Fifth generation of video game consoles
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The fifth-generation era (also known as the 32-bit era, the 64-bit era, or the 3D era) refers to computer and video games, video game consoles, and handheld gaming consoles dating from approximately October 4, 1993 to March 23, 2006.[note 1] For home consoles, the best-selling console was the Sony PlayStation, followed by the Nintendo 64, and then the Sega Saturn. The PlayStation also had a redesigned version, the PSone, which was launched on July 7, 2000.
Some features that distinguished fifth generation consoles from previous fourth generation consoles include:
- 3D polygon graphics with texture mapping
- 3D graphics capabilities – lighting, Gouraud shading, anti-aliasing and texture filtering
- Optical disc (CD-ROM) game storage, allowing much larger storage space (up to 650 MB) than ROM cartridges
- CD quality audio recordings (music and speech) – PCM audio with 16-bit depth and 44.1 kHz sampling rate
- Wide adoption of full motion video, displaying pre-rendered computer animation or live action footage
- Analog controllers
- Display resolutions from 480i/480p to 576i
- Color depth up to 16,777,216 colors (24-bit true color)
This era is known for its pivotal role in the video game industry's leap from 2D to 3D computer graphics, as well as the shift from home console games being stored on ROM cartridges to optical discs. This was also the first generation to feature internet connectivity, some systems like the Sega Saturn's Sega Net Link, had add-ons to add connectivity to existing devices, and the Apple Pippin, a commercial flop, was the first system to feature on-board internet capabilities.
For handhelds, this era was characterized by significant fragmentation, because the first handheld of the generation, the Sega Nomad, had a lifespan of just two years, and the Nintendo Virtual Boy had a lifespan of less than one. Both of them were discontinued before the other handhelds made their debut. The Neo Geo Pocket was released on October 28, 1998, but was dropped by SNK in favor of the fully backwards-compatible Neo Geo Pocket Color just a year later. Nintendo's Game Boy Color (1998) was the winner in handhelds by a large margin. There were also two simply updated versions of the original Game Boy: Game Boy Light (Japan only) and Game Boy Pocket.
There was considerable time overlap between this generation and the next, the sixth generation of consoles, which began with the launch of the Dreamcast in Japan on November 27, 1998. The fifth generation officially ended with the discontinuation of the PlayStation (namely, its re-engineered form, the "PSOne") on March 23, 2006, a year after the launch of the seventh generation.
Transition to 3D
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The 32-bit/64-bit era is most noted for the rise of fully 3D polygon games. While there were games prior that had used three-dimensional polygon environments, such as Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter in the arcades and Star Fox on the Super NES, it was in this era that many game designers began to move traditionally 2D and pseudo-3D genres into 3D on video game consoles. Early efforts from then-industry leaders Sega and Nintendo saw the introduction of the 32X and Super FX, which provided rudimentary 3D capabilities to the 16-bit Genesis and Super NES. Starting in 1996, 3D video games began to take off with releases such as Virtua Fighter 2 on the Saturn, Tomb Raider on the PlayStation and Saturn, Tekken 2 and Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation, and Super Mario 64 on the N64. Their 3D environments were widely marketed and they steered the industry's focus away from side-scrolling and rail-style titles, as well as opening doors to more complex games and genres. 3D became the main focus in this era as well as a slow decline of cartridges in favor of CDs, due to the ability to produce games less expensively and the media's high storage capabilities.
CD vs. cartridge
After allowing Sony to develop a CD-based prototype console for them and a similar failed partnership with Philips, Nintendo decided to make the Nintendo 64 a cartridge-based system like its predecessors. Publicly, Nintendo defended this decision on the grounds that it would give games shorter load times than a compact disc (and would decrease piracy due to a certain chip in the ROM cartridge). However, it also had the dubious benefit of allowing Nintendo to charge higher licensing fees, as cartridge production was considerably more expensive than CD production. Many third-party developers like EA Sports viewed this as an underhanded attempt to raise more money for Nintendo and many of them became more reluctant to release games on the N64.
