Thursday, 20 November 2014

PS2, Xbox, GameCube... The Last of Their Kind?

For almost the entire history of video games there has been a rivalry to one degree or another between console gamers and home computer users. The former believed their systems to be the superior gaming platforms whereas the latter heralded the multi-functionality of their systems, and I suppose both were right - that is after all what both types of format were designed for.

Rather than simply acknowledging that though, most gamers argued instead. First we had the Spectrum and Commodore 64 users versus the Master System and NES users, then MegaDrive and SNES users versus Amiga and Atari ST users, and when the CD-based consoles started appearing it was the all-powerful PC they were competing with. I was an active participant in many of these wars, particularly at college where I spent many study hours passionately lobbying for my mighty MegaDrive in the face of a devout Amiga fan, right up until I effectively left the 'current' gaming scene with the demise of Sega's final console which was, as we all know, the last really great console to be released. Part of the reason the Dreamcast didn't achieve the levels of success that Sega needed it to was simply because there were so many PS1 owners who were waiting for the PS2 to be released, and most of the rest were waiting to see what delights Nintendo would come up with for the GameCube or to see what Microsoft's debut console would offer, and it's these consoles that I recently decided must surely constitute the last of the true games consoles.

Despite mortally wounding Sega, I suppose I must begrudgingly admit that all three of them are fairly decent machines and host some pretty snazzy titles - indeed, the PS2 went on to become the highest selling console of all-time (for now, at least - Nintendo's DS is rapidly catching up!) - but one thing they all have in common is their ease of use. Just remove the packaging, plug them in, insert a game disc, turn them on, and play! Apart from perhaps the minor inconvenience of having to set the date/time, it really is that simple and that's exactly what a game console should be, right? No fuss, no messing around, just easy gaming.

Unfortunately for creaky old-timers like me, however, I fear that it's an endangered concept these days. The menu systems on the previous generation of consoles include all manner of options and features, which is quite handy in some ways but slows down their use too, and they also seem unable to function without an internet connection. If you have one, the system will no doubt start whining about firmware updates which you'll have to then download and install before you use most of the features. After much fiddling around, you might decide it's time to try a game. This will almost always require additional installations and updates and many such games are rolled out in unfinished states so you'll probably need to download patches to even get them to run properly. And how long will these games even be playable? Some of them are so reliant on being online that they are no longer usable once their servers get shut down. Of course, many gamers would say this is all worth it as today's games are so much more advanced than those of yesteryear but it all seems far too reminiscent of gaming on another platform to me - yep, the PC again.

I've always avoided using PC's for gaming. This is in part due to the high cost of having a 'rig' powerful enough to run recent releases, but also because running games on them generally requires a lot more messing around than I was prepared for. Since owning a PS3, however, I've been barely able to tell the difference! Constant installations and updates are required, even just for using the system at all, let alone running games, and it drives me crazy. Worse still, from what I hear the PS4 and Xbone (snigger) are even worse than their predecessors so it seems it wasn't just a one-off 'transitional generation' either. I guess it's here to stay.

Many of you reading this will probably dismiss my inane ramblings as those of a overly-fussy retro gaming oaf who's unable to grasp the complexities of modern hardware. Perhaps I am but I can't be the only one who feels this way. Consoles, at least as far as quick plug 'n' play convenience is concerned, are near enough dead, and modern consoles are basically branded PC's without keyboards. How long, then, will it be before the formats all merge into one? Perhaps we're set for something similar to the MSX project - rival hardware manufacturers all making their own machines to the same basic set of hardware guidelines but running intercompatible software. I suppose that might not be such a bad idea but I can't help longing for the simpler days when I could insert a game cartridge, move the switch to the 'on' position, and then just play it. Do you welcome the direction the gaming industry is heading or do you yearn for a simpler time as I do?


