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At E3, the console generation gap rears its head

If there's one thing that this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo is teaching gamers, it's that sometimes history repeating itself may be a good thing — as long as you're not just aping your competitors.

If you've been following video games for the past 30 years, you'll have noticed the peculiar but reliable cycle of companies bringing out new hardware every five years or so. You could count on it as surely as the tides, or another sequel featuring Mario.

But this year, five years after the release of Microsoft's Xbox 360 (come November), there's nary a new console to be found. And while my checking account appreciates that, it's the industry that will suffer for it.

To be sure, both Microsoft and Sony have introduced scads of new peripherals at this year's show in L.A. Unfortunately, the motion control-based Kinect from Microsoft (nee Project Natal) and Sony's Move seem to be simply sloppy catchups to Nintendo's Wiimote, which hit the ground running almost four years ago.

Except, instead of being told by Nintendo that a nunchuck-shaped controller is the future of gaming, Sony says a nunchuck-shaped controller with a gaudy lightbulb stuck on it is the future of gaming. And Microsoft? They insist you don't even need to have a controller to use Kinect.

Yawn.

Microsoft expects you to shell out an additional $150 for a Kinect kit, while Sony wants you to drop at least $50 on a Move controller, or $100 for a kit including a controller, PlayStation Eye camera and a copy of Sports Champions, which looks to be a lot like Wii Sports. You know, the pack- in game the Wii came with four years ago (Microsoft's version is called — wait for it — Kinect Sports). I find this upsetting, if for no other reason than all these add-ons are turning our consoles into a real-life Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy. Maybe it's just because I'm old enough to remember the original NES' price tag of $150 being a bit steep.

Meanwhile, both consoles are offering a lineup of dullish-seeming novelty titles, like Microsoft's Kinectimals, where you get to pet virtual pets without the satisfaction of actual physical contact, or any of a dozen or so fitness and activity titles, performing the usual gamut of workouts, dance moves, driving and boating.

(Tangent: When, exactly, did the Sports Authority decide Wii games were acceptable as "sporting goods"?)

Yes, as slow as Microsoft and Sony were to follow Nintendo's lead into novelty devices, they've moved into the novelty title arena with lightning speed. Couple that with game announcements full of sequels (Killzone 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Gran Turismo 5, etc.) and remakes (Goldeneye, Kid Icarus, Ocarina of Time, et al.) and it's no wonder year-over game sales dropped 26 percent in April, and console sales fell 37 percent. You can't blame all of that on the economy.

There's something to be said for these efforts to make games more interactive, but they could at least try something new. Nintendo is joining Sony's bets on 3D by promoting the 3DS, a version of their popular handheld that's supposed to show images in 3D without glasses. I'm truly curious about that one.

The idea of a substantially new gaming experience brings us back to the console wars. With all three console-makers inferring or even outright stating that they have no plans to make new machines in the foreseeable future, it's obvious the old model of giving away the razors to sell the blades is failing — meaning, consoles could be sold at a loss while games rang in at $60 apiece. Consoles have become much too expensive for companies to develop, yet they are hurtling headlong into the wall of consumer boredom with the core technology. That's a dangerous game of chicken for corporations that lose billions on their gaming divisions.

So instead we get efforts like Microsoft's promise that soon your 360 will respond to voice commands, or Sony's Playstation Network Premium, which will add a few new features for the low, low price increase from free to $50 a year. Most of these new products, notably, don't even involve gaming, but rather are aimed at using your console as a home networking device, which is what these companies had planned from the beginning.

Don't worry, though. Soon enough these companies will start development on new consoles that will cost too much to buy and produce too little that differentiates them from the current, seventh generation. Those will have plenty for gamers to complain about, too.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

At E3, the console generation gap rears its head 06/16/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 9:59pm]

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