At what point has a console REALLY failed?

Earlier today, we posted our ranging look at the history of failed gaming consoles. Perhaps, though, that was a bit premature. After all, before we look back at what fails, shouldn't we first answer the question: What defines a console as a failure? The pejorative has been applied to a host of machines over the last thirty years, but it seems to me that the criteria used to determine the classification are often vague, subjective and more than a little driven by the internet bandwagon rather than anything approaching real-world sense-talk. 

Is it about sales figures? Not really, it seems. Take the PSP for example. Pre-Vita it was handheld gaming's favourite whipping boy, long lambasted for its ‘failure’ in the face of the DS’ rampant charge to retail victory. Yet in reality, Sony sold 76.3 million of the buggers. Depending on where you source your numbers from, that’s either slightly above or below what the PS3 has sold to date. So why is it still mocked by so many? 

Software support would probably be the answer. After a strong start packed with the promise–and for the most part the delivery–of PS2-quality games and Hollywood movies in your pocket, third-party support slowly but steadily petered out until the console became the recipient of far more “dust collector” jokes than shiny discs of new content. By that point though, the twin assets of a decent, cheap back-catalogue and thriving homebrew/hacking scene ensured that the unit itself kept trundling out of shops in healthy numbers. 

It seems increasingly clear then, at least amongst the gaming community, that the perceived success or failure of a console is often a subjective, cultural matter rather than one of cold, hard sales figures. Combine a few internet Chinese whispers of marketing mis-steps and sales stumbles, allow the opposing fanboy factions to pick and choose the bits they want to dwell upon, multiply by the cultural importance of the machine in question to any given individual, and suddenly you have the perceived success of a console. 

Take the Gamecube as a perfect example. Its modest sales of 22 million in the face of the PS2’s all-conquering 155 million often see it cited as the big loser of its generation and the reason for Nintendo’s subsequent change of direction with the Wii, as Microsoft’s then-fledgling Xbox stepped in to sweep up a huge proportion of Ninty’s once-secure hardcore market. But that’s only half-true. In actual fact the Xbox only sold two million more than Nintendo’s little purple box ‘o fun. The Xbox had wider support from third-parties catering to the hardcore space, but the GC had some of the strongest exclusives of its era. 

Resident Evil 4Metroid PrimeRogue LeaderF-Zero GX. Wave Race: Blue Storm. The Legend of Zelda: Wind WakerEternal DarknessMetal Gear Solid: The Twin SnakesLuigi's MansionPaper MarioPikminSuper Mario Sunshine. Viewtiful Joe. Not all of them remained exclusive, and the majority are first-party games, but they still added up to make the GC one hell of a good console. It feels to me—as it felt at the time—that the Gamecube’s third-place standing was exaggerated greatly by the gaming community at large. By that point it was just becoming less cool to openly like Nintendo. 

Following the troubles that the Nintendo 64 suffered as a result of using cartridges rather than CDs, Gamecube-era Nintendo was starting to look a little out of step with the industry. And while the GC arguably didn’t compete with its generation-six rivals on their own terms, it made a good showing on its own. Ditto the much-maligned Wii. It failed to maintain the interest of the hardcore market, it was certainly a software sales failure for vast majority of third-party publishers, but was it a failure as an overall venture? 100 million sales say “No”. 

And I think that’s the crux of the point I’m making here. If a console flat-out fails to sell, sinks its company, and/or neglects to provide any kind of a worthwhile software library, then yes, it’s a failure. But those are pretty extreme criteria. How many consoles of the last few generations really pass the test? The Saturn? The Dreamcast? The Gizmondo? Hell, the DC arguably failed as much as a result of Sega’s problems with its predecessor as it did as a result of its own issues, and if you look hard enough you can still find a dedicated fan community putting out games for it today. A small silver lining perhaps, but definitely proof that the Dreamcast succeeded on a cultural level even if not a financial one. 

Of course, the Wii U inspired my thinking behind this article. As of right now it’s understandably garnering a boatload of doom-talk. Its sales are less than stellar and its software line-up is solid but hardly must-have material. Third-party support is already dropping now that we’re out of the launch window, and the price of its soon-to-be last-gen tech is certainly an issue as its touchscreen controller becomes less of a unique draw in the face of its upcoming rivals’ equivalent solutions. But will it fail? Will it really, in light of what I've been discussing here today? 

It’s too early to be sure right now. But just do me a favour when you’re pondering that question over the next few months. However the Wii U improves or doesn’t, don’t take the easy approach of comparing it to things that it’s not in order to have a cheap jibe. Don’t cite the non-appearance of Battlefield 4 or Destiny while ignoring the quality of whatever first-party offerings turn up in their stead. Don’t ignore Bayonetta 2 just because it’s not on the PS4. Don’t assume that Donkey Kong Country, Zelda, Pikmin and Mario aren't worthwhile just because they’re not sitting side-by-side with Watch Dogs and Star Wars: Battlefront

Even if the worst happens and the Wii U ends up becoming a first-party-only console, just think about how good it is as a first-party-only console rather than comparing it directly to formats that operate in other ways. Different consoles succeed and fail at different things in different ways, to wildly different degrees. Whatever happens, the cash sitting around in Kyoto as a result of the Wii and DS means that the Wii U is hardly likely to put Nintendo out of the game. And as long as that doesn’t happen, all you need to worry about is what the machine provides on its own terms. 

