This is part three of a multi-part series, All is Fair in Love and Console Wars: Stay tuned for the next entry in the series.
The Onset of the Sixth Console Generation – The Turn of the Century
3D technologies have progressed immensely since the inception of the last generation of gaming consoles. In the 128-bit era of gaming, the gap between system power is closing. Companies no longer compete based on technical specifications.
From the innovative, but short-lived, Sega Dreamcast to the up-and-coming Xbox, the sixth-generation of video games leveled the playing field when it came to visual appearances and power. Consoles are now defined by the experiences they offer, which made choosing the proper console all the more difficult for the consumer.
Sega’s Farewell to the Console Battlefield – Dreamcast
Sega quickly developed the successor to the Sega Saturn after the device’s less-than-stellar run. The company needed a new console to restore the faith consumers and developers once had in the Sega name.
Both Sega of Japan and Sega of America took to development. The Japanese dev team was led by the original Sega Genesis designer, Hideki Sato. The Japanese team focused on using Japan-made parts provided through partnerships with tech companies Hitachi and NEC. IBM’s Tatsuo Yamamoto directed the American development team. This version of Sega’s future console incorporated American 3Dfx Voodoo chips. Even though the 3Dfx chip took the American PC market by storm, the Japanese built console ultimately received the green-light, possibly due to 3Dfx revealing company plans.
The console would remain disc-based, this time using proprietary discs known as GD-ROMs. These discs were able to hold an entire gigabyte of data, which was slightly larger than the 700 MB limit of a CD-ROM. The company decided to go with GD-ROMs as a form of piracy protection. In the end, this decision would cost the company dearly due to the gaining prevalence of the DVD, a format the future competitors would be more than happy to take advantage of.
Sega released the Dreamcast, their final console, in 1998 within Japanese shores. The console received a lukewarm response. Fans were still uneasy about Sega after the short and troubled lifespan of the Sega Saturn. The company used the information gained from the Japanese launch to research and plan a proper US release. Sega spent over 100 million dollars on strategic advertisements to ensure that gamers both new and old remembered the date, 9/9/99. The Dreamcast made its way to American shores on September 9, 1999, with 17 titles at launch.
Sega was not able to compete against the more powerful PlayStation 2 and GameCube consoles. The company eventually discontinued the Dreamcast on March 31, 2001, less than two years after release.
Peter Moore, President of Sega of America at the time, said “It was a big stakes game. Sega had the option of pouring in more money and going bankrupt and they decided they wanted to live to fight another day.”
The company continues to release software for a variety of consoles and handheld devices and has had multiple partnerships with both Nintendo and Microsoft.
Even though the console had a relatively short lifespan, its library of titles was incredibly diverse. Strong first party titles like Sonic Adventure, Jet Set Radio, Phantasy Star Online, and Shenmue populated the console’s vast repertoire. The games that Sega developed pushed the boundaries of modern gaming conventions. Many of the titles for the Dreamcast were stylized, distinct, and occasionally undeniably original.
Sonic Adventure was an incredibly important release for the company because it marked the return to form that brought Sega’s massive success in the first place. The title was the first true three-dimensional transition for the Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega needed to remind the gaming world of his relevance as an icon. Yuji Uekawa redesigned Sonic and company with fluid form-factors to better reflect the modern age. The title would receive financial and critical success, but the best selling title on the platform would be the game’s sequel, Sonic Adventure 2 which sold over 2.5 million copies.
The console was also home to an incredible assortment of titles that were previously only available to arcade machines.Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and Soulcalibur headlined the competitive fighting game community during the late 90s’ and they all had exclusive console ports at the time of their release on the Dreamcast console. To this day, many revere these releases as near-perfect ports of arcade experiences.
The Dreamcast control pad was the next evolution of its predecessor. Although the controller has fewer buttons, they are placed in a much more practical way allowing for quick and easy access.
The Dreamcast control pad did a whole lot more than just move a character and make selections. Taking a page out of the Nintendo 64 playbook, the controller grants access to both memory cards and rumble features. What gave the Dreamcast controller an edge was its two separate expansion slots. Players wouldn’t need to choose which device they wanted to use, they could always use both.
The memory cards were called Virtual Memory Units or VMUs. The VMU was a whole lot more than just a storage device. The devices had their own screen and buttons that allowed users to manage their save files and play mini-games.
Some games took advantage of the VMU’s controller placement by displaying information for the player’s convenience. Resident Evil: Code Veronica would show the player’s current health condition. Other games, like Sonic Adventure and Soulcalibur, used the VMU screen to display images of the player’s selected character.
