Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Generation Gap Pt 5: “Last” Gen

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This installment will conclude our Generation Gap coverage.  Please note that upcoming coverage on handhelds, arcades and microcomputers will follow.  A lot happened just over a decade ago – the gaming market changed and one strong competitor bowed out as another took to the plate.

Fifth Generation – 1999 – Present (technically)

Sega Dreamcast – Launch Price: $199.99 – Released: 1999
Launch dates are getting more technical by this time, so from a Japanese standpoint the Dreamcast was a 1998 launch but we didn’t get it here until much later in September 1999.  Although it is a 128-bit system, consoles had stopped toting the strength of “bits” and instead focused on a sleek design – most likely because Sony did it with Playstation and it worked.  Dreamcast was Sega’s final nail before bowing out of hardware manufacturing and has been argued to also be its best offering.  Regardless, the Dreamcast was definitely ahead of its time.  It featured things that no console would dare launch without today and basically had the same features that Microsoft would include in its console just a few years later.  A few years, that’s the difference between success and failure.

Until the Dreamcast most video game consoles were specified hardware that was far behind PCs.  By all accounts the Dreamcast was a simplified PC, even running Windows CE, a modified version of the operating system that would be put to greater use on later pocket PCs.  The Dreamcast had a built-in modem on all consoles, which supported the earliest form of online console gaming and provided a web browser service to those fortunate or rich enough to afford the high cost of long phone calls.  Furthermore a keyboard attachment allowed players to truly use their console as an Internet device and even gave way to early MMOs on the console.  Memory cards included LCD dot matrix screens and were called “visual memory units” or VMUs that not only held data but gave the player on-the-go mini games and Gigapet-style games.  Aside from that Dreamcast boasted higher storage with the proprietary GD-rom format (1.2 GB of storage space), impressive graphics, and a slew of solid titles.

At launch one could pick up the standard Sonic release Sonic Adventure, but sports buffs also had NFL 2K1, one of the first football games to give Madden a run for its money, and fighter fans had both Marvel vs. Capcom and the still impressive Soul Calibur.  Even remaining arcade fans saw near perfect ports of non-fighters like House of the Dead 2 and Hydro Thunder.  Depending on who you ask, each of these games holds a special place in the hearts of the gamers who picked them up – mine was Sonic but the most popular one seems to have been Soul Calibur.  With the lost time of the Saturn, releases that thrived on the Playstation made debuts like Resident Evil 2 & 3, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 & 3, Mortal Kombat Gold (a take on Mortal Kombat 4 with additional fighters) and more, all with improved graphics over previous versions.  Early exclusive titles like Jet Grind Radio (later renamed to the Japanese title Jet Set Radio) was one of the first titles to utilize cell shading with an amazing soundtrack that is anticipating a re-release or remake even today.  Capcom did an offshoot exclusive Resident Evil Code: Veronica, which was eventually re-released in various formats and I still feel is the definitive version of the “fixed camera, tank controls” method of Resident Evil titles.  Shenmue was the first to do a sandbox-style open world that you could explore from the street level, despite being a bit bare bones for my style.  Seaman was an experimental title that had you growing a tadpole to a fish by talking to it, complete with microphone and reactions from your creation.  Online gaming was established by Sega first party with ChuChu Rocket! and Phantasy Star Online (technically an MMO) and third-party titles like 4×4 Evolution, Starlancer, and the extremely popular (at least at my college dorm) Quake III Arena.  If you can find it, the canceled (but widely distributed on the Internet) version of Half Life is about the best you can find on a console.

