The jump to a new generation of video game consoles is an exciting time for the industry and its many fans. Speculation abounds as those in the video games media wonder about what technology will be housed under the plastic box that will sit on your entertainment center for the next five years. There is always the push and pull of whether a company will choose to take the audacious approach of inserting every possible technological innovation into the system, costs be damned (i.e. PlayStation 3), or whether it will choose the incremental route of doing more with affordable technology so as to make the barrier of entry lower for prospective buyers (i.e. Nintendo Switch).
The swirling of rumors tends to create a whirlpool of imaginary possibilities of what the new generation will bring. We can safely rely on the graphics improving, but how much can they really improve? In the past, we would wonder whether a console could achieve Toy Story level graphics, which sounds like a quaint thought in an age in which the polygons in your average game far exceed those found in Pixar’s pioneering effort. Perhaps one is more optimistic so that ideas may form that this may finally be the generation in which Artificial Intelligence is prioritized over the latest shading technology. Considering that the progression of A.I. technology in games has been rather glacial, the possibility that we may finally see a Project Milo, as envisioned by Peter Molyneux, is highly enticing. Other gamers are just happy if the graphical advances are not as pronounced, but playability, meaning a locked 60 frames per second image with 1080p resolution, is emphasized above all else.
Ultimately, we may be granted a percentage, whether lower or greater, of those dreams (for the dream is never fully realized). Yet the industry marches forward after release and then begins to ponder about what may come next. The cycle repeats.
Now that we are a few weeks removed from the maelstrom of E3, we can safely see that we are at the edge of our current generation, with 2020 seeming like the starting point for the PS5 and whatever confusing name Microsoft decides to come up with for its new console (Nintendo is on its own, as is characteristic of them). This seems like a good time to take a step back and ponder that with each new generation, new challenges will inevitably be met. In particular, I am thinking of developers, who may or may not be in a position to “make the jump”. These developers may have an adaptation period through which they may succeed or flounder. Looking back at prior generations, there is a cemetery of developers that were not able to “adapt” to the new generation. This is most pronounced during periods in which there are great changes in technological requirements or shifting interests in the audience.
Some of the most problematic generation leaps were in the Fifth Generation consoles (i.e. Super Nintendo to PlayStation), as developers were forced to shift from 2D raster based graphics to polygonal 3D imaging. The result was that the set of game development skills and tools that developers had accrued had now been rendered obsolete or inefficient, so that years of experience, knowledge and savvy had now gone to waste. To use a tortured analogy, it is as if one is a very qualified heart surgeon that has just been told he or she needs to transition to brain surgery because that is where the patients are. Yes, you may be very capable of adapting to this new requirement, but it will take time and a complete recalibration of your skills. Now, I said tortured because there will always be a need for heart surgery, whereas in the case of 2D graphics, developers were simply told that this art form was no longer marketable, thereby leaving it to perish.
A few episodes ago we delved into the history of Tecno Soft and noted that the company was a casualty of the Fifth Generation. Though the company did have a prolific output on the Fifth Generation consoles (PlayStation 1 and Sega Saturn), most of these titles were not successful, eventually leading to the company’s demise. More importantly, you could tell by the released products that the company was actively experimenting with what would work in a 3D space, without the prescience to know whether it would or not, or whether it could be achieved based on the then current technological status quo.
Steeldom, released in 1996 for the PlayStation 1 and the Sega Saturn, was an early 3D arena fighting game and a good model of Tecno Soft’s struggles. At the time, the arena setting seemed like a logical leap for the genre; if you expand to a 3D space, then you should have access to the full Z-Axis, or so developers thought. This was achieved to some success by Sega with Virtual On, an arcade game that Steeldom seems to emulate with its behind the back perspective in an arena setting. The problem is that Virtual On benefitted from a complex dual joystick arcade controller to work properly in a 3D space (which controller was eventually released in a downsized format for the Sega Saturn), while Steeldom did not have the benefit of such a controller in 1996. Rather, the game was forced to work on the then standard Playstation 1 and Sega Saturn controller, both of which lacked joysticks, leaving the maneuvers to be performed with the benefit of a directional pad and shoulder buttons. In the case of Steeldom, Tecno Soft was forced to use all the buttons on the pad, which was less than straightforward for all players and inaccessible for the casual player that may have otherwise been enticed by the aesthetics of the game.
