only hopeful previews to give them impressions of the quality of the games that had already been talked up in the previous issue. Gone entirely from this issue are boasts of the system's price or upcoming library. It seems, at the most crucial moment for promoting the system, Sega Visions itself pulled back to focus on late-era Genesis and Sega CD titles.  With the already-out-in-Japan Saturn hanging over Sega of America, Visions' 32X coverage would continue to be sporadic in subsequent issues of the magazine throughout the system's short life.

At least it had the benefit of the vintage Sega adcopy.

The Launch
When the 32X hit stores in the US in mid-November 1994, here's a sense of how it looked

It was cheaper than the CD-I, 3DO, or Saturn but it was more expensive than the Genesis or the Super Nintendo.  This is a best guess.  Taking a look at this old Canadian Sears Wishbook from 1994 (where the 32X isn't even listed) and knowing that Canadian prices were usually a few more dollars than their US equivalents, you can see that the Genesis and SNES were selling for $150 and $160 CAD, respectively. Given that the US price for the 32X was $160, it stands to reason that the Canadian price would have been closer to $175 or so, making it no small investment at launch. Perhaps to compensate, the 32X did offer $10 rebate coupons towards future game purchases.

It was up against some tough competition. The 32X launched in the same month as the critical and commercial success Donkey Kong Country and NBA Jam: Tournament Edition and a month after Sonic and Knuckles, Super Punch Out, and Final Fantasy III. It launched a week before the Atari Jaguar and, as mentioned, a month after the Saturn had already been released in Japan. It was selling Doom after Doom II had already been released for PCs.  It was a confusing system, with a small library, released in an overly-crowded video game market.

It only featured two launch games. Despite the boasts found in Sega Visions, when the system actually hit store shelves it did so only with two titles: Doom and Star Wars: Arcade. In terms of the IP selection, these are two solid launch games that made a lot of sense in 1994 when both Star Wars and Doom were still extremely popular franchises that were guaranteed to garner sales. Earlier that year, for example, the acclaimed Super Star Wars series on the SNES had concluded its run with the release of Return of the Jedi.  Today, both Doom and Star Wars Arcade continue to be held in (relative) high regard as some of the stronger titles for the 32X, with especially the latter showing off its technical capabilities more than many other titles would ever do. Still, though launching with two games had happened before (e.g. the Master System) and would happen again (e.g. the Nintendo 64), it seemed an especially dangerous proposition for a console that was positioned as a stop gap measure and, in the buildup to launch, had promised much more from the start.

Today, it seems obvious that Sega was promising more than they could deliver. We of course now know much more about the history of this era, the feuds between Sega of America and Sega of Japan, the botched Neptune, etc.  but none of that was common knowledge to a consumer standing in the aisle of a video game department in November of 1994.  Sega didn't do enough to convincingly promote the console in its own magazine, sent it out with a small set of games into a crowded market, and ultimately gave it a launch that set it up for the failure it would become.

In the end, retailers famously had to cut the system price to $19.99 to clear it out.  Less than 40 games would ever be made for the system, many of which were only slightly enhanced ports of existing 16-bit titles. In a future installment we'll look at some of the end of console life 32X games, which saw its final release just 14 short months after its launch.

Posted on Jan 9th 2013 at 03:11:22 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under launch game, end games, soccer, football, FIFA, PS1

I was quite happy to recently pick up FIFA Soccer 2005 for the PS1 for only about $9, which is about a third or so of what the game often goes for on eBay.  My primary interest in the game is that was the final game released in North America (and some other parts of the world) for the Sony Playstation.  As I am someone who likes focusing on games from both ends of the life of a console, I thought the purchase of this game would be an interesting opportunity to compare a game from a console's introduction - FIFA Soccer '96 [SLUS-00038]  - to a game from its end - FIFA Soccer 2005 [SLUS-01585].

FIFA Soccer '96 was not a PS1 launch game, but it definitely falls into the system's "launch window" as it released less than three weeks after the system's North American debut. By contrast, FIFA Soccer 2005 was one of less than a dozen games released in North America in all of 2004, most of which were other perennial sports titles (Madden, MLB, etc.).  FIFA 2005's October 2004 release was the last for the system in most of the Western Hemisphere.

Looking at the two games side by side provides an interesting window into how much had changed for Sony, EA, and the games industry in the lifespan of the Playstation 1.

There are a few very apparent differences before you even turn the games on, and they multiply as you get going...

Packaging and Labeling: FIFA Soccer '96 shipped in the clear, hard plastic longbox cases that characterized games for the first year or so on Sony's first gaming machine. FIFA 2005 shipped in the standard clear jewelcase.  The front of the box of '96 features the old "K-A" rating system, the 2005 game is ESRB rated "E for Everyone".  The difference in the quality of the graphic art production between the two is also quite stark - "By Extended Play Productions" is shooting out of the head of the featured player on the '96 version, the choppy/boxy artwork looks ill-conceived, and the randomly placed FIFA and "Virtual Stadium" labels really looks like someone's first foray into Photoshop.  By contrast, FIFA 2005 incorporates labels nicely, blends artistic elements and photos more naturally, and fits in with the standardized EA design that marked their games for a very long time. It is clear that they had learned a lot about attractive design in the period between covers...

