Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge, Episode 2 – MegaBites on RetroCollect.com

Cart-Wars-Episode-2Avert thine eyes! Nintendo alert! Once more, this site is graced with imagery of Sega’s mortal enemy, and for that I apologise. However, it’s all for a good cause – MegaBitesBlog.com’s latest article on RetroCollect.com – ‘Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge, Episode 2’.

During the early-to-mid 1990s, the bitter rivalries between the console superpowers were hard to ignore. It was Sega vs Nintendo, plumbers vs hedgehogs and Mega Drive vs Super Nintendo. Amongst these battles, one gaming format had risen to the top to rule supreme over the video game industry – the cartridge. ‘Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge’ is the story of that medium, and with it, the incredible lengths taken by developers of that age to topple the competition and reshape the gaming market forever.

Episode 2 picks up the tale as the handheld formats took their place on the front line. On one side of the battleground the Sega Game Gear stood proud, equipped with its almighty TV tuner cartridge peripheral. Whilst across enemy lines lurked the Game Boy, with the all-seeing Game Boy Camera, ready to pounce and stake its claim at the pinnacle of the Cart Wars’ 8-bit podium for supremacy.

Meanwhile, Sega and Nintendo locked horns in an entirely new and innovative form of cartridge combat – namely, the processor chip:

(Excerpt from RetroCollect.com) It was 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.”

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.

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? Virtua Racing.

segasvp

Read more on RetroCollect.com

Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge – MegaBites on RetroCollect.com

2147-cart-wars-episode-1Mega Drive fans, for what you are about to read, I sincerely apologise. MegaBites Blog has written about Nintendo. Shock, horror, blasphemy! I know, I know… But it’s for a good cause; my latest contribution to RetroCollect.com – Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge – Episode One. Despite such treachery, you’ll be glad to hear that the piece is evenly balanced with a heavy dosage of Sega goodness, and a brief appearance by our Lord and saviour, Mr Tom Kalinske. Phew!

During the console generations spanning the 8-16 bit era, no matter if your allegiances sat with Sega, Nintendo, SNK or NEC, as gamers we all shared one thing in common: the cartridge medium – video gaming in its most physical form.

Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge – Episode One is the first in a series of articles that charts the development of the video game cartridge format. Spanning the advent of the very first read-only memory cartridge console – the Fairchild VES – to the arrival of cartridge-based battery backups, yellow-tabbed EA carts and beyond, Cart Wars tells the tale of a bitter conflict fought amongst the backdrop of the almighty console wars. The cartridge-based battle, however, was was no less fierce and intense in its execution and was one that filled company Presidents with rage and gamers with sheer awe as the rapidly advancing format propelled their consoles to the very limit of their capabilities.

Here’s a taster:

In the land of Sega, things had turned nasty. The year was 1990 and over in the US, Electronic Arts had figured a way to reverse engineer the cartridges of the Sega Genesis. For Sega, it meant the potential loss of millions in revenue, but for you and I, it meant the arrival of the iconic EA yellow tab. Ever wonder why the majority of EA’s 16-bit Sega carts looked so different? Here’s why…

For developers such as EA, the mainstream dominance of the cartridge came with a sting in the tail – the third-party developer licensing deal. For each individual title that EA (and any other third-party developer, for that matter) wanted to release, Sega would charge between US$10-$15 per cartridge for their production. Considering that by now it was not uncommon for a popular title to sell in its hundreds of thousands, even in its millions, and you get a rough idea of the financial strain many developers were facing at that time.

$_57It was a sentiment that was also felt across the pond, as Geoff Brown, founder of US Gold revealed: “They [Sega] told you how many games you could release in a year. They had to approve the games, then they tested them and they had them manufactured. It increased your overheads phenomenally. If you were a small publisher, you just couldn’t do it.”

And so it came to be that EA developed a cunning method to circumnavigate Sega’s crushing cartridge policies. How did they do this? By manufacturing their own, of course.

Read more on RetroCollect.com

And stay tuned for episode two, coming soon!

