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Ten Consoles You’ve Never Heard Of


There are a lot of gaming systems out there. Okay, so everyone knows about the Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft consoles, but go back a few console generations and you’ll find a horde of wannabes by a great many companies, some of which were worthwhile and some of which most definitely weren’t. Go back further and you start to find gaming systems (not just consoles, mind) separated by region divides, with some doing astonishingly well in some countries while being almost unheard of in others. I daresay you’ve heard of some of them, but I’d be greatly surprised if you’ve heard of all of them.
I can’t promise that all of the following systems are good (in fact, I can guarantee that several of them are flat-out awful) but each and every one of them piqued my interest in some way, and some of them have certainly impacted gaming in a big, big way. Let’s have a look at ten of the systems that didn’t manage to leave a huge footprint in the collective mind of the west, shall we?
FM Towns
Here’s one, I suspect, that will be familiar to a number of older gamers – but not because they’ve ever played one. The FM Towns system was a Japanese PC, in short, but a powerful one. First manufactured around 1989, this beastie had a built-in CD drive and the technology to create what were – for the most part – superior graphics and sound to what you’d see on most PCs at the time.
While not exactly a fair comparison (bearing in mind that the FM Towns version was released two years later) one shot below is from the enhanced IBM-PC version of LucasArts’ Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (1989), while the other is from the FM Towns version. Spot the difference?

If you look for soundtracks for these older games, chances are good that it’s the FM Towns version you’ll find. Also not a huge surprise.
Sega Nomad
Well, this was a nice idea: a portable Genesis. Literally. No, that’s what the Nomad actually is – a gargantuan hand-held with a screen, a D-pad, eight buttons, and a slot into which Genesis cartridges could fit. (And yes, I’m sticking with Genesis rather than Mega Drive for this – the Nomad never saw release in Europe.) You could even plug it into your TV and add a second controller to essentially have it function as a standard Genesis.
The problems? Well, barring that many people already had Genesis systems and may not have seen the value in buying what was essentially another one for $180 USD, it didn’t exactly work all that well as a portable system. For starters, it required six AA batteries – and rechargeable batteries were not recommended. A slightly bigger issue was that these six AA batteries would power it for maybe an hour, which is an absurdly low length of time for a portable system.

There were some nice ideas – as far as I can tell this came out a little after the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, and thus would have let people transition their old Genesis games to a portable platform, while moving to a new home console – but in the end its technical issues and the poor timing of its launch killed it.
As an interesting aside, Sega originally planned for their follow-up to the Game Gear (their first hand-held system) to have a touchscreen interface – fully nine years before the Nintendo DS ever saw the light of day – but deemed it too expensive. What might have been, eh?
Zeebo
This is an interesting idea, but I’ve honestly got little idea as to how well it’s doing. Or has done. Seriously, I don’t even know if this thing is still operating.
Zeebo Inc. came up with the idea of releasing a low-cost, download-only console in developing countries, the idea presumably being both to offer a cheap system with cheap games, and to beat out piracy through download-only titles. The system – named the Zeebo – first launched in Brazil in mid-2009, with a Mexican launch following six months later.

From what I can gather (and I stress that information has proven kinda hard to come by) it didn’t necessarily do so well. The PlayStation 2 was priced fairly similarly at the time, but had a vastly superior games library and, um, games could be easily pirated. The selection of games was interesting, at least; the mobile version of Resident Evil 4 sat alongside the likes of Need for Speed Carbon and Quake 2.
So how’s it doing now? No idea. As far as I can tell, Zeebo has discontinued service in both Brazil and Mexico, and the latest I can find is that the company is renewing its focus on India, with a new console launch planned in 2012.
If anyone has more information on this, please do let me know in the comments below.
MSX
Okay, this might be cheating a little as the MSX is more of a set of computers created by many manufacturers (but with a shared architecture and operating systems) rather than a discrete product in itself.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting and somewhat important note in gaming history. While it didn’t really take off in the US or UK, a whole lot of rather wonderful series either originated or expanded on this system. Final Fantasy I was a NES game, for instance, but it made an appearance here. Castlevania turned up on the MSX as Vampire Killer – only this wasn’t a direct port, but featured a degree exploration and was closer in spirit to the later Metroidvania titles like Symphony of the Night.
If that’s not enough to convince you that the system is worthy of note, I should probably also point out that both Bomberman and Metal Gear originated on the MSX, and the system also provided one of the first two launch platforms for Snatcher.
Vectrex
The Vectrex’s main selling point – as implied by the name – was that its built-in screen was vector-based. In short, this meant that the Vectrex had incredibly crisp line-based graphics, but nothing in the way of colour or shading. Colour could be added… but only by putting a transparent overlay onto the screen, which wasn’t really ideal for anything except atmosphere. It’s also the earliest system I know of that had 3D support, via an utterly ridiculous-looking headset that makes anyone using it look like a hacker from bad cyberpunk comics.

The system didn’t do particularly well, in large part due to 1983’s infamous video game crash, but it’s an interesting machine solely for the entirely different direction it took in terms of technology. Because of its short lifespan there aren’t a great deal of games available, but many of them are surprisingly decent.
One final bizarre fact: the Vectrex has actually had a bit of a resurgence in the past decade, with homebrew cartridges available over the internet. It lives on, apparently.
SG-1000
1983’s SG-1000 – or Sega Game 1000, if you prefer – was Sega’s first tentative foray into the home computing market. If you’ve never heard of it, that might be because the system only hit select countries; following its launch in Japan and Asia, the system only really made it to Australia and New Zealand, and a small number of European countries. No American or UK release here, I’m afraid.

