Rewriting the Future, Game Edition

(Note: all forecasting here is due to gaming overdosage, lack of sleep and too much caffiene. Have the salt lick ready…)

In my insane version of gaming history, Nintendo would have been first on the floor in the next-gen dance, launching the Wii in early December. That new console would have captured the 2006 Holiday season as well as the imagination of gamers and non-gamers alike lured in by the innovative Wiimote, Wii Sports, a library of downloadable classics and (of course) the new Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The DS and GBA libraries would continue to dominate the handheld market (but you don’t need my Bizarro crystal ball for that news). Unfazed, Sony would have countered by dropping the price of the PlayStation 2 to $99.99 with solid releases like Final Fantasy XII, Guitar Hero II, Level 5’s stunning RPG, Rogue Galaxy, as well as assorted budget games and Greatest Hits selling at ten bucks a pop. One amusing commercial for Konami’s Remote Control Dandy SF would take a mild poke at the Wiimote by showing off the game’s unique control scheme that used the standard PS2 controller to guide a giant mecha against a stumbling plumber-shaped mech. Despite no new console in sight until Holiday 2007, the PS2’s larger installed user base would help it keep up with (and even surpass) Nintendo in some smaller markets where Wii units sold out quickly. Still, Sony was definitely preparing something for the 2007 season, that much was certain…
More crystal ball gazing, a click away…

Of course, Microsoft would follow suit by lowering the Xbox to an unheard of $109.99 bundled with Kameo: Elements of Power, Rare’s last Xbox release finally completed after almost seven years of hard work. True Fantasy Live Online, tweaked to include an offline mode for those not yet willing to make the Live commitment., would be a smash right out of the gate and we’d also see Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei IX finally reach US shores as a sleeper hit. As for action fans, the final Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon titles on the console would be holiday must-haves, but a Agetec-published budget release called Metal Wolf Chaos would also get some attention from the run & gun crowd. Xbox Live would expand with top arcade and online hits from a wide range of genres and there would be two big announcements in the form of downloadable video over Live as well as new Source Engine content from Valve and other publishers who licensed the robust physics-driven game engine.

2007 would be the big push into next-gen at that year’s E3. Microsoft would announced that its Xbox 360 would launch during the holiday season with an expandable 20GB hard drive for $500 and include Project Gotham 3 or Perfect Dark Zero as a pack in game. Bungie’s eagerly anticipated Halo 3 would have been playable at the show, flooring all who lined up for hours to play the single level on display. Naturally, the announcement during Day One that this would be the launch title was guaranteed to get lines forming well in advance of the console’s release. However, more bombshells were dropped as the full 360 lineup was revealed to be equally staggering in its quality. Gears of War, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (with the Knights of the Nine expansion), Starcraft Ghost, Dead or Alive 4, Mass Effect and Forza Motorsport 2 would be only a few of the first and third party games that sold out within days of release, but this was only the beginning. Xbox Live Arcade would be the place to go for exclusive content and Microsoft would truly bridge the PC to console gap significantly by showing off enhanced 360 versions of popular Windows titles like Age of Empires III, The Movies and Dungeon Siege II. Oh, and on the Xbox (which Microsoft’s Peter Moore said the company planned to support ‘for the foreseeable future’), a little update to an arcade game by Rare called Battletoads would end up being compared to “a side-scrolling version of Super Smash Bros. meets Contra by more than one web site or game magazine. Rumors of a portable game system were rampant during the year, as both Engadget and Joystiq showed off footage of what looked like a MechAssault sequel on a small screen.

Sony’s more expensive PlayStation 3 would be equally (if not more) impressive that holiday season, with its larger hard drive storage size of 60GB and HD movie playback capability as standard issue. The company’s numerous TV spots and well-timed interviews did a great job in explaining the company’s ten-year commitment to the platform, something that made a number of formerly skeptical consumers reach for their wallets. In a first of its kind move, pre-orders taken through Sony’s online store and major retailers after E3 guaranteed anyone who signed up before the deadline a console on day one while any pre-ordered systems that showed up on eBay were delisted to keep the number of scams to a minimum. The console would launch with surefire hits like Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, God of War 3, Gran Turismo HD, Resistance: Fall of Man, Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom and an enhanced Oblivion that took advantage of the extra hard drive space for some exclusive content. To some, the return of the simply titled games Twisted Metal, Warhawk, Wipeout and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider would be a nod to the early days of the PS One when that system was fresh and unstoppable. In addition, a few surprises like MotorStorm, Drakan III: Ruins of Destiny, Armored Core: Thunder and Dragon Quest Online would keep gamers glued to their televisions for weeks on end. PSP to PS3 connectivity would be exploited to the fullest with new SOCOM, Untold Legends, Wipeout, Metal Gear Solid and Warhawk games that allowed new content to be swapped back and forth between units. Sony would take a page from Nintendo’s book, allowing for some of its PS One games to be downloadable to either the PS3 or PSP, thus showing some gamers (and editors) that first-person games like Doom or Descent can in fact be played without two analog sticks. Finally, behind closed doors, the delayed until 2008 Killzone was shown in playable form to journalists who were left nearly speechless by Guerilla’s prowess with the new hardware. “Now it’s a Halo-Killer!” was the title of one article as screenshots and later, game footage silenced most of the skeptics.
Third-party games would be gravy on all three consoles, particularly when developers produced Wii versions of certain popular franchises. While Capcom’s Devil May Cry 4 hit the PlayStation 3 and Lost Planet rocked the Xbox, there was eventually a Resident Evil game on all three consoles. The Wii version of Resident Evil 5 added two new characters and some wickedly cool new areas that made excellent use of the controller, particularly with new zombie hunter Martina and her Castlevania inspired whip. Speaking of that series, Konami finally produced a next-gen 3D version of the game that captured the spirit of the excellent Game Boy Advance and DS games in the long-running franchise. Actually, Castlevania: Domain of the Damned was more ‘2.5D’ (like Namco’s Klonoa games) and fans who initially fumed at the early screenshots swarmed game shops to reserve copies after the first movies were ‘leaked’ onto the Internet. Namco, by the way, had a new Splatterhouse game in the works (finally!) that looked in screenshots like a cross between God of War and Resident Evil in terms of pacing and M-rated gore. The company also released a great classics compilation for the PSP and DS that features obscure arcade or console hits such as Burning Force, Phelios, Ball Jacks and Klonoa Beach Volley, among others. Square/Enix surprised fans of the two 16-bit Actraiser games by remaking both as Actraiser Legends for the Wii, compete with an all new third game and remixed Yuzo Kashiro music from the originals. Rumors of a Dragon Warrior meets Final Fantasy game were finally squashed, but it turned out to be even better news for some RPG fans. Akira Toriyama’s Bird Studios was doing designs for the next FF title while Yoshitaka Amano was reworking the classic DW characters in his characteristic style for the next game in that series. Both games were initially planned solely for the DS, but moved onto the Wii early in development, which made a few 360 and PS3 owners a bit envious.

