Thursday, July 31, 2014

Genesis Does What Nintendon’t. The Alternate Console Wars, Part Two

Guest post Ben Ronning.
I openly admit that I am more a child of the nineteen-nineties and my own nostalgia for the decade likely colors my judgment when I reflect upon the fourth generation of video game. Some call it the “16-Bit Wars” and for good reason. Despite its failure to gain a foothold during the previous generation, Sega finally managed to challenge the seemingly invincible Nintendo and almost brought the giant to its knees. Yet the company itself made some questionable decisions--notably creating peripherals like the Sega CD and 32X to extend the life cycle of the aging Genesis. However, intra-company rivalries between the Japanese and American branches also played a role in the company’s downfall, giving the narrative the air of a biblical parable or a Shakespearean tragedy.

As former Sega president Tom Kalinske said in an interview with Sega-16:

“In hindsight, I think there probably was. I don’t believe there was from 1991-1993. I think somewhere in the mid ’90s, ’94 or ’95, they built up a great deal of resentment, and I didn’t realize it at the time, until probably the latter part of 1995, when one of my colleagues in Japan, who I knew well and had a good relationship with, said to me something to the effect of “you don’t understand how browbeat and annoyed the Japanese executives here are because of your success. Every meeting we go into, Nakayama asks us why can’t you do things the way the Americans and Europeans did? Why aren’t you guys as successful as they are? We’ve been around longer.” I think the local executives didn’t appreciate that he’d take that tone with them. Apparently, he also beat them up over Sonic, which was never as successful in Japan as it was in the U.S. and Europe (to this day, that’s the case), and I think he was always throwing that in their faces too. So clearly, by late ’95 there was great resentment built up: jealously, resentment, and kind of a desire to get back at those Americans that Nakayama kept throwing in their faces.”

What few people realize is that Sega and Sony could have released what would have become the PlayStation as a joint venture, but Sega of Japan rejected the idea in the belief that, “Sony doesn't know how to make hardware.” Similarly, Silicon Graphics, the company that designed the CPU for the Nintendo 64, approached Sega first, but again, Sega of Japan vetoed the idea. Ultimately, it was the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 that felled the Sega Saturn during the fifth generation, which contributed to the fall of the Dreamcast in the sixth.

Nintendo was not without its hubris as well. Many gamers are aware of the origins of the Sony PlayStation; the company originally partnered with Nintendo to produce a CD peripheral for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The company also built a prototype PlayStation, which was effectively a SNES with a CD-ROM drive attached. However, problems arose over the issue of royalties. Sony wanted the royalties from any CD-based games produced for the system while Nintendo would take royalties from cartridge-based games. As such, Nintendo broke their deal with Sony to partner with their competitor, Phillips after Sony announced the SNES-CD as CES 1991. Ultimately, nothing came out of Nintendo’s partnership with Phillips, aside from games that received derision from the fans, and Sony became Nintendo’s chief competitor.

Cronus Invictus by Thande is one of the more popular video game alternate histories on AH.com despite its comparative shortness and over four years of inactivity. Every once in a blue moon when the cows practice their high jumps, a random poster will try to revive the thread no avail. Video game history in Invictus diverges when Hiroshi Yamauchi, President and Chairman of Nintendo at the time, reads the contract made with Sony and both party manage to renegotiate the terms and Nintendo and Sony release the SNES-CD, dubbed the “Super CD”, add-on in 1993. However, there are some interesting deviations that occur before the release.

If you are a Sonic fan, then chances are you are aware of the Simon Wai Prototype of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 where incomplete levels (notably the Hidden Palace Zone, and to a lesser extent, the Wood Zone) intrigued fans for well over a decade. Hidden Palace, as well as the never-completed Genocide City Zone, made it to the final product. Thande even references the time travel element that ultimately went to Sonic CD being reworked into a teleportation gimmick for the Hidden Palace boss. Additionally, Sega produced Sonic games based on the 1993 “SatAM” animated series and the UK-published Sonic the Comic. However, the timeline is not a complete Sega wank, despite what the title would suggest. Atari comes roaring back with the Cougar, marketed towards young adults and NEC still continues with its PC Engine/TurboGraphix line.

To my relief, the disastrous 32X never saw release and Sega instead released the Radical as the 32-bit enhanced Sega CD add-on as their response to the SNES CD. However, Thande stopped work on the timeline before he could elaborate on the next generation aside from vague rumblings of Sega’s Project Saturn and Nintendo’s Project Reality, which became the Nintendo 64 in our timeline, thought the timeline’s title implies whose system triumphs. Cronus Invictus, though inactive, serves as the template for other timelines to wax the nostalgic about what games could have been.

