Allow Me to Talk About my Three Favourite Underappreciated Video Game Consoles

Over the years we’ve seen many companies come and go in gaming when it comes to hardware, but every now and then a console will fail or go under the radar despite being good, and in some cases excellent, which always strikes me as unfair. Not all good consoles have come from the established order, they don’t have a monopoly on quality. So here I just want to talk about three consoles which I absolutely love, but all of which either failed at retail or could only muster up strong support domestically.

 

PC Engine

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For many years the PC Engine held the record for the worlds smallest video game console.

The PC Engine is a great example of a console which certainly wasn’t a failure, but only found success domestically. The PC Engine was a huge success in Japan and for a while outsold both the Famicom and Mega Drive. In the end it managed to sell seven and a half of its ten million units in the Nihon, coming second only to the Super Famicom in the region during the 16-bit era. That’s quite the achievement considering it was designed and developed by two companies without any prior experience in the console market. The system was envisioned, ironically, as a powerhouse 8-bit console with the goal of taking down the Famicom and was a collaboration between Hudson Soft and electronics giant NEC. NEC put a lot of money in to the development of the system; the R&D team assigned to creating the PC Engine had a larger budget than the worth of both Sega and Nintendo as individual companies. When it was released in 1987 it was, by far, the most technologically advanced game system money could buy, and Japanese games flocked to it in droves. Like I mentioned, it was actually designed to be powerhouse 8-bit system, but the console had a 16-bit GPU and was capable of graphics far superior to any other 8-bit system on the market. As a result it usually gets lumbered in with both the SNES and Mega Drive as one of the three main competitors of the fourth generation of consoles, and it visually more than stands up to those systems for the most part.

It wasn’t released in North America until 1989, and was renamed the TurboGrafx-16, but unfortunately it launched after the Mega Drive (or Genesis… whatever) in the region and this hurt it considerably. The system never had a full-scale European release, it was only made available in the UK as a test market in 1990 in very limited quantities, although the system was popular with importers in France, with several retail chains stocking imported Japanese systems. It’s a shame really, because I do believe that had it launched earlier in the west the PC Engine could have found considerable success outside Japan.

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PC Engine games came on these cool looking Hu Cards.

While the library of games the system housed outside Japan was somewhat lacking (only 94 games compared to over 200 in Japan) it was still home to some truly excellent titles. Blazing Lazers is one of my personal favourite shoot ’em ups of the era, and titles like Bonk’s Adventure and The Legendary Axe were also very good. In Japan, as you would expect, it had a large selection of RPGs, many of which were of very high quality. The PC Engine is also notable for being the first video game console to utilise optical media. While standard PC Engine games came on credit card size carts called Hu Cards (similar to the Sega Cards that some Master System games were released on) in 1989 NEC launched the PC Engine CD add-on, marking the debut of optical media in console gaming. The add-on was popular in Japan, with franchises such as Ys and Castlevania making stunning debuts on the system in the form of Ys I & II and Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. In total the PC Engine CD housed even more games in Japan than the base console, with over 300. The add-on was launched in North America in 1991, but its high retail price, coupled with the general lack of popularity of the TurboGrafx-16 meant it bombed, and only 44 games were released for it.

An important thing of note about the PC Engine CD; it isn’t always straight forward to play the CD games you own on it. This is where things get a little complicated. Unlike the Mega CD add-on for the Mega Drive, which had its own CPU that boosted the power of the main system, the PC Engine CD only served as a means to allow CD-ROMs to work on the PC Engine and nothing more. As a result the PC Engine CD had the same hardware limitations as the base system it is attached to. To get around this every PC Engine CD system, when it was brand new, came with a card which slotted in to the Hu Card port called a Super System Card 2.0, which expanded the system memory. Without this card CD games won’t work, which poses a problem if you want to pick one up today because there’s no guarantee you will get Super System Card 2.0 if you buy one second hand. These cards are just as essential as the CD system itself.

To complicate thing even more, after a while NEC started releasing newer CD titles that were incompatible with the Super System Card 2.0. These newer releases cut down load times and generally improved the performance and allowed greater usage of the CD, but they required a new Super System Card, called the Super System 3.0 to work. In other words, the PC Engine CD is a complicated system to play games on. Thankfully NEC did eventually release the PC Engine Duo, which was both a PC Engine and PC Engine CD combined, and this came with the capability to play Super System Card 3.0 titles natively. They are expensive, but I’d recommend one of those.

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The PC Engine Duo is expensive, but it’s a great alternative to buying a PC Engine and the CD add-on separately; it also has the ability to play PC Engine CD titles without the need to track down a Super System Card.

