Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Besties, 2005-2008

It's been a long time coming, but here it is, the final chapter of Besties! This time I'll rewind the clock back to 2005, when my console collecting hit its peak. I had the disposable income to spare and game prices were still relatively sane, so I took advantage of the situation, snapping up everything I could find. They weren't all smart purchases, and some of the systems in this list have since been sold to other collectors, but it was nevertheless fun to learn about the history of video games by experiencing it first-hand.

Sony PSP
Released: 2005
Owned: 2005

As you may have gathered from the previous chapters of Besties, I don't normally buy game systems at launch. It just doesn't make sense to be an early adopter, when the price of the technology is at its highest and the software library is at its slimmest. Beyond that, early models of game systems tend to have issues which don't get ironed out until a couple of years later... just look at the unlit screen of the Game Boy Advance (if you can see it), or the Xbox 360, which lasted almost as long as one of Jim Phelps' tape recorders.

Sony may have gone a bridge too far with
the smaller, download-dependent PSP Go.
I liked the system myself, but then again,
I bought mine for like twenty bucks.
(image from Amazon UK)
However, I made an exception with the Playstation Portable, treating myself to Sony's high-octane handheld almost immediately after its American launch. I had the money to spend thanks to some freelance work I started a few months earlier, and I was curious to see if Sony could make good on its promise of a portable with the power of a home console. It turned out that the hype was real... launch titles like Wipeout Pure and Darkstalkers: Chaos Tower offered plenty of proof that the PSP was a leap forward for handheld gaming, and a good sight more impressive than the competing Nintendo DS.

The years since have been a roller coaster ride... I would obsessively play the PSP, get frustrated with the long load times and the ghosting screen, and sell the machine after I ran out of interest and money. Then I'd get an itch to return to the system, and the process would repeat itself. I finally broke that cycle in 2014 when I purchased the PSP 3000... it fixed a lot of the problems I had with the original model, and the software library had exploded to over 1300 titles. It illustrates what I was saying earlier about it being smarter to wait a couple of years before buying a console, but I'm nevertheless glad I got in on the ground floor with this one. After all, Wipeout Pure was a lot more mind-blowing in 2005 than it would have been nearly a decade later.

Oh yeah, I guess I'd better pick my favorite game for the system, since that was the whole point of this feature. There's a lot of software worthy of that honor, but at the end of the day, I'd have to pick Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness. Normally I'm not big on strategy RPGs, but the goofy storyline and unorthodox, throw-focused gameplay left me glued to this one for hours... about a hundred hours, if the save file is accurate.

Microsoft Xbox
Released: 2001
Owned: 2005

I've been singing the praises of the Xbox as an emulation system, but it's a darned good console even before you hack it. I bought my first 'box back in 2005, and ever since, I've been consistently impressed with what the machine can do. Even the crappier games like Tao Feng and Kakuto Chojin look fantastic, and the better ones like Crimson Skies, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, and my personal favorite Dead or Alive 3 rank among the high points in that console generation. (Yes, TimeSplitters was available for the GameCube as well. No, you really don't want to play it without the extra buttons on an Xbox controller.)

What's nifty about the classic Xbox is that you can play its games without even owning the system. The Xbox 360 is compatible with nearly half of the thousand games released for Microsoft's first console. Far fewer of them will run on an Xbox One, but take heart! The games that do work are upscaled to four times their original resolution on an Xbox One S, and sixteen times on the Xbox One X. We're talking a resolution so sharp you could cut your finger on the screen.

If you happen to own a classic Xbox, you can play all of its games in standard definition, and turn it into a retro gaming station with a software hack. The Raspberry Pi is better suited for this purpose (and a whole lot smaller), but the Xbox is a perfectly decent alternative if you happen to have one handy.

