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Cart Wars - Episode 1: The Evolution of the Cartridge

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  • Cart Wars - Episode 1: The Evolution of the Cartridge

    By MegaBites

    The video game industry of the late 1980's - mid 90's was a fierce battleground. As the console manufacturers locked horns, a bitter conflict spanning the US, Europe and Japan was fought. Loyal allegiances were formed as bits fought bytes and processors grappled with pixel counts. Lives were lost and continues were consumed, but by no means would any side admit that it was game over. Throughout the conflict, however, a secondary battle was fought, involving not the console, nor the mascot, but the cartridge – gaming media in its most physical form (as many an expert cart blower will know all too well).

    The cartridge was a medium capable of feats that pushed the consoles of the 8-64 bit era well beyond their limits. Packed with graphics chips, battery backups and even camera lenses, the evolution of the cartridge is a truly formidable tale and one that is often overshadowed by the myriad consoles' fight for market supremacy.

    But how far were developers prepared to push the cartridge medium, and what were the innovations that propelled it to become the ultimate gaming format of the 1980's - 90's? Surprisingly the origins of the cartridge's evolution begin in a garage, on 5th March 1975, in Menlo Park City, California, in a meeting attended by none other than Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

    A new hope

    “Are you building your own computer? Terminal? TV typewriter? I/O device? Or some other digital black-magic box?,” the invitation read. “If so, you might like to come to a gathering of people with like-minded interests. Exchange information, swap ideas, talk shop, help work on a project, whatever...” These were the words that announced the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club.

    Held in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Homebrew Computer Club was the very first gathering of its kind. Functioning as a forum for like-minded engineers and programmers, the meetings were a key catalyst for the development of the Apple I and Apple II micro computers. No Homebrew Computer Club, no Apple. It was as simple as that. And had it not been for the club, it's likely that the home console as we know it may never have existed.

    You see, amongst the Homebrew Computer Club's most high-profile members there was also a man by the name of Jerry Lawson. During the 1970's, Lawson was employed by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp, a company for whom he developed the early coin-op title 'Demolition Derby'. Jerry Lawson had a vision, however. He envisioned a home video game console, complete with interchangeable 'memory devices' that would allow players to easily switch from one title to another through a single base unit. It was certainly a bold move and revolutionary for its time, but thanks to his ingenuity, Jerry Lawson became the father of the read-only memory video game cartridge.

    “We were afraid – we didn’t have statistics on multiple insertion and what it would do, or how we would do it, because it wasn’t done. I mean, think about it, nobody had the capability of plugging in memory devices in mass quantity like in a consumer product. Nobody,” Lawson would say of his cartridge design concerns. Yet, what he and his team delivered in the summer of 1976, would pave the way for generations of systems and cartridge variants for years to come.

    The game changer

    The early 1970's home video game market was a scene in its infancy. Dominated by dedicated plug & play systems, the sector was led by Atari, Coleco and Magnavox. The majority of hardware releases at that time came pre-loaded with Pong clones, and hockey and tennis games loosely based on a similar theme. But that mould was about to be broken with Fairchild's latest system release.

    Beating its cartridge-based cousin, the Atari 2600, to the market by over a year was the Fairchild Video Entertainment System (VES) – the world's first read-only memory cartridge-based console system. Capable of just eight on-screen colors, with sound effects played only through the system's internal speaker, the VES pales in comparison to today's gaming behemoths. But it was a true game changer in every sense.

    During its lifetime, the VES was host to a total of 26 'videocarts' (as Fairchild named them). Such titles included Spitfire, Pro-Football and Alien Invasion. Each release was loaded onto a large yellow-colored cartridge, which was clearly numbered for ease of reference. “The whole reason I did games was because people said, ‘You can’t do it,'” Lawson would later say. “I’m one of the guys who, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll turn around and do it.”

    We're going to need backup

    By the late 1980's, the cartridge format had come to dominate the home video game industry. The reason? Three simple letters – NES (or seven if you happened to live in Japan – Famicom). After close to a century of plying its trade in Hanafuda and Karuta playing cards, Nintendo had discovered its true niche and it was all thanks to the dominance of its its 8-bit powerhouse, which at that time affirmed an astonishing 90 per cent dominance over the console market. By now, gamers had largely become accustomed to level designs with further detail, catchy chiptunes and instantly identifiable mascots. But as the public's appetite for increasingly-intricate gaming worlds grew, so did their requirement for ever-expanding gaming worlds. And so it came to be that a video game legend was forged.

