A brief history of cutdown game consoles
It’s not surprising that Nintendo has announced a redesign of the Switch, but it is a little surprising that the Switch Lite has lost the system’s signature ability to… switch. The new revision is solely designed for handheld play, meaning it doesn’t have detachable controllers, a kickstand, or the ability to be played on a TV.
That’s just the way it goes with video game consoles, though. While new generations of hardware introduce far greater power and functionality, often revisions within the same generation take certain steps backward. Whether the trade-offs are made to reduce costs or because certain elements were deemed unimportant, over their history, all three current console makers have released multiple machines that killed various features.
The question, as ever, is how much those missing features mean to you.
Nintendo has been doing this ever since its first home console, the NES. Released in 1993, the NES-101 was a total redesign of the 1985 NES with a new controller, a top-loading cartridge slot, and a sticker price of just $49.99. The hardware was mostly the same, but the composite video and audio outputs were removed, meaning that you had to hook it up to your TV with an RF connection.
Nintendo followed a similar formula for the release of the New-Style Super NES in 1997. This redesigned SNES removed the power LED and eject button, while also cutting back on video output options. S-Video and RGB were jettisoned for a composite-only port. The New-Style Super NES also lacked the expansion port that was only ever used for the Japan-exclusive Satellaview peripheral, which let users access games and other content over satellite broadcasts.
The Nintendo 64 came and went without alterations, and the GameCube never received a redesign either (unless you count the Panasonic Q, which was a Japan-only DVD player that looked like a toaster and had a GameCube inside). The GameCube did, however, receive a silent revision that yet again removed video output capabilities. Models produced from 2004 onward removed the Digital AV component cable port, meaning the system could no longer use the 480p progressive scan mode in games that supported it.
The Wii succeeded the GameCube and had much in common with its predecessor, including full backwards compatibility and ports for memory cards and controllers. That functionality was abandoned five years after launch, however, with a 2011 hardware revision that removed backwards compatibility and no longer came with the Wii’s iconic vertical stand. Instead, this model was intended to sit horizontally under a TV. Nintendo went as far as to reorient the Wii logo 90 degrees to drive the point home.
The Wii Mini was a far more drastic reduction. It looked absolutely nothing like the original Wii, with a red-and-black body and a top-loading disc drive. More importantly, it excised all internet functionality as well as backwards compatibility, meaning that it literally did nothing but play physical Wii discs. Even for $99.99, that was a hard sell in 2013.
Nintendo’s early portable revisions, meanwhile, tended to be straight improvements that superseded their predecessors in every way. Unless, for example, you missed the original Game Boy’s green screen on the much-improved Game Boy Pocket for whatever reason or the Pocket’s contrast switch on the far more powerful Game Boy Color. (I actually did kind of miss that.) Even the leap to a new generation in 2001 with the Game Boy Advance preserved all of the Game Boy Color’s functionality.
From here on out, though, things get complicated. The Game Boy Advance’s first revision, the SP, followed in 2003 and was generally well-received for its clamshell design that finally included a front-lit screen. But it was also a harbinger of doom, as Nintendo decided that it wouldn’t be a big deal to ditch the headphone jack. If you wanted to listen to, say, the Aria of Sorrow soundtrack in reasonable fidelity, you’d have to buy a dongle.
This was even less convenient back then than it is today — it’s not like Game Boy AirPods were ever a thing — and Nintendo reverted course with the 2005 Game Boy Micro, a sleek redesign with a tiny, high-quality screen and, yes, a headphone jack. But the Micro had a pretty big drawback of its own in that it broke compatibility with the entire library of original Game Boy and Game Boy Color games.
The Nintendo DS, released the same year, had the same degree of Advance-only Game Boy compatibility. 2006’s DS Lite was an extremely straightforward improvement, with much brighter screens and tighter design around identical internals. But the DSi in 2009 was a more complicated upgrade proposition.
