Looking Past Consoles
In one month, folks from many stripes are going to get to the newest entry in the Super Smash Bros series , but many will have no real legal way to experience the game, unless they decide to commit to owning a Nintendo Switch, a console with its own paid online, and largely expensive games. Meanwhile, massive titles like the new Red Dead Redemption 2 will also be denied to Switch and PC Gamers.
People aren’t going to find that strange, or upsetting. Ever since the launch of the Famicom, Nintendo has kept its license on its hardware. Nintendo’s hardware position offers them creative control over their games, which can then leverage their hardware for its unique properties, like motion controls or HD rumble. In theory, it brings out “purer” works that sometimes can feel untainted by the influence of contemporary games. Meanwhile, Rockstar has often made themselves at home on Microsoft and Sony consoles, ignoring or delaying other avenues for their games.
Nintendo has played up this nostalgia in their games. Indeed, there’s likely no company alive right now that produces as many 2-D platformers as them, a genre that has become synonymous with re-living the past. The Switch has become a home for dozens if not hundreds of pixelated retro revival games as well.
Super Smash Bros. is a series with a deep connection to Nintendo and their Disney-esque weaponized nostalgia, but it’s also one of the biggest fighting game franchises in the world. Two games in the series currently enjoy popular and often dramatic competitive scenes. Yet committed Playstation or Xbox owners, not to mention PC players, will have to sit out, unless they seek out means like emulation. This will be taken for granted.
Imagine as an example if a new Marvel movie came out, and you weren’t able to pay to see it, because, say, you didn’t have the right kind of car to enter the theater? Or if you couldn’t listen to a new album because you didn’t have the right kind of CD player? Admittedly, this is becoming more and more of a reality with the advent of streaming services, but those services offer work for free at least. You can spend hundreds on a gaming box and lose access to titles that, regardless of quality, have massive impacts on the discourse and communities built around gaming.
I don’t have anything against consoles. I think the concept of consoles is a great one, and one that will continue to resonate. A consistent, powerful machine built specifically for gaming that manages to sell much cheaper than an equivalently powered PC. The console architecture has produced great work, and is now at a level where many of the most exciting titles can run on anything from a Smartphone to a high level gaming PC. It would be ignorant to say tht Xbox One X games pointed to the future anymore than the average thing found on itch.io or even the app store. Is there really a more influential game of our era than Words with Friends? Phone architecture is actually largely here already in many ways. Just look at how Nintendo has released cell phone titles on both platforms consistently.
The struggle is that in the AAA field, many of the most exciting projects are and have been made with exclusivity in mind. Titles like the recent God of War, the Forza series, Halo, and even Spyro, Crash Bandicoot and Sonic the Hedgehog are considered examples of the way exclusives can be made with more “love”, meaning perhaps a willingness to make budgetary risks and big swings for importance, even if it meant doing some things obtusely. It’s hard to argue against the creativity of games like Resident Evil 4, Viewtiful Joe, Crazy Taxi or Tekken as being in part connected to their exclusivity for their platforms and a sort of financially imposed self-importance with that. These narratives are all good and fine, but they also seem self-justifying. Instead of paying tribute to the work itself, we focus on its corporate messaging, its purpose as part of a release schedule, its sales figures.
I think sometimes we forget we’re not the suited old men in the boardroom, asking each other repeatedly, “What about the earnings?”
Super Smash Brothers is ironic a great illustration of what’s wrong with exclusivity in games, and that’s outside of the sheer amount of money that’s spent for something that’s ultimately an inconvenience that hits people on tighter budgets harder. Surely in the future, the Switch will become affordable and every day like the Wii has become, but that doesn’t make this period right now any kinder. Initiatives like cross-platform play certainly help soften the blow of these issues, but to look at how these systems inhibit games as a culture and form, you can look at Smash Bros. itself.
Super Smash Bros. Melee is probably the oldest fighting game getting as much play as it does in the tournament circuit. It’s known for its extremely technical movement exploits and questionable community, but it remains an exciting game to practice and watch. The game has seen especially strong development professionally over the past five years or so. While this has resulted in more than a few people pulling out old CRTs and Gamecubes or Wiis, its also increasingly supplemented or even supplanted by Dolphin. Enchanced properly, the PC and Mac Dolphin emulator is an incredible way to play Melee, with the popular 20XX training mod, HD hacks and, perhaps most crucially, Netplay.
For some, Melee is the classic Nintendo game of our time, as fundamental for a certain generation as a Super Mario Bros. or Legend of Zelda was for the NES, but even as the Gamecube controller remains the proper way to play Smash Bros. even in this year’s release, Melee ultimately needed an open console environment to thrive. The system of consoles is inherently byzantine and negative, predicated on the neoliberal belief that competition will create a greater good. But the result is often corporately structured timed exclusives, wall-garden online stores that discourage fan and independent works, and upsetting work conditions.
The fun of stories of corporate arms races is too often fetishized, the morals of the businesses that make games then supplanted onto consumers. Finance remains omnipresent and invisible in the industry. It eventually decides who lives and who dies, although all of the three major companies in the console game could consistently lose massive amounts of money for years before they would have to drop out.
I’m still enjoying Microsoft during this console generation, at least more than before, because the Xbox One seems closer to the ideal of a console. It comes in different levels of power, but is ultimately a very solid box. Microsoft’s system struggled for identity at first, after adopting and quickly dropping many progressive ideas like locking people out of used games and foregrounding the Kinect in the UI. In this absence, Xbox One has made liminal space its best strength. Many of its games have crossplay with PC and some with Switch. The console also can play discs for Xbox 360 and the original Xbox. Hardware-wise, the PS4 and Xbox One are known to be more similar to each other than in previous generations. In a way, they point to a future where consoles are just PCs with different specs.
Whether console universality can be established is likely an open question, but I do think that it should be something that we talk about, and that the current way the business is run is not ideal or special. I don’t have a full vision of an alternative to this, but I think it might be something worth opening up on. Some of the most exciting popular games of our era have already followed this pattern. Fortnite has allowed itself to surpass its progenitor PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in part by opening itself up to mobile, PC and console markets without discrimination and with cross-platform play. Nintendo’s own Pokemon Go brought adults and children back to the franchise in massive numbers in part because of its low barrier of entry. The future of games is as visible in its “casual” titles as anywhere else, areas where player convenience and accessibility is prioritized over technology flexing. Exclusivity remains a consequence of our present day, but it doesn’t need to be.