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5 Biggest Console Disasters

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(Photo: Virtual Reality Guide)

Not every console or video game platform is designedfor success. In fact, there’s actually a decent amount that ended up costing companies significant losses both in market share and financially. Some of these failures we know all too well, but there are some that have gone virtually ignored. Here’s a list of a few of the more notable failures in the console world.

5. The Virtual Boy

worst consoles 5Let’s be honest. Any list of console failures is going to have to include the Virtual Boy, so it’s best to address the elephant in the room right away. I’m sure the original console was envisioned as something similar to what the Occulus Rift currently is today, but this misguided console was released in the US on August 14, 1995, almost 20 years ago. We’re still addressing technological problems with modern virtual reality; I can’t even begin to imagine how the developers would have been able to approach affordable virtual reality in the 90’s.

And truthfully, they couldn’t. It was under-powered, and instead of an actual color palate or even pseudo-3D like what we saw with concurrent games like Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (released in 1996), or even Donkey Kong Country (released in 1994), we got some weird red game that achieved 3D through the equivalent of electronic 3D red/cyan glasses.

The console was an absolute commercial failure. Only 770,000 units were sold despite its prediction of 3 million. It had some novelty, but the system just had no chance to compete when the world was moving to 64-bit systems. Let’s not forget its relatively high price point for some headache-inducing fun. The system released at $180 which, adjusted for current inflation, is actually about $275 today. For reference, the Nintendo 3DS launched in 2011 at $249, and only really started to see success when it dropped its price to $169 six months later. The Virtual Boy didn’t have time to drop in price. After its launch in August 1995, it was abruptly discontinued early March 1996. The poor thing didn’t even last a full year.

It has, however, lived on in the memory of many a gamer. It also spawned this fantastic G4 segment.

While the console didn’t end up hurting Nintendo’s brand image too much, it left a sour taste in the mouth of Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi, who helped create the Game & Watch and the Game Boy. He was also involved in the development of games like Metroid and Kid Icarus. According to this N-Sider profile, Mr. Yokoi was bothered by the fact that the Virtual Boy wouldn’t sell and resigned from Nintendo in 1996, just days after the Game Boy Pocket launched in Japan.

 

4. The Nokia N-Gage

worst consoles 4Here’s yet another concept for a handheld console that was incredibly ahead of its time. There’s a certain cruel irony to the casual games market of smartphones today when you consider how hard this device failed. It attempted to be the first smartphone and phone/gaming platform combination, but it did so much wrong that it almost seemed like serious games and phones could never work well together. That is, of course, until the iPhone launched.

Back in 2003, Nokia tried to capture the growing mobile phone market as well as the growing mobile games market. It seemed natural to combine
them since most gamers carried both around anyway. Why not turn two devices into one? In truth it was actually a smart idea, as we can tell from the iPhone and Android market today. It even had a lot of the features we expect: MP3 and video playback, a touch screen, bluetooth, and internet access. Unfortunately, its execution failed miserably.

While the iPhone and Android were marketed as phones first, Nokia wanted to create a handheld gaming platform first while allowing the telecommunications end to suffer. As you can tell from the promotional photo above, it looked nothing like a phone (even the smartphone we would expect to use today). Hell, can you imagine walking around holding a Game Boy Advance up to your ear? Because that’s precisely what this looked like.

The true test of commercial success should be in its sales. The N-Gage released to the public in 2003 at the cost of $299 ($379 today). That’s fairly inexpensive considering the cost of a modern uncontracted smartphone. Back in 2003, however, the N-Gage tanked. According to The Register, Nokia claimed to have sold 400,000 units worldwide in the first two weeks (which is pretty good). Independent research from 2003 shows that there were less than 800 sales in the UK and 5,000 in the US. Nokia tracked the sales to retailers vs. consumers, providing an unrealistic picture of its success.

Nokia had projected a sale of six million units by the end of 2004, but only managed to sell one million. By May of 2004, Nokia also launched
a separate version of the N-Gage called the N-Gage QD. It stripped out some of the features like MP3 playback and USB connectivity. This didn’t help sales either. In the end, the plucky little handheld lasted until October 2006 and managed to sell a total of 3 million units in total. Those are 3 million souls I feel sorry for.