1995 release on the left, 2004 release on the right.

The Back of the Box: Perhaps even more interesting than the front of each box is the back, where more important differences exist between what advertised in each game.  Most strikingly, the 2005 version places the Spanish description of features above the English description, indicating EA had discovered a large Spanish-speaking audience for the game in the years since the series' PS1 debut. There is no Spanish at all on the back of the FIFA Soccer '96 box.  The FIFA Soccer '96 box prominently emphasizes the motion capture technology that went into realizing inclusion of "all the moves of real soccer" as well as the move to "Real 3-D!", "high-res gameplay", "CD quality sound effects encoded by Dolby Surround Sound", "unlimited camera angles", and other aspects that assured potential buyers that they were purchasing a game that took full advantage of new, expensive hardware. By contrast, the only mention of aesthetics on the FIFA 2005 box is a line about "unrivaled player animations".   There are also some interesting differences in features: '96 boasts a feature of 3,800 players, 2005 boasts 6,000.  FFA '96 mentions capabilities for saving and for one to eight player gameplay without indicating how these features must be utilized.  FIFA 2005 explains via a long-ago standardized PS1 feature key that the game supports up to eight players via multi-tap, that the game needed 1-3 blocks of a memory card, and that it offered vibration and analog support (neither of which was an option for a game in 1995). 

Pre-Game: Upon booting up, FIFA '96 starts with several long FMV demo videos emphasizing the updated graphics and sound capabilities of a soccer game on the PS1.  After several minutes of this FMV, it switches to footage of gameplay between the US and Brazil, and  then repeats.  To get out of the loop and into the main menus you have to hit Start (though you are never prompted to do so).  I can imagine this running in attract mode at an Ames kiosk or some such, which I am sure was the plan. By contrast, FIFA 2005 goes straight to a splash screen prompting you to hit start to begin (while licensed music - also missing from the '96 version - plays in the background).  If you hit nothing for about a minute, random demo mode matches begin playing for several minutes at a time. For practicality I prefer the no-nonsense approach of the 2005 game, but there was clearly something special about the over the top intro videos in the early PS1 titles.

The in-game menus from '96 and 2005.

Pre-Game, Part 2 Once you are in the main game menus, the 2005 version of the game shows lots of expected improvement over the '96 entry. The Playstation controller buttons are prominently featured on each screen so you know what to do, the menu options (including team  and career management options) are expanded considerably, there are rankings for each team featured on the team selection screen (this was only seen in the post-selection, match loading screens on '96), there are uniform choices that can be made, team info and lineups can be viewed/adjusted and are then automatically previewed before the match, and the "broadcast-like" presentation going into the game is quite remarkable.  Other little interesting curiosities include the standard "X to select" in 2005 (it was "O" in '96, which threw me for a loop initially), the close relationship between the in-game menu and out-game menus in the latter version (which separated a lot of functions), and the prominence of "EA Sports" over any/all other logos and brands affiliated with the game (The "Virtual Stadium" was a big highlight of the post-menu intro to the '96 game, for example).

1995 release on the left, 2004 release on the right.

Gameplay: The casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that these two games are running on completely different systems.  The player models in the '96 version of the game are about half the size of those found in the 2005 edition, the amount of spoken play-by-play  is vastly improved in the 2005 version (as is its level of nuance and diversity), and the general look of the game is just dramatically improved. The latter version features instant replays, lacks some of the cheesy-if-charming goal celebration animations found in the '96 game, and is entirely devoid of any FMV of actual soccer.  More importantly, it controls beautifully with the analog controller, has many additional gameplay components that enhance both realism and fun (e.g. smart directional passing), and is just a joy to play even in 2013. That's not to say that the '96 entry is bad - it is in fact very good compared to the myriad 16-bit soccer titles that preceded it and the game does indeed represent some of the significant "leap" that it so prominently advertised on its box. That said, you still can have fun with either today, which more than anything is probably a tribute to the consistent quality of EA Sports' FIFA teams.

1995 release on the left, 2004 release on the right.

None of what I've noted is especially surprising, perhaps. The 2005 version of the game had the benefit of nine years of precedence on the hardware as well as several years of industry innovation into yet another console generation.  However, it is interesting to me to see exactly how far a single company was able to push a console over a very long period of time, how the marketing of the game itself has shifted significantly, and how much fun each game still is on its own merits, despite being so drastically different. Hopefully you found it interesting, too.

