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Ireland. The UK. Norway. Even – yes! – France. What have all these countries got in common? Well, precious little actually. But they all form a land mass known to you Yanks as ‘Europe’, and known to us on the other side of the pond as, er, ‘Europe’. And on top of that mutual geographical location, these European countries share a fervent love of videogaming.
November was a turbulent month for videogaming in Europe: the launch of the PlayStation 2, the excitement of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Jet Set Radio on Dreamcast, Donkey Kong Country on Game Boy…oh wait. All of that happened in America last month, too. In fact, we’ve had the same ludicrous PS2 shortages, brilliant Zelda sequels and continued ignoring of Dreamcast as you’ve had in the good ol’ US of A.
But while European gaming is in some ways similar to that of Americans, it many ways it is totally, utterly different. And due to the fact that it was recently announced that Europe is now the largest buyer of videogames products in the world, bettering America and Japan for the first year ever, we decided to take a special look at the European industry. In this part we'll look at how the European games industry arrived at its current position; in the next part we'll examine the current situation and postulate its future. Stick around, it's going to be Euro-tastic fun.
The Good Old Days
The current European gaming scene is – to be honest – nonsense. Ignored by America, seemingly hated by Japan, and lumbered with six-month delays for the latest games and machines, which arrive complete with slower speed and huge black borders due to coders laziness and failure to optimize their games for Europe's superior PAL TV system.
(America and Japan use the inferior NTSC format, which uses 525 lines on the TV screen, as opposed to PAL which uses 625 lines. France, being all awkward and French, naturally use SECAM, which is neither PAL nor NTSC. But I digress.)
Despite this, in the mid 80s, Europe WAS the games scene. After Atari managed to collapse the entire industry, it was men like Clive Sinclair that kept the industry alive. Machines like the ZX81, the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 created an entire "bedroom coding" industry, from which many of today's major games companies – Rare and Codemasters to name but two – sprang. Many of today's genres and most fondly remembered games were dreamt up in some spotty kids bedrooms – and those spotty kids are now often multi-millionaires.
Europe experienced the 16-Bit era long before the rest of the world – the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga arriving years before the SNES. This was back in the days when games came on tapes, and £10 for a game was considered ridiculously expensive. But of course, once again the bubble burst. The battle for the number one spot pushed Atari over the edge, only to be swiftly followed by Commodore. And while the NES, and to a lesser extent the Master System continued to enjoy quite limited success, it would take another revolution for the videogame market to get going again. Enter Sega.
Sega Hits Town
Sega's Mega Drive – the machine known in the US as the Genesis – revolutionized the European gaming scene. Sonic the Hedgehog became a product of cultural cool, and while the SNES became the console of the more hardcore gamer, the Mega Drive was the product all the school kids wanted to own.
To be honest, the Mega Drive only succeeded in Europe because it had little or no competition. The SNES, to anyone with two eyes in their head, was clearly the superior machine, but Sega’s innovative marketing approach (which heralded the way for Sony to ‘invent’ videogames cool) and relentless plugging of games like Sonic and Streets of Rage meant that the market was stolen from underneath Nintendo’s feet.
This wasn’t helped by Nintendo’s choice of publisher. After sacking Mattel for making a pig’s ear of the NES, Nintendo chose THE Games, an inexperienced division of UK store John Menzies as their publisher for the UK. While the SNES had games like Zelda, Mario, and Street Fighter, the Mega Drive had Sonic, full-gore Mortal Kombat, and even more Sonic.
Unlike in the US, where Square’s Final Fantasy series helped Nintendo’s battle no end, the perceived unpopularity of RPGs in Europe meant none (that’s right, NOT A SINGLE ONE) of the SNES series was ported over. This combined with Sega’s brilliant ad campaign and THE Game’s ineffectiveness meant that Sega had gained a foothold they really shouldn’t, and pushed Nintendo all the way along the console war.
By the end of the 16-Bit war, there was no clear winner in Europe. But whereas Sega had their follow-up Saturn system ready to go in 1995, Nintendo were taking it easy. And, of course, Sony snuck in and stole the market from under both their feet.
The delay in releasing the Nintendo 64 cost the Big N badly, even more so than in other territories. Though the PlayStation had a slow start, games like WipeOut and Tomb Raider were making the Sony brand a success, and a one-way battle was fought between Sony and Sega. Nonetheless, there were strong expectations that Nintendo would rule the market when their new 64-Bit wonder was released.
Too Little, Too Late
However, this didn’t happen until March of 1997, at which stage the PlayStation had been on the market for nearly two years, and had been building a strong fan base. The day before the launch of the Nintendo 64, Sony made the unprecedented and entirely unexpected move of lowering the price of the PlayStation to £129 – £120 cheaper than the N64, which launched at £250, with prices for games ranging as high as £90. Nintendo are forced to reduce the price of the N64 to £200 just three months after launch, something many gamers took exception to.
As elsewhere, the shortage of N64 titles continued to cost the machine badly. After the initial barrage of Mario, Wave Race and Mario Kart, titles dried up almost completely between May and November, with only Blast Corps making any kind of dent in the charts. The huge demand for GoldenEye saved the console’s bacon, creating stock shortages over the Christmas period and ensuring the N64 stayed in the public eye.
Nonetheless, Sony’s marketing campaign began to eat away at any impact the N64 had made into the videogame they effectively owned. Sponsoring the Champions’ League, Europe’s premier club football competition, made the PlayStation brand famous, and a series of award-winning TV adverts attracted the more mature fan. Contrast this with THE Games, who merely imported American Nintendo ads – still with grating (to us) American voiceovers – and gamers knew who cared more about the European scene.
It’s important to remember that in Europe, Nintendo has no Peter Main, and no Nintendo Power. Whereas in America, where Nintendo fought the good fight and narrowly lost, in Europe they have been comprehensively beaten. Only ‘big event’ games like Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Perfect Dark have been making the Number One spot in the charts, and recent releases such as Mario Tennis (it’s recent over here, right?) have been all but ignored by all but the increasingly small numbers of Nintendo die-hards.
Next time, we’ll look more at the current European gaming situation, and wonder how it’s going to get better – or, indeed, worse.
Click here to read part 2.
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