PS2: The Machine that would Steal Christmas
By Jake Forbes
If you're a dedicated gamer, chances are this last month left you broke. From late October through November, triple A titles came out every week, and for those of us with multiple gaming platforms, we had to make some sacrifices. How to choose? Do I get Shenmue or Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask? Both are innovative RPG adventures with real-time environments. Skies of Arcadia or Final Fantasy IX? Either one will take a good 40 hours of my time. Jet Grind Radio or Tony Hawk 2? So hard to choose!
Any of these games are well worth your money, but realistically, most gamers can't dedicate the necessary hours to play through everything. And there's another reason that 500,000 gamers can't play all of these great games: they spent too much money on Playstation 2!
Now I know that every web site out there with Nintendo and Sega fans has ranted about the superiority of their lineups over the PS2's launch titles. Either system has an easy case to make against Sony. But despite all the anti-PS2 press out there, I really don't think the gaming press is going far enough. Not only is the PS2 a perfect example of putting the cart before the horse, but Sony's dominance in the US and Japan is, strangely enough, driving the American and Japanese gaming markets farther apart.
No, really. What Japanese gamers buy and what American gamers buy is farther apart than ever before. Just look at the latest Famitsu (Japanese gaming press) sales charts for Sony. Chances are, nothing on the list that's not by Square will ever come to the US. Similarly, if you look at the US sales charts, with the exception of FF9, it's all American stuff with limited appeal to Japanese markets.
Is what makes a good game in the US different from a success in Japan? Well, frankly, yes! Most of the time at least. Japanese and American gamers love sports games -- just different sports. The Japanese gamer isn't about to take to Madden 2001 any quicker than Americans take up horse racing sims and Japanese baseball. The Japanese love street racing, while many Americans prefer Nascar and F1 styles. Also, the average Japanese teen is willing to put more time into a game than the average American, so while RPG's reign supreme in the land of the rising sun, over here they're just a niche (albeit a very large one). Other differences are difficult to explain, like how Americans dig first person shooters and real-time strategy, while the Japanese love music/dance sims, Mah Jong, and really crappy anime licensed games (fortunately that trend died off --mostly--in the US in the 16 bit days).
So given those differences, is this great divide inevitable? A look to the gaming past will show that this is not at all the case. From Donkey Kong to Resident Evil, a truly great game reaches across language and cultural barriers. In fact, most gamers in their late teens to early twenties were raised almost entirely on Japanese games. The dominance of American produced games on Japanese consoles in America is a relatively new phenomenon.
How can this have happened? Well if you're an upstart video game production company with little or no talent, what system would you want to make games for? Nintendo licensing fees are high and it seems like a "kiddie" system. Sega? Aren't they third place? I don't want to develop for third placers! Sony? They're cheap and they'll publish everything. Plus they have more units in people's homes than anyone else so more suckers might buy our cheap-ass game. This kind of thinking has helped Sony build the largest game library, but with the lowest average game scores.
As Sony tries to muscle its way into the "default" platform position, the need for major innovation is lowered. The fact that game players and developers were both so eager to adapt to the system just emphasizes this. When Sega or Nintendo introduce a new system, they launch with first party games that blow away the existing competition. They have to now. Looking adequate is no longer good enough. These games have to be of such high quality that any player around the world can pick it up and get into it. Looking at PS2, there's no universally great game in sight for months to come.
What about the big-name game developers that work mostly with Sony? The Squares, the Namcos, the Capcoms, the Enixes... Most of the trusted old school game makers are resting on their laurels, making sequel after sequel of the same few games. I love the Final Fantasy series, and I'll continue to play every game that bears that name, but I can't help but feel that I'm being told the same kind of story the same way over and over. Square has so firmly carved out the RPG niche for themselves, especially in America, that they don't need much innovation either.
Sony has become the platform of guy games and niche games. They hit a lot of niches, but they're niches nonetheless. Sports games? Got 'em. Racing? Plenty. Fighting? Ditto. RPG's? More than enough. Fun games that I can play with my uncle, my girlfriend, and my little sister…? Maybe one or two a year. Games that I'll feel nostalgic for in ten years? Aside from a few multi-platform franchises, most games are forgettable.
So what does any of this have to do with the split between Japanese and American games? Well, the kinds of games that can be played by boys and girls, men and women, can also be enjoyed by Americans, Asians, and Europeans. And more often than not, these games are made in Japan. These kind of games create iconic characters that are recognized the world over. In a sense, Mario, Sonic, Zelda, Chun-Li, Solid Snake and Mega Man are helping to unite gamers.
It's kind of like the book world. You've got your sci-fi, your mysteries, your adventure books, and there are some great books written in all those genres. But then you have your literature, the works of art that will stand for generations. Game design is a new art form, but, I believe, a very legitimate one. Upping the year on a Madden football game every 12 months isn't making art. Adding a couple new fighters to Tekken isn't art. Creating a new world and a new interactive experience is fundamental in this new art form, and Sony doesn't encourage this.
So, for the millions of gamers who didn't get a Playstation 2 at launch, take note! Do not assume that Sony will be the best system just because CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek say it will. Don't be content with second rate software and a few good games that aren't really your favorite type. Play a few hot games on all the systems. Look at what's coming out soon. Sony has a pretty dull lineup for months to come, and with Microsoft X-Box and Nintendo Game Cube just around the corner, I can assure you that we'll see much more innovation in either of their launches than Sony will produce in a year.
You're a Mean One, PS2
(sung to the tune of 'You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch' as if you didn't know)
You're a mean one, PS2.
Although you have Unreal (Tournament),
You're as cuddly as a toaster,
User-friendly's not your deal,
(You're like HAL in 2001,
With your scary blue eye.)
You're a monster, PS2.
Your launch was an empty hole.
Your processor is adequate, but
You haven't got a soul,
(I better sell you on eBay for thirty-nine-and-a-half thousand dollars,
Before you get old.)
You're a vile one, PS2.
Though you stand up on your side,
If a little kid should bump you,
You'll scratch up the disc inside.
(Given the choice between you and Colecovision,
I'd pick the Colecovision any day.)
You're a foul one, PS2.
You make us buy a multitap.
Though you know I like to play with friends,
You make me buy more crap.
(The three words that best describe you,
Are as follows, and I quote:
"Hype, Chunk (of cash from my wallet), Clunk (from your annoying load times).")
You're a rotter, PS2.
Your games just aren't that fun.
You're a sexist, misogynist boy toy
With an overdose of guns.
(Your games are an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable,
But SSX is good, and Tekken's not so bad... but still...!)
You nauseate me, PS2.
With your nasty, giant price.
Sure you're "just" $300,
but it takes $500 to suffice.
(You're an expensive, overhyped, unorganized, overly fussy little box,
With arsenic sauce!)