2006 was a strange year for me.
Looking back, it seems odd that two new systems were launched, yet I had almost no interest or enthusiasm for either one. I barely followed the news, and I wasn't interested in the latest informational tidbits. I played fewer games last year than I had in a long time, I didn't pre-order anything, and I stood in no lines.
As a lifelong gamer and someone who spends a lot of time playing, thinking about, and writing about games, it was a little disturbing to feel a little as though gaming and I were going our separate ways.
I suppose part of it is that I don't feel as though developers are keeping pace with the advancing technology. The consoles are more powerful than ever (well, at least two of them are) yet, it really doesn't feel as though anything out is significantly different than what I played before. It reminds me of a famous anecdote regarding the
Of course, that claim was made a long time ago, and proved to be the complete opposite of true... that person never conceived of microwave ovens, shoes with air in the sole, the Internet, traveling to Mars, or any number of other things that have come into existence.
I bring this up because it feels as though the gaming industry in 2006 had taken on a little bit of that person's attitude; all the kinds of games that could be invented had been, so there's nothing left to do but increase the graphics and add online. Of course, I don't believe this to be true but the majority of 2006 was spent in a state of suspended animation due to fear of the unknown and the gamble of anticipation-- and clearly, no one was taking any big risks. I haven't given up on gaming by a longshot, but now that the new consoles are here, I'm quite happy that the "stale before the storm" can now end.
However, although 2006 was not a year and I would categorize as eventful or especially memorable, there were a few highlights...
I never would have predicted liking Live
As much as I enjoy saving the world or going on grand adventures, sometimes I don't have the time or energy for that. This is where Live comes in. For around $10 or less, I can choose from a number of small projects that are perfect for jumping in and jumping back out of. There were several days when 15 minutes of Mutant Storm Reloaded were enough to satisfy my game jones between jobs, and there was a span of time when I checked online at least once a week (whether I was playing an Xbox 360 game or not) just to see what new thing would pop up.
Although the materialist-completist in me shrieks silently when I think about the fact that there's no physical form to these games (no case, no disc, no instruction book-- I have nothing to put on my shelf!), the fringe gamer in me usually overcomes the horror when I remind myself that I probably wouldn't be playing these games at all if the developers and publishers had to take a risk on going retail-- the market currently doesn't support small-time experiences like what you can get on Live, but I'll be damned if they aren't every bit as enjoyable and exciting as a lot of what I paid for in a traditional brick and mortar.
If I built a time machine and traveled backwards to tell myself that that the majority of my time playing games in 2006 would be spent on handhelds, I would have punched myself in the mouth and called me a liar. (I probably would have thrown away the future lottery numbers brought to my past self, as well.) But, the impossible was made possible by the Nintendo DS, the Sony PSP, and a few truly worthwhile GameBoy Advance carts.
While much of the traditional console action was limited by me-too iterations, predictable sequels, and the "same-as-X-but-with-better-effects" entries, there were a number of pared-down and compact projects that were at least as good, if not better than what was running on the big boys.
Summon Night: Swordcraft Story 2 and Yggdra Union proved that Nintendo's undying GameBoy could still crank out rock-solid hits, Electroplankton and Metroid Prime: Hunters covered both the fringe and action-lover contingents, and although the PSP is still limply underperforming, it was home to a few standouts like the old-school revivalist spirit found in Exit, and the nonstop adrenaline of Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror. (And although it was released in 2005, The Con didn't make its way into my PSP until '06... it was such an unusually interesting project, I'm including it anyway.)
Between the games I mentioned and the others that I reviewed (or just spent time with), it was pretty clear that if there was ever a year to let the major consoles collect dust, 2006 was it.
Online Game Rentals
Although I may have been behind the curve on this, 2006 was the first year that I had tried renting video games online. My wife had initially introduced me to Netflix and that experience was nothing but positive, so that emboldened me to try these new services that seemed to be popping up left and right. Another driving motivation was that being on a budget didn't exactly mesh with trying to cover as many games as possible. However, since so many turn out to be more hype than substance, trying out games without fear of taking a $50 bath is definitely something I am going to be doing on a regular basis from here on out. Doing the math, I saved well over $1200 by renting "question marks" instead of purchasing (or even waiting for them to drop into the bargain bin) and having titles delivered directly to my home instead of making side trips to my local game shop saves me a great deal of time and effort-- something I'm always happy about.
Not Buying The New Systems
...And finally, not really a "highlight" but certainly something notable was my unusual lack of enthusiasm towards the two new consoles launched in '06, mentioned above.
Call me a cynic, but the Wii and its unorthodox control scheme seem to me like a clever gimmick being stretched and trying to carry a console. Without a doubt, there are going to be some games which are truly stellar and use the wiimote and nunchuck in ways that no standard controller could approach. However, my gut feeling is that the majority of games available on the Wii will be just the opposite-- traditional games dumbed-down or shoehorned into adopting a control setup they were never meant to employ in the first place. Nintendo has never been famous for strong, healthy libraries and with such a radical approach towards something that was formerly universal, I can only imagine that third-party support will be even weaker than it has been in the past. The N64's library was pathetic, and the GameCube's was only marginally better. I'm not convinced that the Wii will be any different.
Don't even get me started on the PlayStation 3. Regardless of what software it will eventually be home to, I'm simply not going to pay the absurd asking price. I couldn't care less about Blu-Ray, and nothing I've seen so far looks remotely like a "must-have" with the sole exception being Metal Gear Solid 4, and who knows exactly when that's going to arrive on shelves? At this point (and granted, it's early in the game) Sony's approach seems to be about better graphics and aping what Microsoft is doing with Live... not exactly the sort of industry leadership I'd expect from a company that has dominated for the last two generations.
Given that neither of these consoles are setting my heart on fire right now, I will say that if it wasn't for Live, I'd most likely have the same apathetic stance towards Microsoft as well. However, despite my initial misgivings and wariness, I have to admit that Live is a fantastic service which really has earned the 360 a very welcome spot in my living room. The graphics are pretty enough and although there aren't enough killer games to keep me happy at this point, it's been a great experience being able to chat with people online, download indie projects, and finally play through a full-featured co-op experience over the Internet. (The return of co-op... hallelujah!) And besides, with Culdcept Saga on the way, there's no way I couldn't get a 360.
I wouldn't be able to call myself a critic without being able to sample all of the systems and play any game that's deserving of attention, so it's not a question of if I'll buy the Wii or PS3, simply when. I've always been at the forefront of console gaming and it definitely feels strangely disconcerting to have not taken the plunge in either pool yet, but the time definitely does not feel right. I still have a monster stack of games to play through on last-gen hardware, and at this point I'd rather devote my resources towards picking up the last few things I'm interested in playing before emptying my wallet on something that's going to collect dust for six months before the real next-gen games start hitting.
...and now, bring on 2007. Comments welcome.