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!

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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 2

Finding-The-Hidden-Palace-Part-2As this humble blog continues to expand its horizons, fans of Sonic the Hedgehog can read the latest episode of MegaBites’ Finding the Hidden Palace on RetroCollect.com.

In a continuation of part one’s epic tale, the second chapter in the series picks up from the events following the fabled ‘Sonic2s Day’ – the North American and European release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. After months of publicity, previews and speculation, the 1992 release of Sonic 2 hailed the release of what is arguably the series’ finest release.

Homing in on the period 1992–1999, part two continues to document the myths, unravel the cryptic clues, and decode the conundrums, behind one of Sega’s greatest hidden enigmas; Sonic 2’s unreleased level – Hidden Palace Zone.

And here’s a little taster for you:

It was early 1999 and Canadian Sonic fan Simon Wai embarked on an online Sonic beta hunt. As far back as 1992, in Hong Kong, Simon had been one of the early few to play a black market copy of the Sonic 2 toy show beta. Now, seven years later, he had a renewed determination to rediscover it.

Beginning his journey on Chinese ROM sites, Simon soon came upon a lone Geocities page. It was here where he located the rather a inconspicuous file named ‘MD8123.smd’ – uncovering the syntax of which provided valuable insight into the file’s origin and identity.

‘MD’ stood for Mega Drive, ‘8’ represented an eight-megabit file, ‘123’ identified the file as the 123rd in its sequence and the ‘.smd’ extension identified it as a file created by a Super Mega Drive – a piece of hardware with the ability to extract a Mega Drive cartridge to floppy disk. It was only when he came to load the file that its true identity was revealed. Simon Wai’s memories came flooding back in an instant.

(Read more on RetroCollect.com.)

Be sure to visit MegaBites soon, as we have a further set of ‘mega’ exciting posts lined up, which you simply will not want to miss!

Greg Martin – A Tribute

MegaBites has just learnt of the passing away of Greg Martin, who died on the 21st May 2013. As a prolific and gifted artist, Greg was the man behind the EU/US box art of Sonic 2, Sonic 3, Sonic CD, as well as a host of countless other multi-platform video game classics.

Beginning his career at Hanna Barbera, Greg worked on shows such as the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Yogi Bear and numerous other shows by the US animation studio. He was also credited as the creator and illustrator of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series’ characters. Amongst numerous high-profile colleagues with whom he worked, most notable was Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame.

In his later career, Greg worked for Sega, Nintendo and other video game developers, where he was responsible for some of the early-to-mid 90’s most iconic cover art designs. Each artwork was painted and airbrushed, measuring a huge 24–30 inches in height, taking just a week to complete – some in only 3–5 days!

Remember the cover for Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Sonic Spinball and that giant fold-out Sonic poster that came with numerous Mega Drive/Genesis releases? They were all Greg Martin. Continue reading

Sega’s Soccer Secret – Revealed

world-championship-soccer-2-cover-secretIn July 2008, the metaphorical hammer went down on a rather unique eBay auction – one in which UK collector Stewart Greenwood parted ways with precisely £751.99 for, what has now come to be regarded as, one of the Mega Drive’s most sought after PAL releases. You’d be surprised to hear that this title was no limited edition box set, nor was it encrusted in gold. As a game that was originally pushed by Sega for a lightning-fast release, it sadly faded into oblivion at an equally rapid pace. As such, key information about this title has since been lost or shrouded in the utmost secrecy – until now. With exclusive input from the game’s Artist, Stoo Cambridge and Producer, Wallace Poulter, MegaBites presents the secret story of World Championship Soccer 2.

Released to coincide with the 1994 US football World Cup, World Championship Soccer 2 provided the gamer with a tournament-accurate choice of 32 international teams. With options for fully customisable tournament lineups and team formations, the game also provided a 16-bit-tastic menu soundtrack and the very best in 90s in-match music. In a rather interesting touch, World Championship Soccer 2 also provided the opportunity to go back in time to relive the past glories/disappointments of the 1990 and 1986 World Cup tournaments.

A little known fact…

Pitch1Although World Championship Soccer 2. Was branded under the Sega Sports name, it is a little known fact that the gaming super-giant had very little input when it came to the game’s development. A quick glance over it’s contributors reveals a credit for the ‘Mystery Chefs’ – a pseudonym that hides the true identity of the creative minds behind the game. But who were they?

World Championship Soccer 2’s development process was conducted by one of the era’s most successful British software houses, one that had firmly demonstrated its capabilities in producing pixel-perfect football titles, quite literally from the top-down. The ‘Mystery Chefs’ were none-other than Jon Hare and Chris Yates. The developer – Sensible Software. Continue reading

MegaBites vs BoxedPixels.co.uk – A Christmas Challenge

Xmas MB BPWhat do you mean it’s Christmas 2013? Where did 2012, 2011 and 2010 go? More to the point, whatever happened to the 90s? I was only just getting started!

