This is all Nintendo's fault, really. There was a time when we simply worried about specifications with our consoles. A simpler time when, like the PC crowd, we just wanted faster, more powerful and more capable machines to dazzle our senses. The 80s and 90s gave birth to several generations of consoles that provide clear lines of progression in an almost Biblical sense: the Famicom begat the NES who, in turn, gave birth to the SNES, who sired the N64, who delivered the Gamecube...
But then things changed.
First of all Sony turned up to the party with their PlayStation, an excellent piece of kit that welcomed third parties in with open arms. It didn't matter, shrugged Nintendo; after all, they had an expansive array of first and second party devs. They had Rare! How they must have laughed. But the PlayStation didn't go away. It bore a child, a child that would grow up to become more powerful than could possibly have been imagined. A child called the PS2.
SEGA was the first to fall even as another contender chose to join the fray. Microsoft stepped in with their Xbox, promising more power, better graphics, and better games. The world became a more dangerous place as icons of old made way for space marines and stealthy ninjas. Something had to be done.The cute and quirky purple box of wonders wasn't doing the trick. Bafflement surrounded the Gamecube...Why purple? What was with the awful Z-button placement? Why did it have a carry handle? Would it have really been so very bad to add in DVD functionality? It had some cracking games, and the Wavebird was a masterpiece of engineering, but it fell behind in the console race. Cubes aren't particularly build for speed. Profits were falling, something had to be done.
The solution came in the form of a portable console back in 2004. A piece of hardware that would put Nintendo back on the map as a front-runner once more. The Nintendo DS. It was more powerful than the GBA, but it also offered two screens and a touch interface. That wasn't in the rule book, Nintendo had though outside of the box and, in doing so, opened up gaming to a new market. Not only were there benefits for the hardcore crowd, once developers had gotten used to the machine, but thanks to an array of first party "casual" titles, Nintendo could now sell games to your grandmother.
If the DS was the portable acorn, then the Wii was the tree. Here was a games console for your front room unlike any other games console before. For the first time, it didn't matter that a next-gen piece of kit barely had the power of the last generation, it revolutionised gaming with motion control. There were no barriers to entry any more, no fiddly controller layouts to learn, no way to be penalised if you hadn't mastered The Claw. Best still, the game that came with the console - Wii Sports - was all you needed for that first year.
With the DS and the Wii, Nintendo changed the games industry in a huge way. Now, with every generational upgrade the bar has been set to expect something groundbreaking, something innovative and revolutionary each time. And the cloak of expectation falls hardest upon Nintendo.
Enter the 3DS. The roadshow's announcement was one of evolution, and Nintendo weren't the only ones banging the 3D drum. The revolution is coming, we heard. But you'll need spectacles. Sod that, said Nintendo, and delivered stereoscopic 3D without the need to affix lenses to your face. However, the machine itself was somewhat underwhelming, the graphical power not exactly what you'd call impressive, and, worse still, the 3D was not only causing migraines and nausea, but a small percentage of humans wouldn't be able to see it anyway. Add the fact that the first six months went by with the barest minimum of first-party quality titles, and things didn't look good, the saviours proving to be games from existing Mario franchises that no doubt would have sold just as well without 3D.
I can't help but feel that if Nintendo had slapped Pokemon Black/White onto a 3DS cartridge, regardless of whether or not it had 3D, and made it a platform exclusive, they might have sold more at launch.
There's no greater indication of gimmicks-gone-mad than the PlayStation Vita. But at least Sony had method in their madness. The Vita is designed to be all things to all men and women, with a touchscreen for the smartphone generation, dual sticks for the hardcore console lovers, 3G so you can use it anywhere (although probably not for gaming because network reliability is still lamentable), cameras for augmented reality games and so on. But then there's that entirely superfluous rear trackpad. It might have something to do with the fact that I'm going to have to buy an attachment for my Vita when it arrives just to stop my fingers sneaking onto the trackpad when holding it normally. It might have somthing to do with playing that sodding land-deformation (where you essentially play Marble Madness by manipulating topography with the trackpad) minigame in Little Deviants and sucking horribly at it. But I'm yet to find a title that's made better by the thing in any way. Still, early days eh?
Thing is, the Vita strides two currently separate zones. On the one hand, it offers a home console experience in the palm of your hand. On the other, it's touchscreen and flexible pricing provide the opportunity to beat smartphones at their own games. But that doesn't mean that when I'm playing Uncharted I want to be constantly reminded that the touchscreen is there, because I don't. For me, and I imagine that I'm not hugely alone in this, the I'll be picking up the Vita for the high-level content, the stuff I can't get anywhere else, not for the interactive gimmickry. Two sticks and a bigger engine is all I've been waiting for. And the games, of course.
It seems almost superfluous, but it surprises me that in this day and age, where we've come so far as an industry, that sometimes it still needs to be said: the games are always the most important thing.
This was the problem with the Wii U when they announced it at E3 last year. There wasn't even a whiff of a game that could show what this new, baffling console/tablet/controller/thing could really do. The Wii U Experience boiled down to a bunch of tech demos that just showcased gameplay features that Nintendo have been delivering since the DS. Where were the games?Where was the Wii U's Wii Sports? Having two screens, no matter how big they are is no longer revolutionary.
Met with something journalists, gamers, and fans figured they'd seen before, the debate has since turned back to the default chatter: how powerful is it? What are the specs? How does it compare to the current generation? What will the launch titles be? Crystal Dynamics announced recently that they wouldn't be porting Tomb Raider over to the Wii U because if they did deliver a game on that system, they'd want it to offer unique and original features to take control of the Wii U's unique and original capabilities.
One rather hopes that doesn't prove the case for too many of the upcoming multiplatform titles. After all, would it really be so bad to simply serve up a "normal" version of a popular game?