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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.


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 though sell. 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.


The reaction told Nintendo that they had to do something more to get past the consumer skeptism, and so they redesigned the console to closely resemble and operate like an 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). 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 launched happened in February 1986. Once that was done, they released Super Mario Bros., reestablishing video games as an acceptable form of entertainment.


Meanwhile, Back in Japan, Sega had tried challenging Nintendo with their own gaming console. The first of these was the SG-1000, which had been released on the very same day as the Famicom, but 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 thing 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 Master System was technically more 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 not to be published on other consoles, Sega faced an uphill battle from the start. Inspired by Nintendo's success in the North American market, they also took the Master System to that region in September 1986.

Despite being severely hobbled by the crash, Atari also attempted 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 Consumer Division was sold to the businessman Jack Tramiel the following month, which lead 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 had been 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.

This era 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.

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 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 Sonic the Hedgehog among them.

Consoles of this era

     New franchises of this era 


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