Saturday, February 8, 2020

Launch Titles

By: Patrick "TheLaw" Morris

When we think back on the video games that have defined each generation the ones that immediately come to mind are of two varieties: those that are considered the best, and the ones that came first. A lot rides on the quality of  games available in a console's infancy and often times it isn't the hardware developers who get the chance to determine their own destiny but the software developers. Launch titles are expected to be firing on all cylinders right out of the gate and whether or not they achieve that can dictate the fate of a console, and sometimes even a company, as we move forward into what's looking to be a more iterative and universally backwards compatible future there might be just one more chance at truly great launch titles. 

Welcome welcome welcome everyone, welcome back to LegalSpeak a ColdNorth Production. I'm TheLawMorris and this is the video essay series in which I get to talk about the games I've been playing and what I think of the medium as a whole. This week we won't be discussing any one game in specific but what the games we will be discussing have in common is that they all came first. Let's talk about launch titles.

The stakes are high for launch titles and the deck is stacked against those developers who are either foolish enough or unlucky enough to have to make a launch title. Very similarly to people consoles really only get one first impression and recovering from a bad first impression can take years. Having good games launching alongside new hardware sets the tone for not only the next year or two but likely the entire generation. Launch titles have the power to either build huge momentum or put a console in a deep hole and they do both of those things extremely quickly.

Under ideal circumstances, a launch title can catapult a console to immediate greatness the way Tetris did for the Game Boy in 1989, but in some cases, a console can lean to heavily on one launch title expecting a Tetris effect to take place and it can lead to the console's quick demise. In late 2011 and early 2012 (depending on which region of the world you were in at the time) Sony released the PlayStation Vita, the packed to the gills follow up to their debut handheld the PSP. On paper the Vita checked almost every box, what was at the time considered a huge five-inch OLED display, dual analog sticks for precise controls, a touch screen and rear touchpad for even more control inputs, an incredibly powerful CPU that was said to sport nearly the power of the PlayStation 3 and even an 3G option all packed down into a sleek elegant looking package. All of this came at a premium but it was one Sony seemed to think people were willing to pay for such a powerful handheld. But one of the boxes Sony didn’t take extra care to check was software.

In their haste to develop the most powerful handheld, anyone could imagine Sony found themselves leaning heavily on Bend Studios Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Sony Liverpool's Wipeout 2048. While both were excellent games they didn’t have the prowess to carry a console and the Vita quickly found itself tumbling into obscurity. When competing with the less powerful, less polished, and more gimmicky Nintendo 3DS the choice on paper seemed an obvious one. But where Vita owners had great hardware and a small selection of mediocre games the 3DS both looked and felt like a toy but it would be the games that would determine the winner in the last generation of handhelds in which Nintendo had any real competition.

Graphics, feel, and replayability have been the tentpoles that every great launch title in history has incorporated. Without all three a launch title can go from being great to largely forgettable and change the coveted momentum into a dreaded ball and chain shackled to one's ankle. When making a first impression visuals are key, graphically a game has to look like it couldn’t have been achieved on whatever the last generation of consoles was. Early in a consoles life before players have become accustomed to the new normal of visual fidelity is when those players will play a new game just to look at how impressive it is visually. I mean I played through about two-thirds of Killzone Shadowfall before realizing it was an extremely mediocre game that was visually one of the most impressive games I had ever seen. If a launch title cant wow it's audience visually then it is in no way destined for greatness.