Posted on Dec 24th 2010 at 09:39:50 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Launch Games, launch game, PCE, TurboGrafx 16, Street Fighter, CD, Classic Gaming

In 1988, NEC released the $400 PCE-CD (or TurboGrafx-CD, in North America) without any included titles.  Buyers needed to drop an additional hefty sum to actually play some games on the thing, and many probably opted for the premiere title in a series that would go on to be one of the most loved of all time.

If Fighting Street was any indication, CD-based systems and the Street Fighter series should have been dead in the water. 

Fighting Street is a particularly bad example of the one on one fighting genre prior to their golden age period in the arcades of the early 1990s.  Though the game included some of the same features that would go on to help define its sequels, the basic core components - gameplay, graphics, and sound - are all extremely rough compared to what would be accomplished just a few years later.   Even when considered in context, the game was a mess.

As a launch game for the first CD-based console, there are several things worth pointing out:

The game included "high quality" CD-audio.  One of the most marketable features of CDs was their ability to include higher quality music than would be possible with sound chips.  Superior audio fidelity was driving CD sales in the music industry, and held promise for the gaming industry as well.  Fighting Street does feature sound that is marginally better than most of the PCE's Hu-Card based games, but as it is emulating the soundtrack from an arcade machine, there is not the huge jump that some might expect.  Of course the CD format would also become known in gaming for introducing voice acting.  Voice acting is also included here, in a way.  There is one recorded voice.  Win or lose, a poorly recorded Japanese voice SLOWLY speaks the English words you see on the screen. Every time.  You will hear this voice about every two minutes, which means that after an hour you have listened to it 30 times.  Give a listen here around 2 minutes and again around 3:55. 

The game actually had bearable loading times.  One thing that plagued many later CD systems such as the Sega CD and 3DO were atrocious loading times.  Even the fighters on SNK's Neo Geo CD suffered from long loads.  Not so with Fighting Street.  While the game does have some loading (usually to cue up the spoken voice), there's no waiting for more than 5 seconds or so between screens.

The game should have been packaged with a six button controller.   The arcade version of the game used two buttons, and the intensity of a punch or kick was based on how long you held down the button.  That set up was translated to the PCE-CD, but it just doesn't work as well as a 6-button set up might.  In addition,  the standard d-pad is poorly suited to this kind of game.  I personally found myself fighting the controls more than my opponent, which is never something that bodes well for a game in this genre.

There was no ability to save.  Feature-wise, this was one of the biggest surprises of the game.  The PCE-CD had the ability to save game data on internal RAM, something that even later CD systems often neglected.  The ability to save progress, high scores, settings, or other features could have highlighted this strength of the system.  Opportunity lost.

The game was not good. I've made it a point to try and not do much in the way of reviews in this blog, instead focusing on specific novel features of the games I've addressed.  For this game though, I feel I can make an exception: avoid paying any money for this.  The bad controls and irritating sound are features that - while bad separately - really ruin the game when experienced together.  It is a small miracle that the PCE-CD went on to have some of the best games of the era, and that Street Fighter would go on to the success it found. There's little here to promote the CD medium over carts/cards, and even less to encourage people to play fighters on the PCE-CD.

Posted on Oct 19th 2010 at 03:30:00 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Launch Games, Launch Game, NES, Super Mario Bros., R.O.B.

Twenty Five years ago today, the Nintendo Entertainment System launched in the United States.  Before its run was over with the release of Wario's Woods in 1994, the system became the bestselling video game console of all time (a mark that would not be passed for many years), the company's name literally became synonymous with gaming, and the NES' library had achieved a special place in the hearts and minds of gamers the world over.  Even today, the system is usually recognized as the most popular of all retro consoles, and many gamers continue to collect games in cartridge format or play them via the Wii's Virtual Console or emulation. 

That success was far from guaranteed when the system launched in the U.S. on October 18, 1985.  In fact, many onlookers felt dubious about the chances for Nintendo's console to succeed in the post-crash market of the mid-1980s.  And even though the system had been moderately successful in the two years since it had launched in Japan (as the Family Computer), the kind of reception it would receive amongst American audiences was widely unknown.  For this reason, the U.S. release was a limited one.  The October 1985 date was for the New York City test market, and the full nationwide launch wouldn't be until February of 1986 after Nintendo saw some success in New York (and a few other markets).

Long before Metroid, Mega Man, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, or Contra became household names, Nintendo launched a product in the U.S. that had to convince a skeptical audience that it was worth investing in a new console.  What was it like to purchase a brand new Nintendo Entertainment Center in October of '85 (or February of 1986)?  What was the system launch like? Did those early decisions help the system achieve later greatness? Read on!

