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History of video games (16-bit era)

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History of video games (16-bit era)

History of video games

In the history of computer and video games, the fourth generation (more commonly referred to as the 16-bit era) of games consoles began on October 30, 1987 with the Japanese release of Nippon Electric Company's (NEC) PC Engine (known as the TurboGrafx-16 in North America). Although NEC released the first fourth generation console, this era was dominated by the rivalry between Nintendo and Sega's consoles: the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (the Super Famicom in Japan) and the Mega Drive (named the Sega Genesis in North America due to trademark issues). Nintendo was able to capitalize on its previous success in the third generation and managed to win the largest worldwide market share in the fourth generation as well. Sega was extremely successful in this generation and began a new franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog, to compete with Nintendo's Mario series of games. Several other companies released consoles in this generation, but, with the exception of the Neo Geo from SNK, none of them were widely successful. Nevertheless, several other companies started to take notice of the maturing video game industry and began making plans to release consoles of their own in the future.

Home systems

PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16/TurboGrafx

Main article: TurboGrafx-16

The PC Engine was the result of a collaboration between Hudson Soft and NEC and launched in Japan on October 30, 1987. It launched in North America during August 1989, under the name TurboGrafx-16.

Initially, the PC Engine was quite successful in Japan, partly due to titles available on the then-new CD-ROM format. NEC released a CD add-on in 1990 and by 1992 had released a combination TurboGrafx and CD-ROM system known as the Turbo Duo.

In the USA, NEC used Bonk, a head-banging caveman, as their mascot and featured him in most of the TurboGrafx advertising from 1990 to 1994. The platform was well received initially, especially in larger markets, but failed to make inroads into the smaller metropolitan areas where NEC did not have as many store representatives or as focused in-store promotion.

The TurboGrafx-16 failed to maintain its sales momentum or to make a strong impact in North America. The TurboGrafx-16 and its CD combination system, the Turbo Duo, ceased manufacturing in North America by 1994, though a small amount of software continued to trickle out for the platform.

In Japan, a number of more adult titles were also available for the PC-Engine, such as a variety of strip mahjong games (such as the Super Real Mahjong series), which set it apart from its competitors.

Mega Drive/Sega Genesis

Main article: Sega Genesis

The Mega Drive was released in Japan on October 29, 1988.[1] The console was released in New York City and Los Angeles on August 14, 1989 under the name Sega Genesis, and in the rest of North America later that year.[2] It was launched in Europe and Australia on November 30, 1990 under it's original name.

Sega initially had a hard time overcoming Nintendo's ubiquitous presence in the American consumer's home. That changed in late 1991, as Sega built their marketing campaign around their new mascot Sonic the Hedgehog,[3] pushing the Genesis as the "cooler" alternative to Nintendo's console[4] and inventing the term "Blast Processing" to suggest that the Genesis was capable of handling games with faster motion than the SNES.[5] Their advertising was often directly adversarial, leading to commercials such as "Genesis does what Nintendon't" and the "'SEGA!' scream".[6]

When the arcade game Mortal Kombat was ported for home release on the Mega Drive and Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo decided to censor the game's gore, but Sega kept the content in the game, via a code entered at the start screen (A,B,A,C,A,B,B). Sega's gamble paid off, as its version of Mortal Kombat received generally higher and more favorable reviews in the gaming press and outsold the SNES version three to one. This violence also led to Congressional hearings to investigate the marketing of violent video games to children, and to the creation of the Interactive Digital Software Association and the Entertainment Software Rating Board. With the new ESRB rating system in place, Nintendo reconsidered its position for the release of Mortal Kombat II, and this time became the preferred version among reviewers.[7][8] Sega, however, ran into a minor roadblock with the popularity of fighting games with advanced controls, because its controller only featured three action buttons. In response to the upcoming Street Fighter 2 Special Champion Edition and Mortal Kombat, Sega introduced a 6-button controller. Most new games could still be played with the original 3-button controller however, but the company suggested its gamers buy and adopt the new 6-button model.

