History of video game consoles (third generation)
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In the history of computer and video games, the third generation (sometimes referred to as the 8-bit era) began on July 15, 1983, with the Japanese release of both the Family Computer (referred to in Japan in the abbreviated form "Famicom", and later known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, in the rest of the world) and SG-1000. This generation marked the end of the North American video game crash, a shift in the dominance of home video games from the United States to Japan, and the transition from block-based graphics to smooth hardware scrolling tile and sprite based graphics, which was a pivotal leap in game design.
The best-selling console of this generation was the NES/Famicom, followed by the Master System and then the Atari 7800. Although the previous generation of consoles had also used 8-bit processors, it was at the end of this generation that home consoles were first labeled by their "bits". This also came into fashion as 16-bit systems like the Mega Drive/Genesis were marketed to differentiate between the generations of consoles. In Japan and North America, this generation of gaming was primarily dominated by the Famicom/NES, while the Master System dominated the European and South American markets. The end of the 3rd generation of video games comes as 8-bit consoles become obsolete in graphics and processing power compared to 16-bit consoles.
Some features that distinguished third generation consoles from second generation consoles include:
- D-pad game controllers.
- Smooth hardware scrolling, enabling large multi-directionally scrolling tile-based playfields.
- Detailed sprite graphics: Up to 64 or 100 sprites on screen, up to 4, 12 or 16 colors per sprite, and sprite sizes up to 8×16 or 16×16 pixels.
- Integer sprite zooming, allowing sprites to be doubled in size, up to 32×32 pixels.
- Screen resolution of up to 256×240 or 320×200 pixels.
- Enhanced color graphics: Up to 25 or 32 colors on screen, out of a palette of 53, 64 or 256 colors.
- Active-shutter stereoscopic 3D glasses.
- Up to five channel (primarily square wave) mono PSG audio.
- FM synthesis and wavetable synthesis audio (only in Japan).
The Family Computer (commonly abbreviated the Famicom) became very popular in Japan during this era, crowding out the other consoles in this generation. The Famicom's Western counterpart, the Nintendo Entertainment System, dominated the gaming market in North America, thanks in part to its restrictive licensing agreements with developers. This marked a shift in the dominance of home video games from the United States to Japan, to the point that Computer Gaming World described the "Nintendo craze" as a "non-event" for American video game designers as "virtually all the work to date has been done in Japan." The company had an estimated 65% of 1987 hardware sales in the console market; Atari Corporation had 24%, Sega had 8%, and other companies had 3%.
The popularity of the Japanese consoles grew so quickly that in 1988 Epyx stated that, coming from a video game hardware industry in 1984 that they had described as "dead", by 1988 the market for Nintendo cartridges was larger than for all home-computer software. Nintendo sold seven million NES in 1988, almost as many as the number of Commodore 64s sold in its first five years. Compute! reported that Nintendo's popularity caused most computer-game companies to have poor sales during Christmas that year, resulting in serious financial problems for some, and after more than a decade making computer games, in 1989 Epyx converted completely to console cartridges. By 1990 30% of American households owned the NES, compared to 23% for all personal computers, and peer pressure to have a console was so great that even the children of computer-game developers demanded them despite parents' refusal and the presence of state-of-the-art computers and software at home. As Computer Gaming World reported in 1992, "No matter how fast your 486 is, you still can't play Super Mario XVII on it. The kids who don't have access to videogames are as culturally isolated as the kids in our own generation whose parents refused to buy a TV".
Nintendo's market domination, while overwhelming in sheer number of units sold, was not global. Although the NES dominated the market in Japan and North America, Sega's Master System made large inroads in Europe, Oceania and Brazil, where the NES was never able to break its grip. The Atari 7800 also had a fairly successful life in the United States.