Sega and the Console from Mars

32xsolo_boxartMisaligned, mistimed and ultimately misunderstood, sadly, the Mega Drive 32X will forever go down in history as one of the greatest failures in video game history. Although the tale of the 32X’s release and its rapid downfall remains a well documented piece of gaming folklore, much less is known about the hardware’s earliest conceptions. Read on as MegaBites takes a tantalising glimpse behind the closed doors of Sega of America’s development labs, to reveal a previously forgotten piece of hardware from a time before the 32X as we knew it – the Sega Mars Development Aid System.

It was the evening of the 8th January 1994 – the eve of that year’s Winter CES – as Hayao Nakayama (Sega CEO), Tom Kalinske (Sega of America President), Joe Miller (Sega’s Senior Vice President of Product Development) and a host of other top-level Sega personnel gathered in a Las Vegas hotel room. The night’s discussion centred around Sega’s strategies of introducing the gaming public to the brave new world of 32-bit gaming.

With the Sega Saturn already months into development by that time – and Sega of Japan preferring to keep its plans for the console a tightly guarded secret from its American counterpart  – Nakayama put forward the case for a cartridge-based 32-bit system, one that would ease the transition from the 16–32-bit generation. A tense debate ensued, as both Sega divisions proposed their arguments for and against such a strategy. With Sega of America having no choice but to ultimately concede to Nakayama’s request, a new system was born – the 32X.

However, before it would come to be known as the 32X, the development of Sega’s new 32-bit hardware would simply addressed by a secret codename – ‘Project Mars’.

The MegaBites mission

Having been an owner of a 32X since its release in Christmas 1994, I have always been a great champion of the add-on and have keenly sought to build my knowledge of Project Mars and the 32X’s sorely short-lived history. Yet, nothing could prepare me for the light-bulb moment I experienced recently when reading the latest issue of Retro Gamer magazine – one that led to the reveal of a key piece of the Project Mars development process that had been seemingly hidden from public view for almost 20 years.

32x magThe article in question was a celebration of the 32X’s 20th anniversary, in which Motocross Championship Programmer, Alexander Smith, revealed a rather interesting piece of information about the Project Mars development system – a piece of hardware used for the creation and testing of 32X games software: “Our team leader went to Japan in May of 1994 and he got us a couple of development systems. Those were beige metal boxes about the size of a bar fridge, half filled with electronics,” he described.

After a spot of further research, I uncovered the following passage in the publication Service Games: The Rise and Fall of Sega: “At least 50 of the 32X development systems (i.e. ‘Mars prototypes’) were sent over to the US by Sega… The top of the unit remained open; the system ran notoriously hot when in use, and could not be operated for extended periods of time without provisions for additional cooling.”

Upon reading these insights, my mind was positively spinning – I was certain that I’d seen this Sega hardware in action. But where? A Google search ensued, but returned no results. Not a single website was to be found that contained imagery of the Sega Mars development hardware. But I was absolutely certain that I’d seen it before.

That was until a browse on YouTube produced a rather interesting result…

Bad Influence

It transpired that the answer to my woes was to be found in a broadcast of the British video game magazine show Bad Influence. Aired between 1992–96, Bad Influence trailed the developments of the UK video game industry from the early European success of the Sega Mega Drive, up to the release of the Sony Playstation. The programme’s first three series’ contained a regular feature whereby an American correspondent, Z Wright, would cover the industry’s developments from across the pond. One particular episode in the show’s third series saw Z Wright take a trip to Sega of America’s headquarters, in the summer of 1994.

SOA“1994’s been a bit of a dull year for hardware,” Z Wright began. “Everyone has been beavering away behind closed doors on ’95 stuff, which you might call ‘hope-ware’. Sega’s hope-ware is the Saturn console – a 32-bit machine with software on cart and CDs – but no one’s seen anything of it yet.”

As Z Wright continued, the scene cut to the internals of Sega of America’s R&D department, as the presenter riffed with a few conceptual names for a certain 32-bit cart-based system:

“Closer to reality is the ‘Mega-32’, called the 32X over here. It’s an add-on for the Mega Drive that lets you upgrade to 32-bit and still play your old games. It should be out in November. Actually, this is a prototype. The game is really running on this development system.”

Bingo! The Sega Mars Development Aid System.

A second online search also provided this little gem:

HW-32XDevBox(U)‘A beige metal box about the size of a bar fridge’? I think we have our system.

