New game platform desperately seeking games

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Toronto Computes, December 1999

My teenage son, Joey, has been helping me to review game software for several years now-- long enough for Joey to notice a pattern in games that are available both for PC and a game platform like Sony Playstation.

He?s noticed that while each new PC version gets more and more graphically sophisticated. The new Playstation or N64 version, however, looks pretty much like last year?s or the version from the year before.

That?s because each year, the PC version is able to take advantage of improved hardware. The downside is that each year?s version requires more and newer computers?EA?s NHL 2000, for example, requires at least a 200 mhz Pentium (a 1997 computer), while really wanting at least a (1998) 300 mhz Pentium-II or Celeron.

The game platforms?Playstation or N64, however, remain fixed as 1995-era technology. A lot of system for a low price, but increasingly aging technology.

The next generation of game systems, however, has begun with the September release of the first of its generation, Sega?s Dreamcast.

We had the loan of a Dreamcast, along with a sampling of games. Joey and Sam were also able to rent additional games from the local video store. Compared to the previous generation systems, Dreamcast boasts impressive specs. The $299 system offers 128-bit graphics (Playstation and N64 are 32-bit systems), in a compact unit that also promises Internet access.

A 56kb modem is built-in, allowing gamers to use the Net for interactive play, along with Web surfing, chat, and more?though no games actually implement these features at the moment.

The Dreamcast is a pretty perky computer in its own right, with a 200 MHz Hitachi SH-4 CPU, 16 megs of main RAM, 8 MB of video RAM, and so forth. It?s capable of handling 3 million polygons a second (a key statistic for 3D gaming), with 24-bit colour running at a realistic 60 frames per second. Programs are stored on a proprietary format CD-ROM, allowing storage of a full gigabyte of information?50% more than on standard CDs, while still allowing the unit to play standard audio CDs. An optional keyboard can be plugged in?handy if the unit is going to be used for Internet surfing.

The statistics are meaningless, however, unless there are games to play on the hardware. Sega was an early casualty in the previous generation of game system wars, when its Saturn system offered few games to compete with Sony?s Playstation or the Nintendo 64. Sega has done a much better job of wooing developers this time around?18 games were available at launch date, with Sega suggesting that there will be 100 titles by the end of 2000. Sega has done a good job making sure that rental hardware and games are available in many of the larger video rental stores.

Still, both of the boys testing the unit were underwhelmed by the games they tried. They both commented that it seemed like the games had been rushed out the door, in order to have them ready for the September release. They found the level of graphics overall much better than the Playstation equivalents?Dreamcast games were clearer and more 3D, less sketchy and blocky then the last-generation competition. Still, most appeared to lack the attention to detail that they?ve been seeing in the best new games aimed at PC users.

Both boys liked Sega?s Sonic Adventure, the latest game featuring the company?s popular Sonic the Hedgehog. Sam, however, thought that of the five Dreamcast games he?d tried out, Sonic was the only one that was much fun. He suggested that the platform needed at least one really good game?a game like Goldeneye for N64 or Final Fantasy or Metal Gear Solid for Playstation, that would make kids feel like they needed to buy a Dreamcast

Joey commented that it was hard to compare Dreamcast and PC games?he felt that it varied from game to game. Overall, both Sam and Joey thought that the PC was still ahead for graphics performance, but not by much.

Sega is the only next-generation console system currently available, and claims to have sold $145 million dollars worth of units in the first 24 hours of release?a figure far higher than Playstation or N64?s release, outperforming even recent, much-hyped films like The Phantom Menace.

But Sega?s window of opportunity to establish itself will be a short one. Sony tried to steal some of their thunder, choosing the week of the Dreamcast?s release to announce details of its Playstation 2, due next year. That unit will include a built-in DVD player, allowing users to use it show DVD movies on their TV. Also a 128-bit system, it promises higher polygon rates than Dreamcast. Sony, which currently gets about 40% of its income from the current Playstation, seems to be aiming the PSX2 as a sort of replacement for a home computer. Pricing should be around $400. Other next-generation models are expected from Nintendo, and possibly Microsoft, though details are currently sketchy.

The boys? verdict? For now, wait a while for all the 128-bit models to come onto market, and for prices to drop.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan