Cart Wars - Episode 2: The Evolution of the Cartridge

Cart-Wars-Episode-2Grab hold of your Game Boy Cameras, and get set to launch your Arwings as we take a journey to the scrapheap and beyond in the concluding chapter of 'Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge’ – a ‘bit-by-bit’ retrospective of the battles and the developments that shaped the destiny of the cartridge format.

Gears of War

Progressing through the early 1990s, new cartridge innovations served to not only extend the capabilities of the home console, but also those of the handheld. The Gameboy, the Game Gear and the Atari Lynx – each were noted for their unique physical cartridge aesthetics. But as gamers were soon to discover, many of these portable devices were capable of feats way beyond their initial intention, and it was all made possible thanks to the adaptability of their cartridge ports.

The Sega Game Gear: As much as it was a battle for console supremacy, the video game industry of the 1990s was also a war of numbers – of total on-screen colours, of 8-bit versus 16-bit, three button pads, versus four and six button pads, and this was also a rivalry that extended into the realm of the handheld.

Capable of 32 on-screen colours, the Sega Game Gear's 3.2 inch screen was one of its primary selling points and – on paper at least – it was a far more sophisticated set up than that of its rival, the 'four shades of grey' Nintendo Gameboy. A further demonstration of the Game Gear's on-screen capabilities was the release of the Game Gear TV Tuner – a modified cartridge peripheral that enabled full-colour analogue television functionality upon the Sega handheld. Complete with extendable antenna and AV port, the tuner was a complete revelation for its age, if not a rather expensive one – £74.99! Regardless of price, the cartridge-based connectivity of the TV Tuner represented an early and accessible foray into the console as a multi-media device.

Game-Boy-Camera-Game-Gear-TV-Tuner

The Nintendo Game Boy: By 1998, the cartridge as a mainstream video game format had given way to the optical disc medium – namely, the CD. By that time, the Sega Saturn had met its untimely demise and the Sony Playstation ruled the roost. Whilst those in the West still had to wait a year for the Sega Dreamcast, gamers in Japan were already plugging in their VMUs and were subject to the fishing skills of Big the Cat. But the Nintendo Game Boy was still going strong and had discovered a new lease of life thanks to the snap-happy desires of its loyal user base.

Before the advent of the camera phone and the mainstream adoption of digital photography came the Game Boy Camera. Interfacing with the Nintendo handheld through its cartridge slot, the Game Boy Camera was available in a number of coloured variants, including red, blue, green, yellow, a Japan-exclusive translucent purple and a super-rare gold Ocarina of Time alternative.

To say that the Game Boy Camera was limited by the Game Boy's four shade palate is to do this ingenious peripheral an injustice. True, it was notorious for it's incredibly low resolution and lack of definition, but the grainy, pixellated qualities of the camera's snapshots were all part of its enduring charm. Adaptable for use as a point & shoot camera, with built-in photo editing and animation capabilities, the Game Boy Camera and its accompanying software also allowed gamers to superimpose their faces on a number of built-in mini games – including a title based on the first Game & Watch title ‘Ball’. An optional Game Boy Printer device was also made available at its time of release. As if that wasn't enough, a hidden Easter egg within the Game Boy Camera's credits revealed a sequence that depicted a dancing Shigeru Miyamoto. With features like that, who needs a TV tuner?!

But we've gotten slightly ahead of ourselves here, let's take things back to the period spanning 1992-1994, as two new developments in cartridge technology allowed a fox to take to the sky and enabled 'virtua' to become a reality...

Revenge of the chip

The 26th August 1992 – the height of the Sega vs Nintendo rivalry and a date that marked the arrival of the fourth annual Shoshinkai Software Show, a hardware and software showcase akin to the Consumer Electronics Show. But unlike its western counterpart, Shoshinkai was an event exclusive to all things Nintendo, as Peter Molyneux witnessed first-hand: “The show was held at one of the big exhibition halls in Tokyo – one that dwarfs somewhere like Earls Court.”