Part 1: The Games

The launch lineup consisted of eighteen games!  This was almost twice the amount of games that launched in the U.S. with the Atari VCS, and half again as many games as had launched with the Colecovision.  In some ways, this was a curious decision.  While it afforded gamers a high degree of choice, it also served as a reminder that chief catalyst for the gaming crash a few years earlier had been a market flooded with low-quality games.  Fortunately for Nintendo, their launch titles were not low quality.  But, standing in a store 25 years ago, it might be hard for a gamer not to think that they were seeing more of the same practice that had killed enthusiasm and sales for Atari a short time ago.

The launch lineup took cues from Atari. As we've covered previously, the Atari VCS launch featured games with very short, descriptive titles (Combat, Blackjack, Street Racer, etc.).  This let consumers know what they were buying, whereas a game named after a character might not.  For the most part, Nintendo followed suit.  Roughly half of the launch games featured titles which made gameplay elements explicitly obvious (10 Yard Fight, Baseball, Duck Hunt, Golf, Kung Fu, Pinball, Soccer, and Tennis) and another set made it easy to guess what the game featured (Excitebike, Ice Climber, Stack-Up, and Wild Gunman).  Unlike Atari, however, Nintendo did include a few of their well known IPs in the launch lineup: Mario (Super Mario Bros.) and Donkey Kong (Donkey Kong Jr. Math) both made the cut, only leaving gamers scratching their head over titles like Clu Clu Land, Hogans Alley, Gyromite, and Wrecking Crew.  In any case, like Atari, Nintendo offered a wide variety of launch titles, the scope of which wouldn't be offered again until Sony's PS2 launch almost 15 years later.

The launch lineup featured the system's iconic game (and character).  The NES launch has several solid titles, but none were as important as Super Mario Bros.  Mario was already a well known character based on the success of the Mario Bros. games and Mario's link to Donkey Kong, but Miyamoto's side-scrolling masterpiece was the game to define the console from day 1.  Some of the launch bundles included the game, and it would go on to become the best-selling game of all time (a mark not passed until Wii Sports recently took the crown) .  Few launch lineups in history have featured a game that made it into the all-time top 10, and all of them are games that launched with Nintendo systems.

Quality assured.  In another nod to the video game crash, Nintendo included the Nintendo Seal of Quality on its titles to (hopefully) let consumers know that the games they were buying were bug-free, high quality titles.  The seal may not have meant much in 1985, but by the time the NES was in homes across the country a few years later the seal came to represent an important departure from the flooded market that came to symbolize the latter days of the 2600's run.

(Note: I plan to cover many of these games in the blog individually in the future, but in the meantime there is an excellent run-down of the basics of each launch game here:  I shamelessly stole their images of box art, too.)

Part 2: The System

The D-Pad.  Nintendo was not technically the first console maker or video game company to include a standard D-Pad, but they certainly popularized it.  Nintendo's games were designed with the D-pad in mind, and anyone who has tried playing a Super Mario Bros. or Zelda game with an arcade stick knows that the experience is lacking.  The D-Pad also signaled that the console would be more than a platform for arcade ports (which used joysticks), but that plenty of new content produced specifically for the console and its controller would be coming.

The graphics and sound. It is easy to forget that the NES once was a powerhouse system, as today when most of us look back on the 8-bit days we think about the simplicity of the visuals and sounds.  Put simply, even Nintendo's launch games blew away anything that had been seen on a console up to that point, and rivaled some of the best computer graphics and sound of the era.  Seamless scrolling, character RAM, 20+ colors, dedicated audio, and region-specific refresh rates all meant that the NES was a system that had both innovated and capitalized on the best of what was available in mid-1980s hardware.  And while the launch lineup was impressive, the games in the system's later years would demonstrate just how impressive the processors inside the NES were.

Part 3: The Launch

The bundles were a good deal, but the games were pricey.  If you bought a new NES in late '85 or early '86, you most certainly wanted to buy a system bundle and probably didn't end up buying very many games off the bat.  I haven't yet found reliable data, but some web searching suggests that in 1985/1986 NES games were priced between $40-$70 MSRP depending on where you lived.  When their launch went nationwide, Nintendo sold two bundles for consumers interested in buying the system. The Control Deck bundle with 2 controllers, a zapper and Super Mario Bros. retailed for $130 and the Deluxe Set, which included R.O.B., a zapper, two controllers, Gyromite and Duck Hunt sold for $250.  Adjusted for today's inflation, games cost around $100, the control deck cost about $250, and the Deluxe Set cost just shy of $500.  This means that consumers in 1985 were getting the system and accessories for roughly $150 in today's money, and that R.O.B. could be valued at about $150 himself.  That might seem high, until one realizes that robots were all the rage in 1985...

Robotic Operating Buddy. A Japanese newspaper in  July of 1985 announced the upcoming U.S. release of the NES in an article entitled "Nintendo to sell video game player-robot combination in U.S." In the article, they discuss the strategy behind R.O.B.

