On 3rd December 1994, the video gaming world changed forever. Born out of a grudge resulting from a failed partnership between Nintendo and Sony, the original Playstation was not the first in the fifth generation of video game consoles to be unleashed on the public, nor was it considered a wise decision by many within either Sony or the industry as a whole. But history is often kind to winners, and win is exactly what Sony did.
From 1985 until 1994 the home console market had effectively been a two horse race, and the two power houses from Japan: Sega and Nintendo took their entry into the 3D gaming market very seriously and with almost a decade of experience, expertise and industry savvy behind them; expectations were high. The Sega Saturn was the first contender on the scene, and was not only a solid update to its 8-bit and 16-bit ancestors, but also effectively bridged the transition from cartridge to CD. It shipped less than 10 million units. Nintendo may have been late to the party in 1996, but their daringly-different cartridge based console still managed a respectable 33 million sold. The Sony Playstation is the first ever console to sell over 100 million units.
How the hell did that happen?! Sony are absolutely no joke when it comes to manufacturing electronics, but how did a rookie in the video games arena succeed where Neo Geo and Atari had failed? Well, not only was the Playstation relatively affordable (a Neo Geo console with a single game would have set you back approximately $1000 in the USA), but it had excellent developer support, and in what would prove to be the real master-stroke in its campaign and the next evolution in video gaming itself: its games combined the emerging power of home computer 3D technology with the ease of a home console and more mature content to target an older audience. Whilst PCs may still, for many, provide the ultimate gaming experience; the act of updating and maintaining the complex hardware and software have made it the niche market of a small but dedicated group. Home consoles satisfy the demands of the public who have neither the time, energy, space or motivation to deal with a high-spec PC.
The Playstation 2, despite its initial limitations is still the greatest selling console in history at over 150 million units. Few would argue that one of the driving forces behind the PS2s success is the momentum gathered behind its predecessor. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s Wii, the current top-seller is still more than 10 million away from the original Playstation’s record. The PS3 itself is only now really starting to gather any momentum at all, several years after its initial launch. What gives? How does the PS3 step out of the shadow of the original? Is the legacy of the original Playstation actually holding the PS3 back?
I broke my Playstation. No I didn’t hurl anything at in frustration, or even take it apart one day for kicks; I broke it from overuse. And I wasn’t the only one. I think it was Gran Turismo that finally did it. It was the only racing game that finally got me stop playing Wipeout 2097 which had certainly taken its toll, although it was Final Fantasy VII that had backed it up against up the ropes whilst Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had seriously softened it up by working the body for several months. My Playstation was out on its feet by the time Polyphony Digital’s revolutionary racing sim went to work on it. When Metal Gear Solid showed up I had to turn the console upside down to get the laser to even read the disc. Funny I should have mentioned those games really, GT5, FFXIII, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and MGS4 are probably the titles I looked forward to most on the PS3. In fact, I think it was the same for their counterparts on the PSP. Hmmm, what a coincidence.
Actually it’s not a coincidence at all. Reading back a list of the best-selling games on the Playstation is like looking at a snap-shot of one of the most important times in video game history. In a world where phrases like “number of units sold” are what developers live and die by, it isn’t strange at all that they would attempt to recreate the magic of those breakthrough titles. And it’s hardly surprising either that people like me keep going back for more. The only problem is, when it comes to the PS3, not many of those titles have come close to recreating the success of the originals.
Some of those titles have stuck to the tried and tested formula of the originals. Wipeout HD is unashamedly an HD update of previous efforts. Even with the DLC there are no original tracks at all. Whilst Gran Turismo 5 is an absolutely colossal game, and with the latest patch one that potentially never ends, it too has really strayed from the formula laid out before, it’s just embraced the new hardware. So far so good. Those two are not only two of the best racing games available on the system, they are two of best ever, hands down. The proud legacy continues, right? Wrong. It’s been a scientific fact for over 150 years already: Evolve or die. So could somebody please explain to me why when I play Resident Evil 5 I still have to wrestle with the same frustrating item menu, static shooting, and overall formula of a game I played 15 years
ago?! Sure, Resident Evil has come a long way graphically, but everything else about the title just feels so… tired. If it wasn’t for the addition of co-op, I don’t think I could have struggled through it. Wipeout and GT can get away with keeping the core mechanics of the originals because they are still relevant today. Resident Evil is being left in the dust.
