Fourth Generation 4
In the history of computer and video games, the fourth generation (more commonly referred to as the 16-bit era) of games consoles began on October 30, 1987 with the Japanese release of Nippon Electric Company’s (NEC) PC Engine (known as the TurboGrafx-16 in North America). Although NEC released the first fourth generation console, this era was dominated by the rivalry between Nintendo and Sega’s consoles: the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (the Super Famicom in Japan) and the Mega Drive (named the Sega Genesis in North America due to trademark issues). Nintendo was able to capitalize on its previous success in the third generation and managed to win the largest worldwide market share in the fourth generation as well. Sega was extremely successful in this generation and began a new franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog, to compete with Nintendo’s Mario series of games. Several other companies released consoles in this generation, but, with the exception of the Neo Geo from SNK, none of them were widely successful. Nevertheless, several other companies started to take notice of the maturing video game industry and began making plans to release consoles of their own in the future.
The fourth generation of game systems consists of:
- Mega Drive/Sega Genesis
- Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System
- Neo Geo AES
- Commodore CDTV
- Pioneer LaserActive
- Neo Geo CD
The PC Engine was the result of a collaboration between Hudson Soft and NEC and launched in Japan on October 30, 1987. It launched in North America during August 1989, under the name TurboGrafx-16.
Initially, the PC Engine was quite successful in Japan, partly due to titles available on the then-new CD-ROM format. NEC released a CD add-on in 1990 and by 1992 had released a combination TurboGrafx and CD-ROM system known as the Turbo Duo.
In the USA, NEC used Bonk, a head-banging caveman, as their mascot and featured him in most of the TurboGrafx advertising from 1990 to 1994. The platform was well received initially, especially in larger markets, but failed to make inroads into the smaller metropolitan areas where NEC did not have as many store representatives or as focused in-store promotion.
The TurboGrafx-16 failed to maintain its sales momentum or to make a strong impact in North America. The TurboGrafx-16 and its CD combination system, the Turbo Duo, ceased manufacturing in North America by 1994, though a small amount of software continued to trickle out for the platform.
In Japan, a number of more adult titles were also available for the PC-Engine, such as a variety of strip mahjong games (such as the Super Real Mahjong series), which set it apart from its competitors.
Mega Drive/Sega Genesis
The Mega Drive was released in Japan on October 29, 1988. The console was released in New York City and Los Angeles on August 14, 1989 under the name Sega Genesis, and in the rest of North America later that year. It was launched in Europe and Australia on November 30, 1990 under its original name.
Sega initially had a hard time overcoming Nintendo’s ubiquitous presence in the American consumer’s home. That changed in late 1991, as Sega built their marketing campaign around their new mascot Sonic the Hedgehog, pushing the Genesis as the “cooler” alternative to Nintendo’s console and inventing the term “Blast Processing” to suggest that the Genesis was capable of handling games with faster motion than the SNES. Their advertising was often directly adversarial, leading to commercials such as “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” and the “‘SEGA!’ scream”.
When the arcade game Mortal Kombat was ported for home release on the Mega Drive and Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo decided to censor the game’s gore, but Sega kept the content in the game, via a code entered at the start screen (A,B,A,C,A,B,B). Sega’s gamble paid off, as its version of Mortal Kombat received generally higher and more favorable reviews in the gaming press and outsold the SNES version three to one. This violence also led to Congressional hearings to investigate the marketing of violent video games to children, and to the creation of the Interactive Digital Software Association and the Entertainment Software Rating Board. With the new ESRB rating system in place, Nintendo reconsidered its position for the release of Mortal Kombat II, and this time became the preferred version among reviewers. Sega, however, ran into a minor roadblock with the popularity of fighting games with advanced controls, because its controller only featured three action buttons. In response to the upcoming Street Fighter 2 Special Champion Edition and Mortal Kombat, Sega introduced a 6-button controller. Most new games could still be played with the original 3-button controller however, but the company suggested its gamers buy and adopt the new 6-button model.
Despite the Genesis’ and Mega Drive’s success in North America and Europe, the console was never popular in Japan (being regularly outsold by the PC Engine), but it still managed to sell 40 million units worldwide. By late 1995, Sega was supporting five different consoles and two add-ons, and Sega of Japan chose to discontinue the Mega Drive in Japan to concentrate on the new Sega Saturn. While this made perfect sense for the Japanese market, it was disastrous in North America: the market for Genesis games was much larger than for the Saturn, but Sega was left without the inventory or software to meet demand.
Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Nintendo executives were initially reluctant to design a new system, but as the market transitioned to the newer hardware, Nintendo saw the erosion of the commanding market share it had built up with the Famicom (called Nintendo Entertainment System outside Japan).