Sega was Nintendo's main competitor during the era in terms of market share for console units sold. Unlike the NES, Sega's SG-1000 (which preceded Sega's more commercially successful Master System) initially had very little to differentiate itself from earlier consoles such as the ColecoVision and contemporary computers such as the MSX, although, despite the lack of hardware scrolling, the SG-1000 was able to pull off advanced scrolling effects, including parallax scrolling in Orguss and sprite-scaling in Zoom 909. In 1985, Sega's Master System incorporated hardware scrolling, alongside an increased colour palette, greater memory, pseudo-3D effects, and stereoscopic 3-D, gaining a clear hardware advantage over the NES. However, the NES would still continue to dominate the important North American and Japanese markets, while the Master System would gain more dominance in the emerging European and South American markets.
In the later part of the third generation, Nintendo also introduced the Game Boy, which almost single-handedly solidified and then proceeded to dominate the previously scattered handheld market for 15 years. While the Game Boy product line was incrementally updated every few years, until the Game Boy Micro and Nintendo DS, and partially the Game Boy Color, all Game Boy products were backwards compatible with the original released in 1989. Since the Game Boy's release, Nintendo had dominated the handheld market. Additionally two popular 8-bit computers, the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, were repackaged as the Commodore 64 Games System and Amstrad GX4000 respectively, for entry into the console market.
This era contributed many influential aspects to the history of the development of video games. The third generation saw the release of many of the first console role-playing video games (RPGs). Editing and censorship of video games was often used in localizing Japanese games to North America. During this era, many of the most famous video game franchises of all time were founded that outlived the third generation and continued through releases on later consoles. Some examples are Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Quest, Metroid, Mega Man, Metal Gear, Castlevania, Phantasy Star, Megami Tensei, Ninja Gaiden, and Bomberman.
The third generation also saw the dawn of the children's educational console market. Although consoles such as the VideoSmarts and ComputerSmarts systems were stripped down to very primitive input systems designed for children, their use of ROM cartridges would establish this as the standard for later such consoles. Due to their reduced capacities, these systems typically were not labeled by their "bits" and were not marketed in competition with traditional video game consoles.
Nintendo versus Sega
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)/Family Computer (Famicom) sold by far the most units of any third generation console in North America and Asia. This was due to its earlier release, its strong lineup of first-party titles (such as Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid), and Nintendo's strict licensing rules that required NES titles to be exclusive to the console for two years after release. This put a damper on third party support for the other, less popular consoles. However, Sega's Master System was more popular than the NES in Europe, South America, and Oceania, with the latter two markets being first reached by Sega. Many more games for the Master System were released in Europe and Brazil than in North America, and the console had a very long shelf-life in Brazil and New Zealand. In Europe, competition was tough for the NES, which was not as successful as the Master System in those other regions despite the hegemony that it had in the North American and Japanese markets. The industry also started to grow in places west of the Soviet Union, such as Lithuania, via new programmers trained in that area. The Master System was finally discontinued in the late 1990s but has continued to sell in Brazil through to the present day, while Nintendo of Japan continued to repair Famicom systems until October 31, 2007.
