It’s been a couple years since the release of the PS4 and Xbox One (a year after the Switch release) brought us fully into the eighth generation of console gaming. This 8th console war has settled into a battle for exclusives, price differences, and online and social gaming advantages, which is fine—anyone looking to buy a system this year will have more games and better prices (and fewer bugs) than last year’s early adopters.
All the same, a few new games is never as exciting as a launch system, so since 2018 isn’t offering us that kind of fun, I thought I’d return to the console launch of yesteryear. Today I bring you retro Launch Wars: The Fifth Generation. To review, the major players of the fifthgeneration were the original PlayStation, released in North America on September 9, 1995, and the Nintendo 64, released in North America a year later on September 29, 1996 (sorry 32-bit Sega Saturn fans).
This is, in my opinion, the toughest console launch decision of all time. Nintendo had the track record, experience, and fan loyalty, and it had not yet doubled down on its identity as a family-fun console, so some of its best games were (relatively) mature titles like GoldenEye 007 and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. Sony was breaking into the console market and beginning the trend of non-Nintendo consoles going after a more mature audience alongside (and later in preference to) the family/kids market. Meanwhile, for this one generation, both major consoles had great family games as well as excellent mature titles, and the technology was getting good enough that mature titles could have the kind of depth that allowed the name “mature” to refer to subject matter, length, and artistic and literary merit as well as violence, gore, and the like. In another article I argued that playstation had the upper edge with games, due being able to put more information on CD based games.
Making the decision tougher was the fact that this was still the Age of Exclusives. There were cross-system games, of course, but single-console titles were plentiful rather than being the exceptions they are today. One-system gamers were denied access to a lot of great games that only existed on the other system. Luckily history has shown both systems to be fantastic values with amazing game libraries, but at launch, we didn’t know that yet, so the holiday seasons of ’95 and ’96 brought the sweet agony of decision-making.
To see what kind of choices the gamers of the mid-90s were faced with, lets look at the titles that were released for each system during the first holiday system after launch. We’ll also include games that came out by March of the following year, since any gamer who got a system over the holidays would probably have had their eye on at least one title that was coming down the pipe in the next few months.
A surprising number of games (many of them good, many more not-so-good) were released for the PS1 in 1995. Launch titles included Battle Arena Toshinden, Air Combat, NBA Jam Tournament Edition, and Rayman. By Christmas these had been joined by X-COM: UFO Defense, Twisted Metal, Tekken, Gex, Road Rash, and FIFA Soccer 96. March of 1996 saw the landmark release of Resident Evil, ensuring that PlayStation owners were happy with their purchases.
The Nintendo 64 didn’t release as many games in its first months, but there were still a handful of good titles tempting holiday shoppers in 1996. Two quality titles were available at launch: Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. By Christmas, Wave Race 64 and Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey were also available, along with early Rare fighter Killer Instinct Gold. In early 1997 the N64 really came into its own, adding the classic, Rare’s quirky Blast Corps, and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, along lesser titles NBA Hangtime and Doom 64. A few months later came two more classic releases in July’s Star Fox 64 and August’s GoldenEye 007, but honestly I don’t know that we were aware those were coming during Holiday ’96, so I can’t in good conscience count them in this Holiday Showdown. (But I also can’t not mention them at all because they’re so good.)
The best solution would be to get a PS1 during the 1995 holiday season and an N64 in 1996. But for those of us who aren’t (or weren’t in the mid-90s) in a position to buy all consoles at release prices, a choice had to be made. Aside from game library differences, it should also be pointed out that the PS1 supported two controllers (in base form and for most games, anyway) where the N64 supported four, giving the N64 the edge in local multiplayer…or, as we called it on consoles in 1996, “multiplayer.” It should also be noted that the N64 retailed at $200 and the PS1 at $300 (which made a lot of kids Nintendo players by parental default).
The Verdict: At launch, then—and not necessarily over the whole life of the console, which is another showdown altogether[to read]—I have to go with the N64 over the PS1. The PS1 had more games, but the games that I still light up to think about from those launch years are the N64 titles Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, and Blast Corps. Battle Arena Toshinden and Twisted Metal were cool, but their appeal faded quicker, and the system’s truly great games were still a year or two off (particularly Final Fantasy VII and other deep, multi-disc titles that the cartridge-based N64 couldn’t easily match). As a launch system, then I would have recommended the N64, and told gamers to buy a PS1 two or three years after launch when the system could be had cheaper and the great games were beginning to emerge.
What do you think? Am I selling the PS1 short as a launch system and bringer of holiday joy? Did you get a PS1 or N64 in their launch year? What did you love (or hate) about them that I missed?