Despite the Genesis' and Mega Drive's success in North America and Europe, the console was never popular in Japan (being regularly outsold by the PC Engine), but it still managed to sell 40 million units worldwide. By late 1995, Sega was supporting five different consoles and two add-ons, and Sega of Japan chose to discontinue the Mega Drive in Japan to concentrate on the new Sega Saturn. While this made perfect sense for the Japanese market, it was disastrous in North America: the market for Genesis games was much larger than for the Saturn, but Sega was left without the inventory or software to meet demand.[9]

Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Nintendo executives were initially reluctant to design a new system, but as the market transitioned to the newer hardware, Nintendo saw the erosion of the commanding market share it had built up with the Famicom (called Nintendo Entertainment System outside Japan).[10] Nintendo's fourth-generation console, the Super Famicom, was released in Japan on November 21, 1990; Nintendo's initial shipment of 300,000 units sold out within hours.[11] The machine reached North America as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System on August 23, 1991,[cn 1] and Europe and Australia in April 1992.

Despite stiff competition from the Mega Drive/Sega Genesis console, the Super Famicom/SNES eventually took the top selling position, selling 49.10 million units worldwide,[18] and would even remain popular well into the 32-bit generation.[19] Nintendo's market position was defined by their machine's increased video and sound capabilities,[20] as well as exclusive first-party franchise titles such as Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past and Super Metroid. Later titles such as Star Fox and Donkey Kong Country would keep the Super Famicom/SNES relevant well into the "fifth generation" era of 32- and 64-bit consoles.

Neo Geo

Main article: Neo Geo (console)

Released by SNK in 1990, the Neo Geo was a home console version of the major arcade platform. Compared to its console competition, the Neo Geo had much better graphics and sound, but the prohibitively expensive launch price of $649.99 USD made the console only accessible to a niche market. A less expensive version, retailing for $399.99, did not include a memory card, pack-in game or extra joystick.


Nintendo, NEC and Sega also competed with hardware peripherals for their consoles in this generation. NEC was the first with the release of the TurboGrafx CD system in 1990. Retailing for $499.99 at release, the CD add-on was not a popular purchase, but was largely responsible for the platform's success in Japan. Sega made two attempts: the Sega-CD (renamed Sega-CD in North America) and the Sega 32X. The Sega CD was plagued by a high price tag ($300 at its release) and a limited library of games. The 32X faced a number of problems, primarily technical and commercial: the peripheral would occasionally not work with some consoles, and some retailers were not able to meet the initial demand for the add-on, leading to shortages. A unique add-on for the Sega console was Sega Channel, a subscription based service hosted by local television providers. It required hardware that plugged into a cable line and the Genesis.

Nintendo made an attempt with their successful Satellaview and Super Game Boy. The former was a satellite service released only on the Japanese market and the latter an adapter for the Super Famicom and SNES that allowed Game Boy games to be displayed on a TV in color. Nintendo, working along with Sony, also had plans to create a CD-ROM drive for the SNES (plans that resulted in a prototype called the "Play Station"), but eventually decided not to go through with that project, opting to team up with Philips in the development of the add-on instead (contrary to popular belief, the CD-i was largely unrelated to the project). Sony decided to go ahead with the CD-ROM development and used the name "PlayStation" for their own standalone CD-based console, overseen by former Super Famicom sound-chip engineer, Ken Kutaragi.

European and Australian importing

The fourth generation was also the era when the act of buying imported US games became more established in Europe, and regular stores began to carry them. This was perhaps because the PAL region has a refresh rate of 50 Hz (compared with 60 Hz for NTSC) and a vertical resolution of 625 interlaced lines (576 effective), compared with 525/480 for NTSC. This means that a game designed for the NTSC standard without any modification would run 17% slower and have black bars at the top and bottom when played on a PAL television.[further explanation needed] Developers often had a hard time converting games designed for the American and Japanese NTSC standard to the European and Australian PAL standard. Companies such as Konami, with large budgets and a healthy following in Europe and Australia, readily optimized several games (such as the International Superstar Soccer series) for this audience, while most smaller developers did not.

