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Three the Hard Way: An Analysis of the Next-Gen Super Systems
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posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
publisher: Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo
date posted: 12:00 AM Fri Jan 5th, 2001
last revision: 12:00 AM Fri Jan 5th, 2001

By Adam Albrec

As we move into the next arena of competing systems, 2001's HAL9000 may be a ways down the road, but there is a wide world of electronic-gaming glory in sight. While most have hopefully known the awesome perfection that is Dreamcast, it does behoove both the serious and casual gamer to look at the upcoming choices and see what each new platform has to offer them.

PS2 has already landed and GameCube and X-Box will within a year. PS2 and X-Box should both be in the $300.00 range and GameCube about $200.00. Like most other technical-equipment purchases, it all depends on what you want your new box to do. The PS2 has made a serious leap forward as a true 'Set-Top Box' offering movie-playback and the promise of serous internet capabilities. X-Box will offer these also and Nintendo's new entry will at least offer online browsing. With DVD players dropping in price everyday and nearly half the houses in the country connected to the internet, these are niceties in a console, but maybe not the prime focus.

Frosting aside, it falls next to look at the primary functions of these new powerhouses and that is gaming. Though the technology is more sophisticated and varied, the same things will apply to these new machines that did in the 32-bit, 16-bit and 8-bit console wars.

#1. Software: No matter how much style, features or snob-value a machine has, it is only as good as the software that is available and what games it lets you play.

#2. Output quality: Ever HEAR the difference between Street Fighter II on the Genesis vs. the Super NES, or SEE the difference between standard video cables and digital video?

#3. Interface: What is the controller like? Do the online networks function well (an important question since all of the above-mention competitors are planning on online gaming)?

#4. Misc: Is the hardware designed to last and take serious use? Are cool, new peripherals likely to be supported?

There are other considerations, but these are the most important. Let us take a look at the 'Big 3' under these criteria using the information currently available.


Since the PS2 is here and has a decent number of titles to judge, this is a good starting point. The most curious thing to notice is the lack of even a single really new idea in the lineup. The cause appears to be an extremely complicated programming architecture. What does this mean to fighting-game fans already enjoying their gourmet version of Tekken Tag Tournament or the SSX crowd in snowboard Nirvana? These are very solid games. Companies as big as Namco, Midway or EA can easily steamroll any programming challenges if they know there is a market out there, but what about companies like DMA Design, creators of highly innovative and commonly underrated games like Wild Metal and Body Harvest? We have yet to see a Crazy Taxi or Seaman on the PS2, much less a Samba De Amigo. The difficulty is that no developer can take the chance of sinking the required money into a PS2 game unless it is certain the game will be a success. Almost analogous to the cartridge-overhead of making N64 games, only the strong will survive. Many might think this is not a problem, because the big companies like Square, Namco and Konami are generally the makers of the smash-hits anyway. Plus, one can enjoy all of their current PlayStation favorites with smoother graphics. If you are happy with your PlayStation groove, then this might be totally acceptable, but you are not likely to see much of anything that is truly new or groundbreaking.

The GameCube, at first glance, LOOKS like a kid's machine. With an almost Lego-like case and Nintendo's recent history, it is tempting to dismiss this machine without a second thought. Mario's next box however is a technical powerhouse capable of easily equaling the PS2's visuals. Bench tests have revealed that PS2's impressive polygon-counts quickly fall to somewhere between 3 and 6 million polys per/second with full effects on. This is due to the machine's almost total lack of hardware support that makes every effect an issue of programming, and thus a drain on frame rate and overall performance. GameCube is a very different beast all together. Polygon counts between 6 and 12 million with full-effects are possible with it due to its highly sophisticated hardware rendering. Being able to render in one pass what the PS2 requires 8 separate passes to do enables it to scarcely break a sweat at full capacity. This coupled with a wonderful memory-saver called S3 texture decompression allows as much as 50 megabytes of texture-detail to be saved in as little as 8 megabytes of RAM. This allows the machine to hold infinitely more data simultaneously. So how does all this techno-babble affect software? GameCube lets developers of all different levels of resources make highly-detailed games very quickly. Moreover, the system's Open-GL architecture has been a PC-software standard since Quake I and the Cube should have a slew of perfect PC ports - something that has generally not happened often in the console world. Nintendo is still very dedicated to it's family-friendly formats, but has pledged to permit developers much more freedom than in the past. The ease of development might result in the machine's power quickly being tapped, and there could easily be a plethora of clone-games that look very similar, due to the emphasis on hardware effects, but, make no mistake, this is NOT a machine to dismiss.