The SG-1000 was a reasonable success, although its fate can perhaps be summed up by pointing out that it launched in Japan on the exact same day as the Nintendo Famicom, which later hit western shores as the NES. Which one of those have you heard of?
It did, however, provide Sega a bit of market share and a base to build on. Over the next two years Sega released a number of interstitial systems, finally culminating in the Sega Mark III – re-branded, in the west, as the Master System.
Philips CD-i
Ugh.
So, back in the late 80s, Nintendo and Sony were working together on a CD add-on for the Super Nintendo. Nintendo broke off the agreement and signed up Philips to do the work instead, and Sony ended up creating their own console (called the PlayStation) out of the tech. When the Mega-CD add-on for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis flopped, however, Nintendo decided a CD add-on wouldn’t be in their best interests at all, and broke off the agreement with Philips… who also created their own console out of the tech. Saying it didn’t do as well as the PlayStation is an understatement, and that’s despite Philips getting license to use a number of Nintendo characters on their system as a result of the split with Nintendo.

I apologise if anyone was traumatised by the above screenshot. Anyway: the Philips CD-i, as the console was named, was a bulky, overpriced mess of a system, with one of the worst controllers ever foisted upon mankind. It was marketed as a home entertainment system (capable of playing video CDs and audio CDs as well as games) and priced at an utterly absurd $700 USD. A cynical few of you are probably thinking “Just like the PlayStation 3 then,” and you’re somewhat right, except Sony already had an established userbase and plenty of decent games on the way.
The CD-i, by comparison, had no immediate userbase. Their ace in the hole was a set of games starring Nintendo characters: three Zelda games, and a Mario title. Unfortunately, those games are categorically terrible and didn’t really do anything to save the system, and neither did the mishmash of edutainment, or the early FMV games with the requisite tragic acting.
The CD-i died a much deserved death despite only being discontinued seven years later, but it’s still an interesting footnote for three reasons. First, it ties into the story of the PlayStation’s creation. Second, it’s one of the extremely rare occasions when Mario and Zelda characters have appeared on non-Nintendo systems (and is perhaps the only occasion of these games being exclusive to a non-Nintendo system). Third, it’s pretty much a perfect example of how not to make a console.
N-Gage QD
They released a successor to the N-Gage. They released a successor to the N-Gage? The N-Gage? The system so incompetently designed you had to remove the battery to change the game cartridge?
Sort of, yes.

Back in 2004 Nokia released an updated version of the N-Gage, called the N-Gage QD, with the intention of fixing most of the issues that marred the first release. Like, y’know, having to remove the battery to change the game. Calling it an update might be a stretch, though. In order to make the QD a bit smaller and cheaper than the standard N-Gage, various features (like MP3 playback) were removed, so if anything it was slightly less versatile than its predecessor.
Did this attempt to fix the problems and create a cheaper system actually work, though? Not really. Nokia followed up the N-Gage QD with the N-Gage gaming service that would function on a variety of Nokia smartphones, which officially launched in April 2008… and was announced as closing down just over a year later. In total, just over 50 games were released for the dedicated N-Gage systems, and just under 50 were released for the gaming service.
Hobbit
Alright, I admit it: I’m pretty much just putting this in to prove that there actually is a system out there called a Hobbit.
The Hobbit was one of a great many Sinclair ZX Spectrum derivatives (and was, indeed, fully compatible with the Spectrum), in this case designed and manufactured in the Soviet Union. It was designed as a cheap computer for basic use in schools, offices, and at home, and it had full network capabilities.

Surprisingly, all hands-on accounts I can find of this thing are overwhelmingly positive, listing it as fully compatible with 48k Spectrum software and packed with extra features. It did, reportedly, make an appearance in the UK, but was quickly taken off the shelves, either for failing a safety test or infringing on Sinclair’s intellectual property – sources vary. A bit of a shame, as it sounds like the Hobbit could’ve made a bit of an impact if launched at the right time.
TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine
From the best-named system to the worst. I cringe every time I have to write “TurboGrafx-16”, so I’m just going to call this the PC Engine from here out. Okay? Okay.
This is the third console, along with the PlayStation and the Philips CD-aargh, that we can kinda blame on Nintendo. Hudson Soft had been trying to sell graphics chips to Nintendo and, when these were rejected, they partnered up with NEC to develop a system of their own.

Okay, so it required a multitap for any form of multiplayer, but it was still a fine system. Its biggest problems were really down to licensing – it sold well in Japan, but the PC Engine suffered against the Mega Drive/Genesis, NES, and SNES in the US, not least because exclusivity agreements led most third-party developers to release their games on the far more successful NES instead. Sadly, the system never really entered the European market, with only a very small number released in the UK while other PAL territories went completely ignored.
These days, the system’s legacy is mostly a set of praised shoot-’em-ups and a load of decent adventure games. The ridiculously popular Tokimeki Memorial series of dating sims originated here, and the excellent Blade Runner-esque Snatcher got a CD remake on this system (which was later released in the west on the Mega CD). And that’s without mentioning the scatological platformer Kato-chan and Ken-chan, which was depressingly sanitised for its western release as JJ & Jeff.

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