Whoa, don’t close out that browser tab just yet! I didn’t answer the question yet! In fact, the question carries a lot of weight, demanding more than just a few seconds of thought and blurting out “360 4 lyfeeee!”
But what should come to mind when you’re thinking about the greatest game machines to ever grace living rooms around the world? Certainly hardware (system specs, controller) plays a part, and a console is nothing without its games. A strong brand image also goes a long way — do people that have zero involvement in the medium still know about the product? Finally, the console has to have that one special quality that it can truly call its own — an intangible, as sportswriters would say in every other sentence.
The Xbox 360 certainly has some tough competition for any consideration as the best ever. Personally, I think that the SNES and PlayStation 2 are the two greatest consoles of all time. Of course, there have been other immensly important machines, but I’m either too young to have played them (2600) or they were replaced by sexier hardware (NES, PSX). So with that in mind, let’s see if the 360 deserves to be talked about in the same breath as some of the all-time greats.
There’s no point in beating around the bush here: the first 2-3 years of the Xbox 360′s life span saw a lot of fried hardware and a lot of angry customers. Even with the introduction of more efficient chipsets there was no guarantee that you weren’t going to be calling customer service in the near future.
Thankfully, mercifully, Microsoft had a pretty neat trick up their sleeves at E3 2010, introducing a revamped version of the machine. Aesthetically, I don’t really think it’s any better than the old design. Yet it’s an undeniable improvement where it matters: it’s much quieter and runs much cooler than its predecessor.
As for the machine’s capabilities, it’s obviously superior to the SNES and PS2. And while technically “inferior” to the PlayStation 3, many games look as good as, if not better than, their PS3 counterparts. And while Resistance on PS3 was impressive back in 2006, it was Gears of War that really drove home the idea that the next generation of consoles had truly arrived.
And we can’t talk about the greatness of a system without mentioning its controller. The SNES introduced the gaming world to shoulder buttons, making it well-prepared to handle fighting games such as Street Fighter II. The PS2’s DualShock 2 wasn’t a huge improvement over the original (just the addition of pressure-sensitive buttons), but then again it didn’t really need to be. As for the Xbox 360, it has arguably the best controller ever. The triggers give juuust the right amount of resistance, the left and right bumpers replace the original’s black and white bumpers while being more intelligently placed, and the position of the analog sticks means no awkward thumb-rubbing while playing shooters. Sure, the d-pad is an absolute mess, but even that’s seen a revamp in newer controller models.
Finally, thanks in large part to its PC-like internals it’s also significantly easier to develop for than the Cell-driven PS3. Which leads me to my next point:
At this point in their lifecycles, all of the current systems have built up a library of fine games (despite the extra digging, this also includes the Wii). However, the year-long head start that the Xbox 360 had on its competition allowed it to build up a decent backlog before the Wii and PS3 even saw store shelves. Great titles such as Call of Duty 2, Condemned: Criminal Origins, Project Gotham Racing 3, and even above-average games such as Gun and Perfect Dark Zero made a compelling case to pick up a 360 at launch.
Over the course of the next year leading up to the PS3’s launch, early adopters were treated to titles such as Burnout Revenge, Fight Night Round 3, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Saint’s Row, Dead Rising, and, of course, Gears of War.
As the next couple of years unfolded developers would continue using the Xbox 360 as their lead platform for multiplat releases as they struggled to get used to the PS3’s complex architecture. As a result many games were simply better on the 360. From Madden 07’s smoother framerate to Virtua Tennis 3 only having online multiplayer on 360, there were plenty of reasons to go green for multiplatform games, so to speak.
No system worth its salt has ever thrived without its fair share of exclusive games, of course. While Halo and Gears of War usually headline the holiday schedule for Microsoft, the Fable and Forza series do well for themselves, and the original Crackdown is a cult favorite (Crackdown 2 can sit down, though). Other high-profile exclusives include Alan Wake, Splinter Cell Conviction, Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey by Mistwalker, and the original Mass Effect.
