Games consoles nouveau. (home video game systems) (The World of Electronic Games)
by David Sears
After a day at the office with only Lotus Agenda and a desktop PC for company, many punchy adults would like to ignite a few beatific explosions. What better venue for relieving this tension than a dedicated game machine? More than rivaling the PC in sound and animation capabilities, these acarde wonders now offer a respectable body of adventures, sports games, and even flight simulators.
At the heart of current game consoles beat powerful 16-bit processors--68000-series chips well known for their graphic capabilities. Alongside these pulse a variety of coprocessors for added speed. Joysticks, most in the form of ergonomic pads, come with the machines. Game machines are maturing, and prices are generally low. You can purchase impressive graphics technology at yesterday's prices. No kidding. The problem, however, remains: Which machine should you take home?
Four machines vie for the Christmas shopping season top spot: the NEC TurboGrafx-16, the Sega Genesis, the SNK NEO-GEO, and the Nintendo Super NES. All these machines have their selling points and their fans, but just as the PC was catapulted to "industry standard" by its spreadsheets, the future sales of consoles will be determined by the quality of their cartridge games.
NEC's veteran TurboGrafx-16 still holds its own in most head-to-head comparisons. With its respectable palette of 512 colors and the ability to manipulate up to 64 sprites, the TurboGrafx-16 can pull some surprising video stunts, but when compared to other consoles, the graphics seem just a bit muddy. When it comes to sound, the TurboGrafx-16 falters with its six-channel stereo sound. Only six channels? True, that's a veritable chorus when compared to the sound channels available on most home computers, but alongside other consoles, TurboGrafx-16's digitized speech comes up a bit hollow and raspy.
With its humble list price of $99.00, though, this machine's the least expensive of the 16-bit giants and not a bad deal. Pair your TurboGrafx-16 with bracing games such as the demonic pinball simulator Devil's Crush or the absurdly engaging Ninja Spirit, a story of revenge and swordplay. Typical of the TurboGrafx-16 library, these games do a lot with the hardware and will deliver hours of excitement. Games for the TurboGrafx-16 range from $19.99 to $76.99--not that expensive when compared to the lineups of some of the other consoles.
For under $300, add the TurboGrafx-CD and empower your TurboGrafx-16 to play the sophisticated and expansive Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, ICOM Simulations, better known as a PC software developer, brings digitized actors and vocals to this Victorian mystery trilogy and uses the prodigious capacity of the CD to support full motion video.
Consider the current availability of the CD-ROM drive and the third-party interest in software development, and the TurboGrafx-16 emerges as a contender. There's enough juice in this system to warrant a look from jaded PC owners wanting just a bit of cerebral diversion along with their video violence.
Third-party interest doesn't stop with the TurboGrafx-16, of course. Electronic Arts turns out a startling number of titles for the Sega Genesis, and high-quality products at that. Centurion of Rome, a great game on any platform, takes to the Genesis almost by divine right. Disney's in the 16-bit race with Fantasia, featuring the lovable Mickey Mouse. Under Accolade's Ballistix label, you'll find a noteworthy version of Star Control, too.
Implementation of PC games for consoles underscores a fundamental problem with the game machines: They don't come with a keyboard attached. While the Sega controller pad outclasses any other similar interface, it lacks a suitable number of buttons for a solid PC-to-console conversion. Games that have traditionally been thought best left to PCs (and their keyboards) include flight simulators, role-playing adventures, and anything else that uses the keyboard heavily. Coming from a market where most PCs don't have joysticks, that's a considerable challenge for programmers to surmount. When planning for the PC, game designers exploit the keyboard wherever possible. The situation is reversed for console designers who have only the pad. The interface problems seem to be diminishing as programmers work out the kinks and more involved, more playable adventures emerge. For the moment, consoles really shine when they focus on arcade screamers that require few buttons and emphasize the superhuman reflexes common to arcade addicts.
You've probably heard at least some of the hype about Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog, the "fastest" game available for any console. Sonic not only scrolls more smoothly than any game on console but also is quite possibly the most absorbing game available on any platform, PCs included.
The Genesis can't compete with the NEO-GEO when it comes to sound or number of colors; Sega's 64 colors onscreen at one time pale next to the NEO-GEO's 4096. In the category of sound, the Genesis has 10 channels stereo; the NEO-GEO has 15 with 7 dedicated to digitized speech alone--striking superiority. Yet Sonic the Hedgehog possesses much more replay value than the NEO-GEO games tested because it pushes the Genesis to the edge. There are times when all 80 sprites seem active, and only rarely does a programming glitch show. Factor in the thoughtfulness behind the levels, and Sega has an instant classic.
The Sega Genesis sells for $149, and games range for $39-$59, with the exception of Phantasy Star III, which sells for $79. In all, an economical way to game.
At the moment, no console can touch SNK's NEO-GEO in terms of sheer power. This console displays more colors onscreen than any other game machine, handles more sprites (380), and sports the largest palette--65,536 in all.
The responsive NEO-GEO joystick controller (as opposed to the push pad ubiquitous on other machines) encourages you to play through the wee hours of the morning and has well-placed action buttons. For an ego boost, use the memory card to save your high score games at home and then continue play in public--the console game you play at home is identical to the version in stand-alone units you find in arcades and cinemaplex lobbies.
