I have an odd fascination with analyzing the timelines of video game consoles and the final games produced for them. It's like some crazy puzzle I'm trying to solve - Why did a system end when it did? What factors led to a system failing or succeeding? What could have changed the outcome? Maybe if somehow I can crack all that I can convince a game company to hire me as an over-priced consultant despite having no qualifications.
Today I'll focus on the what could have changed the outcome question for nine consoles that just couldn't beat the competition. Every gaming console was created with wildly ambitious goals - dominate the gaming industry, redefine the very essence of gaming, and so on. Most fail to meet these objectives. Sometimes they're an amazing disaster, other times they suffer the indignity of being 2nd or 3rd in their generation.
Is it possible that just one game could have turned things around for these systems? It seems like an over-simplistic answer but sometimes that one breakout hit is the difference between success and failure. This little article will speculate rampantly on this idea for nine systems.
This list could have been twenty entries long but I disqualified some systems as being beyond salvation. For example, I don't think there's a single game that could have changed the fate of the Atari 7800. It was such a distant 3rd in its generation that nothing would have made it otherwise. It had tons of recognizable arcade titles available, most were even decent ports. However, it lacked the capability to do much else. I don't care what the spec sheets claim, you could never make a Legend of Zelda or Metroid quality game on the Atari 7800.
OK enough dwelling on the 7800, you get the point. On to the rampant speculation for nine systems that just maybe had a chance...
Intellivision - Pac-Man before Atari
It sort of pains me to put the Intellivision on here because it is one of my favorite systems and considerably better than the rivals of its era. Still, I have to recognize that the Atari 2600 sold 10x as many units and even the ColecoVision doubled it. It finished 3rd in the early 80s and no amount of sentimental feelings will change that.
It finished way behind the Atari despite being able to support better arcade conversions. The highly criticized 1981 Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man is often cited as a major contributing factor the video game crash of 1983. That seems a little too harsh but it is fair to say it was a disappointment and diminished consumer confidence in the young video game business.
If one thing prevented Pac-Man from being a complete disaster it's that consumers didn't know to expect more. It was the hottest arcade title of the time and the fledgling gaming audience was starved for a home version. It was on every child's wish list that Christmas season. It sold millions of copies simply because it was available. Most shoppers had no idea that there was a system able to produce a more respectable home version.
The Intellivision always trailed the Atari 2600. With its confusing controllers and snobby commercials it couldn't break into the mainstream. It had a darn fine version of Pac-Man though. Too bad it was two years too late. If gamers in 1981 saw it next to the Atari 2600 version they would have leaped on it. It's reasonable to speculate that parents shopping for a child's first game system would have gone with Mattel's underdog.
Simply having Pac-Man two years sooner could have flipped the positions of these two systems. Atari may have responded expediting the development and release of the 5200 which could better match the Intellivision's capabilities.
Even with this new-found success the crash of 1983 would have eventually caught-up to the Intellivision. It lacked the same controls as Atari to prevent the conditions leading to the crash. Instead of desert landfills of Atari games there would be desert landfills of Intellivision games.
TurboGrafx-16 - Street Fighter II Champion Edition
Little known fact to most US gamers - the TurboGrafx-16 had Street Fighter II Champion Edition before the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis equivalents were available. It was only released in Japan for its cousin the PC Engine though. At the time the TurboGrafx-16 was a distant 3rd in the US so they probably figured it was a lost cause.
What they didn't anticipate were the delays in getting the Sega Genesis version of Street Fighter II Champion Edition onto retail shelves and the subsequent shortages that followed. I remember the angry phone calls all too well. Genesis owners were itching for a home version of Street Fighter II Champion Edition. Many couldn't stand to wait any longer and shelled-out for a Super Nintendo and the "Turbo" variation of Street Fighter II. I don't have any hard numbers to support this, just my own recollection of oh so many customers buying a second console just to play it.
If a version for the much-cheaper TurboGrafx-16 was available would some have bought it instead? At the time, a TurboGrafx-16 and Street Fighter II Champion Edition would have come to about $100 less than the Super Nintendo combination. There would have been some biters.