Nintendo-Spaceworld-Shoshinkai-1992

But no size of venue could eclipse the scale of the announcement that Nintendo's then President, Hiroshi Yamauchi, would make that day. You see, Shoshinkai '92 marked the announcement of Nintendo's revolutionary new cartridge upgrade, the Super FX Chip. “It's been designed by UK games developers Argonaut,” Molyneux continued. “It lets the Super Famicom do super-fast 3D vector stuff – top quality flight sims should now be possible.” And of these 'flight sims' came Star Fox/Starwing.

Going through a total for four revisions, the earliest variant of the Super FX chip was labeled 'MARIO Chip 1'. (For those of a technical mind, MARIO stood for 'Mathematical, Argonaut, Rotation & I/O'). But what exactly did a Super FX cartridge do that others couldn't achieve? Put simply, this:

Sega Strikes Back

Clearly irked by Nintendo's penchant for cartridge chip enhancements, Sega vented its frustrations in a 1994 edition of GameFan magazine: “Nintendo would like you to believe that by adding chips into their cartridges, they will be saving you money. If Donkey Kong Country, priced at $69.99 is any indication of the money they are saving you, it’s a good thing they are a game company and not your banker... By adding more chips to every cartridge game, Nintendo raises the cost of every cart.”

And how did Sega respond? By releasing the Mega Drive's most expensive cartridge release – Virtua Racing – priced at an astonishing £70 (approximately $100) upon release.

As a means of justifying Virtua Racing’s hefty markup, each and every cart release of Sega’s 3D racer contained an innovative new microprocessor by the name of the SVP (Sega Virtua Processor). Capable, in theory, of feats far and above Nintendo’s Super FX variants, not only did Sega’s cartridge chip allow for comparatively smoother frame rates and polygon rendering, but many considered its configuration to be an early precursor to the 32X. Well, almost…

Sega-SVP-Chip

It was a long held belief that the SVP was a Hitachi SH-1 processor – a predecessor to the 32X and Sega Saturn’s dual Hitachi SH2-chipset. With such power on board, Mega Drive gamers revelled in rumours of further full 3D cartridge releases for their console. Whilst Mega Drive ports of Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA were mooted, they ultimately never saw the light of day. But this certainly didn’t stop the Sega supporters from dreaming.

The SVP cart’s close ties to the 32X led many to consider what might have been. Could Sega have bypassed the 32X altogether, and instead released its SVP-powered cart releases as a bridge technology until the Sega Saturn’s release? Looking back, the SVP – in processing power at least – would certainly seem a preferable transition towards the 32-bit generation than Sega’s ill-fated 32X solution. However…

It was in 2006 that all Hitachi lineage between the SVP, the 32X and Saturn became quashed, as the the truth behind the chip was finally revealed. A full 12 years since the SVP’s release had passed when a leaked online document exposed the microprocessor’s identity not as the Hitachi SH-1, but as the Samsung SSP1601. The family tree had been uprooted. Yet, regardless of its identity, the SVP and Virtua Racing did indeed push the Mega Drive to the very limits of its capabilities, if not an equal strain on the wallets and purse strings of Sega's loyal gamer-base.

The Fall of the Format

As gamers know all too well, the humble cartridge medium eventually succumbed to the almighty compact disc. Whilst early pioneers in the CD format – the TurboGrafx-CD, Philips CDi, 3DO, Amiga CD32 and Mega CD inclusive – ushered in the new age to varying degrees of success, it wasn’t until the respective 1994 releases of the Sega Saturn and the Sony Playstation, and the dawn of the 32-bit generation that the CD truly came to affirm its dominance on the video game market. Undeterred, the cartridge format still soldiered on, largely supported by Nintendo in the form of the Nintendo 64, and later the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance and the DS/3DS series.

However, as the years progressed and even as gaming media surrendered much of its physical entities to the download medium, few were prepared for the events of April 2014, as the cartridge war’s greatest secret was unearthed – quite literally.

Buried, but not forgotten...

In every battle, there must inevitably be casualties, and the cartridge wars come as no exception. To trace the origins of one of the format’s greatest falls from grace, we must first travel back some 32 years, to the burial site of one of the medium’s most synonymous fallen soldiers – E.T. for the Atari 2600.

