Even though in my heart I’m a PC gamer I was never without a console growing up. For the most part I was a Nintendo kid, seeing every console from the NES upwards making its way into my family’s living room. That changed when I had my own job and enough money to buy a PlayStation 2, secluding myself away in my room to play Gran Turismo for hours on end trying to justify the $700 odd sum I had spent on this magnificent piece of hardware. Nowadays you’ll find every major console lining up beside my TV so that I can indulge myself in any title regardless of its platform.
The past couple decades has been quite an interesting time for consoles. They really came into prominence after the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1985 (2 years later for us Australians) and Nintendo continued to be highly successful with it’s successor. Their reign as the king of consoles came to an end with the release of the original PlayStation back in 1994 which saw Sony catapulted to the top of the console kingdom. Microsoft, seeing a great opportunity to compete in the gaming market, released the Xbox back in 2001 and whilst it didn’t dethrone Nintendo or Sony it enjoyed some mild success in the market, even if it wasn’t a success financially. The release of the PlayStation 2 kept Sony at the top for quite a while as neither the Xbox nor Nintendo’s GameCube could hold a candle to it.
The current generation of consoles saw another shift in the king of consoles crown, but not for the traditional reasons that gamers had come to expected. Whilst the PlayStation 3 was a technical marvel the Xbox360 hit the trifecta of price, performance and catalogue of good platform exclusives that helped build it up to the success it is today. Neither of them however could hold a candle to the success that is the Nintendo Wii. Aiming at their largest untapped market Nintendo created a console that appealed to non-gamers and gamers alike. The result being that they couldn’t manufacture the things fast enough, seeing wide spread shortages for the console that only helped to sustain the fever pitch surrounding it. With a grand total of 90 million consoles sold to date it’s well on its way to be the most successful console ever released, although it still has a long way to go to match the PlayStation 2 (coming in at a whopping 153 million).
The next generation of consoles is still some ways off however. Traditionally you’d see a new console generation every 5 years but the only ones with any official plans so far are Nintendo with their Wii U console which isn’t slated for release until sometime next year. Granted the current generation of consoles has aged far better than any of their previous generations what with developers finding all sorts of optimizations to squeeze extra performance out of them but even the best programming can’t hide the aging hardware that’s running in these consoles. It is then up for debate as to what the next generation of consoles will look like and there’s speculation that it may be the last.
Richard Garriott AKA Lord British, games industry celebrity and space tourist, has gone on record that he believes that the next generation of consoles will be the last:
IG: It’s always tough to completely change the way you look at things. The bigger the company, the more conservative they tend to be. Do you think consoles as we know them are doomed, or are we going to get a new generation, or is it just becoming irrelevant?
RGC: I think we might get one more generation, might, but I think fundamentally they’re doomed. I think fundamentally the power that you can carry with you in a portable is really swamping what we’ve thought of as a console.
IG: If we’ve got a smartphone that can do Xbox level graphics, which we’ve almost got, and I can hook that up to a TV and use a controller, what’s the difference between that and a console? It’s just whatever games are available.
RGC: Yes, exactly. That’s why I think there may be one more round of consoles left, but not many.
The idea of consoles going away isn’t a new one, hell there was a time when everyone thought the PC would be the dominant platform for all time, but them being replaced outright by mobile devices is a new one on me. For starters whilst you can get current Xbox level graphics on a handheld it’s always going to be a game of cat and mouse as to how far ahead the consoles are. Realistically current smart phones capabilities are only catching up to what was possible 5 years ago, not what’s possible today. Indeed once the next generation of consoles is released the smart phones (and other portable entertainment systems) will again be behind in terms of technology. The fact of the matter is you can’t shoe horn current generation technology into a portable form factor so I doubt we’ll see the loss of consoles after the next generation.
Although there is potential for the console market to be shaken up somewhat by the portable industry. The Wii showed that a console can succeed without having cutting edge technology in it (the Wii is basically a GameCube on the inside) and it’s that same market that gobbled up the Wii that will turn to other places for their gaming fix. Whether this will make the transition into some form of home based entertainment like consoles currently do remains to be seen however, but there’s definitely potential for it to happen.
