When I’m old and grey, and either my grandchildren or my nieces and nephews sit around the couch in my home, I’ll have lost my looks, my sanity, and wider function of my bowels, but I’ll be able to look them square in the eye and tell them one thing: “Children, 2001 was the absolute best year that video games ever had.” Then they’ll look back at me as they say, “Grandpa, what’s a video game? We’re nearly 5, we don’t play with baby toys. Mom, he’s ranting, and smells weird again.”
We will likely never have a year like 2001 again. What an electric time for video games – we had come off the heels of the fifth generation consoles, and while 16-bit looked beautiful, we were working towards games that resembled reality with the growing popularity of CD-based systems. Gaming gained ground at a frightening rate as the late-90s era felt cutting edge, and fresh, while also leaving room for growth, and the gap between the fifth and sixth generation tantalised and teased audiences worldwide. Crash Bandicoot 3 and Conker’s Bad Fur Day looked and played great – how could games get any better? The idea of these amazing games plus refined graphics was too much to bear, and it would all come to a head in the weeks following that all-important day: October 26, 2000. Sony Computer Entertainment America got us off to the races.
The Xbox and the Gamecube would launch late into the year, but 2001 was vital for Sony as the year that the PS2 would find its feet. Launching in Q3 2000 in the West, the second child welcomed into the PlayStation family had a perfectly acceptable start, and sales past Christmas of that year were more than enough to bankroll the bills of debauchery that the board of governors surely would rack up; that is, they sold enough units for a DuckTales-styled cocaine room. Yet the games initially released were rather ho-hum, and aside from the marvellous Tekken Tag Tournament and SSX, nothing at all qualified as a killer app. Fast forward to December 2001, and it’s a different story. The shareholders can now afford two cocaine rooms, and a boat made of cocaine. Sony had Metal Gear Solid 2, Silent Hill 2, Grand Theft Auto III, Ico, and Final Fantasy X, and those were solely the exclusives! Whatever console you chose, you also had access to the incomparable Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and Max Payne. As far as “reasons to buy” goes, I don’t think you’ll ever see such a stacked year ever again.
2001 was debatably the first year that “video games as art” movement gained enough traction to be a viable argument. The aforementioned sequels of MGS and Silent Hill saw their release that year, and while games that took steps to be more than just toys prevailed prior to this (Myst and Earthbound, particularly), Sony’s championing of such bigger titles was the first time we saw that “important” games could be commercially viable. By which I mean that these games had important points to make about free will, control, mental illness, reality, and the solidity of the world around us. Games where you felt like a more enlightened, or at least a more understanding person from playing them.
While that phrase – “commercially viable”, eww – is utterly sick-making, it ensured we’d see a greater diversity of games; big, uncompromising, and loud titles similar to popcorn cinema, and more introspective, meaningful works. The idea that games are becoming more like film is contentious, but if you believe in this theory, then 2001 was the genesis point – the production values of current titles today would genuinely not be as high without these games testing the waters first.
May we remind you that this was just on one side only? November 15th would see “buy out” titans Microsoft enter the fray with the monolithic Xbox, and although their library would never quite reach the upper echelon of quality that Sony had seemingly permanent dominion over, they still came ready out of the box with Halo: Combat Evolved, a game that, even if you don’t care for the first-person shooter, made console FPSs a winning formula, much less a viable one, as we were always told that PCs were the only platform that could ever do them justice. It’s no exaggeration to say that, without Halo CE (and a little help from GoldenEye), Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare simply would not have happened, would not have half as many tricks up its sleeve. Without the pre-eminence of COD and its influence in switching on the mainstream to online gaming by demonstrating it could work, it is unthinkable where gaming would be today, hate it or love it.
