A Brief History of Japanese Video Games - Part 2: The Rise of Sony
As we covered in part one of this series, the emerging Japanese video game market of the 1970s up to the mid-1990s was dominated by two gaming goliaths. Tokyo’s Sega Enterprises and Kyoto’s Nintendo Corporation. By 1995, the two companies’ flagship consoles, the Super Famicom (SNES in Europe and the US) and the SEGA Mega Drive (SEGA Genesis in the US) were both looking considerably long in the tooth. It was time to take gaming to the next level. The days of 16-bit console gaming were over. It was time to move up, to 32-bit and beyond.
SEGA had already dabbled in next generation consoles with firstly the ill-fated Mega-CD (SEGA-CD in the US), and then the SEGA 32X.
Both of these consoles were revolutionary for their time. But they weren’t really consoles in their own right. Despite costing around 40,000 yen at launch, (The same price as a new console today) the MEGA-CD was merely an expansion unit that allowed CD-based media to be played on the Mega Drive console. Likewise, the 32X was a rather bizarre, mushroom-shaped apparatus that slotted into the top of the mega drive console allowing enhanced 32 bit games to be played on the system.
Both devices proved unpopular with console fans, many of whom resented paying out the price of a new console without having the luxury of selling their old Mega Drive to finance it. In less than two years, both “consoles” largely vanished from stores.
Nintendo was coyer in this regard. The SNES was still selling relatively well, so they could afford to sit back and learn from SEGA’s mistakes. In 1993, Nintendo announced a new venture, the Ultra 64. Rather than try to compete with the other console makers in the soon to emerge 32 bit gaming market, Nintendo decided to skip a generation and go straight for 64 bit processing in their new console.
Meanwhile SEGA set to work on a new console of their own. The SEGA Saturn. Both consoles were set to drop in 1995.
However, there was a new kid in town. More famous for their TVs and music systems, Sony had already dabbled in the video games market as a third-party software developer for both the Mega Drive and SNES, via its Sony Imagesoft label. With the dawning of the 32-bit era, the time was ripe for a new challenger to enter the console wars. The age of the Playstation had arrived.
Nintendo was in a state of flux at this time. While SEGA had always fared better in Europe and the US, the bulk of Nintendo’s success had always been in Japan. With Sony however, for the first time Nintendo faced a foe with every bit as much reach power and influence in the Japanese marketplace as they had. Additionally the now rebranded Nintendo 64 ran into numerous delays and development issues meaning it would not hit the streets until mid to late 1996, a full year after the debut of the rival SEGA Saturn and Sony Playstation systems.
SEGA was feeling bullish at this point. The Saturn had superior technology to the Playstation, and its CD based media allowed a greater level of graphical detail due to its superior data capacity compared to the cartridges of the N64. SEGA also had an in-house back catalogue of characters and franchises to expand upon. The likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Shinobi got new 3D updates, whilst arcade hits like Virtua Fighter, Sega Rally and Daytona found their way to home consoles for the first time.
As a new player in the game Sony had neither the back catalogue nor the pedigree of SEGA. Luckily for them, the marketing team at Sony had a few tricks up their sleeves.
Just prior to the launch of the Playstation in 1995, Sony announced a tie-up with arcade game developers Namco. This deal proved a masterstroke in Sony’s initial PR offensive. Before long, arcade classics like Ridge Racer and the classic fighting game Tekken, made their way onto the Playstation. They were both massive hits, spawning several sequels. However, more than this, the early success of Sony’s tie-up with Namco sent a message to other games publishers too. The Playstation is a developer friendly platform.
Soon after, several other prominent developers flocked to the system. Among them was Osaka-based Capcom, long-term supporters of Nintendo and developers of the Street Fighter series.
SEGA suffered. The Saturn, despite being a technically superior system just couldn’t compete with the savvy marketing and huge game catalogue of the Playstation. Sales sunk like a stone. The N64 was similarly hampered by its higher price point, and the limitations of persevering with cartridge based media.
The Saturn was largely gone from stores by 1999. The N64 amid strong Japan sales, endured until being discontinued in 2003. The Playstation thrived, even after its inevitable successor, the PS2 was released in 2001.
In one last throw of the dice, Sega unveiled the Dreamcast, to massive fanfare, in 2001. The new console, similar in power and specifications to the Playstation 2 initially enjoyed decent sales in Japan and later the US. But the console largely flopped in other territories. It did produce some classic games. I still maintain that the Dreamcast version of Biohazard: Code Veronica is the best on any system, and Crazy Taxi was an absolute joy to play back in the day.
After the demise of the Dreamcast, Sega finally accepted defeat and was relegated to being merely a software developer. On the plus side, had this not happened, I wouldn’t be able to play Sonic and Shinobi on my PS3 and my iPad like I can today!
With Sega out of the way, Sony had their sights set firmly on Nintendo. The N64 had since given way to the Gamecube, as Nintendo finally embraced CD-based media in 2000. Whilst it was a somewhat muted success outside its native territory, the Gamecube did enjoy solid sales in Japan. A particular highlight was Super Smash Brothers Melee, an expansion on the previous N64 hit title.
Sony continued to dominate the landscape however, and ramped things up further in 2006 with the launch of the PS3. In response, Nintendo assumed a different tack. Motion tracking technology had already been used to limited effect back in the days of the PS2, with the Sony Eye Toy. Nintendo took it a step further with the revolutionary, if somewhat unfortunately titled, Wii console.
The Wii used motion sensors both in an external camera and in the console controllers to make games that required the player to move and react to what they saw on screen. The physical activity of this new style of gaming was a hit with fitness-conscious parents and proved a big success at parties and family gatherings. Most hardcore gamers however, preferred a more sedentary approach. The PS3 remained in the lead.
Today, both Nintendo and Sony continue to sell their latest console iterations, the Wii-U and the PS4 to widespread acclaim. Though a new challenger has emerged in Microsoft and the X-Box series of consoles, in Japan their impact is minimal. Nintendo enjoys the lions share of the handheld market thanks to its 3DS system, while Sony’s PS Vita still struggles to gain traction. When it comes to home consoles however, both the PS3 and PS4 are still out ahead of the competition.
For me, I still miss my old Mega Drive. Come on SEGA, give us a new console someday!