Nintendo Super Famicom

Nintendo Super Famicom / Super Nintendo Entertainment System

4th Generation Competitors
Neo Geo CD Megadrive PC Engine Neo Geo AES CDTV Philips CDI NEC SuperGrafx
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 21st Nov 1990 2003  17.17M
North America 23rd Aug 1991 1999  23.35M
Europe 11th April 1992 1999  8.58M

Nintendo didn’t rush their second console, despite their main competitor, Sega, releasing the first of the 16 bit consoles, they continued development for another two years.

The result was a sleek and powerful console with a great set of launch games.  Nintendo didn’t have the luxury of exclusivity this time around but it didn’t matter.  Publishers wanted to release games on the undisputed winner of the previous generations new machine.

The Super Famicom was a console that had been designed by games developers and players.  Nintendo had talked to it’s in-house teams and specially chosen external companies, like Rare, to find out what they expected in the next generation platform.

The Super Famicom released in Japan to pretty much instant success.  The console sold so well that Nintendo were forced to ship them at night to stop organised groups from stealing them.  Whilst they quickly caught up with Sega in their home territory they didn’t have the same lead they’d had before.

The battle was even closer in North America and Europe when the console was released as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (shortened to Super Nintendo or Snes).   However, although it was popular in South America, most of it remained a Sega stronghold, especially Brazil.

Although most of the world had a console that looked like the Japanese Famicom, the North American model was more boxy and had a curious bulge around the cartridge.  The rumoured reason is that a lot of the failed NES consoles were damaged by things being spilt inside when they were balanced on top, so the console was given less space at the top for this to happen.

The resultant polarity amongst owners saw the first Fanboy wars of the console world.  In the previous generation Nintendo had been so dominant that they were largely the only console anyone talked about, but now the playgrounds were split between Nintendo and Sega.

The Super Nintendo was, on paper, a far more sophisticated machine than the Megadrive.  The Megadrive managed to compete because the Motorola 68000 was still a very powerful chip, and generally faster at most tasks.

The Super Famicom did win the generation, but it was a hard battle.  Sega had shown that Nintendo were vulnerable and they were still two years ahead in console development.  But Nintendo had proven that they did not get intimidated by competition and had produced a genuinely classic console.

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Gamecube

Nintendo Gamecube

5th Generation Competitors
Dreamcast Playstation 2 XBox
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 14th Sep 2001 2007  4.04M
North America 18th Nov 2001 2007  21.74M
Europe 3rd May 2002 2007  4.77M

Nintendo followed the 64 with their first optical disc based console.  The Gamecube used mini DVD discs, they held less than a full sized DVD but were also (slightly) harder to reproduce.

Obviously using the smaller discs also meant that the Gamecube had no chance of playing DVD movies – although Panasonic did release a licensed version called the Q that could.  The Q was the result of a similar deal to the Sharp deal that Nintendo struck with the Famicom.  Panasonic’s parent company, Matsushita, created the miniDVD drives and Panasonic were allowed to release the Q.

The graphics chip for the Gamecube was created by a startup called ArtX.  ArtX was started by ex SGI employees, who had previously created the Graphics processor for the Nintendo 64.  Although ArtX were purchased by ATI before it was finally delivered.

The CPU was created by IBM and based on the PowerPC technology mostly used by Apple’s PowerMac computers.

The Gamecube did not sell great compared to it’s main rivals, but it did outsell the XBox in it’s home territory of Japan.  It did manage to outsell the early cancelled Dreamcast.

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Famicom

Famicom

 

3rd Generation Competitors
Sega MasterSystem Amstrad GX4000 Commodore 64 Game System Atari 7800
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 15th Jul 1983 2003  19.35M
North America 18th Oct 1985 1995  34M
Europe 1987 1995  8.56M

The Family Computer (Famicom).  Possibly one of the most famous consoles in history.  It supplanted the Atari 2600 as the go to word for gaming and successfully rebooted a failing gaming market.

Nintendo was hot off a string of popular arcade titles and decided they didn’t want other companies to get the money for bringing them in the home.  So they started development of their home system.

Initially released in Japan, it eventually made it’s way to North America and Europe as the Nintendo Entertainment System and to South Korea as the Hyundai Comport.  It was easily the best selling consoles of the third generation.

