IMPACT! is sadly coming to an end, but it’s for the best possible reason. The picture gives a little clue as to why - suffice to say, I’ll be able to write for a wider audience soon. In the meantime, expect some final posts on unrealised plans, with scrapped consoles and games taking centre stage.
The Mega Drive, known as the Genesis in North America, is Sega’s entry into the fourth generation of video game consoles. Originally released in October 1988 in Japan, the system resembles a cut-down version of the company’s System 16 arcade board, utilising the same combination of a Motorola 68000 CPU with a Zilog Z80 sound CPU and a Yamaha sound chip. The system launched with a three-button controller which marked a move away from the rectangular shape of previous console pads. While the Mega Drive quickly fell behind NEC’s PC Engine in Japan, the system’s fortunes would prove far better in the West.
The North American launch of the hardware in 1989 marked the beginning of a fierce console war. Sega decided to directly target Nintendo in advertising, pushing the power of its new system as a key selling point over the ageing NES hardware. Excellent arcade ports such as Strider bolstered Sega’s claims, while Electronic Arts exclusively brought over top-selling sports games such as John Madden Football.
Sega was already in a good position going into the European Mega Drive launch in November 1990, thanks to the success it had with the Master System in the territory. Unable to take on Nintendo directly in its marketing, advertising focused on an older audience of teens and young adults. This would pay dividends, though occasionally managed to land Sega in hot water.
At the same time Sega was launching in Europe, Nintendo launched the Super Famicom (SNES) in Japan. Nintendo’s new system was late to the market but very powerful, with the ability to push more colours and produce sprite effects that the Mega Drive didn’t have support for. While the system went over to North America and Europe in 1991 and 1992, Sega was prepared for the fight and had some aces left to play.
The appointment of Tom Kalinske as Sega of America CEO in 1990 was a key turning point. He was able to argue for crucial marketing moves that wouldn’t have been considered by the Japanese management team, such as a price cut, an increase in Western development and the replacement of the pack-in game. Sonic the Hedgehog, released in June 1991, provided Sega with an iconic character to rival Mario and a genuine public phenomenon. Replacing Altered Beast (which Kalinske had claimed to look like devil worship in the Midwest), the game shifted truckloads of consoles and kicked off a series that remains popular today. Sega even took the game on the road, confidently placing the game side by side with Nintendo’s Super Mario World and allowing the players to choose.
As the 1990s wore on, the console war raged. Shots were fired by both sides, though the peak of viciousness was perhaps reached during 1993, when the US Senate investigated video game violence. The two companies came to verbal blows, with Nintendo using its family-friendly licensing policies as a stick to beat Sega with. However, while Nintendo’s prohibition of extreme violence gave it the upper hand in front of the nation’s politicians, the Mega Drive version of Mortal Kombat was more popular as it included blood and full fatalities. The hearings resulted in the creation of the ESRB, which still operates almost two decades on.
As the 1990s wore on, the Mega Drive hardware started to look a bit tired, and Sega attempted to bolster its life with two add-ons. The Mega-CD (Sega CD) launched in 1991 (Japan), 1992 (North America) and 1993 (Europe), and allowed the system to use high capacity CDs, as well as providing additional power for scaling and rotating sprites and full-motion video. The 32X, launched in 1994, stuck to cartridge media and gave the Mega Drive increased capability for polygon graphics, as well as an increased colour palette and enhanced sprite manipulation. Neither was particularly successful, though the Mega-CD was at least moderately popular whereas the 32X is a noted disaster.
The Mega Drive was officially superseded in November 1994, when the Saturn launched in Japan. However, the system continued to live on with new releases continuing through 1997. A strong nostalgia market means that new Mega Drive products are still sold to this day, with plug and play devices and compilation discs still readily available in shops. However, if you’re into original hardware then this is a great starting point for collectors - the popularity of the system means that plenty of products are available on the second hand market, and the use of sturdy plastic boxes and cartridge media means that much of what is out there is still in relatively good condition.
Why retro gaming?
There’s a hashtag doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, #WhyWeRetro, which got me to thinking: why do I play older games?
The common misconception about the hobby is that it is purely centred around nostalgia, particularly for your own childhood. Nostalgia is certainly appealing, but that’s far from the only reason I do it. Video games are still a relatively young entertainment medium, having gained a wide consumer audience in the 1970s. The scope of what a video game can offer has expanded greatly in that time.
The restrictions of early technology gave us simple, infinitely looping games where the goal was to attain a high score. The arcade games of the 1980s introduced variety in backgrounds and stages, along with the brutal difficulty level that kept machines profitable. As home consoles and computers became more sophisticated, long-form story-driven experiences began to gain popularity. New developments continue: the rise of smartphones has put reasonably powerful gaming machines into the hands of more people than ever before, with an emphasis on short, addictive games at impulse-buy prices. Meanwhile, today marks the launch of Grand Theft Auto V, a sprawling free-form epic that demands hours from its players.
Each stage in this rapid technological evolution has given us games with distinct characteristics. Compare Space Invaders to Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter II to Metal Gear Solid - these games are worlds apart, and not just because of their genre. The success of the Mighty No. 9 kickstarter is amazing to behold and I’m sure it will deliver a game that many people will enjoy playing, but it’s very evidently a new product - it doesn’t exhibit the distinct characteristics of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras that gave us the games that inspired it. This isn’t a bad thing, just a different thing.
I love video games of all eras because they are so distinct. 1970s arcade games offer me something that I can’t find in 1990s home console games, which in turn offer a different experience to so many of today’s releases. Game designs go in and out of fashion, and classic gaming allows me to experience all of them at any time.
