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Alive 5
                  Videogame consoles ahead of their time
              - ------------------------------------------ -

                      a short summary of outstanding
                      videogame systems from the past
                      to the present.

Video game systems have been around slighlty longer than home computers
and especially Atari made its fame and fortune with video game systems.
And fine video game systems they did, from the coin-op Pong machine
over the most successful video game system ever, the Atari VCS, later
known as 2600, up to the portable Lynx and the Jaguar.
But Atari were not the only ones producing excellent video game consoles
that even made home computers look pale in certain aspects.
This little article is meant to have a closer look at a few video
game systems that were ahead of their time - at least hardware-wise -
but failed to establish themselves on the market.

1.) The 1st generation: The Pac Man era
Once upon the time, when the Atari VCS ruled the world, when it
occured, that Mattel decided to conquer this young market and to
produce a video game system themselves. They did some spezialised
video games with fixed program for test purposes, then bought a
company named APh to develop the hardware as well as the software
and finally threw a video game system named "Mattel Intellivision"
on the market.
This high-price console, based on a Texas Instrument 16-bit
processor, a character based graphics generator and the option
to expand it to a whole computer system (that measured roughly
a meter in length), made Atari nervous.
Atari launched the counter-attack by re-packing an Atari home
computer system (more or less) into a video game system,
renamed the VCS to 2600 and called this new product the 5200.

In the meantime, a fairly unknown toy company named Coleco
(Conneticut Leather Company), that unexpectedly made a fortune
with a series of dolls named Cabbage Patch Kids, announced to
enter the video game market with a console that will slaughter
both the Mattel Intellivison and the Atari 5200.
Coleco secured the hottest Aracade titles of these times for
themselves, amongst others the spectacular 3D shooter Zaxxon
(Sega), the platform hit Donkey Kong (Nintendo), the alien
invasion shooter Gorf (Midway) and several others. And
Coleco promised a video game system capable of running these
games in (almost) arcade quality.
The final product, introduced 1982, was called "ColecoVision"
and it sold well due to the bundled game "Donkey Kong" and due
to its hardware specs that were ahead of their time.

It had a Zilog Z80A processor, clocked with 3.58 MHz
clockspeed. The Zilog Z80A was being used in rather large
CP/M workstations at this time and was considered a professional
processor. Even though it was "only" an 8-bit processor and the
Intellivision had a 16-bit processor, it was so far the most
powerful video game system and stayed it until the NEC PC Engine
was introduced in 1988 - The Sega Master System in late 1984
did not feature a better but the same CPU and clockspeed.
Also the graphics of the ColecoVision were unmatched at this
time. It featured a resolution of 256 x 192 pixels in up to 16
colours, far ahead of what the Intellivision and the Atari 5200
were capable of. The Sega Master System and the Nintendo
Entertainment System (NES), both from 1984/1985 featured a
very similar resolution, but not really better ones. The first
video game system to really top these resolutions was the NEC
PC Engine (also known as NEC TurboGrafX 16) in 1988/1989.
Furthermore, the ColecoVision was capable of displaying 32
sprites - The Sega Master System officially displays 16, the
NES 8 sprites (a line).
Finally, the ColecoVision had an expansion bus that was not
simply the processorbus lead through but an intelligent
interface that was capable of connecting basically everything
from the outside to basically everything on the inside.
It was badly needed for the Atari 2600 expansion module that
was basically an Atari 2600 in itself and only needed the
ColecoVision video unit as signal export and of course it was
meant to connect the Home Computer expansion kit.
Of course, the ColecoVision had its disadvantages as well.
It badly lacked hardware scrolling, a feature every other
console was equipped with, and the soundchip was not very
hot either.

The ColecoVision died because of several reasons. First, the
whole video game market collapsed to make room for the home
computer market, a market that the ColecoVision could not
compete in, even though it was given a home computer kit
named ADAM in 1984. But this kit was expensive, had some
odd characteristics and was kind of clumsy. Then, all
companies involved in the video game market suffered from
bad management mistakes and enourmous expectations.
The ColecoVision also suffered from the fact that the 2nd
generation of games it was given (the series after Donkey
Kong and such) was not very good and in no way special.
Coleco had to sell the Cabbage Patch Kids to the arch-enemy
Mattel and finally died when the ADAM did not turn out to
be successful.
But, seeing the console as a piece of hardware, it was one
fine piece of technology that was indeed ahead of its time
in certain aspects.