|Name||SG-1000||Nintendo Entertainment System||Sega Mark III/Master System||Atari 7800|
|Launch prices||¥15000 (equivalent to ¥17710 in 2014)||¥14800 (equivalent to ¥17473 in 2014)
US$199.99 (equivalent to US$439 in 2014)
CA$240 (equivalent to CA$469 in 2014)
|¥24200 (equivalent to ¥27376 in 2014)
US$199.99 (equivalent to US$430 in 2014)
£99.99 (equivalent to £245 in 2014)
|US$140 (equivalent to $301 in 2014)|
Famicom Disk System:
|Top-selling games||N/A||Super Mario Bros. (pack-in), 40.24 million (as of 1999)
Super Mario Bros. 3, 18 million (as of May 21, 2003)
|Hang-On and Safari Hunt (pack-in)
Alex Kidd in Miracle World (pack-in)
Sonic the Hedgehog (pack-in)
|Pole Position II (pack-in)|
|Backward compatibility||None||None||Sega SG-1000 (Japanese systems only)||Atari 2600|
|CPU||NEC 780C (based on 8/16-bit Zilog Z80)
3.58 MHz NTSC (3.55 MHz PAL)
|Ricoh 2A03/2A07 (based on 8-bit MOS Technology 6502)
1.79 MHz (1.66 MHz PAL)
|NEC 780C (based on 8/16-bit Zilog Z80)
3.58 MHz (3.55 MHz PAL)
|Custom 6502C (based on 8-bit MOS Technology 6502)
1.19 MHz or 1.79 MHz
|GPU||Texas Instruments TMS9918||Ricoh PPU (Picture Processing Unit)||Sega VDP (Video Display Processor)|
|Sound chip(s)||Texas Instruments SN76489||
Famicom Disk System:
Optional cartridge chip:
MMC chips: IRQ interrupt, diagonal scrolling, line scrolling, split‑screen scrolling
|Audio||Mono audio with:||Mono audio with:
Japan only upgrades:
|Mono audio with:
|Mono audio with:
Optional cartridge chip:
|Console||Units sold worldwide||Japan||Americas||Elsewhere|
|Nintendo Entertainment System||61.91 million (December 2009)||19.35 million (December 2009)||34 million (December 2009)||8.56 million (December 2009)|
|Sega Master System||14.8 million (2012)||1 million (1986)||United States: 2 million (1992)
Brazil: 5 million (2012)
|Western Europe: 6.8 million (1993)|
|Atari 7800||3.77 million (December 1990)||N/A||United States: 2 million (June 1988)||N/A|
- Dragon Quest (NES) by Chunsoft and Enix introduced the Dragon Quest series in 1986, and has created a phenomenon in Japanese culture ever since.
- Final Fantasy (NES) by Square started the Final Fantasy series in 1987. The title stems from the fact that its producer Square was struggling and Hironobu Sakaguchi thought it to be their final title.
- Super Mario Bros. (NES) by Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development (Nintendo EAD) and Nintendo was bundled with the NES and became the best-selling video game of all time, a title it would hold until 2009. Countless imitations of the game would appear for the course of the console generation.
- Mega Man 2 (NES) by Capcom was the breakthrough title in Capcom's Mega Man series. The series would have a number of additional hits on the NES, and would later spawn several successful spin-off series.
- Metal Gear (MSX2) by Konami initiated the Metal Gear series in 1987 and was the first commercially successful stealth game. It was released for the MSX2 computer and ported to the NES shortly after.
- Metroid (NES) by Nintendo Research & Development 1 and Nintendo initiated the Metroid series in 1986.
- Phantasy Star (MS) by Sega Consumer Development Division 2 and Sega is considered one of the benchmark role-playing video games, and is among the first to use a science fiction setting, and to feature a female protagonist.
- The Legend of Zelda (NES) by Nintendo EAD and Nintendo initiated the Legend of Zelda series in 1986.
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- Daglow, Don L. (August 1988). "Over the River and Through the Woods: The Changing Role of Computer Game Designers". Computer Gaming World (50). p. 18.
I'm sure you've noticed that I've made no reference to the Nintendo craze that has repeated the Atari and Mattel Phenomenon of 8 years ago. That's because for American game designers the Nintendo is a non-event: virtually all the work to date has been done in Japan. Only the future will tell if the design process ever crosses the Pacific as efficiently as the container ships and the letters of credit now do.
- Katz, Arnie; Kunkel, Bill; Worley, Joyce (August 1988). "Video Gaming World". Computer Gaming World. p. 44.
- "The Nintendo Threat?". Computer Gaming World. June 1988. p. 50.
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- "Getting That "Resort Feel"". Iwata Asks: Wii Sports Resort. Nintendo. p. 4.
As it's sold bundled with the Wii console outside Japan, I'm not quite sure if calling it "World Number One" is exactly the right way to describe it, but in any case it's surpassed the record set by Super Mario Bros., which was unbroken for over twenty years.
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