Nintendo’s fourth-generation console, the Super Famicom, was released in Japan on November 21, 1990; Nintendo’s initial shipment of 300,000 units sold out within hours. The machine reached North America as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System on August 23, 1991, and Europe and Australia in April 1992.
Despite stiff competition from the Mega Drive/Sega Genesis console, the Super Famicom/SNES eventually took the top selling position, selling 49.10 million units worldwide, and would even remain popular well into the 32-bit generation. Nintendo’s market position was defined by their machine’s increased video and sound capabilities, as well as exclusive first-party franchise titles such as Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past and Super Metroid. Later titles such as Star Fox and Donkey Kong Country would keep the Super Famicom/SNES relevant well into the “fifth generation” era of 32- and 64-bit consoles.
Released by SNK in 1990, the Neo Geo was a home console version of the major arcade platform. Compared to its console competition, the Neo Geo had much better graphics and sound, but the prohibitively expensive launch price of $649.99 USD made the console only accessible to a niche market. A less expensive version, retailing for $399.99, did not include a memory card, pack-in game or extra joystick.
Nintendo, NEC and Sega also competed with hardware peripherals for their consoles in this generation. NEC was the first with the release of the TurboGrafx CD system in 1990. Retailing for $499.99 at release, the CD add-on was not a popular purchase, but was largely responsible for the platform’s success in Japan. Sega made two attempts: the Sega-CD (renamed Sega-CD in North America) and the Sega 32X. The Sega CD was plagued by a high price tag ($300 at its release) and a limited library of games. The 32X faced a number of problems, primarily technical and commercial: the peripheral would occasionally not work with some consoles, and some retailers were not able to meet the initial demand for the add-on, leading to shortages. A unique add-on for the Sega console was Sega Channel, a subscription based service hosted by local television providers. It required hardware that plugged into a cable line and the Genesis.
Nintendo made an attempt with their successful Satellaview and Super Game Boy. The former was a satellite service released only on the Japanese market and the latter an adapter for the Super Famicom and SNES that allowed Game Boy games to be displayed on a TV in color. Nintendo, working along with Sony, also had plans to create a CD-ROM drive for the SNES (plans that resulted in a prototype called the “Play Station”), but eventually decided not to go through with that project, opting to team up with Philips in the development of the add-on instead (contrary to popular belief, the CD-i was largely unrelated to the project). Sony decided to go ahead with the CD-ROM development and used the name “PlayStation” for their own standalone CD-based console, overseen by former Super Famicom sound-chip engineer, Ken Kutaragi.
The first handheld game console released in the fourth generation was the Game Boy, on April 21, 1989. It went on to dominate handheld sales by an extremely large margin, despite featuring a low-contrast, unlit monochrome screen while all three of its leading competitors had color. Three major franchises made their debut on the Game Boy: Tetris, the Game Boy’s killer application; Pokémon; and Kirby. With some design (Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Light) and hardware (Game Boy Color) changes, it continued in production in some form until 2008, enjoying a better than 18-year run.
The Atari Lynx included hardware-accelerated color graphics, a backlight, and the ability to link upto sixteen units together in an early example of network play when its competitors could only link 2 or 4 consoles (or none at all), but its comparatively short battery life (approximately 4.5 hours on a set of alkaline cells, versus at least 10–11 hours for the Game Boy), high price, and weak games library made it one of the worst-selling handheld game systems of all time, with less than 500,000 units sold.
The third major handheld of the fourth generation was the Sega Game Gear. It featured graphics capabilities roughly comparable to the Master System (better colours, but lower resolution), a ready made games library by using the “Master-Gear” adaptor to play cartridges from the older console, and the opportunity to be converted into a portable TV using a cheap tuner adaptor, but it also suffered some of the same shortcomings as the Lynx. While it sold more than twenty times as many units as the Lynx, its bulky design – slightly larger than even the original Game Boy; relatively poor battery life – only a little better than the Lynx; and later arrival in the marketplace – competing for sales amongst the remaining buyers who didn’t already have a Game Boy – hampered its overall popularity despite being more closely competitive to the Nintendo in terms of price and breadth of software library. Sega eventually retired the Game Gear in 1997, a year before Nintendo released the first examples of the Game Boy Color, to focus on the Nomad and non-portable console products.
Other handheld consoles released during the fourth generation included the TurboExpress, a handheld version of the TurboGrafx-16 released by NEC in 1990, and the Game Boy Pocket, an improved model of the Game Boy released about two years before the debut of the Game Boy Color. While the TurboExpress was another early pioneer of color handheld gaming technology and had the added benefit of using the same game cartridges or ‘HuCards’ as the TurboGrafx16, it had even worse battery life than the Lynx and Game Gear – about three hours on six contemporary AA batteries – selling only 1.5 million units.