With all this going for it, it’s a shame that the Dreamcast was discontinued in March 2001, just a few short months after the powerhouse release of Playstation 2 (PS2).  Poor overall sales is what I’m guessing was Sega’s reason, although the console sold out its initial launch, and at the time of the announcement the Dreamcast had a much stronger library than the PS2.  It was a bittersweet moment for me, being a Sega faithful since the Genesis, because Sega announced it would no longer be in console development but also that it would clearance out the Dreamcast.  As a then poor college kid I collected as much money as I could and with $100 managed to grab a Dreamcast bundle that included Sega Classics (a 6-in-1 collection), a VMU, an extra controller, Code: Veronica, Mortal Kombat Gold, and Jet Grind Radio.  It was a killer find and resulted in a long life for the Dreamcast in my living room (I wouldn’t get a PS2 until a year after its release).  Dreamcast was also host to a slew of homebrew and independent titles that continue to release as early as last year.  Sure, piracy was a bit of an issue, but the console was discontinued way before that was discovered and got out of control.

List of Dreamcast reviews

Sony Playstation 2 – Launch Price: $299.99 – Released: 2000
Sony had done a great job of hyping the release of its successor console and with gaming magazines and the Internet beginning to gain momentum, gamers were willing to hold out.  Not only was it the next Playstation console, but it was announced that the PS2 would embrace the DVD format, capable of playing DVD movies as well as being backwards compatible with the original Playstation.  Thanks to disc-based formats and the fact that DVD was the same size as CD and also read CD format, Sony just tossed the PS1 hardware into the PS2.  With DVD video starting to become the dominant format, it was an easy decision for gamers to go with the Playstation 2 as an all-in-one solution.  As a then college student, I can tell you that many dorms and student apartments had groups of guys all chipping in for a group-owned PS2.

There was another problem obtaining the coveted Playstation 2: quantity.  At this point most big box retailers didn’t have a pre-order option (GameStop and EB Games being the exception, but pre-orders were limited) so gamers had to line up at Target, Wal-Mart and Best Buy for a console.  Just before release word got around that manufacturing delays limited the amount of shipped US PS2s and I assure you these suburban retailers had no idea how many eager gamers would be lining up.  I lived in Chicago at the time and chose to go to a northern suburb to line up only to find that some idiot had pulled a gun in an attempt to get to the front of the line.  As a result, local police were preventing anyone from lining up until 9 am, an hour before opening.  We all just basically hung out in cars and camped out on hillsides in the massive parking lot that made up the strip mall this retailer was attached to.  At 9 am sharp the cop on guard did one final lap and took off, beginning 2000’s famous “running of the nerds” as we all darted to the front for our shot at a PS2.  It was brutal.  Fat guys tripping each other, drinks flying wildly as they were forgotten to gain pace on the line, people struggling up against the locked glass doors.  A frantic and pissed off manager quickly emerged and said that he would not be selling the PS2 given the events of the day and told us all to disperse lest we want the cops called again.  I walked away ashamed, knowing that I would never get caught up in such shenanigans again (I would six years later camp out at a Wal-Mart for 3 days for a PS3).  To top it off, the PS2 never restocked all holiday season and I watched consoles sell for around $600-$800, some I hear even made it over $1000 on eBay.

In complete contrast, the launch games themselves were mostly garbage (debatable) and the PS2 spent the first year of its life with a weak catalog.  Tekken Tag Tournament was a great arcade fighter that looked almost identical and was my top choice for a launch title.  Ridge Racer V came out because a Ridge Racer always launches a console, Fantavision looked okay and shooters Unreal Tournament and Timesplitters also premiered, but FPS titles weren’t mainstream yet.  Sure, there was a Madden (2001) and Dynasty Warriors 2, but for the most part none of these titles are really stand out classics in hindsight.  Most of my friends who managed to nab a console in 2000 used it as a combo DVD player/PS1.  That didn’t last too long, though, for the PS2 is responsible for a slew of must play titles.  Strong series continued to exclusively support the Playstation platform like Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Gran Tourismo, Tekken, Virtua Fighter, and Twisted Metal.  PS2 was also the launching platform for many franchises still successful today like God of War, Guitar Hero, Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (in the US), Devil May Cry, Onimousha and who can forget probably the biggest PS2 franchise Grand Theft Auto III and its offshoots.