2. The Portables: Atari Lynx
Portable video games ? Nobody considered this possible until
Nintendo released the GameBoy and then, this market was the
fastest growing market of all video games instantly. Even though
the first generation of games for the GameBoy were technically
poor and usually very simple in concept, everybody jumped the
band wagon and tried to get a foot onto this market.
So did Epyx, a famous american computer games manufacturer,
well known for super hits like the Summer/Winter Games series,
California Games, Syper Cycle, the Apshai-Trilogy and Jumpman.
Epyx was planning to release a portable video game system
nicknamed Handy, featuring a colour LCD screen instead of a B/W
one, superior hardware internals and for the very first time
a graphics customchip capable of scaling graphics freely
(hardware zoom).
Epyx ran out of money quite quickly and decided to cooperate
with Atari that was working on a 16 bit system named Panther
at this time. The system was renamed to "Lynx" and saw the
light of day in 1989.
The Lynx was a powerful beast and even overtook some TV-based
video game systems still selling well at this time.
The Lynx had a MOS 65C02 clocked at roughly 4 MHz, bearing
enough power to compete with the NEC PC Engine. All other
subsystems of the Lynx were packed into 2 chips named Mikey
and Suzy. Suzy handled all the graphic related jobs
while Mikey did everything else.
The LC Display of the Lynx was capable of displaying 160 x 102
pixels in 16 out of 4096 colours. Even though the GameBoy
had a higher resolution (160 x 144), it was limited to 4
greyscales. The Sega Game Gear on the other hand brought
160 x 146 pixels on screen in 32 out of 4096 colours.
But both, GameBoy and Game Gear, lacked the ability to
freely scale all graphical objects and did not sport a
graphics processor as powerful as Suzy. Clocked with 16 MHz
and equipped with a Blitter, Suzy was almost overdimensioned
for a portable video game system like the Lynx.
Furthermore, the Lynx had 64KB of RAM, which is 4 times the
RAM of the GameBoy and almost 3 times the RAM of the Game Gear.
So far, the Atari Lynx could be considered a Super Nintendo
to carry around.
The only real disadvantages of the Lynx were the mediocre
soundchip that was sufficient and not worse than that of the
competitors, but not very hot either (expect for the DMA),
and the high battery consumption of the powerful system.
In the first revision, Atari totally redesigned the case and
also managed to reduce power consumption in a way that
normal batteries lasted between 2 and 4 hours - which was
still rather poor in comparison to the GameBoy (12 hours)
but fairly good looking at the Game Gear (1 hour).

The Atari Lynx died slowly, when Atari themselves gave it up.
After introducing the Lynx with a very poor marketing campaign
and half-hearted attempts to impress the public with license
games (Batman Returns), it was given a very weird mixture of
titles, ranging from the very old-school Ms.Pac Man, Xenophobe
and Robotron 2084 up to the technically impressing and well
playing Shadow of the Beast and Lemmings and Atari managed to
not really make these excellent titles, known from stationary
computers and video games public.
But, until the introduction of the GameBoy Advance, the Lynx
was not really topped by any other portable console.

3. The final roar of the cat: The Atari Jaguar
Atari was already in trouble in 1991/1992. The long-awaited
and never to be finished 16-bit system named Panther was
finally cancelled after Atari tried to at least have some
intermediate return to the video game market with the Atari
7800 as low-cost system.
Flare, a games developer, was involved in the development of
a very advanced system based on 2 specialized customchips.
Atari dropped the idea of the releasing the Panther, contracted
IBM for producing the new system and took the further development
of Flare's system in their own hands.
With the marketing slogan "Made in the USA" and a few sloppy
games that were obviously meant for release on either the Panther
or the Atari Falcon, the Jaguar, the 64-bit interactive multimedia
system, was released to hunt down the competition in 1994.

