Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of in-depth hardware based articles that will hopefully serve to educate gamer’s on the inner workings of consoles
The Nintendo 64 and the Sony PlayStation one of the best revenge sagas in video game history. For those who are old enough to remember the rivalry was fought on the battleground of 3D graphics. For the first time since the 1980’s video game consoles once again became truly revolutionary in their capabilities and feature sets. The multimedia capabilities of the PlayStation introduced a new aspect of gaming that many now take for granted.
The story begins in the late 1980’s with Nintendo attempting to create an effective disc based solution for their home consoles. Nintendo followed Sega’s lead and contacted Sony to help develop such a solution. Now at this point the story gets a little foggy, there are two popular versions to this. The first states that Sony was merely making the CD addon for the SNES/Super Famicom and Nintendo was put off by how much control Sony wanted. The second version states that Sony intended to make the PlayStation from the get go and wanted it to also be compatible with SNES cartridges. Whatever actually happened we do know that at CES 1991 Sony was showing off their partnership with Nintendo for the SNES CD attachment when Nintendo Chairman Howard Lincoln came on stage for the keynote speech and announced a new partnership with Phillips, completely disregarding prior agreements with Sony and publicly embarrassing them.
From there Sony and Nintendo developed their own consoles and we arrive at the PlayStation and N64 that we know today. Both consoles had strengths and weaknesses and the ability to harness the hardware paired with developer support and market realities would ultimately determine their fate.
PlayStation Hardware Overview
The PlayStation use nominally lower performance hardware than the N64 but was thoroughly designed and had access to dedicated sound and video chips enabling CD quality audio and hardware level H.261 decoding which allowed for their full use in games with low overhead while at the same time increasing the PlayStation’s inherent multimedia capabilities.
- 33.8Mhz MIPS R3000a CPU
- 2Mb SDRAM system memory
- “Geometry Transform Engine” GPU 180,000 textured polygons per second
- MDEC image and video hardware decoder, native H.261 decoding
- Sound Processor 44.1Khz sampling, CD-quality audio
- 2x CD-ROM drive
- 128Kb Memory card support
While theoretically less powerful than both the Sega Saturn and N64, the PlayStation’s architecture was far simpler than either. It featured a single cpu as opposed to the Saturn’s dual cpu’s and a unified memory architecture, something the N64 lacked. Because of this and the dedicated video decoder and sound chip the PlayStation was relatively easy to program for and could harness full motion video and high quality audio with little system overhead. This allowed for the PlayStation to run games that matched or even exceed in graphics quality and feature set of the N64 despite it’s lower performance.
The PlayStation did however have limitations. Due to the primitive nature of its GPU the PlayStation suffered from z-ordering issues as well as annoying texture “jiggle”. Some of these issues were resolved with the PlayStation Performance Analyzer. However graphical problems would remain to plague the PlayStation throughout it’s life in spite of developer’s best efforts.
Nintendo 64 Hardware Overview
Given Nintendo’s abrupt break from their partnership with Sony they had to completely redo their future console strategy. With such a monumental task ahead of them, it’s no surprise that the N64 was released a full two years after the Saturn and PlayStation. Nintendo’s strategy was to strike back with superior hardware which at least on paper, they did. The end result was a strange combination of good and bad hardware. The processor, for example, was also a MIPS based unit but more advanced using the MIPS III architecture (as opposed to the MIPS I in the PlayStation’s cpu) and was fully 64bit. The GPU was also considerably more advanced. The Reality Co-Processor as it was known, was developed by SGI for Nintendo. This was a very big deal at the time. In the 90’s SGI was synonymous with the cutting edge of 3D technology, and having real SGI tech on the console gave it a considerable lead over competitors. (The PlayStation did incorporate some SGI designed logic however it was not to the same level as that of the N64)
- NEC VR4300 cpu (MIPS R4300i based) clocked at 93.75Mhz
- RCP (Reality Co-Processor) SGI developed GPU 1 million polygons per second theoretical. 62.5Mhz
- 4 MB (expandable to 8Mb) RDRAM system memory
- Cartridge based games 64Mb maximum
While the N64 had some impressive specifications compared to the PlayStation and Saturn on paper, the reality was much different. The RCP, while a very advanced design for 1996, had a serious crutch in that it only had 4Kb of texture memory (compared to the PlayStation which had 1Mb of dedicated video memory, a variable amount could be dedicated to textures). This meant that developers had to make serious concessions in texture design. Two common solutions were to either tile small textures across a surface or resort to Gouraud shading of polygons instead of proper textures. Many games (Mario 64 being an example) used Gouraud shading heavily to make up for a lack of texturing. This contributed to the cartoony look of many N64 titles as opposed to a more realistic look of competing PlayStation games. Gouraud shading is a shading technique used in 3D games that allows light to be properly rendered on models. It is not the same as texturing, it is a shader, however in the case of the N64 solid color textures with heavy Gouraud shading are used to create the illusion of detail when textures cannot be used.
