Yesterday we celebrated a very important moment in video game history; the 30 year anniversary of Nintendo’s Famicom video game console.
But as important as July 15, 1983 is, that entire year has some historical significance for the video game industry. Both the North American Video Game Crash and the debut of the third generation of video game consoles occurred that same year, two significant events that occurred on opposite sides of the world.
The third generation of home video game consoles debuted in Japan with the releases of the Sega SG-1000 and the Nintendo Famicom. This is perhaps the most important generation of consoles ever; without it, console gaming likely would not have had the foundation to become the phenomenon that it is today. It is because of the third generation that we have had some of the greatest rivalries in the business, as well as some of the industry’s greatest characters and franchises which were created by the would be legends of a young industry.
Although the groundwork for future success was being created in Japan’s home video game market, things were not going well in the West. North America’s video game industry (specifically the home console market) was in trouble, the result of years of bad business practices, an overcrowded market, and both angry consumers and retailers.
The North American Video Game Crash of 1983
There was a time in this world when even the video game consoles had a wood finish.
Pledge not included.
Yes, the station wagon and those old analog television sets (back when the phrase “Don’t touch that dial” wasn’t figurative) weren’t the only things with some wood grain on them; the Atari 2600 console features that look as well. Back in the early 1980s, Atari was the king of the video game industry in North America. By 1983, the 2600 was in its sixth year and was still the top console. Business was good; the home console market earned about $3.8 billion dollars in 1982. But as a drop of water can erode even the strongest of rocks over time, the home console industry had already begun its implosion.
For a succinct account of what occurred during the Crash, do read Nadia Oxford’s article “Ten Facts about the Great Video Game Crash of ’83” on IGN. Oxford gives an informative and brief breakdown of the myriad issues that led to the home console market’s collapse. As good as business was in terms of revenue in 1982, that year the home console industry saw some of the worst things happen to it at the time.
If you wanted a video game console in 1982, there was no shortage of console for you to choose from. Actually, the home console market was flooded with choices, and that led to some confusion amongst customers and frustrated retailers trying to sell what they had.
Software was an issue of frustration as well. Third-party titles were made legal in 1982, and that led to a lot of bad games being designed and programmed by neophyte developers (while many proven professional developers were getting short changed). One of the most egregious examples of bad game development came from juggernaut Atari, which released two disasters that year: the 2600 version of Pac-Man and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
There was a lot of excitement for the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man, which was supposed to be a port of the arcade version of the game. Released in March of 1982, Pac-Man at home sounded like a great idea, but unfortunately for gamers, the version of Pac-Man they got was poorly developed and rushed to the market. This soured consumer confidence in Atari, and many gamers stayed away from the game. This was proved to be awful for Atari, because the company decided to publish more games (12 million copies) than it had Atari 2600 owners at the time (10 million) and was having difficulty trying to convince non-owners of Pac-Man to buy the game due to bad press.
E.T. was an even bigger mess. Released in December of 1982, E.T. was released The game was universally panned (and has been named one of the worst games of all time), and became such a financial disaster for Atari (which paid over $20 million dollars for the property rights) that unsold copies of the game are said to be buried in a New Mexico landfill.
By 1985, the full effect of the Crash was felt. Revenue for video game consoles in North America that year was only $800 million.
While North America’s console game market was in flux, Japan was getting set for big things. There wasn’t much of a console market in Japan (that was more of a North American thing), but that was about to change. The seed for the Nintendo and Sega rivalry in the home console market was soon to be planted on one day in July.
The Sega SG-1000
Sega’s first entry in the home video game console market, the Sega SG-1000 (Sega Game 1000) is a top loading cartridge and cassette tape based video game system. It first launched on the Japanese market on July 15. 1983 at the cost of 15,000 yen. Later releases of the console came in New Zealand (through Grandstand Leisure Limited) as well Italy, France and Spain, with a rumored release of the console in South Africa. The Sega SG-1000 was never a blockbuster success, partly because its run coincided with the much more successful Famicom.