Nintendo displayed the Family Computer this year at consumer electronics shows in Las Vegas and Chicago, and has carried out market research. The home video game boom in the U.S., dominated by Atari and Commodore International, peaked out three years ago, and since then the market has contracted with much underselling.

For this reason, the Family Computer, with its attached robot, is to be billed as a different concept from the conventional video game. The robot is run by a cartridge inserted into the computer, and both it and the video screen can be operated simultaneously. The robot measures 22.8 by 18 by 23.5 centimeters.

The robot contains three battery-powered motors which control such operations as picking objects up and putting them down, raising and lowering, and turning around and carrying objects. Commands are sent by a flashing signal from the monitor screen, which is picked up by a light sensor in the robot.

In Japan, the robot sells at a low Y9,800, with two types of cartridges prices at Y4,800 and Y5,800 respectively. In the U.S., the player, robot and cartridge will be sold as a unit for around $100.

From early on, the emphasis was on the robot, as evidenced again by a Guardian article from October of 1985 that mentions Nintendo's console as R.O.B.-centric:

Toy makers in Britain and North America have been predicting since January that 1985 would be the year of the robot. Or at least of the toy robot.

Nintendo - has its eyes on the toy robot market. Primarily a computer and video games company, it has invented an interactive robot to play some of their video games.

Using a light link to the television, the 10in tall robot adds a new dimension to the video game. Prompted by invisible sensory devices which read messages from the TV screen, the robot performs a variety of spontaneous interactive affect game play. Standing on its stationary 6in base, the robot can assume 60 different lifelike positions by rotating its arms and shoulders left or right, and up or down, and can lift and move objects. It can pick up screen messages from as far away as 15ft, adding tremendous challenge to play strategy.

Nintendo plans to offer four robot games packs with the initial introduction of the system, and up to four additional games will be developed by the end of the year. The robot costs pounds 100 and the games about pounds 15.

Again, today we often think of R.O.B. as an interesting afterthought or as a failed, largely gimmicky accessory for the NES.  But in 1985, most of the press surrounding the launch of the NES focused not on its games, but on this accessory.  This was by Nintendo's design, and suggested from the moment of their first U.S. console release that they were trying to attract interest from a broader population of consumers instead of just gamers.  They would of course repeat this strategy with their most successful console, the Wii.

It was not marketed as a gaming system.Due in large part to the gaming crash of a few years prior, Nintendo marketed the console as a device that allowed for learning and other forms of entertainment beyond simply playing video games.  Their ads focused not on the graphics, the game library, or the features often touted when a new console releases  -- they focused instead on the interactive nature of accessories like R.O.B. and the Zapper.  The first NES commercial in the U.S. is an example of this:

Another example is the 1986 Sears Wishlist catalog, which emphasizes that the NES was a

fully equipped video system with the most progressive components such as a robot and the light-sensing Zapper Light's not just for kids.

The art.  As is the case with any new product, good art is important to help sell the attractiveness of the item to the consumer.  Nintendo's emphasis in two areas - the game box design and the system box artwork - most certainly helped move units. The game box design (as seen above) emphasized the graphics of the games .  A drastic departure from the Atari VCS or Colecovision game boxes before it, the NES game boxes showed blown up approximations o f the sprite art that players would find in the game.  Even if the graphics weren't emphasized in marketing, they were certainly emphasized on store shelves.  The art for the systems themselves featured a dark blue/black with stars background.  The control deck set featured the system and hardware floating in space, while the Deluxe set emphasized R.O.B.'s head.  At a time when there was still enthusiasm about the space program, sci-fi was seeing a renaissance in theaters, and robots were all the rage, the art reflected the broader interests of consumers.

In retrospect, much about the NES launch seems strange today.  Most launches haven't followed the same cues (e.g. test markets and a downplayed emphasis on games/graphics), the system itself is no longer known for many of the things that Nintendo chose to highlight at launch, several launch games are still regarded as among the best on the system, and one launch title continued to be the best selling game for the console throughout the system's life.  Nintendo took a huge gamble with the release of the NES, and though their strategy seems a bit unorthodox today, it certainly paid off for them twenty five years ago.

Do you remember anything about the NES launch?  Were you in a test market?  What do you think of their strategy?  I'd love to hear your stories and thoughts, so sound off below!

Posted on Oct 8th 2010 at 02:51:11 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under launch games, launch game, end game, Ridge Racer, racing, PS2

This is the second part of a five part series looking at those titles in the Ridge Racer series of games that have been launch titles.  Part 1 covered the first Ridge Racer game, for the PS1.  This entry covers Ridge Racer V for the PS2.

The first Ridge Racer was arguably the highlight of the PS1 launch, being the only game featured as a launch title in all three major regions.  It was also the only arcade-style racer released at that system's launch, and so for many it had helped to define Sony's first console from the very start as the place to go for arcade quality titles.  Certainly Sony had high hopes that Ridge Racer V would live up to this legacy.

