Gaming Systems of 2006

by Mike Shea on 3 January 2007

2006 was a big year for electronic gaming. Microsoft produced enough Xbox 360s that anyone who wanted one could get one. Nintendo released the Wii. Sony released the Playstation 3. The Nintendo DS continued to storm the portable market, and a bunch of great games came out.

Consoles live and die based on the games released for them. Most of the hardware matters very little. Whether you're 32 bit or 128 bit, whether you have cell processors or blast processors, whether you have a CD-ROM or a Blue Ray DVD player; none of that matters towards the actual success of your system. Games matter.

However, there are a few criteria required to meet my definition of a "good game system". Today I'm going to take a look at console hardware released recently and give my arbitrary rating on how good it really is.

Xbox 360. Score: 90%

The Xbox 360 is clearly the best system out right now. It has true high-definition resolution, excellent online play, a great pile of fun and free demos of Xbox Live Arcade games, and some of the best games of the year. The console hardware itself can't be beat except for the lack of built-in wireless internet, and the price isn't too bad. The controller is very good, if a little too complicated. It includes built-in rumble, a feature missing fro the PS3 controller, built-in headset and microphone, and a single button to turn the system on and off. The last is now a standard feature on Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and PS3.

There's a lot to love about the Xbox 360. I am always amazed by the amount of free gaming one can get from downloaded game demos and Xbox Live Arcade demos. It's great to sit down and spend a bit of time playing HD clones of old arcade classics. Currently I have about twelve full-game demos and about twice as many Xbox Live Arcade games. I only own five true Xbox 360 games.

Xbox 360 games look, sound, and play great. If you can only have one system, the Xbox 360 is the system to get.

Nintendo Wii. Score: 75%

When it comes to innovation, Nintendo does a better job than any other game maker. They were the first console to put an analog stick on a controller. They were the first to use a touch-screen in a portable system. Now they're the first to include a quality motion sensor in the controller. The Nintendo Wii doesn't have the quality graphics that will soon spoil us on the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3, but Nintendo sure remembered what gaming is all about: fun. There are piles of stories of families all playing Wii Sports together over the holidays. My family was no different. My mother bowled a 215 in Wii bowling and my father-in-law bowled a 195. I don't think either of them have played a console game in years and years - if ever. That's what makes the Wii powerful.

When used with the Nunchuck, the Wii controller isn't any simpler than a Xbox 360 controller. The whole concept of easy-to-play goes out the window when you're trying to shoot bomb arrows off of the back of your horse in Zelda. Still, for select games, the gameplay is very easy and a lot of fun. We won't see many games coming out that fully use the capability of the Wii's new controller until later this year.

The hardware is very good but misses a few critical things. First, it should have high-definition graphics. If we're buying game console for a five year period, we should have the best resolution we can get. Not having HD hurts it now but it will hurt it a lot more in five years when the Xbox 360 and PS3 games look even better and more people have the TVs to see the difference. No Dolby Digital is another problem. The sound is good, but Dolby Pro-Logic can only go so far. You might not notice when you're playing but you'll notice when you switch to a 360 game. Lastly, it doesn't include any built-in voice chat. This latest generation of hardware is the first opportunity for consoles to break into online and massive online play but without a way to effectivly communicate, it doesn't matter.

Next November will be the time to see how good this system really is.

Playstation 3. Score: 30%

I don't know where to let my rage begin. No support for HD over component cables is a good place. Making my $3500 HDTV obsolete because they're worried about piracy makes my blood boil. Forcing an extra $200 onto the price tag just to get Blue Ray DVD into my home hurts as well, both us and Sony themselves. I don't want a next generation in quality home entertainment integration. My house doesn't need a central processor

I'm betting that in six months we'll read a huge pile of news stories about how Sony botched the PS3 launch by trying to cram so much high-end hardware into a box. Sony is notorious for trying to push new formats and failing to do so. We saw it with Beta. We saw it with Sony Memory Sticks and Minidiscs, we saw it with the PSP movies that no one bothers to carry anymore. Using the PS3 as a Trojan horse for Blue Ray hurt everyone and Sony is going to be paying through the nose all year for that mistake.

The PS3 is too expensive, too buggy and weird, too complicated, and has no games worth mentioning. Stay away at least a year and wait for the price to drop. Either it will become a reasonable and powerful system in 2008 or it will die like the Atari Jaguar. Right now I'm too pissed off to care. Let then burn.

Nintendo DS. Score: 90%

The silent killer of the console war, the Nintendo DS is one of the most amazing systems I've played. Usability is the reason this system is so good. I don't have to figure out how to hook it up to my TV, I don't have to worry if I have the right cables, I can just turn it on and play - anywhere. The New Super Mario Brothers, Mario Cart, Brain Age, and Meteos are some of the most fun I've had playing a video game and I did it all on a portable system.

With a built-in mic and built-in wireless internet, the DS is the first portable system that has the ability to play online and massive online games but so far no game has broken into this market.

Systems only matter as much as the games we play on them. Aside from basics like HD support, Dolby Digital, internet connectivity, and voice chat

PCs. Score: 60%

Two nights ago, on New Years Day 2007, I spent about ten hours playing my way through Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on my shiny new Nintendo Wii. I put in the game, hit power, and selected it from the Wii's menu. Later that night, when I wanted to see what World of Warcraft was like, I launched the game and spent the next three hours completely reinstalling it after a botched patch screwed up my installation.

PCs still suck. They're still hard to use. They still cost a lot. They still allow for such a wide range of hardware that no game producer can say for sure how a game should perform. They still make you sit at your desk like a cubicle worker to play a game instead of letting you relax on your couch. Their video displays are most often small compared to the family TV. Their audio systems are most often weak compared to a good home theater system.

However, PCs don't suck as much as they used to. As PCs continue to get cheaper and consoles continue to get more expensive, cost becomes less of a factor. Windows XP made the system more stable and games like Wacraft show that performance can be good without a game looking bad. PCs still corner the market on massive online games and real time strategy games, but first-person shooters are becoming a lot more popular on consoles after great games like Gears of War and Call of Duty 3.

Final Recommendation: Get ye an Xbox 360.

When all the views are over, there is only one clear recommendation. Go buy yourself an Xbox 360 and have fun playing Gears of War, Call of Duty 2 and 3, Burnout Revenge, maybe even a little Viva Pinata. Download over 30 demos of Xbox Live games and have a great time while everyone else waits in line for a Nintendo Wii or works a second job to pay off their Playstation 3 mortgage.

Send comments to mike@mikeshea.net or follow @mshea on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article, please bookmark and use this link to Amazon.com for your next online purchase.