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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  • fattoler - July 17, 2013 5:24 p.m.

    The only reason I will get a WiiU is to play Sonic Lost World.
  • CraZed - July 17, 2013 1:31 p.m.

    Nintendo has been around for so long and so many of the first party titles are classics. That said, I really do believe Nintendo is just put of step with the console market and has been since the N64 days. Nintendo should just go the Sega route and go third party. They could bring their games to millions more people and focus on what they have been best at which is making games. It's not a failure on the part of Nintendo to do so. I know 3DS sells well but if they'd just give way to more powerful handheld devices (Vita, tablets and cell phones etc.) they would still sell at the very least the same number of games though I suspect the number would be much higher.
  • talleyXIV - July 17, 2013 3:46 a.m.

    I don't think Nintendo's consoles are ever failures. Their exclusives are simply too good to be ignored. Nintendo could keep only doing Zelda, Mario, Metroid, Pikmin, Kirby, etc. for the next 15 years and I'd still want their consoles.
  • shawksta - July 16, 2013 11:28 p.m.

    What you said on Bayonetta 2 sparks another idea for an editorial, specifically the reactons given simply on console manufacturer and such and how they affect games. We already have the controversy against Nintendo for supporting Bayonetta when no one else would, and mother of all hateful reactions with Killer Instinct by the fighting game community on being Xbone exclusive. Heck, i heard that the conference had a lot of "boo"ing. This issue should be considered
  • ObliqueZombie - July 16, 2013 10:11 p.m.

    Great article, Houghton, as always. Nintendo will always have a special place in my heart, and since I've been neglecting them this past generation entirely, I plan to get one FOR its first-party titles. Hell, I just recently bought a 3DS and I'll be damned if I can't put that thing down.
  • talleyXIV - July 17, 2013 3:47 a.m.

    Pikmin 3, August 4th. I am took excited.
  • Danomeon - July 16, 2013 2:42 p.m.

    I want the wii-U to do well so darn much. That pad feels fantastic! My main worry is that the machine is largely relying on Nintendo's first party support, but Nintendo seems content with resting on their laurels. Pikmin 3 and Mario Kart 8 look fantastic, but New Super Mario Bros U was waaaay too familiar to feel fresh, and this new Super Mario 3D World did not give me the strong first impression that the Galaxy series did. It seemed like a step back after such massive, creative, awesome planetary exploration to emulate something that happened on the 3DS. I love Donkey Kong Country as well, but this new DKC Returns is another familiar re-tread that blends the line between 'sequel' and 'level pack'. I'm going to play and enjoy all of these games, but outside of Bayonetta 2 and Mario Kart 8 the system lacks a shockingly new and awesome IP or creative re-imagining of an old franchise. Give us a radical console pokemon adventure game unlike anything we've seen before! Or maybe a really cool and ambitious new Legend of Zelda with the drive of something like Twighlight Princess? Heck, maybe even try your hand at a 3D Donkey Kong platformer A-la Donkey Kong 64? (One of my favorite games of all time.) Basically, I have the Wii U, and I love its hardware. The graphics look fantastic enough that I honestly don't care if it's behind the competition, and the unique built-in second screen could offer some great experiences without needing to connect a smart phone. Also; the controller feels so great. It's weirdly one of the most comfortable video game controllers I've ever laid my hands on. I want to play it more! I just wish Nintendo would give me some really awesome games that will make me say, "I MUST play this game!" rather than, "This game looks alright, it'll give me an excuse to touch that beautiful controller again."
  • TrAnMu - July 18, 2013 2:22 p.m.

    I agree so much dude. Like I want to play with my WiiU so much! I just play the challenges app for like 20 mins and then I want more to do but theres nothing right now. August just won't come fast enough.
  • tehtimeisnow - July 16, 2013 1:23 p.m.

    wiiu is a faleure cuz the grafics r horrable and its just a poor mans ipad for littel kids
  • PatHan-bHai - July 17, 2013 11:51 a.m.

    I missed you <3 :P
  • dgolightly519 - July 16, 2013 10:22 a.m.

    Article was awesome btw. Well done.
  • dgolightly519 - July 16, 2013 10:21 a.m.