 

3. The Vectrex

worst consoles 3And now to go way back in time to a system that suffered due to timing instead of poor design. The Vectrex was designed in late 1980, right at
the height of the first wave of game consoles. It was a tabletop nine-inch screen with its own remote. This being the 1980’s, the console relied primarily on cartridges. It was also an early experiment in primitive 3D imaging.

The system was weak, and overlay sheets would come with the games to compensate for console’s coloring limitations . Still, at that time the
console was well-regarded by its critics in no small part because of the ability to use a light pen to ‘draw’ and create images for yourself. The console also had an Asteroids-like game called MineStorm built in.

After its design period in 1980, the console was licensed to General Consumer Electronics in 1981 and released for sale in 1982. Milton Bradley bought out the company in an attempt to capitalize on the growing video game marked in 1983. Unfortunately for Milton Bradley, the great video game crash of 1983 reared its head and this ended in disaster for the company, the loss bleeding into tens of millions of dollars.

The Vectrex in 1982 first hit the market for $199 ($481 today). Despite the price point, it probably would have been popular were it not for
the crash. After Milton Bradley took over, the price dropped first to $150, then $100, yet even that couldn’t save the console. The Vectrex was pulled from the markets in May, 1984.

It should be noted that despite being a commercial failure, the Vetrex still has a surprisingly large modern following. In November of 2012 Vectrex Regeneration released on the iOS promising “the only authentic Vectrex experience” you can get for iOS devices. There’s also a strong homebrew community behind Vectrex emulation.

 

2. The Sega 32X

worst consoles 2

Back in 1994 the next generation of games was on its way. 16-bitconsoles were coming to an end and the promise of 32-bit was on its way. Prices were bound to skyrocket, and for anyone who didn’t want to pick up a brand new system, Sega came up with an (allegedly) ingenious plan. They created an add-on for the Sega Genesis called the 32X. Keep in mind, by this time the Sega Genesis was already a modular system. You had the Sega CD which you could fit comfortably under the system, as well as Sonic & Knuckles attachment that could fit onto older Sonic the Hedgehog games in the top of the cartridge to change the experience. If you combined everything, you ended up with this monstrosity.

Sure, it’s not actually a console unto itself, but it tried to be a console replacement into the 5th generation of consoles, and it was so poorly planned that it absolutely deserves to be here. The design was beyond clunky, the timing couldn’t have been worse, and it was under-supported. Let’s explore.

The Sega 32X was originally meant to be its own console from Sega of Japan, but it ended up becoming a mere add-on. It may as well have been its own console; It required its own power supply among other necessary proprietary cables. There were also additional spacers required depending on what model of the Genesis you were using.

Software-wise, the 32X only saw 40 titles. Six of these titles also required the Sega CD add-on. Unfortunately, the 32X could not run Sega
Saturn games and ran the risk of splitting the Sega market. It was a 32-bit console marketed as the “poor man’s entry into ‘next generation games” by Sega at the 1994 Consumer Electronics show, and it ran like one. With more powerful consoles on their way, developers just couldn’t be convinced to waste time developing games for the 32X. No one believed the add-on would be competitive with the 5th generation of consoles, and they weren’t wrong.

A major factor in the downfall of the 32X was the fact that it was released in close proximity to the Sega Saturn, which was a better console in just about every way. The 32X first hit the North American markets on November 21, 1994 and then in Japan December 3, 1994. Sega Saturn, on the other hand, hit Japan on November 22, 1994 (about 11 days before the 32X), and it hit the North American markets on May 11, 1995. In the US, the launch price was $159 (or $250 today). The price was significantly lower than Sega Saturn’s $399 ($628 today).

Despite the low price point, it was an add-on that only served to fracture the market and lowered the confidence of both gamers and developers.
Projects for the 32X were discontinued in October 1995 – not even a year after its release. Production ceased entirely in 1996. It sold only 665,000 units during its lifespan.

It should be noted before we move on that there were more than 1 million orders placed for the system by retailers in the lead up to the 1994
holiday season. Sega could only ship an initial 600,000 by that January, helping cement its low sales.

