After 16-bit dominated the first half of the 1990’s, from the middle of the decade towards its end, gaming progressed to 32-bit processing machines. While PlayStation popularized 32-bit gaming, IBM’s OS2 and Windows NT operating systems also helped establish the value of this technology. With 32-bit processors, they could process up to nearly 4.3 billion units of binary data! Thanks to this new step in the industry, games could finally go 3D and produce hundreds of thousands of polygons per second, have CD quality audio, voice acting, and show video that was either recorded live action or rendered on computer software.
32-bit Before the PlayStation
While Sony’s PlayStation made 32-bit synonymous with that console, there were other consoles and add-ons that claimed that label. For starters, Sega’s 32X add-on for the Genesis was a prologue to that direction but required the Genesis console itself to operate and was at the same price of getting a Genesis console itself. It was not a success and was the first step to Sega’s ultimate downfall from the hardware business. In addition to its price, its peripherals to get it connected and started up was like navigating a maze. Last, its games never really took advantage of its hardware capabilities and were very glitchy. Sega had many of its games rushed which is why it never really lived up to any potential it had, and the Saturn was already announced and in development.
While Sega did eventually release its own 32-bit console, the Saturn, a few months before PlayStation, it was a massive failure in the US due to Sega ruining its reputation with the disaster of the 32X, a weak library of launch titles, a rushed launch that threw off retailers and consumers, complex hardware that developers found difficult to program for in terms of 3D graphics (while it was easy to program 2D graphics on the console), and a launch price of $400 (now over $640 after you adjust for inflation). While it is a forgotten footnote in American gaming, the Saturn console managed to find success in Japan with its own distinct games that made non-Japanese gamers reconsider the quality and value of the console.
Another notable 32-bit console before the release of the PlayStation was the 3DO towards the end of the fall season of 1993 with the collaboration of Panasonic, Sanyo and Goldstar releasing their own models. While the console was considered state of the art upon its initial release, its price tag of $700 USD naturally turned off potential buyers. Its only notable praised game was a port of Super Street Fighter II Turbo. After the industry went on the PlayStation, the 3DO was long and forgotten by the end of 1996.
The Beginning of a New Gaming Titan
As some of you may know, the Famicom, or the Nintendo in Japan, had a Disk System add-on that was Japan only. When they got around to releasing the Super Famicom, they wanted to follow that up with their own CD drive with the collaboration with Sony. Unfortunately, the project was canceled (due to contract disputes that could be its own article) and Sony continued the project as its own console, the original PlayStation. It finally hit stores in December 1994 in Japan and in September 1995 in North America and Europe. Sony also managed to get strong third party support for their console. While the Saturn was found difficult to program for, the PlayStation was much easier for developers to work with. Another winning factor is that Sony had a great advertising campaign that appealed more to teenagers and young adults as opposed to exclusively adults that Sega had with the Saturn.
The Mainstreaming of CD games
As you can see with the main 32-bit consoles of the era, they are all CD format as opposed to cartridges. While Nintendo had some understandable skepticism about CD games at the time (longer load times and copyright protection), CDs just had more memory space and were much cheaper to produce. In fact, the CD format is why Square chose to release Final Fantasy VII for the original PlayStation as opposed to the Nintendo 64. While piracy was a common practice, it did not stop the PlayStation from being successful.
