Nintendo does it too much, Sega didn’t do it enough, Sony sucks at it and Microsoft has never done it.
I’m talking about the inevitable console manufacturer’s temptation to redesign old machines and attempt to sell them to people who either already have one or clearly didn’t want one in the first place: Slimlining!
While we lowly humans tend to get bigger and less functional as we get older, our beloved game consoles seem to follow an opposite trend; consistently growing slimmer as the years drag on. Their innards are compacted and rationalized, unused features are lanced from their sleek new bodies and their prices are marginally reduced.
It appears to be a natural part of the technological aging process, but is this inevitable slimlining of consoles for our benefit, or the manufacturers? Let’s take a look at some of the most noteworthy systems to have been run through the redesign wringer and see if slimlining signals the death knell of a console or the perfect opportunity for the spendthrift game vulture to swoop in and pick at the juicy carcass of a well established format.
The classic Atari 2600 harbors one of the best-known attempts at picking up sluggish sales and cutting costs in one swing of the managerial axe. No one was particularly using the machine’s “option switches” when they were reduced from six to four, but it broke gamers’ collective hearts when the wood-effect veneer was replaced by the gaudy sheen of black plastic.
But it was a time of sharp angles and inexpensive experimentation in pseudo-futuristic design. We were watching Knight Rider on TV, Tron was lighting up the cinema screen (literally, not financially) and DeLoreans were about to speed around the corner at 88 mph. The post-modernistic style of the 2600 was going the same way as the console’s sales, and Atari needed to give it a cheap shot in the arm. The door wedge that was the 2600 Jr. was tantamount to a cheap Taiwanese knock-off, without the redeeming feature of actually being made in Taiwan.
The Sega Master System and Genesis endured similar treatment further down the line, as did the Super Nintendo. All three machines were streamlined, reduced in size and given one final sales push as a plentiful budget system for poor people and foreigners.
As hard as people were on the SNES 2 and 2600 Jr., a penitent man could see the value of a re-imagined generation. There might not be many new games on the horizon, but the sheer tonnage of pre-existing media available for these old campaigners was a testament to their worth.
How many people, I wonder, waited until Sega, Nintendo and Atari decided to let their generals fight one last battle with honor, then plundered the battlefield for a wealth of quickly forgotten treasure? The kids in my neighborhood wanted nothing to do with a system once its replacement had arrived, despite the substitute often proving to be a damp squib next to its predecessor.
The Game Man and Boy
Not all slimlining is about clearing factory shelves of old chattel. Nintendo’s mastery of the hand-held gaming market has been nothing short of flawless for over 25 years, due in part to slimlining.
Alongside infallible portability travels a cyclical quality to the Big N’s hand-held gaming philosophy. While rampant slimlining is certainly a significant aspect of progressive design on Nintendo’s drawing boards, it seems to stem not from greed but from well-learned lessons.
The Game Boy was a license to print money for Nintendo, though its popularity wasn’t directly proportional to the system’s quality. It’s essentially famous for delivering Tetris to the world in a convenient package, but even by 1989’s standards the screen was small, blurry and mounted on top of too many batteries. Here was a potentially awesome system that was actually in need of slimlining.
Perhaps this wouldn’t have been quite so apparent had the Game Boy itself not been a beefed up version of Nintendo’s Game & Watch series. It was one of the few times a game system evolved into a fatter, more ambitious version of its former self; swollen with add-ons and improvements rather than refined and ergonomically minimized.
You can’t blame Nintendo for sticking with a winning format, though. And the Game Boy’s children were naturally more athletic in their build when it finally came time to re-enthuse the world’s gaming population. The Game Boy Light, Game Boy Pocket and Game Boy Color all took after their predecessor in appearance, but with the kind of trim physique that finally made good on the Game Boy’s promise of pocket-sized gaming.
And yet, the obvious re-marketing of these slimlined versions smacked of the desperation that can repel a consumer from 50 paces. When a console has sold over 100 million units, it begs the question as to why there’s any need to rehash it – people owned Tetris and Super Mario Bros. already, and after such global proliferation, it was a lot to ask every third gamer in the world to replace his hand-held system for the sake of a smaller battery compartment.
When it came time for the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo seemed to drop its wallet on its head and suffer a decade’s worth of amnesia; returning to a superb concept with a bulky casing and a rubbish screen, also closely related to the old Game & Watch series. Without Tetris waiting in the wings to sell the GBA to every two-thumbed player on the planet, it quickly revisited those overused drawing boards and made the backlight hacks people were forced to do at home into something more official.
The Game Boy Advance SP is perhaps one of the first examples of slimlining done right. At least the damn thing went in your pocket and lived for long enough on its internal battery to cope with a bus ride and a few days worth of extended coffee breaks. The sexy SP’s folding construction and rock solid illuminated screen shunted GBA sales in a way that more than tripled the system’s initially breathless lifespan and gave it some street cred in the process.
