During the last couple of weeks I happened across a few articles from major media discussing one aspect or another of the upcoming generation transition in console hardware, as is customary of course with any transition. There’s a period preceding any actual console launch, a period seemingly designed to test the limits of hype, as media, platform stakeholders, publisher, developers and —naturally— consumers try to reconcile practical realities with hope. Part of this “dance” is any talk of launch titles for each new platform, especially first party productions that will be there for the picking at the onset of a new generation of hardware and design. The topic alone can transform into a battlefield pretty quickly as we collectively insist (mainly hope or —more accurately— delude ourselves with hope) the first games out of the gate will be an actual taste of things to come but also a glimpse into a future when the commercial dusts has settles and it’s clear who came out on top.
In my 18 years of writing for games the dance remains the same as I repeat myself, mostly in vain really, trying to remind gamers this is a dance they’ve been in before. A platform holder produces very few games in time for a console launch and it’s quite rare for any of said games to be truly representative of what’s to come for the system, the industry, gaming in general in the handful of years that follow till it’s time for another generational leap. Developers are human too, they need time to adjust, imagine, create, innovate, using new, better, more powerful tools they’ve never had before. It’s a process. A process that makes it tough to produce something truly remarkable —not without Lady Luck getting involved as well— especially when virtually all the games that form that initial wave are developed by necessity using non-final development kits.
With all that in mind I thought I’d take a look at past console launches and the titles that carried them along. Industry and circumstances have changed though so some considerations had to be made first.
- Truly exclusive games produced by third-parties (whether published by the respective platform holder or not) were an actual thing in the past, not so much nowadays. Virtually all exclusivity deals are timed at this point, so, in order to keep things in perspective and somewhat comparable, none of the following launch lists include games that weren’t developed internally by a platform holder.
- Counting overall launch titles will be rendered nonsensical starting with the 9th generation of consoles. In the past the only games that would run on a new system were games that had been specifically developed for it. Without them first party exclusive games would have been the only possible choices for consumers. Starting with this generation, virtually all Gen 8 games will run the same or better on Gen 9 hardware so gamers will have breadth of choice in games that can actually be played on new consoles, breadth that has never been possible before (with the exception of the PS2 —the PS3 doesn’t count as backwards compatibility was finicky and rather short-lived—).
- I went for UK/EU launch titles for two reasons. I’m more familiar with those launches (greeting from Greece everyone) and the further back we look the later EU launches came so, at points, we’d even have a few more choices in launch titles. Let’s say I’m cheating a bit, just not in my favour.
- I bet some titles may have slipped through the crack here, I don’t expect number of launch titles in each instant to be meaningfully off though.
- I left out handheld consoles. The whole point is to highlight the norms for home/main consoles.
Here we go then.
- Ice Climber
- Marios Bros.
- Action Fighter
- Black Belt
- Fantasy Zone
- World Grand Prix
- Space Harrier II
- Tommy Lasorda Baseball
- Last Battle
- Altered Beast
- Alex Kidd In The Enchanted Castle
- Super Mario World
- Clockwork Knight
- Daytona USA
- International Victory Goal
- Virtua Fighter
- Pilotwings 64
- Super Mario 64
- Dynamite Cop
- Sega Rally Championship
- Sonic Adventure
- Virtua Fighter 3tb
- Luigi’s Mansion
- Wave Race: Blue Storm
- Halo: Combat Evolved
- Kameo: Elements Of Power
- Perfect Dark Zero
- Genji: Days Of The Blade
- Resistance: Fall Of Man
- Gran Turismo HD Concept
- The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess
- Wii Play
- Wii Sports
- Forza Motorsport 5
- Xbox Fitness
- Killzone: Shadow Fall
- New Super Mario Bros. U
- Nintendo Land
- 1-2 Switch
- The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild
The cream of the crop
As you can see, truly exclusive/internal launch productions got fewer over time, which is to be expected as technological advances made them more time-consuming, more expensive endeavours. Even so, do the games that come first out of the gate tell us anything about a platform’s potential for success or the long-term quality of its future catalog?
Let’s focus on platforms that managed to move more than 100 million units aka the most commercially successful home consoles in the history of the games industry, based on numbers collected on Wikipedia. This works best if you try to imagine the following per system thoughts as if they could be applied to the hotly anticipated PS5 and Xbox Series launches.
The most successful console ever released was accompanied by a single Sony title, a real-time puzzler with fireworks, Fantavision. Just try to imagine a modern console trying this in the age of social media.
The very familiar and reigning champion, the PS4, launched with a then new IP (Knack) that never took off and Killzone: Shadow Fall, the last gasp of a shooter franchise no matter how many appreciated it at any given point in its history, never made a dent in the genre or the industry. And yet few can argue with amazing Sony games that followed and instantly convinced the market there’re more reasons to remember them, more than Killzone or Knack ever put forward.
Yes. Zero Sony titles to be found at launch. Take that Xbox Series S and Xbox Series X.
The three Nintendo titles available at launch are kind of a funny bunch. Wii Play and Wii Sports were very successful no matter how you go about calculating sales due to bundling etc. On a very high level they’re both collections of mini games that the rest of the industry imitated every chance it got till the whole idea fizzled out. Mini game based titles swelled for while till they retreated back to being, in a commercial and mindshare sense, a niche. On an even higher level, these two titles are bundles of games that would have been standalone releases in the age of the NES. But what stood alone then does not today a viable stand alone release make.
As for The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess, it essentially was a tweaked GameCube game (take that Halo Infinite) and not even amongst the most highly regarded entries in the franchise.
The butts of the joke
But let’s have a look at the two systems from the included list that had the least commercial success.
The arguably schizophrenic (both design and business-wise) Sega console shows up with one of the most influential fighting games in history, the very one that pushed Namco to develop Tekken, a series almost synonymous to PlayStation.
My favourite Sega console of all time happened to come out with Sega Rally 2 and Virtua Fighter 3tb, both critically well-received games. Even Sonic Adventure, with its myriad of issues, managed to be well-received by a market convinced that the jig would be up the moment the PS2 (of Fantavision fame) came out. So much for starting out with better (or “better”) exclusives.
Your princess is in another castle
Look for the most influential titles on the list. Halo, which had immense influence on shooters in general and console shooter even more so, introduced us to the original Xbox which hardly was a smashing success. Super Mario 64 became the essential blueprint to every 3D platformer that followed. And yet Nintendo 64 sales were less than 1/3 of PlayStation’s.
Speaking of, out of all Sony launch titles in history, not one managed to shock the industry or push a genre forward when it came out. And yet… PlayStation, as a family of systems, did exactly that. Just not at launch. Why? That’s a different discussion.
One’s hopes for a gaming brand, a system or, nowadays, a platform —in a more traditional sense— can very well be justified, even before a system launches. There’s precedence to lean on, developers to believe in, franchises to yearn for, there are castles looming on the horizon.
But if video games ever taught me anything, it’s that our princess is never in that first castle.