Also, few RPGs were released in Europe because they would have needed to be translated into many different languages. RPGs tend to contain much more text than other genres, so one of the biggest problems was simply fitting all of the full translations into one cartridge. The cost of creating multiple full translations was also prohibitive. Only the UK and Australia saw any number of RPG releases, and even then the number was a fraction of what was being released in Japan. For the Mega Drive, there were numerous PAL releases of RPGs. Examples include Phantasy Star II, III and IV, Shining in the Darkness and its sequels Shining Force I and II, Sword of Vermilion, Super Hydlide, Landstalker, Story of Thor, Soleil and Light Crusader. A few of them received French and German translations.[21]

Popular US games imported at this time included Final Fantasy IV (known in the USA as Final Fantasy II), Final Fantasy VI (known in the USA as Final Fantasy III), Secret of Mana, Street Fighter II, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG. Secret of Mana and Street Fighter II would eventually receive official release in Europe.


Name PC-Engine/TurboGrafx-16 Mega Drive/Sega Genesis Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System Neo Geo AES
Manufacturer NEC/Hudson Soft Sega Nintendo SNK
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Launch prices (USD) US$199.99 US$189.99 US$199.99 US$649.99 (Gold version)

US$399.99 (Silver version)

Release date
  • JP October 30, 1987
  • NA August 29, 1989
  • JP October 29, 1988
  • NA August 14, 1989
  • EU November 30, 1990
  • JP November 21, 1990
  • EU April 11, 1992
  • JP July 1, 1991
Media HuCard (card-shaped cartridge)

CD-ROM (Turbo CD add-on)


CD-ROM (Mega-CD add-on)
Data card (Power Base Converter add-on)


Magnetic disc (Japan only)[22]


Data card (Japan/Europe)[22]

Best-selling games Bonk's Adventure[23] Sonic the Hedgehog (15 million)[24] Super Mario World, 20 million (as of June 25, 2007)[25] Samurai Shodown
Backward compatibility No Sega Master System (using Power Base Converter) NES (unlicensed, using Super 8)

Game Boy (using Super Game Boy)

Accessories (retail)
  • Neo Geo Controller Pro
  • Neo Geo Memory Card
CPU HuC6280A (modified 65SC02)
1.79 or 7.16 MHz
Motorola 68000
7.67 MHz (7.61 MHz PAL)
Zilog Z80
3.58 MHz
Nintendo-custom 5A22
(based on 65C816)
3.58 MHz (3.55 MHz PAL)
Motorola 68000
12 MHz
Zilog Z80
4 MHz
Memory 8 KiB work RAM
64 KiB video RAM
64 KiB main RAM
64 KiB video RAM
8 KiB audio RAM
128 KiB main RAM
64 KiB video RAM
64 KiB audio RAM
64 KiB main RAM
74 KiB video RAM
2 KiB audio RAM


Worldwide sales standings

Console Units sold
Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System 49.10 million[27]
Mega Drive/Sega Genesis 40 million [cn 2]
PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 10 million[33]
CD-i 570,000[26]

Handheld systems

The first handheld game console released in the fourth generation was the Game Boy, on April 21, 1989. It went on to dominate handheld sales by an extremely large margin, despite featuring a low-contrast, unlit monochrome screen while all three of its leading competitors had color. Three major franchises made their debut on the Game Boy: Tetris, the Game Boy's killer application; Pokémon; and Kirby. With some design (Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Light) and hardware (Game Boy Color) changes, it continued in production in some form until 2008, enjoying a better than 18-year run.

The Atari Lynx included hardware-accelerated color graphics, a backlight, and the ability to link upto sixteen units together in an early example of network play when its competitors could only link 2 or 4 consoles (or none at all),[34] but its comparatively short battery life (approximately 4.5 hours on a set of alkaline cells, versus at least 10–11 hours for the Game Boy), high price, and weak games library made it one of the worst-selling handheld game systems of all time, with less than 500,000 units sold.[35][32]

The third major handheld of the fourth generation was the Sega Game Gear. It featured graphics capabilities roughly comparable to the Master System (better colours, but lower resolution), a ready made games library by using the "Master-Gear" adaptor to play cartridges from the older console, and the opportunity to be converted into a portable TV using a cheap tuner adaptor, but it also suffered some of the same shortcomings as the Lynx. While it sold more than twenty times as many units as the Lynx, its bulky design - slightly larger than even the original Game Boy; relatively poor battery life - only a little better than the Lynx; and later arrival in the marketplace - competing for sales amongst the remaining buyers who didn't already have a Game Boy - hampered its overall popularity despite being more closely competitive to the Nintendo in terms of price and breadth of software library.[36] Sega eventually retired the Game Gear in 1997, a year before Nintendo released the first examples of the Game Boy Color, to focus on the Nomad and non-portable console products.