Player Two Start, a joint timeline by Nivek and RySenkari, is one such timeline that uses the same premise as Cronus Invictus. Nintendo and Sony produce the SNES-CD, but builds on the format by writing it in the form of fictional articles, quotes, and reviews. The pair also goes into greater detail into the content of the games, notably the sequel to Super Mario World where they list the themes of the various worlds and the nature of the boss battles. To give you an idea of how enhanced the SNES-CD is in Player Two Start, the author states that the fictional system is more powerful than the Neo Geo AES, the most powerful system at the time. The link provided should give you an idea of the graphical capabilities of the SNES-CD in this timeline, which is to say amazing considering the graphical power of a non-enhanced SNES and Genesis. Thus far, Player Two Start has only reached 1993 but the timeline is still ongoing, but considering how updates can be months apart, it may be a while before we see the next installment. However, with the cliffhanger the latest installment ends on, I am certain it will be worth the wait. 

And lastly, we come to Beyond the Genesis by Confortius, which I recommend because of my shameless partiality towards Sega. Like Player Two Start its format is partly reviews, but it is most mostly descriptions of games that could have been and bits of news. Sega avoids the damage caused by the intra-company rivalries by focusing its next-generation system uses the Silicon Graphics’ SGI MIPS4000i in lieu on its efforts with the Sega CD and 32X. While I do not find Beyond the Genesis as immersive as Player Two Start, there are enough surprises to raise a few eyebrows. For those who were addicted to Pokemon as children in the late nineties, expect a bigger grudge match between Pokemon and Digimon with Sega’s merger with Bandai, which collapsed in our timeline.

However, video game alternate histories are ultimately a niche subject. Despite the industry having its fair share of big personalities and corporate intrigue (as the Nintendo/Sony debacle had shown us), writing a novel-length story on an alternate console war would be a challenge to say least. It is definitely possible but highly improbable, so write them? As the aforementioned beta version of Sonic 2 has shown us, the incomplete levels made fans curious about what could have been. The inclusion of a revamped Hidden Palace Zone for the iOS/Android releases of the game finally gave us an answer. If Tim Pratt could win a Hugo Award for a short story featuring a video store from an alternate timeline, why now video games?

Get cracking, fellow gamers-cum-alternate historians.

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Aspiring writer and platypus enthusiast Ben Ronning has lurked the AH.com boards since June 2006. When he is not roaming the multiverse, he can be found at his blog, Thoughts of a Platypus.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Game Over, Continue? The Alternate Console Wars, Part One

Guest post Ben Ronning.

No one can argue that video games have not made an impact on popular culture worldwide. What started as a primitive electronic version of table tennis has blossomed into a multibillion-dollar industry whose releases rival Hollywood blockbusters in terms of hype and anticipation. The medium itself has been a childhood staple for Generation Xers, and Millennials like myself who made blowing dust from our cartridges a ritual (before I learned that the enzymes in my saliva slowly corroded the pin.) I recently purchased a Nintendo Wii U and I could not help but appreciate the fact that such an action would have appalled my younger self twenty years ago.

You see, dear reader, I was born in 1984 and the great 16-Bit Wars waged by Nintendo and then-rival Sega is a vivid memory to me. Back in Christmas of 1993, my parents bought me a Sega Game Gear and a Genesis (better known as the Mega Drive on the opposite sides of the Pacific and Atlantic) the year after. I was an avid fan of Sega and joined their camp in a war waged on the schoolyards across North America. My birth year is also an important touchstone for the industry, because that is year the industry collapsed, toppling the titan known as Atari and bringing the second generation of video games to a close. Atari’s fall brings up an interesting question: “what would have happened if the market did not collapse in 1983-4?” As does the final fall of Sega fifteen years later where the company bowed out of the hardware market to focus on becoming a third-party game developer. Could Sega have prevented it?

To answer the former question: Atari’s ability to prevent the crash depended on a number of factors. First and foremost, is that Atari’s corporate policy did not allow its employees to take credit for the games they programmed. Many programmers, such as David Crane, creator of Pitfall, left the company to form their own studios. Unfortunately, the rise of third-party developers led to a loss of quality control, which deluged the market with sub par games. Unfortunately, Atari also overhyped games that underperformed such as the infamous E.T. The Extraterrestrial and 2600 adaptation of Pac-Man. Atari produced 12 million cartridges despite having sold on 10 million 2600 consoles at the time, which resulted in the now-confirmed burial of the surplus carts. Several other companies like Mattel, Coleco, Bally, and Fairchild produced their own systems that varied in quality. Unfortunately, as noted by TV Tropes, the wide array of choices hindered their ability to succeed in the long term.