Would it have made the TurboGrafx-16 a legitimate competitor again? Unlikely, but it would have added another year onto its life and maybe even led to a few other Japanese games getting shipped over. Who knows, maybe the renewed interest in the system would have brought Dracula X and Ys IV across the ocean. A man can dream.
Sega CD - Phantasy Star IV
The Sega CD's fate would have looked very different if Phantasy Star IV was released for it. There were rumors of such a game but it never surfaced. Imagine if it was, or to go a step further, imagine if it was released as an exclusive for the system.
Phantasy Star IV was one of the last great releases for the Sega Genesis. It was the epitome of RPG excellence on the system. It is still hailed as one of the greatest RPGs developed, not just for the Genesis but across all systems. Now imagine how much grander it would be with more colorful visuals, larger worlds, full instrumental soundtrack, and the return of 3D dungeons. That initial $90 price tag for the 24-megabit cartridge also would have come down $30-$40 by switching to the CD format.
This would have established the Sega CD as the leading platform for RPGs. Of course it would ultimately die off in 1996 against the PlayStation & Saturn but not before seeing at least 1-2 more epic RPGs from publishers looking to capitalize on the revival. We also might have seen the Saturn offer support for playing Sega CD games because suddenly backwards compatibility would have now been a huge selling point.
Sega 32X - A real Sonic the Hedgehog game
Rule number one for launching a new system - include a popular franchise title in the first generation, preferably at launch. Gamers stick with what's familiar to them, to overcome the trepidation of buying a new system you have to include something comforting. There has to be a game that tells them "everything is going to be OK, we're all-in on this new system".
One theme common to several of the systems here is the absence of such a game. Obviously it can't be expected for a new player in the market, but for Sega and Nintendo to make this mistake is baffling. OK, it's not too puzzling in Sega's case as they made the exact same mistake with the Sega CD and later with the Saturn. At least they tried to correct it by making Sonic Adventure a launch title for the Dreamcast.
For the 32X though, not only was Sonic not a launch title but they never made a proper Sonic game period. The Sega CD arguably had the best Sonic game made, the 32X was left with the tethered adventures of Knuckles. This was a poor imitation of a Sonic game and failed to resonate with shoppers.
If a true Sonic game was included in the launch lineup it would have sold so many more 32X systems. Like the Sega CD, it ultimately would have died in 1996 regardless. However, it almost certainly would have sold more units and lasted a bit longer if Sega gave gamers another real installment of their leading series.
Atari Jaguar - Mortal Kombat III
In March of 1995 the impossible was announced - Mortal Kombat III would be released for the Atari Jaguar. The Jaguar, the system no one seemed to care about would be getting the hottest arcade fighter of the time. This seemed almost too good to be true for Jaguar owners.
Of course it was. The Jaguar never received a port of Mortal Kombat III. In the press release it's pretty apparent why - "Planned release will be within the second quarter of 1996". By the end of 1995 the system was all but dead and third-party developers abandoned it for greener pastures.
From a technical standpoint the Jaguar couldn't compete with the PlayStation and in the long run would have lost the race. Still, for a brief moment it would give owners of the system a reason to walk to the back of the store and browse the selection. It would have kept the system alive for few more months, long enough for some of those last few unfinished games to see the light of day.
If case you're wondering where the 3DO entry is - just take this one and replace "Jaguar" with "3DO" because it's virtually the same story. There was a rumored version in the works (but unlike the Jaguar I can't find a press release from the time that confirms). Based on the ports it received of Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Samuari Shodown it's safe to say it could have handled a solid rendition of Mortal Kombat III.
Sidebar - Every handheld system not named "Game Boy" - any game with mainstream appeal
The Game Boy lineage lives on today for one reason - Tetris. It was the very definition of a "killer app". Nintendo made a bold entry into the unproven portable market and established itself as the perpetual leader off the back of Tetris. If the Game Boy only sold to a handful of kids who already had an NES it's hard to say if it would still be around today. How long would Nintendo back a system with limited appeal?
