Japanese Gaming History: The Second Console Wars

  • OTAKU
  • CULTURE
  • Rise of the Playstation

    After Sony’s humiliation at the hands of Nintendo at the 1991 CES (Consumer Electronics Show), Sony’s president Norio Ohga was furious and craved revenge. He asked a young up-and-comer Ken Kutaragi to develop a console that could finally topple Nintendo from their perch.

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    Kutaragi attacked the project with relish. They had already developed the proprietary CD-ROM technology with Phillips for Nintendo. But as development got underway, there were some problems within Sony. Many of the older board members were worried about throwing their hats into the console ring. Every other company that tried to compete with the king on the mountain, Nintendo, had gotten their butts handed to them. So, many of the executives, particularly the older ones, refused to sign on to the project. Kutaragi was able to convince Ohga to keep the project alive, but he was forced to move the project to another division; Sony Music.

    Kutaragi would then meet Shigeo Maruyama, president of Sony Music, and Olaf Olafsson, president of Sony Interactive Entertainment. The three would found Sony Computer Entertainment of America. Under this new banner, they would attract as many developers and programmers as they could.

    The Nintendo 64

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    The development of the N64 was originally named Project Reality. Nintendo worked with SGI (Silicon Graphics Inc.) to create the processor for the new console. What they created was codenamed the Ultra 64, then finally the Nintendo 64. At 64 bits the N64 was more powerful than any of its competitors, including the Sony Playstation.

    But here Nintendo made their biggest mistake. Most of the other game consoles had decided to move onto CD technology. CDs were cheaper than cartridges, could hold more information and were easier to code for. But, Nintendo kept a stranglehold on production because they singularly had total control of cartridge amount. Nintendo was incredibly worried about piracy and having their hardware copied. So, Nintendo decided to have this new, most powerful system also run on cartridges. This decision would be a bullet to the head of Nintendo.

    Retreat from Nintendo

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    In 1994, Sony would hold a tech demonstration of the Playstation’s prowess for developers. While the Playstation was technically weaker than the N64, because it used CDs it was cheaper and easier to develop for. Sony’s first 2 major wins were securing the loyalty of Namco and Electronic Arts.

    The Playstation launched in December 1994 in Japan and because it was priced lower than the Sega Saturn it was instantly a major success. It would release the next year in America.

    One by one, developers moved away from Nintendo and made games for the Playstation. Sega and the Genesis had shaken the trees. The Playstation would carry on where Sega left off, and cause an avalanche. One of the biggest departures was Square. Square was a developer famous for both the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy franchises. They had formally had a great partnership with Nintendo, but because of Nintendo’s decision to use cartridges they could not develop the type of ambitious games that they wanted to.

    Try to think of it this way, the N64 with cartridges is like a sports car with a speed governor. The cartridge was a major obstacle for development. Even Nintendo’s Miyamoto would struggle with this.

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    Square would create one of gaming’s most iconic entries: Final Fantasy VII. It was the first 3D entry in the series. It also included CG animated movie sequences and spanned 3 separate discs. I remember playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time. It was unlike anything else I had ever seen before. I didn’t eat or sleep for maybe 2 days as I played.

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    Another major game changer (pun intended) was Metal Gear Solid. Hideo Kojima and Konami produced the first 3D entry into their Metal Gear series. For me, this was the first game I played that actually had a real story. It was like playing a movie, but better. This was the first game that I really remember playing. I must have beaten it nearly 100 times.

    The Age of 3D

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    While Nintendo was hurting, it was not slouching. Miyamoto and his team would make one the first fully 3D open-world platformer; Super Mario 64. This would change the whole industry, and every game company and franchise would try to convert each game from 2D to 3D. Even Pacman and Megaman would get 3D entries. Some of these games would make the transition well, some… not so much.

    Using the same engine from Super Mario 64 Nintendo would develop the next entry in the Zelda franchise: The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time. This game is considered by many as one of the best games ever made. They would also work again with Rare and make Goldeneye 007. This is one of the most popular first-person shooters of all time. It would breed many of the FPS tropes that we still live with today.

    Edging Toward a New Millennium

    Sony would come out on top of the second console war. It had the most developers in it’s hands, and had sold a record-breaking 102 million units. But, in the next generation a new threat from an American computer company would shake everything up again.

    Related articles:
    Japanese Gaming History: The End of the First Console Wars
    Japanese Gaming History: The First Console Wars
    Japanese Gaming History: Nintendo came out!
    The beginnings of the Japanese Gaming History