Of absolute less importance to the gaming industry (but of utmost importance to the complacency industry) was the release of Project Gotham Racing. Straight up: PGR isn’t in the same league as Gran Turismo, but it did give the Japanese series due reason to straighten up and fly right. Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec was a wholly acceptable iteration of the now-venerable racing simulation series, but it felt safe, a little sanitised, after the rushed and troubled development after the Christmas-rushed 1999 release of 2. A-Spec felt like when you just want an essay handed in and out of your sight. It was still a game leagues ahead of other racing titles, but it didn’t step forward as far as the first two games, nor did it do nearly as much. When Bizarre Creations’ Project Gotham Racing hit the scene, it felt truly fresh, and was a meeting of two worlds; managing to feel like a fairly tight semi-simulation, as well as arriving to the Fast and the Furious street racing party a full two years before Need for Speed stumbled through the doors.
Polyphony couldn’t rest on their laurels. Neither could Namco, whose latest King of Iron Fist tournament iteration Tekken 4 didn’t meet expectations after the out-of-this-world Tekken 3. 2001 was important; a snarling and hungry public bit back and told developers they needed to try better. It wasn’t just a year of unbridled success, but a year for learning and reassessing. 2001, while producing favourable results – Tekken 4 and Gran Turismo 3 have debatably aged very well indeed, but were outclassed by the next releases in their respective series. 2001 might have allowed for mistakes but that’s a product of developers refusing to play it safe. They stepped out, experimented – sometimes got it wrong, mind, but that led to the overall strengthening of huge series through risk, and this ethos is water in the desert compared to today, where developers put forward the safe choices. EA excrete their airtight sports range, thickening their bottom line while maybe taking a chance every few years. They make products first and games second, and the thought process should be the other way around. But profits win out every time.
Two decades of evolution had birthed the GameCube, which spawned an impressed initial few months for Nintendo. Super Smash Bros. Melee. Luigi’s Mansion. Super Monkey Ball. And less importantly but still great for the first couple of months, a fantastic port of the absolute best game about public transport insanity, Crazy Taxi. The GameCube got an incredibly raw deal in that it played the role of George Harrison to the PlayStation 2’s Paul McCartney, an incredible piece of hardware ill-fated to coincide with arguably the piece of tech of our lifetime. Yet the GameCube would be vindicated, fairly immediately by its low price and developer pedigree, and also in the further future as a workhorse machine with many defining Nintendo titles of the era and third-party gems like the Metal Gear Solid remake and perhaps the definitive version of Resident Evil 4. No part of this would ever have been possible if Nintendo were not there to provide a true alternative to the PS2, bringing heated competition that Microsoft wouldn’t figure out until 2005. Variety’s the spice of life after all, right?
Now we know why this year was so important, why haven’t we seen anything like it since? The “console wars” era of gaming was an odious time, but if anything may be said about it, it’s that competition in any industry is healthy. In 2018, Sony and Microsoft are in competition, sure, but there’s very few true exclusive titles left; the console war is being increasingly won on what the hardware itself can offer, not the software. (Note I leave out Nintendo, who do not consider themselves at “war” with either company, as they take a “red ocean” philosophy towards their products; meaning they move units by offering products and features that nobody else will) There’s no impetus for either side to tie up developers to the golden handcuffs, no struggle to make people say “here are your reasons to buy my console”. The console is the reason, and everything else now is corollary.
We will never have that kind of time again, but that doesn’t mean games are bad, just not as big, which comes as a cruel and confusing irony seeing that the industry is literally as big as it has ever been. We’ll never see a large clatter of releases all at once in an attempt to extricate money from our wallets, each side building more and more momentum to cater to us, the audience and the masters of choice. That’s not to say that the current market isn’t exciting, and the independent scene of games development has been absolutely electric over the last few years, but most indie titles are very intimate, very personal. I cannot be the only person who misses the grandioseness, the brashness of these larger than life titles exploding onto the scene, when games didn’t feel totally corporate and buttoned down, when I could lie to myself and pretend that this wasn’t just an industry selling software, but experiences to make us forget about the futility of life.
When video games are great, they’re excellent, and ultimately, I would not trade every step the industry has taken to get here, minus a few aberations and missteps – Mother 3 in the West, for one. Certainly, I will play games until I am old. Yet I don’t think any calendar year will match up to 2001 in any respect, be it in quality, magnitude, or implications for the future. We will certainly see excellent games that improve on the established foundations, but never such a broad, deep set of truly important titles ever again.