In the beginning…before the Genesis.
A few clones of the SG-1000 were made throughout its life cycle. Tsukuda Original produced the Othello Multivision which had its own set of brand name games. Telegames produced a clone named the Telegames Personal Arcade in North America, which was based off of Bit Corp’s clone of Coleco’s gaming system named the ColecoVision. Due to the similarity in architecture between the ColecoVision and the SG-1000, the Personal Arcade is able to play both SG-1000 and ColecoVision games.
Released concurrently with the SG-1000 was its computer equivalent, the SC-3000 (Sega Computer 3000) seen above. Selling originally for 29,800 yen, the SC-3000 was marketed as an entry level personal computer which could be used for educational, entertainment, or business purposes. Like the SG-1000, the SC-3000 was first released in Japan with subsequent releases in New Zealand, Australia, and a limited release in Europe (specifically France and Italy). A variant of the SC-3000, the SC-3000H was released later in 1983 and features a full-travel mechanical keyboard.
The SG-1000 would later be updated twice in the future. The first update, the SG-1000 Mark II, was released in Japan in July of 1984. The Mark II functioned similarly to its predecessor, but sported a redesigned exterior. The second and final update of SG-1000 is the SG-1000 Mark III, which would be redesigned and marketed in the West as the Sega Master System.
The Nintendo Famicom
Nintendo’s involvement in the home video game market goes way back to 1977, when the company released Color TV Game-6, the first entry in its Color TV Game series of dedicated video game consoles. Only released in Japan, the Color TV Game consoles worked by plugging directly into a television set. There are five consoles total: Color TV Game-6, Color-TV Game-15, Color TV Racing 112, Color TV Game Block Breaker, and Computer TV Game. The Color TV Game series ended in 1980 with a combined sales total of 3 million units .
The preparation for Nintendo’s next foray into the home console market began with an idea to create a system to be designed by Masayuki Uemura. Initially, the idea was to create a system similar to a personal computer, with a keyboard and floppy disk drive. Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi decided against this, feeling such a system would be too costly, and instead decided to create a new cartridge based dedicated video game console.
Red, white, and winning.
The Famicom debuted in Japan at the cost of ¥14,800 yen. The launch titles for the console were Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. The console was not an immediate success. Furthermore, many of the systems and games malfunctioned due to a faulty chipset within the console. At great cost, Nintendo decided to do a full recall on the Famicom before the end of the year in order to fix the issue.
Despite the rough start, 1984 became a great year for the Famicom, finishing that year as Japan’s top selling console. In October of the following year, the Famicom would debut in North America as the Nintendo Entertainment System, and eventually help carry that country’s console market out of its recession.
An entertainment medium can be defined by not only by what works provides to entertain people at a given time, but what works can survive beyond a given time and become something truly memorable. During the third generation, those memorable works arrived, and some of the franchises, characters, and their creators are still viable today. Where would the video game industry be without Super Mario Bros., Shigeru Miyamoto, Final Fantasy, or Hironobu Sakaguchi? I shudder to think.
Despite all the warm feelings the third generation brings the time in which it came has shadow that looms over today. The video game industry now is in a bit flux, what with major companies gambling on the so-called “AAA” titles to be profitable. It’s one practice that is giving the industry trouble, and likely can’t be sustained as it is without causing future harm.
Furthermore, we have a saturation of sorts in regards to the availability of video game playing devices. In addition to the seventh generation of consoles (which are near the end of their run) we have the upcoming eighth generation consoles in addition to (at least to a degree) mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. That’s not even considering the proliferation of the personal computer, which is much greater in households now than it was three decades ago.
Is the industry heading for another collapse? Time and the market will tell us. In an effort to leave this post with a more positive vibe, here are some commercials for the SG-1000 and the Famicom.
For more reading on 1983, do read Jeremy Parish’s article at US Gamer. Great stuff, there.
For more information on Sega’s consoles, visit Sega Retro, which provided most of the information for this post.
Until next time.
Peace & Pixels