This is hard-core
Will the Xbox 360 revolutionize home entertainment forever? Sure — that is, until the PS3 comes out
BY CHRIS DAHLEN
The Ghost of Consoles Past
Remembered for: starting it all, with a Christmas rush to bring Pong home and ... hook it up to the television? How the hell do you do that?
Remembered for: turning game consoles into a huge business (until the ’84 video-game crash). The Atari 2600 sold millions of consoles and brought famous arcade games from Space Invaders to Pac Man into the home.
Remembered for: having better graphics and more power than the Atari — but who designed that stupid disc controller?
Remembered for: being better than Intellivision, and shipping with the popular Donkey Kong cartridge. Coleco tried to follow up with the Adam computer, and it was a total flop.
Remembered for: technically being a home computer, but fondly remembered for games like Impossible Mission and Prince of Persia. What did our folks think we would use it for? Homework?
Remembered for: brilliantly original, eye-poppingly colorful side-scroller classics like Zelda and Mario Brothers. The 8-bit soundtracks made the most of their limits, and influence musicians to this day.
Remembered for: lovable caveman mascot Bonk, who achieved an impressive Q rating fairly quickly but was not able to translate that notoriety into sales.
Remembered for: beating Nintendo to a 16-bit console and ending Mario’s late-’80s dominance. When Nintendo responded with Super Nintendo, Sega fended them off with the smash hit Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega later became a hit in Allston houses with EA’s NHL hockey series.
Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
Remembered for: being Nintendo’s bid to catch up with Sega. The SNES fought tooth and nail with the Sega Genesis, winning with adventure games, getting killed with sports.
Remembered for: being the first "64-bit" console on the market, despite that claim being a bald-faced lie. This was Atari’s last foray into the hardware business.
Remembered for: its $700 price point, which essentially doomed the system from the start. The 3DO offered the option to watch movies as well as play games, which at the time was considered ridiculous and now seems prescient.
Remembered for: offering the very best 2D performance of any console ever – right when people decided they wanted 3D. The Saturn still has its defenders, as well as a handful of classic titles.
Launched: PlayStation: 1995 (US)
Remembered for: stealing the show. The gateway from games into movies (Tomb Raider, Doom, Resident Evil).
Remembered for: still being "for kids," even though teenagers played plenty of Mario Kart.
Launched: 1999 (in the US)
Remembered for: being hailed as "ahead of its time" — it was the first console to include Internet support. The Dreamcast was clobbered by PlayStation 2, marking the end of Sega’s console business.
Sony PlayStation 2
Remembered for: more of the same great graphics and gameplay, Tony Hawk, and GTA. With its older brother, has the largest combined library of games of any living system.
Remembered for: more brawn but fewer games than the competing Sony system. Twenty years from now, will we remember it as the start of a synergistic revolution in gaming? Or will it just be "the one that had Halo"?
Following the Xbox 360’s Christmas-season launch, the other two major gaming players, Sony and Nintendo, are planning to release their own "next generation" consoles around March of next year. Here’s what we know so far:
SONY PLAYSTATION 3
Tentatively due for release in Japan in March and in the US by next Christmas — a stark contrast to Xbox 360’s "worldwide" launch — the PS 3 includes hardware that will either match or beat the 360, new features for online play, and backward compatibility with most or all of the PlayStation library. The PS 3 will use the new high-definition Blu-ray disc format, and unlike the PS 2, the hard drive comes standard. On the downside, developers like id’s John Carmack and Kojima Productions’s Hideo Kojima have already said they prefer the Xbox’s better, more productive development tools — and as ArsTechnica’s Jon Stokes points out, it’s not clear how friendly the PS 3 will be to your non-Sony PC and entertainment devices.
Nintendo’s plans for the Revolution largely remain a secret, leaving analysts guessing how it will be designed and how much horsepower it will bring. In keeping with Nintendo’s devotion to younger players and bizarre new forms of game-play, the Revolution probably won’t have as much power or as intense graphics as the Sony and Microsoft models, but it’s already more innovative: Nintendo has previewed a new wand-like gyroscopic controller that will work intuitively with, I don’t know, fishing games? Nintendo president Satoru Iwata told Japanese newspaper Nikkei Business that it will launch worldwide sometime after March.
