Gadgets: Game on for consoles

With the imminent release of Nintendo's newest Game Boy and Bill Gates' Xbox Live, competition in the world of gaming consoles is as fierce as ever, says David Phelan
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The Independent Online

IN THE video games world, December is the cruellest month. With all the major releases of the year scheduled to arrive in the crucial few weeks before Christmas, a feeding frenzy of triple-A titles results, with every company hoping to win out. The big winners are huge, but then even the losers and also-rans are legion. What's more surprising, perhaps, is that March seems to be an increasingly important month in the video games calendar.

In the video games world, December is the cruellest month. With all the major releases of the year scheduled to arrive in the crucial few weeks before Christmas, a feeding frenzy of triple-A titles results, with every company hoping to win out. The big winners are huge, but then even the losers and also-rans are legion. What's more surprising, perhaps, is that March seems to be an increasingly important month in the video games calendar.

On 28 March, Nintendo's glorious Game Boy Advance SP is released for around £90. The original Game Boy turned up in 1989, with a monochrome screen and minimal (8-bit) processing power. None the less, it has been unstoppably successful ever since, outlasting all other consoles because it had popular, playable titles (from puzzles such as Tetris, to the adventures of the world's favourite plumber, Super Mario). It has also had numerous upgrades: a smaller case, a bigger screen, the move into colour and – two years ago – a 32-bit version, as powerful as the original Sony PlayStation. That machine was called the Game Boy Advance and was, frankly, terrific. It remains a fine option for cost-conscious parents as its price has now dropped to £50. Its only drawback was that you needed a fearsomely bright light behind you to see the screen clearly, so it wasn't quite as portable as it might have been. That and the fact that it looks like a brick. Now, with the new, more adult-looking clamshell designed Game Boy Advance SP, that problem has been triumphantly solved with the arrival of a frontlit screen.

Previous portable consoles were bedevilled by short battery life, but here the battery is rechargeable and lasts for 12 hours, or 18 if you switch the light off. Oddly, there's no headphone socket, so you'll need a peripheral extra to connect them, or risk annoying the rest of the train, waiting room, cinema, wherever with the penetrating sound of repeated monster-beating.

Game Boys are fine if you're out and about, but if you fancy playing the most powerful games systems around (and today's consoles pack a powerful 128-bit punch), you'll have to stay at home. But at least you can now play with (or against) like-minded stay-at-homes from around the world. As of yesterday, people with Xboxes will be able to challenge each other to death matches. Exactly a year after Bill Gates's Xbox launch, the company has taken the online plunge. When the Xbox first arrived, it was trumpeted as being broadband-ready and more capable of dealing with large-scale multiplayer games (up to 250 players) than the other consoles available. In fact, it's only now with the launch of Xbox Live that this capability has become a (virtual) reality. You'll need a broadband connection to use it, but for £39.99, Xbox owners can buy a pack that includes a year's subscription, two games and – crucially – a headset.

The headset means that now you can talk to the people you're playing against – crucial when you're working as part of a team seeking prey, for example. The fact that you're logged on under your Xbox alias also means that you have no idea whether you're fellow gamers are playing at breakfast-time in Sydney or late-night in Ohio. The headset also masks your voice, so there's no knowing for certain whether you're playing an adult or a child, male or female. And although the games companies are reluctant to discuss the subject, this may even mean that Xbox Live will be able to avoid the pitfalls of adults preying on children that besets chatrooms. If an 11-year-old girl says "I rock" or "you suck" (common online gaming parlance) into her headset, it will simply come out as the usual vaguely American dude-speak.

What games companies are happier to discuss is the way games will change. More and more titles will have multiplayer online gaming built in from the ground up: Xbox's hugely successful launch title Halo has a sequel in the works that will trade on this capability. Or it may be that new games will be trialled online, paid for in instalments which are then added to in order to keep you playing, and paying.

Microsoft has embraced the concept of online gaming far more than any of its opponents. But Sony will launch its own set-up soon, and Nintendo promises to follow suit. Right now, Mr Gates owns the field.

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