X-Box easily shows the most promise from a technical standpoint. Quite possibly six times as powerful as the next guy, S3 texture decompression, built in hard-drive and developer-friendly Direct X architecture appear to offer it all. Not exactly a newcomer to videogaming, Microsoft has a decent number of franchises under its belt such as the Age of Empires series and a terrific relationship with the PC game community. But the world's most powerful software company doesn't have experience in the console industry. Is this a problem?

Many believe it could be, due to the difference in developing for console and PCs. Console-game designers have learned to debug code very effectively, since a flawed game means a returned game. With PCs, a flaw can be fixed with a downloadable-patch. But what good will the X-Box's hard-drive be if it is filled up with patches to fix program-errors that would have been tested-out of a game for another machine? Console software usually sells for far more than equivalent PC software, but there is also a big responsibility to get-it-right. Microsoft claims to be working on these issues, but only time will tell. In terms of innovation, this might be the virtual cornucopia for new ideas. Things as subtle as background music promise to be a completely new experience. Mathematical, real-time musical composition and randomizing are being integrated into the X-Box's sound system, meaning that a game might NEVER sound the same twice. Also, the machine's shear power is permitting the possibility to use fractal-geometry in ways never before possible. Rather than storing sprites or 3D-models of trees and landscape details, scenes could be "grown" in real-time using the complicated math that shapes our world in real life. Will developers take advantage of such possibilities or will we see quick and dirty ports of other console and PC games? The X-Box has the most potential, but also the least experience with such issues.

Output Quality

The PS2's stunning polygon counts and lighting effects are enough to impress even the most jaded viewer, but this polish quickly fades if a digital monitor or capture-card is being used. Early reports of the machine's lack of anti-aliasing were partially true and partially not. Software routines can perform full-screen anti-aliasing (at a huge performance cost) and output filtering can greatly improve matters without loss of speed, but the PS2 suffers from a lack of horizontal-scan precision at digital resolutions and "crawling" when displayed on a large conventional TVs. S-video and component-video (analog RGB signal used by high-end DVD players) reduce some of these effects by eliminating the machine's low quality video color-mixer from the signal-chain. A game displayed with either of these advanced cables, that has been well-crafted by the developer, can easily equal displays in video arcades, but Sony has flatly refused to create any form of VGA-box or digital output - most likely because the aforementioned scan-inaccuracy would become very noticeable. For most people, this is no big deal as they do not own an HDTV or have a VGA monitor in a convenient place for console gaming, but to those already spoiled by PC gaming or VGA-box play on the PC or Dreamcast, it might be hard to settle for analog color and detail. On the positive side, the PS2's sound quality is a wonder to behold. While there is no 3D-audio support, there are crisp highs and rich demensional effects able to do justice to the DVD format, sounding fantastic on good-quality audio equipment. So if you own an ordinary television less than 19" or have a large, high-end TV with S-video or component-video, you won't be disappointed (especially if you have a great sound-system), but you might want to look elsewhere if HDTV or VGA is your thing.

GameCube promises to fully support most major video formats - analog and digital. A separate plug in for digital would appear to remove the need for a special VGA-box. With luck, this will connect directly to a PC monitor or HDTV with a cord. Curiously absent is digital audio. Unlike the PS2, there is no optical-output for DTS. Nintendo is claiming that this was a deliberate decision to avoid high-latency of DTS, but this could just as easily been a cost-cutting maneuver to avoid the expense of the hardware and licensing. The Cube does, however, support conventional Dolby Surround with 64-channel 3D sound.

Microsoft's powerhouse benefits from the company's long PC heritage with full support of digital video and HDTV, as well as the usual conventional formats. Most impressive is that X-Box's tech-specs point to effective resolutions between 4 and 8 times higher than PS2's. AC3 Dolby digital sound is also confirmed.


In terms of the control-device, none can show up the the PS2. The original dual-shock controller was easily the most perfect design imaginable--very intuitive and unobtrusively housing an unprecedented 12-buttons (including the L3 & R3 buttons actuated by pressing the analog sticks), comfortable analog support and an accurate D-pad. The Dual Shock 2 makes the perfect even more perfect with zero-play in the new analog sticks and full analog on all buttons accept 'start' and 'select'. Gone also appears to be the occasional problems of the vibration-effect causing the analog to cut-out. Much lighter, and yet more solid in the hand, the Dual Shock 2 is a true cut above. The system configuration is very elegant and clean with easily readable text. It is a little irritating that the backward-compatibility enhancements like faster disc access and filtering don't reliably stay in the desired configuration after the machine is turned off, but this is a minor point. Sony's online strategy appears to be a serious afterthought. It is presumable that online-gaming interfaces will be the responsibility of the game designer, in the way that the Dreamcast currently does. Strangely, it is in the online arena that PS2 may be able to really shine. Nintendo is only adding online connection to "enhance the gaming experience" and Microsoft sings a similar song (probably to avoid competition with its PC brethren). PS2 is selling itself as a true set-top box and this is its chance to prove it with high-quality internet support. Not only in gaming, but also in media like MP3, Quicktime movies and basically bringing broadband to the masses.