When the PS2 launched ten years ago this month (October 2000 in the USA), the gaming landscape was markedly different from what it had been when Sony's PS1 hit stores five years prior.  The second golden age of the arcade (the mid 90s) had ended, arcade style racing games were losing market share to driving simulation games such as Gran Turismo, and gamers had become accustomed to graphically polished and in-depth experiences from the racing genre.  They had also become accustomed to choice, as there were probably a dozen racing franchises in active production at the turn of the millennium.  Fortunately for Namco, Ridge Racer Type 4 had been quite successful and so hopes were high for Ridge Racer V.  Nonetheless, V certainly had to contend with a different context than its PS1 launch game predecessor.  How did it fare?  As a launch title, it is significant for several reasons:

Ridge Racer V

It was the only traditional racing game at the PS2 launch.  The PS2 launch had no shortage of opportunities for gamers to drive fast .  On launch day, Smuggler's Run, Wild Wild Racing, Midnight Club: Street Racing, and Moto GP offered racing fans a wide selection of titles that could address their need for speed,  but only Ridge Racer V offered the option to drive a racing car around a traditional track in an arcade style racer. This seems like it was probably a deliberate choice by Sony, as they did this with the first Ridge Racer game at the PS1 launch and would repeat this model with the PS3 launch.

It was a return to the series' roots. In an often criticized move, Ridge Racer V stripped away many of the additions the series had seen over the years in terms of gameplay, car selection, customization, and other more simulation style racing enhancements.  The main track is similar to the one featured in Ridge Racer 1, and all the tracks are quite similar to one another.  The main gameplay mode is a Grand Prix mode for trophies, but there are only a few interesting rewards for doing well.  In other words, it is very much like the first Ridge Racer. 

Ridge Racer Type 4 shipped as a special edition with this Namco JogCon force feedback controller.  The controller could also be used in Ridge Racer V.

It was a showcase for PS2 graphics...but not in a good way.   Graphically, Ridge Racer V is a competent title and arguably looked better than the previous entries in the series with the possible exception of Type 4.  The tracks have more shading, lighting is better implemented, some nice spark effects are used, and the menus are slick.   But, the game features lots of flickering and aliasing problems (or "jaggies") which were a major concern at the PS2's launch.  One argument that some Dreamcast owners made was that their games featured a smoother look than those on the PS2, and Ridge Racer V was a common punching bag for these criticisms. 

An example of the "jaggies" found throughout the game.

It was really hard. Well, at least I thought so.  I can do pretty well in most of the Ridge Racer games without running into many problems until the latest levels.  Not so with V.  I've struggled with this game from some of the very earliest stages - in part because of the looser steering, in part because of some of the issues with graphics, but mostly because of the cheap AI and unresponsive controls.  It isn't that I can't drive the cars, but there often seems to be a disconnect between what I want the car to do and what it actually does.  This is certainly one of the more punishing games from the PS1 launch.

It failed to showcase many of the PS2's best features.  The audio CD-swapping trick, the unlocakables, and the mini-game features found in the original Ridge Racer all showcased the capabilities of the PS1.  There is nothing about Ridge Racer V which suggested the PS2 was a machine that could do new things or do old things better.  Part of the reason the PS2 sold well out of the gate was because it was a DVD player and because DVD-based games could hold much more information.  Ridge Racer V shipped on CD and didn't really feature very much content compared to some of the earlier CD-based titles in the series.  Furthermore, it didn't provide surround sound, use the new ports found on the system, or really push the hardware the way that some of the other launch titles did. 

It would be the only PS2 Ridge Racer game.  Perhaps all you need to know about Ridge Racer V's ability to hook people on the PS2 or get them interested in future racing games comes from this fact.  Whereas the PS1 had seen four Ridge Racer titles in five years, the PS2 turns ten this year with only one Ridge Racer game to its credit. 

In retrospect, even though Ridge Racer V offered a fully fledged arcade racing experience, it seemed like a rushed and incomplete project that failed to distinguish itself amongst the PS2 launch lineup the way that the first game in the series had on Sony's first console.  In future installments, we'll explore whether or not the series' other launch titles addressed these shortcomings.

Posted on Sep 18th 2010 at 10:10:37 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under launch games, launch game, SNES, Super Mario World

Ah, the late August of 1991!  Bryan Adams' song from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was burning up the charts, Terminator 2 was blowing up the box office , and eager Nintendo fans were getting a chance to finally buy the console that had gone on sale in Japan as the Super Famicom almost a full year earlier. 

The North American launch of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was a bit surprising in several ways.  For one, the unit was the last of the fourth generation of consoles to launch in the United States, launching more than two years after the release of both the Turbo Grafx-16 and the Sega Genesis.  By contrast, the original and highly successful Nintendo Entertainment System had been the first major console to the market in both Japan and the United States.  Many observers felt that interest in gaming was starting to dwindle, as it had towards the end of Ataris market dominance.  Sales of NEC and Segas machines were modest compared to the sales the NES had seen during the height of its popularity, and clearance price NES carts and systems on store shelves suggested that Nintendos time, like Ataris before it, had perhaps passed.