Nintendo DS
Released: 2004
Owned: 2005

The Nintendo DS was a system that surpassed my expectations... yet didn't live up to the legacy of its predecessor. On one hand, it proved that there was real value in having two screens, with players viewing the action on the top display while interacting with the touchscreen on the bottom. Even in games that made limited use of the bottom screen, it was handy to have instant access to items and maps. The titles that relied on touchscreen input transformed the gaming experience, giving the player a level of precision that just wasn't possible with a joypad or even an analog stick. Could you imagine attempting delicate surgery in Trauma Center with an ordinary controller? It's a malpractice suit waiting to happen.

The DS Lite trimmed down the off-puttingly
bulky design of the first model.
(image from Wikipedia)
On the other hand, the Nintendo DS didn't make the same technological leap forward that the Game Boy Advance had. That system brought the Game Boy line into the 21st century and up to par with the game consoles released ten years earlier. I was excited about the Game Boy Advance, and was thrilled to buy one a couple weeks after it launched. Yes, even the dim screen of the first model didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the GBA that much. 

By contrast, I waited a few months before I picked up a Nintendo DS, spurred on only by the frustrating load times of the PSP. When I finally brought it home from Meijer (a department store forever banished to the midwest by the sinister Waldemort), I enjoyed it, but the primitive 3D graphics of the DS made it seem like it was several steps behind the competition, and out of step with the industry as a whole. 

I even questioned the wisdom of my purchase during the Nintendo DS's post-launch software drought, until Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow came along to restore my confidence. It was a fine follow-up to Aria of Sorrow on the Game Boy Advance, and having that map on the bottom screen is a big plus... one of the few benefits the DS offers that the PSP can't.

Sega CD
Released: 1992
Owned: 2006

This is fudging things a little... I purchased my first Sega CD back in 1999, but quickly traded it to my cousin for a Playstation memory card, because I was broke and I needed to save my progress in the ridiculously long Final Fantasy VII more than I needed to play Sewer Shark. So let's not count that one.

My first "for keeps" Sega CD came to me in 2006, I think. I was buying a lot of old games and systems in the pawn shops around central Michigan, back when that stuff was actually affordable. If you wanted to buy a Sega CD now, you'd be shelling out some serious scratch, but ten years ago, the system was unloved and easily found at second-hand stores for reasonable prices. If I had known how scarce these games would become, I would have snapped up a whole lot more of them, let me tell you.

Anyway, let's get back to the Sega CD. The system's got a reputation as a trash can for faintly interactive, low budget films disguised as games, but if you're willing to do some digging, you'll find treasure hidden under all that trash. One example is Robo Aleste, the sequel to the warmly received shooter on the Sega Genesis with a feudal Japanese setting and music played right off the disc. There's also Final Fight CD, which sacrifices the rich colors of the Super NES but adds all three of the arcade game's playable brawlers, the option to play with a friend, and a whole lot more stuff to smash. 

Oh yeah, I can't forget Eternal Champions CD... as a fighting game, it's merely average, but as a demonstration of all the ways the Sega CD can enhance ordinary Genesis games, it's spectacular. If Sega had tapped that potential more often, maybe peoples' memories of the Sega CD wouldn't begin and end with Night Trap.

Nokia N-Gage
Released: 2003
Owned: 2006

Evidently not as N-Gage-ing as its
manufacturer had hoped.
(image from Wikipedia)
It's like clockwork. Every time Nintendo releases a new portable, competing console manufacturers smell blood in the water, and launch their own handheld game systems in the hope that it will become the fabled Game Boy killer. It never works, but industry newcomers like Nokia have to learn this the hard way. The Finnish cell phone company launched the N-Gage as an "adult alternative" to the Game Boy Advance in 2003, only to have Nintendo chew it up and squeeze the remains out its backside in a couple of years.

It was endlessly ridiculed by other gamers for foolishly challenging the Nintendo juggernaut (not to mention its awkward taco-like shape), but I was willing to give the N-Gage a chance, running out with shovel in hand to scoop up what Nintendo had left in its wake. I bought the redesigned N-Gage QD and three games for about seventy bucks, then picked up a dozen more titles over the next few months, hoping to find that killer app that would justify the purchase.