Dirty Laundry: An Alternate 80s” by Andrew T manages to create such a scenario where the video game industry avoids the crash of 1983. While the timeline focuses on pop culture in general, Atari plays a significant part. How did Atari survive the crash? By building a better version of E.T. based on Steven Spielberg’s vision for the game, which he imagined as similar to Pac-Man. (So does that mean we swap Power Pellets for Reese’s Pieces?) Warner Communications, which then owned Atari, CEO, Steve Ross ordered Ray Kassar to replace Howard Scott Warshaw, the programmer of the game in our timeline, with Carla Meninsky over a matter of two hundred grand plus expenses. The game itself becomes the best-selling title for the 2600. Still, despite this aversion, Mattel and Coleco both bow out of the console wars as they did in ours.

However, one other interesting consequence is that Nintendo partnered with Atari to distribute the Famicom in territories outside of Japan. It was something that nearly happened in real life until Jack Trammel killed the deal in 1984. In terms of the games Nintendo produced, such as the iconic Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda, very little would have changed. However, in terms of hardware, the mention of non-volatile random access memory in one post possibly means that players would possibly be able to save their game data on the cartridge itself. That means gamers in North America would not need to use lengthy passwords for games like Metroid and Kid Icarus. The long-term repercussions of a successful Atari/Nintendo partnership are still unknown.

One of the main reasons Nintendo dominated the industry in the late eighties and early nineties are its restrictive policies towards developers that prevented them from releasing games for competing systems. This “quality control” (though reviewers like an infamous nerd with anger issues would argue otherwise) allowed Nintendo to prevent another deluge of shovelware that plagued the previous generation with its lockout chip, though companies such as Tengen (Atari Games) and Wisdom Tree managed to bypass it. Nintendo also enacted strict censorship on the games it published. As noted by Douglas Crockford, Nintendo was quite selective in the language used in their games. Would the partnership be less restrictive in its policies towards third-party companies? Perhaps. Nintendo would have a captive Japanese market but Atari’s attempts to stem third party software were flimsy at best. If Nintendo still controlled the production of the cartridges, then I would not see a significant change in that respect.

The largest flaw I see with "Dirty Laundry" is that it only half complete and thus has not fully explored the implications of a video game market without the crash. While Andrew T confirms that Mattel bows out of the race and Coleco remains on its trajectory towards bankruptcy as it did in our timeline, there is little mention of any video game platforms to challenge Atari/Nintendo outside of the Intellivision III, now produced by Tandy. The platform itself boasts a Motorola 68000 processor (the same chip used by the Mega Drive/Genesis) with wireless controllers and boasts the ability to display 3D graphics for the low, low price of $599.99 plus tax. Andrew T leaves the system’s fate to the reader’s imagination, but it probably went the same route of another technically superior system with a similar price point in the nineties. Still, polygonal graphics still have the potential to be a game changer that could affect the next generation of consoles, particularly the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis and the successor to the Atari Nintendo System, but will need to wait a while. Andrew T last updated last May so the next update may take weeks perhaps even months. I recommend giving the thread a look; if not for the video games, then do it for pop culture in general. You will not regret it.

Alas, there are only a few pop culture alternate histories with a point of divergence predating 1982. Brainbin’s "That Wacky Redhead" focuses on video games a handful of times but it is only a sideshow to the larger cultural and even political trends. However, there are a few elements I liked, notably that a licensed Star Trek arcade game was one of Syzygy’s (as Atari is known as in that timeline) earliest hits. It also appears that several genres that rose to prominence in the nineties, like fighting and adventure games, became popular earlier with a fighting game with Bruce Lee as its main character and an adaptation of Mission Impossible as the template for adventure games. As with "Dirty Laundry", it appears that with greater emphasis on creating a quality product will mean that the market will not crash in "That Wacky Redhead". While the eighties were formative for the fledgling industry, I believe that the console wars of the next decade set the tone for the industry and its players as well as provide fertile ground for alternate historians.

Next up, Genesis Does What Nintendon’t

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Aspiring writer and platypus enthusiast Ben Ronning has lurked the AH.com boards since June 2006. When he is not roaming the multiverse, he can be found at his blog, Thoughts of a Platypus.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

New Releases 7/29/14

You can support The Update by clicking the banner to your right or the links below if you are purchasing through Amazon!