Sega never ceases to amaze…

Do you know anything further about the ‘Sega Mars Development Aid System’? Have you seen one? Have you worked with one? Better still, do you own one? If so, contact MegaBites in the menu above, or on Twitter (@MegaBitesBlog).

(The complete Bad Influence feature, as mentioned in this post, can be viewed here.)

Finding the Hidden Palace Part 4, on RetroCollect.com

2017-finding-the-hidden-palace-part-4

Regular visitors to this site may have been aware that, since January 2014, I’ve been compiling a rather special series of articles on RetroCollect.com. I’m now proud to announce that this epic Sega saga has finally reached its conclusion…

MegaBites Blog presents Finding the Hidden Palace Part 4, on RetroCollect.com – the Internet’s first fully compiled account of the 21-year hunt for Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s mysterious deleted level, Hidden Palace Zone.

Emerald Hill, Chemical Plant, Casino Night and Mystic Cave… Just a few of the legendary zones that make up one of the greatest games to ever be committed to cartridge – Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Yet, for every spike pit, for every loop, for each pinball flipper and hellish underwater section – unbeknown to Mega Drive and Genesis gamers everywhere – there was one vital zone that had been sorely omitted.

MP MagEven before Sonic 2’s 1992 release on the now legendary ‘Sonic 2s Day’, video game magazines of the period teased images of a mysterious zone surrounded in golden rock and green emerald. As the years went by, unreleased prototypes of the game unveiled the very same stage – a land filled with cascading waterfalls, prehistoric Badniks and a mysterious ‘Master Emerald’. What was this zone? Why was it never included?

It’s name was Hidden Palace Zone.

Receiving its official release a full 21 years after Sonic 2’s release, the story behind its unveiling is one steeped in retro gaming legend, involving industry luminaries from Yuji Naka, to Al Nilsen and Sega Technical Institute Artist Craig Stitt. Oh yes, and also… Melissa Joan Hart (seriously).

Here’s a snippet of part 4:

“Hello Mr Payne. Glad to have you here with us,” the interviewer began. “What can you tell us about the elusive Hidden Palace Zone?” an eager fan interjected. “Ahh…” replied Mr Payne in a response that cut through the atmosphere like a knife.

It was the 30th July 2009, at the 14th annual online Sonic Amateur Games Expo, where one fan posed that ever recurring question to Sonic 2 Zone Designer and Badnik Illustrator Tom Payne. Although Tom could shed no further light on the fate of Hidden Palace, it was during the discussion that he fetched an “ancient box with all my Sonic stuff in it,” as he described. “You should start drooling now,” he exclaimed as he unveiled an absolute treasure trove of designs, documents and disks direct from the development desks of Sega Technical Institute.

Read part four in its entirety, on RetroCollect.com

Or, to follow the tale right from the very beginning, make your way over to Finding the Hidden Palace – Part 1.

(Huge, huge thanks go out to Adam at RetroCollect.com for the artwork wizardry, the encouragement and for the hosting the series.)

Solving the Korean Console Conundrum

The Sega Mega Drive – one console, a thousand variants. During the 90s, amongst a host of hardware releases, the combined forces of Sega’s worldwide divisions brought us a vivid spectrum of gaming machines – the Sega Genesis, the Multi Mega, the CD-X, the Mega Jet, the Tera Drive, the Wondermega and the Nomad. From Europe, to the US, Japan and beyond, the list of licensed Sega upgrades and alternatives went on… and on. Yet, during that time, and far beyond the console war battlefield, an Asian tiger prowled its own territory. This was a land where the Sega name was all but a whisper – a video game market operating in a seemingly alternate reality, in which Samsung and Hitachi ruled the console roost, and where Sonic the Hedgehog called the mysterious Super Gam*Boy and Super Aladdin Boy consoles his home. This was South Korea – a country that also concealed one of the 16-bit era’s most obscure gems: the Sega ‘New Mega Drive’.

It was during a spot of online ‘retro’ research that I stumbled upon a website that detailed a system I had never seen, nor heard of before. “Very little is known about this product,” the website read. “It is assumed that it was released into the South Korean market quite late and was less successful than previous models. It is currently unknown who is responsible for this console or whether it had official backing.Of course, I was intrigued – even more so when I saw the image that accompanied the text. Could it be? Was this really a Sega Mega Drive?