Admittedly, some of the games in the N-Gage library were impressive for the time. The Game Boy Advance had some aptitude for 3D gaming, but there was no way it was going to pull off nearly Playstation-quality ports of Tomb Raider and Pandemonium, as the N-Gage could. At the same time, the N-Gage conversions of Game Boy Advance titles lost something on the way to that system. The tiny, vertically oriented screen and flattened action buttons, integrated with the N-Gage's numeric keypad, just weren't a good fit for the likes of Sonic Advance and King of Fighters EX 2.

What hurt the N-Gage the most is that it was released during that awkward transition between system generations. Like the 3DO, it was too expensive to compete with its firmly entrenched rivals, but seemed hopelessly outdated next to the systems that were released a couple of years later. A fully polygonal Tony Hawk's Pro Skater seemed pretty nifty in 2003, but it lost its luster in a big way after the more advanced Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Remix hit the PSP. 

Having said that, I'll acknowledge that for all its flaws, the N-Gage seems better suited to the Worms series than any other handheld. The numeric keypad that was an awkward kludge in action games offers quick, easy access to the huge assortment of weapons in Worms World Party. It's kind of nice to be able to play this game without constantly blowing up your own soldiers, y'know?

Neo-Geo AES
Released: 1991
Owned: 2006

The Neo-Geo was home to some of the biggest arcade hits of the 1990s. Fatal Fury! The King of Fighters! World Heroes! A few games that weren't Street Fighter II clones! Who wouldn't want to bring that experience home?

I still can't get over how this thing cost $600
at launch but came in this cheapy cheap
plastic shell. C'mon, SNK, what's the deal?
(image from ebay)
As it turns out, me. I was thrilled when I won a Neo-Geo AES in an eBay auction for around a hundred dollars, but I quickly discovered that it takes a special person (an especially rich person, cough) to collect for this system. Its cartridges are literally the size of bricks, and even common games like Ninja Combat cost $25 or more. Well, they cost that in 2006... I have no doubt that the prices have gone through the roof in the years since. My point is that while there are great games in the Neo-Geo library, the AES isn't a cost effective way to play them. For all the money you'll spend, you might as well buy a Neo-Geo arcade machine. Or for that matter, the entire arcade.

If you insist on going down this gold-plated road, I'd recommend The King of Fighters '99 as your first purchase. It brought a strong sense of artistic direction to a series of fighting games that had felt a little aimless in previous installments, and the gameplay was freshened up with a striker system and welcome new additions to the cast. You could save yourself a lot of cash by playing it on a modern game system, but hey, it's not like you're spending my money here.

Amiga CD32
Released: 1993
Owned: 2006

The Amiga and I, man, we have history. From the moment I laid eyes on a demo of Shadow of the Beast running in a computer store, I wanted this system in my collection. As a habitually broke teenager, that was quite impossible, but that longing never went away, even as I got older and technology improved. By the time I traded one of my DS games to another collector for an Amiga 500, the once cutting edge computer had become an antique. It didn't matter, though, because after all those years the system was finally mine! All MINE!

Technically, it's called "Amiga CD to
the 32nd power." I call that stupid, though.
(image from, who else, Wikipedia)
After laughing maniacally for ten straight minutes, I decided that one Amiga in my collection wasn't good enough, and picked up an Amiga CD32 from eBay. Like Apple's Pippen and Atari's XEGS, this was a game system pieced together from existing computer hardware. Commodore hoped that the CD32 would rescue it from bankruptcy, but a legal battle over unpaid patent fees ultimately put an end to that plan... and the company itself. The units Commodore planned to sell in the United States went back to the manufacturer in the Philippines, and would eventually find their way to auction sites like eBay at a steep discount. Score.

This is where I'd describe my experiences with the Amiga CD32, but unfortunately, I don't have that many. My system arrived without a power supply, and it took at least a year before I managed to cobble together a replacement out of old PC parts. I could never find a reasonably priced controller for the CD32 and I couldn't find a way to reliably burn discs... eventually, I got so fed up with the system's many inconveniences that I retired it to a shed outside the house. Try annoying me there.