Speaking of Nintendo, their 2007 was one to remember, particularly with the release of almost 300 NES to N64 titles over their download service by year’s end. Other Wii gems were Fire Emblem Saga, a redone collection of every game in the series on three discs, Super Mario Galaxy and Mario Kart Twist, which featured up to 16 player races and the ability to upload or download user-created tracks. The big surprises of the year would be Star Fox Squadron, a multi-player space shooter that allowed pilot/gunner teams to have at it in massive space and planet-based maps and True Legend of Zelda, where you actually played as the princess (finally!) and had to rescue Link after he’s taken to a demon-infested alternate Hyrule. The latter would be seen as ‘Game of the Year’ material by many, but debate would rage furiously over the game’s cliffhanger ending that literally left Link hanging by his fingers over a fiery doom. Nintendo would pull an even bigger surprise by announcing that 2008 would see a ‘sequel’ that had players hopping into Link’s boots in a parallel storyline that allows for save data in Zelda’s game to affect his adventure’s outcome. Actually, Earthbound 3 would have been Game of the Year in my book, but Ness’ new adventure was delayed until 2008 when the first two games were finally arriving on the DS…
Meanwhile, back at the real world ranch – we seem to keep getting awesomely less than spectacular console rollouts that feature not enough systems for months and unfinished, delayed or rushed launch titles. Let’s not even discuss those few too many flashing lights o’ doom as the failure rate of day one systems has been an issue for two out of the big three companies since the mid 90’s. These days, the element of import anticipation has dwindled to a matter of days or weeks instead of months or years in some cases. With near simultaneous launches, the length of time between territory releases has shorted, leaving little room for US gamers to get excited about what Japanese gamers are playing or whether those games will be localized at some point. Then again, I’d imagine this would bug those who import games more than the average consumer who only cares about what’s coming in next Tuesday.

However, let’s be frank here for a moment. While I understand gaming is a business first and foremost, I don’t understand the part that says good business practice is alienating a percentage of past, current and future consumers by making them wait on long lines only to go home empty handed year after year. That sounds more like poor planning and rushing a system to market before you can meet a better percentage of demand. Sure, those crowds look good on the news (well, until the usual reports of violence as freshly bought consoles are stolen at gunpoint in the parking lot), but I’d love to hear from the folks who think everyone in those lines isn’t cursing them to a thousand dooms at some point. While it’s great to see early adopters roll up with cash in hand (or folks who are ready, willing and able to max out that credit card), when you can’t get your hands on what you’re craving, you’re probably not going to want to get a rain check for a nebulous future date.

The rush to claim the living room as all-purpose media center is leaving many out in the cold in terms of adopting that new technology and the ideas behind it. Since I worked in and eventually managed a game store a few years ago, I got to witness a few console launches and can safely say they’re disappointing in the long run when you’re forcing people to make choices they’d rather not once all is said and done. For the most part, those who can only afford one system want games and the means to play them along with getting out of the store with some change in their pockets. They don’t want long lines or shortages and bad excuses for them from sales clerks. If they can’t get what they came for, some of those dollars will go to whatever company has product available. Would waiting a few months to a year kill a company if they launched with a few million systems available and all “A” titles within a launch window rather than maybe a dozen or so units per selected retailer and too many buggy first generation games with less features than last-gen releases? Do the people who make the big decisions sit down with the developers and wonder about those of us who want to see a system launch that makes sense? Will we finally see a wider range of launch titles that stand up to the test of time rather than quickly end up in the bargain bin? Does anyone on the consumer side reading this even care anymore or are we all just dim-witted sheep that fall over backward with glazed eyeballs at new graphics techniques or ultra-funky controllers?

Call me crazy if you must, but sometimes, I really hate it when new consoles come out…

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