Booze, Baseball, and another "B"

Monday, December 12, 2005

High-End Videogame Console Feature, Part I: Console Design History and Precedents....

Having posed the question, "are there examples in the past of console manufacturers letting other companies take the basics for their hardware and: upgrade, alter, re-brand, or otherwise tinker with game consoles?" I knew the answer already, but it was a question that I thought would lead to a fun article. I hope you enjoy.

The answer of course is a resounding "yes!" There are many examples of different versions of console hardware, and not all of them coming from the original manufacturer.

As far back as the Nintendo Entertainment System (the NES), there are examples. Everyone is familiar with the original NES, the "toaster." Later, after the SNES came out, Nintendo revisited the hardware and designed a top-loading system. But that's not quite what I am referring to here. Almost all consoles go through redesigns; often to build the system in a more cost effective way, and sometimes to address technical issues.

A better example of what I am talking about would be the Sharp NES TV. The Sharp NES TV was a 19" Sharp Color TV with a NES built into the unit. Having seen and used one of these units, I think it's an excellent example of what one might call a high-end console, especially back when it was new. I am frankly surprised that more info isn't out there on the unit, but like most variant hardware, there wasn't many of them made. What made it great? Its simplicity was certainly a positive. Instead of putting a NES on top of your TV (where it may not fit), or on the carpet (where no console should be placed), this TV was an all in one. Now people can find TVs with built in VCRs and DVD players, but back when this TV was made, it was quite novel. It made for an excellent bedroom unit. It had stereo sound and composite video for an NES without any cabling being used.

Want more examples? There's lots more!

How about the Aiwa CSD-G1M. Sounds kinda lame just seeing the name, right? Well, it's an Aiwa boombox with a built in Mega Drive console! This unit could play CDs, Tapes, Radio, Mega-Drive games and MegaCD games. Like many high-end consoles, it was expensive ($450 when it launched).

One of my favorite examples of a high-end system (and somewhat in line with my original thinking) is the Pioneer LaserActive. This system combined Pioneer laserdisc technology with optional Genesis or Turbo-Grafx 16 modules. Why is the LaserActive so cool? Because it's built like a tank.

Another favorite high-end console of mine is the Hitachi Hi-Saturn Navi. This model featured: a redesigned case, modem, GPS software, attached TFT screen, and car power adapter. You could karaoke with it, find directions, and even play Saturn Bomberman. It seems that it was designed for in-car use, but unfortunately for Sega and Hitatchi, this was before people decided that they needed to put game systems in their cars (after seeing The Fast and the Furious). A great system, and really expensive, around $1500 upon release.

With the Dreamcast, Fuji TV teamed up with Sega to release a DC system that features and integrated TV; the came up with the Divers 2000 CX-1. It came with everything: a remote (for the TV), controller, keyboard, Jump Pack (vibration pack), headset, DreamEye digital camera, internet and teleconferencing software, and an instructional video. Cost? 88,888 yen (currently equal to approximately $735).

There are examples from current generation consoles also.

Nintendo partnered with Panasonic in the design and manufacturing of the GameCube (you'll notice the disk eject feature on the spindle is not uncommon on Panasonic portable CD players), which lead to the Panasonic Q. This unit combined a GameCube player with a Panasonic DVD player, along with a pretty cool design. A notable drawback to the console is its lack of Component video support for DVDs (it is there for GC games), but overall the design and build quality of the system are very good. Check here for more pics. Cost varies on these units, but you'd probably have to pay at least $400 for it now, over $500 when it was new.

Sony made a big splash when they announced their PSX. The PSX was originally conceived to be something of a home theater all in one, with the ability to record TV shows, surf the internet, play PS2 games, PS1 games, play PS2 games online, connect with the PSP, and even edit video. In addition, you can save game saves to the built-in hard drive. The console comes in 250 GB and 160 GB flavors, and so far hasn't made its way out of Japan (and probably won't). Sony had some trouble with the feature set, and was forced to scale back some options before release of the console. That, combined with the hefty price tag, certainly did not help system sales. Check here for Wikipedia's PSX page.

With the recent release of the Xbox 360, Microsoft now (arguably) has an entry for an example of a high-end version of a console. The 360 is available in two flavors, the premium configuration for $399 and the "Core System" configuration for $299. The differences between the two systems? The premium configuration adds (Xbox 360 hardware comparison):

  • A chrome finish for the console
  • Hard Drive
  • Wireless controller (versus a wired one with the Core package)
  • Xbox Live Headset
  • Component HD cable (versus composite with the Core package)
  • Ethernet cable
  • Compatibility with original Xbox games (Hard Drive required)
  • Ability to save games and content (either HD or Memory Card needed)
  • Online game play (hard drive required)
Of course, with the premium 360, it doesn't come with higher quality construction, and that's the source of one man's lawsuit against Microsoft. This system fits with the idea of a high-end console, but it isn't the same thing as something like a LaserActive or Hi-Saturn Navi.

To answer my earlier question of whether or not there is a precedent for high-end systems, we've seen the evidence, and there is. Presented here are some notable examples, and there are more to be seen.

On top of what I've presented here, there are also multiple examples of companies re-branding consoles, but that doesn't always include different parts (the regular Hi-Saturn is an example where it did have some differences). There are more examples of specific-use designs, one-offs, and rare configurations of various consoles. Take a look at the sites I've linked here for more information.

Recent trends have shown that console makers are much more interested in simply re-coloring existing consoles than they are interested in putting out high-end versions. Sony has released many PS2 variants in Japan (both the larger original design systems, and the new mini) along with a white iPod-variant PSP. Microsoft has also followed this model (with their white Panzer Dragoon Orta systems being one of the coolest looking), as has Nintendo with many different GameCube color and bundle options (the same with the Gameboy Advance, SP, and Nintendo DS). Taking this into account, what's the likelihood we will see high-end consoles along the lines of a LaserActive or a Divers 2000? That's a question I plan on answering in the next installment of this series.

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