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Editorial: Which Console Should I Buy?
posted by: Shawn Rider
date posted: 09:10 AM Sat Jun 1st, 2002

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About a dozen times a day I get an email asking me which console someone should buy. A complete stranger expects me to be able to tell them right off the cuff where to put their $200. I feel a lot of responsibility to our readers, so I often write long letters asking what games they like, who the console is for, etc. (I do get a lot of letters from moms and dads asking which console system to purchase for their children.) Every year at the Electronic Entertainment Expo we get to see the lay of the land, and I was hoping that a clear answer to the quandry of which console to invest in would manifest itself. It's both good and bad that there is still no clear winner in the console wars.

Sure, Sony declared within the first five minutes of their press conference this year that the console wars were over and they had won. However, after four years of Sony press conferences it's become apparent that you can't rely on their word alone. Their tone this year was comparable to their tone last year when they proclaimed that online gaming would arrive Fall 2001. Certainly there are more PlayStation 2s all over the world than Xboxes and Gamecubes combined, many more, and that is nothing to sneeze at. But it also isn't going to kill any of the other two systems. Console gaming has been a three-headed monster for a long time, and there is no reason to believe that the market won't keep all three systems alive for the duration of their usefulness. And the odds are that around 2005, when the PS3 is slated to ship, we'll hear about another Microsoft and another Nintendo system to carry on the torches of Xbox and Gamecube. Many folks are concerned that what happened to Sega will happen to Microsoft or Nintendo, and I'd like to put those fears to rest as much as I can. On the one hand, videogames are a dynamic industry and anything could happen (remember when a no-name game company, Sony, came out of left field and rose to the top?). However, what happened to Sega and the Dreamcast was due to years of corporate strife (some may say mismanagement) and an ever-growing money-pit that required drastic action. Neither Nintendo nor Microsoft are in a similar position.

In fact, all three systems are quite healthy, and that's the ultimate theme of this article ? no matter what system you own, you are going to have fun playing great games. And no matter what system you own, there will be games exclusive to other systems that make your mouth water. That's just a fact of life. The ultimate solution is still to buy all three systems (and beef up your PC, too, for that matter). However, that doesn't work for everyone, so I'll try to lay out some of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each system.

Nintendo's Gamecube has been a hit with the Nintendo fans and hasn't done a whole lot to sway other gamers, although the new $150 price tag won't hurt anyone. Things will probably continue on that way for the next year. If you buy a Gamecube you accept that there will be, overall, fewer games released for the system. You also accept that some of the biggest games on the system will be exclusive first and second party titles (Metroid Prime, Mario Sunshine, Pikmin, Eternal Darkness, StarFox Adventures, Zelda, etc.), and you probably feel a deep need to play these games. These kinds of exclusive titles saved the N64, and while the Gamecube has been more warmly received by third party companies, these titles will form the core of any Gamecube library.

Nintendo has a reputation for being a \"kiddie\" system, which has never been entirely true. Rather, think of Nintendo as the \"Disney\" of videogames. They have a lot of recognizable and beloved characters and they do a lot of family friendly titles. However, just like Disney (who produced and released Ruthless People among other more mature movies), they occasionally venture into more adult territory (Perfect Dark, Eternal Darkness), and often with good results. What really makes Nintendo great for the younger audience is the Game Boy Advance. Nintendo focused on \"connectivity\" this year, meaning connecting your GBA to your GC for all kinds of different reasons. Add to that the interplay between first party franchises on GBA and GC, and you've got the kids coming in droves.

Nintendo has a fan base, and they know it. These people would pay $200 just to play Metroid Prime and never regret it. Again, in much the same way as parents love taking their kids to Disneyland, many adults get sucked into Nintendo games and many adults play GBA. (And let's face it ? there is no other handheld gaming system in the US.) These gamers believe Nintendo is correct to focus on quality of games rather than things like hard drives and online play. Although the Gamecube will support a modem and broadband adapter, don't expect a whole lot of online gaming to become available for the Gamecube in the next year. Phantasy Star Online will be the only one for a long time.

Because of Nintendo's stability in the marketplace and their reliability in creating great games, they are sort of the odd man out. Nobody minds sharing the videogame scene with Nintendo because in many ways Nintendo created the scene. They're the bigger brother, the old timer, the rock. The real battle is between the Xbox and PS2. This battle isn't based on hardware either ? anyone can tell you that the Xbox is a superior processing machine. With both systems down to a more reasonable $200, and both systems planning online gaming support, the war is far from over. These two are going at it tooth and nail, and the greatest thing about that conflict is that so far it's the gamers who are winning.

