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Edge Magazine #165 August 2006

Is Sony history?

Edge #165, August 2006

Our perception of human history is like looking through blinkers. We work, we eat, scratch our arses and live in the here and now. We take our position in history for granted, as it's pretty much all we've known.

It seems impossible right now that the USA could be superseded as a major world power, that its economy could collapse, and the world be catapulted into a major war. Yet if you take off the blinkers then America looks destined to fall. It's an empire, and all empires have their day, and a change is definitely coming.

The games industry is the same. It may be relatively young, but even in its short lifetime you can see patterns repeating. You could see Sega would one day be forced to drop out of the hardware market from the minute it released the Mega-CD. The 3DO was a donkey from day one, the N-Gage a joke before it had even been released, Nintendo's formerly family-friendly image was never going to be a majority winner, and Sony's PlayStation had a momentum that was going to trample on everything in its path.

All were echoes of gaming history. Mistakes repeated, and familiar strategies got right.

You can feel that change in the air right now. It's as if the natural rhythms of the world won't let any one player dominate for too long; Atari, Amiga, Nintendo, Sega, Rome, Britain, Tory, Labour - all have been knocked from their seemingly impenetrable perch. Now, in the wake of E3, and after ruling the roost across two generations of console hardware, the tide has turned violently against Sony.

The Xbox was loved by a few, but the 360 got it right, despite most of us expecting it to languish, like its predecessor, in the second division. Yet thanks to the Xbox Live Arcade, the wireless controllers, some genuinely decent games, the sheer aestheic beauty of the thing - it has defied predictions. Somehow it has straddled both the hardcore and the mainstream, both student and youngster. I admit, I've been proved wrong; at the time I thought the 360 launch line-up was mostly rubbish, but with hindsight it was well pitched. There was something for everyone, and Call Of Duty 2 and Geometry Wars pretty much justified the purchase by themselves.

The Japanese still think it stinks, but the rest of us, for the most part, have been won over.

But it's not just the 360 that Sony has to worry about. Despite initial caution from most of us, Nintendo's next-generation plans have now been warmly embraced by the thighs of just about everyone. And that's even with a name-change that elicited shrill honks of derision on message boards around the world.

More unexpected still, since its unveiling at E3, Wii has caught the imagination of the mass media. Maybe they looked at it because of the less-stupid-the-more-you-hear-it name, rather than in spite of it. Or maybe they've been genuinely seduced by the iPod whiteness, and the control interface, and the fact we won't just be playing the same old games.

Or maybe everyone's just looking at the PlayStation 3, and realising it looks a bit shit. I never liked it from day one myself. The silver looks cheap, and the logo was in the sort of font used for '80s straight-to-video sci-fi films (you know: ones with a grainy photo of Michael Ironside or Dolph Lundgren on the cover, holding a gun that looks like it's been cobbled together from an old Airfix plane, while standing in front of a futuristic car that doesn't actually appear in the movie).

Sony has, at least, got shot of the ridiculous boomerang controller, but it was clear from the off that those infamous screenshot mock-ups were never going to be achievable. And when the games were unveiled at E3 it was obvious the console falls far short of the sort of power Sony has been hyping. It was a bit like the disparity between Spinal Tap's vision of a towering triptych and the on-stage reality.

Then there were those damaging comparisons of the peripheral and expansion slots on the back of the prototype compared to the finished model, the me-too factor of the motion-sensing controller, slipped release dates and a retail price point that, frankly, siphons the widdle. The media even seemed to pick up on, and criticise, Sony's decision to release two models - conveniently forgetting Microsoft took the same route with the 360.

Worse still for Sony, on many levels the PSP has disappointed. The UMD has been a failure, and - while there's no denying that it's more powerful than Nintendo's DS - I find it horrible as a games machine. Playing on it makes my hands bleed. They put cosmetics over comfort, and consequently I only use mine for playing downloaded movie files (OK, and a bit Me & My Katamari) - which benefits Sony not a jot.

As it stands, I think Sony has a fight on its hands, pretty much for the first time since it launched the PlayStation brand. There's no doubt that it won't be a fight Sony will give up on easily - a PlayStation 4 is an inevitability - but I think the days of its monopoly are long behind us. Plus ça change. Whatever that means.

Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television

Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me ( right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.

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