At the time of the 386, multimedia was a new-ish concept, especially for the PC which was by it's nature a business machine. The extra memory, storage and of course processing power that came with the introduction of this revolutionary processor, as well as the advent of the CD-ROM drive and the growing popularity of the sound card allowed PC owners to do much more than word processing and occasionally, play a game of Tetris. It also became clear that the PC owning public wanted in-depth gaming experiences and they wanted them to get better and better. The stage was set for the PC to become the monster gaming and multimedia machine it is today.
Around the same time, Commodore and other companies released their own multimedia 32-bit machines. The Amiga 1200 was the successor to the older 500 and 600's throne. It was based on the 68020 processor running at 14MHz. It had a new video chipset called AGA which was capable of displaying 256,000 colours at once! This chipset far exceeded the capabilities of it's contemporaries and the Amiga 1200 was, like it's predecessor, a success. Obviously, huge leaps in power had been taken. Was it enough for the demands of 3D graphics?
The answer, is, that in a limited way, yes. The 386 level computers did have enough power to do a certain amount of 3D graphics processing, though not necessarily polygon based 3D. On the PC you had examples like Doom, Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix, numerous flight simulators and classics like Frontier Elite 2. The Amiga 1200 and upward had games like Guardian, which was a fast 3D shooter, not unlike StarFox on the SNES, albeit with better graphics and sound. The Amiga never really advanced much beyond this point. Yes, there was the Amiga 4000 which was undoubtedly powerful, but, the only software that really took advantage of that power was the likes of Lightwave. Games remained at a decidely lower level and even the Amiga CD32, Commodore's attempt at a games machine, although pretty good (I owned one) didn't really catch on quickly enough due in part to the imminent arrival of Sony's Playstation.
None of the machines mentioned so far had 3D capabilities as such. Instead, the games programmers had to write what is known as a 3D engine. An engine is the part of a program that controls or drives a certain task. Hence you can get sound engines, AI engines and so on. The processor performs all of the 3D calculations by following the directions of the software engine, which, it had to execute in the first place. As you can imagine, this takes a lot of processing power.
486 improved matters, making it possible to use polygons and textures a
bit more liberally than possible on a 386. Some of these games were quite
impressive. Striking examples are games like Little Big Adventure, Megarace,
EF2000, NASCAR Racing, Indy 500 and Wing Commander 3. Most of these games
came out towards the latter end of the 486's life. Just about this time,
the amazing PlayStation and Saturn arrived.
This happened when the 486 was at the 66 to 100MHz stage and the Pentium had only just been launched in a 60Mhz flavour. Not even the mighty, new Pentium processor could copy the speed of these two new consoles. What was it that made these relatively cheap machines so powerful?