    With its stunning gold casing, the NES release of the Legend of Zelda, was truly a sight to behold. Yet, for all its visual appeal, it was what sat beneath the surface that would prove to be truly revolutionary. For those brave enough to traverse the treacherous terrain of Hyrule, their quest was made all the more achievable not by potions, or by a handful of Rupees, but through the assistance of a CR2032 battery. How odd.

    Let's picture the scenario, after seven hours of ceaseless gameplay, you've made it to the dungeon of Death Mountain. Bleary-eyed but hungry for victory, you have the silver arrow in hand, ready for the final showdown with Ganon. All that's required to free Princess Zelda is a steady aim and a single press of the 'A' button, when suddenly... you're killed. Shocked, stunned and in utter disbelief you throw the pad to the floor. You swell with rage and you tear your hair out. You'd come so far, “Why me?!” you scream. And then you remember – you saved your progress just before entering the dungeon. Lucky for you, the Legend of Zelda was the very first cartridge release to allow save states. Thank you Nintendo!

    Now, pick up that pad and rescue that princess.

    Yellow tab truths

    In the land of Sega, however, 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.

    It 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.

    In the early days of the Mega Drive/Genesis, Sega handed out development kits to all those who wished to create games for their 16-bit console. Inconceivably, in the rush to meet demand, Sega forgot to ship their consignment of kits to EA. Clearly frustrated by its treatment, EA 'borrowed' and subsequently 'altered' one of Sega's development units. Naming their unit the 'Sega Genesis Probe' (aka the SPROBE), EA discovered a way to produce its own carts without Sega's intervention.

    Elongated and notably more angular than standard Sega cartridges, EA's cart design incorporated the now legendary 'yellow tab'. Contrary to what many gamers may have thought at the time, the tab served no purpose – no magical graphics chip and no wizardry. Nothing. It was purely aesthetic.

    Needless to say, EA's antics didn't go un-noticed by Sega of America, whose then President, Tom Kalinske, managed to salvage a deal with EA's founder, Trip Hawkins. At the risk of other developers following EA's example, Sega granted EA permission to manufacture its in-house cartridges with a 60 per cent reduction in fees – but there was a condition. Sega demanded that EA provided its 'John Madden Football' engine for the development of Sega's own 'Joe Montana Football'. In return, EA further negotiated a 24 per cent royalty on every 'Montana' title sold.

    Never mind the Console Wars, the Cart Wars had begun!

    (Cart Wars – The Evolution of the Cartridge – Episode 2 coming soon)...
    The Hackmaster

  • #2
    That was a good read. I'll be waiting for episode 2.


    • #3
      Cart Wars - Episode 2: The Evolution of the Cartridge

      By MegaBites

      Grab hold of your Game Boy Cameras, and get set to launch your Arwings as we take a journey to the scrapheap and beyond in the concluding chapter of 'Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge’ – a ‘bit-by-bit’ retrospective of the battles and the developments that shaped the destiny of the cartridge format.

      Gears of War

      Progressing through the early 1990's, new cartridge innovations served to not only extend the capabilities of the home console, but also those of the handheld. The Gameboy, the Game Gear and the Atari Lynx – each were noted for their unique physical cartridge aesthetics. But as gamers were soon to discover, many of these portable devices were capable of feats way beyond their initial intention, and it was all made possible thanks to the adaptability of their cartridge ports.

      The Sega Game Gear: As much as it was a battle for console supremacy, the video game industry of the 1990's was also a war of numbers – of total on-screen colors, of 8-bit versus 16-bit, three button pads, versus four and six button pads, and this was also a rivalry that extended into the realm of the handheld.

      Capable of 32 on-screen colors, the Sega Game Gear's 3.2 inch screen was one of its primary selling points and – on paper at least – it was a far more sophisticated set up than that of its rival, the 'four shades of grey' Nintendo Gameboy. A further demonstration of the Game Gear's on-screen capabilities was the release of the Game Gear TV Tuner – a modified cartridge peripheral that enabled full-color analog television functionality upon the Sega handheld. Complete with extendable antenna and AV port, the tuner was a complete revelation for its age, if not a rather expensive one – $112.98! Regardless of price, the cartridge-based connectivity of the TV Tuner represented an early and accessible foray into the console as a multi-media device.

