The Playstation (or PSX) and Saturn were remarkable machines for their time, able to copy nearly any arcade machine you could mention. This meant, that for Sega the way forward was obvious. Cutting edge, Sega arcade games, like Virtua Racing, Daytona, Virtua Fighter etc. were all ported from arcade to Saturn. This made the Saturn into a moderately successful machine. However, the PSX was already on everyone's 'must buy' list, so even though the Saturn was launched first, the PSX won the battle hands down. Maybe it was the look of the PSX, or maybe it was just that the PSX promised better games. Technically, the Saturn was the more powerful machine. It had 2 x 27.5MHz main processsors running in parallel and 4MB of RAM, while the PSX had a single 33MHz CPU and 2MB of RAM. So in theory the Saturn was the better console and was certainly better at raw number crunching. The PSX though had more support from software developers and became the more popular machine, despite it's later release. If you owned a PC at this time, you might remember games like Wipeout, Virtua Fighter and Daytona coming out on these systems looking so sharp and fast that the PC's games paled in comparison. When converted to the PC, games like Wipeout looked pretty rough. Although this is in part due to the fact that a PC uses a high-res display monitor and the PSX is hooked up to a blurry TV set, there's no denying that the PC's graphics were much more broken looking than the PSX's.
What made these machines, so much more powerful than the PC's of the time, many of which may have had 4 times the ram and twice the processor? The answer, quite simply was the additional 3D hardware present in these games machines. Even when the Pentium reached 100MHz, it was no match for the fluidity of the games consoles. Obviously, if the multimedia PC was to become a viable games platform something was needed to boost the 3D performance. Something similar to what the PSX and Saturn had. Something to eliminate the burden that a 3D engine places on a processor.
For a little while nothing happened. Then, fairly suddenly, both Diamond and Creative Labs launched new products. They were a new concept called 3D cards. The Diamond effort was called the Diamond Edge and was based on an integrated sound/video/3D solution from NVidia. Designed for the new PCI BUS and hence only for Pentium systems, the Diamond Edge didn't really boost 3D performance that much. In reality a software engine could do the same job if it was written well enough. Creative Labs card the 3D Blaster was for 486's, designed for the VESA Local BUS slot. It was based on the 3D Labs GLINT processor and was an add-on card rather than a video card, much like the 3dfx Voodoo line of cards. It's fair to say that this card offered a significant boost in performance to specially modified games. The games bundled included NASCAR Racing, Hi-Octane, Magic Carpet Rebel Moon and ran as well on a 486 DX4-100MHz with a 3D Blaster as the normal edition of the game would run on a Pentium 166MHz! Quite an achievement really. It's usefulness was limited by the fact that you couldn't use it in Pentium systems though, and within a few months it was practically forgotten.
Everyone was moving onto the Pentium chip now and the Pentium motherboards (bar a very few exceptions) all had PCI and ISA slots only. Since there had only been a couple of failed attempts at marketing a 3D card, the arena was still clear for anyone else who wished to take up the challenge. Pretty soon, when the Pentium was more common, companies like NEC and 3dfx released their new cards to the world. Both were a vast improvement on the cards seen up to then, but, NEC made their card so that it would get faster, the faster your machine. The design therefore required a high end Pentium and around 24MB of RAM to work at full speed. They also didn't implement bi-linear filtering in the first edition of the card which left textures looking decidedly messy. Nobody really had a system of this class at the time of the cards launch anyway.
3dfx on the other hand designed their Voodoo chipset to work on lower-end Pentium's and it did have bi-linear filtering support which made games look infinitely better. Support from the industry was almost immediate. Games came out at a phenomenal rate and PC owners after a few months began to buy the various Voodoo cards at a rate to match. The PC was at last capable of rendering hundreds of thousands of texture-mapped polygons and had various tricks to makes the image look sharp, clean and to make the game run smoothly. At the very least a PC equipped with a 3dfx card could draw even with a PSX and more powerful CPU's coupled with this card could make a PSX look dated.
Soon after, Intel released some new extensions to their CPU's called MMX. Available on Pentium 166MHz upwards, MMX CPU's had in-built additions to their instruction set, designed to boost 3D, video and sound performance by up to 400%! Of course things never work out the way they are intended, but, MMX although little used, did move the PC up yet another level in performance and helped to win over more home users, making the PC more of a consumer item.
3D cards and 3D technology in general has continued to develop since then. In mid '98, AMD released their 3DNow extensions to MMX which were more specific in targetting 3D rather than multimedia. Quake 2 with 3DNow drivers achieved a staggering 80% increase in speed! However, the same cannot be said for other games and drivers. More recently, Intel launched their answer to 3DNow, the SSE extensions. Also designed to enhance the 3D capabilities of the PC, no games have as yet implemented them, though plenty are on the way. The AGP BUS is yet another recent innovation that allows more data to be shifted between graphics card and CPU. We are now in the 3rd generation of 3D accelerators and recent cards are around 15 times more powerful than the 1st generation Voodoo. No doubt 3D cards will continue to advance until you can't discern between reality and computer generated 3D. Many industry leaders predict that in a few years, current games will be regarded in the same way as we regard Space Invaders now. I can't wait!