We're now at the point, I think, where the Playstation 4 and Xbox One have ceased to be "next generation" consoles and become "current generation". Their predecessors aren't quite ready for retirement yet; the PS3, in particular, has a fairly impressive line-up of releases over the next few months, running all the way to Persona 5 early next year. But those late releases (and we did see a similar long-tail for the PS2 last time around) are outliers now; a by-product of the risk aversion which, following the terrible launches of the PS Vita and Wii-U, saw much of the industry assume that the PS4 and XB1 would fail even before their launches. With both consoles selling at an unprecedented rate, the focus of the industry will inevitably switch towards them.
And about time too. The previous console generation was the longest on record. If you take the longest possible metric - the launch of the Xbox 360 (Nov 2005) to the launch of the PS4 and XB1 (Nov 2013) - it was 8 years. Even if you say that the previous generation only really began properly with the launch of the PS3 (Nov 2006) it was 7 years.
But this isn't a post about the state of the console business. Rather, it's a reflection on some of the more curious aspects of the games lineup of the last-gen consoles. More specifically, it's a reflection on two particular aspects of those games; the newcomers that came out of nowhere and the no-shows.
Some of the major console gaming franchises behaved more or less as you would expect them to during the last generation. Stalwart series such as Final Fantasy, Gran Turismo, Mario, Zelda, Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil and God of War all put out major new installments in accordance with their developers' normal timescales (perhaps ever so slightly slower, reflecting the increasing development times needed for games). But a curiously large proportion of the biggest franchises in console gaming right now hadn't even been heard of (outside, perhaps, of the odd preview event) when the Xbox 360 first launched. The other curious category are those franchises which felt like major fixtures of the industry during the previous generation, which inexplicably failed to show up at all for the PS3, 360 or Wii.
The new entrants
Assassin's Creed - There have, to date, been six major installments in the Assassin's Creed series, plus a couple of handheld spin-offs and home-console ports of those console spin-offs. The sixth installment, as well as being released for the last-gen consoles (and PC, of course) was also a launch-window title for the PS4 and XB1. There is probably no franchise that has been milked more relentlessly over the course of the last console generation than this one. But it's easy to forget that this was a franchise that was born on that generation and which had a difficult genesis. An early-cycle game for the PS3 (Nov 2007), the original Assassin's Creed was an odd, awkward stealth game, noted at the time chiefly for its repetitive side-missions and finger-sprainingly awkward controls. It was only with the second game (November 2009), marketed more heavily and with the emphasis shifted towards open-world exploration, that the series gained a genuinely mainstream profile. Since then, the games have come at a rate of around one per year.
Dead Rising - Less prolific than Assassin's Creed in terms of main games, but nevertheless a franchise which, counting spin-offs and major DLC packs, has seen a large number of installments. The series has a curious on-off flirtation with Microsoft exclusivity. The first game, launching mid-2006, was a very early-cycle 360 exclusive. Its vast hordes of zombies served as a useful technological showcase for the new console's capabilities. The second game shed its exclusivity, releasing for PC, PS3 and 360. The third main installment in the series is an XB1 launch exclusive where - quel surprise - its vast hordes of zombies serve as a useful technological showcase for the new console's capabilities. Most people I know who've played this series have a love/hate relationship with it. They love the concept and the slightly surreal sense of humour, but hate many of the gameplay conventions (particularly the save-restrictions and the brutally unforgiving difficulty curve and time-limits).
Dead Space - Now here's a series that tends to divide opinion. It has seen three main installments over the last console generation (each releasing on PC, PS3 and 360), a lightgun rail-shooter for the Wii-U and PS3 (where it remains one of the few things worth buying a PS Move for) and a couple of dreadful downloadable puzzle games. The first game was criticised for being less horror-oriented than advertised and being at heart an action game. The second game was criticised for being less horror-oriented than advertised and being at heart an action game. The third game was criticised for being less horror-oriented than the first two installments and being at heart an action game. If you sense a pattern there, it's because the series has never really been what a lot of people wanted it to be, but memories of the older installments tend to mellow over time. The third game was also hamstrung by a pointless pay-to-win controversy (the microtransactions weren't even vaguely necessary to play the game, but put a lot of people off regardless) and allegedly suffered disappointing sales. The future of the series is uncertain at present (unlike most of the others I'm listing under this category).
