Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday’s everyone! The 2018 video game season is pretty much over at this point, with another year of notable releases and events going by and entering the history books, but what about video games of years past? As I do every week where I highlight a notable title released 10, 20 and 30 years ago, I thought it would be fun to look back at not only the biggest games of the year, but also some of the most noteworthy and interesting things happening in the entire video games industry. Take a break from all that crass materialism for a few minutes and read about some pretty interesting things that happened in gaming from 1988, 1998 and 2008.
Three years after releasing the NES in the U.S., Nintendo was the dominating force in the home video game market. They used this clout to land a huge deal, gaining the exclusive worldwide licensing rights to publish Tetris on home consoles. Since its release, Nintendo had strict quality standards that basically forced companies to buy cartridges and the innards directly from Nintendo, which used a security system called the 10NES chip, so they could control who made games for the system and what could be played on it. Some companies that did not want to pay the licensing fee would bypass this by temporarily short circuiting the chip, but Atari had a different idea. The Japanese arm of Atari, called Tengen, announced they had entered a deal with Nintendo to make games for the system, but it seemed they did not want to pay the licensing and cartridge fees required to get their games on the console. Using reverse engineering, and some good old corporate espionage by falsely claiming to the U.S. patent office that they were allowed to view a description of the 10NES chip because of pending litigation they had against Nintendo, Tengen was able to create the first compatible independent game cartridge for the NES. The lawsuit they used to steal the information was in regards to Nintendo using, what Atari/Tengen called, monopolistic and exclusionary business practices with their 10NES security chip. The lawsuit was never settled, most likely because Tengen figured out how to bypass the chip and make their games work on the system. This would lead to a plethora of Tengen games being released in 1989, including their own version of Tetris, and several arcade ports, including Pac-Man and Gauntlet, as well as the Sega titles Shinobi, Fantasy Zone and Alien Syndrome. The unlicensed Tengen chip would lead to a year’s long legal battle between Atari and Nintendo, finally coming to an end in 1994 when Time Warner purchased Atari and shut down Tengen. It was also around this time that the Software Publishers Association accused Nintendo of creating a faux shortage of their officially licensed cartridges, in order to control manufacturing and distribution (Nintendo and faux shortages, surely that isn’t something they still do?!).
It wasn’t all bad news for Nintendo, they had sold 7 million NES consoles in 1988 alone, and they debuted their first U.S. television series, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, in September, which featured live action segments starring Captain Lou Albano, and featuring cartoons based on Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda (well excuuuuuse me, princess).
Arcades were still chugging along, with some solid classics entering the local coin-ops, including Altered Beast, Bad Dudes and Double Dragon II. However, home video game releases weren’t slacking either, just check out this list of classics:
- AD&D: Pool of Radiance (The first gold box D&D game)
- Battle Chess
- Bionic Commando
- Blaster Master
- Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
- Hudson’s Adventure Island
- Ice Hockey (Nintendo)
- King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella
- Metal Gear
- Mickey Mousecapade
- Phantasy Star (With a staggering $70 price tag)
- R.C. Pro Am
- Skate or Die
- Spy vs. Spy
- Super Mario Bros. 2
- Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
1998 was a big year, not just for games, but the industry as a whole.
The Sega Saturn, a system that appeared to be dead on arrival when it debuted in 1995, was discontinued in the U.S. and Europe; Panzer Dragoon Saga and Shining Force III are two of the last games released for the console. Despite, or more accurately because of, the Saturn’s failure, Sega announces that they are already working on their next console, code named the Kitana (eventually to be known as the Dreamcast), to be released in Japan by year’s end and the U.S. in 1999. Meanwhile Nintendo released their follow-up to the Game Boy, the Game Boy Color, which also starts their trend of having previous generation console games being backwards compatible with the current generation console (well, not the Game Cube, since it used discs instead of the N64 cartridges). This practice would continue up to the release of the Nintendo Switch in 2018. In other failed console news, Bandai is forced to sell its digital entertainment division due to the massive worldwide failure of the Pippin, their collaborative venture with Apple, who was trying to break into the home video game market. Their hopes for a future in the home console market are placed on a 16-bit handheld system called the WonderSwan (it was released in 1999 and never made it to the U.S.). Elsewhere, SNK, perhaps thinking they could take on the GameBoy like Sony did with the Nintendo 64, decided to enter the handheld market, releasing the Neo Geo Pocket in Japan. The system would be such a catastrophic failure that it would never see a Western release, and forced them to announce that they were planning a more powerful follow-up, the Neo Geo Pocket Color, to be released in 1999 (which does make it into the U.S.).
It’s interesting to see so many home video game competitors come and go in the mid 90’s, but I don’t think it’s hard to see why. Also released in 1995, the Sony PlayStation showed their growing dominance, announcing that they had sold their 10 millionth PlayStation in North America, for a total of 33 million units sold worldwide compared with the Nintendo 64’s 16 million units sold. Sony’s challenge to the Nintendo juggernaut showed that the company wasn’t immune to competition (Sega gave them a run for their money as well). Unfortunately for many of these companies, they either had too much hubris, not enough money, or suffered from poor management.