A fall wind rattles the Somerville duplex where five guys sit huddled around a television set — oblivious to the weather, the host’s girlfriend (who is trying to study), or the neighbors who can hear us screaming at two-minute intervals as we play the most powerful game console on the market: the Xbox. Four controllers snake four cords across the room, threatening to knock over the beer and Snickers on the coffee table with each button push of Dead or Alive Ultimate. The sound is hooked up to the stereo, so everyone in the neighborhood hears when a 400-pound biker sits on a character, grunts, and teabags him square in the jaw. "Can you kill yourself after that move?" asks one player, his character under the weight of the biker.
We are two weeks away from the release of Xbox 360, but none of us has any complaints about the old one. Four years after it launched, the Xbox finally has the games to back up its hardware and is no longer a one-hit (Halo) wonder. Its online portal, Xbox Live, has signed up more than two million players. The Xbox division of Microsoft still isn’t in the black — in four years, it has lost $4 billion — but the console is hitting its stride.
So just when the going is good, Microsoft is replacing it. Ever since Elijah "Frodo" Wood introduced the Xbox 360 on an MTV infomercial this past May, the hype and speculation about this "next generation" console has climbed to a desperate intensity. But what does next generation mean? When the 360 arrives on November 22, will it be a major upgrade, or just an Xbox 2.0? Is it worth the $300 list price — make that $400 if you want the hard drive (which came standard on the last version) — or hell, break the bank and spend $4499.98 on GameStop’s full bundle that includes 20 games and a plasma-screen HD-TV?
"It’s not an upgrade. It’s a quantum leap," says Carlos de Leon, group product manager for Xbox 360. The Xbox 360 offers a deeper online experience, with a richer Live portal, and instant-messaging and video-cam features that let your friends ass in whenever you’re playing. Xbox 360 also gives you new ways to pipe photos, songs, and other media across the net and onto your living-room TV.
But the biggest selling point is brawn. "We set out to make the most powerful game machine on the planet," says de Leon. "The hard-core gamer is the heart and soul of our success." That means cinematic graphics, HD-TV support, and mandatory 5.1 (and optional 7.1) surround sound on every game.
Still, no one at the apartment in windy Somerville expects to own one before Christmas. Steve Ashley, 31, art director at local game developer Stainless Steel Studios, is waiting "at least six months" to buy one, to make sure the bugs are worked out of the first batch. Sean Thompson, a 30-year-old Linux administrator, is happy for now with his PlayStation 2 — plus, he has a mortgage and other grown-up expenses. "I can’t justify spending that much money on a game system."
Erich Doubek, 30, a digital-media designer, only just bought the original Xbox, and "I don’t feel like I’ve gotten a full round out of the old one" — a fair complaint when game developers are shipping games for the old Xbox into the new year. Not to mention that Sony’s PlayStation 2 still has more games and more users than the Xbox, and analysts generally expect the PlayStation 3 (out next year) to keep Sony in the lead.
In a forecast from DFC Intelligence, DFC President David Cole predicts, "Until Sony makes a major mistake we have no reason to believe they will not continue [the PlayStation 2’s] success with the PlayStation 3." Kagan Research analyst Irina Mulvey predicts that Xbox 360 will break Sony’s market dominance next year — but Mulvey expects that by 2008, Sony will regain the lead: "Because of the existing PS 2 install base looking to upgrade, their coming console will achieve a large penetration of the market." (The third "next gen" system, Nintendo’s upcoming Revolution, is expected to keep the bronze while Sony and Microsoft fight for first.)
Just surveying the people in Ashley’s living room, none of us can name a killer feature that makes the 360 seem like a next-generation system — especially when Dead or Alive Ultimate looks and plays so well on Ashley’s original Xbox. After a few rounds, we’ve all started playing the female characters, who are animated with "jiggle physics": when purple-haired Ayane taunts you after kicking your ass, she rears back, and a second later her chest comes with her.
"So that’ll be even more realistic in the next one?" asks Doubek.
Maybe, but Microsoft has a bit more jiggle in its plans.