There was a point, at Microsoft's pre-E3 conference four years ago, when a lot of people began to believe in Xbox. I can pinpoint the moment almost exactly - it was the point when the video of Dead or Alive 3 rolled, and the jaws of the audience slackened as the best in-game graphics they'd ever seen suddenly graced the screens ahead of them. Back when Halo was just another unproven first person shooter, a single swoop over Team Ninja's beautiful, sun-kissed beach was enough to convince many people that Xbox was worthy of attention. I know; I was one of those people.
Walking out of that conference, just a few miles from where I'm sitting now and just a few years back in time, I heard someone - an American journalist - say that Sony had been "totally, like, outclassed". He was right; the PlayStation 2 had just been given a technological kicking by its upstart rival. Not that this would stop Sony from coasting to a comfortable victory by the end of the hardware generation, of course, but the sheer graphical prowess of the Xbox really did give PS2 a bloody nose. Outclassed was the only word for it.
Today, Sony returned the favour. With interest.
Looking at the content of the two conferences today in Los Angeles - and the MTV special last week, in the case of Xbox 360 - "outclassed" is a word that comes to mind a lot. The bar which was set by Microsoft last week has not only been met, it has been vaulted over. PlayStation 3 is more powerful, more fully featured, more innovative and better supported than Xbox 360. When the Sony conference kicked off, we expected to see something "a bit better" than Xbox, technologically. We didn't expect to have our most fundamental beliefs about what next-generation games will be capable of changed. That, however, is exactly what happened.
I don't want to beat on Microsoft too hard, because ultimately there are still quite a few Xbox 360 games I'm looking forward to; but it's hard not to feel that suddenly, Microsoft's hip lingo and celebrity endorsements seem to ring very hollow. Where Microsoft gave us Elijah Wood babbling through a half hour marketing-led special on MTV, Sony had us watching Phil Harrison show off jaw-dropping interactive tech demos on stage. Harrison is about as far from being a hobbit as you can get - I'm not kidding, the man's a giant - and Ken Kutaragi is unlikely to ever have as many screaming fans as The Killers, but Sony seemed to feel that its new console spoke for itself. It didn't need celebrity endorsements, or senior executives trying to be "down with the kids" - thank god.
It's not that Sony would have problems rounding up some impressive celebs if they so desired. Sony Pictures, Sony Music and the PlayStation brand itself could have called out half of Hollywood today. Instead, we got to see a game console that feels genuinely next generation. We weren't told how "cool" a random American sports star thinks PlayStation 3 is, we were told how astonishingly powerful it is and how incredibly feature-packed it is. We're not just talking about a console that's twice as powerful as Xbox 360 in simple, logical terms (and bear in mind that that's a far, far greater gap in power than existed between PS2 and Xbox); we're talking about a console with more functionality, with fewer corners cut and with a genuinely more impressive line-up of software.
If the day could be summed up in a microcosm, it would be Square Enix' story that explained events best. Yoichi Wada, the firm's president, made two stops today. At the Sony conference, he was one of many developers presenting stunning tech demos - in his case, a truly stunning real-time recreation of the opening to Final Fantasy VII, using characters almost as high quality as those seen in the forthcoming Advent Children movie. Within a matter of hours, he had another stop to make - this time with a headline billing at the Microsoft conference, where he revealed that Square Enix will be supporting Xbox 360... With the release of a four year old massively multiplayer game that's already available on PS2 and PC.
Outclassed? Undoubtedly. Sony's hardware, its software, and even its simple display of confidence in its own product have completely outclassed Microsoft today - but while there can be little doubt about the outcome of this particular battle, it'd be a foolish man who assumed that the war was over yet. What Sony has done unto Microsoft today, Microsoft did unto Sony not so many years ago - and software giant is unlikely to take a defeat at E3 lying down. This tug of war has a long way to go yet.