Which is a shame because you can see that some of the artistic components that the company was known for are present in the title. The game merges disjointed (think Rayman) mech designs with an anime samurai aesthetic that could have possibly looked very slick had they been represented in sprite form. Unfortunately, the graphics do not seem capable of capturing that aesthetic, with the limited polygonal count severely hampering the possibility of any of the typical Technosoft graphical flourishes. The arenas themselves are simplistic, with boulders serving as the only source of dynamic variety. This is all a shame considering how much creativity the company was able to cram into a single title like Thunder Force IV just a few years earlier. At the very least, the title still had the fantastic music that Tecno Soft had become known for.
Another title, Neorude, released in 1997 for the PlayStation 1, is a fascinating look into what ailed the company. It is an early 3D RPG with fixed camera angles, but in contrast to other 3D RPGs of the era such as Wild Arms, it utilized a full 3D space rendered in-engine in its exploration component (Wild Arms had 2D exploration with 3D battles). This feature required the use of fixed camera angles, which would become a staple of 3D games of this era. As anyone that has played 3D games with fixed camera angles knows, however, the difficulty with that approach is implementing a proper control scheme that is not affected by the change in angles. In other words, if a character is moving from X to Y space, pressing a button in Y’s direction should move you there. The problem is that this works if the camera angle is set to X, but if the camera angle changes to Y in the middle of movement, then the controllers suddenly become inverted.
Tecno Soft seemingly solved this problem by utilizing a cursor based approach, meaning that the game played out like a point and click adventure game. If one had the mouse peripheral for the PlayStation 1, then the solution arguably worked. The problem is that the mouse peripheral was not ubiquitous and movement of the cursor was cumbersome if playing on a pad. It did not help that characters were agonizingly slow in moving from location to location. Neorude also presented another hurdle that made the game difficult to play through and which problem was not present in earlier generations, and this was the presence of long loading times. Everything from shifting to battle, a change of cutscene perspective, entering different areas and even accessing the menu, required visible loading times. In a genre that requires hours of commitment, the amount of loading imposed a greater degree of patience from the player than should be required. With Final Fantasy VII releasing contemporaneously and thereby fixing many of the issues present in Neorude, the game was rendered obsolete upon release. Two sequels would follow, one in 1997 and the other in 1999, the latter of which would become Tecno Soft’s last published title. All titles remain unreleased in the west, and are only a footnote in the annals of video game history. 3
The struggles of Tecno Soft might seem strange in light of the fact that just over a decade earlier, the developer was pushing the boundaries of 3D space with games like Plazma Line. But, as noted on the episode, there was a massive exodus of Tecno Soft developers ca. 1985, which forced the company to adapt with a cadre of young developers. It is possible that a similar process took place for the company during the jump to the Fifth Generation. Regardless, the result was that the company met an ignominious end, with its only stand out titles from the latter days being those that fully utilized their existing strengths, namely, Thunder Force V, which only used 3D space for aesthetic effect, and Hyper Duel, a lost 2D sprite-based title from 1993 that resurfaced on the Saturn in 1997 when the developer was cash strapped. Tecno Soft was not the only company that met its demise during this generation, as other renowned developers such as Quintet, would also meet an early grave.
Therefore, one wonders which developers the next generation will bring to its knees. When thinking of the jump to the next generation, there is an inherent assumption that there will be permanence in the games we play and persistence in the developers that make them, but with the added benefit of improvement through technological advancement. This is a faulty assumption, for it is possible (perhaps even inevitable) that the games we now cherish and the developers that bring these visions to fruition, may not be so successful on a new platform. Although it is hard to envision in the present moment, mid-size developers that cater to a specific niche audience such as FromSoftware, Platinum Games or Team Ninja could potentially find themselves struggling to meet the needs of changes in technology and the market. Thus, consider the experience of Tecno Soft when pondering upon the environment that a new generation may create, not as a reason to be pessimistic, but rather as an excuse to cherish what we presently enjoy.
By: Ozzy Garcia
July 7, 2019