Right out of the box, NEO-GEO's Magician Lord will wow your friends and family. With a hard-hitting soundtrack that never grows tiresome and more than a few loathsome monsters, Magician Lord casts you as the last hope for a mystic valley. You'll have your fill of fire breathing, spell tossing, and shape changing in this sorcerous slugfest. This superficial description also sums up the feel, if not the specific contents, of most NEO-GEO games. Light on plot and heavy on action, these shoot-and-run fiestas bring the standards of coin-ops to your very own living room.
NEO-GEO cartridges harbor considerably more ROM than any other console cartridges. That equates to larger games, of course, though larger doesn't necessarily mean better. Divide megabits by 8 to yield megabytes, and you have some basis of comparison of console software size to PC software size. Unless you're talking about NEO-GEO games, the PC equivalents run on the huge side. With their relatively vast storage capacity, NEO-GEO carts should compete favorably with PC games and stomp Genesis and TurboGrafx-16 games, right? Actually, the answer depends on what you're looking for in a game. Since we're talking about arcade games here, the more involved PC games don't really invite direct comparison; they have their own, higher-brow merits. But to bring the arcade into your home, we must ask if size makes any difference.
The prodigious 46-megabit motorcycle-racing game Riding Hero dwarfs the 12-megabit Genesis version of Star Control, currently the largest game available for that platform. After a few hours of play, you realize that the comparatively minuscule Sega game devotes a significant amount of memory to game mechanics. NEO-GEO software, on the other hand, favors the graphic and audio side of entertainment, with lush backgrounds that scroll seemingly to infinity and striking, detailed animations. Here the arcade addicts and the merely devoted gamers will draw their lines. For a thrill a minute but strategically shallow gameplay, NEO-GEO's the titan. With respectable, but slightly less than astonishing graphics, the Sega Genesis library of games outclasses NEO-GEO's in both number and variety.
The last consideration for prospective NEO-GEO purchasers is price. The $649 retail price is more than three times the amount you pay for any other console; games cost around $200 each. On the other hand, NEO-GEO owners can be certain that their machines are the most powerful on the market. This feeling of certain hardware superiority only adds to the satisfaction that playing a handful of roaring, pulse-pounding NEO-GEO games provides. If SNK software developers concentrate more on game-play, while maintaining the high standards of current NEO-GEO games, Sega's only advantage will be price.
Whither Super NES?
After overseas success in Japan, the Super NES promises to be the next winner in the 16-bit sweepstakes. The Super NES can display up to 2048 colors onscreen at any given time, control up to 128 sprites, and sound off with eight-channel sound--and interesting mix of characteristics when compared with the other 16-bit game machines. The NEO-GEO tops each category but more than doubles the Nintendo machine's sprite-handling capability with the ability to manipulate a startling 380 sprites. Even the Sega Genesis manages to nudge out the Super NES in at least one category--sound channels. So why all the furor?
Arcade devotees can carry the banner of Nintendo Super NES for one simple reason: animation. The Super NES comes to developers hard-wired for 3-D environments. Since they needn't worry over where the next scroll-and-rotate routine's coming from, game designers can concentrate on orchestrating play instead of coming up with high-speed animation code from scratch.
In Pilotwings, you'll see this prebuilt modeling system put to good use. As you try to earn your wings, you must pass a series of tests that involve piloting a biplane, maneuvering an experimental rocket pack, and skydiving. The Super NES rotates the world flawlessly and at a shocking rate but to allow for the smooth scaling this game showcases, a certain amount of detail seems to have been sacrificed. Still, if not for the blocky, 8-bit look of the landscape, you'd feel as if you were in the air.
When considering the Super NES for your holiday festivities, bear in mind that the quality of games for this machine will improve, possibly dramatically. For the moment, though, the $199.95 you spend on the fledgling SuperNES could welcome you into the Sega Genesis family with its burgeoning library of over 100 appealing games.
If you don't have the cash to buy into existing software libraries wholesale but instead plan to buy as you go--the tried-and-true method of expansion since the invention of the game cartridge--pay special attention to the game packaged with the machine. In the case of the Nintendo, you'll get Super Mario World, another in the long line of Mario games. With the NEO-GEO you'll receive Magician Lord, Baseball Stars Professional, or Nam-1975, certainly some of the top NEO-GEO games. With the TurboGrafx-16, you'll play yourself silly on Keith courage In Alpha Zones as you struggle to prevail over the forces of B.A.D. (Beastly Alien Dudes). Of course, the Genesis offers you Sonic the Hedghog, an inexhaustible, energizing race full of ramps, springs, and killer machines.
What should you buy? The best all-around value is the Sega Genesis, with its vast library and vanguard Sonic the Hedgehog, sure to set new industry standards. If you've got the money and want all the dazzle you can handle, go for the NEO-GEO. For diversionary action with machine guns, explosions, and frightening noises, no other console comes close. The more thoughtful among us may want to consider the NEC TurboGrafx-16 because of its CD-ROM drive, though that accessory puts it close to the NEO-GEO in price. Still, individual games for the TurboGrafx-16 retail for a fraction of what NEO-GEO games go for, and that gives you a chance to run the gamut of game genres, from solving mysteries to playing ninjas.
No one needs to tell you that all these game engines outpower your PC from a shoot-'em-up perspective; it's their job to look good and throw sprites around, while the PC is a multipurpose computer. If you want the thrills that cost a quarter per ride anywhere else, bring one of these consoles home. In the end you'll save money on sound cards and other PC upgrades, and you can trust the 16-bit game market to grow. That means pyrotechnic new games will be arriving monthly. For the kid in you--and for the kids that live in your house--these powerful but economical game consoles will readily indulge the fiercest appetitie for sensational play.