Fifth Generation 5

Video Game Generation 5
The fifth-generation era (also known as the 32-bit era, the 64-bit era or the 3D era) refers to the computer and video games, video game consoles, and video game handhelds from approximately 1993 to 2001 and was dominated by three consoles, the Sega Saturn (1994), the PlayStation (1994), and the Nintendo 64 (1996). Demographics in console sales varied widely, but these three consoles, especially the PlayStation, defined the system wars of this era. The 3DO, Atari Jaguar, Amiga CD32, PC-FX and several others were also part of this era, but their sales were poor and they failed to make a significant impact on the market. For handhelds, this era was characterized by significant fragmentation, because the first handheld, Sega Nomad had a lifespan of just two years, and the Virtual Boy for less than one year only, with both of them being discontinued before the other handhelds made their debut. Nintendo’s Game Boy Color was the winner in handhelds by a large margin. There were also two updated versions of the original Game Boy: Game Boy Light (Japan only) and Game Boy Pocket.

Bit ratings for consoles largely fell by the wayside during this era, with the notable exceptions of the Nintendo 64 and the heavy usage of references to the 64-bit processing power of the Atari Jaguar in advertisements. The number of “bits” cited in console names referred to the CPU word size and had been used by hardware marketers as a “show of power” for many years. However, there was little to be gained from increasing the word size much beyond 32 or 64 bits because once this level was reached, performance depended on more varied factors, such as processor clock speed, bandwidth, and memory size.

The fifth generation also saw the rise of emulation. During this period, commonly available personal computers became powerful enough to emulate the 8- and 16-bit systems of the previous generation. Also, the development of the Internet made it possible to store and download tape and ROM images of older games, eventually leading 7th generation consoles (such as the Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, and Nintendo DSi) to make many older games available for purchase or download.

The fifth generation of game systems consists of:

  • 3DO Interactive Multiplayer
  • Atari Jaguar
  • Sega Saturn
  • PlayStation
  • Nintendo 64
  • NEC PC-FX
  • Apple Bandai Pippin
  • Casio Loopy

Transition to 3D

The 32-bit/64-bit era is most noted for the rise of fully 3D games. While there were games prior that had used three dimensional environments, such as Virtua Racing and Star Fox, it was in this era that many game designers began to move traditionally 2D and pseudo-3D genres into 3D. Early efforts from then-industry leaders Nintendo and Sega saw the introduction of the Super FX and Sega 32X which provided rudimentary 3D capabilities to the 16-bit SNES and Sega Genesis. Super Mario 64 on the N64, Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation, and Tomb Raider on the Saturn (later released on the PlayStation as well), are prime examples of this trend. Their 3D environments were widely marketed and they steered the industry’s focus away from side-scrolling and rail-style titles, as well as opening doors to more complex games and genres. 3D became the main focus in this era as well as a slow decline of Cartridges in favor of CDs, due to the ability to produce games less expensively. The game also included more dramatic cut scenes with symphonic music – the term “interactive movie” became less associated with games that made heavy use of full-motion video and more with games with an action movie feel to them, such as Metal Gear Solid.

CD vs cartridge

After allowing Sony to develop a CD-based prototype console for them and a similar failed partnership with Philips, Nintendo decided to make the Nintendo 64 a cartridge-based system like its predecessors. Publicly, Nintendo defended this decision on the grounds that it would give games shorter load times than a compact disc (and would decrease piracy). However, it also had the dubious benefit of allowing Nintendo to charge higher licensing fees, as cartridge production was considerably more expensive than CD production. Many third-party developers like EA Sports viewed this as an underhanded attempt to raise more money for Nintendo and many of them became more reluctant to release games on the N64.

Nintendo’s decision to use a cartridge based system sparked a small scale war amongst gamers as to which was better. The “media war” was spurred on no less by statements from top company executives themselves; one Nintendo magazine ad placed a Space Shuttle (cartridge) next to a snail (a CD) and dared consumers to decide “which one was better”. At the time, CD-ROMs did suffer from long load times (some games, like Tekken, even featured “mini” games that players could play while the real game was loading).

Despite these and other moves by Nintendo, almost every other contemporary system used the new CD-ROM technology (the Nintendo 64 was the last major home video game console to use cartridges). Also appealing to publishers was the fact that CDs could be produced at significantly less expense and with more flexibility (it was easy to change production to meet demand), and they were able to pass the lower costs onto consumers. In particular, the fifth generation marked a turning point for optical-based storage media. As games grew more complex in content, sound, and graphics, the CD proved more than capable of providing enough space for the extra data. The cartridge format, however, was pushed beyond the limits of its storage capacity. Consequently, many game developers shifted their support away from the Nintendo 64 to the PlayStation. One of the most influential game franchises to change consoles during this era was the Final Fantasy series, beginning with Final Fantasy VII, which was originally developed for the N64 but due to storage capacity issues was developed for and released on the PlayStation; prior Final Fantasy games had all been published on Nintendo consoles – either the Nintendo Entertainment System or Super Nintendo.

Many events transpired to mislead gamers during this era, causing much confusion over which console was superior to the others. Adding to the uncertainty was the fact that there were more competing consoles in this era than at any other time since the North American video game crash of 1983, with video game magazines frequently performing side-by-side hardware-specification comparisons of the systems using dubious statistics. Also, console makers routinely boasted theoretical maximum limits of each system’s 3D polygon rendering without accounting for real world in-game performance.