Instead they landed a breakout hit with Tetris, a little puzzle game that even your Mom had to own. It became part of their mobile strategy, market to both traditional and non-traditional gamers.
As for the Game Gear, Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket, game.com, N-Gage, and Gizmondo; they were all relegated niche status. OK, the Gizmondo didn't even do that well but I never miss an opportunity to make fun of it. Some of them tried to duplicate the success of Tetris - the Game Gear had Columns, the Lynx had Klax; both respectable games but neither were a hit.
If just one of these systems managed a mainstream breakout hit the course of portable gaming would certainly have been altered. With actual competition, Nintendo would have been forced to develop more advanced systems faster than they did. If the Lynx somehow went on a sales rally you can pretty much bank on the Game Boy Advance coming out a decade earlier. Ultimately it would have been healthy or the industry for any of these to have been a success.
The PSP managed to fare considerably better than all Game Boy competitors before it. If I had to give a primary reason why I'd say "it was the right time". Original Game Boy owners were now in their 30s and wanted a portable system that felt like a full-size console. It didn't need to appeal to the casual gamer, it had a audience of millions waiting for something just like it.
Sega Saturn - Shenmue
The early days of the Saturn vs. PlayStation war is another period I remember all too well. The Saturn had the entire summer of 1995 to build a lead on the newcomer only to see it erased over the holiday season. By the start of 1996 it was obvious to anyone paying attention that the PlayStation was going to be the dominant console.
When the PlayStation vs. Saturn debate comes up today, one retort from Saturn fans is "the system could have blown away the PlayStation but it was hard to program for so we never saw its real potential". This is also an argument frequently invoked by Jaguar fans (and occasionally the rare 7800 fan) and I consider it a logical fallacy. The fact that it's hard to program for it exactly why it's the inferior console. How good a system looks on paper is meaningless if it can't deliver on the promise.
For the record, I like the Saturn just fine - and the 7800 too but am 50/50 on the Jaguar. That Saturn is a perfectly good system that never really gets the credit it deserves. Those who claim it could have done so much more are technically right and the example they can site is Shenmue.
Yes, Shenmue was made for the Saturn... or at least it was started and cancelled. Sega released some demo footage and it's amazing. It had the potential to be the best game of that generation. It could have breathed new life into a sickly console.
Although by itself it probably wouldn't have sold enough Saturns to surpass the mighty PlayStation, skeptical gamers would have been reminded that Sega was still an outstanding developer. Part of the reason the Saturn failed to gain traction was the perception that Sega didn't really support their consoles. This would have helped reverse that image and laid the groundwork for their next attempt.
Sega would now have a major launch title for the Dreamcast - Shenmue II. Not only that, but perhaps this would have led to the Dreamcast being backwards compatible with the Saturn. There was never really a compelling reason for Sega to do this as there were few "must have" titles for the Saturn that were not also available on the PlayStation. Now with a critically acclaimed game on their hands it would have been a selling point. Not only can you play all these great new games but you can play Shenmue!
From what I understand, Saturn emulation on a modern console is difficult to the point where it's not cost-effective to do it. Would Shenmue for Saturn be just enough to make it worth trying? I think so assuming the series continued to play out on current-gen systems. With the games all connected there would be a sizable audience who'd want to see how the story began.
Also for the record I'm not one of those weird obsessive Shenmue fans. Although impressive in many ways, I mostly found Shenmue annoying. I have to recognize though that if released as a Saturn game it would have made an unmistakable impact.
Nintendo 64 - A real RPG
I know what most people are thinking when they see this Nintendo 64 entry - obviously the answer is "Metroid 64" you moron.
I will stand firm when I say that although Metroid 64 would have been a smash hit it would not have sold a single new system. Nintendo ported Mario to 3D perfectly. Nintendo ported Zelda to 3D perfectly. Two out of three major franchises were covered, there wasn't a single Nintendo fan that didn't buy a Nintendo 64 for these two. Anyone still demanding Metroid 64 is ungrateful.
