About a dozen times a day I
get an email asking me which console someone should buy. A complete stranger expects me to
be able to tell them right off the cuff where to put their $200. I feel a lot of
responsibility to our readers, so I often write long letters asking what games they like,
who the console is for, etc. (I do get a lot of letters from moms and dads asking which
console system to purchase for their children.) Every year at the Electronic Entertainment
Expo we get to see the lay of the land, and I was hoping that a clear answer to the
quandry of which console to invest in would manifest itself. Its both good and bad
that there is still no clear winner in the console wars.
Sure, Sony declared within the first five minutes of their press conference this year
that the console wars were over and they had won. However, after four years of Sony press
conferences its become apparent that you cant rely on their word alone. Their
tone this year was comparable to their tone last year when they proclaimed that online
gaming would arrive Fall 2001. Certainly there are more PlayStation 2s all over the world
than Xboxes and Gamecubes combined, many more, and that is nothing to sneeze at. But it
also isnt going to kill any of the other two systems. Console gaming has been a
three-headed monster for a long time, and there is no reason to believe that the market
wont keep all three systems alive for the duration of their usefulness. And the odds
are that around 2005, when the PS3 is slated to ship, well hear about another
Microsoft and another Nintendo system to carry on the torches of Xbox and Gamecube. Many
folks are concerned that what happened to Sega will happen to Microsoft or Nintendo, and
Id like to put those fears to rest as much as I can. On the one hand, videogames are
a dynamic industry and anything could happen (remember when a no-name game company, Sony,
came out of left field and rose to the top?). However, what happened to Sega and the
Dreamcast was due to years of corporate strife (some may say mismanagement) and an
ever-growing money-pit that required drastic action. Neither Nintendo nor Microsoft are in
a similar position.
In fact, all three systems are quite healthy, and thats the ultimate theme of
this article no matter what system you own, you are going to have fun playing great
games. And no matter what system you own, there will be games exclusive to other systems
that make your mouth water. Thats just a fact of life. The ultimate solution is
still to buy all three systems (and beef up your PC, too, for that matter). However, that
doesnt work for everyone, so Ill try to lay out some of the relative strengths
and weaknesses of each system.
Nintendos Gamecube has been a hit with the Nintendo fans and hasnt done a
whole lot to sway other gamers, although the new $150 price tag wont hurt anyone.
Things will probably continue on that way for the next year. If you buy a Gamecube you
accept that there will be, overall, fewer games released for the system. You also accept
that some of the biggest games on the system will be exclusive first and second party
titles (Metroid Prime, Mario Sunshine, Pikmin, Eternal Darkness, StarFox Adventures,
Zelda, etc.), and you probably feel a deep need to play these games. These kinds of
exclusive titles saved the N64, and while the Gamecube has been more warmly received by
third party companies, these titles will form the core of any Gamecube library.
Nintendo has a reputation for being a "kiddie" system, which has never been
entirely true. Rather, think of Nintendo as the "Disney" of videogames. They
have a lot of recognizable and beloved characters and they do a lot of family friendly
titles. However, just like Disney (who produced and released Ruthless People among other
more mature movies), they occasionally venture into more adult territory (Perfect Dark,
Eternal Darkness), and often with good results. What really makes Nintendo great for the
younger audience is the Game Boy Advance. Nintendo focused on "connectivity"
this year, meaning connecting your GBA to your GC for all kinds of different reasons. Add
to that the interplay between first party franchises on GBA and GC, and youve got
the kids coming in droves.
Nintendo has a fan base, and they know it. These people would pay $200 just to play
Metroid Prime and never regret it. Again, in much the same way as parents love taking
their kids to Disneyland, many adults get sucked into Nintendo games and many adults play
GBA. (And lets face it there is no other handheld gaming system in the US.)
These gamers believe Nintendo is correct to focus on quality of games rather than things
like hard drives and online play. Although the Gamecube will support a modem and broadband
adapter, dont expect a whole lot of online gaming to become available for the
Gamecube in the next year. Phantasy Star Online will be the only one for a long time.
Because of Nintendos stability in the marketplace and their reliability in
creating great games, they are sort of the odd man out. Nobody minds sharing the videogame
scene with Nintendo because in many ways Nintendo created the scene. Theyre the
bigger brother, the old timer, the rock. The real battle is between the Xbox and PS2. This
battle isnt based on hardware either anyone can tell you that the Xbox is a
superior processing machine. With both systems down to a more reasonable $200, and both
systems planning online gaming support, the war is far from over. These two are going at
it tooth and nail, and the greatest thing about that conflict is that so far its the
gamers who are winning.