Final Fantasy VII
- Platform: PlayStation
- Publisher: SquareSoft (Japan), SCEA (US)
- Developer: SquareSoft
- Release Date: Jan 31, 1997 (Japan), Sept 7, 1997 (US)
If any game helped define the power of the original PlayStation and put Japanese RPGs on the map, it would certainly be Final Fantasy VII. Forget the fact that it was released under its original title with only three games released in the US prior to FFVII. Its commercials made great use of its FMV and took the genre and franchise to new frontiers. In addition, its unique world, rich characters and magnificent storytelling brought to the argument on defining video games as art. The game also introduced other dramatic demonstrations of magic, summons, limit breaks and just about everything. While every edition of Final Fantasy is not a sequel to one another, FFVII introduced audiences to numerous franchise staples such as the opening piano tune at the title screen, Chocobos, moogles, summons, airships, and that there are always characters named Cid.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
- Platform: PlayStation, Saturn
- Publisher: Konami
- Developer: Konami
- Release Date: Mar 20, 1997 (Japan), Oct 2, 1997 (US)
While Final Fantasy VII got a majority of the attention in 1997, if there was one game that critics and players thought that could rival it as the best game of that year, it would certainly have to be the cult classic, Symphony of the Night. While Final Fantasy VII took its franchise to full 3D, Symphony of the Night largely sticks to being a side-scroller like its predecessors but introduces numerous new elements that are traditional to RPGs such as leveling up and upgrading items and weapons. While you largely play as a Belmont, returning from the third game to be the lead is Alucard, the son of Dracula.
Although the game does not have 3D graphics or dramatic FMV scenes, it does feature dramatic voice acting and as opposed to progressing through numerous levels, the castle itself is one large stage to explore and back. In 1998, the game was ported to the Saturn and allowed you to play as Maria Renard, but Koji Igarashi, the game’s director, felt unsatisfied with it because it wasn’t remade to take advantage of the Saturn’s superior 2D capabilities.
Crash Bandicoot, Sony’s official mascot
- Platform: PlayStation
- Publisher: SCEA
- Developer: Naughty Dog
- Release Date: Aug 31, 1996
Nintendo has Mario and Sega has Sonic, so whom was Sony going to have as their staple mascot? Crash Bandicoot, which some fans can call Donkey Kong Country on crack. It plays like many of the 3D platform games of the 1990s, but with its own distinctions and gimmicks. Sonic collects ring and Mario collects coins, so what does a bandicoot collect? Wimps Fruits!! And if you collect 100, you get an extra life. And just like other traditional platform games, he can take out enemies by either jumping on them or spin them like the Tasmanian Devil.
The development of the game utilized technology and programming that was considered innovative at the time. As opposed to regular computers that would cost $3,000 on average, the development team used $100,000 Silicon Graphics workstations. The co-creators worked on algorithms and compressions to not only make great graphical details but to use RAM and other storage space as least as possible.
Nights, SEGA’s 32-bit Killer App
Nights into Dreams
- Platform: Saturn
- Publisher: Sega
- Developer: Sonic Team
- Release Date: Jul 5, 1996 (Japan), Aug 31, 1996 (US)
While the PlayStation and many of its exclusive titles are the ones to make an impact on the history books, Saturn still had some great internationally released titles of its own. Though the Saturn never got a true Sonic game, Yuji Naka and Sonic Team still gave the world, Nights. As stated, 3D wasn’t the strong point of the Saturn but Nights will make you doubt those claims. The game was a true 3D experience in its own way by having full ground and air exploration. The main appeal of the game is the ability to fly and do many acrobatics. Not only did it have wonderful character models, the environments and soundtrack brought a natural and mystical feel that reflected the free nature of the game. In addition, many copies of the game came with an analog controller that allowed players to experience the true 3D nature of it.
The 32-bit era was the first to give us what we would have today, full motion video in both 3D and 2D animation, voice acting, making games both a storybook and cinematic experience. It was an era of both success and unfortunate underachievement. It was a time that first demonstrated the true potential gaming had. Even today people still speak fondly of the games of both the PlayStation and the rich Japanese library of the Saturn. Final Fantasy VII still reigns as the most recognized installment of the franchise, and in the near future, there will be a PS4 remake to suit today’s gamers and stay in consistency with today’s releases of Final Fantasy.
If you want to enjoy an old school 2D fighter, Japanese releases on the Saturn are the best way to go. So for those of you who lived through this magnificent time, what are your memories of the PlayStation and/or Saturn? Or for you younger readers that play through Internet purchasing stores through the likes of the PlayStation Network, what have you enjoyed? Please leave your impressions in the comments.