The Jaguar, incooperating 2 powerful customchips named "Tom" and
"Jerry", was maybe not a real 64-bit video game system, but it
had the power and elegance of a Jaguar indeed.
The CPU was a Motorola 68000 clocked at 13.295 MHz. Even though
this is a 16/32 processor and not really new in 1994, it still
featured enough power for a video game system since it didn't
have to deal with graphic or sound related jobs anyway and was
meant to only control the game and feed the customchips.
The 3DO, toughest competitor of this time, beared an ARM60
RISC Processor at 12 MHz that was more powerful, but both Sega
MegaDrive (68000 at 7.6 MHz) and Super NES (65816 at 3.58 MHz)
clearly failed to compete with that.
However, the real work was done by Tom and Jerry. Tom was meant
to deal with the graphics and is a real 64-bit RISC chip,
incooperating a Blitter, 4K internal SRAM with zero-waitstates,
hardware support for Z-Buffering and Gouraud-shading and was
capable of pushing around 106 MB/sec - Up to a resolution of
800 x 576 at 16 Million colours.
Even though the 3DO had 2 graphics customchips operating at
25 MHz, it was limited to a resolution of 640 x 480 in 24 bit
and only had 1/2 of the bandwidth for pushing pixels around.
Besides that, even though the 3DO's 3D graphics support might
have been better, it was obviously limited by the buswidth,
the Jaguar is officially listed to render 850.000.000 pixels a
second, the 3DO 64.000.000 pixels (Even though it is very
probable that the 3DO's number refers to 24-bit pixels while
the Jaguar number is known to be 1 bit-pixels). None of the
other video game systems, Sega Mega Drive, Super Nintendo and
not even the hastily released 32X by Sega could compete with
And yet more to come. Jerry, the sound subsystem of the Jaguar,
featured a Motorola DSP56001 clocked at 26.6 MHz that was not
limited to sound manipulation but could also support the
graphics system. Beyond that, it was interfacing with the
expansion port of the Jaguar. Sound was produced over 16 DMA
channels of 16 Bit CD quality - And neither 3DO, nor 32X nor
MegaDrive nor Super NES came close to that.
However, as all of us know, the Jaguar failed to rescue the
company Atari as well. The reasons are numerous - Lousy
programming of the games might be one reason, lousy marketing
another one. The Jaguar badly lacks games that display its power,
maybe because of bad programming, maybe because of flaws in the
hardware. Besides that, in 1995, the Atari Jaguar did not only
have to compete with the 3DO and the SuperNES, but mainly with
the Sony Playstation that was definetly more powerful than the
Jaguar. And since the Jaguar also lacked a decent mass storage
media - Cartridges were not a good choice in 1994 - it could
not compete with the impressive movie sequences that accompanied
every Playstation game was given - even though the Jaguar would
have been capable of producing games like the first series of
Playstation games.
The superiority of the Atari Jaguar did not last very long,
but for the time being, it was definetly ahead of its time.

5. The Death of Sega: The Dreamcast
Sega is indeed a company with a moving past. Sega was always
known for technically impressive arcade games like Space Fury,
Zaxxon, Turbo, Buck Rogers, Space Harrier, Afterburner - and
it is no coincidence that most of the arcade games that Sega got
famous with are closely related to 3D techniques.
It should be surprising to see that a company that pioneered in
3D games when everyone else (especially Nintendo) was doing only
2D games has severe financial problems in an age where 3D games
are considered standard. But as funny as it sounds, Sega is on
the edge of termination.
Ever since the MegaDrive, Sega had never again produced a video
game system as successful as the MegaDrive. Game Gear, MegaCD,
32X, MegaCD portable, Sega Nomad (portable MegaDrive with LCD) -
none of these systems were established.
It was almost close to finishing Sega when they had to drop all
support for their luckless system "Saturn" to concentrate on their
next - and final - hardware project, the Sega Dreamcast.

