Tag Archives: sony

“It’s out there…” 22 years since the American launch of the Sega Saturn

The Sega Saturn, or the definition of something unloved then but rightly cherished now.

Yes, it’s May 11th! The anniversary of one of the most shocking console launches in the history of video games. On this day in 1995, at the very first Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3), Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske announced that 30,000 Sega Saturns were already in stores across America, complete with a copy of Virtua Fighter, for the cost of $399 — a surprise release that came four months before the proposed release date of September 2nd (or “Saturnday” as it was known). It’s something of an infamous event, one that’s almost seen as the height of video game drama — especially when, during Sony’s conference on the very same day, head of development Steve Race interrupted a purposefully dreary presentation by Olaf Olafsson (remember him from yesterday?) to say the number “$299”, thus changing the course of gaming history forever and leaving ol’ Mr. Kalinske with a mouth as agape as The Mask’s.

The history is well documented, and we know the fallout from this day well — the Saturn’s surprise launch annoyed retailers such as Best Buy and Walmart who did not receive any of the 30,000 Saturns, there were only a handful of launch titles available for the system for some months afterwards, and ultimately the move gave Sega barely any advantage over Sony in the new 32-bit console war — indeed, once the PlayStation arrived on 9th September, it soon picked the Saturn apart and built up a huge lead from which Sega had little hope of ever recovering. One thing that’s less talked about, perhaps, is how the Saturn’s launch went over in Europe — something all the more frustrating considering just how similar the European history of the Saturn is to the American history.

An example of the Saturn’s UK advertising, featuring the popular mascot “woman with rings around her head”. Why didn’t it sell?

Much like in America, the Saturn launched early here as well — arriving on July 8th, 1995, albeit this time with a mere two month advantage over the PlayStation. Not that this advantage was anything that helped — unfortunately for Sega, a lot of people made the decision to wait two months for Sony’s machine to come out. This is perhaps quite the surprise considering where Sega stood in Europe — by and large they were the leading console brand in Europe with key areas such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany belonging to Sega, meaning that the Mega Drive had overall beaten the Super Nintendo in terms of sales over there. They had control, and yet they lost it in mere months.

On paper, the games that the Saturn launched with don’t look all that bad — the European lineup was, much like the North American one, led by Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA, with Clockwork Knight and Worldwide Soccer filling out the list. Unlike America, Panzer Dragoon’s release was separated from this quartet and allowed to stand on its own — possibly wise considering that there was little else scheduled between the July launch and September. Panzer Dragoon may well have been the most impressive early Saturn title of them all both from a technical and a gameplay perspective, but as an entirely new franchise it would have been quite the ask for it to battle with PlayStation launch titles like Tekken and Ridge Racer — both of which were more recognised in Europe than Virtua Fighter and Daytona were. One also wonders how much of Sega’s failings in the region boiled down to a simple yet significant lack of Sonic.

Was it all a question of marketing? Perhaps there was a sense of complacency hanging around Sega’s status in Europe, with only a few million dollars assigned to Sega’s marketing budget for the region. Sony, meanwhile, set $20 million aside for the console’s European launch, which included famed adverts such as SAPS (the Society Against PlayStation), which in the coming years would evolve into a highly reactive, trend-setting and often controversial marketing drive that appealed to the young adult market in a way that Sega wanted to do, but were never able to emulate — Sega weren’t ever ones for things like sticking their machines in night clubs, commissioning posters with a spaced out Sara Cox bleeding from the nose, or passing around perforated cards that could be turned into roaches for your joint at Glastonbury festival.

Wipeout is like cocaine, yeah? Sound! Funnily enough you would also get a nosebleed if you tried to watch Sara Cox’s The Girlie Show.

