Cart Wars - Episode 1: The Evolution of the Cartridge

Cart-Wars-Episode-1The video game industry between the late 1980s and mid-1990s was a fierce battleground. As the console manufacturers locked horns, a bitter conflict spanning the US, Europe and Japan was fought. Loyal allegiances were formed as bits fought bytes and processors grappled with pixel counts. Lives were lost and continues were consumed, but by no means would any side admit that it was game over. Throughout the conflict, however, a secondary battle was fought, involving not the console, nor the mascot, but the cartridge – gaming media in its most physical form (as many an expert cart blower will know all too well).

The cartridge was a medium capable of feats that pushed the consoles of the 8-64 bit era well beyond their limits. Packed with graphics chips, battery backups and even camera lenses, the evolution of the cartridge is a truly formidable tale and one that is often overshadowed by the myriad consoles' fight for market supremacy.

But how far were developers prepared to push the cartridge medium, and what were the innovations that propelled it to become the ultimate gaming format of the 1980s-90s? Surprisingly one of the earliest milestones in cartridge development originates in a garage, on 5th March 1975, in Menlo Park City, California, in a meeting attended by none other than Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

A new hope

“Are you building your own computer? Terminal? TV typewriter? I/O device? Or some other digital black-magic box?,” the invitation read. “If so, you might like to come to a gathering of people with like-minded interests. Exchange information, swap ideas, talk shop, help work on a project, whatever...” These were the words that announced the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club.

Held in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Homebrew Computer Club was the very first gathering of its kind. Functioning as a forum for like-minded engineers and programmers, the meetings were a key catalyst for the development of the Apple I and Apple II micro computers. No Homebrew Computer Club, no Apple. It was as simple as that. And had it not been for the club, it's likely that the home console as we know it may never have existed.

You see, amongst the Homebrew Computer Club's most high-profile members there was also a man by the name of Jerry Lawson. During the 1970s, Lawson was employed by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp, a company for whom he developed the early coin-op title 'Demolition Derby'. Jerry Lawson had a vision, however. He envisioned a home video game console, complete with interchangeable 'memory devices' that would allow players to easily switch from one title to another through a single base unit. It was certainly a bold move and revolutionary for its time, but thanks to his ingenuity, Jerry Lawson became the father of the read-only memory video game cartridge.

“We were afraid – we didn’t have statistics on multiple insertion and what it would do, or how we would do it, because it wasn’t done. I mean, think about it, nobody had the capability of plugging in memory devices in mass quantity like in a consumer product. Nobody,” Lawson would say of his cartridge design concerns. Yet, what he and his team delivered in the summer of 1976, would pave the way for generations of systems and cartridge variants for years to come.

Fairchild-F-Promotional-Poster

The game changer

The early 1970s home video game market was a scene in its infancy. Dominated by dedicated plug & play systems, the sector was led by Atari, Coleco and Magnavox. The majority of hardware releases at that time came pre-loaded with Pong clones, and hockey and tennis games loosely based on a similar theme. But that mould was about to be broken with Fairchild's latest system release.

Beating its cartridge-based cousin, the Atari 2600, to the market by over a year was the Fairchild Video Entertainment System (VES) – the world's first read-only memory cartridge-based console system. Capable of just eight on-screen colours, with sound effects played only through the system's internal speaker, the VES pales in comparison to today's gaming behemoths. But it was a true game changer in every sense.

During its lifetime, the VES was host to a total of 26 'videocarts' (as Fairchild named them). Such titles included Spitfire, Pro-Football and Alien Invasion. Each release was loaded onto a large yellow-coloured cartridge, which was clearly numbered for ease of reference. “The whole reason I did games was because people said, ‘You can’t do it,'” Lawson would later say. “I’m one of the guys who, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll turn around and do it.”

We're going to need backup

By the late 1980s, the cartridge format had come to dominate the home video game industry. The reason? Three simple letters – NES (or seven if you happened to live in Japan – Famicom). After close to a century of plying its trade in Hanafuda and Karuta playing cards, Nintendo had discovered its true niche and it was all thanks to the dominance of its its 8-bit powerhouse, which at that time affirmed an astonishing 90 per cent dominance over the console market. By now, gamers had largely become accustomed to level designs with further detail, catchy chiptunes and instantly identifiable mascots. But as the public's appetite for increasingly-intricate gaming worlds grew, so did their requirement for ever-expanding gaming worlds. And so it came to be that a video game legend was forged.

With its stunning gold casing, the NES release of the Legend of Zelda, was truly a sight to behold. Yet, for all its visual appeal, it was what sat beneath the surface that would prove to be truly revolutionary. For those brave enough to traverse the treacherous terrain of Hyrule, their quest was made all the more achievable not by potions, or by a handful of Rupees, but through the assistance of a CR2032 battery. How odd.

