There aren’t many threads I pay attention to on www.alternatehistory.net these days, mainly as the whole site has turned into a massive circle-jerk or people are spewing forth the same damned topics over and over again.  But there are some I do like to read up on which combine two of my interests – video game & home computing alternative histories.                                         

The most commonly asked questions are “What if the Great Video Game Crash Never Happened”, “What if Sega won the Sega/Nintendo Wars”, “What if the Sony/Nintendo tie-up went through” and “What if the Dreamcast was a success?”  There are other, more minor questions that are asked but the one I find the most compelling is “What if Commodore didn’t run out of money?” 

So to treat you/bore you, I’m going to publish my take.  First comes the history lesson. 

The background – Commodore Business Machines (CBM) was the brainchild of Jack Tramiel and the dominant force in the home computer market during the 1980s thanks to canny sales technique and some shrewd tactics in closing out other competitors.  I don’t know anyone (under the age of 30) who has never heard of a Commodore 64 or a Commodore Amiga.  The Great Video Game Crash shifted a lot of focus from game consoles to home computers after 1983 (at least in North America and Europe) as they were more versatile and could be branded as educational as well as entertaining.  CBMs vision was to put a Commodore in every household by bringing down the overall cost of home computing (running at a loss per unit if need be) just to establish a presence.  Licensing would eventually recoup costs anyway given the low unit costs of cassettes and floppy disks to produce. 

As the 80s became the 90s, the 8-Bit market gave way to the 16-Bit market and games consoles (SNES/Super Famicom & Megadrive/Genesis) overtook the their slower (yet multi-purposeful) rivals.  There had been attempts in the computer industry to introduce CD-ROM technology but the development costs were prohibitive and few units ended up being sold – the Phillips CDI, the Commodore CDTV for example.  The future, at least for the next decade was going to be cartridges.  Commodore launched the ill-fated C64GS – a console based on the Commodore 64 which used cartridges rather than tapes/disks.  The added advantage to this was that the C64 had a cartridge slot so the games would continue to be accessible to the computer owners.   

Few developers took CBM up on their new machine and most of the games that were released were already on the market so there wasn’t anything to lure in gamers.  Despite an original mark up of about £100 per machine in the UK (cheaper than Nintendo’s NES but not cheaper than the Sega Master System/MS2), the value of the console quickly dropped to £60 to stimulate demand and retailers like Dixons dropped it to £15 in order to divest themselves of their stock.  Similarly weak sales figures were reported elsewhere the console was sold. 

Fortunately the Amiga market remained buoyant, at least for the time being particularly with the release of the Amiga 600 (a slimline Amiga 500+) and the less popular but more powerful Amiga 1200 (comparable to a first generation Pentium Computer).  It was around this time that Sony and Nintendo began to make noises about a CD ROM add on for the Super Nintendo; Sega had the Mega CD and the 32X which although weren’t successes, nonetheless pointed towards an inexorable march to optical disc technology. 

So Commodore began to rework their CDTV based on the technical specification of the Amiga 1200 and produced the CD32, what was heralded as “the first 32-Bit Console”.  The console was released worldwide and sold respectably in Europe but sales in the USA never materialised as there was a query over a patent (who said Apple/Google/Samsung’s current woes were anything new?) and the console was blocked.  Commodore had bet the farm on sales of the CD32 and ran out of cash despite money coming in from European and Japanese sales of the console.  Eventually they declared bankruptcy which finished off the firm and knocked one of the biggest players in the industry out of the market at the time when it was going to see its biggest expansion period. 

So – what if Commodore didn’t run out of cash?  Well, let’s remove the C64GS from history.  The money they saved in its development, marketing etc could easily help cover Commodore’s legal bills until the US legal system resolved the patent issue.  Or we could press for swifter closure on the whole patent topic.  Whatever – based on international sales, the CD32 will be a success with many Amiga titles being ported over and there’ll be all different franchises to enjoy (Sensible Soccer, Zool, Cannon Fodder, Dizzy etc).  I don’t think it’d be a roaring success as the main rival at this point would be the Atari Jaguar though that suffered problems from day one but a CD32 might give that a bit more life just for something different. 

How will the CD32 stack up against the big boys?  Well at the time there was the Sega Saturn and the Playstation.  The Nintendo 64 was still two years away and there was a lot of life left in the SNES but that had the younger market sewn up.  CD32 has a year on its rivals and could establish a strong presence.  In our timeline, the Sega Saturn failed because of its ridiculously high price and the lack of available consoles in North America and Europe.  Meanwhile Sony were new to the video game industry and benefitted from strong distribution links through the rest of their electronics business which also helped them drive down the costs of their console but they still would have been more expensive than the CD32.  Furthermore, the early days of the Playstation were mired in controversy – reports of overheating units, poor optical readers and most crucially, a crap range of games.  Sony couldn’t produce shite in those early days which led them to snap up several software houses such as Psygnosis in order to gain the necessary talent for their own software range. 

Sony’s other major benefit came from chipped consoles – they made a healthy profit on the console, less so on the games so who cares if their games are easy to copy?  Piracy was a major role in the early growth of the Playstation irrespective of what the official line might be and considering Sega were a tougher nut to crack given their copy protection (and Nintendo were still using cartridges) – it’s little wonder gamers went to Sony. 

Insert the CD32 into the equation and suddenly you have a cheap console with cheap games already – much of which are shovelware but the console is capable of keeping pace with the bigger boys and there’s every likelihood Commodore would release an updated version of the console in a couple of years to either N64 standards or somewhere between 32-Bit and 64-Bit.  Sony’s OTL advantage would be negated and I can see the Playstation heading the way of the Neo-Geo, the 3DO or the Atari Jaguar.  Sega might benefit from a weaker playstation but like Commodore, they’d be betting the farm with the release of the Dreamcast around the time of the launch of the Nintendo 64.   

What would a “CD64” (who could resist the sales potential of that name) be like?  Commodore would have to completely redesign the CD32 to account for polygon graphics rather than the traditional rendering which served so well in the 32 Bit era.  Commodore would need a machine capable of playing the main games of the era – first person shooters and 3D sport sims which will rely on better technology and rather than rely on Motorola chipsets, they might look to link up with IBM, their erstwhile rivals in the home computer market. 

In terms of software, with the demise of Sony and a continued Sega presence (in the mid term), there would be more independent publishers on the scene which the big boys such as Activision, EA et al would have a harder time competing with rather than steam-rolling over.  This might lead to defunct franchises continuing and franchises we take for granted today like Grand Theft Auto being more “flash in the pan” given how closely tied they were to the success of the Playstation.   

I think Nintendo would do well irrespective of how things would turn out as their fan base was completely different and they benefitted from a strong internal series of game franchises which will always sustain them.  Another butterfly of this scenario is the 64-DD – does this get released outside of Japan and if so, how would that do?  It’d drive the cost of games down thus making Nintendo act in a differing direction from how they behaved in our reality.   

The CD32 wouldn’t usher in Commodore’s second Golden Age but it would keep them a major player in the market and give the world a non-Japanese console in the marketplace – European software designers like Gremlin, Rare et al might be tempted to work with Commodore given their shared histories than with the Japanese producers.  What comes after the CD32 would really be the stuff of speculation and would it be able to fill the void of the PS2 or would Nintendo and Sega capture some of that market which means Sega games do NOT end up on other consoles?

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