In the end, the story of the Saturn’s launch and its battle with the PlayStation in Europe is, if anything, an even more decisive victory than the more famed American story, even if it lacks those dramatic events. Sega got it, they had it, and then they lost it — it is estimated that the Sega Saturn sold an estimated one million units in Europe, a rather shocking number compared to the 10.4 million sales that the Mega Drive had generated in the continent, and a drop in the ocean compared to the 40.12 million consoles that Sony shipped over here. Over the years the Saturn has developed a reputation as a very fine console indeed, especially when it comes to 2D games, and the system’s cache as a retro games machine is surely much higher than it ever was now as opposed to the status it had when it was actually released — and as the rules of retro start to apply to the 2D and 3D games of the 32-bit generation, that’s only going to increase. Still, knowing what we know about the system now only makes it more surprising to look back on just how quickly Sega managed to lose the status that it had back in 1995 — they tried to draw Sony out, but before they knew it their house started crumbling around them as if someone had just tippex-ed “Sony” over their name. Such are the fickle ways of video game marketing.

Fancy a bit more info on the launch of the Saturn and how badly things went for Sega in ’95?  Well, not to be a total self-promoting arsehole or anything but I do have a video on the subject. It’s called Sega in 1995: What the F**k is Going On?

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Filed under Retrogaming News, Retronauts, UK/European Retro

The Nintendo PlayStation is fully working at last

The Nintendo PlayStation, much like Rob Van Dam, is one of a kind.

For those of you who have been following the story of the Nintendo PlayStation prototype since it first surfaced in 2015, you now finally have something of an end to the whole saga — after a long period of tinkering, hammering, sodduh-ing and lord knows what else, popular YouTube console modder and electronics bod Ben Heck (of The Ben Heck Show) has finally managed to get the machine fully working to the point where it can run games from the “Super CD ROM” portion of the system.

The prototype, the only one that is known to exist, was originally found by Terry Diebold when his employers, Advanta Corporation, went bust in 2009. A man named Olaf Olafsson was the president of the company — previously he was CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment back when Nintendo and Sony formed a short-lived partnership, during which time Sony announced the SNES/PSX system and Nintendo announced they were working with Philips on the hybrid console at the very same CES show in 1991, the ultimate fruit of which was those godawful Mario and Zelda games on the CD-i. It appears as though Olaf took the prototype to Advanta as a personal belonging but never got around to picking it up as the company closed down, meaning that the system itself was part of a boxed lot that Terry won in an auction at the close of Advanta for a mere $75, only finding out what was inside after the fact. It wasn’t until 2015 when his son Daniel made an innocuous Reddit post about a Nintendo PlayStation sitting up in his father’s attic that people — obviously disbelieving at first — slowly realised what the Diebolds had once pictures of the machine were released.

The system itself has always been able to play Super Nintendo games just fine, but trying to load up a CD has always resulted in nought but a BIOS screen. Ben Heck, a man who can also be found making portable Xbox Ones, N64’s and ZX Spectrums on the Internet, met up with the Diebolds at the Midwest Gaming Classic Expo in 2016, and he’s been working on the prototype ever since — documenting the labours of himself and his team over the course of several videos and livestreams until finally, a few days ago, the news that everyone’s been waiting for was announced in video form; that the Nintendo PlayStation prototype is now able to successfully run CD-ROM’s filled with game data. While no games were ever actually programmed for the system — it is somewhat different from the Sony PlayStation we eventually got meaning you can’t just run Gran Turismo on it, and the game that Heck shows off in the video was created using an emulator — it is now, at last, fully functional.

Ben Heck, YouTube tinkerer extraordinaire.

Of course, it is not for me to spoil the processes that Mr. Heck undertook on the system in order to get it working — he is a very capable person when it comes to presenting electronics on the Internet and he’s clearly done a great job on this project, whereas whenever I turn an old system on part of me unreasonably worries that it will blow up; which is coincidentally the reason why the Diebolds never once turned the prototype on in all the time that they had it sitting in the house, fearing that they would go down in infamy as the people who somehow managed to fry this one-of-a-kind historically significant item. But if you’re interested in the workings of consoles, modifications and a unique piece of video game history finally strutting its stuff after 26 years? Ben Heck’s video is more than worth a watch — even for those of us whose understanding of how to fix a computer problem boils down to little more than “turn it off and on again”.