As fleeting as time may be and as swift as the passage of time may pass, Christmas 2013 marks a significant milestone here on the MegaBites blog – my 20th anniversary as a Mega Drive gamer.

The 25th of December 1993. It my first day in ownership of the Sega’s black-boxed bombshell – a day overloaded by pixels, platformers and gaming perfection. Such a shame that my little brother got carried away with the sweets and vomited down the cartridge slot. But let’s not dwell on that little saga.

As I pondered how I might celebrate this Christmas on the MegaBites Blog, I received a rather interesting Christmas request from a fellow blogger – one with a passion for a console that evokes such venomous rivalry, I can barely bring myself to write its name in full-sized text. This blogger was Julian Hill, the owner of BoxedPixels.co.uk – a website dedicated to the Super Nintendo. That’s right, the Super Nintendo. .

kris_and_tell

Boxed Pixels: MegaBites, my Sega-gaming nemesis, it’s Christmas once more – a time of goodwill and cheer to all. This in mind, I thought I’d transform you into Kris of Super Play fame. How do you like your new look?

MegaBites: Kris? Super Play? Wasn’t that a Super Nintendo magazine?

BP: It’s what people had instead of blogs twenty years ago. Although, it was much more effort as you had to turn these things called ‘pages.’

MB: Perfect, just perfect. Happy Christmas to me and a Merry Mode-7 holiday to you!

BP: I see that this Christmas marks your 20th anniversary as a Mega Drive gamer. Any intention of getting your younger brother to mark the occasion as he did in 1993?
MB: You’ll be happy to know that Christmas 2013 has every intention of a being vomit-free affair. That is, unless you plan on bringing the SNES over…

BP: You leave my majestic white box alone!

MB: You see, although the unfortunate events of that Christmas still haunt me to this day, I fondly remember Saturday 25th December 1993 for one thing – the day my obsession for all things Sega Mega Drive began. That entire day was an epic 16-bit odyssey, one that ultimately shaped my future as a gamer and all round Sega obsessive. How was the 90s Christmas experience from across 16-bit enemy lines?

BP: For me, Christmas was the one time I got to see my games on the big-screen TV – if you indeed consider 22″ to be ‘big’. Donkey Kong Country looked fantastic on it. You’ve heard of Donkey Kong Country right?

MB: Donkey-who?

BP: You know, it’s that game with pre-rendered graphics that would never have been possible on your beloved Mega Drive.

MB: I’m sorry, I must have been too busy eagerly anticipating the blast-processing prowess of Ristar. That’s right blast-processing!

BP: I’ll let you in on a little secret MegaBites, Donkey Kong Country was the last thing I ever got from Father Christmas. For that reason alone, it holds a special place in my heart. Why don’t you give it a go?

MB: MegaBites? Nintendo? Are you mad?… Only if you promise me one thing.

BP: Name it.

MB: I’ll play your Donkey Kong if you play Ristar and write all about it on this blog. Deal?

BP: Deal.

MB: Where’s the sick bags? Continue reading

A Quintasensible Conversation

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 18.29.44Earlier this year, MegaBites posted an article on the legendary British developer Sensible Software. The piece concluded by outlining the imminent release of Sensible Software 1986–1999 – a Kickstarter-funded publication that gives a pixel-by-pixel account of the sights, the sounds and the software of this quintasensibly British gaming software house. Hot on the heels of the book’s release, MegaBites speaks to Darren Wall – the owner and Editor of Read-Only Memories publishing.

As a company etched in video gaming folklore, Sensible Software was headed by long-term school friends Jon ‘Jops’ Hare and Chris Yates, who went on to realise some of the late 80s and early 90s greatest gaming successes. Sensible Software provided gamers with unforgettable memories of incredible gameplay, quirky comedy and some of the catchiest theme tunes this side of the Bitmap Brothers. From the creation of Commodore 64 classics, to iconic Amiga adventures, Sensible also went on to create some of the Mega Drive’s most beloved ports, including Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder and Mega Lo Mania.

Dust off your disk drives and blow out your cartridges as we uncover the making of a book that gives an account of a software house so vibrant and so revolutionary, it was anything but sensible. 

MegaBites: Let’s start with the book itself. What is Sensible Soccer 1986 – 1999 and what were your main motivations in seeing it realised?

Darren Wall: It all started around six or seven years ago, when I made a few trips to Japan. Out there, they publish a lot of magazine-book hybrids called ‘Mooks’. There’s a large number of Capcom publications in particular, with incredible production art and paintings. I bought stacks of these books while I was out there, on Mega Man, Street Fighter II, R-Type and various RPGs.

The concept for the Sensible Book sprung from a conversation with a friend, who was in Japan with me at the time. I had a strong desire to see books containing similar production artwork for the games that I grew up playing as a kid – games by Psygnosis and titles such as Another World came to mind. I wanted to see books that documented the ‘feel’ of what it was like to actually play these games. Continue reading