      The Nintendo Game Boy:

      By 1998, the cartridge as a mainstream video game format had given way to the optical disc medium – namely, the CD. By that time, the Sega Saturn had met its untimely demise and the Sony PlayStation ruled the roost. Whilst those in the West still had to wait a year for the Sega Dreamcast, gamers in Japan were already plugging in their VMU's and were subject to the fishing skills of Big the Cat. But the Nintendo Game Boy was still going strong and had discovered a new lease of life thanks to the snap-happy desires of its loyal user base.

      Before the advent of the camera phone and the mainstream adoption of digital photography came the Game Boy Camera. Interfacing with the Nintendo handheld through its cartridge slot, the Game Boy Camera was available in a number of colored variants, including red, blue, green, yellow, a Japan-exclusive translucent purple and a super-rare gold Ocarina of Time alternative.

      To say that the Game Boy Camera was limited by the Game Boy's four shade palate is to do this ingenious peripheral an injustice. True, it was notorious for it's incredibly low resolution and lack of definition, but the grainy, pixellated qualities of the camera's snapshots were all part of its enduring charm. Adaptable for use as a point & shoot camera, with built-in photo editing and animation capabilities, the Game Boy Camera and its accompanying software also allowed gamers to superimpose their faces on a number of built-in mini games – including a title based on the first Game & Watch title ‘Ball’. An optional Game Boy Printer device was also made available at its time of release. As if that wasn't enough, a hidden Easter egg within the Game Boy Camera's credits revealed a sequence that depicted a dancing Shigeru Miyamoto. With features like that, who needs a TV tuner?!

      But we've gotten slightly ahead of ourselves here, let's take things back to the period spanning 1992-1994, as two new developments in cartridge technology allowed a fox to take to the sky and enabled 'virtual' to become a reality...

      Revenge of the chip

      The 26th of 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.

      Going through a total for four revisions, the earliest variant of the Super FX chip was labeled 'MARIO Chip 1'. (For those of a technical mind, MARIO stood for 'Mathematical, Argonaut, Rotation & I/O'). But what exactly did a Super FX cartridge do that others couldn't achieve? Put simply, this:

      Sega Strikes Back

      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? By releasing the Mega Drive's most expensive cartridge release – Virtua Racing – priced at an astonishing $100 upon release.

      As a means of justifying Virtua Racing’s hefty markup, each and every cart release of Sega’s 3D racer contained an innovative new microprocessor by the name of the SVP (Sega Virtua Processor). Capable, in theory, of feats far and above Nintendo’s Super FX variants, not only did Sega’s cartridge chip allow for comparatively smoother frame rates and polygon rendering, but many considered its configuration to be an early precursor to the 32X.

      Well, almost…

      It was a long held belief that the SVP was a Hitachi SH-1 processor – a predecessor to the 32X and Sega Saturn’s dual Hitachi SH2-chipset. With such power on board, Mega Drive gamers reveled in rumors of further full 3D cartridge releases for their console. While Mega Drive ports of Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA were mooted, they ultimately never saw the light of day. But this certainly didn’t stop the Sega supporters from dreaming.

      The SVP cart’s close ties to the 32X led many to consider what might have been. Could Sega have bypassed the 32X altogether, and instead released its SVP-powered cart releases as a bridge technology until the Sega Saturn’s release? Looking back, the SVP – in processing power at least – would certainly seem a preferable transition towards the 32-bit generation than Sega’s ill-fated 32X solution. However…

      It was in 2006 that all Hitachi lineage between the SVP, the 32X and Saturn became quashed, as the the truth behind the chip was finally revealed. A full 12 years since the SVP’s release had passed when a leaked online document exposed the microprocessor’s identity not as the Hitachi SH-1, but as the Samsung SSP1601. The family tree had been uprooted. Yet, regardless of its identity, the SVP and Virtua Racing did indeed push the Mega Drive to the very limits of its capabilities, if not an equal strain on the wallets and purse strings of Sega's loyal gamer-base.

      The Fall of the Format

      As gamers know all too well, the humble cartridge medium eventually succumbed to the almighty compact disc. While early pioneers in the CD format – the TurboGrafx-CD, Philips CDi, 3DO, Amiga CD32 and Mega CD inclusive – ushered in the new age to varying degrees of success, it wasn’t until the respective 1994 releases of the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation, and the dawn of the 32-bit generation that the CD truly came to affirm its dominance on the video game market. Undeterred, the cartridge format still soldiered on, largely supported by Nintendo in the form of the Nintendo 64, and later the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance and the DS/3DS series.

      However, as the years progressed and even as gaming media surrendered much of its physical entities to the download medium, few were prepared for the events of April 2014, as the cartridge war’s greatest secret was unearthed – quite literally.

