The videogame industry is usually portrayed as a battle of titans: Xbox versus PlayStation versus the Nintendo Whatever, butting heads over the biggest market share. The winner, by virtue of winning, will lay the law for future generations. This is a tough industry, where the ruthless survive and the weak or incomprehensible are savaged and devoured.
A curious thing about videogames is that, underneath the bluster, you'll nearly always find that the "losing" platforms – from the Sega Saturn to the Turbografx-16 – are in many ways either objectively superior to or subjectively more intriguing than what "won"; what they typically lack is balance. Like root beers or politicians, typically the top candidates rise to the top not out of pure excellence; they rise because they serve the basic desires of the greatest audience while offending the fewest.
And hey, there's nothing innately wrong with vanilla. Indeed, nothing-wrongness is the whole point behind it – it's the default flavor; the base upon which, metaphorically speaking, the whole ice cream industry is built. Someone has to provide it, and maintain that basic demand for basic ice cream. Without an industry figurehead, a sales leader, there is no industry. It's just that innately, to meet the most basic demands of the most people and do little else – to to serve as the essential template for the industry – your product is is going to be the least ambitious, the most comforting, the most readily available.
The Umbrella Tree
The exception to the rule comes in those rare moments of revolution – the pundit-confounding storms where someone manages to refine a basic model even further, bringing it closer to its ideal form while losing none of the implicit appeal of the existing template – therefore creating a new market that for all practical purposes supplants the old one.
Witness the iPod, and its effect on the market for Walkmen and Discmen. A solid archive of digital data, accessed and organized with a single button – you can't get much more elegant than that. Of course, now that the iPod has changed the market, it has opened a new market for hundreds of alternative .mp3 players, many arguably superior to the iPod itself – yet none as generically appealing.
Like the iPod, what platforms like the Super NES or the PlayStation 2 do, at their most positive, is they create and maintain a market. Their role isn't exactly to be interesting, or to expand the innate potential of videogames as a medium; they exist to keep the industry in the public eye, and to form a status quo, against which anyone else who thinks he can do better can kick and scream all he likes. If you like, the market leader is the pillar that holds up the roof of the industry – forming a structure for others to populate and decorate, without having to worry about basic architecture.
Of course, whereas a market leader's role is to provide stability, there is a difference between stability and stasis. Ideally, the "big guy", whoever it is, must represent the basic ideals of the medium as it currently stands; the moment it no longer provides that representational force, the entire industry begins to shift on its foundation. People grow restless, lose interest because videogames no longer "speak" to them. Intuitively, new users won't be attracted by an industry that doesn't seem in touch with where it's going or where it is now. Sales slump; everyone blames everyone else, and the industry just becomes all the more conservative because if it doesn't know where the draft is coming from it's best just to wear a coat to work, leading the spiral ever downward until someone steps out of the crowd and realigns the industry with its principles, creating a new status quo – as Nintendo did twenty years ago, as Sega kind of tried to do five years later, as Nintendo's trying to do again today.
The thing is, by nature the most vital area of the game industry lies not so much the mechanics of the upper echelon of the industry – rather, it rests below the radar of your typical analyst, in the dark, greatly loved yet poorly exposed corners of the market. Though by popular definition you might well call them failures, without your Sega Saturns, your Atari Jaguars, your Amigas and GameCubes and NeoGeo Pocket Colors, the industry would be an autocracy, governed by a single dictate – indeed, one of limited perspective and shallow, if broad, concern for growth.
On a human level, it is these "lesser" companies and products – the ones savaged on message boards and in mainstream publications, blamed in market reports and stockholder meetings for failing to live up to the "big guys" – that provide the driving force of the medium.
The Essential Three
There are three major roles served by what we'll refer to as "underdog" systems:
To air out new ideas that, though worth exploring, will never be mainstream in their seminal form. To act as a gadfly toward the market leader, spurring change where it would not otherwise occur. To provide an independent editorial voice.