Gamer Gamble

The Inlander | November 30, 2005
The arrival of the Xbox 360 in stores this week signals the end of the current generation of video game consoles. The Xbox 360, Microsoft’s follow-up to their first video game system, is being used by the Washington-based corporation to carve out a slice of the video game market for the next few years. The 360 arrives riding on the moderate success of the Xbox, and it seems to be aimed at capitalizing on that console’s ability to provide good, multiplayer gaming through the television.

Unfortunately, the 360 signals the end of a dying generation of consoles, not the beginning of an exhilarating new one. Microsoft seems intent on building their new video game empire on the name Xbox. But for all of the fun that the Xbox has been, it has also been a letdown, growing from a one-game system (Halo) into a two-game system (Halo 2). In addition to providing a scant lineup of games, Microsoft has proven that a software company should stay out of the hardware business. The company’s initial shipment of Xboxes was too small (and the 360 is expected to be hard to buy, too, at least during this holiday season), and many of them were made with not-quite-perfect technology. In spite of changes to their manufacturing, poorly made Xboxes have continued to break down, and the used video game market is flooded with “reconditioned” Xboxes.

Normally, when a video game system is about to become obsolete, owners can console themselves with plugging the old machine into a television and playing the games that nobody else remembers. A vintage 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System can still play any cartridge slammed into it. The smarter video game companies have not only built their machines to last, but they’ve given their new consoles the ability to play old games. Both Playstation and GameBoy, the two most successful lines of video game consoles in the world, have built their reputation on serving existing players even as they make innovations.

Despite Microsoft’s repeated claims that the 360 is made “with gamers in mind,” many of the games that Xbox owners are currently playing won’t end up working on the 360. Amped 2 is my favorite snowboarding sim, yet (as of this writing) it won’t be playable on the 360. Woe to any Xbox fan who has a personal, quirky favorite. If you’re an old-school gamer, having access to the musical platformer ToeJam & Earl III might be important, but it’s not currently destined to be playable on the 360. (Fans of Monster Garage, however, will be happy to know that they can play their favorite Xbox game on the 360 for years to come.) And every system deserves to have their failures immortalized. Kakuto Chojin, from Microsoft game studios, tried to do for fighting games what Halo did for shooters. The result was a hideous digital sock-puppet fighter that will now be forgotten as the last Xbox dies.

The last generation of video game machines launched while Sony told the world they were going to make their new Playstation define gaming. The PS2 shipped with the ability to play any pre-existing Playstation title, but with only a few dozen PS2-exclusive games. Some of those, however, were standouts. The showy snowboarding game SSX reinvigorated the sports simulation, taking full advantage of the PS2’s multimedia capabilities to send neon-lit snowy scenes whizzing past the player. DOA2: Hardcore and Tekken Tag Tournament refined fighting games, taking the smooth, cool look of an arcade fighter and supplementing it with a broader range of character-specific attacks and interactive environments. Moto GP, a tight, fussy bike racer, showed that the PS2 had the computing power to render a serious and rigorous simulation of physics. These games demonstrated that the PS2 could render lavish, multimedia experiences in a convincing manner better than any other video game console. Signature PS2 games such as Metal Gear Solid 2, Grand Theft Auto III, Final Fantasy X merely confirmed the impression that those first games offered.

The lineup of games that is arriving with the 360, on the other hand, is barely capable of demonstrating what the 360 is capable of doing, much less where gaming can be headed. The heavy-hitters such as Quake 4, Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, and Madden ‘06 are all franchise sequels, and likely to deliver an incremental gain in fun, if that. They’ll also be appearing on other gaming platforms, meaning that none of these games have the potential to deliver a unique gaming experience on the 360. Microsoft’s own game company is relying on the game development studio Rare to give the 360 a two-game boost with Kameo, and Perfect Dark Zero. Apparently Microsoft didn’t play the ploddingly dull game Rare made for the Xbox — Grabbed by the Ghoulies.

The biggest problem facing the Xbox 360 is a sense that Microsoft never fully delivered the promises they made with the Xbox. They’re attempting to build their brand on an audience that they’ve started to piss off. They’ve also taken a bold step by releasing their system so early, and as a result, they’ve confined themselves to the cutting-edge technology of the times, which isn’t particularly exciting. If anything, the Xbox 360 resembles a hard-wired, souped-up Holiday ‘05-vintage gaming computer. That means that it shares the same downside as a cutting-edge computer: it’s obsolete as soon as you carry it out the shop door. When the real next-generation of video games arrives, you’ll be upgrading.

The Inlander

Founded in 1993, The Inlander has quickly become the most trusted source of news and entertainment information for the sprawling Inland Northwest. While the majority of our readership lives in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area -- a fast-growing part of the...
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