As a nine-year-old many important things pass you by. Asked about global events, about politics or even sports, most respond with a blank stare and a finger up one nostril. Ask a nine year old about games consoles and it seems everyone has an opinion.
It occurred to me that this is a sign of the times, with brand recognition and advertising corrupting our youth. Young people have it easy now, so what concerns to they have but gadgets? Then I remembered my own childhood wasn’t much different. The technology has improved but otherwise things are pretty similar.
My nine-year-old self would argue about whether Santa existed, what the equator was (my theory was a volcano in Brazil), and Sega vs Nintendo. I was brought up playing the Sega MasterSystem and Sega Megadrive (Genesis). Sonic The Hedgehog was my hero and all things Sega was my addiction. My friend David had a different view. Nintendo was the influential games company in his household and he constantly preached the brilliance of Mario and Mega Man and swear that his NES and SNES were the best games machines ever. Despite our limited knowledge, both of us allied with one company or another. Perhaps it was the result of marketing, Sega’s “Does What Nintendon’t” campaign. Maybe it was because David had a subscription to Nintendo magazine. Maybe it was because we were kids, and kids will argue about anything.
Sega was considered edgier and cooler than Nintendo. Everything Sega did was ‘with attitude’. Sega characters were loud, egotistic, colourful anthropomorphised critters. Nintendo’s creations were more cute and quiet.
Sega found a loyal following in the UK and Europe, Nintendo was far more popular in Japan and North America. Even though I rarely got to play great titles like Mario World, Mario Kart and Star Fox, I knew more people who owned a Megadrive than SNES, and as result I was never disappointed in my games machine. It was more fun if your friends all owned the same machine because you could swap games, share stories and ally against David. I guess that was the selling point for me. I wanted what my friends had. A lesson industry veterans Atari learned the hard way.
The Atari Jaguar launched in 1993 on a very limited release. Atari hoped the console would generate such hype that consumers would be queuing up. This back-fired, the limited release meant nobody owned the console, and third-party developers failed to see any advantage in developing for a system with such poor sales. Where’s the fun if your friends are playing a different console?
In 1995 something happened that marked the beginning of a new wave of games machine. This machine was meant for gamers of all ages. It could do what other consoles couldn’t. Everybody wanted one. It was the Sony PlayStation.
Sony had actually developed a CD-ROM console for Nintendo why back in 1988, but the partnership fell apart in 1992. Many Sony employees wanted to put the incident behind them and forget about making a games console. However, a few employees decided they weren’t going to be deterred, the result made Sony a major player in gaming consoles.
Sony’s renown grew quickly, many Sega fans purchased a Playstation rather than the Sega Saturn. The rival consoles targeted the same market, only Sony followed through. Sega tried to maintain an edgy image but were really catering for pre-teens. Sony genuinely did what Nintendon’t. Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider saw it boom in popularity. Sony’s Playstation snared an audience that Sega thought had outgrown video games. My brother bought a Playstation and told me I that I would never be allowed to play it. Of course there was no way I was going to let his threats deter me, and taking a beating seemed like a worthy price for a few hours playing new games.
Playstation was the console everybody wanted. Nintendo had tried and failed to launch the Virtual Boy, the Atari Jaguar had the coolest packaging, but not much else, Sega were out-shone by the new kid on the block.
Probably fed up of the constant fighting and distrust the Playstation bestowed upon our household, Christmas 1997 saw my parents invest in a single present for me and my brothers to share. Normally this is a terrible idea as anything shared between kids is a reason to argue, but on this occasion it was the best Christmas present we ever had. Why was it a good present? One N64, three Controllers, two rumble packs, 2 memory packs, Mario 64, Laylat Wars and Goldeneye.
Nintendo had come back in style. The Nintendo 64 was, and still is one of the greatest games machines ever. I can’t imagine the total hours I dedicated to that game library. I threw a dinosaur into a floating mine, shot Alec Travelyan from a sky-high platform, rescued all of Hyrule, developed a phobia of shell-based projectiles, flew space ships with Luke Skywalker, discovered that bears and birds get on quite well but neither like witches, and that squirrels have terrible potty mouth.