There is no information yet on the GameCube's menu systems, but the strangely-shaped controller has made serious waves. Smaller and less cumbersome than the N64's, it is said to be a delight to touch, and to "feel good" in one's hands. The yellow camera-buttons from the N64 controller are replaced with an analog camera-stick. The buttons are large and well-positioned to avoid accidentally hitting the wrong ones, and the D-pad is placed in a usable area, unlike its predecessor - thus making the thought of fighting games on a Nintendo platform an attractive idea again. The seven-button limitation might be a problem in complex games, but perhaps the D-pad might be used as 4 extra buttons, in the way that the Dreamcast's so often is. Thankfully, force-feedback is now internal and there is no more need to switch between attachments and buy batteries. Much like the overall effect of the GameCube system, as a whole, this controller is designed to function in a predetermined way that, hopefully, will not leave the gamer at "arm's length" from the action. Little is know about the online strategy except that both standard modems and broadband will be available. Judging from Nintendo's respect for children's games, it will probably be very easily accessed and require very little tinkering. The big N would also do very well to consider offering direct-dial gaming for games that use the standard modem since most youngsters in Nintendo's demographic will mostly want to play friends that live locally.

Nothing is really know about the X-Box's controller for sure. Microsoft has stated that the Sidwinder pad on display at E3 was just a visual aid and will not be the final attachment. Company spokespeople have stated that there are no plans to offer a mouse and keyboard as they do not want the X-Box be seen as either a set-top box or mini-PC. It will, however, be an unforgivable shame if the USB ports on the machine will not be able to support mouse/keyboard play in real-time strategy, first-person shooters and the types of games that the PC does so well. Indeed it will be issues like control support, online support and other interface issues that may make or break this awesome piece of hardware.


Early problems with PS2 overheating and DVD playback appear to have been resolved, in contrast to the original PlayStation that never really held up very well, and gone are the days of the disc-spindle crumbling, leaving an otherwise usable PlayStation worthless. Massive heat sinking and downright beefy case-construction are the new order of the day. While not likely able to stand being dropped, due to its weight, it should provide many years of faithful service, as long as Sony doesn't go second sourcing to third-world countries with low quality control as they did in their pre-WEGA Trinitron TVs. With respect to cool peripherals, they are already in the works by countless manufacturers.

The GameCube looks to be the all-terrain vehicle of game consoles. Equipped with a very solid handle and durable case for console and controller, this is a machine meant to be used. Hopefully, this time, the new analog stick will last longer than the N64's. The N64 was possibly the most peripheral-starved machine ever (with the possible exception of the Neo Geo). What happened to the days of opening up the original NES cartons to find lightguns, miniature arcade sticks and even a cool-looking robot? This is a place for serious improvement this time. We want arcade sticks, lightguns, mice and who knows, maybe even maracas! The gaming public doesn't want to feel like they are playing with remedial control-systems regardless of how cool the game may look or sound.

Once again, the X-Box is a mystery. Can a company who is used to thinking about computers as fragile, precision instruments, make a console that will go the distance? They probably have a steep learning curve to look forward to in the first year. Microsoft may sound much like Sony in the first year of the PlayStation. At that time, Sandpoint ID. rental-game shop owner Dell Bartello was told by Sony representatives that his rental machines were bound to overheat and malfunction if overused, and that the machine should be played about one hour at a time. What types of peripherals will be available? Can a newcomer to an industry as complex as this get it perfect right away? Most likely not, but with Microsoft's almost endless resources, they will probably get it right eventually.


Never before have three companies as capable as these all gone to the mat, and with such arguably great products. On one side is the PS2 - a machine made to make the most of the "here and now" in the way that Sony does best. It offers solid franchises, CG-quality visuals (from capable developers) and the possibility of state of the art multi-media applications to the general public at a very fair price compared to the 3DO and other proposed "do-everything" machines. On the other side is the X-Box that holds the possible future of interactive entertainment. Its glorious visual quality may make the most awesome Hollywood effects look "just OK". It, further, promises unimagined aural possibilities that can truly tap into the instinctive and primal role that sound plays in our perceptions. And in the middle, there is Nintendo's GameCube that offers a splendid balance in-between at a lower price-point. Which one to buy is nearly impossible to say, as each has tremendous strengths and will offer plenty of gaming. The gamer who is still uncertain needs most importantly to keep an ear open for the latest news on the two unreleased contenders and then add up the points - pros, and cons. As for this reviewer, I am off to go spend some quality time with the reigning champion of gaming innovation and prowess - the Dreamcast.