Saturday, July 7, 2012

Growing Up (a) Gamer: Part 2 – The Console Wars Begin

by J. Adams

Last week I described my early forays into the quickly evolving world of video games with what limited understanding I had of what was to come, and an even more limited understanding of the business of video games – I didn’t care what it took to get them to me, I just wanted to play.

We left off at the tail end of the Fifth Generation of hardware, of which the Sony Playstation was easily the most successful. Despite the fact that Sony was a newcomer to the console arena, the Playstation was the first console of the Fifth Generation to ship 100 million units. The Playstation had originally been intended as a joint venture between Nintendo and Sony, but the project dissolved over disagreements between whether or not a CD or a cartridge should be used as media. Up until now the main players in the gaming market had been Nintendo and Sega (which, in the case of the Sega Saturn, performed so poorly they were close to giving up – or should have already) , and the breakout performance of the Playstation added a new competitor.

That’s not to say that there weren’t others out there, but none of the others were what you might call power players.  Panasonic had recently released another CD system called the 3DO (I had one of these – Star Control 2 and The Horde [featuring Kirk Cameron!] were my favorite games), which didn’t sell nearly as well as they’d hoped – the $700 price tag was not a help – and Atari had recently put out the Jaguar. The Jaguar had a great name, but so few games when compared to the other choices out there that it simply wasn’t worth it to buy. The Amiga CD32 isn’t really worth mentioning – as far as I know, there was nothing worthwhile ever released on that particular platform. It cost around $400 and was sorely lacking in games, and I’ve honestly never even seen one in use.

Nintendo’s offering was the Nintendo 64 (N64 or “Ultra” 64) which was a cartridge-based system with some wonderful games, though the two that stand out the most were The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and James Bond 007: Goldeneye, which set the standard for FPS team deathmatch – at least until Unreal Tournament came out in 1999 on PC. The N64 kept Nintendo afloat during this time, but it wasn’t nearly as popular as the Playstation. Cartridge technology had come a long way, but I personally believe that Nintendo really missed the boat by not upgrading to CD media. As it turns out, though, their business decisions to stay away from optical media for a while ended up working in their favor after some time, but it wouldn’t be until the Seventh Generation that their patience would pay off.

The first console of the Sixth Generation was, surprisingly, another Sega offering called the Dreamcast. This was another one of those systems I simply had no interest in, but I do remember that some of the cel-shaded grahics were pretty impressive. I also heard a lot of people really enjoyed Crazy Taxi. The Dreamcast was released in September of 1999 and had a pretty good head start on the competition. It would be a full 13 months later that the second Sixth Generation console would come out, so it stood to reason that Sega would have taken the time to solidify its hold and get as much new support as possible. They did not, and the Dreamcast was the last console that Sega would make.

The Playstation 2 (PS2) was released in the United States in October of 2000 and was immediately beset by distribution issues. For the first few months, you couldn’t find a PS2 on the shelf anywhere, and they were selling for $1000 or more on eBay. There were plenty of launch titles, and Sony had spent a great deal of time and effort during the heyday of the Playstation making deals and lining up some superb third-party developers/publishers, as well as building up great teams internally. Konami and Squaresoft were well represented, releasing Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3: Snake Eater, and Final Fantasy X respectively. I had played the original Metal Gear back on the NES, and then the Playstation follow-up Metal Gear Solid and was very pleased by both 2 and 3, though with the focus of 2 on Jack rather than Snake, Metal Gear Solid 2 is not one of my favorites. Final Fantasy X, on the other hand, is an almost obscenely close second to Final Fantasy VII as my favorite in the series. Other great titles that I still play once in a while, even now, include God of War and God of War II, Front Mission 4, Dynasty Warriors 2-5, and the PS2 releases in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series. The PS2 also had the added perk of being backwards compatible with the original PlayStation, meaning that people who had bought into the PlayStation would still be able to play their old games, even if they traded in their old hardware.

In January 2001, Sega announced that the Dreamcast was being discontinued – following this news, a new CEO also announced that Sega would be dropping out of the hardware market – at least as far as home consoles – and would instead focus on software developing and publishing.

Later that year, in November, Nintendo released the GameCube. While not nearly as impressive as the PS2, Nintendo had a solid stable of games to fall back on, including some eagerly anticipated sequels to the Mario franchise, Star Fox, and The Legend of Zelda franchise. There were also quite a few new titles and IPs that debuted on the GameCube – though in all honesty, I didn’t buy a GameCube until 2006 in preparation for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Finally, 2001 marked the year of another major player in the console industry. Having spent most of its time publishing and subsidizing PC game developers, Microsoft burst onto the console hardware market in November with the release of the Xbox. The list of launch titles was fairly lean, all things considered, but Microsoft’s work with many third-party developers and publishers almost ensured a quick expansion of the library. The best of the launch titles was arguably Halo: Combat Evolved. The company behind the title, Bungie, had taken a lot of the lessons learned in the PC FPS genre - including the addition of a serious, original narrative – and produced one of the best console FPS experiences ever. The game was almost universally acclaimed, and in 2011 was re-released as the Halo: Combat Evolved 10th Anniversary Edition. It also spawned numerous sequels, two FPS spinoff titles, and even a console-based Real Time Strategy (RTS) game, Halo Wars.

With the release and following popularity of the Xbox, Sony and Microsoft were starting to square off for the major conflict of the console wars. Sega was already out, and Nintendo – despite relatively strong sales – was far enough behind that they were considered a peripheral competitor at best. Nintendo did, however, have an absolutely commanding lead in the hand-held market, which, it can be argued, continues to this day.

Next week we’ll return to the present with the Seventh Generation of consoles, beginning with the second console offering from Microsoft and continuing the heinous, poorly-planned launch of the PlayStation 3, and the upsurge in “family” gaming launched by the Nintendo Wii.
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