Insert Coin To Continue: Part Five – Console Wars, 1983-2001

By the early years of the 1980s, the video gaming cat was out of the bag, and even the industry crash of 1983 wouldn’t see the end of this revolution on either side of the Atlantic. While fundamental changes to the industry would come about as a result of the events of that particular year, though, the show had to continue. On top of the the lousy quality of several of their high profile licensed games, Atari suffered as a result of poor sales of their 1982 follow-up to the 2600, the Atari 5200. Many of the 5200’s games appeared simply as updated versions of 2600 title and the controllers were absolutely panned by both the press and the public. The system lasted just two years before being discontinued.

By this time, though, Atari was a completely different company to that which had broght Pong to the world just over a decade earlier. With debts mounting, Warner sold the Atari brand to Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore International, in July 1984. Tramiel’s new company, Atari Corporation, would go on to produce the Atari ST home computer, but they also kept a finger in the console pie with the 1986 release of the Atari 7800. Again, though, the magic touch of the late 1970s eluded the new system. The games being pushed were older arcade games, and Atari had enormous difficulty in getting third party developers to create games for it at all. The system was eventually discontinued at the start of 1992, by which time Atari controlled just 12% of the console market.

The biggest single reason for this fall in market share – apart from the shortcomings of the consoles that Atari themselves were producing – was the arrival into both American markets of new consoles from Japan. Nintendo had been formed as long ago as 1889 as a playing card company, moving into the new electronic games market in 1974, first as the rights holder to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey before moving into arcade games the following year and developing their own home system in 1977. In 1983, they launched the Famicom – a contraction of “Family Computer” – in Japan, and this was rebooted in 1985 for the international marketas the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was joined the following year by Sega’s Master System.

The success of these two machines brought a different aesthetic to home gaming, although it was a feel that was already familiar to those who had frequented arcades earlier in the decade on account of the success of such Japanese exports as Space Invaders, Pac Man, Donkey Kong. 1985 brought Nintendo’s Soccer, an arcade-style game featuring seven national teams, cheerleaders, a musical soundtrack, and a top down, horizontal view. Whilst a slew of other football games were all released on the system at the start of the 1990s, though, the only other game to significantly dent the market was Goal!, released by Jaleco in 1988. This game offered a 3d isometric view which panned right back when a long pass was played. It was a view that would become very familiar to football gamers several years later. Meanwhile, Sega’s World Soccer was released in 1987 and looked very similar to Nintendo’s Soccer, although it ran slightly faster and offered one more nation as which one could play, as well as penalty shootouts in the event of tied matches.

The next generation of these consoles arrived at the end of the decade. Sega got there first in 1988 with the Mega Drive, which was released the following year in Europe and the USA, going under the name of the Sega Genesis in the latter of these two markets. Nintendo followed suit at the end of 1990 with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Both systems made the leap from 8-bit to 16-bit architecture, which improved both graphics and sound. Goal! 2 was an early success on the SNES, with considerably more teams to choose from and a change of views to one from behind the goal. By this time, though, the tendency was for most third party games to be ported across most – if not all – available systems.

Both Sensible Soccer and Kick Off – as discussed in the previous episode in this series – were ported from home computers to both the SNES and the Megadrive, as was Elite’s Striker, the title music to which may be familiar to regular football podcast listeners. Striker was, if anything, even quicker than Sensible Soccer or Kick Off, to a point that some reviewers criticised it for being too fast to be able to properly control. A further isometric game was released in 1995 in the form of US Gold’s Head-On Soccer, which also went under the name of Fever Pitch Soccer. Similarities to an early iteration of the franchise that would go on to become the titan of the genre were duly noted.

One further game that would come to be regarded as one of the best football games of its generation was International Superstar Soccer, which was released towards the end of 1994 by Konami, who would go on to develop the Pro Evolution Soccer series which remains to this day. ISS had the feel of the football games of the day that could still be found in arcades, with graphics considerably better than anything else that could be found on this generation of consoles, an iteration of the offside rule and controllable replays of goals. ISS would also be ported onto the newer generation of consoles that began to be released at about this time and would go through five different versions before eventually being retired in 2003.

