The (Fool’s) Golden Age of Gaming

Lately, I’ve been noticing a trend that I find disturbing. There’s been a lot of nostalgia regarding the sixth generation of video gaming: you know, the PlayStation 2, Gamecube and the original Xbox. Now I understand that turnovers with regards to nostalgia have definitely decreased in length, as we’re already riding a wave of 90’s nostalgia, but this is different. Less of a wistful recollection of the “good ol’ days” and more a damnation of both the “current” (PS3/360/Wii) gen and the upcoming “next-gen” (PS4/XB1/WiiU) generation. I can, from at least an intellectual standpoint, understand where these people are coming from, but at the same time, to me, the sixth-generation was that bleak period where I lost my passion for the medium (more on that later).

So, let’s start by setting the stage for the so-called sixth-generation. Now some of you are probably wondering, why haven’t I mentioned the Dreamcast itself? Well, in my personal opinion, while the Dreamcast was technically a sixth-generation machine (and the only one that was referred to as a “128-bit system” for any significant amount of time), Sega’s abandonment of the platform in North America was truly the event that ushered in the true start of the sixth generation of video games, as it happened in close proximity to the North American launch of the PlayStation 2. Still, Sega dropping out of the console market and becoming a third-party developer was truly the end of an era. If you couldn’t tell by some of my earlier articles, I am a huge Sega fanboy. I picked up the Dreamcast at launch, so watching Sega effectively lie down and die in the wake of Sony’s second console, well, it was pretty devastating for me.

So, with the Dreamcast spoken for, let’s move onto the true contenders for supremacy during the sixth-generation, or as I like to call them, “the post-bit triplets”. Why such a stupid cumbersome name, you ask? Well, from the days of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, video game generations defined themselves by the number of bits they were able to process at a time. There was the 8-bit era, with the NES and Sega’s Master System, followed by the 16-bit era. The previous generation had both the original PlayStation and Sega’s Saturn referred to as 32-bit consoles, while their contemporary the Nintendo 64 had a 64-bit processor, though the differences between them were only vaguely noticable. As I said before, the Dreamcast was referred to as a 128-bit console, but after it was discontinued, so was the use of using the number of bits a processor could handle as the generation’s naming convention. As only the Xbox was capable of presenting resolutions higher than that of standard televisions (480p) and this ability was rarely utilized, the term “next-gen” was used to describe this generation as it unfolded. However, by this point, they are clearly no longer “next-gen”…so, I’m sort of at a loss on what to name them. As we typically refer to the two more powerful of the seventh-gen consoles as “the HD twins” for reasons that should be obvious, I’ve decided to give the previous generation’s three major consoles a similar moniker, the “post-bit triplets”. Due to both the abandonment of the “bit” naming convention with regards to these three, and as with the PS3 and Xbox 360, the differences in power and processing speed between the three is negligible at best.

First up, the PlayStation 2, the true harbinger of gaming’s sixth generation. Building on the market dominance of the original PlayStation, the PS2 was literally a juggernaut. To this day, it’s still the best selling home console OF ALL TIME. Though, this was mainly due to both the strength of the PlayStation brand and the fact that, at the time of its release, it was considered a reasonably priced DVD player (the PS3 would later fill that same niche with Bluray players, and actually helped BR win that particular format war). Most gamers focus less on those aspects of the PS2’s success and prefer to extol the system’s massive library of games. Most of the games worth playing, however, were their exclusive titles from third-party publishers. But in my opinion, when compared to both the previous generation and even its “pseudo-contemporary” the Dreamcast, the majority of even the most popular games in its library felt like they were all flash, no substance.

Next, there was the GameCube, Nintendo’s last attempt to “directly compete” with the other console manufacturers by attempting to match them in terms of power. As with the last generation, Nintendo went their own way when it came to storage media: finally eschewing cartridges (a major issue with the Nintendo 64), replacing them with mini-DVD discs. While this would have the added benefit of curbing piracy (likely a part of the reason Nintendo stuck with carts in the last generation), it came with its own set of disadvantages: smaller discs meant that certain games had to be split across multiple discs on the Gamecube, while their counterparts on other consoles could be burned to a single disc. In spite of this shortcoming, the Gamecube was actually more powerful than the PS2.

Sticking with the Gamecube for just a moment, I’ve seen a lot of revisionist history going around recently, about how beloved the Gamecube was in its day. Bull. Shit. I forget when exactly this whole rose-colored look back at Nintendo’s last “true competitor for the dominance over the console market” began, but I remember it especially getting bad just after the Wii U’s North American launch, though I’d seen an inkling of the things to come during the Wii’s last year. I don’t understand exactly why the Gamecube became the icon it was, roughly a decade after its debut; no one liked the Mario platformer on it, the Zelda games on there fell victim to the “Zelda cycle” almost as spectacularly as Skyward Sword is still suffering to this day, most of its third-party exclusives ended up not being exclusives a year after their release and throughout the console’s lifespan, Nintendo was still unable to shake their kid-friendly image with regards to the hardcore. Yes, waggle was generally shoehorned into third-party games as hamfistedly as humanly possible and Wii U had a horrifically abysmal game drought post-launch, but a lot of these people who look back at the Gamecube with warm fuzzies while tearing into modern Nintendo tore into the Gamecube when it was still around as well.