The FM Towns Marty is sometimes claimed to be the world’s first 32-bit console (as opposed to the Amiga CD32 and 3DO), being released in 1991 by Japanese electronic company Fujitsu. However, the Intel 80386SX CPU is not a fully 32-bit processor as it only supports 16-bit bus addressing (similar to the Motorola 68000 in 1985’s Amiga 1000). Furthermore, the 386SX supports a maximum of 24-bit RAM addressing. Never released outside of Japan, it was largely marketed as a console version of the FM Towns home computer, being compatible with games developed for the FM Towns. It failed to make an impact in the marketplace due to its expense relative to other consoles and inability to compete with home computers.

Despite massive third party support and an unprecedented amount of hype for a first-time entrant into the industry, the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer’s $700 price tag hindered its success.

The Amiga CD32 was sold in Europe, Australia and Canada, but never in the United States due to Commodore’s bankruptcy. A large stock of NTSC CD-32s remained at the factory in the Philippines, which were later sold off by creditors and continued to appear on the second hand market for many years.

The Sega 32X, an add-on console for the Mega Drive/Genesis and Sega CD, was released almost simultaneously with the Sega Saturn. The Sega Neptune was also announced as a standalone version of the 32X, but ultimately canceled. Sega failed to deliver a steady flow of games for the 32X platform. More importantly, with the Saturn and PlayStation already on the horizon, most gamers preferred to save up their money rather than spend it on a console that was doomed to become obsolete in just a few months.

The Sega Saturn was released as Sega’s entry into the 32-bit console market. It was moderately successful, selling 9.5 million units worldwide. However, it was not the commercial success that the Master System and Mega Drive had been and lagged in third place (behind the (by then) less expensive PlayStation and N64 consoles) until it was discontinued.

The Atari Jaguar was released in 1993 as the world’s first 64-bit system. However, sales at launch were well below the incumbent fourth generation consoles, and a small games library rooted in a shortage of third party support made it impossible for the Jaguar to catch up. The system’s 64-bit nature was also questioned by many. The 32-bit Atari Panther was set to be released in 1991, but was canceled due to unexpectedly rapid progress in developing the Jaguar.

The Atari Jaguar CD, an add-on console for the Jaguar, was released in 1995. Due to the extremely low installed base of the Jaguar itself, the Jaguar CD was only produced in very limited quantities, and so had no chance to make any impact in the market.

The PlayStation was the most successful console of this generation, with attention given by 1st and 3rd party developers enabling it to achieve market dominance, becoming the first console to ship 100 million units worldwide.

Because of many delays to the release of the Nintendo 64, in 1995 Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a supposedly portable system capable of displaying true 3D graphics, albeit in monochromatic red and black. Because of its graphical capabilities, the system could cause headaches and eye strain, and was not functionally portable, though it was marketed as such. It was discontinued within a year, with less than 25 games ever released for it.

The Nintendo 64, originally announced as the “Ultra 64”, was released in 1996. The system’s use of the cartridge format while all of its competitors used CDs made it an unpopular platform among third party developers. However, a number of wildly popular 1st party titles allowed the Nintendo 64 to maintain solid sales, though it would never match the success of the PlayStation.

NEC, creator of the TurboGrafx-16, TurboDuo, Coregrafx, and SuperGrafx, also entered the market with the PC-FX in 1994. The system had a 32-bit processor, 16-bit stereo sound, a 16,777,000 color palette and featured the highest quality full motion video of any console on the market at the time. The PC-FX broke away from traditional console design by being a tower system that allowed for numerous expansion points including a connection for NEC’s PC-9800 series of computers. Despite the impressive specs it was marketed as the ultimate side-scrolling console and could not match the sales of the 3D systems currently on the market.

After the dust settled in the fifth generation console wars, several companies saw their outlooks change drastically. Atari, which was already on shaky ground after setbacks to Nintendo in the previous generation, ended up being purchased by JT Storage and stopped making game hardware. Sega’s loss of consumer confidence (coupled with its previous console failures) in North America set the company up for a similar fate in the next round of console wars.

The Sega Saturn, although the most technically advanced console of the generation, suffered from poor marketing and comparatively limited third-party support. Sega’s decision to use dual processors was roundly criticized, and some believe the second CPU was added as a “panic” response to the PlayStation’s specifications.

Regardless of their reasons for including it, only Sega’s first-party developers were ever able to use the second CPU effectively. The Saturn was far more difficult than the PlayStation to program for.

Sega was also hurt by a surprise four-month-early U.S. launch of their console. Third party developers, who had been planning for the originally scheduled launch, could not provide launch titles and were angered by the move. Retailers were caught unprepared, resulting in distribution problems. Some retailers, such as KB Toys, were so furious that they refused to stock the Saturn thereafter.

Due to numerous delays, the Nintendo 64 was released one year later than its competitors. By the time it was finally launched in 1996, Sony had already established its dominance, the Sega Saturn was starting to struggle, and the Atari Jaguar and Panasonic 3DO were discontinued and out of the competition. Its use of cartridge media rather than compact discs alienated some developers and publishers due to the space limits and the relatively high cost involved, US$3.50 for an N64 cartridge versus US$0.35 for a PS disc. In addition, the initially high suggested retail price of the console may have driven potential customers away, and some early adopters of the system who had paid the initial cost may have been angered by Nintendo’s decision to reduce the cost of the system US$50 six months after its release. However, the Nintendo 64 was popular in the Americas, selling 20.63 million units there (more than half of its worldwide sales of 32.93 million units), and is home to highly successful games such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and Super Smash Bros.. However, while the Nintendo 64 sold far more units than the Sega Saturn, Atari Jaguar, and Panasonic 3DO, it failed to surpass the PlayStation, which dominated the market.