The Curse of the Third Video Game Console System

Here’s a vocabulary lesson for you: Apophenia. This word generally means that humans tend to see patterns when there are none. This is why people believe that they can win big in the lottery or why conspiracy theories tend to make sense to some. Maybe this post is me dipping into my apophenia (not sure if I’m using the word correctly here) but, when it comes to companies that make video gaming consoles, it seems like every third system they make is cursed.

Yeah, I sound like a crackpot, don’t I? It can’t possibly true, can it? But, if you look at the history of video gaming consoles, every third “generation” that they make signals a downturn for the company. In fact, the pattern can be seen from the very dawn of the very first successful video game console manufacturer: Atari.

Of course, every gamer is at least familiar with Atari. They were one of the first companies that started making video game consoles. But while most gamers are familiar with the Atari 2600 and they would say that it’s the first system they made, that’s not exactly correct. Atari’s official first home console is Pong. It may not seem like much today but Pong was a big thing and made Atari a big deal.

This led Atari to do something revolutionary and create video game cartridges. Instead of just playing one type of video game on your video game console, you can swap out cartridges and play different games! This was, of course, the well-renowned Atari 2600, which was another big hit.

Then came the disastrous follow up, the Atari 5200. I don’t consider the Atari 400/800 to be game consoles because they were essentially home computers. This is why I say the Atari 5200 was the successor of the Atari 2600. Anyway, the Atari 5200 isn’t a bad system. Sure, it was a behemoth of a system, even for its time. Also having the power cable plug into the RF box (which hooks up to your TV) can be terrifying! But the games were okay. No, what made the Atari 5200 bad was the controller that sucked! The controllers broke almost immediately and the button layout was just weird. But the thing that really killed the Atari 5200 was the Video Game Crash of 1984. It’s totally plausible that the Atari 5200 was a contributing factor to the Crash.

Of course, after the Video Game Crash, out of the ashes came Nintendo with the NES. Nintendo was the only one brave enough to begin manufacturing and selling video game systems again when most retailers thought the video game era had died during the Crash. Nintendo persisted and successfully reinvigorated the video game industry from the brink.

Nintendo followed up the NES with, what else, the Super NES. The jump to the 16-bit generation was huge for Nintendo because, even though it was facing tough competition from Sega with the Sega Genesis, it hung in there and the company is, thankfully, still alive and kicking, producing both really incredibly gaming consoles and games.

At this point, Nintendo just dominated the home console market. But, with the 32 and 64-bit systems looming on the horizon, they had to step up their game and follow suit. And, while the Nintendo 64, or N64 as it’s fondly called, wasn’t a dumpster fire of a flop, it did start Nintendo’s drop from prominence as the number 1 video game console maker. Yeah, a lot of kids loved the N64 but it did mark when Nintendo were actually hurting themselves thanks to some weird decision making.

First off, Nintendo’s stubbornness to continue using cartridges instead of switching to CD-ROM storage irked a lot of developers. Not only did they have to work around the small storage capacity compared to CDs, they also needed to buy the chips from Nintendo themselves, adding to the cost of making their games available on the N64. Also, Nintendo inadvertently created their own powerful rival in Sony. It’s well known within the gaming community that Nintendo backstabbed Sony when they backed out of a deal for Sony to make a CD attachment for the Super NES. In retaliation, Sony went off and developed the Sony PlayStation, which went on to dominate the gaming landscape. Once again, the third video game console heralded the downturn of another gaming company’s success.

But what about Sega, the company that had the guts to face off against Nintendo’s dominance during the 8 and 16-era? Well, they doubled down and actually made two colossal failure which led them to stop making game systems! While their initial system, the Sega Master System, wasn’t even close to overtaking the NES’ dominance, they had much better luck with the Sega Genesis and their more in-your-face attitude, proclaiming that “Genesis does what Nintendon’t!”

For a time, it did look like a neck-and-neck race to see who had the bigger marketshare: Sega or Nintendo. But Sega definitely hamstrung themselves with their follow-ups to the Genesis: the Sega 32X and Sega Saturn.

This was dumb all around. Sega created confusion and competition between themselves by releasing two systems at the same time. Also, the Sega 32X was just an add-on to the Sega Genesis, making everyone believe that they were essentially putting their old 16-bit on life support. Finally, the Sega permanently damaged the Sega Saturn launch by rushing the system to some stores, alienating some retailers and selling the system at a high price point. To add insult to injury, the upstart Sony revealed that their upcoming PlayStation was going to be much cheaper, putting the final nail in the coffin for Sega. Sega tried to plod along with the Dreamcast but, despite my love for the system, it died a very quick death along with Sega’s console making days.

And what about Sony? The PlayStation started their rise to prominence and they only continued to dominate the home console market with the PlayStation 2, taking all comers like the Nintendo GameCube and the original Microsoft Xbox. But even Sony isn’t immune to the third console curse as they started running into problems with the PlayStation 3.

Now, it would be stupid to classify the PlayStation 3 as a failure but, despite dominating the home console market with the original PlayStation and the PS2, Sony started to lose some customer confidence with the PS3. It extremely expensive at launch, commanding a price point of $599 for the 60Gb model. Sony also randomly took away features from the PS3, such as the ability to install your own OS and backwards compatibility. It certainly didn’t help that the Sony’s marketing campaign for the PS3 was strange and… creepy at times.

Thanks to a very complicated software/hardware architecture, the PlayStation 3 was notoriously difficult to develop for. So, while the it was more powerful than the Xbox 360, Microsoft’s latest console, games moved slower and looked objectively worse on the PS3. The Xbox 360 was also cheaper so it was more enticing for gamers who didn’t have money to burn. The Wii was a fun little system and made motion controls a household name. Oh, and it was cheaper than the PS3 as well. Basically, Sony struggled a lot early on during the PS3’s release and it took them a lot of time to regain their footing.

Microsoft was sitting pretty at the top with the Xbox 360, at least in Western territories. But when it came to making its successor, things blew up in Microsoft’s face. As it’s the most recent “third console,” you’re probably familiar with the hardships Microsoft had to go through with the Xbox One’s launch. From having to backpedal on always having to be connected to the Internet and requiring the new Kinect to be bundled with it for no particular reason. Even the launch presentation show, which is supposed to hype this new gaming system failed because Microsoft focused too much on the Xbox One’s ability to show football television programs… and other television shows.

So, what is it about the third system that video game console makers make? Why does it happen? Well, to say that it’s a “curse” may be giving too much credence to superstition and it’s just apophenia (which means seeing patterns where there are none, remember?). There isn’t really a pattern, so to speak. Rather, it’s where the company stands at the time their third console is released. They are usually at the top or near the of the food chain and it’s their arrogance that does them in.

With Nintendo, it was their arrogance to sticking to the old cartridge format with the N64 and not keeping up with the times. Sega desperately wanted to finally beat Nintendo and rushed out two half-baked products and they thought that consumers who loved the Genesis would continue to support both products. Sony thought that gamers would buy a PS3, despite the exorbitant because they expected gamers to be loyal to the brand. Microsoft believed that gamers wanted all those extra/unnecessary features and preened to game developers instead of their real target audience: the gamers who buy their systems. Time and time again, it’s hubris that does their third console in.

Then again, it’s much better to at least live up to three consoles.

Right, 3DO?

What is the worst third system a console maker made? Let me know in the comments section below!

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