On one hand, the DSi was by far the most significant mid-generation upgrade Nintendo had ever released. It had larger screens, a faster processor, and more RAM than the DS Lite, while adding two (very bad) cameras, 256MB of internal storage, and the ability to download DSiWare games from an online store. The design was even sleeker than the DS Lite’s, and the onboard OS was far more full-featured.
On the other hand, the DSi also completely severed Nintendo’s link to the Game Boy by eliminating the secondary cartridge slot altogether. This didn’t just affect backwards compatibility. (A fair number of contemporaneous DS games used the Game Boy slot for accessories, like the Rumble Pak and the Guitar Hero series’ unusual Guitar Grip.) The DSi and its larger variant, the DSi XL, were vastly more capable systems, but this drawback meant they weren’t necessarily straight replacements for the DS Lite.
The 3DS was an entirely new platform with a lot of new features, and it didn’t lose many over its lifespan. The 3DS XL was more or less just a larger version, while the New 3DS was a mid-generation revision that improved technical capabilities and added more controls without taking anything away. When the time did come to take something away, though, it was a bombshell.
The 2DS not only looked weird, but it had a name that sounded like an April Fools’ prank. A 2D version of a console that used 3D as its primary selling point? The jokes wrote themselves. But ultimately, Nintendo was proven right. Many high-profile titles stopped supporting 3D, and the final 3DS revision — the 2DS XL — was the best yet for anyone who didn’t care about the feature.
Sony has also fudged with its console’s capabilities from the earliest days of the PlayStation. Various versions of the original PlayStations were issued with altered internal mechanisms and AV outputs. The most consequential was probably the removal of the first model’s RCA jacks, which later gave it a cult following in audiophile circles. The smaller PSOne redesign in 2000 removed the serial port, which was used for the PlayStation’s link cable, but otherwise, it didn’t miss out on anything; the little-used parallel port had already been removed in an earlier revision.
The PlayStation 2 also went through a bunch of minor tweaks — did you know it had a FireWire port at launch? — before landing on a more substantial redesign. This time, however, the change was far more drastic. The 2004 “PS2 Slim,” as it came to be called, was an incredible reduction in size, which meant that there was no room for the original model’s bulky 3.5-inch drive bay that housed the network adapter.
That wasn’t a problem for online play itself, as the PS2 Slim had an Ethernet port built right into it. But it did mean that the console dropped support for the PS2 Hard Disk Drive, a 40GB drive that could speed up load times in some games and was was required for a few — most notably Final Fantasy XI. The lack of HDD compatibility also meant that the PS2 Slim was unable to run the PS2 version of Linux, which proved considerably less controversial than when Sony patched it out of the PS3.
In fact, pretty much everything about the initial PS3 model was controversial. Sony famously launched the ambitious system at $599, and quickly found itself in the position of needing to do everything it could to cut costs. Even the console released in Europe four months after the US launch was less capable than the original model.
At first, the PS3 achieved full hardware-based backwards compatibility with the PS2 by integrating that system’s Emotion Engine CPU and Graphics Synthesizer GPU onto the motherboard. For the European launch, the Emotion Engine was removed, with software emulation picking up some — but not all — of the slack. As a result, the European PS3 was only able to play around 72 percent of the PS2 library, and the same was true of an 80GB model launched in the US.
Things got worse later in the year with the worldwide launch of the 40GB PS3. This model sold for $399, a significant price reduction that Sony was partly able to achieve by shrinking the Cell processor down to a more power-efficient and cost-efficient 60nm. But the machine was cut back in some serious ways: it lost two USB slots, all of the flash card readers, Super Audio CD support, and PS2 backwards compatibility in its entirety. The 40GB PS3 no longer included the Graphics Synthesizer, and therefore completely lost the ability to play PS2 discs. All subsequent PS3 units, including the two major slim redesigns, were based around the 40GB’s feature set.
Around the same time, Sony was cranking out various iterations of its first real handheld console, the PlayStation Portable. 2008’s PSP-2000 was a minor “slim” update with a few welcome tweaks, while the following year’s PSP-3000 brought a much better screen. Neither model really removed anything of note from PSPs prior, however — that would come in 2009.
