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Edge Magazine #141 October 2004

Trampling on bad design

Edge #141, October 2004

Don't judge a book by its cover, they say. But its a stupid saying. If you see a book with a picture of a naked tramp on the front called Pictures Of Naked Tramps Vol 3, and it bears a sticker reading 'You will see lots of pictures of naked tramps — stripped, washed and shaved for your pleasure — in this book', then the chances are you know what you're going to get.

Admittedly, that isn't always the case with a games machine. I mean, who could suspect the evil which lurks at the heart of the average, harmless-looking personal computer? To all intents and purposes, consumer electronics are designed to evoke a sense of their purpose and who they target. Nintendo clearly believes consoles are toys, which is probably why it made the GameCube resemble a block of Lego, while Sony and Microsoft make no bones about the fact they're targeting as wide an audience as possible with their consoles — but the trendsetters first and foremost. Nevertheless, you have to wonder why all three don't spend a bit more time and money on the aesthetics of their hardware.

Though I'm fortunate enough to own more than one games machine, the downside is there simply isn't room to have them all beneath the TV. At least, not unless I wish to have a length of flaming bamboo inserted daily between my grumbly cushions by the lady of the house. So, aside from my PC, I can only have one games machine on show at a time. And, I have to confess, it's the PlayStation2 which has worn the biggest hole in front of my telly. Absurdly, this has nothing to do with the games. Yes, we all know that the GameCube boasts the sort of games that proper, devout gamers like to play. And yes, the Xbox also has plenty of games worth shouting about. But the ghastly truth of the matter is that the GameCube and the Xbox absolutely suck as far as the look of them goes.

The former has a ridiculous joypad — too many buttons, and a stupid layout - while the latter is just horrible in every sense. And you can chuck the sodding Game Boy Advance SP in there too; I've not played on that in yonks, because it's so nasty. Couldn't they have just stuck a frontlight on the far more pleasing original GBA? The SP has a comfort level equivalent to riding in a car with square wheels over a pebble beach while sitting on a special pouffe made out of cacti and being force-fed a list of similes. By a naked tramp.

Upon its unveiling, the PS2 was heralded as a revolutionary piece of design. Oh, how the press releases cooed over it. Slimline, subtle and evoking the spirit of 2001 : A Space Odyssey, we were told again and again. At the time I hated it. To me it looked far too much like a piece of serious computer hardware rather than a home entertainment device or — let's be honest — a toy.

But despite that, while still thinking the PS2 is one of the most insipid-looking consoles ever — the original PlayStation, Mega Drive and Super Nintendo are all far nicer to look at - it's so bland as to be inoffensive. You don't notice it sitting there in the living room. You can tuck it between the armchair and the TV unit, and people will mostly mistake it for the shadow of a book. Perhaps even Pictures Of Naked Tramps Vol 4.

Not like the Xbox, which until recently I hadn't played on for almost six months. I shelved it in a fit of pique after wasting £40 on the dreadful Knights Of The Old Republic (if this was a Star Wars film it would be called Re-turd Of The Jobbie). Only recently did I dust it off for the impressive Full Spectrum Warrior. In those interim six months there were a number of exclusives I never played, simply because I knew it would mean having to get the Xbox out and plugged in, and the end bit of the controllers found (why do they come off? WHY?!). I'd have to suffer the annoying, fiddly black and white buttons, and the equally irritating rounded coloured ones. It's just too much trouble.

Heck, even though I knew Red Dead Revolver would probably look better on the Xbox than the PS2 I still went for the latter version because I didn't want to look at the Xbox, or touch the Xbox, or have the ugly thing staring back at me. You wouldn't want a hideous, fat crone glaring at you from the corner of the living room. You'd put a bag over her head, or make her wait in the bedroom.

Aside from the fact that the Xbox is larger than the average family saloon car, it's just a sucky, uninspired piece of design that's as unpleasant to hold as it is to observe. You can imagine they sat around in the meeting, the designers throwing out wild ideas, before some sappy exec piped up: "Oh, just make it a big black box... and put some sort of X on the top. Nothing too fancy."

One needs only look at the iPod, or any of Apple's range of computers, or take a trip around Carphone Warehouse, to realise that Nintendo, Microsoft and even Sony have a heck of a long way to go before their systems can compete with other consumer electronics design.

The PSP looks like a step in the right direction, but there's still a whiff of the '90s about it - especially when we're told that the official version will lose the sexy, flat controls in favour of raised buttons. It comes across like an anorexic blend of Lynx and Game Gear. But if the PSP looks dull, the Nintendo DS looks positively stinkmongous. It's functional and nothing more, and if Albert Speer had designed handhelds he would've conceived the DS. Nintendo should make Luigi's Bunker, or ExciteReich DS, for its launch.

In the same way ugly people wish we could love them for their personality, I simply can't bring myself to love consoles just for their games. I don't like what the Xbox looks like, or how the GC pad feels, so I tend to favour games on PS2. I don't even like what the PS2 looks like, but needs must. Heck, I buy more PC games than anything, chiefly because it's in a cupboard and my mouse and keyboard are wireless. Perhaps that's the solution: perhaps you shouldn't even be aware a console is there. Either have it blend in with your other below-telly boxes, or make a feature of it. Either way, if the next generation of hardware doesn't tease my sense of cosmetics, I'll have to entertain myself in another way. Naked tramp photography, anyone?

Mr Biffo is a semi-retired videogame journalist. His views do not necessarily coincide with Edge's

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