I remember having a conversation with a college friend about how having a dedicated gaming PC costs much more than investing in a gaming console. I argued on the contrary, positing that a dedicated gaming PC is cheaper. My position relied on the firm belief that the phrase “dedicated gaming PC” is interchangeable with “I bought this from Best Buy on sale” because while both a computer and a game console are both overgrown calculators, only one of those two tends to upgrade to something bigger and better without necessarily hurling a generation of its games into a bucket labeled Cannot Be Played Anymore Because They Are Incompatible With This Machine.
Incidentally, this same friend once argued to me that sports are necessary because they provide an outlet for aggression that prevents war. I pointed out to him that he might want to glance quickly at the 1936 summer Olympics first, so I think I win any argument with him by default.
Back when Nintendo first released the SNES, there was a small furor over the fact that it was not retro-compatible with NES games. Parents were being asked by their kids to shell out for a console that was in the neighborhood of $150, plus all of the games, and most of them had only bought an NES two or three years ago for $100. Parents walked and retailers balked. Since Sega was just pushing its obnoxious nose into the market, stores like Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R’ Us, and so on all raised eyebrows at Nintendo stating it would not take back returned 8-bit consoles that had been traded in for their 16-bit brethren. This was essentially the story going forward into the next generation. Sure, Sega had an adapter to allow playing 8-bit cartridges on the Genesis, but who even had a Sega Master System? Plus, the Sega Saturn ran CDs, so retro-compatibility to the Genesis was filed under Highly Unlikely. Retro-compatibility was more of a gimmick than anything else until the past few generations of consoles. Suddenly, a pivotal selling feature of the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360 was their ability to play Gamecube, PS2, and Xbox games, respectively. With this last generation’s advent, retro-compatibility is again of middling priority and there is still a large problem for people who enjoy gaming on consoles in general: what to do with those old consoles that can’t play new games while buying new consoles that won’t play old games. Nintendo rode high for a while with the Virtual Console, essentially selling licensed ROMs on an emulator, until it quickly became apparent that Nintendo sold desired titles through the Wii Virtual Console with enough restraint to make an IV drip appear as uncontrolled as a fire hose on full blast.
On the other hand, PC gaming has been more an open playing field. There is no question that the specifications for newer games are continually inclining upward, but computers consistently are built to meet these kind of specs without necessarily being affordable only to those who can afford swimming pools full of lime Jell-O. The versatility of computers has long been their saving grace; after the video game crash in the 80s, computers were not stigmatized in the same way that game consoles were. Game consoles were only there for gaming. Computers had already established themselves as multipurpose tools, and gaming was one of the new innovations for which it had found a use. It was only when the Dreamcast made a play at being a very slow Internet browsing device and the PlayStation 2 doubled as a DVD player that consoles seriously intruded upon the realm of other electronic appliances, but it was the turn of the millennium by then and computers had been doing both for some time already. The relative openness of PC gaming allowed many a bedroom developer to get his or her feet wet playing with code and modding existing games. Even better, some corporations encouraged fledgling modding communities in those mythical days, long-forgotten now in the Era of Copyright Infringement.
There has been a perception that gaming on consoles and gaming on computers are two sides of the same coin, a coin divided straight down the middle by an electric fence with coils of fiery, barbed wire. It’s a strange perception, perhaps based on the fact that consoles and PCs had different strengths and therefore lent themselves to different kinds of games, and also perhaps based on the fact that picking one option can breed contempt for the other option (see also the console wars). I don’t care much for the debate on console versus PC, being much inclined to ask, “Why not both?” but I do see one fault in consoles: the conundrum I described above of obsolete consoles. The moment a gaming company switches from one console to a new one, the old one becomes a solid paperweight or pest-crushing tool. I can always justify upgrading my computer for any number of reasons, but sinking hundreds of dollars into a new console every five years? That’s a bitter pill wrapped in several Benjamins that’s hard to swallow. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all know this. Whatever vehemence with which they have railed against their games being emulated on PC had as much to do with the bite into their bottom line as it did with any protection of their developers. Of those three, you will note that Nintendo first-party games are never ported to PC by the developers. Nintendo has had fastidious, wrenching control over where its games end up, which is to say never on any non-Nintendo machine. By strange coincidence, a rather high percentage of the best selling games on Nintendo consoles are first-party Nintendo games. Nintendo cannot be faulted for that; that’s been part of how Nintendo has stayed in the business for so long. Besides, there’s still something to be said for a dedicated gaming console that does exactly what it is supposed to do without necessarily being the target of hackers (internal corporation databases of credit card information are a different story).
My point is that consoles have consistently adapted to remain relevant in an age where PCs can do everything they can do and probably better. Even phones are now muscling in on the video game market and that has led me to wonder how the landscape is going to shift in the next fifteen years. Phones have been around for more than a century and computers have been around for close to a century. As far as electronics go, they are now considered essentials for most people in our consumer society. Games consoles are still the new kids on the block and are trying to do what their elders and betters are doing. Where do consoles go from here if all they can do is brush asymptotically against their own technological limits every half a decade? It is probably hard for us of the millennial generation to envision a world without dedicated home games consoles, but if those machines are constantly being traded out for more expensive hardware and more expensive games, the answer to my question is in the corner at the back of a closet, never to see daylight until someone needs to clear out space.
I hope that the seemingly-planned obsolescence of consoles every five years does not turn out to be companies planning the obsolescence of consoles entirely.