Sony also releases the Dual Shock controller, a welcome upgrade to their original controller, making the two thumbsticks a staple of all their controllers moving forward.
This year also saw the making of several deals and acquisitions. Hasbro, looking to gain a stronger footing in the crowded video game market, bought Tiger Electronics, creators of the Game.com handheld system (which, as you guessed, failed spectacularly), however, their biggest move was buying Atari’s video game library, which was probably pretty cheap after the whole Tengen incident.
In another partnership, Microsoft and Sega announce they will be working together on the Dreamcast, which would use Windows CE for its operating system. However, behind closed doors at Microsoft, a team of four engineers were busy trying to come up with their own device to compete with the upcoming PlayStation 2; the Xbox.
EA made two large moves in the industry, the first was their purchase of Westwood Studios and the Command & Conquer franchise, and the second was a mutual agreement made with Square Soft to distribute their games in the U.S. while Square would distribute EA games in Japan. This deal would be more beneficial for EA, as the U.S. was much more interested in Square’s offerings (mostly RPGs) while Japan was much LESS interested in EA’s offerings (sports games and military shooters).
Activision, showing signs of growth, signs a ten year deal with Viacom to produce video games based on the Star Trek franchise. Their first title appears to have been Star Trek: Hidden Evil for PC in 1999.
In hindsight, the most important deal of the year was probably done by Take-Two Interactive, when they created powerhouse developer Rockstar Games from the ashes of BMG Interactive. Founded by Dan & Sam Houser, Terry Donovan and Jamie King, in just three years they would change the video game landscape forever with their breakthrough title Grand Theft Auto III. However, in a sign of controversies to come, Brazil bans the original Grant Theft Auto. In an unrelated event, the ESRB retires the K to A rating (Kids to Adults) and introduces the new E for Everyone rating; Rockstar has only one E rated game (I think), called Table Tennis.
E3 is held in Atlanta this year, with the big news coming out of it being Nintendo’s announcement that Pocket Monsters (renamed Pokemon) will be coming to North America in the fall of ’98. The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences holds its first awards show at E3, giving game of the year to Goldeneye 007. Other big winners include Diddy Kong Racing, Final Fantasy VII and Parappa the Rapper.
1998 was also one of the biggest years ever for game software, with more than a few of the games released that year showing up on “All Time Greatest Games” lists. Here is just some of the amazing titles released in 1998:
- Baldur’s Gate
- Brave Fencer Musashi
- F-Zero X
- Fallout 2
- Final Fantasy Tactics
- Gran Turismo
- Grim Fandango
- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
- Mega Man Legends
- Metal Gear Solid
- Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus
- Panzer Dragoon Saga
- Pokemon Red & Blue
- Resident Evil 2
- Spyro the Dragon
- Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six
- Yoshi’s Story
Video games continued to grow bigger and bigger in the later part of the ‘00’s. With the groundwork laid in the 90’s, the games industry was going mainstream in a big way.
After spending the previous generation in third place to Sony & Microsoft, Nintendo had massive success with their revolutionary motion controlled console, the Wii. After only two years on the market, the Nintendo Wii became the best-selling console of the seventh generation, but this did not mean the system was totally popular with the gaming community. The system had fostered a reputation for being too simple for the hardcore gamer, being seen as primarily for the casual crowd and kids. With weaker hardware, and lack of HD support, the system failed to make Nintendo much of a competitor with Sony and Microsoft for the best games. This lower power meant that many third party games would not be released for the system, leading to the loss of relationships with the various video game companies. Their next system, the Wii U, would pretty much be a total failure, but they would bounce back with the Nintendo Switch in 2017.
The success of the Wii with the casual gaming crowd would, however, have a significant effect on the gaming industry. With the rise of Facebook, more and more people were playing simple point and click simulation games on the social media site alone and with friends. After releasing a Texas Hold ‘Em poker game on Facebook in 2007, game company Zynga would release Mafia Wars, a simple social game that used elements of RPGs and life simulators to create one of the first social media hits. One year later, Zynga would release Farmville and rule the social media gaming world. This demand for casual games also translated into big sales for EA and Maxis’ dollhouse/life simulator The Sims, causing it to overtake Myst as the best-selling PC game of all time. Continuing the rise of casual games was the sudden influx of smart phones entering people’s homes. Apple changed the game by opening up The App Store, giving their users the ability to both buy premium games, and also download “freemium games”, which featured in-app purchases. Suddenly people were clicking and tapping to their heart’s content. Casual games also led to a changing demographics of who a “gamer” was. Suddenly what was thought to be a pastime exclusively for children and men, was now being dominated by women and people over 40.
