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The Future of Console Gaming

part 2/page 5


   Aside from the attitude commercials and the war of stats in magazine ads, Nintendo systems in general were beginning to be perceived as "kiddie" game machines by new teenage gamers coming into the scene, and old Nintendo players who had played the NES as a youth, but wanted something more "grown-up" now that they were in their late teens (situations that Sega didn't hesitate to take advantage of). Sega milked this "Nintendo = kiddie" theme to the max in a number of their promotions.

   Then as I said above, there was the issue of Sonic. In 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog was the turning point for Sega, taking them from being just a competitor of Nintendo's, to being a serious contender for number one platform in the U.S. Sonic was remarkable in many ways. First, it had better graphics than anything anyone had ever seen in a home game at that point. Catchy music, and levels that contained multiple solution paths. Sonic was the next evolution in platform gaming, taking all of the standards established by Nintendo and other arcade companies of the day and adding much more.

   As a character, Sonic had attitude and a take on the world style. Nothing was going to stop him from saving the planet from the evil of Dr. Robotnik who himself was out to capture all of the innocent creatures of the world and change them into killer robots. Sonic was also faster than any other platform character to date. He was in such urgent need to save the world that if you left him standing he would begin to tap his toes and act impatient. Sega in fact built a whole set of ads promoting the speed of the action in the game and a new feature they called "Blast Processing". "Blast Processing" was not really a feature, but the act of disabling all but minimal game collision detection, and accelerating the scroll rate of the background and game sprites. In fact, players who pushed this "feature" to it's limits would many times find their character mysteriously passing through a wall and sailing out of the play area to certain death. It's funny, but this was one of the rare times where a bug was not only an irritant (as normal), but it also had a certain coolness factor to it since you had to be extremely proficient at the game in order to get the bug to even occur. In some ways it made pulling off the bug a bragging point among many of the hard-core gamers I knew.

   Sonic also featured new abilities for a platform game character. Not only could he run blazingly fast, but he could do it through giant loops, cork-screws, barricades and in some cases, enemies. He could manipulate objects by pushing or pulling, and he could crush some obstacles, which would then allow the player to access a new part of a game course, or hidden items. It was a pretty exciting game all things considered.

   All of these things played a major role in Sega grabbing such a large share of the U.S. market. Sega even scored high points in the "censorship/enforced morality" battle with Nintendo the high point of which was notably over the game Mortal Kombat. The Genesis release had all of the arcade gore, while the SNES version was censored, thus helping Sega maintain their "coolness-factor". Nintendo on the other hand forbid anything of a religious (including crosses in a graveyard) or graphically violent nature (ie, blood) to be released in the U.S. on their systems! Unfortunately for Sega though, the graphics quality on the SNES improved as developers learned how to better program the machine, and additional new systems were coming out to add to the competition, making the Genesis' graphics begin to look dated. Sega began to look at releasing a new competitive system, but didn't want to abandon their old users. What were they to do?

   They began development on expansions for the Genesis. On the hardware front, first came the Sega-CD, a reasonably successful system that got off to an decent start in the U.S. among core gamers who imported the Japanese system ahead of the U.S. release. When the U.S. system came out though, many of these early adopters were the first to express frustration. Where the Japanese CD unit was built solid and weighed a ton, the U.S. unit felt flimsy and fragile and suffered frequent problems with failure in the front-loading CD tray mechanism. In fact the CD tray seemed to be a high failure point for the system in general. This problem was quickly resolved though with the subsequent release of the second Genesis model which included a simultaneous release of a new, separate, top-loading CD module.

   Also, almost instantly, the other problem with this platform became apparent, a lack of uniqueness or diversity in the software. Of the games that weren't exact copies of a cartridge game with CD audio added, many of the titles depended on the use of Full Motion Video to sell the game, sacrificing gameplay in the process. Beyond the problems with the CD, it was actually Sega not wanting to commit to a single platform that became their biggest problem. Sega was still releasing Genesis cartridge games while trying to build up the Sega-CD, and still porting some of these games to the Master System. What incentive did some of these players have to upgrade, when they could still get a pretty decent port of a popular Genesis game like Sonic 3 on their Master System?

   As for the problems with the games on the CD, we featured a full review of Sewer Shark (the platform's U.S. launch title) immediately after the game was released, and while we really liked the game, my biggest concern in that review was that we were seeing the full capabilities of the system on display. Much to my disappointment, for years and with rare exception, the large stock of games for the system (no matter what their genre) never seemed to evolve much past Sewer Shark in visual quality, or gameplay.

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