The number of football games available for Nintendo systems seemed to tail off a little with each passing console. The Nintendo 64 superceded the SNES in 1996 and featured, amongst others, a port of Premier Manager, a management game that had been popular on the Commodore Amiga several years earlier which we’ll be hearing more about later in this series. By the time the Gamecube arrived in 2001 games were almost entirely available across all systems, but one exception was Super Mario Strikers, which arrived to a positive critical reception in 2005, carrying the now clearly-defined cartoonish Nintendo aesthetic. This, however, was a game that owed more of its spirit to Mario Kart than to, say, Sensible Soccer or Kick Off.  Several football games were released for the Wii, but to date there has only been the one football game, FIFA 2013,  released on the Wii U. Nowadays, Nintendo’s systems simply aren’t associated with this type of game.

What, though, of Sega? They’d been developing their next generation console, the Saturn, for some considerable time and it had been released reasonably successfully in Japan towards the end of 1994, but Sega were far more dependent on US and European sales than Nintendo. The new console had originally been slated for a September 1995 release, but at the 1995 E3 gaming convention on the eleventh of May that year, the company surprised everyone by announcing that the Saturn was already on sale as of that date at a cost of $399. Shortly afterwards, Sony took to the stage to make their announcement regarding the hotly-anticipated Playstation. Their presentation was a lengthy, (and reportedly deliberately) boring series of graphs, but fifteen minutes in the head of Sony America was invited onto the stage. He had just one phrase to utter. He said, “Two ninety-nine”, and sat straight back down.

The Playstation would be $100 cheaper than the Saturn, and in addition to this both retailers (Sega’s release was a relatively small number of units – this was a piece of guerilla marketing rather than a full release) and third-party developers (who’d had their noses put out of joint by being completely caught off guard) were furious at Sega. The Saturn ended up selling less than one-third the number of units that the Megadrive had. Only three football titles made it onto the Saturn during its relatively short life-span. Sega Worldwide Soccer was released in 1997 to considerable critical acclaim, whilst two iterations of the FIFA series – with commentary from John Motson – were also released, alongside Sony’s World League Soccer of 1998, an almost impressive game let down by awkward controls.

By this time, though, Sega had fatally torpedoed themselves with their rush-release of the Saturn. Rather than being spooked into rush-releasing the Playstation themselves, they watched and learned from Sega’s mistakes, marketing it at an older audience and fine-tuning their own advertising campaign for maximum impact. Sega sold 180,000 extra units of the Saturn in the window that they had from their earlier launch date, but Sony could wait and by the time that Christmas came around the Playstation was trouncing the Saturn in the marketplace. Within a year, the price of the Saturn had been halved and Sega were barely even making any money on each unit sold. This couldn’t continue indefinitely, and even at the end of its lifespan the Saturn had a sting in its tail.

At the beginning of 1999, Sega abruptly announced that they would be stopping production of the Saturn, annoying EA to such an extent that the games publisher decided to stop producing games with Sega. The Sega Dreamcast was released in 1999, but the damage had already been done. The Dreamcast was a perfectly capable machine, but third party developers were not onboard and the release of the Playstation 2 in 2000 proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Sega’s console business. In 2001, Sega discontinued the Dreamcast and confirmed that they would be repositioning themselves as a third party software developer only. There were football games available for the Dreamcast. Giant Killers was a management simulator, while two editions of Sega Worldwide Soccer 2000 were also released, again to a positive critical reaction, as well as 90 Minutes, a fairly terrible game with commentary from Alan Parry. FIFA (along with all of EA’s other hugely popular sports titles), however, was glaringly absent.

The first year or so of the new century would reset the battlelines for the next round of the console wars. The release of the Playstation 2 came with a killer app that gave a strong hint at the future direction of games consoles – a DVD player. The future would be multimedia, even if we didn’t all realise it at the time. The same year, Microsoft confirmed that they would also be entering the console market with the Xbox, which would come to be released in 2002. Seventeen years on, Sony and Microsoft (along with Nintendo, who continue to do their own thing in their own distinctive way) still dominate the market, but the market for football games has become almost entirely calcified, with only the same two games available for each of their current iterations. This, however, has not always been the case, and in the next episode in this series we’ll be taking a look at what might just turn out to be the last great period of innovation and experimentation in football’s corner of the gaming world.