Blowing the Candles
Xbox 360 is five - and this is one console that grew up quickly.
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Has it really been five years? A rudimentary check of the calendar reveals that yes, indeed, the Xbox 360 is blowing out five candles on its cake this week (a task my non-slimline model will have little difficulty with once the fans get going), but it's hard to accept the fact that Microsoft's concave champion has been around for half a decade at this point.
Not, of course, that my actual Xbox 360 has lasted half a decade. Sadly, if the console's hardware is remembered for any one thing in future, it'll almost certainly be the atrocious failure rate of early versions. A large proportion of early adopters no longer have their original consoles in working order, and a hugely expensive repair programme and the eventual launch of redesigned hardware was required to salvage Microsoft's bruised reputation as a hardware vendor.
Yet even if the Red Ring of Death has now entered into gamer vernacular - and certainly won't be remembered quite as fondly as the quirks of earlier consoles, such as turning your PlayStation on its side or blowing on the cartridge pins of your SNES - it's hardly stopped the relentless march which has installed Microsoft comfortably ahead of Sony in terms of installed base.
Bluntly, that's not a position many commentators expected the company to find itself in. From the outset, it was widely agreed that the Xbox 360 was going to be a much more serious prospect than the original Xbox had been - that Microsoft's second console launch would be vastly different to its first, reflecting both the tough lessons learned from the Xbox and the strong relationships with third-party developers and publishers built in the previous half-decade.
Either expressly or tacitly, however, most people seemed to agree that the race was still Sony's to lose - and even if Microsoft had a year-long head start, and some of the noises coming out of Sony Computer Entertainment (or at least, the increasingly arrogant pronouncements of now-former PlayStation boss Ken Kutaragi) weren't entirely encouraging, it seemed inconceivable that Sony would slip up so badly as to give Microsoft a long-term lead.
Yet here we are, five years down the road, and the PlayStation 3 is still playing catch-up to the Xbox 360. Sometimes it erodes the lead, sometimes the gap widens, and as the installed bases both rise, the difference between them becomes less statistically significant - but from a psychological point of view, Microsoft can puff its chest out and proudly proclaim that it only took it one trial run before it produced a console that could bypass Sony's best effort.
Of course, the thing that nobody quite foresaw five years ago wasn't so much that the Xbox 360 would do well - even turning in a Sony-beating performance - but rather, the possibility that Nintendo might knock both of them into a cocked hat. That's precisely what happened, of course. Microsoft and Sony, and their respective fan-bases, love to talk about how the Wii is in decline right now, but all the flapping jaws in the world can't cover for the fact that Nintendo is still a dominant force in videogame hardware, with a commanding lead in installed base and regular top placing in monthly sales charts in key territories.