The PC Engine is a brilliant console, and if you have the chance to buy a Japanese system you can pick up a ton of awesome games cheaply. As well as Bonk’s Adventure, The Legendary Axe and Blazing Lazers you may also want to check out Bonk’s Revenge, Bonk 3: Bonk’s Big Adventure, The Legendary Axe II, Neutopia and Neutopia II, Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, Splatterhouse, Ninja Spirit, Devil’s Crush and Soldier Blade. Talking about Soldier Blade, the PC Engine is rife with awesome shoot ’em ups, so fans of the genre will really dig it. Blazing Lazers and Soldier Blade are only the beginning.

The CD add-on and PC Engine Duo are both very expensive, and chances are most of you won’t want to pay the asking prices for either of them. But if you do pick one up you’ll definitely want to invest in Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Ys I & II, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, Ys IV: Dawn of Ys, Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes, the Cosmic Fantasy quadrilogy, Snatcher, and Might and Magic. Many hours of quality gaming will follow these purchases.

 

Neo Geo AES

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The AES came with an arcade controller as standard, which as you can see was almost the same size as the console itself.

The Neo Geo AES (short for Advanced Entertainment System) is one of those consoles that every gamer in the 90’s would have heard about, but chances are none of them actually ever saw one first-hand. The Neo Geo started out as a string of hugely successful arcade machines by the Japanese developer SNK. The machines themselves, called the Neo Geo MVS (short for Multi Video System), were popular with arcade owners because each machine had the capability to hold more than one game. MVS games came on huge cartridges which could be freely swapped around, meaning you didn’t have to buy a new machine for each new game, saving valuable floor space. Most MVS machines generally came with four or six cartridge slots.

In Japan SNK released a rental version of the Neo Geo for video game stores, and the rental version proved popular enough for SNK to release it at retail in both Japan and North America. The AES housed the same hardware as its arcade brethren, meaning Neo Geo AES games were exact replicas of the titles you could play in the arcade. This was at a time when other consoles and home computers always had scaled down ports. But this came at a cost. The Neo Geo retailed in North America for $650, with individual games costing as much as $200 or $300 each (although some did retail for as little as $50). This put the system out of the price range of pretty much every consumer, relegating the system to a niche market of high-end machines. An interesting little fact about the Neo Geo AES is that it was the first console to make use of memory cards to save game data, and the best thing about these memory cards is that they worked in both the console and arcade machines, meaning you could take your save data from the arcade home with you and vice versa.

In all honesty I don’t think I’ve ever played a truly terrible Neo Geo game (most of my experience with the system has come in the arcades). Sure, you will come across some fairly average games for the system, but there’s nothing on the Neo Geo quite as terrible as titles like Lester the Unlikely, Action 52 or Shaq-Fu. It was expensive, but it was packed full of quality software.

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AES games came on huge cartridges, far bigger than any other game console.

While the Neo Geo received some third-party support the majority of titles for the system were made by SNK itself, or studios under contract from SNK. Metal Slug and World Heroes are examples of series published but not developed by SNK. The only real criticism of the Neo Geo’s library is that the large majority of games for the system are fighting games. The Neo Geo is a fighting game beast, housing many classic franchises like Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, The King of Fighters, World Heroes, The Last Blade and, my personal favourite, Samurai Shodown. If you’re not a fan of the genre then the Neo Geo won’t really appeal to you. But despite being dominated by fighting games the system also had some quality sports titles, like Baseball Stars 2, Neo Turf Masters and Super Sidekicks, as well as some great shoot ’em ups like Pulstar and Blazing Stars.

The biggest issue with the Neo Geo AES today is the same issue it suffered when it was new. Price. The system will set you back several hundred pounds/dollars, and the games can go for insane prices. When I was in Japan last year I managed to pick up five games for an average price of about £25 each when adjusted, but most of them cost over the equivalent of £100. I saw a copy of Garou: Mark of the Wolves in Super Potato, which was priced at 128,000 yen (over £1000 when adjusted) and in another store, Trader, there was a copy of Sengoku Legends 2001 commanding a price of 258,000 yen. And the Japanese carts are cheaper than the North America carts. Something like Neo Turf Masters could set you back $2000 for a North American cart, and Samurai Shodown II, which I bought for about £25 in Japan (about $30), can cost over $120 for a North American cart.

The Neo Geo AES may be for serious collectors, but it is a wonderful system none-the-less.

 

3DO Interactive Multiplayer

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Some will disagree, but in my opinion the FZ-1 3DO is one of the sexiest consoles ever made.

Most people would argue that the 3DO wasn’t a good console, but most of those people are probably hypocrites and have never actually owned or played one. The 3DO is a grossly misunderstood console, and while it is my least favourite of the three consoles mentioned here it has a fascinating history.