Nintendo's decision to use a cartridge based system sparked a small scale war among gamers as to which was better. The chief advantages of the CD-ROM format were (1)larger storage capacity, allowing for a much greater amount of game content, (2)considerably lower manufacturing costs, making them much less risky for game publishers, (3)lower retail prices due to the reduced need to compensate for manufacturing costs, and (4)shorter production times, which greatly reduced the need for publishers to predict the demand for a game. Its disadvantages compared to cartridge were (1)considerable load times, (2)their inability to load data "on the fly", making them reliant on the console RAM, and (3)the greater manufacturing costs of CD-ROM drives compared to cartridge slots, resulting in generally higher retail prices for CD-based consoles. A Nintendo magazine ad placed a Space Shuttle (cartridge) next to a snail (a CD) and dared consumers to decide "which one was better".
Almost every other contemporary system used the new CD-ROM technology (the Nintendo 64 was the last major home video game console to use cartridges, until the Nintendo Switch in 2017). Consequent to the storage and cost advantages of the CD-ROM format, many game developers shifted their support away from the Nintendo 64 to the PlayStation. One of the most influential game franchises to change consoles during this era was the Final Fantasy series, beginning with Final Fantasy VII, which was originally being developed for the N64 but due to storage capacity issues was shifted to and released on the PlayStation; prior Final Fantasy games had all been published on Nintendo consoles – either the NES or Super NES, with the only other entries being on the Wonderswan, or computers like the MSX.
Overview of the fifth generation consoles
There was no prevailing consensus on which fifth generation console was superior. More competing consoles comprised this generation than any other since the video game crash of 1983, leading video game magazines of the time to frequently predict a second crash. The increased complexity of the systems also made it ambiguous how their technical capabilities would improve the games.
The FM Towns Marty is considered the world's first 32-bit console (predating the Amiga CD32 and 3DO), being released on February 20, 1993 by Japanese electronic company Fujitsu. Never released outside Japan, it was largely marketed as a console version of the FM Towns home computer, being compatible with games developed for the FM Towns. It failed to make an impact in the marketplace due to its relative expense and inability to compete with home computers.
NEC, creator of the TurboGrafx-16, TurboDuo, Coregrafx, and SuperGrafx, entered the market with the PC-FX in 1994. The system had a 32-bit processor, 16-bit stereo sound, a 16,777,000 color palette and featured the highest quality full motion video of any console on the market at the time. The PC-FX was a tower system that allowed for numerous expansion points including a connection for NEC's PC-9800 series of computers. Despite its impressive specs, it was marketed as the ultimate 2D side-scrolling games console and could not match the sales of the 3D systems released a short time later.
The 32X, an add-on console for the Genesis, was launched a short time before the Sega Saturn. The Sega Neptune, a standalone version of the 32X, was announced but ultimately canceled. Sega failed to deliver a steady flow of games for the 32X platform, and with the Saturn and PlayStation already on the horizon, sales were poor.
The Sega Saturn was released as Sega's entry into the 32-bit console market. It became Sega's most successful console in Japan. In America and Europe however, a disastrous launch and an MSRP of $399 compared to the PlayStation's $299 caused it to be a commercial failure, selling far fewer units than the Master System and Mega Drive/Genesis before it.
The Atari Jaguar was released in 1993 and was marketed as the world's first 64-bit system. However, sales at launch were well below the incumbent fourth generation consoles, and a small games library rooted in a shortage of third party support made it impossible for the Jaguar to catch up, selling below 250,000 units. The system's 64-bit nature was also questioned by many. Its only add-on, the Jaguar CD, was released in 1995 and was produced in limited quantities due to the low install base of the system. The 32-bit Atari Panther, set to be released in 1991, was canceled due to unexpectedly rapid progress in developing the Jaguar.
The PlayStation was the most successful console of this generation. With attention given by 3rd party developers and a more mature marketing campaign aimed at the 20–30 age group enabling it to achieve market dominance, it became the first home console to ship 100 million units worldwide.
Because of many delays in the release of the Nintendo 64, in 1995 Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a supposedly portable system capable of displaying true 3D graphics, albeit in monochromatic red and black. Despite being marketed as a portable system, it is not actually portable in practice due to the lack of head strap. Also, because of the nature of its display, the system reportedly caused headaches and eye strain. It was discontinued within a year, with fewer than 25 games being released for it. Although it sold over 750,000 units, Nintendo felt that it was a failure compared to consoles such as the Super Nintendo, which sold over 20 million.
The Nintendo 64, originally announced as the "Ultra 64", was released in 1996. The system's delays and use of the expensive cartridge format made it an unpopular platform among third party developers. Several popular 1st party titles allowed the Nintendo 64 to maintain strong sales in the United States, but it remained a distant second to the PlayStation.