The only game I spent any serious time with on the Amiga CD32, and which could be played with an ordinary Sega Genesis controller, was Disposable Hero. Imagine R-Type, but more European and with play mechanics that don't make much sense, and you've got the general idea. Personally, I'd rather be playing Ruff 'n Tumble, a colorful platformer that strikes an appealing middle ground between Super Mario Bros. and Metal Slug. It wasn't released in an official capacity for the CD32, but since the system is just an Amiga computer with a CD-ROM drive stapled onto it, it can be coaxed into playing the game. You just have to find a way to put Ruff 'n Tumble on a disc the CD32 can actually read, which may take some effort.

Microsoft Xbox 360
Released: 2005
Owned: 2006

I was eager to get my hands on an Xbox 360... perhaps a little too eager, since I purchased mine used from a game store. This is not a system you want to purchase second-hand, and I learned why when my Xbox 360 sputtered out on me years later. Desperate to get it back in working condition, I tried cooking the motherboard in the oven to reflow the solder. That worked for a couple of months, until the red ring of death made an unwelcome return appearance. That's when I learned that the only sure-fire cure for an Xbox 360 on the blink is to buy a newer model. I've never had a problem with my Xbox 360 E... well, except for the Xbox One rendering it obsolete. Whoops.

This is all sounding very cynical, I know, so I'll throw a little sugar on top of my heaping pile of salt. I don't use it much now, but I liked the Xbox 360 back when Microsoft was still supporting it. It was my favorite home console of that generation, because it was affordable and there were so many games available. It had a better online service than Sony did, and buying games digitally was a cinch in the Xbox Live store... you just paid for what you wanted, let it download in the background, and play it once the download was finished. On the Playstation 3, you had to buy the game, tell the system to download it, wait for the download to finish, open a bubble containing the game, and wait for the bubble to be deleted. That's three steps more than there really needed to be.

It wasn't all smiles and sunshine with the Xbox 360... along with the high failure rate of early models, there was that mushy D-pad on its stock controller, which was never properly addressed. Yes, I have the newer controller with the twisty directional pad. That sucks too. Those complaints aside, I have a lot of fond memories of the Xbox 360. I spent nearly waking hour playing Mass Effect 2 after it arrived from GameFly, charging into each battle with guns blazing and enjoying each surprisingly heady conversation with my shipmates. Sure, it came out for the Playstation 3 a year later, but I couldn't wait that long to probe Uranus.

Nintendo Wii
Released: 2006
Owned: 2007

As console acquisitions go, this was one of my most memorable. The Wii was the most sought after system of its generation, attracting everyone from hardcore players to the oldest of fogeys with its promise of an immersive, motion-based gaming experience. When the system was launched in November 2006, the waiting list for Wiis was a mile long at every store which carried them.

Shigeru Miyamoto looked like this when
he promoted the Wii at the 2006
E3 show. I almost feel like the world
owes Kaz Hirai an apology.
(image from the Zelda Wiki)
Luckily, I had an "in" with the local GameStop. I'd been spending a lot of money there, and as a show of appreciation, the manager invited me to drop by in the morning when the store opened, so I could beat the rush and buy one of the Wiis that just arrived. It wasn't fun waiting outside in the chilly January weather for the GameStop to open its doors, but I sure was enjoying myself later that day, proving that good things come to those who wait. And risk frostbite.

I was a staunch supporter of the Wii when I first got one, but twelve years later, I can't help but wonder if the critics were right when they dismissed the system as a fad. The Wiimotes that prompted oohs and ahhs from gamers in 2006 just elicit groans of annoyance now... they were never especially accurate, even with the Wiimote Plus attachment. The games that seemed fresh when the Wii launched quickly grew stale thanks to lax quality control on Nintendo's part and disinterest from third party developers... you'd get the occasional gem like Zack and Wiki that made the most of the system's unique hardware, but a lot more shovelware from fly-by-night publishers like Data Design. 

Then there's the Wii itself. It was almost impossible to find when it first hit store shelves, but these days, there's plenty to go around in garage sales, thrift stores, and flea markets. My second Wii cost me ten dollars, and looked like it had been recovered from the same landfill where Atari buried all those copies of E.T. for the 2600. My third Wii was found in the donation box at the local church thrift store. At this rate, they'll have to pay me to take a fourth one.