As if the SP wasn’t quite small enough, the Game & Watch blueprints were then raided once again for the GBA Micro – a piffling little keychain of a toy that rivals the game cartridges for dinkyness. Quite what Nintendo’s reasoning was behind the Micro, it’s difficult to say, yet it’s undeniably sexy and rife with support.
Jaws dropped when the DS arrived, though in many respects we really should have seen it coming. Once again, the Game & Watch model was resurrected in the immortal, hand-held Donkey Kong style. Nintendo can reasonably be accused of repeating its mistakes – the DS was a fat and unattractive system akin to the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance – before quickly repenting and redesigning. The DS Lite slimlined the ugly original into the gaming industry’s catwalk supermodel, and although most of those improvements were distinctly superficial, it proved a hit with the punters and rocketed the Dual Screen system into sales orbit.
Nintendo has confused the issue of slimlining more than any other hardware developer. Has it redesigned consoles to save on manufacturing costs? The GBA SP and DS Lite suggest not, though the Micro does raise that idle question. So, then, is it for the benefit of the gamer? Or is the Big N simply correcting mistakes it insists on making with every new console? Whatever the reason, at least we, the gamers, wind up with a hot electronic babe on our fingertips – eventually.
Is it any way to celebrate the launch of a next-generation console by releasing a “slim” version (which turned out to be the electronic equivalent of Jivaro head shrinking) of the system that came before it? That’s what Sony did to both the PlayStation (now, and forever, dubbed the PSOne since it was re-engineered into a Fisher Price toy) and the PlayStation 2.
These awful, tacky, little, cheap knockoffs of once great consoles – their slowing sales no longer sufficient enough to stay Sony’s cruel marketing hand – were callously paraded before the public in their underware after a brutal and unforgiving slimlining.
While there was no reason to shrink the PS2, it may, in retrospect, have been a prophetic opportunity to give it one last push while the console’s third incarnation struggled to be born by medieval cesarean section. The slimlined PS2 even saw a resurgence of third-party support once the PS3 proved such a difficult platform, and as we look back now at the vast and sprawling sea of Platinum Collections under the PS2 banner, there’s a gold mine (well, Platinum mine) of gaming value to be had.
And yet, even today, the slimlined PS2 struggles to seduce. Gamers seem more intent on driving up the bidding costs of the original design than embarrass their TVs with a fiddly little stillborn, flip-top novelty. A most unfitting end to a great console, and one clearly designed to wring a few extra drops of blood from a stone that deserved better.
On the hand-held front, trying to convince people to watch a three-inch TV never really paid off for Sony either, so half the PSP’s features went immediately unused. Slimlining the concept that the company made such a gigantic fuss over in the first place would cost far too much corporate face, however, so it’s no wonder Kaz Hirai recently went on stage at E3 and suddenly found himself trying to remember exactly why Sony had developed the PSP Slim.
The Slim’s TV output is a top-notch feature, though 10 seconds on Google will uncover a chorus of old complaints about the lack of this feature on the original model. Correcting such mistakes and paying obvious attention to consumer demand is a noble effort for a big company, of course, so the PSP Slim deserves some congratulation. And yet this particular slimlining smacks of one last sales push; an attempt to take back some of the ground Sony won before the DS went Lite.
It’s a little difficult to see clearly in the blazing noon sun of the PSP, but those could well be vultures circling high above Sony’s hand-held. Give it another few months, carrion gamers, and the PSP might be a rich bone yard of delicious, dead meat.
Which brings us to current-generation consoles.
Slimlining Today for a Better Tomorrow
Certainly two-thirds of the next-gen systems appear, on face value, to be desperate for a good, hard slimlining. After all these years, Nintendo finally seems to have bypassed the chunky, over-featured stage of its Wii console and gone straight for the slimline model, though the same can’t be said of the other two.
Microsoft is still a stranger to the concept of slimlining. True, it’s only had one system to practice on, but that wonderful machine has been dropped like a hot brick by Bill’s Boys and won’t be seeing a slinky, miniaturized version of itself (though the home brew scene has gone on to unlock the massive media center potential of the original Xbox – those willing to crack open the casing on their old warhorse should do a search for XBMC and bask in its radiant glory).
This doesn’t change the fact that the Xbox 360 sounds like an asthmatic helicopter taking off and is accompanied by a PSU twice the size of three slimlined Sony consoles. Coupled with the 360 being something of a hardware gremlin zoo, rationalization and sound proofing would be a welcome, if costly, update.
Those costs, of course, would be a drop in the ocean if the PlayStation 3 were to be subjected to a much-needed slimlining. A console that looks like (and is comparable in size and cost to) the severed front end of a Lamborghini that would look out of place and upside down on the bridge of the Enterprise needs a careful and considered tweak of its hardware wardrobe.
A Newer, Slimmer You
What future slimlining of our current-generation consoles will signify, only time will tell. But paying attention to the changing shape of a game system provides consumers with a wealth of body language and an inside glance at the intentions and deliberations of the big companies. Slimlining is corporate psychology laid out on the consumer couch, cryptically conveying a truth the company fears to speak out loud. So keep an eye peeled for warning signs before parting with your hard-earned cash.
Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.