Xbox squared

By Wagner James Au

Published November 26, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

Read the story.

In general, I found this article heavy on rhetoric and light on substance. There are plenty of valid criticisms that could be leveled at Microsoft -- and ditto for Sony. But most of them don't make an appearance here.

Au's main argument is highly hypocritical. In the same breath, he praises Sony and Nintendo for being daring while condemning Microsoft for having only fairly non-risky games in it's launch lineup. But the PS2 has been out for over a year -- when it launched, its lineup was similarly undistinguished, and arguably weaker than Microsoft's. Au wants to hold Microsoft to a higher standard, and he's not alone. But is that fair journalism?

He argues that the Xbox was supposed to bring us more sophisticated, PC-like games. Microsoft never promised anything of the sort. If you want to argue that perhaps they should have, more power to you. But don't claim that they promised that and failed, because they didn't. They were quite clear about it in their E3 presentation: the Xbox is a console, not a PC for your living room. The games will be console games. The idea that it would be anything else was created out of whole cloth by people in the press who apparently suffer from some sort of listening disorder, such as Wagner James Au.

He makes other, non- Xbox related arguments that don't stand up to scrutiny, including a dig at Bungie for failing to provide a strong main character in their PC offerings. But many PC games that do reach further than the traditional gamer market have even less of a focus on a developed central character. How about Myst? Or Age of Empires? Or Civilization? Or DOOM?

The reality is that most console games' "strong protagonists" are not particularly strong at all. With the exception of rare games such as the Metal Gear Solids or the Final Fantasies, most console titles sport memorable characters for branding purposes only, and not as a foundation for narrative or "sophisticated content." You could argue that Microsoft should be doing this as well, for the same reasons, but Au doesn't.

He goes on to laud the innovative genius of Pikimin on the GameCube: "And that's it for the Xbox premiere list. Otherwise, it's the usual sports, racing and fight titles, rendered with slightly better graphics than the PS2." He fails to point out that the rest of Nintendo's lineup is... the usual sports, racing and fight titles, rendered with not quite better graphics than the PS2. A lot of the GameCube's fire stems from the fact that expectations were relatively low. People were so surprised that it didn't suck, they overcompensated. The rest of Nintendo's lineup includes yet another Mario game (well, a Luigi game, at least), another Rogue Squadron game, a bunch of sports titles, and various ports such as Crazy Taxi. So where is the awe-inspiring innovation that supposedly puts the competition to shame? Oh, yeah -- it's all in the rhetoric.

The real edge that GameCube has is the price. No question there -- it's a bargain. And to be fair, Au does cover that. The rest is hot air.

Speaking of empty rhetoric: "'I don't think there's any doubt in my mind that the Playstation 2 will be the market leader at the end of this year,' says Bergman of Shacknews."

Well, duh. He's right, but not because of any failing on the part of the Xbox. It has more to do with the fact that Microsoft has only a month and a half to match a year's worth of PS2 sales. If Sony fails to lead the market with that kind of head start, then something is seriously amiss.

Then he explains that "The company is taking a substantial loss on every Xbox sale, apparently hoping that the superior hardware inside will be its best future asset." He says it as though this is some sort of unique risk. Of course Sony is doing the same, as did Sega. Nintendo doesn't, but they are the anomaly.

Does he make any good points? A few. In particular, I'd agree that Microsoft has bungled promoting the Xbox, at least so far. Far too few good points for a five-page feature, though.

-- Ben Sones

Wagner James Au's " Xbox Squared" in Salon came off as an uninformed diatribe against Microsoft, rather than a even-handed look at the Xbox.

Suggesting that the Xbox's titles are any worse than Nintendo's nearly invisible launch line-up, or the PS2's so-called "mature" titles is a little ridiculous. The fact of the matter is NONE of the "next generation" consoles have produced titles equal to the hits of the 32-bit or 64-bit eras, much less the days of SNES and Genesis, or even the original NES. A golden age of gaming this is not.

Don't think Halo or Oddworld are that appealing? Well how do they stack up to GameCube tech demos like Luigi's Mansion (which earlier reviewers have said lacks gameplay depth), real time strategy bore Pikimin, or retreads of Nintendo 64 games like Waverace and Star Wars: Rogue Leader? On the PS2 front GTA III might be getting a lot of buzz for its nasty gameplay, but at its core it's just Crazy Taxi. Silent Hill 2 is just Silent Hill 1 with better graphics, the same for Metal Gear Solid 2. To tell you the truth, I don't think any of these systems show much that I'd call "revolutionary."

I think it's hilarious that Sony is lauded as a great company, where its own monopolistic practices in Asia-- particularly in the gaming market -- rival Microsoft. It's all well and good to attack America's most hated monopoly, but to ignore the fact that Sony has time and again browbeaten vendors regarding the marketing of its products and engineered a PS2 shortage on launch to drum up demand shows a definite bias on the part of the writer.

