Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, December 9, 2001



Toys n' Joys staffer Jason Matsumoto demonstrates the Xbox, the latest video game console to enter the competition for game players' dollars.

Game wars

Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's
GameCube join the competition for
the hearts of joystick jockeys

By shawn 'speedy' lopes

The battle lines have been drawn across living rooms, bedrooms and family rooms around the world. There's war going on, a war of technology, with each combatant bent on taking control of your TV set and your spare time. Last month, Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube officially engaged Sony's Playstation 2 and the Sega Dreamcast in the great battle of the video-game consoles.

While holiday shoppers ponder whether to join the fray, gaming veterans like Zarex Domingo, sales associate at Toys n' Joys in Aiea, have already taken sides. "I just go with whichever one has the best sports games," he says, "and right now the Playstation 2 has the most games."

Sony's Playstation 2, released in October 2000, is the acknowledged ruler of next-generation game consoles. Its current reign began with the groundbreaking 64-bit Playstation in 1995, and the PS2 -- already with a year's jump on the Xbox and GameCube -- enjoys a sizable lead over its new adversaries in terms of overall sales and market share. It boasts more users and a catalog of games that overshadows that of its closest competitors.

The Xbox by Microsoft is the most powerful console on the market, but it has a smaller game library than other consoles.

"The Playstation's been the king of all gaming systems since the mid-'90s," affirms avid gamer Bryan Ortiz, 34, a fan of home-gaming systems since Atari released its 2600 system in the late 1970s. "What they did by making the PS2 backward compatible (it plays all the old Playstation 1 favorites) was brilliant. That probably made a lot of people resist picking up the Dreamcast when it came out."

Although Sega's Dreamcast was the first 128-bit console on the scene last year, it was also the first to concede defeat. Earlier this year, with news of the impending arrival of the Xbox and GameCube, Sega announced plans to eliminate its hardware division to hold firm its position as a world leader in game publishing.

"That actually sucks," Ortiz said. "It's really just as good as any of the other systems, and in some ways -- like games and online capability -- it might even be better."

Still, Sega posted losses of more than $400 million last year and $169 million for the first fiscal half of 2001. Last month, Sega slashed prices of its remaining Dreamcast systems to a low $49.95.

By comparison, Nintendo is touting its GameCube as "the fastest-selling game console ever," with a sales rate nearly twice that of the Xbox in its first week and 25 percent more than the PS2 during its premiere. To be fair, however, Sony botched its early numbers with a lamebrained shortage of Playstation 2 systems in the fall of 2000. KB Toys Ala Moana manager Robin Lo, who experienced the insatiable demand for the PS2 firsthand last year, said, "When the Playstation 2 first came out, demand was a lot stronger than the Xbox or GameCube this year."

Despite encouraging early returns on its GameCube units, Nintendo's market share over the last several years has been curtailed somewhat by a long succession of rivals. In 1990, at the height of its popularity, Nintendo unseated Toyota as the most successful company in Japan as the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System made its way into one-third of all households in the United States and Japan. These days, Nintendo competes for its share of users by positioning itself as the console of choice for the teen and preteen set.


Positives: Most games; most users; backward compatible
Negatives: Could conceivably be surpassed by the technically advanced Xbox in the near future
Perfect for: Sharp, seasoned gamers
Price: About $300

Positives: Huge potential; Microsoft-supported; upgradable
Negatives: No market history, pricey when sold in bundle packs; smallish game library
Perfect for: Foresighted tech-heads with a penchant for the latest video game gizmos
Price: About $500

Positives: Reasonably priced (without add-ons); successful market history
Negatives: No CD or DVD capability; stigma as a "kiddie console"
Perfect for: Nintendo loyalists; youngsters with generous but not overly indulgent parents
Price: About $300 with accessories

Positives: Inexpensive; online compatible
Negatives: Obsolescent; discontinued production of hardware and games
Perfect for: Bargain hunters who need a quick, cheap video-game fix
Price: $49.95

Perhaps the biggest draw for the GameCube is its price tag. At a base price of $199 (bundle packs, which include a combination of games and accessories -- mandatory at many retail outlets -- pump up costs considerably), it is roughly two-thirds the cost of both the Xbox and PS2. That seems to appeal to parents who refuse to spend a small fortune on a game console. Unlike the teen-and-adult-geared Xbox and PS2, however, it does not offer the ability to play CDs or DVDs.

Nintendo's GameBoy Advance, a smaller, handheld cousin of the GameCube, is finding its way into plenty of shopping bags as well. It's compact, portable and affordable, making it an ideal gift for those who must endure long bus rides, car trips or lengthy waits. "A lot of people like to take it on plane flights and carry it with them wherever they go," says Lo. "All ages are buying it, too."

This leads us to the season's big sleeper: Microsoft's Xbox. Will the backing of the world's largest software corporation and the promise of trailblazing future upgrades be enough to sway diehard PS2 gamers and longtime Nintendo loyalists to take a shot at yet another gaming platform? By partnering with Intel, developers of the Pentium III processor, as well as NVIDIA, a well-respected name in the graphics market, Microsoft has created the most powerful (733 MHz Intel Pentium III CPU, 300 MHz graphics chip, 8GB hard drive) 128-bit unit in the Xbox. It offers such unique options as DVD remote (purchased separately) and the ability to "rip" CDs onto the hard drive to create a customized soundtrack.

It all adds up to a tough decision for consumers, who must consider such factors as cost, availability of games, upgradability and even loyalty.

"In the end, it all comes down to personal choice," states Ortiz, who owns every new console, save for the nearly obsolete Dreamcast. "I'm a Playstation man myself, but I see a pretty good future for the Xbox and GameCube, too. Hell, at $49.95, even the Dreamcast looks like a winner right now.

"I'm running out of TV sets," he says with a chuckle.

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