To understand the 3DO you have to cast your mind back to the very early 90’s. Sega and Nintendo were duking it out in the console market, and European gamers were still playing games on popular micro computers such as the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amiga and Atari ST. The 3DO Company was founded by Trip Hawkins, and while every single one of you should know who he is I’ll recap just in case. Trip Hawkins was the founder of Electronic Arts. Yes, the guy behind EA. While today EA has a less than stellar reputation among gamers, when the company was founded in 1982 it had noble intentions. Hawkins envisioned a company which would bring fame and fortune to the guys who actually developed the games. It wasn’t uncommon in the 80’s to see EA games adorned with pictures of the developers themselves, much like a rock album.

Now I will warn you, none of what I’m about to say has ever been confirmed, it’s all speculation and rumours, although none of it has been denied either, so take that as you will.

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There were many versions of the 3DO by various manufacturers.

Hawkins envisioned the 3DO to be the games console. Apparently he looked at the gaming industry in the early 90’s and thought it was unfair that consumers had to buy a Mega Drive to play certain games and a SNES to play others. His vision for the 3DO was to standardise consoles, much like a VHS player as it was at the time. If you bought a VHS player it didn’t matter which manufacturer made it all VHS tapes worked on it. Hawkins envisioned the 3DO to become the gaming equivalent. He wanted to develop a console which would play all games, regardless of which company made them. The 3DO Company didn’t have the man power or finances to develop the system itself, so instead he hired a team of designers and made deals with electronics companies to actually build the console. That’s why Panasonic had its own version of the 3DO. And Sanyo. And Goldstar. His vision was to copy the film industry and the model laid down by VHS players. Each company would create its own version of he 3DO, but all of them would use the same architecture so that every 3DO game would work on all iterations of the hardware.

He had electronics giants on side, for the most part, but the biggest challenge remained. The 3DO Company had to convince developers to support the system. A lot of devs came on board with the idea, most notable of which was EA for obvious reasons, and this was down to the cheap licensing fees. But there were two big holdouts – Sega and Nintendo. The concept for the 3DO would never work without the support of the Japanese giants, and by all accounts Hawkins fought diligently to gain their support. The outcome was obvious.

Sega and Nintendo weren’t interested in the idea, and despite being a powerhouse console with some strong third-party support the 3DO languished at retail thanks to its high price tag and fears it was merely a stop gap between the SNES and Mega Drive and next generation of consoles. Support eventually slowed, and a few years later the system was discontinued having sold only 2 million units worldwide.

The 3DO was probably destined to fail from the start, but the story surrounding the system is fascinating. Imagine what gaming would be like today if Hawkins vision had worked. We would never know if gaming would be better or worse for it, but it’s interesting to speculate. Hell, maybe even Sony would have made its own version of the 3DO?

But history aside the 3DO is a pretty great system in and of itself. Because of the cheap licensing fees it was home to a lot of games by smaller studios who would never have had a chance on the Mega Drive and SNES. This admittedly did result in a lot of terrible games, such as the infamous Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties and weird, educational titles like The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe. It was also home to a lot of pornographic games as well, the only console other than the Atari 2600 to be supported by games of the kind. As you can probably imagine they were all terrible, but many of them are hilarious. Check out The Coven, Blonde Justice and Endlessly if you want a good laugh.

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There was a lot of good 3DO games, people just didn’t pay much attention to them.

Alongside duds like these you had some truly spectacular software. EA was the star of the show, releasing many great games on the system. Did you know The Need for Speed made its debut on the 3DO? A lot of people don’t know this, but it’s true. The original game, Road & Track Presents: The Need for Speed, was released in 1994 and was arguably the best racing game to ever grace a console at the time thanks to its stunning graphics and, for the time, amazing simulation. It’s crazy to think that a 3D title like The Need for Speed existed on consoles before the PlayStation and Saturn came on the scene. Road Rash made it to the console as well in what is arguably the best version of the classic title on any system. And it had the best version of Madden and FIFA which money could buy at the time, putting to shame other versions.

Some other well known titles made it to the 3DO too. Crystal Dynamics released Gex in 1994, marking the debut of that series. The PC classic Star Control II found its way to the system also with, again, arguably the best version of that title. SNK released an impressive port of Samurai Shodown, the closest any port at the time came to matching the Neo Geo version. Doom and Wolfenstein made it across. So did Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger. Naughty Dog released a Mortal Kombat clone called Way of the Warrior. Namco ported over Starblade. Delphine released Flashback and Another World. Theme Park and Syndicate appeared on the system. And best of all, Capcom released arguably the greatest ever console port of Super Street Fighter II Turbo for it.

And the list of games goes on and on. The 3DO had tons of great games. But with the failure of the system many of its games eventually made their way to other systems. Most people remember The Need for Speed as a PlayStation game, for instance.

The 3DO may have failed, but I will argue with anyone who calls it a bad console. It isn’t. It’s far from being a bad console. I’ve seen it appear in many “Top 10 Worst Console” lists, and each and every one of them are bullsh*t for including it. The system itself is a little pricey today, but the games are still relatively cheap. So if you ever see the console going cheap pick it up, because there’s plenty to play on it.

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