I have a tendency to break TVs. The how or why of this is not important (though I speculate it has something to do with my magnetic personality or electrifying presence*); the salient bit is that, being the destroyer of high-tech gadgetry, I must on occasion hook up my Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 to my 20-inch mid-'90s workhorse Sony Trinitron, which functions as intended through rain, shine, and, I firmly believe, nuclear holocaust.
Show of hands. Who among you have been forced to return to the realm of standard-definition after basking in HD's great glow? I see one hand up in, what is that, Slovakia? Here's what Zdeno and I have discovered: playing, say, Crysis 2 in standard definition is the functional equivalent of hiking through Yosemite with a detached retina. Sure, the sounds are nice. Yeah, maybe the activities are fun. But holy hell do beautiful things look ugly.
I bring this up not as a quiet call for someone to help reattach my retina. No, that ship has sailed. Rather, it has more to do with all the scuttlebutt this week surrounding what we can expect from the next generation of consoles, and how the leap from the seventh to eighth generation will be incredibly disappointing compared to that which was seen from generation six to seven.
Especially of late, motion-control schemes are often said to be the definitive feature for the seventh console generation. And to a degree, this is certainly the case, considering the way in which the Wii Remote can be found anywhere from retirement homes to the White House.
However, somewhat paradoxically, motion-sensing gaming hasn't come close to achieving the realm of tangible benefit to gamers that high-definition visuals reached from the onset. There's a reason why Perfect Dark Zero or Kameo: Elements of Power scored so well as launch titles for the Xbox 360, even if it is now in vogue to deride them. They looked phenomenal compared to what gamers had come to expect from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox.
And now we have The Future. What has struck me about recent rumors about the Wii 2 (leave it to the French media to call it Project Cafe, as if the device will be smoking a cigarette while wearing an honest-to-god beret) is that in playing catch-up with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Nintendo will again be a generation behind with its graphics.
According to what is increasingly appearing to be reliable rumors, the Wii 2 will be a half-step more powerful than the Xbox 360 and PS3 (just as the Wii was a half-step more powerful than the PlayStation 2). In lieu of pushing things forward in the realm of graphical or computational capacity, Nintendo appears to again be paddling its boat with peripherals.
Rumors indicate that this time out, the peripheral in question will be a tablet controller. The device, which will apparently be a supplement to some kind of motion-control scheme, reportedly features eight buttons, two analog sticks, one camera, and a partridge in a pear tree. Also, a 6.2-inch touch screen, so that gamers will always be missing something happening on whatever screen they're not looking at.
This controller does not excite me, mostly because I've seen what happens when Nintendo puts its efforts behind a peripheral. Nintendo certainly caught everyone's imagination with the Wii's motion-sensor-based gameplay, and it yielded massive global sales.
Unfortunately, it also inflicted massive confusion on third-party publishers, who struggled to find a good use for the Wii Remote (just as they are now struggling to figure out worthwhile uses for the Kinect and the PlayStation Move). And lest we forget the reason we're even talking about a new console for Nintendo, the game company's emphasis on peripherals over power has resulted in the Wii losing relevancy far more quickly than the Xbox 360 and PS3.
What seems particularly worrisome is that Microsoft and Sony don't plan to push the bar with their next systems, either. According to one rumor, the two are "telegraphing" to one another that their Next Big Things will be out in 2014. (The word "telegraph" here is important, as loopholes in collusion laws provide immunity for those using modes of communication popularized in the 19th century.) That same rumor suggests that Microsoft, for one, is grappling with the idea of making relatively modest improvements to the Xbox 360 to turn a profit on its hardware from day one.
Of course, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo can hardly be blamed for the next generation's boring step forward. Back when the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii were new on the scene, electronics manufacturers were having a field day marketing the sweat on professional athletes and A-Listers' pores. Now the HD on those boxes has been replaced with 3D, but to date the Z-axis remains an expensive, headache-inducing, vision-blurring gimmick.
Instead of focusing on gimmicks, it seems like a better use of everyone's time would be to pursue technology that game creators are actually pining for. Id Software's technical wunderkind John Carmack (think Doom) sees technology like ray tracing as the current Shangri-la, and it would afford game developers the ability to violate the uncanny valley in gross and demeaning ways (and possibly teach them valuable lessons about technological hubris in the process!). Of course, this technology is not currently feasible, as its implementation would bring even the highest-end PCs to their knees.
As for future technologies that reside in the realm of reason, we have folks like Crytek's principal graphics engineer Tiago Sousa, who recently called current RAM limitations on consoles "crippling." Of course, to the person with an engineering degree, his lofty 8GB of RAM is sexy as hell. And who am I to deny a person his or her kinks? But for those of us who do not fetishize circuitry, 8GB of RAM kind of gets the blood pounding to degrees only before achieved by Ford's Aerostar.
As it stands, Nintendo seems to be on course to announce the Wii 2 at this year's E3 in June, and industry chatter suggests the device will be out by the end of 2012. As that device arrives, Microsoft and Sony will theoretically begin pulling back the curtain on their own Next Big Things. At this point, my hope is that gimmicks don't rule the day, and the Big Three will give me something worth salivating over.
*Note: I have neither a magnetic personality nor an electrifying presence (unless they manifest only in the presence of technology. The possibilities!).