    It is SO funny that people judge consoles based off third party titles.... That will be available on pretty much every console. How is something a failure or not based on whether it gets what everybody else gets? I prefer to think it is a failure or not based on the experience it provides. Being a PC/Nintendo gamer, let me be the first to tell you that Nintendo has yet to make a failure console, first person exclusives are rarely the same even if they contain a similar plot or characters the challenge is almost certainly going to change the way you play or be different enough to not be considered old hat. Let's use the new Luigi DLC as an example. Yes, it is the exact same story as the previous one with different characters and a lot of the same power-ups. Is it the same? Not even close. Let's just say that Nintendo has been doing as much DLC as everybody else for a lot longer, but as new games and sequels instead of overpriced DLC upon overpriced DLC before rebooting with a new title when people get tired of playing the old one. It's nearly the same thing, by I think I'm getting more bang for my buck. Or use ZELDA for example... Yes, the character names as often the same for two or three characters. The party mechanics are similar (though rarely the same), but the story...... They (Nintendo) even say that they don't focus on the stories.... But my god the stories are almost always completely different, with different feel and atmosphere and mood as well. And these are their most representative franchises. Every other franchise they have changes immensely more than these two. Talk bad about Nintendo for using what works? They aren't doing anything different than all of your other favorite franchises except that they are and the main difference is multiple different stories instead of a long continuous narrative or instead of multiple different narratives that all feel and play exactly the same.
  • dgolightly519 - July 16, 2013 10:24 a.m.

    Ick. Autocorrect. Hopefully that's readable/understandable
  • garnsr - July 16, 2013 4:47 p.m.

    I think judging by the amount of games you buy over a system's lifetime is reasonable, and even diehard Nintendo fans probably only have a handful of games for any system since the SNES. Spending the same amount as you pay for a Sony system, but only getting a fraction of the use out of it sounds like failure to me.
  • Effinae - July 16, 2013 10:09 p.m.

    As the owner of every system Sega, Sony, Nintendo, and M$ have produced (except for Sony and Sega handhelds) I can tell you that I am far from what you describe. I own 17 PS1 games compared to 76 N64 games. That number is a bit skewed though since I only had about 50 when the system was current. And for the PS2/GCN era it's a little closer at 22 to 33 respectively. However, very few of those PS2 games were played for more than an hour. Even with current systems my PS3 has been collecting dust since release. Shortly after the release of the Wii when all the shovel-ware took started to take up most of the store shelving I gave up on that system too. Recently though I started going back to the Wii and playing the the (surprisingly) great number of solid games I have missed.
  • DJMoofinLuv - July 22, 2013 1:01 a.m.

    Bottom line, games they make are funtasticcaaaallllllll. OwO
  • Arobadope - July 16, 2013 9:32 a.m.

    I have to say, this article was pretty damn good. Even if you don't agree with its final conclusion (the some of the reasons I have read are lulz) it's still a great article.
  • FoxdenRacing - July 16, 2013 8:29 a.m.

    You're on to something, Dave. The 8th isn't going to be defined by hardware choices, or really even software choices among PS3/One [for every exclusive on MS/Sony anymore, the other has something roughly equivalent. Forza/GT, etc]. The choices for the 8th are choices of company philosophy. Choices of which company's vision of the future is the way forward. Choices over which style of gaming [AAA or GTFO, ease of development, gameplay uber alles] has the most influence. Choices over the role of the machine in the home [Set-top box that also plays games, game system that also does media, game system that doesn't do media and streams as an afterthought]. Choices of whether a given market should be the 'primary' market [North America, No, Japan]. The companies aren't so much competing against each other this time as they are choosing a different sub-market to cater to. MS is offering high-budget, high-flash, banking on the biggest of publishers. Nintendo is the exact opposite, betting that AAA is a bubble ready to burst....relying on its first-party strength to get it through, and leaning on more traditional dev philosophies. Sony's not committed to either extreme, and is almost obsessed with making life easy for developers, publisher or no publisher. It'll be an interesting one to watch develop. Sony's looking to have the strongest opening week, with a large production run that managed to sell out. Nintendo had a normal but quiet launch, solid but not exceptional by historical metrics but given very little attention. MS has by all accounts botched their PR among those that aren't dyed-in-the-wool, and that could hurt them out of the gate...but as the 7th showed [with the PS3 getting spanked early and turning it around to take #2 in systems moved], changes in direction can change fates late in the cycle.
  • garnsr - July 16, 2013 9:19 a.m.

    Aren't Nintendo's games AAA? They take a long time, and I'd guess they cost a fair amount of money. They aren't as graphically intensive as the other games we call AAA, but for the platform they're the top.
  • FoxdenRacing - July 16, 2013 10:10 a.m.

    It depends on how you define AAA. By the older definition of immaculately polished, system-selling household name, they are; Nintendo stakes their reputation generation in and generation out on their build quality. By the newer definition of an extreme budget, bleeding edge game with bottomless hype, analogous to what Hollywood calls a blockbuster...I sincerely doubt it. I'd read just the other day that one of the current blockbusters cost upwards of $140M to develop. I find it hard to believe that the big N's dropping that kind of coin on a single title. Makes me think of something my father told me when I mentioned wanting to start upgrading my car. "To make a car fast, you have two choices: You can make something that's more than the sum of its parts, or you can throw so much money at it that it has no choice." Swap 'fast' for 'great' and 'car' for 'game', and the same concept applies. Minecraft is probably the single best example of how great games don't need big budgets...and Too Human is the single best example of how big budgets don't automatically make a game great. [If you haven't, read the Dave's editorial on 'AAA or GTFO' ( Well written piece on the challenges facing the business side of the industry]

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