Depending on when you jumped into the cycle, there were several reasons to grab a Playstation 2 and with total worldwide distribution of over 153 million units plenty of people have.  In fact, technically the console is still on sale today although I don’t think any new games are being released, but I definitely see them on store shelves.  Sony attempted to include backwards compatibility for the Playstation 2 in the Playstation 3 hardware, but with higher costs involved that feature was quickly dropped, making new and used PS2s still marketable with a vast library of inexpensive classic titles.  Furthermore the PS2 was able to release several add-ons as it attempted to compete over its 10+ year lifespan including a 40 GB hard drive, modem/high-speed internet port, multimedia software and even homebrew/independent development.  Unlike the Dreamcast, many more games supported online play with an impressive list of supported titles – although most of them are currently offline – including the launch of SOCOM: Navy Seals.  There was even a true MMO with Final Fantasy XI, which required both the online add-on and hard drive.  Sony’s little PS2 has clearly withstood the test of time.

List of Playstation 2 reviews

Nintendo Gamecube – Launch Price: $150 – Released: 2001
After being burned by the Nintendo 64, many of us gamers were hesitant about Nintendo’s consoles, but the Gamecube appeared to be trying to remedy the problem.  Gamecube was the first Nintendo console to use discs, although they were low storage (1.5 GB) mini discs intended to make piracy harder and avoid DVD license costs.  This doesn’t seem like much of an issue until you consider the much larger 8.5 GB storage a dual-layer DVD  can offer – Gamecube ports became difficult.  Although the cheapest on the market, Gamecube was also the least attractive due to its lack of DVD playback (by Gamecube’s launch Microsoft had already announced the Xbox’s compatibility with DVD playback as well).  Those that wanted to pony up the $700 cash for a Panasonic Q, a hybrid DVD player and region-free Gamecube, could be purchased, but other than the incessant Nintendo collector there seemed to be little reason.

Nintendo’s usual suspects of first party titles were there, but much like the boxy design, everything was just a bit off compared to other generations.  Luigi’s Mansion may have starred the classic mascot’s brother, but was more of a kid-friendly ghostbusting game than a platformer.  The same could be said for series staple Mario in Mario Sunshine and the integration of co-op and motorcycles in Mario Kart: Double Dash made less popular than predecessors.  Even the standard staple Zelda title Wind Waker was seen with mixed feelings, many criticizing its childlike nature.  Still, there were strong first party pleasers like Metroid Prime, Super Smash Bros Melee and Pikmin.  Nintendo’s charming Animal Crossing made its debut on Gamecube and I still remember goofy things like rushing home on the 4th of July to get a gift and the painstaking journey of unlocking all 19 hidden NES games (each fully playable).  Some great exclusives also migrated to the console like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, Star Wars Rogue Squadron, and Capcom’s re-release of all Resident Evil titles (including the gorgeous remake of the first) as well as new titles like Resident Evil 0 and 4 in addition to the Viewtiful Joe series.  As usual, many 3rd parties attempted to support Nintendo’s console but usually at the expense of forced offline versions (many Xbox/PS2 titles had online whereas the Gamecube version did not) or the removal of content and addition of discs to accomodate streaming content.  After poor sales time and time again companies like Eidos and EA stopped support for the console altogether.  The only exception was the amazing inclusion of Link from Legend of Zelda in Gamecube’s version of Soul Calibur II, which was significantly more enticing than PS2’s Heihachi (from Tekken) or Xbox’s Spawn.

No matter what, Nintendo just couldn’t seem to grasp the market share for this generation.  Without DVD support and having the weakest versions of almost all multiplatform games, Gamecube owners were forced into the now all-too-familiar predicament of solely owning the console for Nintendo first party.  Even after the price drop to $99.99 and the fact that Gamecube games were often $10 cheaper than their PS2/Xbox counterpart, none of it swayed sales.  Like the Dreamcast the Gamecube supported a weak amount of unadvertised online games – which ironically mostly started life on the Dreamcast.  Only six games were available, the most popular being the re-release of Phantasy Star Online and it was so difficult to get a network adaptor that it wasn’t even worth it.  Assuming you did, disconnection issues and game-breaking glitches tarnished your gaming, sometimes after 50+ hours of leveling up.  Still, Resident Evil fans got an entire catalog of games, each one in the best fidelity possible.  Nowadays owning a Gamecube and buying the Gameboy Advance adaptor that allows you to play GBA titles on your console can be a cheaper alternative to finding the high-priced handheld online.  It also allows those coveted titles that are better suited for the big screen to find a home.