As well as being the only successful 64-bit system, the N64 also launched in a unique window where it didn’t have any competition. It sold in droves, appealing to a wider audience than typical Nintendo fans thanks to games like Goldeneye and the ground-breaking Orcarina of Time. Anybody who didn’t already own the system soon did after playing at a friend’s house. The playground was buzzing with people sharing their experiences, arguing about games that everybody owned.
The N64 enjoyed being unchallenged for a few years but eventually the new contenders came out. First to try and knock Nintendo from it’s perch was the old enemy. Sega launched the Dreamcast in 1999. An encouraging design, it showcased forward thinking by featuring such things as an Ethernet port, something that was unheard of in console gaming. Sadly for the innovative machine, people weren’t ready for it. A lack of support from third-party developers led to a disappointing game library. It didn’t sell well, and a few years later Sega abandoned the hardware market forever.
A more significant challenge to Nintendo’s machine surfaced a year later, the PS2. Fans flocked to buy the new console, eager to play the more mature games that Sony machines were renowned for. Nintendo had made some steps into more mature territory during the N64’s release but couldn’t shake it’s family friendly image. The PS2 sold extremely well worldwide and Sony execs could celebrate another successful console and had now undoubtedly defined themselves as a major player in the console market.
In 2002 a new competitor emerged, the Xbox. Manufactured by Microsoft the new machine had impressive specifications for it’s time. Sales were decent but many gamers were happy enough with their Sony machines and sales never came close to matching it’s competitor. What ensured the consoles longevity and Microsoft’s willingness to create a successor was it’s popularity in North America, mainly due to popular games like Dead or Alive 3, Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding, Project Gotham Racing, and the ground breaking FPS Halo: Combat Evolved. Halo became a favourite of console owners everywhere due to it’s impressive multiplayer which became a source of reference for every FPS game ever after.
2002 also saw another Nintendo machine, the Gamecube. It was the first Nintendo console to support online gaming, although this required an add-on modem adaptor accessory that was difficult to find due to it’s limited availability. The Gamecube won many fans thanks to an extensive library of high quality games, but also garnered criticism for it’s colourful design and continued pandering to young players. By June 2003 the GameCube was tying with new Xbox machine at 13% of the overall market share. Whereas for Microsoft 13% was an encouraging figure a debut machine, for Nintendo it represented a worrying loss of ground to the Playstation 2, which dominated the market with a substantial 60% market share.
My allegiances hopped all over the place at the time. At home the family had a PS2 that provided many enjoyable experiences and solidified my interest in JRPG’s and survival horror games. At university we had an Xbox, which became an almost exclusive Halo machine, although we did occasionally dip into sports games and racers. I never took much interest in the Gamecube, it wasn’t a console made for my enjoyment, but I did know several of my friends younger siblings who loved it.
In 2005 Microsoft was the trendsetter for the next generation, launching the Xbox360 a full year ahead of it’s competitors. The early launch gave Microsoft an important edge by being the only option for early adopters. It’s emphasis on online functionality and multiplayer was completely fresh. It still failed to out sell it’s rivals but sales were significantly better than the previous generation and proved invaluable in consolidating Microsoft’s status as a major player in the console market. For me the Xbox 360 opened my eyes to games I had never experienced before. Having not experienced PC gaming, it was the first time that I got to play huge games like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. It wasn’t without it’s faults though, possibly because of the desire to launch in a window without any competition, the 360 was incredibly unreliable. Over a period of ten years I have had to buy four xbox360 consoles because of the regularity with which they broke down.