1. Pioneer LaserActive

worst consoles 1As fun as it is to make fun of those other consoles, here’s one that truly deserves the flak for getting pretty much everything wrong. Its
timing, its price, its games, just… just everything; I can’t think of another device that hit so many wrong notes. Studying this failure may be cringe-worthy, but it’s like sour milk – you just have to take a whiff.

The Pioneer LaserActive released September 13, 1993 for the low, low cost of $970. Why was it so expensive? Well it could play LaserDiscs, CDs,
LaserDisc-G karaoke discs, and if you purchased the additional Sega PAC attachment for roughly $600, you could play Sega Genesis games.  That’s $600 back in 1993, and no, I’m not adjusting for inflation. To compare, the Genesis cost $89 at the time. You could also purchase the Sega CD add-on for $299 if you really hated your bank account. Now let’s add all of that up. In order to get the full functionality out of the system (not including games yet) you would spend $970 for the base console plus $600 to play Genesis games, plus $299 for the Sega CD add-on, plus another add on to allow you to play 8-inch and 12-inch LaserActive LS-ROM discs and TurboGrafx games adding on another $600, plus $350 for a module to allow you to play NTSC LaserKaraoke titles. The final cost was  $2819, or $4,557.14 today. The games themselves cost $120 each ($193.99 today).

So alright, the console was expensive. But it had great technology, right? Well, sort of. It used LaserDiscs, which are a lot like double-sided CDs, except they’re big, heavy, and could store a decent amount of data. LaserDiscs had a storage capacity of 500MB per side and approximately 60 minutes of analog audio and video, which was a decent amount at the time. CDs, on the other hand, store about 780MiB. And this was 1993: three years before the invention of the DVD that could store 4.7GB of data. Aside from technical limitations, the LaserDisc format never succeeded in the US. It went the way of Betamax and HD:DVD and lost the format wars. So while it may have been the best technology at the time, it was ultimately doomed.

The LaserActive also suffered from horrible timing. It was both spectacularly late and early to the market, situating itself right between the 4th and 5th generations of consoles. The Sega Genesis launched in 1989, while the Super Nintendo launched in 1991. Also, the world was gearing up for the Sega Saturn and PlayStation to release in 1994, while the Nintendo 64 wouldn’t come out until 1996. By September, 1993 most gamers already owned either a Genesis or a Super Nintendo. There was fierce brand loyalty already, and a lot of hype for the next generation for each console. Pioneer launched their own system with the caveat that you could also play your old Genesis games as well for the cost of a little more than six Sega Genesis systems. It was a toy for the wealthy and completely unattractive to the average consumer. Hell, gamers could wait a year and pick up both the Saturn and the PlayStation for about $270 less than the cost of the LaserActive base system.

But how were the games?  Only about 18 made it to the United States, and notably there was a beta of Myst made for the LaserActive, but it never got beyond that. One game even requited the players to purchase 3-D goggles just to make the cost of the system that much more expensive. One game did shine out amongst the rabble – Road Prosecutor. Fans of Sega at the time might have known the game as Road Avenger during its release on the Mega-CD.

Ultimately, the LaserActive was discontinued some time in 1994. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a more exact date than that as nobody cared enough about it to carefully record its demise.  There is, however, a LaserActive Preservation Project online. Check it out if you are at all interested in this defunct piece of console history. According to them,

“We at the LaserActive Preservation Project believe that any piece of video game history, success or failure, is worth preserving, simply due to the fact that it is history. We chose to focus on the LaserActive in particular because of its software – unlike many console failures, the LaserActive’s software is actually of remarkable quality. It boasts the definitive ports of several classic Laserdisc arcade games, in addition to original and innovative exclusive games. The LaserActive’s graphical fidelity was second-to-none in 1993, and many of its games have visuals that still shine today. Without preservation, all of this unique software would be lost to time, especially considering the volatility of both the LaserActive hardware and of the Laserdisc medium itself.”

So there you have it, gamers: five of the worst console disasters in gaming history. There will certainly be more in the future, but these are some of the ones that are in a class of their own!

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.