The Dreamcast truly personified the dawn of the twenty-first century. It was the first video game console that had the capabilities to play online without needing a separate expansion. Bernie Stolar, the CEO of Sega of America at the time, believed that online gaming was the way of the future. Stolar fought hard to ensure that each console included a modem for online connectivity. No other console had this devotion to online play until the release of Xbox Live in 2002 on the original Xbox.
VMUs were an incredibly fun and interesting way to store save data and display information. Console makers did not revisit the second-screen controller concept until the release of the Nintendo Wii U in 2012.
The Sega Dreamcast holds an incredibly devoted fanbase. Loyal supporters of the system continue to make games for their beloved Dreamcast machines.
Sony’s Second Strike Spurs Success – PlayStation 2
The original PlayStation was a massive success worldwide. Sony needed a successor to strike down Sega’s technically superior Dreamcast. The company first publicly announced the PlayStation’s successor, the PlayStation 2, on March 1, 1999.
Sony stayed very close to the original PlayStation in many aspects, it simply upgraded its capabilities. The console used the DVDs, the successor to the CD, as its primary source of media. There are two different kinds of DVDs, DVD-5s, and DVD-9s. Each holding nearly 5 and 9 GB respectively. DVD-5s were the industry standard, but the dual layer DVD-9s grew in popularity later on in the PlayStation 2’s life-cycle.
The PS2 also used an expanded version of its memory card. The standard PS2 memory card held up to 8 MB of data, 8 times more than the original PlayStation. This increase did not necessarily mean that players could hold a substantial amount of game saves.
The PlayStation 2 showed players their save files in a rather interesting way. Each time the user turned on the system, the start-up screen would show a number of towers. The save files themselves determined the size and number of these towers.
In an effort to compete against Microsoft, the PlayStation 2 featured online play via a separate attachment. This was one instance that the company had a difficult time fending off the competition.
The console released in Japan on March 4, 2000, and in North American on October 26, 2000.
The PlayStation 2 was the birthplace of a wide variety of first-party franchises. While the PlayStation may have lost exclusive titles like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, it gained a slew of fresh faces. Newfound exclusives Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, and Sly Cooper, allowed Sony to capitalize on the action-platforming genre. Sony also invested heavily in developing unique and original role-playing experiences offered through Dark Cloud, Okage: The Shadow King, and Rogue Galaxy.
One of the mightiest franchises spawned during the PS2 era was the God of War saga. Developed by Sony Santa Monica, God of War showcased everything the current generation was capable of. God of War was an undeniably mature experience that personified pushing the limits of the human spirit. Sony Santa Monica broke through preconceived limitations in order to tell a story otherwise impossible. The developer continued to create with this mindset with each iteration of the franchise.
Sony continued to maintain strong support from RPG developer, Square Enix. Final Fantasy X, X-2, and XII all released exclusively on the Sony platform. The Kingdom Hearts series began on the PlayStation 2 and would find a massive fan-base thanks to its blending of Final Fantasy and Disney characters.
The PlayStation 2 controller remains largely unchanged from the original DualShock controller. One of the biggest additions to the controller was the implementation of pressure sensitive buttons. This meant that certain games would respond to the intensity that players used when pressing down on the front buttons.
The decision to keep the controller mostly the same allowed players to use the peripheral on either the new PlayStation 2 or the older original PlayStation. This was a definite boon when undecided players researched new consoles to buy. Not only would players be able to use their older controllers on their new device, they would also be able to enjoy earlier titles with a shiny new pad.
All things considered, there was not a definitive reason to change the controller. Every button was within comfortable reach, allowing both players and developers to take advantage of the versatile design.
The PlayStation 2 benefited greatly from being more than just a gaming machine. The DVD formatting allowed consumers to see the device as a multi-functional piece of their entertainment center. People outside the usual demographic were turned into potential buyers.
The PS2 was also the first console that could output resolutions in HD. Sony sold component cables separately for the system that could increase the resolution to 1280 x 1024.
Backward compatibility was also a huge benefit to the system. Games, controllers, and memory cards all worked on the new console. The original PlayStation was home to a vast number of titles and players appreciated the ability to go back without needing to plug in their old console. Not needing to buy new controllers was also an economic move for the money-conscious consumer.
The Dolphin Dives Deep – Nintendo GameCube
Nintendo’s purple box entered development in 1998 through a partnership with startup tech company, ArtX. The company quickly got to work on the N2000, later re-codenamed, the Dolphin, after Silicon Graphics Inc. dropped charges against the company for allegedly using company secrets for ArtX projects. Many worried Nintendo would wait too long in the console competition with rivals Sega and Sony already releasing their own 128-bit machines by 2000. Nintendo felt confident enough in their titles to hold off until a September 14, 2001, release.