Needless to say, I was hungry for more. A swift Google search followed, but ended as soon as it had began. The Internet could offer literally no solid information about this mysterious console. However, through a spot of cunning detective work, I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with Igor Shaburov – a Russian Sega collector and owner of one of these illusive consoles. Thanks to his generous input and valuable image contributions, MegaBites can now unravel (at least some) of the mysteries behind this Korean console conundrum. Continue reading

Finding the Hidden Palace – Part 3

imageIn what is fast becoming an epic ‘Sega saga’, MegaBites is proud to reveal the third instalment of its RetroCollect.com series Finding the Hidden Palace.

Unraveling the twists, the Tails (get it?) and the mysteries behind Sonic 2’s infamous deleted level, Finding the Hidden Palace – Part 3 picks up the story in Christmas 1998. As a period otherwise marked as the death of the 32/64-bit era, the Sonic community had never felt to alive. At last, their holy grail had been unearthed – the ‘Simon Wai Prototype’, one of Sonic 2’s earliest beta revisions. Not only did this prototype reveal Sonic 2 in one of its most rough and raw forms – unveiling long lost Badniks, and unreleased zones – for the very first time, it also provided gamers their first opportunity to play the mythical Hidden Palace Zone.

It was Christmas 1998 when Simon made his discovery of filename ‘MD8123.smd’, the self-same ROM file that he had loaded upon his Super Magic Drive six years previous. As he swiftly shared the news of his beta discovery upon the alt.binaries.emulators.sega newsgroup, word spread faster than a spin dash. Whereas Hidden Palace was previously confined to hazy magazine screenshots and black-market cartridges, in the blink of an eye, the once reclusive level was there for all to explore.

Inhabited only by the Badniks BBat and Redz, the zone also played host to the Mystic Cave Zone two-player music theme, an oddly placed Tails 1-up monitor, spectacular glowing bridges, a huge insurmountable emerald-green slope and the reveal of a mysterious oversized jewel that would later come to be regarded as the ‘Master Emerald’. Overnight, the name ‘Simon Wai’ gained instantaneous synonymy amongst Sonic fans, who swiftly dubbed the ROM ‘The Simon Wai Prototype’ – high praise indeed.

For the full article, head over to RetroCollect.com.

…And stay tuned for the concluding article in the series: Finding the Hidden Palace – Part 4.

The Mega Drive Unleashed – Bad Apple

BadAppleBelieve it or not, this screenshot is taken from an animated demo sequence on the Sega Mega Drive. Entitled Bad Apple, and based on the Japanese indy vertical-shooter Touhou, this demo is arguably one of the strongest examples of full-motion video and near CD quality music on the Mega Drive. That’s right, the Mega Drive! In the latest addition to the Mega Drive Unleashed series, MegaBites catches up with Stephane Dallongeville – the man behind not only Bad Apple’s 16-bit Sega conversion, but also a rather special Mega Drive port of a SNES Super FX chip classic.

More on the ‘enemy’ later… First, here’s Bad Apple:

What is Bad Apple?

Initially conceived as a fully rendered full-motion video, Bad Apple was unveiled in 2009, upon Japanese video sharing site Niconico DougaAs a prominent showpiece of the Japanese MAD video subculture, what later transpired was a veritable supernova of ports, conversions, and homages to the iconic Niconico original. However, the origins of the Bad Apple musical theme can be traced even further back, to the mid-to-late 90’s and the cult video game series Touhou.

Revered for its colourful visuals, larger than life characters and addictive – if not obscenely difficult – gameplay, Japan’s Touhou saga is a series of vertical shoot’em ups created by one-man software house Team Shanghai Alice. Coded, designed, scored and illustrated by Junya ‘ZUN’ Ota, the first title in the series was released on the NEC PC-98 in 1996. Over the ensuing years, Touhou spawned a 20 further sequels in rapid succession, eventually making the move onto Windows PC in 2002. From the outset, Touhou received a huge following. However, it is with the fourth game in the series – Lotus Land Story – where our Mega Drive interests lie. Continue reading