The Wii is not completely without its uses. Thanks to its similarities to the GameCube, the system was hacked almost immediately after it was released, and can be used to play homebrew, emulators, and most GameCube titles straight from an SD card. It's also got a handful of genuinely good games, including Super Mario Galaxy, which more than made up for the crushing disappointment that was Super Mario Sunshine, and Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, a rail shooter tough enough to leave even the hardest of hardcore gamers weeping in a corner. At the same time, many of the features of the Wii that made the system special when it launched, like the weather and news channels, were abandoned by Nintendo years ago. The Wii was a "you had to be there" kind of game console... if you didn't experience it when it was first released, it's hard to appreciate it now.

Fairchild Channel F
Released: 1976
Owned: 2007

Alas, I don't have much to say about this system... not just because it was quickly eclipsed by the Atari 2600 in the 1970s, but because the machine I bought on eBay didn't work properly, producing garbled graphics where a simple game of blackjack should have been. It was no great loss... I already knew what to expect from the Channel F after playing most of its software in an emulator. It was a fascinating window into the early days of console gaming, with its Peter Max-inspired cartridge art and a woodgrain-lined case that seems just as likely to play eight-track cassettes as video games. However, unlike the Atari 2600 with its peculiar talent for surviving well past its shelf life, the Channel F doesn't offer much that would hold the attention of modern gamers.

Well, there was that one game, Dodge It. As the name suggests, you're a little dot that has to dodge another dot that bounces around the screen. Survive long enough and another deadly pixel enters the fray... and another... and another, until an inevitable collision ends the game. It's simple and it's not especially attractive, but it's strangely entertaining... even intense, after four or five dots are dropped into the playfield. The more recent Channel F port of Pac-Man deserves an honorable mention, offering a faithful reproduction of Namco's famous arcade game. Sure, Pac-Man is green instead of yellow, but you can only expect so much from 1976 technology...

Released: 2005
Owned: 2007

That just seems like the wrong reaction
to advertising. I would have picked that
brown swirly emoji instead.
(image from Game Life)
Pity the Gizmondo. It could have been so much more if it hadn't been involved in a moneymaking scheme by the Swedish mafia. It had the power, running at a slightly higher clock speed than the competing PSP. It had the support, with games licensed by Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Eidos. It had forward thinking ideas, like augmented reality, GPS tracking, and a lowered cost subsidized by daily advertisements (it's hard to get excited about that last one, but it does predate the ads in Amazon's smart devices by at least five years). Unfortunately, it also had unsavory ties to grifters who spent millions of dollars on lavish launch parties, sports cars, and even a missile with the Gizmondo logo painted on the side. All this corporate decadence is detailed in this article by Eurogamer. You might want to put a pillow on the ground before you read it, so you won't risk breaking your jaw when it hits the floor.

The one thing parent company Tiger Telematics didn't have the money for, it seems, is the parts to build more Gizmondos. Supply couldn't keep pace with the already limited demand, and support for the much-hyped portable quickly screeched to a halt. Much like the Ferrari which Tiger chairman Stefan Eriksson cut in half during a drunken bender.

It's hard to talk about the Gizmondo without getting lost in all the crazy details that were going on behind the scenes. However, if you can get past the drama, you'll find a handheld with a lot of untapped potential. It's comfortable to hold thanks to its rubberized shell, it's got multimedia features like music and movie playback which the Nintendo DS lacks, and the small handful of games available suggests that it had the hardware to nip at the PSP's heels for a couple of years. That is, if it had been backed by a reputable company instead of a bunch of European mobsters hiding behind a shell corporation.

There's only a couple dozen games for the Gizmondo, with roughly half of them available only as internet downloads. Sticky Balls is arguably the best of the bunch, challenging the player to stick together magnetized orbs with a spring-loaded pool cue. It's better than it sounds. Considering the title, it would just about have to be.

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