Mix it all together with the ever-growing library of great multiplatform releases and the Xbox 360 has amassed a huge library that includes some of the greatest games to ever see release. It hasn’t yet reached the staggering volume seen on the PS2, nor does it boast as many exclusives, but I’ll be damned if it’s not impressive.
To have really made it, though, you need to permeate the public psyche. It’s not just enough for your target audience to know who you are; you need to be a household name. In the 90s my mom knew exactly who Michael Jordan was despite knowing less about basketball than the child laborers that manufacture his shoes.
Video games are no different. Back when TVs were steam-powered everyone knew what an Atari was. Then the NES came along and everyone wanted to play “Nintendo”. Soon enough “PlayStation” was the word. Now? I overhear an awful lot of gaming outsiders refer to video games simply as “Xbox,” though it’s still pretty evenly split between that and “PlayStation”.
So why the hell does this even matter? Pretty simple, really: when it comes time for birthday or holiday shopping parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all ask store employees for what they heard their morning radio shows talk about as the thing kids are playing these days.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, every great console has that one quality that separates it from the rest, something that the competition couldn’t recreate if they wanted to. If the oversaturation of 16-bit 2D platformers was any indication, Mario was the SNES’s ace in the hole. The PS2 was capable of playing an entire library of classic PS1 titles, something the Gamecube and original Xbox simply couldn’t counter.
So what about the Xbox 360? Easy: Xbox Live. Although the service launched in 2002 with the release of Halo 2 on the original Xbox, it really hit its stride this gen. While people may rag on the annual $60 price of admission, it brings so much to the table that it’s an easily justifiable cost.
The first and most obvious aspect of the XBL experience is the seamless multiplayer. Unless the community for a game is dead, finding a match is almost always a quick and painless ordeal. The ability to join and invite other friends into games with just a few button presses is also a huge convenience. Cross-game and party chat are major features that still haven’t made their way over to PlayStation Network.
Other ways XBL has PSN beat? Console updates two, maybe three times a year, rather than every month. “Game updates” (patches, you’re not fooling us) that take mere seconds to download and install, rather than clumsy updates that can range between just a few to hundreds of megabytes. PSN has made some drastic improvements since its launch in 2006 – remember when you had to quit out of a game just to check a message? However, it’s constantly playing catch-up against XBL.
Finally, Xbox Live’s Marketplace is home to some of the finest games you’ll find anywhere. Quite simply, the Marketplace offers something for everyone. Retro-loving fogies such as myself can bask in the goodness of all four Sonic the Hedgehog games that released on the Sega Genesis, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and even the Metroidvania-inspired Shadow Complex. The art-house crowd can point at games such as Limbo and The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom. And who can forget the addictive goodness of titles such as Trials HD and Geometry Wars?
Without question, Xbox Live is the premier online gaming service in living rooms across the world, and might be the single greatest feature that a console has ever been able to boast over their competitors.
So where do we stand? We’re in a bit of a weird position this generation, after all: where at this point in previous console cycles everyone was looking to the horizon for new machines, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are digging in for the long haul. If Microsoft were to announce a new console tomorrow and cut production of the 360 at the end of the year, then it would go down in gaming history as one of the best consoles ever, but wouldn’t quite make it to the top. Despite the drastically improved hardware, the RROD still haunts the memories of many a 360 gamer.
At the end of what looks to be a 10-year cycle, though? Well, even then it might be a bit iffy. There’s no denying the power of Xbox Live, and ease of development makes for strong library of games that range from indie sweethearts to blockbuster franchises. However, the PlayStation 3 is quickly gaining ground from a sales standpoint, while also blowing the doors off of the 360 as far as 2011 exclusives are concerned.
For me personally, it’s going to be difficult for any system to dethrone the SNES and PS2. Fortunately, Microsoft seem to be doing everything in their power to prove me and anyone else that doubts them wrong, and this can only lead to beautiful things down the road for everyone.