Comic Book Curious

The Bit Wars: Graphics Aren’t Everything

August 2, 2021

Last time we talked about how Nintendo and SEGA had come to dominate the console video game markets of the 1980’s and 90’s. This success was mostly down to business practices that included things like seals of quality, kinds of games, marketing, and relationships with developers.

We also talked about how nobody really understood hardware specifications and what system is more powerful, people just wanted quality games. That was what allowed Nintendo to have a massive share of the market for so long, they just made better games even with a “weaker” system. SEGA with their Genesis console, did not bother trying to explain why their system was more powerful, they used marketing terms like “Blast Processing” to describe the speed of their hardware. SEGA also put 16 on their machine, saying their machine was twice as powerful as Nintendo, and it was. 16 bit vs 8.

Nintendo did make a 16 bit console, the Super Nintendo, and you’ve probably heard of the “SNES Classic” that recently came out, because it outsold the Sega Genesis. The weird thing was that the marketing at the time gave up trying to explain why the hardware was better, or what kinds of games could be played; it became a numbers game with that 16 on there. 16 vs 16. If the bits were even, Nintendo wins, if they are NOT even, your system might have a chance at winning.

The “16 bits” was a graphics term, it refers to colors, motion, what can be on the screen, how much can be moving at one time, things like that. It’s a visual description. But with a lot of games being made, especially games that were made in arcades and then put onto home consoles, a lot of the games were similar on Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. In some cases, they’re almost exactly the same; pictured here Mortal Kombat; 16 bits vs 16 bits.

The same screen from Mortal Kombat displayed on a Super Nintendo and a Sega Genesis both at 16 bits

For a little while, SEGA and Nintendo held almost a complete monopoly on home video game consoles. The main issue for other companies trying to enter the market was that games came on cartridges, physical blocky objects made of microchips and circuitry. Each one could cost 3-5 dollars just to make the cartridge, let alone program a game onto the cartridge. Nintendo and SEGA were also both buying up every microchip they could get as there were only so many that could be produced. Nintendo basically bought more chips and made more games, SEGA couldn’t make or sell as many games because of a lack of cartridges.

But then came the invention of the Compact Disk in 1991. CDs can hold a LOT more data, 6 megabytes compared to 700 megabytes for a CD. CD games cost pennies to make or copy a game onto a disk. People could make their own games onto CDs if they knew how, they didn’t have to buy any chips or cartridges. This meant that anyone with a game idea could make a game and sell it, leading to a massive number of companies trying to enter the video game market.

If you think this sounds exactly like the video game crash of the early 1980’s you are correct, a flood of video game consoles appeared. Consumers did not want to invest in these consoles, as some games couldn’t be played on any console, just like how Xbox games won’t play on a Playstation. Some of the prices on these games were just outrageous.

The main problem with this is that while developers can make games, what kinds of games are going to get made and what will game designers do with 100 times more space to make a game? You can’t make the game 100 times longer or just magically 100 times more fun. Many of these games used this space for full motion video. Turns out, paying 700 dollars in 1993 (about 1,200 today) to sort of watch a bad movie, wasn’t something customers wanted.

A screengrab from a full motion video game

Many of these games were just terrible, but nobody would know until playing them. Many of these companies failed because they didn’t control their 3rd party game makers, they didn’t have seals of quality, they didn’t make deals with stores, and they didn’t control who could make games for their systems.

Even the design of the consoles were poor. The Phillips CD-I had the 1st player controller on the BACK of the console, not the front. Other game systems, like the Panasonic 3DO had the second player controller plug into the first player controller!

The port to plug in another controller on the back of the first controller

These consoles were not cheap either. Typically you learn about new games from other people, sometimes so you can play with them together. But I didn’t know ANYONE who had some of these systems. These are the most expensive and they’re terrible? No thanks!

A timeline showing all the consoles released between 1990 and 1994

Other problems were that “bit” part of the bit wars, where gamers were tricked into buying consoles with more bits, thinking more bits meant better games. Let’s talk about the Atari Jaguar, the first 64 bit game console. This is the controller; why the number pad, this is not a phone:

The Atari Jaguar controller

The console itself was marketed as the first 64 bit console, and that’s like saying I COULD go to the moon. It is technically possible with lots of rockets and training and money and time and effort, but I’m not going to jump to the moon. The games on the Atari Jaguar didn’t look that much better either.

Here are two racing games: one is 64 bits and came out in 1994 for Atari Jaguar, the other is 16 bits and came out in 1991 for the Super Nintendo. Can YOU spot the difference?

Comparison images of two racing games with different bits Comparison images of two racing games with different bits

These companies all fought over this new CD technology and pushed the limits of what a game could be or what a game even is, and so many of them failed. But with this new hardware, new kinds of games could be made, often games that were more violent and realistic.

And because of that, the government stepped in to regulate this new industry, and nobody wanted that. Next time we’ll talk about violent video games, the ESRB, and how the government and the game industry had the most productive government meeting of the 1990’s.

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