Aftermath of the fifth generation
By the end of the 1995 Christmas shopping season, the fifth generation had come down to a struggle between the Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn, 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, and the upcoming Nintendo 64. The FM Towns Marty and Amiga CD32 had already been discontinued; the Jaguar and Genesis 32X were still on the market but were considered a lost cause by industry analysts; the Neo Geo CD had proven to appeal only to a niche market; and industry analysts had already determined that the yet-to-launch Apple Bandai Pippin was too expensive to make any impact in the market. Moreover, even the leading fifth generation consoles were still facing sluggish sales. Combined sales for the PlayStation, Saturn, and 3DO barely topped 1 million units for the Christmas shopping season, as compared to combined sales of 4 million for the Sega Genesis and Super NES. Focus groups showed that most children under 12 years old are equally happy playing on fourth generation consoles as they are playing on fifth generation consoles, making the fourth generation consoles more appealing to adults buying gifts for children, since they are cheaper. Industry analysts began putting forth the possibility that the fifth generation of consoles would never overtake the fourth generation in sales, and become superseded by a new generation of DVD player consoles before they could achieve mass acceptance.
1996 saw the fifth generation consoles' fortunes finally turn around. With the Saturn, PlayStation, and Nintendo 64 all showing dramatic increases in sales over the previous year, they claimed a combined 40% of the retail market for hardware and software, putting them in position to finally overtake the fourth generation consoles in 1997.
After the dust settled in the fifth generation console wars, several companies saw their outlooks change drastically. Atari Corporation, which was not able to recover its losses, ended up merging into JTS Corporation in 1996, causing the Atari name to virtually disappear from the gaming market until 1998, when Hasbro Interactive purchased the Atari assets from JTS for $5 million. Sega's loss of consumer confidence (coupled with its previous console failures) along with their financial difficulties, set the company up for a similar fate in the next round of console wars.
The Sega Saturn suffered from poor marketing and comparatively limited third-party support outside Japan. Sega's decision to use dual processors was roundly criticized, as this made it difficult to efficiently develop for the console. Sega was also hurt by the Saturn's surprise four-month-early U.S. launch of their console; third party developers, who had been planning for the originally scheduled launch, could not provide many launch titles and were angered by the move. Retailers were caught unprepared, resulting in distribution problems; some retailers, such as the now defunct KB Toys, were so furious that they refused to stock the Saturn thereafter.
Due to numerous delays, the Nintendo 64 was released one year later than its competitors. By the time it was finally launched in 1996, Sony had already established its dominance, the Saturn and 3DO were starting to struggle, and the Jaguar had been discontinued. Its use of cartridge media rather than compact discs alienated some developers and publishers due to the space limits, the relatively high cost involved, and a considerably longer production time. In addition, the initially high suggested retail price of the console may have driven potential customers away, and some early adopters of the system who had paid the initial price may have been angered by Nintendo's decision to cut the price of the system by $50 six months after its release. However, the Nintendo 64 turned out to be a commercial success, particularly in the United States, where it sold 20.63 million units, nearly two thirds of its worldwide sales of 32.93 million units. It was also home to highly successful games such as Star Fox 64, Mario Kart 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Super Mario 64, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and Super Smash Bros. While Nintendo 64 sold far more units than the Sega Saturn, Atari Jaguar, and 3DO combined, it posed no challenge to the PlayStation's lead in the market.
By 1997, 40% to 60% of American homes played on video game consoles. 30% to 40% of these homes owned a console, while an additional 10% to 20% rented or shared a console.
On May 14, 1999, Hasbro Interactive announced that all rights to the Atari Jaguar were released into the public domain, thus declaring the platform open; this allowed anyone to freely create and publish games for the Jaguar without endorsement or licensing from Hasbro Interactive. Since then, homebrew developers began to release uncompleted Jaguar games as well as several brand new titles to satisfy the system's cult following.