Hardcovers

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century by Alan Moore

The nineteenth century, expiring with a flourish of Moriarty and Martians, has left the division of Military Intelligence commanded by Mina Murray in a state of disrepair. While she and her lover Allan Quatermain have achieved a measure of eternal youth, recruiting new talents such as the trans-gendered immortal Orlando, the ghost-finder Thomas Carnacki, and the gentleman thief A.J. Raffles to replace their deceased or missing colleagues, former associate Captain Nemo has retired to his Pacific pirate island to decline in surly isolation. Now it is the early years of a new and unfamiliar century, and forces are emerging that appear to promise ruin for the Murray group, the nation, and, indeed, the world, even were it to take a hundred years for this apocalyptic threat to come to its disastrous fruition. From the occult parlours and crime-haunted wharfs of 1910, through the criminal, mystical, and psychedelic underworlds of 1969 to the financially and culturally desolated streets of 2009, the disintegrating remnants of Miss Murray and her League must combat not only the hidden hand of their undying adversary, but also the ethical and psychological collapse accompanying this new era. And a lot of things can happen in a CENTURY!

Paperbacks

Jani and the Greater Game by Eric Brown

Jani and the Greater Game is the first book in a rip-roaring, spice-laden, steampunk action adventure series set in India and featuring a heroine who subverts all the norms...

It’s 1910 and the British rule the subcontinent with an iron fist – and with strange technology fuelled by a power source known as Annapurnite – discovered in the foothills of Mount Annapurna. But they rule but at the constant cost of their enemies, mainly the Russians and the Chinese, attempting to learn the secret of this technology... This political confrontation is known as The Greater Game.

Into this conflict is pitched eighteen year old Janisha Chaterjee who discovers a strange device which leads her into the foothills of the Himalayas. When Russians spies and the evil priest Durja Das find out about the device, the chase is on to apprehend Janisha before she can reach the Himalayas. There she will learn the secret behind Annapurnite, and what she learns will change the destiny of the world for ever...

Online Originals

"Brisk Money" by Adam Christopher

Raymond Chandler famously hated science fiction, saying “They pay brisk money for this crap?” However, it has recently come to light that Chandler secretly wrote a series of stories and novels starring a robot detective. He then burnt all the manuscripts and went on writing his noir masterpieces. Unknown to Chandler, his housekeeper had managed to save some of these discarded manuscripts from the grate in his study,  preserving the tales for future generations.

The first of these stories was recently unearthed by author Adam Christopher. On the topic of how the manuscript made its way from Chandler’s study in California to Christopher’s home in England, Christopher is suspiciously quiet.

This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Paul Stevens.

To fans, authors and publishers...

Is your story going to be published in time for the next New Releases? Contact us at ahwupdate at gmail dot com.  We are looking for works of alternate history, counterfactual history, steampunk, historical fantasy, time travel or anything that warps history beyond our understanding.

* * *

Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Amazon Studios to Produce Pilot of Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle

The big news from last week (since I don't have the time to write up a complete Weekly Update) was that Amazon Studios was creating a pilot for a series based on Philip K. Dick's Hugo Award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle.

For those who don't know, The Man in the High Castle is set in a 1962 where the Axis Powers were victorious in World War II. The United States is occupied between a Nazi East Coast, a Japanese West Coast (known as the Pacific States of America) and a neutral "Rocky Mountain States" lumped in a middle as a buffer between the two power blocs.

The novel is considered by some to be the precursor to the modern alternate history genre as it brought the what if game out of the pulpy tales of time travel, magic and parallel universes and allowed for a serious tale of alternate history without any ASBs (although the genre certainly has plenty of that still).

According to DeadlineThe Man In the High Castle is a joint project of Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) and Ridley Scott's (who also adapted Dick's Blade Runner) Scott Free Productions. The pilot will be written by Spotnitz and be directed by David Semel (Legends). The project originally was set up as a four-hour miniseries Syfy last year, but it looks like the cable channel passed.

While I am sort of happy Syfy won't get the chance to ruin one of the classic works of alternate history, I am still worried about how long this project is taking to get made. The longer a project languishes in development, the worse it is likely to be. That being said, getting rid of cable like I did a couple of months ago is looking like an even better idea.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Flag Friday: Confederation of the Rio Grande and Texas

Originally posted on Sean Sherman's blog Other Times. Support an alternate historian by subscribing to his blog!
During the Battle of San Jacinto on 21 April 1836 Antonio López de Santa Anna was killed during the fighting. The war for Texan independence continued but the Mexicans suffered major setbacks after that battle. In 1837 another collection of Mexican states declared independence as the Republic of the Rio Grande. The battered Mexican Army gained made renewed attacks into the rebellious territory, but intervention by Sam Houston and his Texan forces secured the independence of the sister republic.