ET-Cartridge-Excavation

It was 1983, the year of the North American video game crash and a period that marked not only the death of the Atari 2600 but the advent of one of video gaming’s greatest conspiracy theories – the rumoured landfill burial of Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. “The movie came out, it was a huge hit and we wanted to do the cartridge of it,” explained Manny Gerard, Co-Chief Operating Officer of Warner Communications. “There was a negotiation going on between the Atari people and the people at Universal. Steve Ross, who was the CEO of Warner, agreed to a deal that was so off the chart that nobody believed it. It was $20-30 million dollars, it was some crazy number. So, we acquired the rights for E.T. and we had to have the game out for Christmas, and that created a problem.” But few could have predicted the sheer insurmountable scale of that problem and the imminent death knell that would soon sound the demise of an industry.

“E.T. was a really hard game, the kind of game that was brutal, unfair and didn’t make a lot of sense,” - Mike Mika, Game Developer.

E.T. for the Atari 2600 went on to become the console’s 8th biggest all-time seller, shifting around 1.5 million cartridges. Despite its ‘million-seller’ status, Atari vastly over estimated consumer demand. Producing around four million copies of the game, the release was hampered not only by its epic shortfall in sales, but also in its status as quite possibly one of the worst games of all time, as many industry insiders have since attested:

“E.T. was a really hard game, the kind of game that was brutal, unfair and didn’t make a lot of sense,” Mike Mika, Game Developer.

“I grew up in London and there was a video game store in my town where you could rent a game for 50p for a weekend. I still remember thinking that I’d wasted my money because it was just bad,” Gary Whitta, ex-Video Game Journalist and Screenwriter.

Following E.T’s Christmas 1982 release, the US video game industry was facing widespread extinction. With a surplus of product in its millions and Atari’s E.T. cartridges being returned to stores in their thousands, what could the ailing developer possibly do to hide its shame? What transpired was the advent of one of the video game industry’s greatest urban legends.

Although not confirmed by Atari at the time, rumours swiftly surfaced of a video game graveyard – the Alamagordo landfill, New Mexico – a burial site purportedly filled with thousands upon thousands of excess E.T. cartridges, seemingly disposed by Atari in a hastened effort to hide its shame. Whilst Atari remained hesitant to confirm its actions, one thing was certain – something had been buried in Alamagordo, but what exactly?

The truth was revealed and filmed in April 2014 as Hollywood Director, Zak Penn, accompanied by ex-Alamagordo Dig Site Manager, Joe Lewandowski identified what they believed to be the exact location of the Atari landfill. Word of the discovery soon spread as vast crowds of Atari pilgrims travelled to the site, eager to bear witness to one of the video game cartridge’s most famous, yet darkest moments in its history. As the site operators dug deeper and deeper into the Alamagordo soil, layer upon layer of decades old waste was uncovered, slowly diminishing any hope of uncovering Atari’s cartridge hoard. Suffocating sandstorms arrived, prompting much of the travelling observers to turn away, until finally, the treasure was found.

What was discovered was not just final the resting place of a significant proportion of E.T. cartridges, but also a vast assortment of Atari 2600 releases – 59 individual titles and a potential trove of over 792,000 games. Incredible.

Atari-Landfill-Contents

Whilst the events at Alamagordo confirmed the truth behind an Atari urban legend, what transpired that windswept April day served to function as a perfect analogy for the almighty cartridge medium – largely neglected by the modern day video game industry, the cartridge’s heyday as the predominant format had certainly not been forgotten. Not by a long shot.

The legacy goes on

Admittedly, this short duo of articles barely scratches the surface of the key events, the revelations and the consoles that served to shape the cartridge’s rich history and early development – the Magnavox Odyssey, the Nintendo 64, the TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine, the almighty monoliths carts of the Neo Geo AES, the migraine-inducing Virtual Boy… The list goes on.

You see, the cartridge medium was more than simple fodder in bitter war between console and industry giants. Unlike the floppy disk, the cassette, the CD, the digital download and the myriad formats that came before and after it, the cartridge was a tangible, physical entity – a digital trojan horse filled with electronic wizardry, that propelled not only our consoles, but our imaginations into new realms of gaming barely thought conceivable. Crucially, no matter whose corner you fought in the glory days of the cartridge medium – whether Sega, Nintendo, Atari or another – for all our glorious differences, we all shared one thing in common… the cartridge.

Game on!


Last Updated ( 01 February 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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