I've said it before and I am under no impression that I am the first to say it but for a huge percentage of players gameplay is king. A game without good gameplay is one that will have difficulty standing up to the pressures of a normal climate, but when the added weight of being a launch title is factored in a game without great gameplay buckles under said weight. In order for the gameplay of a launch title to be considered great it has to feel revolutionary. It has to feel distinctly next-gen, like there's no way it could have been accomplished with that old hardware that you treasured just hours before. At the launch of the original Xbox Bungie released Halo and with it they popularized a control scheme that we still use to this day: the dual-stick layout. Microsoft wasn’t the first to add a second analog stick to their controller, Sony beat them to that by a little over four and a half years. They weren't even the first to use the left stick to move and the right stick to look around, Argonaut Games did that in the Alien Resurrection licensed game in 2000. But what Bungie did was they made what others had done before them feel natural. Halo did something that had been so clunky in the last generation the only games to do it either required two controllers or were panned for that exact control scheme. Halo felt extremely next-gen and as a result, it flourished.

And finally, a launch title has to keep its players constantly thirsty for more. Some of the best games I've ever played are ones that I've played through once and never gone back to because I had gotten what I felt was a satisfactory experience. But launch titles aren't afforded that luxury, they have to be the reason people keep coming back to that shiny new console as opposed to playing their older consoles that undoubtedly have better games. In 2005 when I got my Xbox 360 Call of Duty 2 offered a decent single-player experience but that multiplayer was excellent and it was what kept me from going back to the original Xbox to keep playing Halo 2 or Chronicles of Riddick. A launch title that can keep offering an enjoyable experience even after the player has seen all it has to offer is one that can potentially hit that elusive state of excellence. Launch titles that can somehow manage to pack all three of these major tentpoles into a game that's ready on day one for hardware the developers undoubtedly have very little experiencing with have the chance at writing their name amongst the stars like Mario 64, Halo, Twilight Princess, and as a very personal addition Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Remix. It's a tall order but it has been done…but can it be done anymore?

I don’t know if you’ve heard but there's a new generation of Xbox and PlayStation launching later this year and by the looks of it this could be the last chance for romance when it comes to launch titles. Microsoft has already been upfront about there not being any first-party Xbox Series X exclusives for at least a year. This is undoubtedly them referencing the PC market, the fact that they will continue to support the Xbox One family of consoles, and potentially alluding to the yet to be announced weaker Xbox Series S. But Microsoft has also confirmed to an extent both backward and forward compatibility. So it seems as though all Xbox One games will run on the Series X and moving forward Series X will be able to run games optimized for whatever iteration of Xbox comes after it. The keyword there being iteration. The Xbox seems to be headed in a much more iterative and PC like direction effectively ending launch titles entirely. Could Halo Infinite be the last proper Xbox launch title?

Things seem to be much less certain on the PlayStation side. As of now there really aren't any obvious launch titles that will have the capability to move consoles in the way Halo Infinite will. For a long time, I was thinking that Ghost of Tsushima was going to be a launch title for the PS5 and straddle the generation by also offering a less polished less impressive PS4 version but then Sony announced the game will be coming this summer several months prior to the announced holiday window for the PS5. With The Last of Us Part 2 coming in May then Ghost of Tsushima in "summer" so potentially as far back as early September that would leave very little room for Ghost of Tsushima to breathe if a new first-party Sony game were coming with the launch of the PS5. And even if that was Sony's plan the only one it could reasonably be would be the inevitable Horizon Zero Dawn sequel which we most certainly would have heard of by now. So with that then I suppose the best we can hope for would be a PS5 enhanced version of these major Sony games which will definitely struggle to sell consoles when compared with the prospect of an all-new game. And even then we still have to address the possibility of backwards compatibility looming overhead making it so that the best potential we could hope for would be some sort of PS5 patch to improve on existing PS4 games.

So while the age of launch titles may be coming to an end their presence and weight have undeniably shaped the gaming landscape into what we see today. From Super Mario Bros to Mario 64, to Halo, and Call of Duty 2 launch titles are still some of my most vivid memories and some of the games I most closely associate with their respective consoles. What are some of your favorite launch titles and which one do you think is the best of all time? Let me know in the comments down below. While you're down there don’t forget to hit the subscribe button for a new video every week. You can see everything we do including both of our podcasts all in one spot over at I will be back next week talking about something else entirely so until then just go play some games. 

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