And as for the "venerable" Nintendo, how about how their insistence on sticking with the cartridge format (mainly due to a feud with Sony) which kept licensing fees and software prices at unnecessary highs for Nintendo 64 titles? I remember seeing Mortal Kombat Trilogy for $70 when it came out.

All of the new systems have their flaws, some of them serious (most notably the lack of compelling software on all fronts). To single out Microsoft for their mistakes is a bit unfair given the histories of the other companies involved. In console gaming, like any other business, there are no real angels involved.

-- Jeff Barrus

The truth is that while the Xbox launch titles are not stellar, they are games gamers want to play. HALO has a chance at bringing true co-op multiplay to a console. Oddworld has name recognition (the first two games in the series were both bestsellers) and while Lorne Lanning may be overstating his case a bit, his programmers did feel a sense of relief moving from the PS2's jury-rigged architecture back to something they were familiar with. Dead or Alive 3 fills the obligatory fighting game role. To contrast, I seem to recall that when the PS2 first launched, the only very good game for it was SSX Snowboarding.

You yourself stated that AOL Time Warner funds offbeat movies with their cash reserves ... reserves that were built up by releasing many mainstream hits. Will Xbox not even get a chance to build up a similar head of steam?

We will get our innovative, evocative games on the Xbox. At the very least we'll get Jet Grind Radio Future, an offbeat combination of rollerblading and graffiti set in a futuristic Tokyo, and Shenmue II, which will attempt to model a large part of Hong Kong on a 1:1 scale and allow players to explore it however they wish.

Finally, if you're going to consider the PS2 a better system for offbeat games, at least make mention of one of the best ones out there: ICO. Set in an ancient castle, ICO tells the story of a young boy who was banished there because he was born with horns. After escaping from his cell, Ico finds and frees another prisoner, the willowy Yorda, and attempts to lead her out of the castle. This is complicated by the fact that Yorda cannot defend herself from the various enemies in the castle, and that neither Ico nor the player can understand what Yorda is saying.

The game is gorgeous and evocative, and the mechanism of having to help Yorda through every room throws a new twist on an old game genre. The game is also quite charming. Use one of the various "save couches" scattered around the castle, and Ico and Yorda hold hands, sit down on the couch and fall asleep. These kinds of touches are what make you want to rescue Yorda, even when protecting her becomes frustrating.

And yes, if the rumors are to be believed, there will be an Xbox port.

-- Anthony Salter

I seem to remember reading a similar article about the Playstation 2 when it was released. Few consoles have launched with impressive titles. Everybody in gaming knows that it takes about a year or two before a console really starts to get good games. So the fact that you have just published an article to say something as meaningless as the fact that the Xbox is not launching with an extensive game catalogue shows that either the author is hopelessly ignorant of the gaming world, or that Salon is yet again straining hard in order to write a Microsoft bashing article. Your staff needs to lighten up a bit. Lately it seems that Salon goes out of its way in order to be negative. Sometimes its OK to be optimistic or happy about something -- even a Microsoft product.

-- Aran Johnson

Microsoft's Xbox not innovative? What the hell do you expect from a company that has never done anything but copy competitors? Oh yeah, and then drive them out of business.

-- Mark Nelson

Is it just me, or is Microsoft using the game console wars to get into the home computer market?

In some ways, it doesn't really matter if the Xbox succeeds as a game console. It's really a computer (using mostly off-the-shelf components) wrapped in game console clothes. Look at the specs:
- an Ethernet port
- USB ports
- a hard drive
- a DVD-ROM drive
- a Pentium-III CPU
- an NVIDIA graphics engine

Hmmmm.... looks like a computer to me.

Hook it up to your home network through its Ethernet port, unplug the gamepad from the USB port, daisy-chain a keyboard, mouse and floppy drive in its place (or CD burner or ZIP drive, or any other USB device), and you've got a Web-friendly home computer.

With home PC sales waning, and most users seeing little reason to upgrade (most home users only use their PCs for e-mail, surfing the Web, and light word-processing), Microsoft is seeing a shrinking home PC software market. However, with a shifting emphasis to Web-based infrastructure (with Passport, .Net, and a browser interface, they would be able to offer Web-based pay-as-you-go personal finance and word processing services) and a installed base of devices able to connect to the Internet, Microsoft may be able to beat Intel and AMD at their own game, and find a new home-user market in the process.

It's a shrewd move, and a little ominous, especially after they've managed to shake off their antitrust case.

-- Asher Miller

While the article is true for the current incarnation of Xbox the author seems to have forgotten that Microsoft has always won in the long run.

In the beginning there where several companies making DOS systems. There where several window environments for DOS. There where several browsers. There have even been several legal battles with the DoJ. Need I go on?

