Revisiting 3DO Interactive Multiplayer

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By Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)
 
When people tend to think of the Great Console War, they naturally and rightfully remember the Super Nintendo vs. Sega Genesis battle in the early to mid 90s. But there were two other systems of note that threw their collective hats into the ring during that era. Two high powered systems were released to try and capitalize on the success of Nintendo and Sega – one coming from a brand new company founded by a familiar face and the other from an equally familiar brand name trying to reenter an industry that it helped destroy a decade earlier. These systems ran very parallel life spans, not only debuting within months of each other, but also dying within months of each other as well. While neither of these consoles were successful, they are often looked back fondly on many retro gamers of today. Let’s take a closer look at them.
 

3DO: Systems Don’t Wear Ties

 
The first out of the gate was the “3DO Interactive Multiplayer” system. It was the brainchild of Trip Hawkins, who was also a founder of Electronic Arts. The aim of the 3DO Company was to provide true next generation gameplay experiences on a CD-based home console in ways that cartridge format-bound Super NES and Genesis could not compete. 3DO was a true 32-bit console, twice the power on paper in comparison to Nintendo and Sega, and with it being CD, games were larger and longer with crisp, clear audio that only compact disc could provide. Games too large for cartridges would appear on the 3DO – including ports of the PC hits “Myst” and “Alone in the Dark”.
 
alone in the dark
 
Unlike competing systems, Hawkins would license out 3DO technology so multiple companies could manufacturer the console. Panasonic was the most common – so much so that many people refer to the 3DO as the “Panasonic 3DO” – but Goldstar (LG) also made the 3DO console in North America, and Sanyo made units for Japan. The differences between the consoles were slim, although gaming magazines at the time reported some incompatibility problems with the Goldstar units with the 3DO games. Accessories like a light gun, steering wheel and a mouse were also released.
 
3DO was launched in the fall of 1993 with an eye-popping, astronomical $699 MSP. That is a huge price tag in today’s dollars, let alone back then. That price almost doomed the console to failure before it even had a fighting chance as many mainstream retailers would not carry an item that expensive that wouldn’t sell to its customers. Ironically, in hindsight, its all too ironic that a 3DO launch title was named “Crash and Burn”.
 
After floundering on store shelves (the ones who carried it, mainly game specialty stores), 3DO dropped in price by a whopping 40% to $399.99 a year later. Realizing that the system was becoming more known for tacky Full-Motion-Video games like “Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties”, Hawkins utilized his ties to EA and 3DO began receiving some stellar and notable ports of “John Madden Football”, “FIFA Soccer” – and, in an interesting footnote in gaming history, the “Need For Speed” racing series debuted as a 3DO exclusive. The 3DO (and Sega CD) title “Night Trap” became infamous for being a title that was pulled from the market and scrutinized by congress for violence and, along with “Mortal Kombat”, helped create the video game rating system we have today.
 
The releases of the much more advanced Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn in 1995 signaled the death knell for the 3DO, and it was discontinued in 1996. A footnote to this story is the planned 64-bit follow up, codenamed M2, was planned but never released.
 

ATARI’S LAST CAT: Do The Math

 
The other system to throw its hat into the ring was the Atari Jaguar. Atari – who, fair or not, took the lion’s share of the blame of the video game industry collapse in 1983 – was back. It had released a handheld named the Lynx to compete with Game Boy and Game Gear, but its real hopes lied with their new “64-bit” cartridge-based console. It launched in time for holiday of 1993 with an aggressively memorable (and controversial, more on that later) marketing campaign and an equally competitive price point of $249, making it the easy choice for early adaptors looking for a shiny new console.
 
Notable early titles ranged from good (“Doom”, “Rayman” – which made its debut on Jaguar, “Wolfenstein 3D”) to mediocre (“Cybermorph” which had horrible draw in and annoyingly repetitive audio voice clips) to straight up rip off (“Atari Karts”). But the biggest drawback of the system proved to be in it’s bizarrely huge square of a controller that had a panel of nine small buttons on it mirroring that of a phone keypad in addition to its standard analog controls, and its marketing.
 
Wolfenstein
 
To make the system stand out, Atari boldly took on the other systems, claiming the Jaguar was the world’s first 64-bit system, and telling potential customers to “Do the Math”, meaning 64-bits was so much better than 16-bits or 32-bits. That would be true if it was clear that the Jaguar was a true 64-bit system. A game here or there (such as “Alien vs. Predator”) did approach the look of being next gen, but when many titles such as “White Men Can’t Jump”, “Theme Park” and “NBA Jam TE” didn’t look much better than a 16-bit game, the system came under intense scrutiny. While the unit technically did possess a real 64-bit graphics chip, most of the workhorseness came from processing chips of 16-bit and 32-bit power. When added up (doing the math), it equaled 64-bits, but in reality, it was not a true 64-bit system. Games on the PlayStation and Saturn easily outclassed those on the Jaguar, and most Jag games couldn’t even compete with (16-bit) Super NES’s groundbreaking Donkey Kong Country.
 
Atari finally convinced Wal-Mart to carry the Jaguar in its stores after being in the market for a year and a half, and released a CD add-on that plugged into the top cartridge slot (making the system look like a toilet). Atari even began airing very amusing half-hour late night informercials – which can be found on YouTube for your entertainment. None of these events brought any additional success to the console, and it died a quiet death in 1996. Since Atari has not made a console since this, the Jaguar has been coined “Atari’s Last Cat”.
 

LEGACY

 
While both systems, as noted above, took oddly similar paths in their lifecycles, neither was successful. The 3DO total lifetime sales hovered around 2 million, while the Jaguar was even less – under 500,000 according to many reports. But as we all know, even the worst systems have some merit in the halls of history.
 
The 3DO was the first mass market CD-only console in North America. It introduced the world to “Need for Speed”, which went on to become a best selling franchise. It also remains the only console that was marketed as a game machine to be made by multiple manufacturers. 3DO folded into Ubisoft, but Trip Hawkins continues to innovate – he’s had his hand in advancing motion control technologies and mobile gaming.
 
Atari’s Jaguar was the first platform to have a “Rayman” game and was revived in the United Kingdom in 2001 after Atari’s properties was bought out by Hasbro and released to Telegames. Many of Atari’s franchises, such as “Tempest 2000” and “Roller Coaster Tycoon” remains popular today. In many gaming circles, the Jaguar is remember more fondly than the 3DO, despite its smaller installed base.
 
Both the 3DO and the Jaguar will forever remain footnotes in the great Console Wars of the 1990s, but their contributions to the industry shouldn’t be forgotten.


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