While not exactly the same as casual games, the indie game scene started to really come into its own in 2008 with the release of Braid on the Xbox Live Arcade. Jonathan Blow’s debut title was seen as the catalyst for the indie game boom of the late 00’s, showing that the Xbox Live Arcade, and all digital storefronts, were more than just a dumping ground for casual games and retro ports. Braid did share some similarities to both of those types of games, with its simple looking controls being enticing to the casual crowd, and the graphics and game play enticing to the retro crowd, but it was actually more geared for the hardcore gamer. Braid was able to show that despite not having a huge budget, you could still make a game that was as engaging and thought-provoking, if not more, as a AAA, big budget title. The success of Braid led to some journalists to compare it to when Sex, Lies & Videotape ushered in the indie film movement of the 90’s. Soon you would find indie games all over digital storefronts, with titles like Castle Crashers, Limbo, Bastion, Super Meat Boy, and Fez (the latter two games would also be featured, along with Braid, in the film Indie Game: The Movie). It’s hard to imagine a world with Celeste, Into The Breach, Hollow Knight, Dead Cells and countless others without the success of Braid.
Rhythm games hit a saturation point this year, when Harmonix releases their follow-up title Rockband 2 less than a year after the first game, and Konami releases Rock Revolution in the hopes of grabbing some cash on the genre they originally helped popularize with their Bemani games; but the biggest culprit was Activision, who released SEVEN Guitar Hero games in 2008; Aerosmith and World Tour on consoles, On Tour and On Tour: Decades for the Nintendo DS, and three mobile apps, Guitar Hero III Mobile, Guitar Hero III: Backstage Pass and Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile. By the end of 2009, the rhythm genre would be in complete free-fall, all but disappearing by the end of 2010.
Seven years after the release of GTA III, Rockstar released their first numbered GTA title (and the first in their “HD universe”), Grand Theft Auto IV, for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. In just 24 hours it had sold 3.6 million copies, setting a new record for highest single day sales. The game would go on to sell 6 million copies in its first week of release, and see a lifetime total sales of over 15 million units.
In deals news, after less than two years on the market, Microsoft announces in January they will end production of HD DVD players for the Xbox 360, joining a list of other companies, including Warner Bros., Netflix, Best Buy and retail giant Wal-Mart, in abandoning the discs. This would kill the struggling format, with Toshiba ceding defeat to Sony’s blu-ray format by February, 2008. This meant that Microsoft would most likely have to install a blu-ray player in their upcoming console, giving money to their biggest competitor.
Activision and Vivendi complete their merger, forming Activision Blizzard in the process. With the combined might of Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, they are one of the biggest and most popular video game companies in the world. This is in stark contrast to another video games company that the head of Viacom, Sumner Redstone, invested in ten years earlier in 1998; Midway. He had slowly increased his stake in the developer/publisher, that by the end of 2007 he was in control of 87% of the company. Midway was struggling, recently defending themselves against a lawsuit in regards to their game Psi-Ops (they won the lawsuit; a screenwriter claimed the company stole his original idea), and they hadn’t had a solid hit in some time. Seeing the writing on the wall, Redstone sold off all his stock and $70 million in debt, to a private investor named Mark Thomas for $100,000, losing an estimated $800 million in the process. Midway would shut down in 2010 after releasing their last game, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.
On the software front, 2008 was a really big year in games. There were huge hits from EA, Rockstar, Nintendo, Microsoft, Valve, LucasArts, Ubisoft, Bethesda and Konami.
- Animal Crossing: City Folk
- Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts
- Bionic Commando Rearmed
- Dark Sector (A spiritual prequel to the F2P game Warframe)
- Dead Space
- Fable II
- Fallout 3
- Far Cry 2
- Gears of War 2
- Grand Theft Auto IV
- Guitar Hero World Tour
- Guitar Hero: Aerosmith
- Infinite Undiscovery
- Left 4 Dead
- Little Big Planet
- Lost Odyssey
- Mafia Wars
- Mario Kart Wii
- Mario Super Sluggers
- Mega Man 9
- Metal Gear Solid IV: Guns of the Patriots
- Mirror’s Edge
- Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe
- Ninja Gaiden II
- No More Heroes
- Persona 4
- Rock Band 2
- Rock Revolution
- Soulcalibur IV
- Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
- Super Smash Bros. Brawl
- The World Ends With You
- Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas 2
- Valkyria Chronicles
- Wario Land: Shake It!
- Wii Fit
- Yakuza 2
I hope you were able to find this information as fascinating as I did, it was a lot of fun looking it up. Thanks to all of you for reading this feature (column? Whatever) every Tuesday, it’s been great seeing so many of the same names in the comments week after week. I look forward to talking with all of you about video games throughout 2019. Join me next week on New Year’s Day for the final week of special coverage, as I give a preview of what games we can expect to release in 2019.