As for the the future of console gaming? More of the same I believe. Whilst we may have seen some technical marvels in the form of the Wii, PlayStation Move and Kinect the bread and butter of these consoles doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, even in the face of challengers like the iPhone. For the non-gamer market however there’s a strong possibility that they’ll shift away from their Wiis in favour of their smart phones or tablets but there’s still a massive market that will crave the better graphics and performance that can only come from a console.
I’ve been a Nintendo fan for well over 2 decades now, my first experiences with them dating all the way back to the original Nintendo Entertainment System which I believe is still in a functioning state in a closet out at my parent’s place. I have to admit though they kind of lost me when they released the Game Cube as by then I was hooked on my shiny new PlayStation and there weren’t any games on the Game Cube that appealed to me as a burgeoning hardcore gamer. That trend continued for a long time until my then housemate bought a Wii on the release date but even then I didn’t really play it that much, instead favoring my PS3 and Xbox360. Indeed the Wii I got using some credit card reward points has been mostly unused since we got it, even though I thought there were a couple games on it I was “dying” to try.
For what its worth it’s not really Nintendo’s fault that I haven’t really been a massive user of their last 2 generations of platforms, they made it clear that they were hunting for a different market and I wasn’t in it. Sure there were some nostalgia titles that tugged on my heart and wallet (Zelda and Mario, of course) but they weren’t enough for me to make the leap and I’ve stuck to my other staples ever since. Nintendo had firmly cemented themselves as the game console for people who don’t identify as gamers, broadening their market to unprecedented levels but also alienating the crowd who grew up with them to become today’s grown up gamers. At the time it was a trade off Nintendo appeared happy to make but recent announcements show that they may be thinking otherwise.
Nintendo recently announced the console that is to be the successor to the Wii which has been worked on under the title of Project Cafe and will be officially known as the Wii U. The console itself looks very similar to its predecessor, sporting the same overall layout whilst being a little bit bigger and preferring a rounder shape to the Wii’s highly angular design. Nintendo is also pairing the new console with another new accessory, a controller that comes with an embedded touch screen. At first it looks completely ludicrous, especially if you take into consideration that the Wii’s trademark was motion controlled games. After reading a bit more about it however it appears that this tablet-esque controller will function more like an augmentation to games rather than being the primary method of control, with the Wii nun-chucks still being used for games that rely on motion control.
The console itself is shaping up to be no slouch either, eschewing Nintendo’s trend of making under powered consoles in favor of one that is capable of producing full 1080p HD content. Whilst the official specifications for the Wii U aren’t released yet the demonstrations of the release titles for the console do not suffer from the low polygon counts of previous Wii titles with the demos looking quite stunning. With enough grunt under the hood of the Wii U Nintendo could also be making a play for the media extender market as well, something Microsoft and Sony have covered off well in the past. Couple that with a controller that would make one nice HTPC remote and I’m almost sold on the idea, but that’s not the reason why I’m tentatively excited about what the Wii U signals for Nintendo.
Nintendo has said during the E3 conference that they believe their new console will target a much broader audience than that of the Xbox or PlayStation, which taken on face value doesn’t mean a whole lot. The Wii sales numbers speak for themselves as both gamers and non-gamers alike bought the Wii and it outsold its competitors by a large margin, so if Nintendo can continue the trend with the Wii U it will be obvious that they’ll hit a broader market. However the announcement of the Wii U also came a video showing launch titles, many of which would have never previously made it to Nintendo’s console. It looks like Nintendo is trying to lure back the hardcore gaming crowd that it shunned when it re-imagined itself and that makes a long time fan like myself very happy indeed.
Of course the proof will be in the putting for the Nintendo Wii U and with the console not scheduled for release until sometime in 2012 we’ll be waiting a while before we can judge their attempt to claw back that niche that has slipped away from them. Whilst my Wii may sit next to my TV feeling woefully underused I get the feeling that its successor might not suffer the same fate and I’m excited at the possibility of Nintendo coming full circle and embracing those gamers who grew up with them. The possibility of it being a little media power house is just the icing on the cake, even if I might only end up using the controller through Bluetooth on my media PC.