Other handheld consoles released during the fourth generation included the TurboExpress, a handheld version of the TurboGrafx-16 released by NEC in 1990, and the Game Boy Pocket, an improved model of the Game Boy released about two years before the debut of the Game Boy Color. While the TurboExpress was another early pioneer of color handheld gaming technology and had the added benefit of using the same game cartridges or 'HuCards' as the TurboGrafx16, it had even worse battery life than the Lynx and Game Gear - about three hours on six contemporary AA batteries - selling only 1.5 million units.[32]

List of handheld consoles

Console Game Boy Atari Lynx Sega Game Gear TurboExpress
Manufacturer Nintendo Atari Sega NEC
Launch price ¥12,500[37]
US$189.99 ¥14,500
Release date Japan April 21, 1989
United States August 1989
European Union 1990
United States September 1989
European Union 1990
Japan October 6, 1990
European Union April 26, 1991
United States April 26, 1991
Australia 1992
Japan November 16, 1990
United States 1991
Units sold 118.69 million (as of December 31, 2009),[40] including Game Boy Color units[41] <500,000 (as of July 30, 2007)[32] 15 million (as of July 30, 2007)[32] 1.5 million[32]
Media Cartridge Cartridge Cartridge Datacard
Best-selling games Tetris, 35 million (pack-in / separately).[42]

Pokémon Red, Blue, and Green, approximately 20.08 million combined (in Japan and the US) (details).[43][44]

Unknown Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Bonk's Adventure
Backward compatibility N/A (Original Cartridges compatible with later models) N/A Sega Master System (using Cartridge Adapter) N/A



Milestone titles

While many of them originated in the 8-bit era, many of the major franchise titles came of age and solidified their grip on the market in the 16-bit era. Mario, Metroid, Zelda, Star Fox, Kirby, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana), Sonic the Hedgehog, Donkey Kong, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Mega Man X, and many others had either their first releases or some of their most popular titles during the 16-bit era.

  • Sonic the Hedgehog was Sega's bid to compete head-to head with Nintendo's Mario franchise. Debuting in 1991, Sega's marketing of the Sonic franchise was key to Sega's success in the video game market during the early years of this generation. The series is a critical and commercial success.
  • Metroid II was released for the Game Boy and Super Metroid was released in 1994 on a comparatively large 24 megabit cartridge for the SNES. Super Metroid still is regarded by many gaming organizations as one of the "best games of all time."[47]
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, courted popularity that was larger than that of its predecessors on the NES. It was one of the few action-adventures to be released early in the SNES's lifecycle. Zelda II on the NES had been mostly action-based and was side-scrolling, while A Link to the Past drew more inspiration from the original Zelda game with its top-down adventure format.
  • Secret of Mana reintroduced the Seiken Densetsu series, originally conceived as a Final Fantasy spin-off, to Europe and North America.
  • Street Fighter II, a port of the arcade original to the SNES, was the second game in the series to produce a lasting fanbase and set many of the trends seen in fighting games today, most notably its colorful selection of playable fighters from different countries across the globe. As of 2008, it is Capcom's best-selling consumer game of all time.[48]
  • Phantasy Star is Sega's RPG franchise that was established 1987 on the Sega Master System. It was the first console RPG to reach Europe. Three sequels were released to the Mega Drive. With its sci-fi theme, the franchise was different from the fantasy-themed Dragon Quest.
  • Thunder Force II, III and IV were all released for the Mega Drive, but the third never reached Europe and the fourth was called Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (sic) in the US.

Seeking to follow the example of the above titles, several more franchises were born during this era. While game sequels were far from uncommon during the 8-bit era and even before, it was at this time that the potential for continuing series games was realized.

Notable CD-i releases included the well-received Burn:Cycle, Escape from Cyber City (made using re-dubbed clips from Galaxy Express 999), and a port of The 7th Guest that was bundled with the system at one time.



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