by Ken Gagne

After two years in Atlanta, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, returned to Los Angeles last week, granting developers and publishers the opportunity to display their games to each other, retailers, and the press. Hundreds of exhibitors displayed thousands of software and hardware products.

The recent negative press pushed some of the violent video games to the back of the show, if not removed entirely, but otherwise the show continued unprohibited. Said author and keynote speaker Don Tapscott, "We are on the verge of nothing less than a technical, demographic, business, and social revolution."

With the three big names — Nintendo, Sony, and Sega — preparing for the next round of game consoles, they are counting on their best-sellers to continue to support them for the remaining life of their current systems.

Nintendo unveiled Donkey Kong 64, scheduled to be their big seller this holiday season. Donkey, Diddy, and Dixie, along with two new simian friends, make the leap to 3D in a Banjo-Kazooie-like format. The vine-swinging, mine-cart-riding, platform-jumping action is similar enough to supplant the need for the rumored Banjo-Tooie sequel.

Perfect Dark, the James Bond-less sequel to Goldeneye, looked better at last year's E3. Despite support of the RAM Expansion Pak, the graphics were washed out and blurry, and collision detection was off to the point of players walking through fences.

Jet Force Gemini is an interplanetary exploration platform title, featuring cooperative play for two players and competitive play for two to four.

Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, and Jet Force Gemini are all from Rare, the developers behind Goldeneye, Killer Instinct, and Diddy Kong Racing.

Pokemon, the latest craze among both consumers and Nintendo developers, will finally appear on the N64 this summer with Pokemon Snap. Players go on a Pokemon safari, snapping pictures of rare and unusual creatures. Cartridges may then be brought to participating Blockbusters to have the pictures printed on stickers. Also look for Pokemon Stadium this fall. In one- or two-player mode, players may enter their Pokemon into the arena for a fight to the finish. Data from Game Boy Pokemon games can be imported via a special adapter, bringing everyone's fully-powered characters to colorful life.

Filling out Nintendo's booth were Resident Evil 2, the first 512-megabit N64 cartridge (twice the size of Zelda) and the first N64 game to utilize full-motion video; Resident Evil-clone Eternal Darkness; The Next Tetris; strategy games Command & Conquer and Starcraft; sports games Kobe Bryant Basketball 2, Ken Griffey Jr.'s Slugfest, and Mario Golf; and, on video only, updates of classics Kirby and Excitebike.

Though Sony's overall profits are down, PlayStation sales are up. The 32-bit system has one of the largest game libraries today, leaving little room for innovation. Sony's booth was comprised primarily of sequels and updates to their best series.

Gran Turismo 2 features three times the cars of the original, but with nearly-identical graphics. Spyro 2 also looks and plays like original. Omega Boost, a futuristic shooter from Turismo's developers, has poor stage design and control. Um Jammer Lammy is the sequel to the Parappa the Rapper, but does not have Parappa as the star. Like everything else at E3, these games are works-in-progress, but show there is still a ways to go.

Other sequels, both first- and third-party, include Twisted Metal IV, Wipeout 3, Bloody Roar 2, Cool Boarders 4, Jet Moto 3, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (which occurs 24 hours before and after RE2, and features many of the same locales), Suikoden II, and Vigilante 8: Second Offense. Titles appearing for the first time on PlayStation include Disney's Tarzan, Grandia (an RPG now available in Japan for three years), Ape Escape (Sony's answer to Donkey Kong),

As the current generation of game consoles, not long ago called the "next" generation, reach the end of their lifespan, they are deluged with sequels and clones unable to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. Only the "next-next" generation of consoles has a chance of breathing new life into the industry — and the hardware manufacturers provided a glimpse into that future.

Sega will be the first on the scene with the Dreamcast, a 128-bit Windows-powered system coming this September 9th — 9/9/99 — for a price tag of $199.99. A 56K modem will be included, a first for home consoles. This positions Sega to create the first online console gaming community, with future titles being developed with standard support for the modem, just as the N64 created new leagues of four-player games with its standard four controller ports.

Numerous arcade hits will receive near-perfect translations and Sega classics updated in time for Dreamcast's launch. Sonic Adventure, Sega Rally 2, Virtua Fighter 3, and House of the Dead 2 will head the most popular genres, with titles coming before Christmas including Capcom vs. Marvel, NFL 2000, NBA 2000, Hydro Thunder, and Get Bass.

The early release of Dreamcast will give Sega an edge against Nintendo and Sony, but at the cost of being outdone by better hardware a year later. Dreamcast will not be DVD-based, though will supposedly be upgradeable in the future. Also, after the slow, painful death of Sega's last system the Saturn, Sega may have a tough time of winning back consumers.

The so-called PlayStation 2, the first confirmed DVD-ROM game console, received little attention at the show. Gran Turismo was ported to the PS2 as a playable demo, showing incredibly realistic graphics and models, possibly the most graphically-impressive showing at E3. But, the hardware is still unconfirmed, so early observations may not reflect the final PS2. The 128-bit CPU, provided by Toshiba and dubbed the Emotion Engine, will be capable of more than 75 million polygons per second – more than 15 times that of Sega Dreamcast, though whether this number is realistic or theoretical remains to be seen. Chances of seeing this system before the projected March 2000 release date are slim.

The normally-secretive Nintendo was also willing to share the first specs on their next system, codenamed Dolphin (previously called N2000 by the press). A pair of powerful partnerships ensures that Nintendo is here to stay: Matsushita, known locally as Panasonic, will provide the hardware for the DVD-based system; and the 400-MHz "Gekko" CPU chip will be produced by IBM, using copper-chip technology on 0.18-micron chips. Nintendo's willingness to abandon the cartridge format will do wonders for their relationships with third-party developers, who eschewed the limits of the medium in favor of Sony's CD's. Dolphin will be available for next year's holiday season.

Historically, the gaming industry has been unable to support three separate consoles. The most recent loser in the race was Sega. Are they ready to make a comeback?

"Just let me say," said Bernard Stolar, president and CEO of Sega of America, "that Sega is not some kid's company. Sony has a history of camcorders and VCR. Sega always has been, and always will be, first and foremost a gaming company." After showcasing the power of the Dreamcast, he added, "It's great to be back!"

The next eighteen months will be an exciting, and expensive, time for gamers. Increasing technology and decreasing price tags will create many gameplay venuess; customers with large wallets will have the most options available, while others will decide which system has the most and best killer software.

Revolutions are most definitely underway.

This article is copyright (c) 1999, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 18-May-99