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 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 boards since June 2006. When he is not roaming the multiverse, he can be found at his blog, Thoughts of a Platypus.

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