Nintendo made the decision to use discs for their software over their long-time used cartridge based format. GameCube discs held 1.5 GB of data, a vast increase over the 64 MB cartridges of the Nintendo 64. The company chose proprietary discs over DVDs to combat piracy, decrease loading times, and to avoid DVD licensing costs.
Despite its kid-friendly appearance, the GameCube featured high-tech internals. It housed an IBM-developed “Gekko” CPU and ATI-created “Flipper” GPU. Nintendo first showcased the GameCube’s technical strengths at Nintendo Space World 2000. The event housed multiple tech demos and titles in development. Super Mario 128 demonstrated the number of on-screen characters the console could output. The Legend of Zelda 128 featured an enhanced cutscene that exhibited the console’s newfound full motion video capabilities.
Nintendo later released the Panasonic Q on December 13, 2001. The collaborative device played both GameCube discs and DVDs. The company chose to only sell the Panasonic Q in Japan at a premium price of $439. The steep price led to the downfall of the collaboration with Nintendo discontinuing the Panasonic Q only two years after its release on December 18, 2003.
The GameCube was home to some of Nintendo’s most unique titles. First-party heavy-hitters, Super Mario Sunshine, Metroid Prime, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker took their franchises in vastly different directions.
Super Mario Sunshine took the classic plumber outside of the Mushroom Kingdom and onto the tropical Isle Delfino. (An island shaped like a dolphin, a possible reference to the GameCube’s original codename.) This game focused heavily on platforming with new peripherals found through the protagonist’s new best friend, the F.L.U.D.D. unit. The game also featured a number of cinematics and cutscenes that featured fully voiced characters. The Super Mario series has not reiterated this method of story-telling in a mainline Super Mario.
Metroid Prime took the esteemed franchise into a realm most Nintendo games never entered: the first person perspective. Players felt isolated like never before. The planet of Tallon IV was full of life, both helpful and hostile. The implementation of the “Scan Visor” allowed players to create encyclopedias of the world around them, adding to the lore and history of the planet.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker altered the way players view a Zelda game. The “cartoony,” cell-shaded look of the game allowed for truly stellar visuals, evident even in the development stage. The game featured a largely endless world that disguised loading sequences behind actual gameplay, keeping the player in the moment. Nintendo’s engineering ingenuity crafted an undeniably advanced gaming experience.
The GameCube controller is a widely divisive topic. Some believe it is gaming perfection. Every button on the controller has a designated purpose. The “A” button is obviously the action button because of its placement and size. “B” is significantly smaller, but close enough for players to shift quickly when necessary. The “X” and “Y” buttons are secondary action buttons, as determined by their positioning on the gamepad.
Others find it to be impractical in nature. The lack of a second top shoulder button also limited the overall number of possible inputs. The GameCube controller followed the N64 precedent by making the directional pad possibly more obsolete. The controller design was not made for every kind of title.
To this day, professional Super Smash Bros. players swear by the GameCube controller for its accurate thumbsticks and pressure sensitive triggers. Nintendo understood this and developed an adapter for the most recently released, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, that allowed players to use their original GameCube controllers exclusively in the game.
The GameCube did not feature the DVD playback of the PlayStation 2 but the main course of the console was its titles and its peripherals.
Local multiplayer was still an incredible focus for Nintendo. Competitive titles like Super Smash Bros. Melee and Mario Kart: Double Dash headlined sales for the console. The four controller ports on the GameCube easily trumped the lonely two found on the PlayStation 2.
The GameCube did not have too strong of third-party support this go around, but huge titles like Resident Evil 4, Baiten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, and Eternal Darkness found their homes exclusively on the machine.
The GameCube’s focus on discs meant that it was not backward compatible with Nintendo 64 cartridges. But thanks to the Game Boy Player peripheral, players were able to utilize their Game Boy games from every generation of the handheld device.
The Advent of the Next Challenger – Xbox
Microsoft once aided in Dreamcast development, with the hopes of creating “The Ultimate Home Video Game System”. After the discontinuation of the device, Microsoft had to reevaluate its stand on console gaming.
Before creating the Xbox, Microsoft focused most of its video game attention on the PC market, the company did create the Windows operating system after all. That changed after the industry witnessed the success of the original PlayStation.
The development of the Xbox started shortly after a discussion between Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates and Sony’s CEO, Nobuyuki Idei about the development of the PlayStation 2. Idei declined Gates’ offer for Microsoft’s involvement. Gates then determined that the progression of the PlayStation brand was a threat to the PC gaming market. Therefore, the folks at Microsoft decided to make their own secret weapon to enter the console gaming market.