Introduced on September 9th in 1999, this "128-bit" video game
system was supposed to bring Sega back onto the market with
a smash. Sega promised next-next generation hardware power,
Sega made it Windows CE compatible for easy porting of Windows
games, Sega gave it a GD-ROM drive, capable of storing up to 1 GB
for more bytes per game and better copy protection and finally,
Sega gave it an internal modem for online play.
But the Dreamcast failed to attract the masses of customers and
game producers. Even when the Dreamcast was lowered in price so
much that it costed only a bit more than a Sony PSOne, but
included a modem, a browser and a free game, it did not sell
any better.
Now the Dreamcast has been given up by Sega just as the Saturn was
given up 4 years ago and Sega will concentrate only on producing
games for the hardware of the competitors.
This is indeed hard to understand since the Dreamcast is a powerful
console that even beats the Playstation 2 in certain aspects.
The Dreamcast has a 32-Bit SuperH RISC CPU by Hitachi, including
a powerful FPU, clocked at 200 MHz. The 128-bit Emotion Engine
of the Playstation is a Sony customchip running at 295 MHz, but
due to the bus-design of the consoles, the EE is not necessarily
more powerful than the SuperH of the Dreamcast. And even though
the PS2 has more RAM (32 MB) than the Dreamcast (16 MB), the
DC has 8 MB VideoRAM while the PS2 has only 4.
Most important for a video game system nowadays is the graphics
system. The Dreamcast sports a NEC PowerVR2DC chip that is
officially claimed to produce 3 Million Polygons a second and
above, in resolutions of 640x480. Yes, Sony says the PS2 does
66 Million Polygons a second, but this is a landmark, not a
benchmark, and was only achieved with 66 Million identical
flatschaded (single-coloured) polygons while the 3 Million
Polygons of the DC are more of a "minimum benchmark". In fact,
the current PS2 titles produce around 5-6 Million polygons a
second and so do the Dreamcast games. This is also due to the
intelligent design of the PowerVR2DC. It can use compressed
textures directly (saving precious video RAM) while the PS2
can only use uncompressed textures - even though it has the
smaller video RAM. Then the DC is capable of automatically
sorting out polygons that need not to be drawn since they do
not "face" the camera - This is something the CPU of the PS2
has to do, eating up quite some of the EE's power. Additionally,
the EE is only capable of streaming rouhgly 10 MB of data
per frame to the graphics system while the DC only needs to
stream 5-6 MB of compressed texture data to effectively
transport up to 25 MB of uncompressed texture data.
Not to mention the fact that the Dreamcast can automatically
anti-alias textures (so they get blurry when zoomed, but not
blocky) and does real 640 x 480 while PS2-games often use a
frame of 640 x 240 and do the interlacing explicitely.
Finally, the Dreamcast also had an internal modem that allowed
connection to the internet, it came along with a Java,
JavaScript and Macromedia Flash compatible browser and the
possibility to play games online - A feature that the PS2 has
given only very recently.
Nevertheless, the Dreamcast didn't make it. It might have been
the fact that the PS2 can play DVDs which the DC can't. It might
have been Sega's focus on marketing the Dreamcast as an online
console while the games really didn't use this feature well -
and while the public obviously didn't care much about online
play. It might have been the lack of famous developers such as
Electronic Arts that never developed for the Dreamcast.
It cannot be the games - The Dreamcast has been given a large
variety of original and technically stunning games.
It cannot be the hardware - The Dreamcast is not inferior to
the Playstation 2 when it comes to graphics and sound.
( for details)

All the systems mentioned here have been ahead of their time. The
CBS ColecoVision, the Atari Lynx, the Atari Jaguar and the Sega
Dreamcast - They all had their advantages over their competitors
at their time and they all failed to turn this advantage into a
superior position on the market.

In case of the ColecoVision, it meant the death of Coleco. They
had to sell their most important asset, the Cabbage Patch Kids and
when the ADAM family computer system failed, so did Coleco.
The Atari Lynx, the most powerful portable game system until the
introduction of the GameBoy Advance, never played a vital role on
the market that was owned by the GameBoy and certainly costed
Atari a few millions of dollars.
Similarly, the Atari Jaguar, Atari's last hope of a return to the
lucrative video game system market, failed when the competition
engaged their next counter attack and was definetly Atari's main
reason to die.
Finally, the Sega Dreamcast, caused Sega to finally withdraw from
the hardware market and to concentrate solely on the development
of software for GameCube, PS2 and X-Box.
Nevertheless, all of these systems set a landmark in their era
and without them, the market would have been a lot paler.

The Paranoid      --     Paranoia    -- Think you can handle it ?!

Alive 5