|Name||3DO Interactive Multiplayer||Atari Jaguar||Sega Saturn||PlayStation||Nintendo 64|
|Developer||The 3DO Company||Atari||Sega||Sony||Nintendo|
|Launch price (USD)||US$699.99 (equivalent to $1,239 in 2019)||US$249.99 (equivalent to $442 in 2019)||US$399.99 (equivalent to $671 in 2019)||US$299.99 (equivalent to $503 in 2019)||US$199.99 (equivalent to $326 in 2019)|
|Best-selling game||Gex, over 1 million||Alien vs Predator, more than 50,000||Virtua Fighter 2, 1.7 million in Japan||Gran Turismo, 10.85 million shipped (as of April 30, 2008)||Super Mario 64, 11.62 million (as of May 21, 2003)|
|CPU||ARM60 (32‑bit RISC) @ 12.5 MHz (8.75 MIPS)||NEC VR4300 (64‑bit RISC) @ 93.75 MHz (125 MIPS)|
||Reality Co-Processor (64‑bit MIPS R4000 based, 128‑bit vector register processor) @ 62.5 MHz|
|Sound chip(s)||13 channel unnamed custom 20‑bit DSP embedded in the CLIO chip ||"Jerry" chip: DSP, 2× DAC (converts digital data to analog signals)||Sony SPU (Sound Processing Unit)||Reality Signal Processor (DSP)|
|Memory||3 MB RAM||2 MB FPM DRAM (4× 512 KB chips)||4.5 MB RAM||3587 KB RAM||4 MB RDRAM (8 MB with Expansion Pak)|
|Audio||Stereo audio, with:||Stereo audio, with:||Stereo audio, with:
||Stereo audio, with:
||Stereo audio, with:|
|Online services||None||Jaguar Voice/Data Communicator 19.2k modem (no mass production) (1995–present)||None|
- These consoles are either less notable, never saw a worldwide release, and/or have sold particularly poorly, and are therefore listed as 'Other'.
Released only in Japan in 1999
Worldwide sales standings
|PlayStation||102.49 million shipped (74.34 million PlayStation, 28.15 million PSone) (as of March 31, 2005)|
|Nintendo 64||32.93 million (as of March 31, 2005)|
|Sega Saturn||9.26 million|
|Atari Jaguar||250,000 (as of May 15, 2007)|
|FM Towns Marty||45,000 (as of December 31, 1993)|
|Apple Bandai Pippin||42,000 (as of May 4, 2007)|
From 1996 to 1999 (when the PlayStation, N64 and Saturn were the major 5th-generation consoles still on the market) Sony managed a 47% market share of the worldwide market, followed by Nintendo with 28% (with a percentage of that figure from the 16‑bit Super NES), while Sega was third with 23% (with a percentage of that from the Dreamcast).
Production of the Sega Saturn was discontinued in 1998. Its demise being accelerated by rumors that work on its successor was underway; these rumors hurt the systems' sales in the west as early as 1997. The N64 was succeeded by the GameCube in 2001, but continued its production until 2004; however, PlayStation production was not ceased as it was redesigned as the PSone, further extending the life of the console around the release of the follow-up PlayStation 2. The PlayStation console production was discontinued in 2006, the same year that the PlayStation 3 was released in Japan and North America.
Released in 1995 in the U.S. only
Released in 1997
Neo Geo Pocket
Released in 1998
Neo Geo Pocket Color
Released in 1999
Released in 1999 in Japan only
Released in 1999 in Japan only
Released in 2000 in Japan only
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- Gran Turismo (PlayStation) by Polyphony Digital and SCE broke away from the mold of traditional arcade style racing games by offering realistic physics and handling as well as a plethora of licensed vehicles.
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- Super Smash Bros. (Nintendo 64) was a breakthrough IP for Nintendo, featuring characters from Nintendo owned franchises fighting in a party styled game. Super Smash Bros. has since been succeeded by 4 additional titles in the series.
- Tekken 3 (PlayStation) is considered not only to be the greatest installment of the Tekken series, but remains as one of the greatest fighting games of all time according to PlayStation Magazine. It has a Metacritic score of 96, and is the 12th highest rated game ever according to GameRankings. Its predecessor achieved similar feats until its succession, and the first game in the franchise was the first PlayStation game to sell over a million units.
- Tomb Raider (PlayStation, Saturn, PC) by Core Design and Eidos Interactive popularized many elements seen in later video games and spawned several very successful sequels. The main character, Lara Croft, was named the most recognizable female video game character by Guinness World Records.
- Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 (Nintendo 64, PlayStation, PC) by Neversoft and Activision garnered widespread critical acclaim and has been cited as one of the greatest games ever made.
- Virtua Cop (Arcade, Saturn, PC) by Sega AM2 and Sega introduced the use of 3D polygons to the light-gun shooter genre, paving the way for future light gun shooters like Namco's Time Crisis and Sega's The House of the Dead, and was a major influence on GoldenEye 007.
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