Console gaming: a cadence of two generations
There really is nothing quite like picking up a new console early in its lifespan and feeling the excitement and potential that comes with it. The smell of unboxing new gear and the sound of hearing it start up for the first time inspires awe at the stories, characters and adventures that await. Whereas at that point, each generation feels completely fresh and new, like nothing could ever match what you’re about to experience. However, this sentiment is only really true about half the time.
Although there were two full generations of consoles before, modern video games didn’t really take shape until the third generation with the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Master System. Since then, the industry has settled into a two-generation cycle of alternating revolutionary and evolutionary changes that continues to this day.
Since the release of the NES, the industry has settled into a reliable two-generation cadence. Odd generations are the ones that introduce a revolutionary new feature and build an entire console around it, while even generations take the previous generation’s revolutionary feature and refine and polish it to a mirror shine. This has been happening for almost 40 years and while some manufacturers are slightly more aggressive and ahead of the curve, others are consistently more conservative playing catch up technology early in the cycle.
The catalyst cycle of the current model was entirely based on two-dimensional play. Yes, two-dimensional gaming existed before the NES and the Sega Master System, but the extent to which these systems pushed 2D gaming was unprecedented. Side-scrolling games like Super Mario Bros.., metroid, Castlevania, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, mega man, duck talesand Dual Dragon became the new standard during the third generation. Two-dimensional side-scrolling technology opened up a whole new potential for adventure through rich and complex worlds that took the medium of video games to new heights.
But regardless of all the advancements made in Gen 3, the experience was still clunky and limited by the technology these games were tested on. There was still work to do.
Enter the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis and with them the fourth generation. It was during the fourth generation that the developers had already experimented with two-dimensional gameplay concepts and had the knowledge of what worked and didn’t work. As a result of this experimentation carried out during the third generation, the fourth generation took off and it was then that the game in two dimensions would reach its peak.
games like Super Mario World, A link to the past, Super Metroid, Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2, 3, & Joinsthe donkey kong country trilogy, streets of angerand NHL ’94 would elevate the entire gaming medium in ways previously thought impossible. 16-bit consoles allowed developers to make sprite images that were only dreams a few years ago during Gen 3. The increase in processing power has enabled smooth and fast gameplay, for much more intense and visceral experiences. The fourth generation was truly two-dimensional gaming at its finest.
But like any other technology, gaming would not remain stagnant. Even at the end of the fourth generation, the third dimension was already on the horizon in the minds of developers and the public. And that coveted third dimension would arrive with Sony’s PlayStation, Segas’ Saturn and eventually Nintendo 64. As the 3D cycle of consoles would bring audiences some of the best games of all time like Super Mario 64, Starfox 64, Crash Bandicoot, Solid metal gear, Spyro the Dragonand Banjo Kazooie there was one notable downside.
At the start of the second progression cycle, Generation Five was the first time players experienced a new ability at the expense of average game quality. The developers’ two generations of experience developing 2D games gave late fourth-generation titles a significantly higher quality than the early 3D era, but that didn’t last long.
By the start of Generation Six, developers had learned the basics of designing games in 3D space, and hardware technology had changed to better allow players to navigate these environments. Being an even generation, the sixth generation of consoles was all about refinement and polish, and the most impactful part of that polish came from the addition of a second analog stick to almost every controller.
While PlayStation’s DualAnalog and DualShock controllers had provided developers with the second stick by the end of the fifth generation, the potential of this stick would not be realized or normalized until the sixth generation. Halo: Advanced Combat launched in November 2001 and set the standard for first-person shooter controls on consoles that still remains in place today. games like Halo, Burst cell, Solid Metal Gear 2, Metroid Primeand Super Mario Sun would continue to prove that the developers had finally mastered designing games in 3D space and had reached the previous quality standards set at the end of the fourth generation.
And again, the cycle would start again. But unlike the previous cycle, the new cycle that began with the seventh generation of consoles on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 would not introduce a new dimension, but rather would be built from the ground up to be experienced online. While an online connection was available during the sixth generation with Xbox Live, it wasn’t until the seventh generation that this online experience would be central to everything the gamer did on their console.
And basically, for a few years during Gen Seven, it seemed like every single-player primarily game released had completely superfluous online multiplayer for the express purpose of not appearing late. games like Bioshock 2, The last of us, Uncharted 3, Convicted 2, Dead space 2, Mass Effect 3, Max pay 3, and many more were amazing single-player experiences that for some reason spent development resources on multiplayer modes that only a small fraction of the public actually played. It would take until the start of the eighth generation of consoles for developers and publishers to move away from traditional games with multiplayer nailed down to fully realize the potential of their persistent internet connection.
In late 2014, Activision will release Bungie’s first non-Halo game since 2001, Fate. We didn’t know that Fate would, to some extent, truly live up to its namesake by introducing the world to the concept of a game-as-a-service-like experience that would go on to shape the perception of the eighth generation. While PC games like World of Warcraft had been doing this for years, the idea of bringing this to console was what would bring said concept into the mainstream. Fateand in a lesser extent Titanfall, would do the world a favor by distinctly separating the ideas of a single-player and multiplayer experience while standardizing multiplayer-only games. It was during the latter half of the online gaming era that subscriptions for online access and benefits moved from premium add-ons to standard practice. Developers would be able to harness the power of the internet to create the beginnings of what non-gamers are just beginning to discover as the “metaverse.”
And so we find ourselves at the beginning of the ninth generation of consoles and with it the beginning of a new cycle of innovation. While it’s undeniably still early in the generation and even earlier relative to the cyclical model, it looks like the next game-changing change that players will benefit from is the introduction and explicit depiction of ecosystems.
Just as they were with Xbox Live, Microsoft is, once again, slightly ahead of the curve after introducing Game Pass in 2017, and just like the online era, Sony has taken a more conservative approach with the launch of the new PlayStation Plus service. this summer. But despite their extremely deliberate departure from the traditional hardware arms race after the sixth generation, Nintendo was actually ahead of its competitors when it came to cultivating its own ecosystem. As it stands, the crown jewel of Nintendo’s ecosystem is its catalog of retro games, and that catalog is a direct successor to the Nintendo eShop that debuted on the Wii. While the Wii and all of Nintendo’s subsequent home and handheld consoles have offered online play, it’s the Wii Shop Channel and the ability to legally purchase retro games digitally and take that library of games to the next generation that served as the seed of the ecosystem. -console cycle based on which we are now.
Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, and Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pass are all methods of the big three vying for customer monthly subscription dollars. These programs, combined with Microsoft’s Xbox All Access program, allowing gamers access to the Xbox ecosystem at the lowest barrier of entry ever, made the coming cycle that would later be considered the era of ecosystems a very exciting time to watch.
For nearly 40 years, the two-generation cycle has had a lot to offer consumers. Audiences can see and experience the early days of new technology while their minds are brimming with potential. This potential is then only realized in the next generation. But as each of the big three pushes players to dive deeper and deeper into their own respective ecosystems, this cycle could be one that disrupts generations of legacy hardware so much that an entirely new model is needed. Ecosystems could spell the end of the traditional hardware cadence of generational consoles.