Getting back on topic, the last contender of this particular generation was a newbie to the world of video games, but not to the world of electronic entertainment: Microsoft with their incredibly powerful (well, at the time) Xbox. As with Sony, Microsoft had prior experience with regards to consoles: the Sega Dreamcast ran on a variant of Microsoft’s Windows OS. Ironically, for a long time, I pegged Microsoft as Sega’s successor. What can I say, Sega’s departure from the console market left a massive void in my love for video games. The fact that many sequels to latter-day Sega classics hit the Xbox, like Jet Set Radio Future, Shenmue II and Panzer Dragoon Orta, as well as Peter Moore jumping ship to Microsoft only served to strengthen the connection. Unfortunately, the Xbox’s largest weakness also mirrored that of Sega’s previous two consoles: there was a significant lack of meaningful exclusives. Sure, Halo and Forza sold like gangbusters, but when compared to Sony’s glut of third-party content and Nintendo’s impressive first-party showing, the Xbox’s library felt a bit sparse.

Of course, the Xbox was more than just Microsoft’s first direct foray into the gaming market: I’d argue that it was actually the harbinger of the following generation’s advances. As the Xbox was named for the Windows PC interface “DirectX”, which it utilized to bring out the best of sixth-generation video game graphics, the Xbox itself also gave rise to many formerly PC-exclusive features that would become commonplace in future consoles. For example, while the PS2 had an external hard drive accessory, the Xbox was the first home console to come with an INTERNAL hard drive, thus negating the need for memory card accesories (which, the Xbox also had anyway). The Xbox was also the first home console with the ability to display games in high-definition natively, though this ability was used sparsely and mostly during the end of the system’s lifespan. And while many other consoles in the past attempted to utilize playing games online, the Xbox was the first to make it a worthwhile investment with their Xbox Live service. Unfortunately, this also set a bleak precedent of “pay to play (online)”, which has finally wormed its way onto Sony’s next-gen offering, but mostly stuck to Microsoft’s consoles at first. Still, this was the cost of progress: online gaming opened up so many avenues for multiplayer, I can sparsely imagine modern video games without it.

I think that, besides the aforementioned death of the Dreamcast, the largest blow towards my enthusiasm towards video games during the sixth generation had to be both what I’ve always referred to as “the death of 2D” and the widespread disappearance of many genres I, to the day, hold among my personal favorites. Sure, during the fifth-generation, the disappearance of 2D games in favor of flashier 3D titles was pretty much preordained after the Saturn (purveyor of the former) was utterly thrashed into oblivion by the original PlayStation. But even the PS1 had its fair share of 2D games. The majority of 2D releases on the PS2 were just ports and collections of older games, and as it was the market’s leader, Gamecube and Xbox just decided to follow suit. Same goes for those beloved genres of mine I mentioned earlier: sixth-gen was literally the worst generation for fighting games, 2D platformers and puzzle games since their inception. This is actually a pretty big part of the reason why I view any nostalgia for this period with barely-veiled disdain. The first two genres made a resurgence this past generation, and while puzzle games still have weak showings on consoles, they appear to have found a few new niches, in the form of handheld gaming, smartphones and downloadable titles.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: in my opinion, this particular generation was the worst era of gaming I’ve ever personally experienced. The period featuring the PlayStation 2 and its doppelgangers was by far, the worst era with regards to the actual offerings the market had to offer; to the point where most of the games I bought during this generation were either on the Dreamcast or just re-releases and sequels of games I’d enjoyed in previous generations. Even more irresponible is the fact that it began the rise of the AAA title, which is to this day, slowly choking the life out of the industry, leaving several bankrupt studios in its wake.

Then again, I can’t really say that the sixth generation didn’t also have its good points. Take the Game Boy Advance, for example. A haven for 2D games, platformers, puzzle games and even the occasional fighting game every once in a while: scoff if you must, The King of Fighters EX2 was actually quite excellent, despite the GBA’s button limitations. The GBA had pretty much everything I liked about gaming, to the point where, for quite some time, I totally abandoned console gaming in favor of handhelds, which was an eerily easy transition on my part. This wasn’t exactly hurt by the fact that the Game Gear was my first dedicated video game system, period.

Of course, by the end of the sixth-generation, Sony’s absolute unquestioned stranglehold over the majority of worthwhile third-party titles finally began to slack. Their exclusive deal with Rockstar evaporated, allowing the GTA spinoffs Vice City and San Andreas to find their way onto the Xbox. This coupled with the looming release of the Xbox’s successor, the Xbox 360, led to many of Sony’s exclusive partners jumping ship, going multiplatform as opposed to abandoning Sony outright, quite the opposite of what had happened two generations before, when Nintendo was met with a mass third-party exodus to the original PlayStation. This made third-party exclusives a far less common occurance in future generations and their strategic importance also began to diminish as time went on and budgets expanded, being replaced with time-exclusive release schedules and platform-exclusive DLC.

So, in a nutshell, all of the wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth with regards to how either the seventh generation of video games or the upcoming eighth generation has or will ruin gaming forever fills me with little more than severe contempt. The longing for the “glory days” of when Sony reduced the entire industry into little more than a bland trudge with every console manufacturer going through the same exact motions strikes me as a strange longing, especially when confronted with the twin boogeymen of the future: patches and downloadable content. After all, all games were immaculately coded in the good ol’ days and there were no such things as hollow expansions in the past, right? Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to play some Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition in order to drown my sorrows over how Soul Calibur 3 totally wiped my memory card clean.

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