The PSP Go was one of the most radical console redesigns of all time. It was much smaller than other PSP models, with buttons hidden behind a sliding mechanism, and most controversially of all didn’t feature a UMD disc drive. That meant no physical games and no UMD movies: everything had to come from the digital PlayStation Store. Despite this, Sony actually charged a significantly higher price for the PSP Go than other PSP models. It didn’t catch on, unsurprisingly, and Sony started bundling it with several free games. It was an experimental device that was ahead of its time in some ways: it marked the first time a console maker had tried to sell full retail games digitally.
The final PSP model, however, went in completely the opposite direction. The PSP-E1000 was only released in Europe in 2011, and it was a cheaper budget model with a mono speaker and no Wi-Fi support. You could still download and transfer digital games from a PS3 if you really wanted to, but in practice, this was a PSP focused on physical discs.
Sony’s follow-up to the PSP, the PS Vita, only lasted long enough to get a single redesign, and it was an interesting proposition at the time. Almost everything about it was an improvement: the size, the weight, the battery life. But the switch to a perfectly good but boring LCD from the original model’s vivid OLED screen meant that it felt a little cheaper, even though the build quality was better. It wasn’t really a case of losing a feature, it was more like a subjective change that made you wistful for the days of searing psychedelic Lumines stages into your retinas.
Microsoft also has a history of controversial console revisions, although it took its time to get going. The first Xbox only ever got internal tweaks intended to improve reliability and defend against modding, although Microsoft did quickly backtrack on its unwieldy original controller by switching to the smaller S model.
The Xbox 360 got a smaller S model in 2010, adding a dedicated proprietary port for the newly released Kinect sensor along with built-in Wi-Fi and some extra USB ports. The 360 S didn’t remove any major features, but it did make big changes to the storage situation by doing away with memory units and Microsoft’s expensive clip-on hard drives in favor of a regular SATA bay.
A later redesign, the 2013 Xbox 360 E, removed a single USB port as well as component and S-video outputs, and was mostly notable for its visual similarity to the soon-to-be-released Xbox One. Overall, Microsoft got through the 360 generation without much controversy over hardware revisions. Its biggest problem, by far, was the malfunctioning original model.
But we all know what happened with the Xbox One. Launched in 2013 with Kinect at the forefront of its UI and games lineup, the platform flopped next to the smaller, faster, cheaper PS4.
Microsoft worked quickly to right the ship, tweaking the UI’s reliance on Kinect and then, in 2014, selling versions of the Xbox One without the sensor in the box. When it came time to release a redesigned version of the console, the Xbox One S didn’t even include a Kinect port, and last year, Microsoft discontinued the hard-to-find Kinect USB adapter altogether.
The Xbox One S would have been completely unthinkable for anyone in the audience watching Microsoft’s original Xbox One presentation. In that light, it’s one of the most significant console revisions of all time. But by the time the S was released, it wasn’t controversial in the slightest.
That’s partly because it was otherwise a great update, putting a 4K Blu-ray drive and HDR support in a far smaller and more attractive box. (Around the same time, Sony released a slightly slimmer PlayStation 4 that removed the optical audio port.) But it’s mostly because few people, whether consumers or developers, ever really liked Kinect in the first place. Microsoft’s infatuation with the technology nearly sank the platform before the company realized it was on the wrong course.
That’s the thing to keep in mind when evaluating products like the Nintendo Switch Lite. Significant functionality has been lost, yes, but are there many people who would rather not have had it in the first place?
In the case of the Switch, I think the answer is actually yes. It’s a much more impressive handheld than it is a home system, and its portable nature is the reason Nintendo has been able to charge $299 for such modest hardware by modern console standards. For people who would only use it in handheld mode anyway, the chance to get a more portable-focused device with better battery life and save $100 will be very appealing.
For anyone else, well, they don’t have to buy the Switch Lite. Rumor has it that Nintendo is also working on a more powerful model. Wait for that instead.
As long as it doesn’t have anything useful removed.
Photography by Evan Amos, whose public domain work on video game hardware is an incredible gift to the world.
source : http://www.theverge.com