The issues were not limited to the texture cache. The RCP also lacked DMA which means that in order to access system memory it had to go through the cpu in order to do so. RDRAM was at the time some of the fastest memory available but it also suffered from heavy latency, by forcing the RCP to go through the CPU for memory access the CPU had to quickly switch back and forth from RCP requests to it’s own memory needs which exacerbated the heavy latency and defeating the benefit of such high bandwidth. The RCP was also featured reprogrammable microcode, a nice feature on paper but the stock Nintendo-supplied microcode, known as Fast3D, was intended more for high precision 3D modeling and not raw performance. Estimations show that using the supplied microcode and conventional programming models, the RCP was only capable of 100,000 polygons per second. That is 1/10th the theoretical power that Nintendo promised. Nintendo did not supply developer tools for modifying the RCP’s microcode until later in the N64’s life which meant many titles were poorly optimized for the hardware and didn’t take full advantage of it. Studios like Factor 5 and Rare persevered and created their own custom microcode that allowed the RCP’s true potential to be unlocked. Games such as Factor 5’s Star Wars: Rogue Squadron feature a draw distance unseen in other titles.
The other major disadvantage was obviously the use of cartridges when the rest of the industry had moved on to CD-ROM technology. CD-ROMs first arrived in 1988 with the creation of the yellowbook standard which extended the previous redbook CD Digital Audio standard to create CD-ROMs for computer data. By the early 1990’s they were beginning to appear in Consumer Pc’s, often bundled with sound cards capable of CD quality audio. This is how I came to own my first CD drive actually. In the early 90’s I installed a Sound Blaster pro on my 486 which included a Panasonic 2x drive. CD’s have many advantages over traditional cartridge storage, not only are they considerably cheaper than rom based cartridges, they also hold much more data. Both the PlayStation and Saturn use CD’s which at the time maxed out at 650Mb’s per disc. The N64’s carts on the other hand peaked at 64Mb’s. The limited capacity and high cost of N64 carts made a very noticeable difference to consumers. First, the higher quality audio and full motion video which were both used by the Saturn and PlayStation had to be cut from many N64 titles due to storage constraints. This is very noticeable on cross-platform titles such as Resident Evil 2 where the sound track was of lower quality, the pre-rendered backgrounds were lower in detail and the FMVs showed higher compression. N64 titles also cost on average $10 more than competing titles on PC or console.
When comparing the real world market performance between the two the PlayStation easily destroys the N64 with over 100 million consoles sold compared to around 30 million for the N64. In the content department the PlayStation wins again with over 1100 titles released during its heyday and a staggering 7918 titles after it was discontinued. The N64 had 387 games, not only much less than the PlayStation but also less than half the size of the SNES and NES libraries. The N64’s best selling game, Mario 64 did out sell the PlayStation’s best title Gran Turismo by roughly 1 million units but it was often bundled with the N64 in many markets whereas Gran Turismo was not bundled with the PlayStation.
So why did Nintendo lose out so badly in this generation? Well, for a lot of reasons. The PlayStation came out 2 years before the N64 which meant it had an early start but by the time the N64 did come out Sony was an established name to gamers and had released several highly acclaimed titles. Sony also developed a successful strategy that they have stuck with since; The PlayStation is not a one trick pony, it is a true multimedia device and doubles as a high quality CD player. Sony was already well respected in the home theater industry with TV’s, VCR’s and sound systems as well as their popular Walkman and Discman portable cassette and cd players. The PlayStation’s low cost and good audio quality made it one of the better deals on the market if you were looking for a CD player. The PlayStation also had games, lots of them. Nintendo had alienated many third party developers during the 8 and 16bit eras and when Sony announced the PlayStation, many such as Square, Enix, Capcom, Konami fled en masse to the PlayStation. Nintendo was left with fewer third party partners and no matter how good a system may be, if it does not have content it will fail. Nintendo was not fully without support and developers such as Rare and Factor 5 did make great games such as GoldenEye 007 and Star Wars Episode 1: Battle for Naboo. The majority of quality N64 titles were developed in house by Nintendo using existing franchises though and by the time Nintendo had grown their library to an acceptable level they found Sony and Sega had both moved on and were releasing 6th generation consoles.
So where do we stand with these two iconic machines? On one side we have the PlayStation, a well designed system with balanced hardware and great support from Sony and it’s developers and on the other the Nintendo 64, a machine with a world beating core architecture and promises to match that came out too late and had too many inherent flaws to overcome. The Sony/Nintendo saga is not simply a good story in the halls of gaming history but it is also a lesson in never creating enemies from friends and to never arrogantly rest on your laurels while the world passes you on. Nintendo went from clearly dominating the industry with the NES and a fierce console war with Sega in the 16bit era to holding less than a quarter of the market with the N64.
Nintendo had dropped the ball and were playing a game of catch up once again with the GameCube releasing a full year after the PlayStation 2 in Japan and the US and two years late in Europe and Australia. Many of the same problems, poor media choice and no third party developers, hurt the GameCube as well and Nintendo slid from being a firm second in the console wars to third, a position they have never recovered from.