We'll either come to call it one of the cleverest rope-a-dope strategies ever or mark it as the point at which the Sony empire first began to crumble. For months, the suits at Sony teased us with features of their upcoming console beast: the 1080-pixel resolution; the Blu-ray optical drive that was going to simultaneously give game designers the ability to do whatever the hell they wanted and consign HD-DVD to the dustbin of tech history, in a rotting cubicle next to BetaMax; the boomerang-shaped controller. (Okay, maybe not so much on that last one.)
And then the price-point anvil dropped, crushing consumers' heads like a love tap from an Unreal Tournament rocket launcher: a 20-gigabyte hard drive version retailing for $500 bucks, the 60-gig big rig for a stunning $600.
It's not like we didn't expect the next entry in gaming's next generation to be tres cher, but the PlayStation 3 went abruptly from gotta-have-it gadget to barely cheaper than a desktop computer.
If Sony's aim is to move gaming beyond the hardcore ghetto and attract that ever-elusive casual gamer, I'm at a loss to explain how making the $400 Xbox 360 look like a Wal-Mart bargain accomplishes that. Not even the 18- to 34-year-old hardcore crowd has that much disposable income. Still, people once dropped a grand to own a NeoGeo, and several million ponied up for an impossible-to-find Xbox 360, so anything's possible.
Those who do sure won't want for horsepower. As Sony's demo of the latest Gran Turismo sequel proved, a lightning-fast 3.2 Ghz Cell processor under the hood can throw up some awfully pretty pixels. Will bleeding-edge graphics save the day yet again? If Blu-ray doesn't pan out as the wave of the future, or if the PS3's reportedly free online model fails to make a dent in Xbox Live, well, it's a long, painful fall from that No. 1 perch.
Meanwhile, Nintendo, the perennial also-ran of the console arms race, quietly managed to swipe a fair chunk of E3 buzz from Sony. Yes, the Wii is still the stupidest console name in gaming history, surpassing both Gizmondo and Jaguar in sheer, forehead-slapping marketing goofery. But not unlike the ways in which the Nintendo DS has outflanked Sony's PSP by coming up with titles that take advantage of the platform in interesting ways, the Wii's slate of launch titles is filled with things that make you go hmmmm. Super Mario Galaxy is looking like a must-have, and those rumors of a motion-sensor/light-saber game have Star Wars geeks a-buzzin'.
Elsewhere in the E3 jungle, franchise sequels, those inevitable cash cows that have dominated the gaming landscape for years, were as prevalent as idiots at an American Idol taping. Announcements of Halo 3, Grand Theft Auto 4, Unreal Tournament 2007, Metal Gear Solid 4, Tekken 6, Devil May Cry 4, and yet another iteration of the Tony Hawk series all made splashes — some because they were conspicuous no-shows. Game developers are obviously betting that even if these titles don't do anything even slightly innovative with their shopworn formulas, they'll still look stunning in high-def. At next-gen prices of $60 a pop and up, they had damn well better.
And hey, if you don't happen to have a six-pack of spare Franklins burning a hole in your wallet, there's always now-generation, which is, despite all reports to the contrary, far from "game over." The Xbox is RIP, but before the exquisitely rendered digital priest arrives to give last rites to the PS2 and the Gamecube, let's pause to recall that there are still plenty of good offerings yet to come before November sweeps the decks. God of War 2 and Final Fantasy XII are likely to be as entertaining as at least half of the PS3's launch line-up — and, best of all, you won't have to shell out half a grand to play them.
Aaron R. Conklin has a plan to finance his next-gen gaming experience, and it starts with donating lots and lots of plasma.