History of Videogames: The 64-bit Revolution

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One of the most notable periods in videogame history, the transition between 'Old School', 2D, sprite-based videogames and 3D gaming saw huge changes to the landscape of the entertainment industry.

Previously a niche hobby, the arrival of consoles including the Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation saw videogames being viewed less as children's toys and more as a hobby and pastime to be enjoyed by anybody and everybody.

"Primarily, the History of Videogames activity is focussed on the roots of gaming," Mr Hopkins explained during a recent session. "Up until now, we have been looking at the core genres of games, such as racing, fighting, puzzle and platforming games. Following those genres through to the end the 1980s and into the 1990s has inevitably led us into the birth of 3D polygonal gaming and to the big changes that occurred in the hobby during that era."

With members of the History of Videogames activity now well versed with the key franchises and controller developments which took place on Nintendo's world-famous NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) and Super NES, as well as their competitor products in the form of the Sega Master System and Sega Mega Drive, the jump from 32 to 64-bit gaming has knocked everyone a little bit sideways - much as it did at the time.

"The move from 16 and 32-bit gaming to 64-bit gaming saw several leaps forward," explains Mr Hopkins, "not least of all the move from cartridge games being the norm to CD-based games. This change meant the costs of videogames production dropped, the amount of data on each disc was increased and a great deal more digital music could be used in-game. This unleashed huge amounts of creativity.

"All of that creativity of course did have its downsides. A number of the most successful games from that era look extremely dated now and don't have some of the charm of some of their earlier counterparts. Polygon-based 3D graphics were so new that there were no real rules about how to handle texture mapping and camera controls: it's important for the students to know what didn't work and why we have ended up where we are today."

Along with 3D graphics, videogames controls changed significantly during this period of time, particularly with the addition of new analogue control sticks providing smoother controls and easier ways of manipulating in-game cameras and characters along both the X and Y axis.

This modernisation of control schemes, increase in graphical possibility and reduced costs in development saw console ownership leaping up to 60% of UK homes by 1997 with only 10% to 20% having done so in 1990.

"By the end of the 64-bit console cycle we had moved away from seeing characters side-on or via an isometric view to a behind-character 3D view in most games," Mr Hopkins continues.

"The template for first-person shooter games also changed, with a much greater sense of head movement being added into games, which provided more life-like experiences. For good or ill, games from the 64-bit era are more recognisable to the students as forebears of today's most famous franchises like Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed and the modern Mario games."

Personified in the explosion of 'PlayStation Culture', the group have begun looking at 3D franchises like Gran Turismo, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and Tekken which became globally successful and saw the console moving from the child's bedroom into nightclubs and living rooms.

The popularity of many 64-bit franchises endures even today, but 2D gaming was far from over, as Mr Hopkins is keen to point out.

"The 64-bit revolution wasn't without its 2D successes. For every ten Final Fantasy VII's, which is an example of a franchise which adapted and changed, you can find a game like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Street Fighter Alpha 3 which still class as high watermarks for 2D gaming."

The History of Videogames activity is also continuing to track the demise of Japanese giant Sega as a hardware manufacturer, comparing and contrasting how their Saturn console failed to keep up with the creativity so evident on Sony's PlayStation and Nintendo's rival N64 console.

"Sega was really up against it," Mr Hopkins reflects. "Some of the games which arrived on the N64 changed the game. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and Super Smash Bros are some of the most critically acclaimed games ever made, although all are really showing their age.

"In terms of how they play, Nintendo set templates which have been copied and appropriated by the industry at large, and that's plain to see when you boot them up. Plus, I love that the N64 still used cartridges - it's a link to gaming's roots that the students in the activity also seem to really like."

In the Summer Term, members of the History of Videogames club will be looking at the next leap forward in gaming - the so-called "Sixth Generation" of consoles, featuring the Sega's swansong, the ill-fated Dreamcast, as well as the Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo's GameCube, and Microsoft's first foray into the gaming hardware business in the form of the original Xbox. For now, however, there is more than enough innovation to keep them busy.

"If you compared video games to cinema, we are looking at the birth of colour filming here. It's a case of two steps forward, one step back in terms of the quality of some of these titles, but unless the students understand the past it will only be less likely that they will build better games in the future."

 

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