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Alundra is 20 danged years old

Yesterday, a classic action RPG designed by Sony and Matrix turned 20 — interestingly, just two days ahead of the 25th anniversary of the U.S. release of the game it shamelessly imitated. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past debuted 25 years ago tomorrow in America (April 13, 1992), and its greatest and most fascinating clone appeared in Japan just shy of five years later (April 11, 1997): Alundra.

I love Alundra, though I admittedly haven’t played it since it was a first-run feature. Who knows, maybe my opinion would change with two decades of hindsight. But at the time, it played like the follow-up to A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening that I dearly wanted but no one else was making. I was as excited as anyone for Ocarina of Time, but even then it was clear that game would play pretty differently from the 2D Zelda games. Alundra fell into the same category for me as Symphony of the Night: The kind of experience the entire industry was eager to move away from, but which I still wanted to exist. Technical progress doesn’t mean having to slash and burn everything that’s come before, and I hated the frustrating universal media consensus at the time which demanded all games had to abandon any visual vestige of the past in order to be acceptable.

It wasn’t just a media consensus, come to that. Sony, who by mid-1997 had already taken a strong lead in the console race, had an infamous policy of disallowing 2D games on PlayStation. It wasn’t absolute law, but certainly bitmap-based graphics were frowned upon and expected to take a seat at the kids’ table. Alundra, being a Sony-published game in Japan, seemed doomed to face the same unhappy fate as other first-party “relics” like Arc the Lad. That is to say, denied a visa into the U.S. I distinctly recall reading a massive import preview blowout on Alundra in (I think) GameFan magazine which made it clear that this game was a rad adventure in the style of Zelda, and also doomed never to come to America. For the moment, this restriction didn’t burn too badly, because I was in the midst of experiencing my very first import game (the aforementioned Symphony of the Night), but still the thought that such a fantastic-looking entry in an underserved genre I deeply loved would be dangled beyond my reach… it chafed.

As it turned out, Alundra really did suffer the same fate as Arc the Lad: It was picked up for U.S. release by Working Designs. The company did a solid job with the localization — aside from the spacey surfer dude Bonaire, who felt increasingly out of place and inappropriate as the game’s plot grew darker and darker, it largely eschewed Working Designs’s trademark approach to localization (e.g. throw out most of the original text and cram in a ton of jokes). You can probably attribute that to the fact that Alundra simply wasn’t as slight as most of the RPGs WD tended to localize; it came wrapped in a pretty intense storyline. The eponymous hero had the ability to enter people’s dreams, but even as he did so an evil force was also stealing into those dreams and murdering the dreamer. By the end of the game, a whole lot of people are dead or emotionally devastated. There’s not a lot of room for levity.

Working Designs also didn’t apply their usual dramatic rebalancing to the game’s difficulty, either. While they made a few tweaks, they felt smart and welcome. For example, they made the final boss hit harder while reducing the amount of damage he could withstanding, which resulted in a shorter, more intense fight. Alundra has a reputation for being a seriously difficult game, with some tough battles and brain-bending puzzles, but that wasn’t my experience. It’s one of those games that simply clicked with me for whatever reason, and I sailed through it… even the notoriously complicated sliding-block puzzles in the ice palace.

Funnily enough, I didn’t actually buy the game at launch despite my enthusiasm for it. I somehow won a copy from IGN in a contest they had right before the game shipped… and then, months later, I still hadn’t received my copy. (Now that I’ve worked in the press, I can definitely see how that happened; no hard feelings.) I wrote one of the editors an email, and he promptly called me, apologized, and promised to get the game sent out ASAP. He was true to his word! Within a week, I had the game and the PlayStation console that was also part of the contest, along with a few random trinkets and (inexplicably) a military grade beef stew meal-ready-to-eat. So whenever I think about Alundra, I think about… army rations.

You know, 20 years later, there still aren’t very many people making high-grade 2D Zelda clones. I should probably revisit Alundra.