Gears of War - An iconic Microsoft exclusive, every bit as linked to their platforms as Halo. This went through four major installments over the course of the last generation (though many people, self included, apparently skipped the final one - a prequel generally felt to be unnecessary). The original game, launched in November 2007, around a year after the launch of the 360, was graphically jaw-dropping compared to other console games available at the time. It's also easy to forget now just how many gameplay conventions that dominate modern shooters were pioneered by Gears of War. The cover mechanic - far more sophisciated than anything that has come before it - and the use of a single generic "action" button for many commands - have both inspired a generation of rip-offs (some of which, in fairness, have been quite good - such as Binary Domain). Some people object to the series's hypermasculine aesthetic, but I've always suspected a strong touch of parody to it.
Hyperdimension Neptunia - Oh I have such a love/hate relationship with this series. The first game, a mid-cycle PS3 exclusive launching in 2010, deserves to be counted as among the worst games of its generation. Pushing graphics that would have disgraced a PS1 game on at framerates that were generally in the single-figures and possessed of a fundamentally broken battle system, a non-existent plot and humour that failed to work on every level, it was utterly terrible. Inexplicably, it got a sequel. And the sequel was a bit better. And then it got another sequel, which was significantly better. And then it got an anime-spinoff, which was genuinely amusing and actually pretty good in a braindead sort of way. And then it started getting hand-held spinoffs and remakes. And, for some reason, I keep buying them. And horribly, with the exception of the first game, I actually quite enjoy them. Yeah...
Mass Effect - Originally a 360 exclusive, this was one of the most exciting early-cycle titles. A swashbuckling sci-fi adventure from Bioware, based on their own IP, it was always inevitable that sequels would follow. A confident, ethically nuanced second game boded well. But then the third game happened. With its combination of clunky exposition, magical deus ex machinas and probably the worst ending ever written, it did a lot of harm to the franchise's reputation. A fourth game is apparently in development, but details are sparse.
Modern Warfare - Ok, ok, Call of Duty as a franchise predates this console generation. The inexplicably popular PC original (a dumbed down version of Medal of Honour) dates from 2003 and the second game in the series was a 360 launch-title in 2005. However, the Call of Duty we are burdened with today, which has had more installments than should exist in a sane world essentially traces its origins to 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Now Call of Duty 4 was an excellent game. Early modern-era-setting shooters had either been ludicrous cartoony affairs (Soldier of Fortune) or dry, dusty technical jobs (SWAT, anything Tom Clancy branded). Call of Duty 4, by contrast, was slickly produced, fast paced and had a plot which managed to walk a careful line between the requirements of taste and excitement. That it had some of the cleanest, sharpest shooter mechanics around also didn't hurt. Almost immediately, the series began to descent into accidental self-parody with its sequels and inspired a staggering number of hateful spunkgargleweewee rip-offs (the rebooted Medal of Honour series possibly the worst offenders). I had hoped that Spec Ops: The Line, an excellent and thoughtful deconstruction of the genre might kill it off, but sadly that hasn't happened. There are some signs that the cow might have been over-milked - last year's Call of Duty: Ghosts - had generally poor reviews and managed only staggering - rather than stupendous - sales. But this is one series that's not going anywhere soon. As much as we might like it to.
Resistance - The original Resistance: Fall of Man was a PS3 launch title and was, for a long time, the only thing worth playing on the system. A strange but wonderful game, combining a somber tone and setting with some of the most inventive weapon and enemy designs ever seen in a shooter. Its sequel took a more cautious approach, borrowing hateful 2-weapon limits and regeneration health from Halo. The third installment, however, went back to its roots and remains, to my mind, the best console shooter of the last generation. After a poorly-received Vita port, the future of the series is unclear. Sadly, it never seems to have had the same kind of traction as the Killzone series, despite Killzone being far duller to play and having a loathesome setting and chatacters.
Souls - By which I mean Demon's Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2. When Demon's Souls launched in 2009, it attracted very little notice (a belated US release and a very belated European release didn't help). An odd - and extremely difficult - dark third person action RPG, it was well outside the spectrum of what people expected to see coming out of Japan. However, it got a cult following and managed to get a sequel. And somehow that sequel managed to get some proper marketing behind it - and went on to become one of the best games - and most unexpected successes - of its generation, inspiring another sequel in the process.