Microsoft created its console with PC gaming in mind. The machine was even originally titled the DirectX Box in reference to the application program interfaces (API) on Windows. Many developers found Xbox easy to develop for due to its similarities to a PC.
Microsoft ensured that the Xbox worked right out of the package. The Xbox was the first mainline console to feature an internal hard drive. This allowed gamers to create saves without needing extra cards, a benefit usually held only by cartridges. The hard drive held up to 8 GB of data, far outpacing the PlayStation 2 with its small 8 MB memory cards. It also featured online capabilities without any kind of accessory. This was paramount to the success of the machine.
The Xbox found its release on November 15, 2001, becoming the next challenger in the Console Wars.
The Xbox needed its own host of games to stand out in the crowd of established franchises.
The largest first-party titles, are without a doubt, the Halo series. The original Halo: Combat Evolved was exactly that when it came to first-person-shooters. Xbox’s competitors did not have first-person titles of this caliber, and Halo was the next step in what would soon become one of the largest selling genres in gaming.
Halo 2 revolutionized multiplayer gaming in the modern age. Online multiplayer and an abundance of play modes set the series apart from any other title for many years to come.
The Fable franchise found its start on the Xbox as well. Many saw this dark and humorous fantasy as a Zelda for adults. Players faced moral choices that affected both the story and their characters appearance and powers. Fable showcased character consequences in never before seen ways. The world changed with every decision, for better and for worse. It was up to the player to become a hero or a villain as they saw fit.
Microsoft Game Studios also published Blinx: The Time Sweeper, an original series that features a talking cat with a time machine. There were talks surrounding the idea that Blinx could be a mascot for the system, in the ways similar to Nintendo’s Mario and Sega’s Sonic. After a lackluster perception, the character failed to reach audiences in the ways intended. The title still received a sequel, called Blinx 2: Masters of Time and Space, but it also failed to grab the attention of the gaming community, especially when put up against the massively successful Master Chief.
The Xbox controller faced multiple instances of development. The company originally designed the controller to be a successor to the Sega Dreamcast’s gamepad. It even retained a screen inside the controller through similar methods of Sega’s VMUs. This version of the controller never saw the light of day, but the inspiration is evident in the final product. It isn’t too hard to imagine a screen displaying the large green Xbox logo on the controller. The controller did end up having two slots for memory cards, like the Dreamcast pad.
The Xbox controller only featured two triggers but made up for the lack of shoulder buttons with two oddly placed black and white buttons. The directional pad wasn’t as much of a d-pad as it was a directional disc. This made it less ideal for precise inputs. The controller’s asymmetrical joysticks follow suit with the GameCube. The right stick on the controller allowed for precise camera control. Many found this design to be ideal for the first-person-shooter genre.
Microsoft remodeled the controller in 2002. The company created the Xbox “Controller S” to appeal to Japanese gamers through its slim form factor and smaller size. This did not alleviate the stigma surrounding the console’s original controller, but it eventually made its way worldwide due to popular demand.
The Xbox was an incredibly forward thinking machine, especially considering it was only one year younger than its competition.
Xbox Live was perhaps, then and now, the largest selling point of the system. Console players never had access to such a robust online multiplayer ecosystem. Users could interact with others from around the world. The inclusion of voice chat made the entire process even more personal. This focus on online thrust the entire industry into a new age of communication.
The internal hard drive of the console propelled system expectations. Every home console released afterward included some kind of base storage. Taking away the need for additional accessories allows the consumer to focus on the experiences possible with their machine without worrying about an extra expense. There were memory cards still available for the system, but they were for sharing files on another console, not a mandatory method of saving.
Being a multimedia machine was almost entirely necessary. The Xbox also played DVDs like its competitor, the PS2. The focus on using multiple forms of media allows consumers to make an educated purchase that fulfills multiple needs and desires. Save for Nintendo, each console hereafter played additional forms of media aside from video games.
“Transcending history, and the world, a tale of souls and swords, eternally retold”
The sixth console generation brought about the end and the beginning to two competitors. Sega took the hardware experiences it gained and focused itself in the software market after selling 10.6 million Dreamcast consoles. Microsoft became a big competitor in a short amount of time, reenvisioning multiplayer gaming and selling 24 million units.
Sony continued its dominance of the home console market. The PlayStation 2 eventually became the most sold video game console of all time, selling over 155 million units in its lifespan from March 4, 2000, to January 4, 2013.
Nintendo met with great critical success during its GameCube years and sold 21.74 million machines. The company would shift its focus to a different market in the upcoming console cycle with hopes of bringing in new demographics.
Two more generations remain in this journey across time, with each era hoping to be more innovative than the last. Sony holds a strong lead in the Console Wars, but anything can change in time.
To be continued in Part 4.