This time five years ago it was Nintendo's market. Sony had surprised everyone, abandoning plans for a Nintendo crossover CD unit and severing ties with the Japanese giant, then going alone with the unpredictably fashionable PlayStation. Sega meanwhile were virtually bankrupt, dragged into the murky depths of the financial slaughterhouse by the Sega Saturn. Nintendo were still supporting the SNES, arguably my favourite console of all time, and the Nintendo 64 (or Ultra 64 as it almost was) was due to arrive within months. It was heralded as the first quality-controlled console. Magazines were the food for thought at the time, not websites, and their journalists simply lapped up the launch lineup with the news that Nintendo representatives would personally supervise projects in order to ensure the highest standards. Super Mario 64 alone, glimpsed at trade shows and in the pages of Japanese weeklies killed off this writer's impulse to buy a PlayStation for almost six months. If I'd been asked to paint a picture of the console market in five years' time, I would have predicted a buoyant Nintendo surfing the waves triumphantly while Sony lurked in its wake…
Fight of the Century
Nowadays the console market is so far removed from those heady days of yore that it would sound utterly ridiculous to an observer in the Super Nintendo / Mega Drive era. If you told me that Sony would be ruling the roost with a 128-bit vertical DVD player and photo-realistic driving games, I'd snort at you in disgust. Microsoft replacing Sega as the third prong in the market with a bizarre PC-cum-console hybrid? Stuff and nonsense. Nintendo at the bottom of the pile with the N64 a muted failure behind them? Even less likely. What we have now demonstrates the sheer unpredictability of the console market. Technology moves swiftly, and if your next console isn't as good as the tech of the time, you might as well give up. The PlayStation lasted years and sold millions of units over the world, and you can still buy new games for it today. The reasons for this are plenty; it's relatively easy to develop for, it was the first CD media console that had any decent software, it had a decent marketing strategy that finally attracted twenty-somethings and 'mature gamers', and generally it was a well made console. But you're only as good as your next console, not your last. If ever proof was needed of that it's the PlayStation 2. Piled high with almost-good games and a few stunners, it has sold fairly well but not astonishingly, and Sony have had to fight off allegations of price-inflation, they have had to debunk allegations that they knobbled the supply to ensure cast-iron sales figures, they have had to explain away a stupidly high retail price, debate the merits of RGB to explain away the improper output functionality of their console, and explain why their Internet strategy took nearly a year to formulate.
Return to form?
The thing is, after nine months of criticizing the console manufacturer, we've noticed something; they seem to be finding their feet. There are still problems - it's impossible to claim otherwise, with London and Leeds-based development studios closing and perpetual money burners like The Getaway slowly going nowhere for them - but a firm broadband Internet strategy has emerged in Japan and the UK, and high quality games like Red Faction and Gran Turismo 3 are starting to flood the market. The issue of Internet strategy was always likely to be a controversial one. Microsoft have always claimed that their console would plug into existing networks and broadband connections and just go, but the lack of negotiations with major players in their target countries has cast a worrying shadow over this supposed strategy. Nintendo's online plans are even less clear cut than Microsoft's. On the other hand, Sony's deal with the Telewest/ntl partnership will mean that in six months time, anybody with a PS2 and a broadband adapter can simply snake a wire to their cable box and get online. If online gaming is the future, and we've been hearing that in various guises for nearly five years, then Sony fans have a lot to look forward to. The problem is the games.
Needs more fire
An Internet connection is one thing, but you need games and decent services before people will give it the time of day. Sega gave the European Dreamcast a 33.6Kbps modem (and a 56Kbps one elsewhere, of course), but they were always waiting for the elusive broadband breakthrough. When it didn't happen, they apologized to their fans and promptly forgot about the modem they built into the console. With the exception of Phantasy Star Online they largely failed to capitalize on it, and the third parties only produced a couple of multiplayer games that made fair use of it. Then we all sighed audibly when it turned out that Quake III Arena on the PC had been patched beyond compatibility with the Dreamcast version in minutes. And when the broadband adapter didn't work with PSO. As for the user interface… it was functional, but it never did anything for me, except perhaps convince me that the PC ten feet away was a better bet. If the sum of your online gaming functions is a scoreboard, why not tie it in to your PC website so people can view it properly? Microsoft's Xbox user interface on the other hand does look promising. And who would Microsoft be if they didn't allow the Windows 2000-derived environment to react to your desktop PC in some capacity over the promised network connection? I dare say that 40Gb hard disk could hold a few Quake III Arena patches if the situation was turned on its head, not to mention new levels and modifications.
This is where Sony run into problems. They have the potential backbone of Internet connectivity thanks to Telewest and ntl, but their userbase needs a friendly interface and games galore to encourage them to sign up. Thanks to Macromedia Flash and Real Media deals they may get the former, but the latter will take some time, while Microsoft steals their core of cable modem owners who can simply 'plug and play'. Perhaps what both companies are forgetting though is that this is the games industry, and most gamers are more interested in playing than configuring and surfing. They want to hear about the software, not the hardware. As if to demonstrate this fact, Nintendo's Game Cube is receiving a lot of publicity purely because they aren't wasting X amount of money on marketing the online features. Quite the opposite in fact. In recent interviews, highly placed Nintendo officials have debunked rival consoles in favour of something built primarily for gaming. All three consoles have strong lineups for the next year or so, but Nintendo are nailing the names into place, while Microsoft and Sony are hoping to innovate. Something like Halo has to use its looks to garner attention, while fond memories of franchises like Metroid will sell the games straight off the bat, whatever the pre-publicity and critical analysis says. As we approach the end of the year it becomes less and less obvious who's going to win the console wars. It's neck and neck to a certain degree between Microsoft and Sony for the mainstream online gaming market, but there's a also a great deal of interest in Nintendo's more traditional approach, with early demos of Luigi's Mansion and 101 franchises already under exploitation at first party developers in Japan. One thing is for sure; Sony's PlayStation 2 is looking a hotter prospect than nine months ago.
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