The following year saw both Sony and Nintendo release new machines. Sony’s PS3 didn’t have the best of starts, it was expensive to buy, had lost a full year of the market because of the 360’s early launch and lacked the unique elements of Nintendo’s console. From being the market leader Sony now found itself with heavy competition from two significant rivals. Sales picked up as Sony started making the machine cheaper. It meant that many things such as backwards compatibility had to be scrapped but slowly the machine had fought back to become competitive by 2008.
The surprise contender of the mid-2000’s was Nintendo’s Wii. A machine so unlike anything that had come before that it created phenomenal waves in the world of console gaming. Rather than trying to compete in terms of hardware Nintendo choose a different direction. Embracing it’s image it launched a machine targeted at families. It featured simple games that anyone could play and a unique motion sensitive controller. Every parent thought it was the perfect Christmas present, gaming stepped out from being the favoured pastime of teenage boys and people perceived as hermits and became something everybody could enjoy. Grandparents could play on equal footing with their grandchildren, parents could join in with their children’s hobby. It’s sales were massive, Nintendo were producing 1.8million Wii’s per month for the first 18months of it’s life and was still struggling to meet consumer demand. Wii console sales soared past it’s competitors, it was the first time Nintendo had dominated the console sales charts since the SNES.
The Wii was an unprecedented exception to typical console consoles. Nobody, not even Nintendo, anticipated the extraordinary success it had. It struggled to capitalise though. For the casual market it was fantastic, but the truth is that the casual market doesn’t generate nearly as much money as the hardcore gamer market. Lacking developer support due to it’s limiting specifications compared to 360 and PS3 and it’s difficult to implement control system, Nintendo found itself falling behind in consistent game sales. New Mario and Zelda titles always proved popular but many who had bought the console were content with a handful of games and rarely spent on new titles. The 360 and PS3 were the consoles game companies wanted to develop for because owners of those machines regularly bought new games. Both companies competed to win over the market with an array of exclusive titles, most notable successes were the ongoing Halo franchise on 360 and the excellent Uncharted series on PS3. By the end of both machines life cycles PS3 had arguably become the superior machine thanks to it’s continued exclusive titles, with The Last Of Us a notable entry. Microsoft, on the other hand seemed to give up producing new exclusive titles for 360, instead focusing it’s efforts on it’s next console.
Wii U, Nintendo’s follow up to the Wii, hit the market in 2012. Nintendo again focused on unique methods of control, this time creating a tablet-style control pad. Although no one expected the Wii U to emulate it’s predecessors success, nobody was prepared for how poorly it was received. Despite a strong launch, sales quickly dropped off. Many purchasers of the original Wii had simply stopped using their console, sticking it at the back of the shelf and allowing it to gather dust, they had no desire to upgrade. The hardcore crowd were still unconvinced, the Wii-U’s performance could now equal the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, but with the launch of new consoles from both Microsoft and Sony just around the corner there was no need to buy a Wii-U. It’s only innovation seemed to be a touch screen. Even new Mario titles failed to sway public opinion, and after only a year the Wii U is considered by many critics a failure. Of course this isn’t the first time Nintendo mis-stepped in the console market, and there’s still time for the Wii U to do something special, but it’s going to have to be huge.
Now we’re at the dawn of the new age. Playstation 4 and Xbox One have launched, each are highly capable gaming machines, each has unique features and at this stage is impossible to predict a winner. As things stand the PS4 appears to have an edge, partly due to a disastrous pre-launch campaign by Microsoft that saw them redesign many of their machines components, and partially due to Microsoft’s insistence that every Xbox One be bundled with Kinect, an accessory that many gamers see as unnecessary. The early consensus is that Sony have made a machine for gamers, a dedicated console with great titles and optimal performance, whereas Microsoft have attempted to create a media accessory akin to Smart TVs, but with the ability to play games. Neither manufacturer has played their trump cards yet though- the big exclusive games. With the likes of Titanfall and Halo 5 coming for Microsoft and The Order 1886 and Uncharted 4 to Sony’s machine there’s a lot still to be decided and, as always, gamers will go where the good games are.