In an article from Time Magazine a few months before the August 23, 1991 release of the console, writer Philip Elmer-DeWitt penned that

Sometime in the next few months, an argument is going to break out in the 30 million families infected by the Nintendo video-game craze. The kids, primed by saturation advertising, are going to tell their parents they gotta have the awesome new 16-bit Nintendo system for Christmas. The parents, remembering the hundreds of dollars they have invested in the old 8-bit Nintendo, are going to say, "No way."... The machine will also be backed by a $95 million nonstop marketing blitz designed to convince every American preadolescent that life without 16 bits wouldn't be worth living. It's not going to be an easy sell.

It seemed that Nintendo was facing a tough road, and it is debatable whether a launch day full of some questionable decisions did much to brighten the initial outlook for the SNES.  Though the unit would go on to be quite successful, there were several notable and, in retrospect, perhaps poor launch day decisions.

There were only three games available on launch day, and only two on shelves.   Super Mario World was packed in with the SNES, and while the game remains one of the standouts of the SNES library, gamers looking for variety in other titles were left with little to choose from.  Given the length of time that the console had been out in Japan and the depth of the library that had been built up by mid 1991, it seems that Nintendo should have had more options for the earliest adopters.

2/3 of the launch day games weren't representative of popular genres or franchises. While both F-Zero and Pilotwings (the other two launch games) are strong titles in their own right and showcase some of the SNES hardware capabilities, neither flight sims nor futuristic racing games were especially popular in late 1991.  It seems odd that the SNES didn't launch with any titles geared towards fans of action games, sports games, RPGs, puzzle games, or any number of other genres.  In fact, given the popularity of the arcade and the success of arcade conversions (such as shmups and beat em ups) on the TG-16 and Genesis, Nintendo missed an opportunity to show how well their system could handle some of the most popular genres.  Given the widespread popularity of many first and third party NES games, the lack of a launch day Metroid, Zelda, Contra, Tetris, or Mega Man is surprising.

There was a lack of hype.   Today, a console launch is issued in by major announcements, extensive gaming and mainstream press coverage, midnight releases, and an overall media blitz.  Though Nintendo did put aside almost $100 million to market the unit in the US, one need not look much further than its own Nintendo Power to see that the console was still playing second fiddle to Nintendo's earlier NES and Game Boy at the SNES launch.  The issue of Nintendo Power that coincided with the SNES launch featured a cover story on Super Mario World, but only about 25% of the issue touched on titles for the new system.  Most other major gaming publications dedicated even less space to the console's launch, perhaps because there just weren't many games to cover!

The console was not backwards compatible.  Many of the reviews and reports surrounding the SNES pointed to the fact that it would be unable to play NES or Game Boy games.  Considering the rather large NES cart library that many families had built, this seemed like quite the oversight.  By contrast, Sega's Genesis console was compatible with the earlier games for its system (via a converter) and the Atari 7800 had been compatible with 2600 games.  So, Nintendo's decision not to include support seemed out of step with what consumers wanted.  The Super Game Boy wouldn't see release until some three years later (1994), after the console had already become popular.

Despite these oversights, Nintendo did do a few things right on launch day.

The launch package was a good bundle deal.  Though its $200 price tag (a little over $300 adjusted for inflation) put it at twice the cost of a NES and made it a bit more expensive than its contemporary competitors, Nintendo packaged in two controllers, two kinds of AV cables, Super Mario World, and a coupon for $50 off a future game purchase.  Considering SNES games regularly cost $60-$70 or more, this was almost the equivalent of giving buyers a second game .

The pack-in game was a killer app. Considered by many to be the best SNES game, Nintendo took a gamble that Super Mario World would be enough to bring NES owners into the SNES fold.  And to some extent, they were correct.  Nintendo didn't take many risks by including this title: they didn't reinvent the Mario franchise, they didn't hedge their bets on an unknown character or IP, and they didn't choose a game that would later look dated compared to the technology seen in future SNES titles.

They had it where it counted. Nintendo's machine was attractive not only to gamers looking for the next Mario fix, but also to those excited about hardware specs.  The SNES outperformed either the TG-16 or Genesis in almost every technical category.  In an era where graphics were central to much of the advertising surrounding games and systems alike, Nintendoc clearly had the upper hand by entering he fray late. 

Overall, the SNES launch wasn't the brightest moment for a console that would eventually go on to win the 16-bit console wars. Nonetheless, all three of these launch games are still considered some of the top titles for the system, and Nintendo quickly rolled out more games in a variety of genres so that by the holiday season, they had begin to build an install base.