-- Bengt Eleberg

As usual, Wagner James Au, is almost right except where he's completely wrong. He claims that: "With an established audience that skews decidedly younger, Nintendo's GameCube is not really a direct competitor." However, in my network-gaming crew of eight, four of us have per-ordered the GameCube, two of us will buy it after the release date and not a single one of us will go near an Xbox.

-- Johnny Rollerfeet

One of the items the Xbox review failed to mention is that while PS2 does not have a built-in Ethernet adapter, it has USB. Games like Tony Hawk 3 have support for USB-Ethernet adapters built in.

I'm already playing networked console games and let me tell you, it ROCKS.

Screw Xbox, I've got everything I need in PS2.

-- Tim Hockin

I'm sure the guy who wrote this review is smart and knows a lot about games, but he seems to have a short memory. (Or he is very biased, either one.) I got a PS2 the first day they came out, and -- much like with Xbox -- it was noticeably lacking in good games. In fact, it only really had two really great launch games: SSX and Madden 2001. I'm not saying he's wrong about the Xbox, since I agree that there are only a few good launch games, but it seems like he should have mentioned that Sony went through the same thing last year. Sure, all the good games are showing up now, but for the first few months I had the PS2 I just sort of sat around thinking "Where are the good games?

-- Jason Barbacovi

I would like to thank you for publishing the excellent article on the Xbox, PS2 and GameCube. I work in the industry (as a PS2 programmer) and I can't tell you how refreshing it is to read an article about gaming by someone who actually knows what he's talking about. His presentation of things in the console world is dead on. The PS2 is king for now (and the near future, at least) because it has great games. Yes, it's a bear to learn and to program, but it also gives you a lot of flexibility, which I think helps in the creative department.

Speaking of great games, one that's been overlooked a but (but is my favorite PS2 game so far) is called ICO. It's a moody, dreamy, little game with simple gameplay and astounding graphics. It's easily the most atmospheric game I've played in a long time. It's so much fun to turn down the lights, turn up the sound, and submerge yourself in its fantasy world.

-- Ken Cobb

No 2002 titles of note for the Xbox? Hmmm....I guess you wouldn't have heard of Morrowind - perhaps the most eagerly anticipated RPG at the moment. It is due for release to the PC and the Xbox in early 2002.

-- Rick Gebethner

I do not think I have ever read a more biased article on this site than the bashing of Microsoft's latest effort, the XBOX.

I am not a fanboy, slavishly defending one game system over another. I did not buy an XBOX and will not anytime soon. I own a PS2 and will buy a GameCube. In fact, I agree with many of the facts in this article. However, the tone and falsehoods in the article are appalling.

Any person who watches the games industry knows that at launch very few games realize the promise of the system. Sony's PS2 launch lineup was inferior to Microsoft's and Nintendo's in many ways. Last year, Sony had the same safe releases that accompany all video game system launches. The video games press went out of their way to find the one or two gems in a very mediocre line-up. I bought a PS2 on launch day and don't regret it. But the PS2's launch was no better than the Xbox's and in many ways it was worse. Gamers will not soon forget the hardware shortages that left many with useless reservations and the months without quality titles (like those mentioned in the article).

The second year of a game system's life is always the first opportunity to see what the machine can do. The article suggests that Xbox will have few releases for 2002. The popular games site lists over a hundred releases for 2002 covering all genres. Furthermore, this list has some truly fantastic franchises like the inventive and original Jet Grind Radio from Sega (finally seeing release on a console with financial backing), and Spyro the dragon (formerly of Sony's PS1). These and other title appeal to more than the 14-30 male demographic (check Spyro's sales figures). As for big name games, Star Wars: Obi-Wan is an Xbox exclusive and should make it for this Christmas.

Bashing Microsoft because it is successful and fights hard (and sometimes illegally) is bad enough. But publishing an article that ignores facts and advertises for a private company (Sony) is poor journalism and a blemish to Salon's quality.

-- Torrick Ward

Mr. Au is thinking too much like a gamer and not enough like a businessman.

In his overriding desire to cut the software behemoth off at the knees before the Xbox gains momentum, he fails to see the sensible rationale behind the launch of the Xbox. Microsoft is launching the machine with titles that have mass appeal: games that will sell. Would it make sense for the company to sell a really abstract, experimental game right from the start? Or does it make more sense to have a broad appeal start, and then roll out the experimental games? Does it make sense to brand associate the Xbox with a single character from a single game? Or does it make more sense to have the Xbox branded as a high-power gaming tool capable of god-knows-what? (Witness the erosion of market-share of those character branded game consoles.)

As for future games, there will be no shortage of game developers trying to make the future best selling Xbox title in order to become Microsoft's favorite son.

Is this a flawed launch, or just the tip of the iceberg?

-- Mike Bishop

By Salon Staff

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