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Industry History

Through a series of articles, I detail the history of the video game industry in regards to specific companies, consoles, and pieces of hardware.

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Genesis Virtua Racing / Sega SVP

Virtua RacingVirtua Racing on the Sega Genesis was maybe the worst home port of Virtua Racing ever sold to the public, but that doesn't mean that the technology that went in to making the game doesn't easily deserve a much-deserved nod in Sega's history.

The 16-bit Console Wars: Sega Edges Ahead

Up until the time, and for a while after the Super NES had been released in the US, Sega was quickly gaining ground on Nintendo in the video games market after the release of Sonic the Hedgehog. Nintendo had gone from owning 80% of the US market in 1989 to battling it out with Sega in full force in the early 90's. At one point, Sega even eclipsed Nintendo for market share in the US - something that no other company had been able to do since the release of the NES. Due it's unconventional marketing strategies, the general consensus amongst the largest video game demographic in the US (8-24 year old males), Sega was the "cool kid" on the block and Nintendo was for little kids.

This point was driven further home in 1993, as both the Genesis and Super NES ports of Mortal Kombat were released for the two most popular home consoles... but only the Genesis version retained the blood and gore found in the arcade version. As a result, Mortal Kombat on the Genesis outsold the SNES version 4 to 1. This game alone swayed more market share toward Sega, and allowed Sega to pull a bit more life out of the aging Sega Genesis, which was released a whopping 3 years before the Super NES.

By the time Mortal Kombat II was released, Nintendo - now motivated more by money than by keeping their image as a "family friendly" company - okayed violence on the Super NES port of MK 2. Being as the port was arguably more arcade perfect than the Sega Genesis port, with better audio and more polished visuals than the Genesis version, the Super NES was back on the map.

Nintendo Steps in with Super FX

In addition to just Mortal Kombat II, Nintendo had an ace up it's sleeve with Star Fox - a game that was designed around an in-cartridge processor called the Super FX chip. Other games would be released with the Super FX chip as well, but Star Fox stood out as being quite amazing for a 16-bit console. Genesis had nothing close to offer in terms of speed and visuals that Star Fox offered, and the Genesis hardware wasn't really capable of delivering such a brilliant 3D experience.

The Motorola 68000 processors had proven to be 2D powerhouses. Sega had much experience with these processors in their many arcade platforms, which ran faster versions of the 68000 than the Genesis, including the Sega System 16 (one 68000 @ 10Mhz), Sega X Board (2x 68000s at 12.5Mhz), Sega Y Board (3x 68000s @ 12.5Mhz), System 18 (one 68000 @ 10Mhz), System 24 (2x 68000s @ 10Mhz), and the Sega System C-2 (one 68000 @ 8.94Mhz). Neo Geo also used 68000 processors in its Neo Geo MVS arcade cabinets and Neo Geo AES home consoles, and were known for producing some of the fastest and best looking 2D arcade games in the business.

The problem with the Moto 68000 CPUs is that they were never designed to be used in 3D games. Like the Neo Geo AES and MVS, all of Sega's 68000 based hardware, including the Sega Genesis, was almost worthless for 3D. Sega saw that 3D was the next big thing in gaming, and had already began talking about their next generation gaming console, which would be built on the same processors as up and coming arcade hardware. That console, in whatever form it would eventually take, was far off though, so Sega needed something to catch Nintendo sooner than later. After seeing what the Super FX chip did for the Super NES, which actually ran at a slower clock speed than the Genesis (3.58Mhz for the SNES vs 7.67Mhz for the Genesis), they decided to pursue an in-cartridge "helper" processor of their own.

Welcome the Sega Virtua Processor (SVP)

Sega threw around many designs for their in-cartridge processor, and all said and done decided on a Samsung SSP160x running at 23Mhz. This processor alone was much faster than the processor in the Genesis, and actually ran at the same speed as the SH-2 processors in the 32X (though the 32X had dual processors running at 23Mhz). The processor fits inside the Virtua Racing cart and is completely powered by the Genesis. It requires no internal battery and no external power source.

The main purpose of the processor is to calculate 3D graphics for the Genesis. The SSP160x would do this by rendering polygons as 8x8 tiles. Doing this, it could calculate up to 500 polygons per frame at 15 frames per second (or up to 6500 polygons per second), with a maximum of 16 colors.

The SVP chip could be directly compared to the Super FX chip. While the SVP chip ran at 23Mhz, the Super FX chip ran at only 21Mhz, although an internal clock speed divider halved its speed to only 10.5Mhz. Later, a second version of the chip would be released - dubbed the Super FX 2 chip, which could run at the full 21Mhz.

Virtua Racing was the only Genesis title that actually shipped with the SVP chip, and although ports of Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA were also planned, they were never finished or released. Virtua Fighter would later see a cartridge based release on the 32X, while Daytona USA wouldn't hit home consoles until the debut of the Sega Saturn.

Downfall of SVP and Virtua Racing for Genesis

Reviews of the Genesis version of Vitua Racing were mixed amongst reviewers. Some magazines praised the game for what it was, while others ultimately couldn't help but compare it to its arcade version, which was obviously much better. Diehard GameFan Magazine wrote: "...the speed, graphic intensity and addictive gameplay that made the arcade game a major hit are all included in this awe inspiring release."

Ultimately the SVP chip itself, and the release of Virtua Racing would do little to extend the life of the aging Genesis. The cartridge itself was expensive - $100 US at launch, which was almost as much as the Sega Genesis system itself. With mixed reviews and little in the way of advertising, the game would ultimately be an ok seller, but nothing spectacular.

The nail in the coffin for the SVP chip came late in the year of its release, when Sega announced the release of the 32X in November. All cartridge-based Sega development shipped at that time to the 32X platform, with the 32X unit itself costing only $59 more than the Virtua Racing game cart. Sega announced both the birth and the death of the SVP chip in 1994. As a final slap in the face to the SVP chip, the very console that halted its development and directly resulted in no future games being released with it, the 32X unit itself is not compatible with the SVP chip. Due to a conflict in RAM with the way both the 32X and the SVP chip interface with the Genesis hardware, when a user tries to play Virtua Racing on the 32X console, the console doesn't boot and the game is therefore unplayable.

Although the SVP chip was introduced and killed off in the same year, it is still a noteworthy piece of technology. It helped bring real 3D to the Genesis hardawre... something that had not been done up until that point and was never done after. Sega's intentions were good with the SVP chip, but the ultimate release of the 32X, the high cost of cart production, and limited development support for the chip itself almost guarenteed a failure from the start.

Pictures

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