      Buried, but not forgotten...

      In every battle, there must inevitably be casualties, and the cartridge wars come as no exception. To trace the origins of one of the format’s greatest falls from grace, we must first travel back some 32 years, to the burial site of one of the medium’s most synonymous fallen soldiers – E.T. for the Atari 2600.

      It was 1983, the year of the North American video game crash and a period that marked not only the death of the Atari 2600 but the advent of one of video gaming’s greatest conspiracy theories – the rumored landfill burial of Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. “The movie came out, it was a huge hit and we wanted to do the cartridge of it,” explained Manny Gerard, Co-Chief Operating Officer of Warner Communications. “There was a negotiation going on between the Atari people and the people at Universal. Steve Ross, who was the CEO of Warner, agreed to a deal that was so off the chart that nobody believed it. It was $20-30 million dollars, it was some crazy number. So, we acquired the rights for E.T. and we had to have the game out for Christmas, and that created a problem.” But few could have predicted the sheer insurmountable scale of that problem and the imminent death knell that would soon sound the demise of an industry.

      E.T. for the Atari 2600 went on to become the console’s 8th biggest all-time seller, shifting around 1.5 million cartridges. Despite its ‘million-seller’ status, Atari vastly over estimated consumer demand. Producing around four million copies of the game, the release was hampered not only by its epic shortfall in sales, but also in its status as quite possibly one of the worst games of all time, as many industry insiders have since attested:

      “E.T. was a really hard game, the kind of game that was brutal, unfair and didn’t make a lot of sense,” Mike Mika, Game Developer.
      “I grew up in London and there was a video game store in my town where you could rent a game for 50p for a weekend. I still remember thinking that I’d wasted my money because it was just bad,” Gary Whitta, ex-Video Game Journalist and Screenwriter.
      Following E.T’s Christmas 1982 release, the US video game industry was facing widespread extinction. With a surplus of product in its millions and Atari’s E.T. cartridges being returned to stores in their thousands, what could the ailing developer possibly do to hide its shame? What transpired was the advent of one of the video game industry’s greatest urban legends.

      Although not confirmed by Atari at the time, rumors swiftly surfaced of a video game graveyard – the Alamagordo landfill, New Mexico – a burial site purportedly filled with thousands upon thousands of excess E.T. cartridges, seemingly disposed by Atari in a hastened effort to hide its shame. While Atari remained hesitant to confirm its actions, one thing was certain – something had been buried in Alamagordo, but what exactly?

      The truth was revealed and filmed in April 2014 as Hollywood Director Zak Penn, accompanied by ex-Alamagordo Dig Site Manager, Joe Lewandowski identified what they believed to be the exact location of the Atari landfill. Word of the discovery soon spread as vast crowds of Atari pilgrims traveled to the site, eager to bear witness to one of the video game cartridge’s most famous, yet darkest moments in its history. As the site operators dug deeper and deeper into the Alamagordo soil, layer upon layer of decades old waste was uncovered, slowly diminishing any hope of uncovering Atari’s cartridge hoard. Suffocating sandstorms arrived, prompting much of the traveling observers to turn away, until finally, the treasure was found.

      What was discovered was not just final the resting place of a significant proportion of E.T. cartridges, but also a vast assortment of Atari 2600 releases – 59 individual titles and a potential trove of over 792,000 games. Incredible.

      While the events at Alamagordo confirmed the truth behind an Atari urban legend, what transpired that windswept April day served to function as a perfect analogy for the almighty cartridge medium – largely neglected by the modern day video game industry, the cartridge’s heyday as the predominant format had certainly not been forgotten. Not by a long shot.

      The legacy goes on

      Admittedly, this short duo of articles barely scratches the surface of the key events, the revelations and the consoles that served to shape the cartridge’s rich history and early development – the Magnavox Odyssey, the Nintendo 64, the TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine, the almighty monoliths carts of the Neo Geo AES, the migraine-inducing Virtual Boy…The list goes on.

      You see, the cartridge medium was more than simple fodder in bitter war between console and industry giants. Unlike the floppy disk, the cassette, the CD, the digital download and the myriad formats that came before and after it, the cartridge was a tangible, physical entity – a digital trojan horse filled with electronic wizardry, that propelled not only our consoles, but our imaginations into new realms of gaming barely thought conceivable. Crucially, no matter whose corner you fought in the glory days of the cartridge medium – whether Sega, Nintendo, Atari or another – for all our glorious differences, we all shared one thing in common… the cartridge.

      Game on!
      The Hackmaster