It all comes down to the games. If you want to play your console system online, PS2 and
Xbox are really your only choices. Both of the companies are actively supporting and
encouraging developers to embrace the online arena, and both have ambitious plans to get
their users online. For more details about the online gaming plans of all three console
companies, check out my recent article, "Back to the Front: The Console
Wars Go Online."
So how do you pick between PS2 and Xbox? It all depends on what youre about. As I
said before, if youre a techno fiend, then the Xbox will probably better fulfill
your whiz-bang desires. If youre a die-hard PS2 fan, theres really no reason
to switch systems. Both systems will have games that are truly amazing released on them,
and both of them will have exclusive titles that will make you drool, no matter who you
are. In general, if youre more of an RPG fan, the PS2 is going to support you better
there are a ton of RPGs coming out for PS2 and the Xbox hasnt really caught
up. Of course, Peter Molyneauxs epic endeavour, Project Ego, will be an Xbox
exclusive RPG, but it wont be out for over a year.
Beyond that distinction, there isnt much difference in the games coming out for
both systems. Each company has their first party titles, which are guaranteed to be
exclusive. So if the Getaway, SOCOM, Ratchet and Clank, or Sly Cooper interest you, then
stick with Sony. Other Sony exclusives include Grand Theft Auto and Final Fantasy.
Microsoft has a similarly enticing list of first party titles, including MechAssault,
Whacked!, Halo 2, Brute Force, a sequel to RalliSport, and many more. In addition,
Microsoft has some exclusive titles like Unreal Championship, Splinter Cell, Project Ego,
and RE which should make for happy, happy Xbox owners.
Lots of folks write me and say, "Yeah, but there are MORE games coming out for PS2
you idiot!" Thats true. And that will remain true this year. However, there are
plenty of games coming out for each system. Seriously are you going to play more
than 30 games a month? Do you WANT to play all of those games filling up the release list?
As Theodore Sturgeon said in defense of science fiction, "99% of everything is
crap." Thats just as true with videogames. PlayStation 2 has the highest
install base in the world. So if youre a publisher or developer trying to figure out
a way to publish a game with as little cost to you and as much potential profit as
possible, youre going to publish that game on the PS2. Its simple economics,
but it doesnt mean that all of those titles you see listed are even worth thinking
about playing. And when you get down to the nitty gritty of really good titles worth
playing the field looks much more even. This year there will be about the same number of
worthwhile titles released on Xbox and PS2, but if you want to have the broadest choice
possible, if youre into searching out that diamond in the rough, or if youre
way into all those wacky Japanese imports, go for the PS2.
Even exclusive games are not necessarily so exclusive. Resident Evil is supposed to be
exclusive to Gamecube; however, Resident Evil Online will be exclusive to PS2. Splinter
Cell is supposed to be exclusive to Xbox, but Ubi Soft plans to release slightly modified
versions of the game for all systems. As I wrote a year or so ago, third party publishers
see the value in putting a game out on all systems. Now that consoles are up to par with
PCs, the phrase "all systems" includes the PC, a turn that was unprecedented
until the current generation of hardware. Many games, including BloodRayne, XIII, and
Splinter Cell will be released on "all four platforms." In addition, games like
TimeSplitters 2 will make it to the three console platforms.
There is a potential for multiplatform releases to seek the lowest common denominator,
and we certainly saw a bit of that this past year. Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2 and THPS3
are good examples of games that were designed to take advantage of the PS2 hardware and
didnt look as impressive on the Xbox or Gamecube. Again, it will become more
noticeable this year that the PS2 doesnt pump out the same quality graphics as other
systems (although dont get me wrong there are plenty of nice looking PS2
titles coming out). Fortunately, most multiplatform releases this year are being developed
at the higer standards initially, generally either on the Xbox or PC, and will be toned
down for the PS2. I asked developers and producers all over E3 which system was easiest
and hardest to work on. Unanimously the developers I questioned said the PS2 is the
toughest, and it was generally agreed that the Xbox is the easiest. The PS2 was not
designed with developers in mind (think back to the huge scuffle that Oddwold Inhabitants
and SCEA had if you have forgotten the numerous developer complaints in the early days of
PS2), and the Xbox was. So far it looks like Microsoft succeeded in giving developers a
dream system to work with. The upside of all of this for us gamers is that multiplatform
releases are looking better and youll play games that, although available on other
platforms, are optimized for the one you own.
With all of the great games being released this year (and it will be an excellent year
for gaming), its really hard to go wrong. Unless youre devoted to a particular
franchise, or really into the idea of online gaming, theres not a lot of help we can
offer you. Console systems arent necessarily something you buy with an eye toward
the future we want to play the games we want to play right here and right now.
Unless you own all three systems, youre going to miss out on something great. The
best advice I can give you right now is to buy a different system than your best friend
and then share.