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Useful Notes / The Fifth Generation of Console Video Games

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"Funny how the world of gaming was turned completely upside on its head by the incremented of a single digit by one, that digit being the 2 at the start of 2D. If only they'd known that one day 90% of the indie games on Steam would be aping the 16-bit era [...] It was a painful, transitionary period when the old kings collapsed syphilitically from their thrones and the crowns were up for grabs."
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The Fifth Generation of Console Video Games (sometimes referred to as the 32/64-bit Era, but referring to consoles by their bits started to fall out of style in this gen) was a time of many of the biggest leaps forward in the industry in terms of design, graphics, and storytelling in video games, as well as the way video games were viewed and played.

The big word of this era was 3D. The 16-bit era had a few scattered experiments to bring polygons to primarily sprite-based consoles (most notably Star Fox), but when the revolutionary Virtua Fighter hit the arcades, polygons finally took off. Suddenly, the addition of a third dimension seemed to make the sprites of the past look outdated, and polygons were said to be the future of video gaming. Both Nintendo and their newly emergent rival Sony Computer Entertainment caught onto the excitement towards polygons, and so they designed their respective consoles, the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation, around polygonal rendering from the very start. Sega, on the other hand, didn't catch on until their own console was too far in development. Thus, the Sega Saturn became notorious among developers for its difficulty to develop 3D games for, as the console's hardware architecture wasn't really put together to render 3D. While it certainly was possible to squeeze 3D graphics out of the Saturn, it was an extremely cumbersome task to pull off making them look and run decently, even for experienced code-wizards. Ironic, considering that Virtua Fighter, the game that caused the 3D boom, was Sega's own product.

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Things certainly didn't get better for the Saturn when Sega's next planned entry in their flagship franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog, which would unquestionably have helped the console's lacking sales, failed to materialize. Work on the game, Sonic X-treme, which would also have been the franchise's leap into 3D, started in 1994, but got caught up in quite a messy bit of Development Hell (and even some in-fighting between Sega's Japanese and American divisions). This led to the game's unceremonious cancellation in 1997, just a year before the Saturn was officially discontinued on the Western market. The Saturn was, in hindsight, ultimately a Creator Killer for Sega as a console manufacturer, but this would not become apparent until the next generation.

The kingmakers of the generation would be the third party developers. Especially many Japanese developers had for a long time been disgruntled with Nintendo's rather restrictive licensing policies and their insistence on taking a relatively large cut of the sales, which had in many cases made turning a decent profit on their games a difficult task, and this generation would see the blowback from these policies starting to kick in. With Sony emerging on the console scene as a serious competitor, many developers found that the company was willing to offer them far more lucrative deals and a greater degree of freedom. As a result quite a few developers, who up until this point had been synonymous with quality games on Nintendo's consoles, most prominently Capcom, Squaresoft, and Konami, decided to jump ship and make their next big projects or main installments in their running franchises exclusives for the PlayStation. Another major feather in Sony's cap in this area became managing to win over the fighting game developer Namco, whose output up until that point had been pretty much synonymous with Sega's consoles.

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With the advent of 3D graphics came new leaps and bounds in game design. Gamers who grew up on 8-bit and 16-bit games were wowed by the explorable 3D worlds with far more depth than the 2D backgrounds of the past. Some developers went the extra mile in designing their worlds, using the full potential of these systems to make their worlds as beautiful and detailed as possible. Super Mario 64 kickstarted the popularity of the 3D Platform Game, and many previously 2D franchises followed its example in attempting their own leaps to 3D, though some would stumble along the way. Overall, this shake-up meant that it took the industry some time to find its feet again, both in regards to graphic design and gameplay, and, as a result, many of these early 3D games have not aged very gracefully, especially in the eyes of those who came into gaming after all the teething troubles with 3D had been more or less sorted out.

An area where many developers would stumble along the way was in attempting to replicate the previous generation's abundance of Mascot with Attitude platformers. While the generation would see a few great success stories when it came to platformers with mascot characters, they were by and large original to this generation, such as Naughty Dog's Crash Bandicoot, Insomniac Games' Spyro the Dragon, and Rare's Banjo-Kazooie; these were less associated with straight mascot platformers, instead becoming known as the shining examples of the Collect-a-Thon Platformer, a permutation of the genre that would come to largely dominate the late 90s.

