Nintendo’s Tuesday presentation at the Electronic Entertainment Expo featured a demo of a three-dimensional puppy simulator. A presenter ordered her rolling, yipping “Nintendog” around with the Nintendo DS’s microphone. She then used the DS’s wireless connection to bring in another dog, a shiba inu wearing a red “M” cap. The mystery dog’s owner then revealed himself: Shigeru Miyamoto, the legendary game designer who invented Mario and Zelda. As the pups snuggled on screen—I think I even detected some light humping—the comely presenter draped her arm around Miyamoto’s shoulders. “And if you’d like to come backstage,” he said, “I will teach you some new tricks.”
The appearances of 2004’s Nintendo DS and the old-school Miyamoto, though, are signs that Nintendo is sticking with the same old tricks. Nintendo did preview a new console, the Revolution, that shares a bunch of similar features with E3’s two other gleaming, new video-game consoles: Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3. All three stand upright, all three use wireless controllers, and all three will likely support high-definition video.
But Nintendo’s device is the only one that’s stuck in the past. The Revolution’s biggest selling point is backward compatibility. Not only will the system play the latest Mario, Zelda, and Metroid titles, but Revolution users will also be able to download classic NES and Super Nintendo games. For gamers who’ve grown up with Nintendo, it’s nostalgia nirvana. It’s also an admission that the former champ is leaving the next generation of high-gloss games to the two new guys. (Xbox 360 is slated for worldwide release around the 2005 holidays. Playstation 3 is expected to debut in spring 2006, at least in Japan. The Revolution has no projected release date, but rumor has it that it will come out around the same time as the new Playstation.)
Both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 want to become your entertainment center for the next five-or-so years. Each will have multiple USB and Ethernet connections that you can use for hooking up cameras, external hard drives, PCs—even other consoles. Though both will employ the latest graphics and media processing silicon from Nvidia, ATI, and IBM, the Playstation 3 looks for now to be the more powerful machine. Those specs don’t only look good on paper—Sony showed off a bevy of beautiful, real-time video trailers for games like the military shooter Killzone. Of course, this could all just be clever, pre-emptive hype. Last time, gamers got so caught up in the Playstation 2 marketing blitz that the Sega Dreamcast was dead before anyone realized that it was the same as the Playstation under the hood.
This time around, the Playstation 3 is going for another knockout—Sony wants its console to win the DVD wars. The new Playstation will use Sony’s next-generation DVD technology, Blu-ray, which allows for both a massive amount of data storage and high-definition movie playback. Before its official debut, the Xbox 360 was rumored to support the HD-DVD standard that’s sponsored by Toshiba and NEC. Instead, Microsoft’s box will support only regular DVD. Advantage: Sony. Much like the Playstation 2 helped start the DVD craze, the Playstation 3 could start a Blu-ray tidal wave.
If the Playstation 3 is a Trojan horse for Blu-ray, then the Xbox 360 is yet another way for Microsoft to sneak a computer into your house. Microsoft is still a PC company, so it’s no coincidence that the Xbox 360 shows the most cohesive home media strategy of any of the new consoles—it’s billed as a “digital hub” that can stream music, video, and more from other computers.
The Xbox 360 demo games, like the new Perfect Dark, look pretty, just not quite as pretty as Sony’s new games. If Microsoft has any advantage in the console wars, it’s online. Xbox Live, which will soon allow gamers to swap songs and images as a prelude to blowing each other up, is arguably the only major innovation that Microsoft has brought to console gaming. Still, online play might be the only innovation that matters in 10 years. Sony and Nintendo both have only shown token interest in online multiplayer gaming so far. If Microsoft can capitalize on their considerable head start, their do-anything Xbox could finally win more fans.