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Useful Notes / The 8-bit Era of Console Video Games

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The 8-bit era, or Third Generation, started when The Great Video Game Crash of 1983 ended. During the crash, console video games fell in popularity, due to several factors such as no sense of censorship or quality control, leading to a lack of effort in certain high-profile games. Nintendo, having found success in the arcades with Donkey Kong, wanted to break into the console game business. In Japan, they had put out their cartridge-based Family Computer, or just Famicom, in July 1983, featuring ports of their most popular arcade to great commercial success.

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Boosted by their domestic success, Nintendo also started eyeing the North American market, and during the summer of 1983, they entered into talks with Atari to distribute an American version of the Famicom, branded the Nintendo Advanced Video Gaming System. The deal ultimately fell through due to various factors, most importantly the firing of Atari's then-CEO Ray Kassar in July that year. Of course, Atari it would itself go down for the count when the crash happened some months later, so the North American market certainly seemed more like a wide open opportunity than ever to Nintendo. But exactly because of the crash, there was still lingering backlash against video games. The popular opinion in the States was that video games had merely been a fad that was in the process of quietly fading away, so coming in from the outside with a new console was certainly going to be a tough sell. (In addition, as a Japanese company, Nintendo was also facing a not ignorable amount of consumer skepticism in the US from general cultural paranoia over the then rapidly expanding Japanese economy and the perception that it would soon competely dominate the world market.) Nintendo was not entirely discouraged by this, and in early 1985, they announced their plans to introduce their American version of the Famicom, now labelled the Advanced Video Entertainment System (AVS), to a skeptical reception by the local electronics press.

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The reaction told Nintendo that they had to do something more to get past consumer skepticism, and so they redesigned the console to closely resemble and operate like a VCR machine, and disguised it as a toy using the peripheral called the Famicom Robot, which would later be released worldwide as R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy). R.O.B. would be the sales pitch; being a cool, marketable eyecatcher for the system, that would convince the hesitant toy companies to sell the console (while the consumers would hopefully notice that only two games were actually made for R.O.B., and there just so happened to be quite a few other games that could be played on the same system they had just bought). They also settled on a final name for the console, to emphasize the idea that it was more a general toy than a video game machine, the Nintendo Entertainment System. While the peripheral itself was not well-received, they did succeed in getting the console to the market, and after a limited test release in October 1985, the full-on North American launch happened in February 1986.

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What would be the Killer App for the NES, however, was Super Mario Bros.. The project, headed by soon-to-be legendary game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, was meant to push the Famicom, which in Japan was on the cusp of recieving a serious upgrade in form of the Famicom Disk System, to its limits. Miyamoto and his team put all their previous experience with developing for the console into achieving this task, and it would show, with the finished product proving to be revolutionary. Super Mario Bros. was released in late 1985, and was by all means a Genre Turning Point that would set the gold standard for Platform Games for years to come. In the Western market, it can be credited with having reestablished video games as an acceptable form of entertainment to a new generation. Nintendo would follow this success up with several other games that would come to define home console games from thereon and forward; mainly through the 1986 release of Miyamoto-headed fantasy game The Legend of Zelda, which would come to define much of the Action-Adventure genre. Later that same year, Nintendo also released the sci-fi game Metroid, which, along with Konami's Castlevania, would come to codify many of the conventions for the Metroidvania genre.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, Sega had tried challenging Nintendo's hold over the console market with their own gaming consoles. The first of these was the SG-1000, which had been released on the very same day as the Famicom, but had failed to make a big impact. A year later, in July 1984, Sega put out an upgraded version of the console, called the SG-1000 II, but things first truly got interesting when the third iteration of the console, the Sega Mark III (which would be redesigned and branded as the Sega Master System for the Western market) was released in October 1985. The Mark III/Master System was technically more graphically powerful than the NES, but due to Nintendo's rather iron-fisted licensing policy on the domestic market, namely that they required that games for the Famicom could not be ported to other consoles, Sega faced an uphill battle from the start, despite their technological advantage. Inspired by Nintendo's success in the North American market, they also took the Master System to that region in September 1986, and even made an attempt at countering the popularity of Nintendo's Mario with their own mascot, Alex Kidd, thereby firing the first serious shot in the console wars between the two Japanese companies over the Western market, which would really heat up throughout the late 1980s.