I’ve been gaming since I was able to summon up the hand-eye coordination required to mash the keyboard on my parent’s computers. Still it wasn’t until the original Nintendo Entertainment System came along circa 1987, although I think I got mine sometime in 1989, that I had my first experience with console games. My very first game on this new platform was of course Mario Brothers (combined with Duck Hunt, yeah!) and it provided many a good hour glued to the TV usually with my brother or friends from the neighbour close by. It would seem that the success of the Mario franchise made Nintendo drunk with power and every platform since the NES has had at least one Mario game amongst its launch titles. This wouldn’t really be a problem since they’ve done the same with their other lines of IP (the Link¹ series jumps to mind) but apart from graphics upgrades they’ve basically made the same gear for over 20 years.
At its heart the original Mario was just a generic platformer with an interesting set of characters that appealed to the demographic of the time. Indeed it still targets the younger demographic with its relatively fast paced gameplay, bright colour palette and little to no dialogue between the characters. The first few iterations of the Mario IP didn’t vary much from this baseline with the only things being changed were a few game mechanics (such as the Cape, the introduction of Yoshi, etc) and the addition of a world map. The Nintendo64 however mixed things up significantly.
Before the introduction of the N64 the only attempt at 3D graphics that had been made on previous Nintendo consoles was the StarFox IP and StuntraceFX (there might be others, but these are the only 2 I can remember). They were extremely simple and used little to no texturing at all. Primarily this was because the Super Nintendo really wasn’t designed to do 3D graphics at all, and as such all the rendering had to be done in software. The N64 on the other hand was built from the ground up to handle 3D, and the controller showed this proudly with its 360 degrees of motion joystick slapped right in the center of it. It would then follow that their flagship character would be redesigned to suit.
And, to be honest, he was. Despite the fact that the core game mechanic was essentially unchanged (an extra dimension doesn’t stop a jump puzzle from being a jump puzzle) the addition of the 3rd dimension was the first big change that Mario had seen since his first release almost a decade before. Super Mario 64 demonstrated quite aptly that Nintendo was quite capable of revamping old IP to take advantage of the latest technology. Well it at least seemed that way at the time.
The next few releases of Mario began to show some extremely strange behaviour from Nintendo. It would seem that there’s a strong desire to milk the Mario IP for all its worth whilst still trying to maintain a level credibility amongst the gaming community as revolutionary game designers. The next Mario game, released on the Nintendo DS, could be written off as a victim of the platform it was designed for. Super Mario Galaxy broke new ground with the gravity mechanic that lead to some amazing emergent gameplay and would’ve made a good game without the Mario IP backing it. New Super Mario Bros. Wii has no excuse however, and is a straight up rehash of Super Mario World with prettier graphics and some new mini-games. I played it for a good hour the other day and swore that one of the levels we were on was a direct rip from one of the older games, the level just had more pixels.
What is Nintendo playing at here? I can understand that using a popular IP is a sure fire way to make a popular game but save for technology changes that have forced Nintendo’s hand (and, to their credit, they stepped up to the challenge) they are quite happy to make the same game several times over. Had I not seen the blatant rip off that was the New Super Mario Bros Wii this post would’ve had a completely different tune to it, hailing the triumphs of Nintendo to progress significantly with the times. However releasing something that is comparable to a 20 year old platformer seems cheap and uninspired. If the rumours are anything to go by they’re going to do the same with Super Mario Galaxy 2, with the new additions including Yoshi (surprise surprise).
Despite all this angst I can’t deny the success that the Mario franchise has had. Their initial demographic has grown up and out of the genre and yet are still drawn to the Mario series. Still Nintendo is the only company to get away with this sort of invention for so long, with any competitor who attempts the same shot down as trite and un-original. Perhaps I don’t give them enough credit, it’s quite possible they’ve done the numbers on completely reinventing the Mario IP and the best scenario is to do exactly what they’re doing. The money trail certaintly agrees with them.
I guess in this world of almost infinite choice when it comes to games Mario becomes an easy target to harp on about being un-original, but that ignores that they’ve been doing this for so long. Whilst I don’t currently own a Nintendo console it doesn’t stop me from wanting one, even if just for the brief moments where I might slip back for a quick level or two with my old friend the Italian plumber.
¹After finishing this article I realised that if I replace all the Mario references to their Link counterparts the story still makes sense. In reality I could’ve harped on about both of them for much longer but the point is basically the same 🙂