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volume 1, issue 21

Today in loonygames:

New!! The Archives have been cleaned up, fead links fixed, and printable versions restored! Also, don't miss the new comments on the front page!

Livin' With The Sims: theAntiELVIS explores the wild and wacky world that is Will Wright's The Sims, asking the inevitable quesiton, "is The Sims the first step toward a virtual life where everyone is Swedish?"

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Pad Happy:
Hardware Wars

By Nick Ferguson

PC gamers might wonder what all the fuss is about Ė in a three year period, theyíve seen the birth and extinction of several generations of soundcards, processors, RAM formats and 3D accelerators. Console owners just arenít used to that level of change! Compare the specs of a high-end PC around the time of the PlayStationís release to the P2 450 of today and the difference is astonishing; Sonyís hardware, in comparison, hasnít changed one iota. Does it matter? PC owners may laugh at a machine with a plodding CPU, double-speed CD-ROM drive, 2MB of RAM and elementary 3D hardware but approximately 40 million people worldwide are happily playing games (that donít crash) on it.

One pleasant truth about console gaming is that you donít have to upgrade to see improvements in the games you play. Over the life-span of their machine, console owners see an incredible increase in the technical quality of their titles (try comparing the PlayStationís first game, Ridge Racer, to last yearís Gran Turismo - or Nintendoís flagship title Mario 64 with Banjo-Kazooie) as programmers get to grips with the subtleties of their systems. PC owners have to upgrade their CPU with each generation of Quake, but console owners are playing Tekken 3 on exactly the same machine they were playing the original Tekken on, four years ago. If nothing else, it makes you wonder how far current PC technology could be pushed, if it wasnít for the ever-present upgrade on the horizon.

Upgrades for consoles are always a possibility, but they risk fragmenting the market for potential developers. Nintendo cleverly avoided this problem with their 4MB RAM Pack, which isnít required to run any games but gives players the opportunity to play newer titles such as Turok 2 in glorious hi-res. A peripheral that once looked like it might prove a real shaker in the console market was the N64ís proposed disc-drive add-on, the 64DD. Utilizing 64MB magnetic cartridges, the 64DD would greatly increase storage space (over the N64ís standard 8-32MB cartridges) and its read/write capabilities promised untold opportunity for player interaction and influence within game worlds. Now, the 64DD looks dead in the water Ė Nintendo have admitted it will not be released in the US or Europe, and most likely not in Japan either (yes, despite those credits in F-Zero X for the "64DD programmers")! Gamers lamenting its death should realize that the primary reason it got canned was because Nintendo was unable to come up with the revolutionary software they promised the format would deliver. The wasted man-hours they must have spent on this ill-fated peripheral beggar beliefÖ

What excitement lies ahead? Well, the Dreamcast has landed Ė with more of a whimper than a bang. By all accounts, the best of the early software (VF3 and Sonic Adventure) has proven less than breathtaking, and the remainder of the most promising titles have been pushed back until well into 1999. Anything you might hear about PlayStation 2 has to be taken with a pinch of salt, but rumors of backward-compatibility, DVD technology and a release date the far side of 2000 all seem more likely the louder they get. Nintendo, too, have confirmed that they are already working on a successor to the N64 (not so surprising, considering the formatís nosedive in Japan) and Rare are known to already be underway developing titles for it. And lest I forget, NUON had better emerge from its hiding place if it wants to make the slightest impression in the minds of gamers (case in point: I wrote almost this entire article before I remembered about it).

Nobody knows for sure which technologies will emerge as the most important in the next few years, although I certainly feel itís unlikely internet access will emerge as a major selling point for any games machine. As I stated at the beginning of this article, it all boils down to the games. Sequels, ports, re-makes and big-name licenses will take you so far, but there must be real innovation with a new format for it to take off. In a perfect world, game designers should feel horrendously limited by the formats they have to deal with, ideas "too big" for current technology, but the truth seems to be that ideas often get Ďscaled-upí rather than Ďscaled-downí when dealing with new and powerful platforms. Sometimes these Ďscaled-upí ideas are hopelessly inadequate (there arenít many titles sadder than Robotron 64) - you wonder if Core are going to bother coming up with a new direction for the tired Tomb Raider franchise when it eventually migrates onto 128-bits. Then again, even the mighty Shigeru Miyamoto seems to use new technology to build on what heís produced before, rather than starting afresh. Do I ask too much?

For what itís worth, my own personal take is that Dreamcast (although a fine piece of technology) will be substantially outperformed in the market by the eventual successor to the PlayStation. PlayStation 2 will be a much more powerful platform, plus its (alleged) DVD technology and backwards-compatibility will make it the must-have platform over the next five years. Hardware isnít the only advantage Sony have - confidence is high about their future in the games industry and most developers must be keen to support the new machine. Dreamcast launched too soon Ė thereís still enough life in the older machines to last through 1999, and then we have the new PlayStation to look forward to. I know this is speculation without a shred of real evidence, but if I have my facts right I really canít see it going any other way. Dreamcast is certainly a system to watch Ė if it becomes huge in Japan, then launches with a reasonable price-tag and awesome selection of titles in the US and Europe this Autumn, then things might be different. But if you wanted to go out and buy a system tomorrow, Iíd have to recommend the Nintendo 64 or the PlayStation. What does that tell you?

- Nick Ferguson is an increasingly regular contributor to loonygames.

 

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.