Along with a new hardware platform, Nintendo also created the now standard method of licensing and approval.  They’d witnessed how the gaming market in America had combusted due to a rash of poor quality titles.  So developers had to register with Nintendo and get their products licensed before they could be distributed.

To stop non-licensees releasing games Nintendo added a simple method of authentication.  The solution meant that each cartridge had to have a compatible chip inside it to run.  This didn’t entirely stop unlicensed games, a few companies reverse engineered the design and made their own cartridges, or made cartridges that could ‘piggy back’ on licensed games and run that way.

The power of the Famicom drew a lot of developers to Nintendo, and Nintendo took advantage of this by making them sign rigid agreements, these agreements stopped them from developing from competing platforms.  Because of this it was hard for competitors to thrive and is one of the main reasons Sega struggled with the Master System.

The platform also lured a group of incredibly successful developers who had worked on the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64.  These developers, called Imagine, sold the rights to the name and most of their IP and re-appeared named Rare.  They impressed Nintendo so much that they eventually bought a large share in the small British company.

Nintendo didn’t really see much competition in the third generation.  The MasterSystem was poorly advertised and was missing many of the key developers due to Nintendo’s agreements.  The two other notable platforms, the GX4000 from Amstrad and the Game System from Commodore never took off.  The C64GS was underpowered and the GX4000 hit the market too late.

Nintendo also released a disc drive for the Famicom.  This drive only came out in Japan and used proprietary 3 inch discs.  These discs had an embossed Nintendo logo which acted like the copy protection.

The idea behind the discs was that you could buy games as normal but you could also go to kiosks which would burn the game you wanted to a disc.  These discs could also be time locked for demo or rental purposes.

Sharp helped with the development of the drive and were allowed to create several Famicom based products.  These included a TV with a built-in Famicom and a unit, called the Famicom Twin which merged the Famicom and Disc System into one.

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Nintendo 64

Nintendo 64

5th Generation Competitors
3DO Jaguar Saturn Playstation CD32 FM Towns Marty PC-FX Pippin Playdia Loopy
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 23rd Jun 1996 2002  5.54M
North America 26th Sep 1996 2003  20.63M
Europe 1st Mar 1997 2003  6.75M

How do you follow-up two classic consoles like the Super Nintendo and the Nintendo Entertainment System?  For Nintendo it was the 64.  The Nintendo 64 was a 3D powerhouse designed to compete with Sony‘s Playstation and Sega‘s Saturn.

The first difference in this generation was the game medium, after the fiasco with the Super Nintendo and the CD system being designed by Sony (which ended up at the Playstation), Nintendo decided to stick to cartridges, unlike their competitors who changed to the cheaper and far more versatile CD.

Even the choice of technology wasn’t without drama.  The 3D capabilities were driven by a custom SGI chip.  SGI were masters of 3D, known for their workstations that helped deliver early CGI film effects.

But Nintendo weren’t the first potential customers, Sega were the original partners, but in a move just like Nintendo‘s own Sony CD decision, Sega Japan decided they couldn’t work with SGI.

Whilst the Nintendo 64 didn’t win in it’s generation, it was beaten by the Playstation.  It was certainly a powerful machine and delivered several revolutionary games.

Mario 64 and GoldenEye laid down the rules for 3D platformers and console FPSs respectively.  Mario Kart showed that fast local multiplayer games were a reality and Zelda: Ocarina of Time showed that story driven games were still possible on a cartridge medium.

The Nintendo 64 had 4 ports built-in and many games supported local multiplayer.  Nintendo also sold controllers in a variety of colours.

In an effort to support some of the advantages of CD (such as streaming music and larger storage size) Nintendo released the 64DD.  This was a magneto-optical storage system that more resembled large floppy disks than CDs.

The add-on wasn’t very popular and most games were cancelled, in the end it only came out in Japan (although a US prototype had been found).  As an example of how versatile the system could have been, the F-Zero X extension kit was released which added a map editor.

In the end the high price of the cartridges compared to the CDs of the Playstation stopped Nintendo from truly competing.  The Nintendo 64 would be the last console with cartridge support for quite a while.

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