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State of the Next Gen Consoles
Part III: A Brief History of the Revolution
Sometimes companies are like people. The really creative ones are often a little weird. Apple is a good example, Nintendo is another. A Japanese company with an Italian mushroom-eating plumber for a mascot is just plain odd. The fact that the same plumber was largely responsible for reviving the dying video game industry back in the 80’s is now legend.
Nintendo is deceptively technological. Like the powerful little GameCube before it, the Revolution console will be a technologically advanced yet relatively inexpensive system, but Nintendo doesn’t want to worry or bore consumers with the nuts and bolts. Their approach is simple… rather than disclosure of technical details, they would rather share experiences. For example, in the previous generation when competing consoles were releasing polygon-pushing specifications as many as ten times greater than their achievable real-world performance Nintendo, when pressed by the media, quietly released conservative estimates based on actual game conditions. This is Nintendo, always wanting to show you what the hardware is actually doing rather than what it might be able to do. This is not to say that their hardware record has been notably inferior, in fact the GameCube was an extremely capable console. It was slower in some poorly optimized ports but developer-dedicated games squeezed great performance out of the much less expensive cube. The performance benchmark to date is Resident Evil 4, which incidentally, pushed greater than double the ~9 million polygons Nintendo initially disclosed. Nintendo’s lack of market share success with the GameCube was certainly not because of its hardware model, as was effectively confirmed by Microsoft who went on to use an identical model, and woo the exact same hardware developers for the Xbox 360.
But back to the technology, I find error with the majority of analysts dismissing the Revolution as being a less powerful console than its competitors. How exactly do you define a console’s power? Is it only GFLOPS and graphics? Certainly the Revolution will be at a large graphical and central processing disadvantage, but does this make it a less powerful console? I’m not so sure, as there are other critical aspects to explore. Nintendo might define a consoles power hierarchy to be relative to the end-game of consoles. By end-game I’m referring to what consoles will eventually peak at in the distant future. The end-game is a well known concept, a device capable of providing an indistinguishable experience from reality. Science fiction has many examples, from the neural connecting Matrix to the Holodeck of Star Trek, they are all examples of the end-game of consoles. Nintendo knows this, and perhaps more so than any other console company, it’s what they strive for. Of course they strive for the end-game while working within the constraints of being a for-profit business that needs to make affordable devices. The ultimate example of Nintendo’s dedication to the end-game is coincidentally one of the most noted flops in game console history, the Virtual Boy.
In case you aren’t familiar, the Virtual Boy launched back in 1995 and was essentially a large VR helmet with an attached gamepad. While it didn’t support head tracking, it did offer true 3D stereoscopic imaging, albeit only in monochrome-red. With the Virtual Boy, Nintendo made an honest attempt at bringing a version of Virtual Reality down to the consumer price level. However, they tried to go too far too fast and the design sacrifices Nintendo had to make (e.g. the the red-only monochrome displays) were too great, and the machine was still very expensive for the time. There were other drawbacks as well, such as the on box disclaimer of potential eye damage to children under 7, and widespread reports of headaches likely caused by the low refresh rate of the displays. Suffice it to say the Virtual Boy did very poorly. Unfortunately, that failure snapped Nintendo’s design decisions back to being far more conservative or evolutionary in nature for their future consoles. The Nintendo 64 differentiated itself by advancing analogue input and rumble feedback. The GameCube however, offered nothing over its competitors to bring us closer to the end-game of consoles. It’s important to note here that the end-game’s virtual reality encompasses all senses. It is not enough to look and sound like the real thing, it has to feel like the real thing, smell and taste like the real thing. With the GameCube, Nintendo used an entire hardware generation to mostly improve only visuals, much like Sony and Microsoft, although the latter did advance with social interaction with their well executed Xbox Live service. Nintendo, however, always saw themselves as the hardware innovators, and perhaps rightly so in that they have had several ideas copied over the years, but with the GameCube, their hardware was just mostly the same as its competitors. Nintendo, it seems, decided this wouldn’t ever happen again. And they started with their lucrative handheld market.