List of Gamecube reviews

Microsoft Xbox – Launch Price: $299.99 – Released: 2001
As Nintendo was getting revved up in the launch of the Gamecube, which was budget-based in both price and technology, Microsoft decided to enter the console market with a heavy brick of a machine that was roughly a low-spec PC.  It was rumored that Microsoft took quite a hit with the hardware of each of the giants – each equipped with an ethernet port for online support, the strongest hardware lineup that included a 733 mhz Pentium III, and an included 8 GB hard drive – hoping to recover those funds on licensing fees for software.  In addition, it also had the biggest freaking controller I have ever seen on a console, making a second smaller controller a necessity after a while, and 10 input buttons along with a d-pad and dual analogs.

From a hardware standpoint the Xbox also had the most going for it if you had the right components to hook it up to.  Xbox titles were in native 480p resolution and 5.1 Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound (while PS2 did support both Dolby Digital and DTS, it had to be encoded on the game, which was rare).  In addition the Xbox Live service launched to provide an online PC-like atmosphere for the first time on consoles.  With the service you would always know which of your friends was online and have access to play online.  In fact, the only thing the Xbox did lack was exclusive titles.  Save a few notables discussed below, you could find almost every game from Microsoft’s console on either PS2, Gamecube or both.  This didn’t matter if you owned multiple consoles, but it was a tough sell for regular gamers who already had a PS2.  In addition, DVD playback required a kit that was basically a remote control, sold at a premium MSRP of $30-$40.  I don’t believe the add-on infrared sensor in the controller port was necessary for the box to actually play DVDs, but rather that Microsoft wanted to charge for that feature.

In terms of games, the biggest compliment I can grant the Xbox was that it was my preferred system because all multiplatform games looked best on Xbox.  As someone who had a HDTV early as well as 5.1 surround sound, I got to enjoy most multi-console titles in the best graphics with full surround sound.  As for exclusives, there weren’t really many to speak of.  The biggest and best, which is most likely responsible for a large chunk of the 24+ million units sold, is definitely Halo: Combat Evolved.  In one simple Bungie launch title, Microsoft brought the world of the first-person shooter out of the keyboard and mouse crowd and into the living rooms of console gamers.  Since online wasn’t fully integrated in the original (LAN parties were a big hit in college dorms), the addition of online in Halo 2 kept many console players home instead of at work and in testing classrooms for probably the first time in history.  In keeping with the ultra-hardcore mentality of the ideal Xbox gamer, another console exclusive Ninja Gaiden released a solid hack-and-slash title that was tough as nails.  Not since the 16-bit generation had a game brought me to my knees with crippling difficulty than this title – many of my friends giving up on the first boss alone.  Other exclusives like Project Gotham Racing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (although the sequel was multi-console), and Steel Batallion would get some notice but nothing to sway console buyers.  Xbox also has some strong re-releases as well including an updated version of the stellar Conkers Bad Fur Day after Microsoft acquired Rare and they picked up the reigns of some of Sega’s series with Panzer Dragoon Orta, Sega GT, and Jet Set Radio Future.  As a first time console Microsoft did a decent job with the Xbox, but given market factors it’s not surprising that Sony’s PS2 ruled this generation.  Microsoft would definitely get back its momentum by releasing the successor, the Xbox 360, only four short years afterward in 2005.

List of Xbox reviews

This concludes our Generation Gap series, but we will update with supplemental material from time to time.  Also be sure to check out our history of portable consoles, arcades, and microcomputers coming soon.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 5, 2011 at 9:21 am

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