International Mario Day: Is the game up for consoles despite 'ground-breaking' new Nintendo Switch?
On International Mario Day, our reporter asks if the game is really up for consoles despite the 'ground-breaking' new Nintendo Switch
The biggest sex symbol of the Nineties wasn't a movie star or glamorous siren. She was a pixellated powerhouse who never left home without her trusty backpack and double revolvers.
Twenty years on, however, the profile of Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise is greatly diminished. The Angelina Jolie films are a blip in the collective memory.
And while next year sees the release of a rebooted version starring Alicia Vikander, Croft's popularity is clearly rooted in nostalgia. There's a reason why her appeal is tied to a specific moment: in 1997, video game consoles were the new rock 'n' roll. What trendy bar or nightclub was without its PlayStation with Wipeout preloaded? When Microsoft unveiled Halo 2 in 2004, it hired a bar in Dublin city centre and ran a free tab for the night.
But, irony of ironies, as technology has grown more ubiquitous so consoles have become less glamorous. Hence the (relative) lack of fanfare surrounding the launch last week of a new gaming device from Nintendo, aka the house that Pokemon and Super Mario built.
Incidentally, today marks International Mario Day. The character first appeared in Nintendo's Donkey Kong in 1981, and the celebration came about when gamers realised that MAR 10 (March 10) spelt Mario.
The rather quiet Switch launch belies the fact that the console is genuinely ground-breaking. It audaciously blends mobile and couch-based gaming: you can plug it into your television or, if you have to grab and go, unhook it and play on the inbuilt touch screen.
The Switch represents a huge gamble by Nintendo, a one-time titan of the industry. These are early days but thus far, it would seem the Japanese straggler has a hit on its hands. Early sales are buoyant. Yet questions still hang over the future of console gaming.
In the two decades since Tomb Raider debuted on PlayStation, electronic entertainment has changed beyond recognition. Today we are all gamers: kids play Angry Birds on their parents' phones, grandparents become addicted to FarmVille on Facebook, dads sneak off to the loo for a quick tilt at Fifa on their iPad.
But where does that leave PlayStation and Xbox? Within the industry, the sense is that Sony and Microsoft are preparing to abandon the traditional strategy of unveiling a spanking new console every eight years or so and will instead embrace the constant-upgrade model pioneered so successfully by Apple with its iPhone.
"The future is without console generations," Aaron Greenberg, Microsoft's head of Xbox games marketing, said last year.
"Consoles used to be the entire gaming industry. Nowadays you have PC, you've mobile, you've the web," says Dublin-based games expert and consultant Jamie McCormick, who points out that in terms of player base, PlayStation and Xbox remain as popular as ever.
"You now have a billion gamers instead of 200 million. Some of the people who may have bought consoles in the past… today, if they have a choice between spending ¤300 on a console or ¤300 on an iPhone, they are probably going to get the iPhone first."
Diehard gamers will continue to flock to Xbox and PlayStation, he says. Less hardcore players may reconsider their options. "As a percentage of market share, the statistics would show consoles make up less of the market than historically has been the case," says John Healy, chair of Dublin Institute of Technology's game design course. "In that context I think it's fair to say consoles form a major part of the industry alongside PC and mobile whereas in the past they were indeed the dominant platform."
The good news is that this overshadowing of consoles has opened doors for Irish games studios, which traditionally struggled to make an impact on PlayStation and Xbox. Healy cites Guild of Dungeoneering, a hit on desktop computer and tablets for Dublin-based studio Gambrinous.
"The diversification of the industry has had a significant impact here. We've seen a surge in Irish-developed games on a variety of platforms," says Healy. "This change has created an environment where studios both big and small can compete in an internationally accessible market."