Nintendo-NES-Battery-Backup

Let's picture the scenario, after seven hours of ceaseless gameplay, you've made it to the dungeon of Death Mountain. Bleary-eyed but hungry for victory, you have the silver arrow in hand, ready for the final showdown with Ganon. All that's required to free Princess Zelda is a steady aim and a single press of the 'A' button, when suddenly... you're killed. Shocked, stunned and in utter disbelief you throw the pad to the floor. You swell with rage and you tear your hair out. You'd come so far, “Why me?!” you scream. And then you remember – you saved your progress just before entering the dungeon. Lucky for you, the Legend of Zelda was one of the very first cartridge releases to allow save states. Thank you Nintendo!

Now, pick up that pad and rescue that princess.

Yellow tab truths

In the land of Sega, however, things had turned nasty. The year was 1990 and over in the US, Electronic Arts had figured a way to reverse engineer the cartridges of the Sega Genesis. For Sega, it meant the potential loss of millions in revenue, but for you and I, it meant the arrival of the iconic EA yellow tab. Ever wonder why the majority of EA's 16-bit Sega carts looked so different? Here's why...

For developers such as EA, the mainstream dominance of the cartridge came with a sting in the tail – the third-party developer licensing deal. For each individual title that EA (and any other third-party developer, for that matter) wanted to release, Sega would charge between US$10-$15 per cartridge for their production. Considering that by now it was not uncommon for a popular title to sell in its hundreds of thousands, even in its millions, and you get a rough idea of the financial strain many developers were facing at that time.

It was a sentiment that was also felt across the pond, as Geoff Brown, founder of US Gold revealed: “They [Sega] told you how many games you could release in a year. They had to approve the games, then they tested them and they had them manufactured. It increased your overheads phenomenally. If you were a small publisher, you just couldn't do it.”

And so it came to be that EA developed a cunning method to circumnavigate Sega's crushing cartridge policies. How did they do this? By manufacturing their own, of course.

In the early days of the Mega Drive/Genesis, Sega handed out development kits to all those who wished to create games for their 16-bit console. Inconceivably, in the rush to meet demand, Sega forgot to ship their consignment of kits to EA. Clearly frustrated by its treatment, EA 'borrowed' and subsequently 'altered' one of Sega's development units. Naming their unit the 'Sega Genesis Probe' (aka the SPROBE), EA discovered a way to produce its own carts without Sega's intervention.

EA-Sega-Mega-Drive-Yellow-Tab-Cartridges

Elongated and notably more angular than standard Sega cartridges, EA's cart design incorporated the now legendary 'yellow tab'. Contrary to what many gamers may have thought at the time, the tab served no purpose – no magical graphics chip and no wizardry. Nothing. It was purely aesthetic.

Needless to say, EA's antics didn't go un-noticed by Sega of America, whose then President, Tom Kalinske, managed to salvage a deal with EA's founder, Trip Hawkins. At the risk of other developers following EA's example, Sega granted EA permission to manufacture its in-house cartridges with a 60 per cent reduction in fees – but there was a condition. Sega demanded that EA provided its 'John Madden Football' engine for the development of Sega's own 'Joe Montana Football'. In return, EA further negotiated a 24 per cent royalty on every 'Montana' title sold.

Never mind the Console Wars, the Cart Wars had begun!

(Cart Wars – The Evolution of the Cartridge – Episode 2 coming soon)...


Last Updated ( 06 January 2015 )  

MegaBites

Writer, collector and player of retro, and a master in the art of cartridge blowing. Raised on trashcan chicken, with an unexplainable obsession for gold rings, some might say that he has an unhealthy obsession with the Sega Mega Drive. Writer and owner of the MegaBites blog.

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Comments 

(Link to this comment) BuckoA51 2014-12-15 12:49
Little 70's kid has been playing his Grandstand so long his foot has actually come detached from his leg.
(Link to this comment) bobskie 2014-12-15 21:59
Haha didn't see that :lol:
(Link to this comment) ollie809 2014-12-16 07:42
great read interesting to hear about those ea carts
(Link to this comment) Pirate Dragon 2014-12-16 22:13
Looking forward to part 2.

A correction, the first battery backed up cartridge game was Epoch's "Pop & Chips" released in 1985 for the Super Cassette Vision. It was also released the same year in France as "Pop et Chips" by Yeno, the French distributor of the SCV. The cartridge is longer than other SCV cartridges released up to that point as it includes a compartment for 2x AA batteries.



It's not an entirely original design though, Nintendo also used a 2x AA battery solution for Family Basic which released June 21, 1984 for the Famicom, although that wasn't an actual game.


(Link to this comment) MegaBites 2014-12-17 12:49
Thank you! As I discovered when writing this, the world of the cartridge is full of unanticipated twists and turns. I've made a slight ammendment to the article. :-)
(Link to this comment) JBOPatrick 2015-01-05 16:30
What about the first cartridge based game console, the Odyssey? I think that is an important part of the evolution of gaming cartridges.
(Link to this comment) MegaBites 2015-01-05 19:18
Very good point. The Magnavox Odyssey was indeed the first cartridge-based console. However, the VES/Channel F was the first ROM cartridge console – a fundamentally different concept – which this article primarily focuses on. Not to take anything away from the Odyssey, mind you :)
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