This week, the Electronic Entertainment Expo—more commonly known as E3—swoops into Los Angeles for three days of video game-powered mayhem. Part trade show, part pep rally, and part game industry pissing contest, E3 is consistently and unquestionably the most exciting video game-related event of the summer.
It’s been that way for twenty years, too. While these days there’s less Virtua Cop and Donkey Kong Country and more Halo 5 and Fallout 4, the first E3 set the template that every subsequent has followed. The games may change, but as the years go on, E3 remains basically the same: chaotic, thrilling, and entirely unpredictable.
A MUCH-NEEDED CHANGE
In the early ‘90s, E3 didn’t exist. Instead, video game publishers had booths at the Consumer Electronics Shows in Las Vegas and Chicago, where they were hidden away in the bowels of convention centers, scattered among air conditioner manufacturers and low-rent pornography companies. One year, video game companies were forced to set up outside, where a rainstorm ruined a batch of brand-new Sega Genesis consoles.
Something needed to change. In 1995, the brand new Electronic Software Association (then known as the Interactive Digital Software Association) and the editors of GamePro magazine convinced gaming’s biggest companies to abandon the Consumer Electronics Show and set up their own, video game-exclusive event. E3 took over the Los Angeles Convention Center for the first time on May 11-13, 1995.
The game industry has never looked back.
SEGA’S OPENING VOLLEY
In 1995, thanks to production problems and a thin software line-up, Nintendo was forced to delay its upcoming console, the Nintendo 64. As a result, while Nintendo attended the first E3, the company didn’t have much to show, leaving the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn to duke it out for next-gen supremacy.
Sega struck first during E3’s opening keynote, when Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske informed the audience that the company had secretly shipped 30,000 Saturns to stores around the country. Forget the September release date; the Saturn was available now.
The announcement delighted the E3 audience, but didn’t go over well with some retailers, who felt left out of the loop. Certain stores, like KB Toys, were so upset that they stopped carrying Sega products entirely. Ultimately, the Saturn only sold 9.5 million units worldwide. Sega never recovered.
SONY DROPS THE MIC
Sony came to E3 in 1995 with something to prove. While the company was well regarded in the consumer electronics space, nobody knew what to make of the PlayStation, its first console. Even Sony executives were skeptical; reportedly, some of the company’s higher-ups didn’t want to use the Sony name in association with the machine, worrying that a huge flop would tarnish Sony’s brand.
They shouldn’t have worried. Just a few minutes after Sega revealed the Saturn’s $399 price tag, Sony Computer Entertainment America president Steve Race took the podium for a “brief presentation.” As it turns out, Race only had one thing to say:
The audience burst into applause, and Race left the stage.
That $100 made all the difference. With a lower price and a software lineup that included future classics like Twisted Metal, Warhawk and Ridge Racer, Sony stole the show.
These days, the PlayStation 4 is the best-selling console of its generation, and Sony’s gaming division is the most profitable part of the company. Meanwhile, Sega left the hardware market entirely in 2001, and won’t even attend this year’s E3.
VIRTUAL REALITY IS ONE BIG HEADACHE
These days, video game companies like Sony and Oculus are pushing virtual reality hard. It’s a brand new way to play, they say. It’s going to revolutionize everything. If that sounds familiar, that’s probably because you’ve heard it before: people were saying the same thing twenty years ago.
Without the Nintendo 64 to show off, Nintendo spent most of E3 1995 pushing the Virtual Boy, a wearable console that promised 3D graphics and completely immersive gameplay.
Unfortunately, the Virtual Boy was likely the most dangerous console ever made. Many users experienced neck and back pain after playing, thanks to the its bulky headset. Players had to take breaks every fifteen minutes because of the stress it put on their bodies. Children under 7 weren’t supposed to play the Virtual Boy at all.
Atari also brought a (virtual reality headset)[ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bb80XSvq5GI] to the show in 1995, an accessory for the company’s struggling Jaguar console. Unlike the Virtual Boy, Atari’s headset featured real-time head tracking and a display with more than two colors. Also unlike the Virtual Boy, it never actually came out. By 1996, the Jaguar was dead, and all but two of Atari’s VR headsets were destroyed when the company merged with JT Storage less than a year later.
The Oculus Rift and Sony’s Morpheus are unlikely to meet the same fate, but it’s a good cautionary tale nonetheless.
A STAR-STUDDED AFFAIR
E3 1995 might’ve been designed for the game industry, but it attracted its fair share of show business types, too. Seal, currently at his “Kiss from a Rose”-fueled peak, played at Nintendo’s opening night party. Now-defunct publisher Acclaim decorated its booth with the Batmobile and Judge Dredd’s motorcycle. 3DO brought the entire San Diego Chargers cheerleading team as booth babes. Michael Jackson crashed Sony’s E3 party, sequestering himself in a corner of the Sony backlot with some ice cream and copies of Tekken and Ridge Racer.
John Wayne Bobbitt, who became a minor celebrity in 1993 after his wife chopped off his penis while he slept, made a guest appearance in E3’s adult section. Bobbitt signed copies of his porn flick, John Wayne Bobbitt’s Uncut, and was reportedly quite happy to show his scar to anyone who asked. He spent his breaks trying to seduce Acclaim’s booth babes—or so they say.
Some of what went down at E3 1995 has become legend, but a lot of that sounds eerily familiar, too. The biggest game companies will have pissing contests all week, celebrities will make ill-advised and awkward appearances, and virtual reality will give people headaches, too.
And this week’s stories will pass into legend too, and the cycle will continue.
Christopher Gates is a writer and video game critic from Los Angeles, CA. In his spare time, he watches too much baseball, reads too many comics, and drinks too much beer. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisWGates.