The RetroBeat: Next-gen console debuts aren’t what they used to be

Yesterday, we got out first look at next generation gameplay via the latest Inside Xbox and its debut of third-party games coming to Xbox Series X. And while we saw some neat stuff, it wasn’t exactly a hype-filled event.

Which is kind of strange, right? I mean, we know that the Series X and the PlayStation 5 will be the most powerful consoles ever built. It should be fun and exciting to see them in action for the first time. But, really, the trailers we saw during Inside Xbox didn’t look all that special. If you had told me that those were all for Xbox One games, I would have believed you.

The whole thing really made it clear just how deep into the graphical plateau of gaming we are. Yes, games are still looking better every year. But we no longer have those giant leaps that could wow us. And, man, did next-generation consoles used to wow us.

The legend of next gen

And companies like Nintendo used to get us pumped without even showing us real games! I remember Nintendo building hype for the GameCube by showing a concept video for what The Legend of Zelda could look like on the machine. Now, the actual Zelda game we got for GameCube looked nothing like this tech demo. But the presentation was quite effective. I mean, just compare this to what we had with Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask for Nintendo 64.

I forgot that we saw that tech demo in August 2000. That’s over a year away from the console’s debut in Japan in September 2001. Meanwhile, we’re likely less than six months away from the launch of PlayStation 5, and we still don’t even know what the console looks like. The hype train sure did start a lot earlier back then.

We used to get excited about tech demos that didn’t even have anything to do with established franchises. Remember Sony and the rubber ducks? The company would use the inflatable bath toys to show off new system hardware.

We used to love stuff like this! Well, I did, anyway. I mean … look at all those ducks! How could a console that can create so many adorable little quack factories be bad?

Bullshot

Now, to be fair, part of the reason that console reveals used to be more exciting is because these presentations used to have more brazen lies. Remember that infamous Killzone 2 demo for PlayStation 3?

Sony presented this as gameplay, but it was really a target video. It’s funny to look at this now, because even this unrealistic trailer looks modest by today’s standards. But you can see what Killzone 2 actually looked like below.

These two videos don’t even look as far apart as I remember them being. But back around 2006, this was a big controversy in the gaming world!

I want my MTV

Aside from the trailers and demos, the actual presentations just felt more exciting for new console debuts. Now, Microsoft and Sony can’t be faulted too much here. The pandemic has put them in a tough spot, making it hard to hold traditional reveal events with all the spectacle and fanfare.

Still, I miss shows like the Xbox 360 reveal. Remember that? It had Elijah Wood debuting the console, along with games like Perfect Dark Zero, on MTV. Just look at all of those people cheering while a random person takes the Xbox 360 out of a bag and puts it on a literal pedestal.

The whole show was so fun that I actually thought that Perfect Dark Zero would be good! But this sure is a different vibe than getting our first news about the PlayStation 5 is an out-of-nowhere Wired story.

Maybe we are better off with today’s more laid-back approach to debuting these systems. At least we don’t have to deal with lies. Say what you will about that Inside Xbox event, but it was realistic. But you know something went wrong when the Xbox Games Marketing GM Aaron Greenberg acknowledged fan disappointment on Twitter.

But I’ll always miss those days when new consoles felt like gigantic leaps forward in both technology and game design. I didn’t talk about the leap we saw from the 16-bit generation to the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. All of a sudden, we went from a focus on 2D sidescrollers to 3D action games. In a single year, the industry saw a seismic shift.

I don’t know if we’re ever going to have a game-changing console generation like that again. Maybe we don’t need one. I just wish that I felt a bit more emotion about the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, and promising me faster load times and crossbuy support, while nice, isn’t enough to bring out that old childlike excitement.

The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.

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