Another big development of the fifth generation was story and presentation. Two of the PlayStation's biggest Killer Apps, Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, gained much fame for tipping the Story-to-Gameplay Ratio towards the story end. These two games were noted for their highly complex stories which delved into deep characterization, forgoing the more traditional role that stories in games played in justifying the gameplay. The latter, especially, took full advantage of its 3D space to introduce several tricks from the world of film. On the N64 side, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released to great fanfare for its groundbreaking depth of control, varied atmosphere, and cinematic presentation.

The fifth generation was the time when optical discs became the standard for consoles. The CD-ROM was an ideal format for developers at the time, as it was relatively cheap to produce and had a higher capacity than cartridges of previous eras. The only real drawback to the format was the potential of piracy, which, in reality, was a small price to pay for most third-party studios. The PlayStation and the Sega Saturn both used CD-ROMs as their format because of their benefits, with the N64 being the only console to reject this trend. Nintendo's early experiment with discs, the Famicom Disk System, was lacking in sufficient antipiracy measures, and the massive losses for the add-on as a result of this rendered Nintendo massively cautious about piracy going forward. The N64 suffered from a lack of third-party support because of its use of cartridges, which were expensive to produce, hard to program on, and had low capacity compared to the CD-ROM. The use of cartridges also hampered what could have been the N64's greatest advantage, namely that it was, at least on paper, the console with the most powerful graphical capabilities, but this technical edge over Sony's PlayStation only ever rarely managed to shine through in practice due to the relatively high difficulty in squeezing such graphics out of cartridges. The only real exception to this was in the multiplayer department; with the PlayStation being the weaker console and requiring an add-on for four-player parties, many developers couldn't justify the heavy amount of extra work that was needed to give a game 4-player supportnote , where the Nintendo 64's extra horsepower made it significantly less of a hassle and players were far more likely to experience it at some point. In fact, one of the console's greatest hits, the James Bond tie-in GoldenEye managed to become one of the most iconic games of the generation due to its multiplayer mode, which allowed four players to duke it out in action-packed split-screen FPS combat against each other.

The era marked many developments in terms of how games were controlled. The Nintendo 64's controller was rather awkwardly designed compared to the more practical format codified by the SNES, but the controller featured a revolutionary development: a thumb-controlled analog stick. The analog stick was key to controlling 3D games because they allowed a fuller range of control over the player character that couldn't be achieved with a D-pad. The PlayStation controller didn't initially have an analog stick, but it eventually one-upped the N64 with the DualShock controller, which featured not one but two analog sticks: one primarily for controlling the player's movement, and one primarily for the camera (thankfully this idea caught on and is now considered the standard). Unlike the N64's C-pad, a second analog stick gave the camera more freedom in movement — and Sony didn't patent using the right stick for this purpose like Nintendo did with their C-pad — making Camera Screw and thus Interface Screw much less common than in N64 games. The "rumble" feature standard in most controllers today also originated in this era. It originated as the Rumble Pak peripheral for the N64 (originally packaged with Star Fox 64), and it proved highly popular for giving games a new sense of "realism" by vibrating the controller whenever something "forceful" happened within the game. The PlayStation also adopted this feature for itself in the DualShock controller, in its case incorporating the rumble into the controller itself rather than it being an add-on. With very few exceptions, every console from that point on has incorporated rumble into the controller.note 

Meanwhile on the portable scene, the Game Boy continued to go almost entirely unchallenged. SNK's Neo Geo Pocket and Bandai's WonderSwan would only find small audiences in the markets they reached and do little to dent the fortunes of the monochrome machine. Indeed, the ageing brick was only just hitting a new stride when Pokémon Red and Blue, if not the first, then definitely the codifier of the social game, became the unexpected mega hit of the generation, spawning countless tie-ins and spinoffs to rival even the plumber himself. The console would finally get revised into the smaller Game Boy Pocket, but the big update to the line would be the self-explanatory Game Boy Color, which finally gave players on the go a colour screen system with decent battery life.

All in all, this generation stands as probably the biggest leap forward in the history in gaming in both graphics and stories, from sprites to polygons, and from Excuse Plots to deeper and longer-lasting stories.


Consoles of this era

Handhelds of this era

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