No, what hurt the Nintendo 64 was the lack of a single good RPG. Let's review the list of RPGs published for the Nintendo 64:
-Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage
-Paper Mario (good game but it's debatable whether this qualifies as an RPG)
Yup, that's it. Easily the weakest selection of the generation, and among the worst for any post-2600 console.
A segment of the market that likes to buy overpriced special edition box sets with cloth maps completely ignored the Nintendo 64. It may not be the largest demographic of gamers, but it's a group that spends a ton of cash and supports a console even well after its prime. Hooking them on the Nintendo 64 would have added months, maybe years, onto the system's life.
It's a shame because Nintendo and Squaresoft used to enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The thought of a Final Fantasy game appearing on a non-Nintendo console seemed preposterous once. It looked like that partnership would continue as Squaresoft produced a demo Final Fantasy game for the Nintendo 64. Ultimately they decided to support the PlayStation exclusively. Some sites make claims to a non-specific "falling out" between the companies, others cite lower production costs for the PlayStation.
Whatever the case, Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) has not released a major Final Fantasy game for a Nintendo console since the 16-bit era. Sure there have been spin-offs and remakes but the "proper" games haven't even hit the Wii with its millions and millions of owners.
Even without Squaresoft's support, Nintendo could have enlisted other developers. Heck, they had Earthbound 3 just waiting to be translated and shipped. They seemed to show no interest in bringing RPGs to the Nintendo 64. That apathy ultimately alienated a key group of gamers and left them falling way behind Sony in the late 90s.
Sega Dreamcast - John Madden Football
I know this is going to anger some readers because the 2K football games for Dreamcast were superior to the Madden games available at the time. Some argue they're better than the Madden games available 10 years later.
That doesn't matter to the average person buying football games. They recognize the Madden name and that's what they buy. Multiply that by 1000 for parents doing Christmas shopping. This is another "trust me I was there moment", even in the 90s the Madden name was all-powerful. I preferred the Sega NFL series but saw shopper after shopper reach directly for the Madden box without even thinking.
The Dreamcast with its head start over the others could have built a massive lead if they just had Madden available at launch. The Christmas of 1999 could have been amazing for Sega. In the long run they probably wouldn't have edged out the PlayStation 2. However they had an opportunity to finish second or third in the generation. Between a successful Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, and GameCube maybe Microsoft would have though twice about releasing the Xbox in crowded market.
Nintendo GameCube - The Zelda game from Spaceworld 2000
I'll start with the disclaimer that I don't think the GameCube was a failure. It was my favorite system of the last generation and I still play it heavily today. It was also hugely profitable for Nintendo. Even so, it finished third in its generation behind the unstoppable PlayStation 2 and newcomer Xbox.
Nintendo also lost out to Sony in the late 90s, but they had bigger plans for the zeros. The GameCube was their "comeback" system, the one to return them to the top of the mountain. In 2000 they previewed it with much bravado at the Spaceworld exhibition. The highlight of their showcase was a battle between Link and Ganon that was unlike anything seen before.
Although many immediately recognized this as a tech demo, a showcase of what the system could theoretically do, the masses assumed this was an actual game being developed. When it didn't show up as a launch title they were disappointed. When they received Wind Waker instead they were furious.
I for one was a big fan of Wind Waker. It was nice to see the series take a new direction. Ocarina of Time already had an outstanding sequel and it was time to move on. Others were not as open to change and demanded that first game they saw. They eventually got that game, in the form of Twilight Princess, after it was too late for Nintendo to catch-up to Sony and Microsoft.
No matter what I think of Wind Waker, I'm forced to admit that Nintendo would have been better off releasing something more like that tech demo. If they managed to pull it off as a launch title I believe the GameCube would have cruised past the Xbox and held on to the number two spot for the remainder of the generation. It would still have fallen 100 million units short of the PlayStation 2 juggernaut but it would be perceived as a wildly successful system today.
All sales figures are based off this chart - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_game_consoles#Video_game_and_handheld_consoles.