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In my work as the director of the Museum of Art and Digital Enterainment, I'm often privlidged to see things that may not have been viewed by the public in quite a long time. This often takes the form of prototypes, old magazine articles, 30-year-old tips and tricks books, and even the occasional homebrew controller.
But there was one day back in November of 2011 when I knew I was going to, eventually, see something special. That day came when we were asked to clean out GamePro Magazine's storage area. The magazine had been shuttered earlier that same week, and the whole place was basically in shock. We quietly loaded my SUV full of SNES, Genesis, NES, PS1, Xbox, PS2, 3D0, Neo Geo, N64 games and other ephemera, and took 5 trips worth of the stuff back to the MADE for preservation.
In that storage area were also two boxes of videotapes. There were VHS, Beta, Betacam, Betacam Digital, and even some audio tapes. Most of them were tapes of focus groups and marketing research: stuff we'd never put online, and frankly, will probably never watch. There were also a number of VHS and Beta preview tapes for games, ranging from Oddworld to Final Fantasy VII. We're seeing which of those aren't already online.
But the crown jewel of these boxes were the two Betacam tapes that contained episodes 1 through 6 of the GamePro TV show, from 1996. Here's Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5 and Episode 6.
It took over a year to get around to capturing these, mainly because Betacam is rare these days, but also because the Museum has had a strict policy of spending funds only on rent, Internet and insurance since it's inception, and spending even $100 prior to this year would have meant missing a month on one of those expenses.
Fortunately, Kixeye, Kalypso Media and Dolby Labs have stepped up to sponsor the MADE, and we were able to divert some in-the-door admission donations to fund this project.
And now, all six episodes are back from the dead.
But What Can We Learn?
Watching these videos, there are a few obvious learning points. First: a good game is a good game is a good game. Sometimes it's hard to tell which games are the truly great ones when you're right up against them in time. But as the years pass, the great games wear well.
Case in point: Tomb Raider and Mario 64 are all over these videos. While they were both very popular games at the time, they have both aged well. Their sequels haven't always lived up to their original glory, but watching these videos made me, more than anything, want to play Tomb Raider again. I think a lot of the beauty and brilliance of that game has been lost behind the gross over marketing of the game and its sequels.
Fortunately, I think that time has been kind to Tomb Raider. When compared to almost all of the other popular 3D games of the time, it looks vaguely good, even today. The era of the N64 and Playstation is not one that has aged well. N64 games look, largely, like muddy primitive prototypes of real games, in the cold harsh light of our modern processing and 3D power.
But Mario 64 and Tomb Raider don't look quite so awful. They've aged well. Mario 64 isn't surprising: bright palletes and limited use of textures made Mario a great visual game. Only a few developers were ever able to mimic it's clear visual style on the N64.
But Tomb Raider should look much worse to our modern eyes. Though revolutionary for its time, the PSX had a terrible texture system, and it's hard to imagine how we were able to make out some of the darker, cavern filled games. Yet Tomb Raider's visual style pops nicely on the system. It's a testament to the color selection, the lighting and the texture design implemented by the Tomb Raider team.
What else can we learn? How about learning when to give up on a dead market? There's a lot of wingeing on about the arcade in these episodes. Most notably, a large portion of one episode is dedicated to discussing Sega's branded arcades and theme-park-like plans in Seattle.
Watching these episodes, you can see that Sega not only still believed in arcades in 1997, it was doubling down and investing heavily in extremely expensive arcade cabinets and risky arcade businesses. I remember 1997. The arcade was definitely dead in 1997. I don't think anyone but Sega thought otherwise at that point. Perhaps there was a brief blip in the networked VR experience world, as BattleTech was becoming a thing in arcade-like places in New York and SF. But really, Sega's efforts in US arcades at this time are laughably misplaced.
Finally, we can learn about console transitions. By 1996, the console transition had already occured. There were other contenders in the competion, outside of the N64, the Saturn and the Playstation, but you can't see them in this show. The 3DO, CD-i, Jaguar and Neo-Geo didn't even register on this show's radar, despite most of those consoles still being available in modest, left-over quantities at Christmas of 1996.
Indeed, the transition to the Playstation era came swiftly and suddenly. While Sony wasn't the obvious winner right out of the gate, it's steady growth and focus on 3D games helped it to push the Saturn off the map. And the N64's cartridge-based design relegated the console to a secondary role in this generation, right from the start. Remember: media transitions matter, and downloadable is to CD as physical is to cartridge.
Transitions are coming in today's console space, as well. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn about transitions from the 1996 era is that the winner of the next generation isn't typically the winner of the previous generation. But even more important to learn is that if a major console maker loses its focus on what matters in the next generation, as Sega did back in the late 90's, things can get very ugly, very quickly.
Enjoy watching these videos. We hope they're useful to you in some small way.