Images courtesy of VG Museum

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A chance to reconsider Crash, maybe

Yesterday Activision announced that their HD remaster of the PlayStation Crash Bandicoot trilogy — newly dubbed the N. Sane Trilogy, because without a name what kind of gravitas could a trilogy possibly have? — will arrive June 30, almost exactly a year after its announcement at last year’s Sony E3 press conference. Now that I’m over the cognitive dissonance of Activision publishing Crash (when I was a lad, that was a Sony franchise, thank you very much), I find myself looking forward to the N. Sane Trilogy.

I am not, to be honest, a fan of Crash… which is precisely why I’m eager to try the new HD reissue. I don’t feel I really gave the Crash games a fair shake back in the day. The original game was part of the late 1996 wave of first-party publishers attempting to take platform action games into 3D, along with Super Mario 64 from Nintendo and NiGHTs: Into Dreams from SEGA. I was on the outs with Nintendo consoles at the time and starting to develop an appreciation for the PlayStation vision, so I should have been the target audience for Naughty Dog’s platformers… but they didn’t do it for me at all. Super Mario 64 was so grand, so impressive, that the other publishers’ respective forays into that space left me cold.

I don’t think that’s unreasonable, in the context of the times. Super Mario 64 felt like the future, a fully open 3D platform game that not only pulled the genre into a new dimension, quite literally, but also did it with style and refinement. Yeah, there would be better 3D platformers, but Nintendo got so much right with Mario 64. By comparison, Crash’s linear into-the-screen design felt like playing, say, S.T.U.N. Runner compared to Mario 64‘s DOOM.

At the time, there was also a suffocating sense within the media and the tiny little online gaming community that existed in 1996 that game design was a one-way journey: Progress or nothing. If a game didn’t shatter the bounds of technology and design, it wasn’t worth your time. S.T.U.N. Runner ceased to be fun once DOOM came into being, and Super Mario 64 mooted any game that restricted action to a mere two axes. This, of course, is nonsense, but it would be a few years before I became dislodged from that way of thinking and found a happy medium between that mindset and its “hardcore” USENET opposite, which posited that the value of a given game was directly proportionate to its age.

Now that I’m older and wise enough to recognize that a game can be great without pushing any particular envelopes, I want to go back and reconsider Crash. Maybe I was wrong about it, and there’s something great there despite being relatively less ambitious than Super Mario 64. Then again, maybe not — big first-party games cause a certain degree of blindness among the first-party faithful (hence the popularity of Smash Bros.…), so maybe Crash‘s adulating fans are simply suffering from an overdose of Kool-Aid. Either way, I’m eager to see for myself.

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Episode 44: Remembering PlayStation’s launch, and Satoru Iwata

A slightly unconventional episode this week. You can read about the specifics in our USgamer post, but the short version is that we had initially planned to publish this PlayStation anniversary tribute on the 20th anniversary of the system’s launch in September. However, Nintendo issued its press release announcing the death of its president, Satoru Iwata, in the middle of this episode. All things considered, it made more sense to run the episode now (skipping the Patreon paywall).

As we discuss in this episode, Sony and Nintendo’s console game businesses have always shared a close link. But after the experience of hosting this episode, the two will always be inextricably connected for me.

Download Links

Libsyn (1:38:02 | MP3 Download | SoundCloud )

Episode Description

Retronauts vet and Sony enthusiast/employee Shane Bettenhausen joins us to discuss the 20th anniversary of the PS1 launch in America. (This episode is running before its intended September time slot due to the tragic news that breaks midway through.)

Music in this week’s episode mostly comes from Exact’s Jumping Flash! The episode ends with Hip Tanaka’s “Balloon Trip” remix he created in tribute to Iwata.

Bob and I plan to reconvene next month to record more episodes, one of which will definitely focus on HAL and Iwata’s contributions to gaming. Also, yeah, I goofed on the SNES sound processor specifics — Yamaha worked on the Genesis sound processor. You don’t need to send corrections!

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