  1. Back in the day Computer games, Video games and Arcade games were three distinct things, separated by the different kind of consumption (in arcades instead of bedrooms or instead of living rooms), different hardware proposition (both control input and hardware) and different gain schemes (coins, retail package with first-party royalties, shareware etc.).
    In the late '90 arcades collapsed outside Japan (replaced by gambling machines) and even the arcade games ported to consoles started to be considered as second tier games (what died was the arcade sensibility).
    PC developed started to move into console business with PS2, Xbox and Gamecube due to piracy, non-standard configuration and simply the more money circulating there.
    Many thought PC gaming was dying because retail sales were lagging however what really happened is that PC gaming was transforming into a digital-only business.
    Since there aren't platform holder on computer and it's much cheaper and less risky to release games there a new breed of independent developed games arised which would have not being possible on consoles.
    Meanwhile on consoles the audience began to prefer cinematic experience over pick up and play games and the race to the bigger production and marketing was exacerbated.
    What were once considered fairly big publishers like Acclaim and THQ went bankrupt because they couldn't keep up with EA, Activision, Take 2 and Ubisoft.
    Japanese publishers who were for the most part dependent on medium production and pick up and play games became rapidly irrelevant with the exception of Nintendo.
    The japanese market migrated heavily over handhelds (Nintendo DS) and so all they had to be successful on console was to ape western games or milk the last IPs with broad appeal in US and Euorpe like Resident Evil.
    Some tried their fortune on Wii which was the last "arcade" based console.
    Nowadays on PC indie games strive, on consoles the releases at retail sharply slowed down because only safe and big budget games are financially viable for publishers that means that there are much less variety on the console lineup because the nicher genres disappeared.
    The true booming sector is mobile gaming (on smartphones), handhelds are under heavy siege by them and even home consoles now looks like dinosaurs.

    All this rambling to say that's all about money and always was.
    What we are witnessing now is just the consolidation of the traditional videogame industry which began since the '80.

  2. Hi Mr. Neogaf, thanks for the great comment :) You never said if you agree with me or not though - do you like the way the game industry is headed? I'm very pleased about the indie game boom but not the mobile gaming boom - I just can't get on with touch-screen controls. I've still only played a handful of games on my Android phone

  3. No, I prefer more the arcadish gameplay of the '90s (I'd say only Nintendo remained true to its soul through the years at least in the console space).
    However I have no problem with the OS in the new consoles/handhelds.
    Actually I think they are needed, sure downloading sizeable patches even before have played the game for the first time is a pain in the ass but the patch system is overall a welcomed addition (think at the first print of In the Hunt for Saturn!).
    Also don't forget that sometime the old system weren't actually that friendly under that aspect (C64 slow cassette or the increase in loading times with 3DO, NGCD, Saturn and PS1 over the previous cart based systems).

    I care more for the snappiness of the gameplay of the "good old days" over tedious cinematics or cool but heavily scripted sequences.

    So I disagree with the title of the post, to me Xbox,PS2 and GC are just an evolution (seen as change, not improvement or worsening) which was constant since the late '70.

    Let me add that no one mortally wounded Sega outside of Sega itself.
    DC was a desperate move for which Sega bet heavily by subsiding the hardware in an attempt to buy marketshare before Sony and Nintendo would release their new consoles.
    The bet backfired when not enough consumers cared for the arcade output of the DC in the form of severe financial losses.
    Losses caused by the DC project is what put Sega out of business.
    DC really was discontinued a few months after PS2 was released and well before GC and Xbox were available on the market.

  4. I think both computers and consoles have fallen foul of two curses of modern times, automatic updating and multi tasking. Of course, both these facilities are very useful in their place but both can make the experience of owning a computer/console less pleasant for the user and harder for developers. For instance the Spectrum was basically a console with a keyboard in some ways. Every time you reset it, it was back to factory settings so no crud could accumulate and it would never get updates which could slow it down, render it unuseable etc. Developers knew they exactly how much RAM and CPU they had and each speccy was identical. Loading a game was admittedly slow on a tape but did not require the user to configure the system in any way. So, yes, I miss those days as well.

    I remember going to university and one day they said "the computers are not working today due to blah blah blah (updates etc)" and I was like "what? my Spectrum works every day of the week!"

  5. Hi again Mr. Neogaf - I know what you mean and I agree with most of your comments. The title of the post just meant that those consoles were the last ones that were quick and easy to use. Just my opinion though, of course. :) And yes, I know Sega did their own damage really, but it's natural for fanboys to blame their favourite company's rivals. The Mega CD was where it started :|

    Hi John - I definitely know what you mean there. There aren't realistically any limits these days so games are entirely down to the developers imagination, not to mention how much effort they can/will put it :)