The Lasting Impact of "Failed" Consoles

Gaming history is littered with washouts like Dreamcast. Yet many have made a bigger contribution to the industry than the "winning" boxes

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:

  1. To air out new ideas that, though worth exploring, will never be mainstream in their seminal form.
  2. To act as a gadfly toward the market leader, spurring change where it would not otherwise occur.
  3. To provide an independent editorial voice.

The first and second points should be clear enough; history is littered with crazy plans that went nowhere, some of which were later canonized when their planets all came into line. For example, around 1982 the Vectrex arrived, with vector-based graphics – essentially 2D images rendered as if they were 3D – and a self-centering analog stick. At the same time, the Atari 5200 arrived with its own stick; its design was kind a mess, though (as was the system in general); by contrast the Vectrex stick was conceived, designed, and utilized perfectly for what it set out to do. The problem was, the system was so obscure and weird that in the event that anyone noticed the system, the controls were perhaps the last thing a person might dwell on.

You know the rest of the story, of course; a decade and a half later, when home game consoles moved to 3D graphics, Nintendo soon discovered that the demands of relative space required a relative control scheme: thus the revival and mainstream adoption of analog control – an idea that had been sitting around forever, yet until that point had no practical application in a mainstream console. Similar cases can be cited with the adoption of optical media – from the FM Towns Marty (an obscure 32-bit console released in 1989, the same year as the Game Boy and Sega Genesis) to the influential Turbografx CD add-on, which in turn spurred Sega to release its own CD drive for the Genesis, which in turn inspired Nintendo to team up with Sony to produce its own CD add-on – until Nintendo decided that the benefits of optical storage were not worth pursuing (a decision not overturned until nearly a decade later), irking Sony to no end and inspiring the latter company to strike out with its own CD-based home console. Back on the peripheral end, who would have ever thought that Bandai's Family Fun Fitness mat for the NES would, after a decade in the discard pile, breed a whole culture of dance maniacs – or that in 2006, Mattel's equally unlikely Power Glove would become a prototype for Nintendo's primary controller?

The Tactual Free The point here, of course, is not so much the later influence of these early brainstorms; that's just a matter of hindsight – rather, the point is in the sheer brilliance exhibited in their implementation despite a lack of practical mainstream use. If anything, it's these dead ends – the black sheep of innovation – that provide us the most perspective on the industry, suggesting a universe of unexplored potential; of potential we are not yet sophisticated enough to harness.

The Sega Master System, for instance, launched with a pair of shutter-based 3D glasses, fragile yet rather amazing; even today, the illusion seems like something out of the future. The NeoGeo Pocket Color is graced with a digital thumbstick, implemented to mimic the feel of an arcade joystick for the system's many fighting games; that stick has since gone down in history as the most comfortable and precise control devices that no one has yet to imitate.

For that matter, it is in the background of controller evolution that comfort and precision are generally held to the highest standards. In response to niche demands, through the mid-'90s Sega refined its control pads to a level that many enthusiasts consider the peak of design. The result: of the three major consoles of the last generation, the least mainstream is one of the most well-designed controllers ever; the second-least mainstream is one of the most innovative controllers ever, and the controller that became the default model for the following ten years – while neither well-designed nor in any sense original – is best adapted to the demands of the majority, by borrowing bits of everything else. It is here that we bring the true power of the underdog into relief: whereas the strength of the mainstream is based in generalization, the niche – or less broad – system defines itself by specialization. The Sega Saturn, to this day, is renowned as one of the best systems ever designed for 2D games. It is relegated to a niche system in part because by the time it came around, 2D games were popularly seen as passe. Though this turn of circumstances was in some senses unfortunate (for Sega's finances, for instance), it also resulted in what has since become something of a mecca for 2D game enthusiasts – providing a much-needed sense of perspective, in light of the often clumsy attempts at 3D design in the years leading up to the current generation.

What Videogames Should Be

And it is that perspective brought by the Saturn – and the Neo-Geo, Turbografx, Dreamcast, Intellivision, Lynx – which is its greatest contribution to the industry. Not so much individually, as – hey – the system was a failure, right? Rather, it is in conjunction with the hundreds of other voices – each expressing its own ideas about what videogames should be, how they should work, what the future should bring, and what someone, somewhere might find interesting right now – that these systems reflect the flawed, random, brilliant, bizarre humanity implicit in the medium. And it is that humanity – that arbitrary gestalt of perspectives, for no other reason than to provide scope and depth to each other, forming a greater mass perspective than any one of them could have explored – on which any medium thrives. The simple matter is that nobody can do everything, explore everything, see everything there is to see; it is only through a web of independent lines that a greater picture is given opportunity to resolve. And frankly, it's neither in the industry's nor the company's best interest for the market leader to significantly pursue its own agenda – outside of the agenda of reflecting the gestalt perspective of everyone else currently and formerly active. The Actual WiiExactly one year ago this week, Capcom released an unabashed Dynasty Warriors rip-off called Sengoku Basara. Its producer, Hiroyuki Kobayashi, made no pretense about why the game was being made: it was to balance off the recent development and release of Grasshopper's killer7 – a game that Capcom felt was worth publishing for its artistic value, even though it knew perfectly well that they would sell eight hundred copies, most of them to freelance writers for Western videogame magazines. By contrast, although there was absolutely nothing of virtue to Sengoku Basara, Kobayashi knew it would sell a bunch – and indeed it did. Kobayashi was so unattached to his work that he even planned its Western Bowdlerization into "Devil Kings" at the exact same time as he designed the Japanese release.

Sengoku Basara provided Capcom with stability in the market, by providing something familiar, comforting, and high profile that everyone who cared just enough about videogames to buy the big thing that everyone's talking about (your Japanese Halo, Madden, Sims) would want to buy. The purpose of this stability, as far as Capcom was concerned, was not simply to appease stockholders or retain so-many slots in the top twenty; rather, it was to provide an umbrella under which more important – yet perhaps less immediately profitable – work could be explored. That this work was of a creative and ideological nature, rather than a strictly technological one, is striking. This perspective reminds me of Sony's decision, a couple of years ago, to re-release Ico as one of its "greatest hits" series in Japan – despite it being far from a sales success the first time around, and no expectations that it would fare better on a second rotation. They put it out again, as part of their "greatest" series, simply because they thought they needed to make it available for people to play. Not the sort of attitude you expect from Sony, though they've always been kind of proud of their internal studios. It is also this philosophy – or one with many parallels – that inspired Nintendo to release the DS, and is inspiring the Wii. When the DS was first announced, Nintendo assured the press that it was simply a fun little experiment, and that it was in no way meant to replace the Game Boy line. As it chanced in that case, Nintendo happened to be right on with some of its theories – resulting in one of the industry's biggest left-field success stories in generations, and setting off a period of reappraisal over what everyone expects from a mainstream videogame system. The Wii promises to go a step further, both striking out with Nintendo's newly substantiated theories in attempt to do the iPod thing to Sony's proverbial Walkman and attempting to service the existing status quo in the most backhanded manner possible – by tracing its history all the way back to its inception, encapsulating it all in one place, and juxtaposing that with its proposal for a new status quo – the whole idea being, of course, that this new umbrella is only temporary – as every umbrella by nature must be. And curiously, Nintendo is not situating the system to "win" – to dominate the market by force – rather, its idea is to ingratiate the Wii to everybody as a second choice – as an alternate perspective, that just maybe they'll find interesting enough to start thinking a little bit more about what they want from the medium. Though this might be one of the most mainstream of examples, it just serves to illustrate  Nintendo's grasp upon the true power of the underdog.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.