Photo: Sony Playstation 2
Sony's all-in-one PlayStation 2 video game console will soon replace its current system.
Image: Steven Kent
Where do game systems go to die?
When new DVD games debut, old machines may linger on
By Steven Kent

Dec. 27 —  Is Sony’s PlayStation all played out? Has Nintendo 64 reached the “N” of the line? Is it game over for Game Boy?
‘I think this is their last Christmas where they are hot products. They will go more or less gracefully into the realm of budget and impulse purchases.’ 
editor-in-chief of Next Generation magazine 
       WHAT HAPPENS to game systems when they are faced with their replacements? 
       Sony’s 128-bit, DVD-based PlayStation2 will launch in Japan on March 4. Nintendo executives maintain their 128-bit DVD-based system, currently known as Dolphin, will launch next year, too. Nintendo has even announced the year 2000 release of Game Boy Advance, a 32-bit replacement for its 10-year-old titan, Game Boy.
       The question is: With all these new systems hitting the market, what will become of the current systems?


Atari's 2600 originally featured controls for only a couple of games, but it soon expanded its features. Image: Atari 2600        If history shows anything, it is that new generations of video games need time to develop their identity and distinguish themselves. The Atari 2600 was originally meant to play simple games like Pong and Tank — hence the paddle controllers. When designers like David Crane, Alan Miller, and Warren Robinett got their hands on it, however, they found ways to expand the system. Soon it was playing Adventure, Basketball, and eventually Pitfall!.
       Though there were several early side-scrollers such as Vanguard and River Raid for the Atari 2600, the Nintendo Entertainment System improved upon these games with arcade-quality graphics and better sound. Then Genesis and Super NES became the generation for fighting games, followed by the current generation of consoles, which will be remembered for 3D games.
       All of these generations began, however, by offering a bevy of improved versions of the games that were popularized one generation earlier. Along with Super Mario Bros., the Nintendo Entertainment System first launched with a library filled with such familiar ’80s arcade hits as Ice Climber, Donkey Kong, and Duck Hunt.
       Despite its library of early sports titles, Sega Genesis, which was widely viewed as the repository for side-scrollers early on, barely survived its lackluster first year of existence. (As it turned out, 1990 — the first full year after the launch of Genesis — was the best sales year for the NES.) In fact, despite the success of the Genesis version of John Madden Football, it was side-scrolling Sonic The Hedgehog that put Sega on the map. And it was Super Street Fighter II for the Super Nintendo that gave the 16-bit generation of games their new direction.
       The latest generation of games will likely be remembered for 3D games such as Jumping Flash and Super Mario 64, but what about the next generation? What will set this next generation apart?
       In the beginning, of course, the big difference will likely be graphics. After that, it will likely be multi-player interfaces. “If you go back to the beginning,” says Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy games, “before Pong there were card games. Going back to multi-player games will complete the cycle.”
       Multi-player games were never fully explored during this latest generation. Nintendo never even attempted to do more than offer four game ports on the front of the N64. Sony originally offered link cables that would enable players to hook two PlayStations together so that they could network two televisions, but few games supported this. Sega released a modem for Saturn, but the system was nearly dead already.
       With all three physical dimensions having been explored, adding multi-player abilities seems like a logical next step for gaming. (This does not mean, however, that traditional two- and three-dimensional games will become obsolete.)
       One thing is certain, when the new systems come out, they will have to do more than offer bigger processors and more storage. As Brian Stelter, editor in chief of the popular Nintendo site Nintendojo, puts it, this is not just about bit numbers: “What is exciting about the 128-bit-generation, in my opinion, is the fact that ‘bits’ won’t matter as much in the near future. Nintendo won’t name their next-generation console ‘Nintendo 128’ because there are so many other powerful, impressive aspects of the system that venture far behind simple bit-speed.”


‘Given that the future of gaming is in these new systems, I believe that the serious gamers will gravitate to these systems quickly. However, where issues of cost is concerned, the existing game systems can and will still play a role within the gaming community.’ 
president of Creative Strategies, Inc. 
       The electronics industry is known for its early adopters — people who buy the latest and most powerful high-tech products as soon as they come out. These pioneers will certainly be drawn to PlayStation2 as soon as it hits the market.
       “Given that the future of gaming is in these new systems, I believe that the serious gamers will gravitate to these systems quickly,” says analyst Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, Inc. “However, where issues of cost is concerned, the existing game systems can and will still play a role within the gaming community.”
       With a powerful system like Sega’s Dreamcast already on the market and PlayStation2 on the way, PlayStation and N64 have lost a lot of their cool. This does not mean, however, that they have reached the end of the line.
       “I think this is their last Christmas where they are hot products,” says Chris Charla, editor-in-chief of Next Generation magazine. “They will go more or less gracefully into the realm of budget and impulse purchases. They are making their way into the little brothers’ rooms of the world, but there will still be a market there for savvy publishers like THQ to exploit.”
       If Charla is correct, this will likely prove more true for PlayStation than Nintendo 64 because pressing CDs for PlayStation costs so much less than manufacturing cartridges for N64. THQ, a company known for making kid-friendly games and wrestling games is not the only company that is not jumping ship, however. According to Sakaguchi, the Japanese version of Final Fantasy IX, which is due out this year, will be a PlayStation title. “It is a much larger market, and since PlayStation2 will play games for both systems, we can reach both audiences.”
       Veteran reporter Harold Goldberg, who writes for Wired, the New York Times, and Entertainment Weekly, shares this view. “I feel there still is a niche market for these old machines, even if their graphics are no longer considered stellar. Not everyone will be able to afford the new machines initially. There is still life in the old machines — for the near-term future, anyway.”

At least, Nintendo had better hope so. Few people seem to believe that Dolphin will be released in 2000, meaning that N64 will likely have to compete against PlayStation2 and Dreamcast. While that would be extremely tough competition, it should be remembered that Nintendo was late to market with N64 and had a great holiday season selling 16-bit games. In fact, Sega was bitten badly for abandoning Genesis too early.
       Stelter says good line-ups could keep both Nintendo 64 and PlayStation running. “Although sales of the Playstation and Nintendo 64 have declined recently, exceptional games for both platforms show that this generation still has life. The Nintendo 64, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, and Banjo-Tooie showcase the power that a 64-bit machine can possess and provide. And look at the Playstation — quality games are still released very often.” 
       In fact, Charla speculates that the current systems may have earned a new kind of prestige that will insure them a place with collectors. “Obviously they are at the end of their life cycle, but I think that the PlayStation, and to a lesser extent the N64, are actually classic systems that are going to be around in some form or another for years — in the same way that the 2600 and the NES are still in use.”
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