Uncharted - Launching in late 2007, the first Uncharted game was an early-cycle PS3 exclusive, arriving at a time when the platform was desperately starved for games. Inspired by Tomb Raider, it combined combat with environmental puzzles and exploration. While the original game was a fairly low-key release, the marketing machine swung into overdrive for its sequels. These abandoned much of the exploration and problem-solving gameplay of the original, becoming pretty-but-shallow corridor-shooters. A spinoff for the Vita Launch brought the series back in a more thoughtful direction. The jury is still out on which direction future installments might take.
The Nearly But Not Quites - For all the successful new mega-franchises that came out of the last generation, there were also a few clear attempts to launch new brands that never quite worked out. In some cases, this was due to insufficient quality (such as The Force Unleashed, which crashed and burned after its second game, taking quality Star Wars game development with it). In other cases, however, genuinely exciting games never managed the sales they deserved and promising franchises died stillborn. Bulletstorm and Vanquish both deserved sequels they never got. Perhaps the biggest crime was Sega's treatment of Valkyria Chronicles. The original - a mid-cycle PS3 exclusive, remains, for my money, the best game of its console generation. However, it had no marketing push and when it managed only "ok" sales, Sega shunted its sequels onto the PSP - a platform which was, by that time, dead outside of Japan. Indeed, "death by handheld" has been a consistent feature of Japanese gaming over the course of the last generation, which brings me neatly onto...
Kingdom Hearts - Kingdom Hearts 2 was one of the last really big releases for the PS2. Launching in the window when the PS3 hype-machine was already activated, it nevertheless managed strong sales. Putting out what were probably the finest graphics ever seen on the PS2 and with finely honed action-RPG gameplay (no Zelda game has ever held a candle to Kingdom Hearts 2) it felt like a confident installment in a strong and growing franchise. A franchise which has - since then - been entirely unrepresented on the home consoles until a couple of HD-remakes came out last year. There have been handheld games. Oh, there have been so many handheld games. But they've not moved the series's main plot forward at all (instead, they've just further complicated its already ludicrous backstory) and none of them have been a patch on the ambition or quality of Kingdom Hearts 2. There is talk, now, of Kingdom Hearts 3 being in the early stages of development - but our only clue as to a release date is "2016 at the earliest, probably later.
Shin Megami Tensei - This is a series which is, in effect, an umbrella under which a number of other series sit. In the PS2 days, those all co-existed on the same platform. For the most part, they were niche-titles, but then Persona 3, a late-cycle PS2 game, found genuine mainstream success with its blend of dungeon crawling and relationship building. Persona 4, an ultra-late-cycle game that was arguably the last release for the PS2 actually worth playing, managed to better its predecessor. The future for the series looked bright on the home consoles. But since then, nothing but handheld titles - mostly for the DS, indeed - as Atlus took fright at PS3 development costs and ran screaming to a handheld comfort zone. A very solid remake of Persona 4 remains arguably the best reason to own a Vita (a much under-appreciated platform), but it's still just a remake. Persona 5 is, of course, now announced and will be coming out next year - for the PS3. Atlus therefore look set to avoid a complete no-show on that generation - but only by arriving after everybody else had already moved on.
Starfox - You'd have thought that the Wiimote's IR-pointer and motion sensing would have made it a good fit for Starfox's rail-shooting action. Nintendo, for whatever reason, seems to disagree. In fairness, they also abused this franchise horribly on the Gamecube, where of its two installments, one was a shitty third-person platformer and the other was a shitty third-person platformer with a couple of great but blink-and-you-miss-them rail-shooter levels.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - The original game, during its window as an Xbox exclusive (a PC release eventually followed) was instrumental in building the Xbox's credibility and Microsoft's marketshare. This is the game I bought my Xbox to play - and I wasn't alone. A reasonably good (if buggy) sequel followed and further installments felt, at the start of the generation, almost inevitable. Since then, of course, Bioware moved on to work on its own IP (Mass Effect and Dragon Age) and then went down a disastrous Rabbit Hole with Star Wars: The Old Republic. Now, you could argue that The Old Republic is, despite being a MMORPG, KOTOR3. However, it's a PC exclusive and hence doesn't count for these purposes. With Star Wars game development now in the hands of EA, a high quality new KOTOR now feels a remote prospect; expect more microtransaction laden mobile games instead.