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volume 1, issue 21

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Pad Happy:
Hardware Wars

 

 

 

 

By Nick Ferguson

For millions of console owners, ‘lens flare’ is a novelty and anti-aliasing is unheard of. This might be because the market is dominated by a five year old machine – Sony’s PlayStation. So, asks Nick F, is it time to upgrade?

layStation and Nintendo 64 owners have been arguing on Usenet for years over which system is "better". PlayStation owners usually cite Square’s RPGs and Capcom’s Resident Evil series, with their beautiful FMV sequences and crafted rendered backdrops, as games that would be impossible to fit on N64 game cartridges. In turn, Nintendoids can smugly sit back and declare Mario, Zelda and Goldeneye as the holy trinity of all that is good about 64-bit gaming. As ever it boils down to the games, but it’s important to remember that the restrictions and opportunities of each hardware format can have a vast influence on the games we end up playing. Would all Square’s pre-rendered graphics have fit on a Nintendo cart, even a 256MB one? Probably not. Would Goldeneye have become quite so popular without that 4-player mode? Probably not. The thing is, hardware matters. Hardware makes a big difference. Look at how Nintendo’s swiftly-imitated analogue pad has influenced control of game characters (ever notice that the control mechanism used for long-jumping in Half-Life is identical to Mario 64’s?), or how Sony’s focus on 3D hardware means the average console gamer hardly ever looks twice at a "sukky" 2D title?

Every generation of console gaming sees one machine rise above the others in terms of market share and public acceptance. The 8-bit NES made Nintendo’s name synonymous with videogames in the 80’s, but Sega’s Genesis (aka Mega Drive) managed to steal their crown in the 16-bit era. After a couple of less-than-successful CD-based machines, the PlayStation has emerged as current king of the one-time "next-generation" consoles. The question is, which piece of hardware is going to be the one to have in order to play the mega-hits of 1999 and 2000?

The Nintendo 64 looks to come into its own in the year ahead. Sales of Zelda should remain strong for a few more months at least, and as the 4MB RAM expansion becomes an increasingly common option in games, it will leave the PlayStation looking increasingly crusty. Nintendo still has a number of potential AAA titles up their sleeves (Perfect Dark, Donkey Kong 64 and a clutch of Mario-themed titles); Sony’s release schedule for 1999 is shoddy by comparison. One thorn in Nintendo’s side remains their piss-poor performance in Japan – although so far Western gamers have only benefited from this long-overdue dose of humility as Nintendo reassess the importance of their US and, in particular, European markets. You can bet Zelda wouldn’t have been released nearly-simultaneously worldwide if all was rosy at Nintendo HQ in Japan.

Sony might be well in the lead in terms of sales, but they too have a battle on their hands – there are only so many people you can sell a PlayStation to, and I suspect many of them already own one. And as for software, aside from Silent Hill I can’t think of a single PlayStation game I’m particularly looking forward to. The recently announced Unreal might get some people excited, but the idea of a severely cut-down, lo-res version of a year-old game doesn’t really do it for me (and comparisons with the forthcoming Dreamcast version are just going to be plain cruel). Playing Tomb Raider 3 recently, I was amazed at the blocky textures, slow frame-rate, repetitive gameplay and unresponsive control. No wonder Sony slyly resorted to using clips of the 3D-accelerated PC version in their recent UK television commercial (don’t get me started on that all-FMV Final Fantasy VII advert). It looks like 1999 just might be the beginning-of-the-end for PlayStation…or is it?

Sony have announced a number of times that their goal is to make the PlayStation as common in homes as the VCR. A brave statement, but how do they propose to do it? Rumours abound of a low-cost Playstation chipset being developed small enough to fit in a run-of-the-mill CD player, or perhaps even a Discman. How about a PlayStation built into your TV? Imagine if every Sony CD product was capable of running PlayStation games! Widespread hopes that PlayStation 2 will be backward compatible could still be dashed, but if true it would be a landmark move for the games industry! What other business consigns some of its greatest products to obscurity on the basis of age? Are consumers prepared to support a market for older console games? They probably are, if you consider the steady sales of ancient – but cheap - PC titles, and the success of Sony’s budget range. Keeping the original PlayStation brand alive in the years ahead could be the smartest move yet from a company that has insisted on redefining the rules of the video game industry.

There’s no escaping the fact that neither the Nintendo 64 or the PlayStation are "cutting-edge" hardware anymore. I can remember writing a review of Shadows of the Empire on N64 and citing the impossibly fast speeder-bike stage as an example of a level "that could only work on the N64". Wrong! Within a few months, PC owners were playing a faster, smoother, more detailed version of the game on their spanking-new 3DFX cards. The 3D acceleration revolution of the last few years has rendered the current crop of consoles, from a technical standpoint, obsolete. From a more open perspective, consoles are still more than capable of holding their own – Japanese developers focus almost exclusively on console games, and the best examples of their game design hold valuable lessons in gameplay for any aspiring Western developer. The promise of the next generation of consoles is that design of this standard will manifest itself in titles able to compete on a technical level with modern PCs. This is a very exciting thought indeed – under the whizz-bang frippery of most PC action titles, in terms of design mechanics they are very often childish and simplistic in comparison.

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Credits: Pad Happy logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pad Happy is © 1999 Nick Ferguson. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it, or you'll get some real force feedback.