With the myriad options available for gaming on smartphones and tablets, the home console needs a new competitive edge. Will 3-D be the answer?
“I love the Power Glove, it’s so bad” is the famous line from the not-so-famous 1989 film/feature-length Nintendo advertisement, The Wizard, in which Fred Savage and Christian Slater play older brothers to a boy with autism who competes in a high-stakes videogame tournament. The Power Glove and Super Mario Bros. 3 both made their North American debuts in that movie, but only one of these products lived up to the hype, and it wasn’t a wearable glove that barely functioned as a controller.
Despite their rocky history, the past few years have seen a boom in state-of-the-art peripherals like plastic guitars, dance mats and hands-free sensors. As fun as some of these devices may be, many of them are just short-term moneymakers for consoles that have been with us for quite some time now rather than new and improved ways to play. At the end of the day, good gaming seems to always come back to the traditional console-and-controller setup.
The next “next big thing” being hyped is 3-D. And while 3-D movies have yet to make a dent in the home-entertainment market, videogames are starting to adopt the technology. Sony is currently taking pre-orders for its PlayStation-branded 3-D TV (retailing for around $499), which is slated for release in November. In addition to working as a television, it boasts unique 3-D visuals that allow two players to see separate full-screen images of gameplay through their respective pairs of glasses. Sony is hoping that the combination of the 3-D glasses with the PlayStation Move (the system’s motion-sensing controller) will create a lifelike gaming experience unlike anything else.
This is a familiar story that dates back to the 1980s. While Nintendo wasn’t the first system to flirt with accessories, no other brand has offered so many weird and wacky ways to extend gaming. In fact, it was a useless peripheral that jump-started the company and effectively saved the videogame industry.
In 1983, a complete lack of quality control among developers led to a crash in the North American videogame market. Two years later, Nintendo unveiled its debut console: the NES. Recognizing that consumers were turning their backs on the gaming industry, the company bundled the system with the Zapper gun and a one-foot-tall robot named R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy) that spun on an axis and moved plastic gyro discs around. This mascot became the centre of a Trojan-horse marketing strategy that downplayed the gaming elements of the NES and played up the robo-buddy aspect. Thus, electronics stores and toy retailers were selling the NES as both a videogame console and as a toy robot.
It’s now common knowledge that R.O.B. was a lousy hunk of plastic that was designed to work with only two wretched games, but when advertisements touted it as the toy of the future, everyone wanted to get their hands on one. Once players came to their senses and realized how pointless R.O.B. actually was, Nintendo stopped manufacturing it. Lucky for them, by that point the calibre of NES titles had already helped reinstate gaming as one of America’s favourite pastimes.
Videogames are hardly on the verge of any kind of slump (2009 revenue was around $60 billion worldwide). But with the myriad options available for gaming (smartphones, tablets, online), the home console still needs a competitive edge. It remains to be seen whether Sony’s 3-D TV will be the thing that introduces another (literal) dimension to gaming or if it will simply be another passing trend that gets a little more mileage out of the PS3. In fairness, it isn’t trying to reinvent the classic control system—just the visuals. But if there’s anything to be learned from peripheral fads of the past, it’s that success will always come down to the quality of the games and not just how we play them.