As for what would come to define the coming war in Nintendo and Sega's home court of Japan, though, it would be more fitting to point to the first Dragon Quest, released in 1986, and the first Phantasy Star, released in 1987. They would respectively come to form the centers of the two companies' rivalry when it came to the JRPG genre, which was just emerging in the late 1980s, and, though the genre would see some degree of popularity on the Western market, it would truly come to fruition and seriously drive the Japanese market throughout much of the early-to-mid-1990s. It was also in this department that Final Fantasy, a project by the little known developer SquareSoft, would make its first appearance in 1987...

When it came to the domestic American market, Atari, despite being hobbled by the crash, made their own entry into the 8-bit era with the Atari 7800, first released in a limited capacity in North America in June 1984. However, as this was following the crash, Atari's struggling Consumer Division was sold to the businessman Jack Tramiel the following month, which led to payment negotiations with the designers of the console, the General Computer Corporation, getting caught up in deadlock for months on end, until a deal was finally struck in May 1985. As a result, Atari 7800 consoles languished on warehouse shelves, until the console was re-introduced in January 1986. This re-launch happened with relatively little fanfare, and many of the games and features that had been planned for the console were quietly cancelled during its absence from the market. The 7800's rather shaky distribution story also led to a persistent myth that Tramiel had ordered the console mothballed in accordance with the popular perception of video games as a fad, and first re-released it after the breakthrough success of the NES.

Ultimately, neither the Master System nor the 7800 achieved the worldwide success of the NES. But the Master System did achieve success in South America and some parts of Europe, even managing to out-sell the NES in those areas, which attracted strong support for the console from smaller, local developers. Nintendo did, in fact, not officially enter the Brazilian market until 1993, by which point they were unable to get any ground to challenge the Master System's dominance (although the burgeoning specialized media of the time did help the SNES gain a foothold later).

Though the 7800 did end up selling fairly well, in spite of everything, it still ultimately failed to really drag Atari out of the hole it had ended up in due to the crash. Under Jack Tramiel's leadership for the next years, a crippled Atari struggled on, to decisively mixed success, only managing to make sporadic and limited headway on the home computer and handheld markets. When it came to the console market, it would take almost a decade for Atari to actually throw in the towel, and while it would make a couple of attempts at a comeback, it would never be a truly serious competitor on that front again. In fact, it would be more than a decade before any other Western-based company would enter that market as a truly significant player.

Instead, the next generation would mainly be a battle between the incoming Japanese companies who had used the crash to enter, and ultimately dominate the Western market. Interestingly, what would truly kick off this next era was Sega making a serious play for control on both the domestic and Western market against Nintendo...

As for this era, it introduced a revolutionary aspect of game design, the scroll. Throughout The Golden Age of Video Games, games either only had a single screen or flip-screen gameplay, which created, respectively, a constraint in the size of a level and a disruption in the flow of the game. Scrolling graphics was a big leap in game design in that levels could now be much longer and flow a lot better than in the Golden Age.

Also, compared to the Golden Age, sprites started to actually look like real objects, or at least cartoon objects. More colorful sprites were much more prevalent than the usually monochrome sprites in older games. Also, the backgrounds got much more colorful, whereas Golden Age games would usually have black backgrounds with little to no detail.

Progression in technical sophistication during the 8-bit era is primarily linked to the rapid improvements in RAM cost and capacity. Cartridges became much bigger in what they could store, and this changed the style of game away from a simple "loop" of increasing difficulty, to more of a traversal of an authored world towards a definite end goal. After 1985, a period of record low DRAM prices, complete musical soundtracks and multiple "worlds" with themed elements became normal features of most new games. The semiconductor industry overcorrected to the 1985 glut by cutting back on their expansion plans for the next generation of DRAM chips, causing a shortfall in supply in 1988. Game releases that year were delayed or cancelled as a result.

Near the end of the 8-bit era, instead of most of the plot being described in the manual, games increasingly began experimenting with explaining the plot in-game. They already did this somewhat at the beginning, but it was often just a simple bit of dialogue, then you were off on your adventure! Basic Narrative Devices such as chase scenes and different endings were starting to take root in the industry. However, because of the limited hardware at the time, full cinematics couldn't be taken advantage of just yet...

Many of the most commercially successful video game franchises of all time debuted as part of this era, with recognizable names like Mario, Final Fantasy, Mega Man, and The Legend of Zelda among them.


Consoles of this era

     New franchises of this era 

Alternative Title(s): The Third Generation Of Console Video Games

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