Some titles, such as Final Fantasy XIII actually have almost nothing in common with their original Playstation counterparts. The Final Fantasy series is pretty unique within the industry in its approach to sequels. Very few of the titles are actually connected in any other way than they are JRPGs with a similar aesthetic and style. FF:XIII has done away with the towns, the NPC’s, the materia and a whole host of minor things that defined the three games released on the Playstation. Instead, the focus is very much on the new combat system and the cut-scenes; the reaction to which has been mixed. FF:XIII is a good game; it’s a brave attempt to breath life into the series and it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. But it isn’t a great game. The writing is not nearly good enough to justify the drawn out cut-scenes, and the lack of variety puts too much pressure on the combat system which isn’t going to appeal to a wide enough audience.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night not only reinvented the Castlevania formula, but it dared to remain 2D in what was fast becoming a 3D world. The end product however is one of the most beloved and highly awarded titles ever to grace the Playstation. In fact, none the subsequent sequels has come close to achieving the same critical acclaim. A few attempts were made to transition over to a 3D world, but none really stood out, and the Castlevania series returned mainly in 2D form on handheld platforms. Until now. Castlevania: Lords of Shadows is a very ambitious game, and in many ways a solid effort to bring the series in line with the current crop of consoles, but the seeds of its own mediocrity were sown before it even officially became a Castlevania title. Having not actually been developed by Konami or even the Japanese (MercurySteam are based in Spain), C:LoS was originally envisaged as a God of War clone, and a God of War clone it remains, just with a world famous title splashed across the box and a little bit of input from Hideo Kojima. Again, not actually a bad game, but one that disappointed thousands of Castlevania fans.
Speaking of Hideo Kojima, what on Earth was he thinking when he came up with Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots? I have a real hard time with MGS4 because it’s just so… odd. Right off the bat I’ll say MGS4 is a great game. It’s daring in a way the Final Fantasy series has only ever dreamed of being and it’s so utterly self-indulgent that fans of the previous games are in for a unique and wonderful experience. MGS4 is the only game that fully understands, respects, and finally embraces the vast legacy it has inherited. The dream sequence and the return to Shadow Moses are absolute genius. The graphics are some of the best out there. The game has its own unique dynamic and feel. The combat and stealth mean that it’s as fun to play as any third-person period. But, it’s not without its problems. Cut-scenes. My God… the cut-scenes. If you really want to get stuck into this game then clear out a weekend because the cut-scenes go on for half an hour at a time. That’s right, you just popped in a video game only to find yourself sitting through a drawn-out post-modern conspiracy tale that barely makes sense, on any level, and is told in over-long animated sequences when you’d rather be playing! The game has a very Japanese sense of humour, the multiplayer doesn’t really stand-up to the competition, and the controls feel a little too much like a PSP game to really satisfy. But somehow, the whole package still seems to feel right. Just.
So, what does this all mean for the PS3? Unfortunately, it means that familiar names will continue to be milked for whatever dollars can be squeezed out them. Sequels are already in the works for most of the titles mentioned above. In the meantime, the games getting most of the attention out there at the moment have absolutely nothing to do with the original Playstation. What developers need to do is not to ask themselves “What did audiences like?” from their original hits (and either copy/break the mould for the sake of it), but to ask themselves “Why were audiences blown away by it in the first place?” The answer is almost always that the first title offered an original, immersive and addictively fun gaming experience all wrapped up in an impressive technical package.
The road to success has not exactly been a smooth one for the PS3. Sure the Wii may have a disappointing array of titles and PS3 sales have improved to the point where it’s not far behind the Xbox 360, but it’s still in last place. Sony won their first war without any history at all. They won their second by continuing to do what they did best. But the playing field has changed once again, and to come out on top they’re going to need to make the most of the legacy that audiences such as myself still fondly remember. There are great expectations out there for the console and its games, but as MGS4, GT5 and even the downloadable and simplistic Wipeout HD have shown, it can be done.