Posted on Sep 2nd 2010 at 02:32:07 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under gaming history, launch game, end game, longbox games, FMV, 3D, 2D

I mentioned in the premiere post for this blog that I will be focusing on the games released at the beginning and end of a system's life.  And while I have a lot of interest in the games on either end of that spectrum, part of my motivation for the "Transitions" title of the blog stems from an interest I have in major shifts in gaming history.

Even though home consoles have only been around for 30+ years, there have already been several important and defining moments in gaming history where significant sea changes occurred, altering how consumers view games.  For example, the video game crash in the early 1980s taught developers the importance of releasing a quality product and signaled that consumers were becoming more discerning when making their purchase decisions.  A recent major transition for the industry would be the development of downloadable games on home consoles.  That change has so far resulted in a renaissance in indie development, bigger rewards and less risk for the introduction of innovative gameplay, and a number of other ongoing shifts in how we choose games.

There is one transitory period in gaming history which, for me, has always been the most interesting: the period between (approximately) 1993-1996

Several interesting things happened at this time:

1) Developers began to market games for adults instead of for children.
Research concludes that todays average gamer is in their early-mid 30s, which is where I personally fit on the demographic scale.  15 years ago, many of us were making the transition from childhood to adulthood, and as we were going through those awkward late teenage years, gaming was going through its own growing pains.  Recognizing that 14-18 year olds might be outgrowing cute mascots and cartoony sprites, developers started shooting for more realism in games, introduced mature themes, emphasized cinematic presentation, and included more sex, violence, and other "adult" elements.

2) A revolution in graphics and gameplay took place.
In this period, many companies moved from making 2D games to making early 3D games and/or Full Motion Video titles.  Cheaper and more powerful hardware meant that game designers could introduce players to gameworlds that were simply not possible in 2D.  Many of these early 3D titles were clunky, had infuriating cameras, imprecise controls, and were easily surpassed by superior games in the late 90s.  That didn't stop consumers from buying them anyway, and well done 3D titles such as Virtua Fighter and Wipeout spawned franchises that continue to this day.  For all its faults, Full Motion Video served a purpose in making designers consider cinematography, storytelling, and basic things like lighting and sound in ways that they hadn't previously.  The legacy of these innovations is clearly seen in contemporary gaming.

3) Between October 1992 and September 1996 at least twenty consoles or add-ons were released.
The Sega CD, The Atari Jaguar, The Sega 32X, the 3DO, the Playstation, the Saturn, the Virtual Boy, the PC-FX, The Amiga CD32, the FM Towns Marty, the Apple Bandai Pippin, the Atari Jaguar CD, the Casio Loopy, the R-Zone, the Pioneer Laser Active, the Playdia, the Neo Geo CD and CDZ, the Supervision, the Mega Duck, the Nintendo Stellaview and still others were all published in roughly four years.  This is a staggering amount of new technology flooding the game market, and it is remarkable that only Sony really managed to steal a major piece of Nintendo and Sega's dominance from earlier in the decade.  (Also of note: during this period the NES saw its final release in Wario's Woods.) While many of these systems have deservedly stayed obscure, the sheer number of consoles and handhelds put to market suggests there was a belief that the games industry was a place where companies could make a lot of money.  While there had been previous periods in gaming history with a variety of competing consoles, this period's only close competitor for the sheer number of choices available would be the very early proliferation of standalone Pong machines. 

4.) 16-bit platforms saw some of their strongest releases.
The transition period wasn't just about the introduction of new consoles and technologies, but was also about many of the best games from the dedicated 2D consoles from the early 90s.  About 2/3 of's best Genesis/SNES titles were published in this period when 2D level design, gameplay, chip music, and sprite work really reached a state of the art.  While many gamers were looking towards the possibilities offered by upcoming hardware, developers were perfecting their craft on older machines.

There were, of course, other important developments during this period: the growth of used game sales/retail stores, the revival of and then retreat from the arcades, the development of a comprehensive rating system (the ESRB was established in 1994), the shift from cartridge to disc format, and other changes that help make this perhaps the most interesting period in gaming history.

Because of the rich history offered in this transitory period , I have made it a point to collect many of the games from this era.  Towards that end, a few years ago I completed a Sega 32X library and recently finished off a PS1 longbox set.  I have more Jaguar games than I need, and have played my share titles for systems like the 3DO and the Neo Geo CD. 

I occasionally get asked about why I would collect games that are often rudimentary, painful to play, lacking in production value, and generally inferior to the great 2D games that came before or the better 3D games that came later.  My answer is always that understanding something about those transitory periods, the awkward moments in gaming history, undeniably gives you a better appreciation for the best games and the history of the industry as a whole.  Coupled with my own recollections about how I grew up as gaming was growing up, these titles are an interesting reminder of my own transitions in life.

What do you consider to be the most interesting period in gaming history?

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