It all comes down to the games. If you want to play your console system online, PS2 and Xbox are really your only choices. Both of the companies are actively supporting and encouraging developers to embrace the online arena, and both have ambitious plans to get their users online. For more details about the online gaming plans of all three console companies, check out my recent article, \"Back to the Front: The Console Wars Go Online.\"

So how do you pick between PS2 and Xbox? It all depends on what you're about. As I said before, if you're a techno fiend, then the Xbox will probably better fulfill your whiz-bang desires. If you're a die-hard PS2 fan, there's really no reason to switch systems. Both systems will have games that are truly amazing released on them, and both of them will have exclusive titles that will make you drool, no matter who you are. In general, if you're more of an RPG fan, the PS2 is going to support you better ? there are a ton of RPGs coming out for PS2 and the Xbox hasn't really caught up. Of course, Peter Molyneaux's epic endeavour, Project Ego, will be an Xbox exclusive RPG, but it won't be out for over a year.

Beyond that distinction, there isn't much difference in the games coming out for both systems. Each company has their first party titles, which are guaranteed to be exclusive. So if the Getaway, SOCOM, Ratchet and Clank, or Sly Cooper interest you, then stick with Sony. Other Sony exclusives include Grand Theft Auto and Final Fantasy. Microsoft has a similarly enticing list of first party titles, including MechAssault, Whacked!, Halo 2, Brute Force, a sequel to RalliSport, and many more. In addition, Microsoft has some exclusive titles like Unreal Championship, Splinter Cell, Project Ego, and RE which should make for happy, happy Xbox owners.

Lots of folks write me and say, \"Yeah, but there are MORE games coming out for PS2 you idiot!\" That's true. And that will remain true this year. However, there are plenty of games coming out for each system. Seriously ? are you going to play more than 30 games a month? Do you WANT to play all of those games filling up the release list? As Theodore Sturgeon said in defense of science fiction, \"99% of everything is crap.\" That's just as true with videogames. PlayStation 2 has the highest install base in the world. So if you're a publisher or developer trying to figure out a way to publish a game with as little cost to you and as much potential profit as possible, you're going to publish that game on the PS2. It's simple economics, but it doesn't mean that all of those titles you see listed are even worth thinking about playing. And when you get down to the nitty gritty of really good titles worth playing the field looks much more even. This year there will be about the same number of worthwhile titles released on Xbox and PS2, but if you want to have the broadest choice possible, if you're into searching out that diamond in the rough, or if you're way into all those wacky Japanese imports, go for the PS2.

Even exclusive games are not necessarily so exclusive. Resident Evil is supposed to be exclusive to Gamecube; however, Resident Evil Online will be exclusive to PS2. Splinter Cell is supposed to be exclusive to Xbox, but Ubi Soft plans to release slightly modified versions of the game for all systems. As I wrote a year or so ago, third party publishers see the value in putting a game out on all systems. Now that consoles are up to par with PCs, the phrase \"all systems\" includes the PC, a turn that was unprecedented until the current generation of hardware. Many games, including BloodRayne, XIII, and Splinter Cell will be released on \"all four platforms.\" In addition, games like TimeSplitters 2 will make it to the three console platforms.

There is a potential for multiplatform releases to seek the lowest common denominator, and we certainly saw a bit of that this past year. Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2 and THPS3 are good examples of games that were designed to take advantage of the PS2 hardware and didn't look as impressive on the Xbox or Gamecube. Again, it will become more noticeable this year that the PS2 doesn't pump out the same quality graphics as other systems (although don't get me wrong ? there are plenty of nice looking PS2 titles coming out). Fortunately, most multiplatform releases this year are being developed at the higer standards initially, generally either on the Xbox or PC, and will be toned down for the PS2. I asked developers and producers all over E3 which system was easiest and hardest to work on. Unanimously the developers I questioned said the PS2 is the toughest, and it was generally agreed that the Xbox is the easiest. The PS2 was not designed with developers in mind (think back to the huge scuffle that Oddwold Inhabitants and SCEA had if you have forgotten the numerous developer complaints in the early days of PS2), and the Xbox was. So far it looks like Microsoft succeeded in giving developers a dream system to work with. The upside of all of this for us gamers is that multiplatform releases are looking better and you'll play games that, although available on other platforms, are optimized for the one you own.

With all of the great games being released this year (and it will be an excellent year for gaming), it's really hard to go wrong. Unless you're devoted to a particular franchise, or really into the idea of online gaming, there's not a lot of help we can offer you. Console systems aren't necessarily something you buy with an eye toward the future ? we want to play the games we want to play right here and right now. Unless you own all three systems, you're going to miss out on something great. The best advice I can give you right now is to buy a different system than your best friend ? and then share.