The latest import to join the IMPACT! library is Tobal 2, Squaresoft’s Japan-only sequel to Tobal No. 1. This fighting series is unusual amongst its peers in that the games both have quest modes, allowing players to explore dungeons and beat up enemies to unlock new fighters, including a chocobo.
Both Tobal games were directed by Tekken director Seiichi Ishii and character designs were contributed by Akira Toriyama, famous for his work on Dragon Ball Z and Chrono Trigger. However, the series didn’t catch on and was discontinued after this second game.
Virtua Fighter’s release back in 1993 set the standard for 3D fighting games and laid the foundations for a series that is active to this day. However, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Akira, the most iconic character of the series, was quite a late addition to the character roster. He replaced Siba, an Arabian fighter who eventually resurfaced with a sword in Fighters Megamix for the Saturn. Few images of Siba survive, but you can see his portrait in Akira’s place on early US Virtua Fighter cabinets.
1990s development hardware, as seen at CGE:UK 2005. The first picture is of a cartridge development kit for the Sega 32X, which allowed developers to test code on hardware via a PC connection, bypassing any need to write to EPROM. The seller wanted £50 for this piece of kit. The second is a 3DO testing station, a PAL Panasonic FZ-1 model with an extra switch on the back. The seller wanted £170 for it.
Metropolis Street Racer is a fantastic racing game for the Dreamcast, as well as the base from which Project Gotham Racing was built. But the PAL version was heavily bugged on release, with oddities including a broken Quick Race mode, unwinnable challenges and a Tokyo where the sun never rises. Two fixed versions were issued after the inital release, so how do you tell which is which?
If you can see the GD-ROM, there’s a code that will tell you on the underside of the disc. The string MK-51022-0146SS shows the original issue, MK-51022-0146SA is the second issue with some fixes, and MK-51022-0146SB appears on the final revision.
The SB version was definitely packaged with the final PAL Dreamcast bundle, alongside Jet Set Radio and Virtua Fighter 3tb. If you find these games together and sealed, chances are that you’ll get a good version.
The US release was well-tested, thankfully!
IMPACT! Guide #1: Video cables
Choosing the right TV and cables for your console can be daunting, particularly if you’re new to retro gaming. What your console supports is often dependent on its age and region, while TVs vary wildly in what inputs they accept. This guide is designed to give you some basic advice on how to get the best from your console, and avoid any incompatibility pitfalls.
RF (picture #1)
The humble RF cable is the most basic form of video cable available on consoles, and will provide a low quality picture with wavy interference. For quite a few older consoles it is the only option available without modding. RF cables are built into Atari VCS, ColecoVision and Philips Videopac G7000 consoles, and RF is the only option on the Intellivision, Master System II, NES-101, and various PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 models.
While many new TVs in the UK come with an RF port, analogue tuners are now being omitted thanks to digital switchover rendering them obsolete. This means that many older systems won’t work with the latest TVs.
Note that if you’re importing an RF-only console, you’re going to need a very versatile TV. Not only does it need to handle the video signal from the region you’re importing from (PAL for European systems, NTSC for North American and Japanese systems), it also needs to be able to tune to different frequency standards - UHF and VHF, and within VHF there are high and low bands to worry about. Of the TVs I’ve owned, only one has reliably supported such a range of standards.
Composite (picture #2)
The basic yellow, red and white cables that started to become compatible with systems from the mid-80s onwards. These cables give an improved picture over RF, but suffer from a distinctive “dot crawl” effect on the borders of contrasting colours. If your console supports any video standard above RF, it’ll likely support this.
An interesting quirk of composite is that the visual distortion it produces is consistent enough that artists often used it to fake effects on older systems - vertical dithering to produce the illusion of extra colours or transparency was common, particularly on the Mega Drive.
Any reasonably capable TV will accept composite, though you may need a SCART adapter in the PAL regions. This is also usually your baseline if you want to import a console.
S-Video (picture #3)
S-Video splits the video signal into two wires to offer an improved picture over composite. This standard doesn’t suffer from dot crawl and offers slightly better colour than composite. Sound comes over the same red and white cables as with composite.
If you’re in North America, S-Video is commonly your best option for older consoles. In Europe, S-Video support is patchy but generally good on mid-2000s TVs. You may need a SCART adapter, too. However, there’s a better option available…
RGB SCART (picture #4)
The top quality connection available for standard definition TVs, RGB SCART features a 21-pin connector that includes stereo sound, individual wires for red, green and blue signals, and even a control signal that can auto-switch your TV set to the active device.
Japan has an RGB connector that is visually indistinguishable from the European SCART connector, but has a different pinout. If you want to use a European cable on a Japanese TV or vice versa, you’ll need a convertor! North American TVs generally don’t support SCART.
Component (picture #5)
Support for component cables began in the 2000s, with the Playstation 2, Xbox and Gamecube. Red, green and blue cables carry the picture information, with sound coming through the red and white cables as used in composite. Component supports resolutions above standard definition, from 480p to 1080i.
This standard is supported by many modern TVs, and was bundled with early Xbox 360 Premium consoles. It’s good for HD content if your TV can’t handle 1080p, and the best connection supported by most sixth generation consoles.
HDMI (picture #6)
HDMI was first supported by the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. The cable carries digital video signals up to 1080p, including sound. This is now the standard connection for high definition TVs and supported by all modern consoles.
If your system and TV support it, you can’t go wrong with HDMI! Excellently, unlike almost every other cable standard above, consoles usually have standard HDMI connectors rather than proprietary ones.