Having fought together against a common foe and facing an uncertain future together the two new republics formed the Confederation of the Rio Grande and Texas as a means to mutual defense and cooperation.

The flag of the Confederation has four stars - one for each of the states: Texas, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas.

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Sean Sherman has been a fan of alternate timelines ever since seeing Spock with a goatee.  By day he is a CPA, at night he explores the multiverse and shares his findings over at his blog, Other Times.

Flag Friday: New England (Guest Post)

Editor's Note: I have two Flag Fridays today. The first is from Sam McDonald:
This is the flag of New England from a world in which the Embargo Act was never repealed and New England declared independence in 1812.  Eventually, New England went on to join the European Union, which in this world had a considerably broader definition of "European" given that they also admitted Morocco.  The flag is a combination of the European Union flag with a smaller version of the original New England flag in the upper left hand corner.  This is all in keeping with New England's motto: "Remember the past, Prepare for the Future and Live for Today."

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Sam McDonald is a college student from Shreveport, LA.  When not involved with his studies he can be found making and posting maps across the web and working on short stories that he hopes to have published in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and the Escape Artists Podcasts. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

New Releases 7/22/14

You can support The Update by clicking the banner to your right or the links below if you are purchasing through Amazon!

Paperbacks

Charlemagne and the Paladins by Julia Cresswell

Symbolically, the quintessential English feudal monarch is King Arthur, but stories of Charlemagne and his Knights' quests throughout Christian Europe had a much wider impact. Amidst the chaos and violence of Europe in the eighth century, Charlemagne became king of the Franks and slowly established an empire the likes of which had not been seen since the days of the Romans. As Charlemange's power grew, so did the stories attached to his name.

This book explores the myths and legends of the great king Charlemagne, from the stories about his mother, Bertha Bigfoot, and his youthful adventures with the thief, Basin, to his fantastical journeys to Jerusalem and Constantinople. It also retells the stories of his most famous knights, the Paladins. These brave warriors were all heroes in their own right, and included many famous names such as Roland, Ogier the Dane, Oliver, Archbishop Turpin, and Renault of Montalban who rode the famous steed, Bayard. Together with his Paladins, Charlemagne established a court to rival Camelot and led the Christian kingdoms of Europe in their ongoing struggles with the armies of the East. Although this great ruler eventually passed away, quietly in his bed, the legends say that he now sits on his golden throne beneath the mountain, waiting until the need of his people calls him forth again.

Prophet of Bones by Ted Kosmatka

Ted Kosmatka's sensational new thriller, Prophet of Bones, thrusts readers into an alternate present.

Paul Carlson, a brilliant young scientist, is summoned from his laboratory job to the remote Indonesian island of Flores to collect DNA samples from the ancient bones of a strange, new species of tool user unearthed by an archaeological dig. The questions the find raises seem to cast doubt on the very foundations of modern science, which has proven the world to be only 5,800 years old, but before Paul can fully grapple with the implications of his find, the dig is violently shut down by paramilitaries.

Paul flees with two of his friends, yet within days one has vanished and the other is murdered in an attack that costs Paul an eye, and very nearly his life. Back in America, Paul tries to resume the comfortable life he left behind, but he can't cast the questions raised by the dig from his mind. Paul begins to piece together a puzzle which seems to threaten the very fabric of society, but world's governments and Martial Johnston, the eccentric billionaire who financed Paul's dig, will stop at nothing to silence him.

Theatre of the Gods by Matt Suddain

Steampunk space opera? Damn right.

This is the story of M. Francisco Fabrigas, explorer, philosopher, heretical physicist, who took a shipful of children on a frightening voyage to the next dimension, assisted by a teenaged Captain, a brave deaf boy, a cunning blind girl, and a sultry botanist, all the while pursued by the Pope of the universe and a well-dressed mesmerist.

Dark plots, demonic cults, murderous jungles, quantum mayhem, the birth of creation, the death of time, and a creature called the Sweety: all this and more waits beyond the veil of reality.

First in a sequence of at least three titles.

To fans, authors and publishers...

Is your story going to be published in time for the next New Releases? Contact us at ahwupdate at gmail dot com.  We are looking for works of alternate history, counterfactual history, steampunk, historical fantasy, time travel or anything that warps history beyond our understanding.

* * *

Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.