In the first two parts of our console classic guide we ran through the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. Now, in our final part we're looking at what we're going to call the 32-bit era, though in truth it's more like the ‘32/64/who really knows what-bit?' era. It's open to discussion whether machines like the Jaguar or Nintendo 64 really fit the 64-bit bill, and we're not going to go too far into those shenanigans here. What's important is that this was a period of dramatic change for the industry; a time in which the old masters lost their way while a newcomer rapidly established dominance. Gaming stopped being just the pursuit of kids and nerds and became something that cool, club-going twenty-somethings could get into (even if some of those cool, club-going twentysomethings were just the same old kids and nerds grown up). Prepare for one final trip down console memory lane.
Ironically, this crucial era began not with a bang but with a shrug. Of the two systems launched in 1993, neither was to have any lasting impact on the games industry. Marketed as the world's first 64-bit console, the Atari Jaguar was Atari's final bid for a place in the console hardware market. Containing five processors on three physical chips, only two of them were actually 64-bit. The first chip, Tom, was a RISC-based graphics processor consisting of a 32-bit GPU, a 64-bit Programmable Object Processor and a 64-bit Blitter chip. The second chip, Jerry, was a 32-bit DSP used primarily for 16-bit stereo audio. Both were managed by a 16-bit Motorola 68000. With 2MB of shared RAM, the system could manage graphics at the maximum 720 x 576 PAL resolution with 16.7 million colours.
The Jaguar was a powerful bit of hardware, but the complex architecture wasn't a favourite with programmers, and more than one would sneakily use the ‘management' chip, not Tom or Jerry, to run the majority of program code. Despite a decent conversion of Doom, Atari's system never got the buying public or the games industry behind it. Maybe the £199 asking price was too high, or maybe the horrible joypad with its built-in 12-button numerical keypad was too awful to contemplate, but either way the system died a death, helping lead Atari to its US demise and purchase, first by Hasbro then by the European giant Infogrames.
At first, 3DO seemed like a stronger product concept. Never a console as such, 3DO was a design for a single next-generation console platform that could be licensed out to a range of hardware manufacturers. Designed as a possible video-game standard, like CD audio or DVD, it could have ended the console war forever (and easing the life of games publishers worldwide). The hardware was designed by RJ Mical and Dave Needle at the 3DO company, and the initial players were manufactured by Panasonic, Sanyo and Goldstar (now LG).
Again, the hardware was powerful, combining a 32-bit, 12.5MHz ARM60 CPU with two custom video processors, a 16-bit DSP and a dedicated maths processor. The 3DO was also the first console to be CD based right from the start. With 2MB of RAM and 1MB of VRAM it could output 640 x 480 resolution images with a palette of 16.7 million colours, though the final output resolution was actually upscaled from 320 x 240 or 320 x 480.
Unfortunately, the 3DO hardware was expensive, costing a whacking £400 in the UK, and under-used by a series of games that pushed full-motion-video at the expense of gameplay. The software line-up was no disaster, with strong support from EA - an investor in 3DO - but by the time the console launched in the UK in 1994, gamers were gearing up for the Sega Saturn and the soon-to-be-launched Sony PlayStation. 3DO muddled things further by hyping a successor-system - the never released M2 - and leaving the original format to die. Soon the unified console platform dream was dead in the water, where it remains to this day.