My goodness, May is a big month historically for games. Well, for future predictions about games that turn out to be erroneous. It’s old E3 season, and here are the picks of the past.

10 Years Ago This Month: May 2006

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The 2006 E3 was one that has lived in infamy for Sony. The breaking of some difficult news in the form of a huge 600 USD price point for the 60GB version of the PS3 was accompanied with such abysmal bravado and hubris, it doomed the system for the first few years of its life.

Kaz Hirai’s interviews in the wake of the announcements included such gems as boasting that the system would sell five million units even if it had no games on the strength of its BluRay player (BD won the HD optical media squabbles, but was far outstripped by streaming in the ensuing decade, and services wise, the PS3 had a lot of ground to cover), and that gamers would want to take a second job to afford the system (um, no). Meanwhile, it was left to Phil Harrison to defend the lack of rumble on the PS3’s Sixaxis controller (a controller already lightly mocked for apparently aping Nintendo’s accelerometer approach). Harrison would say that rumble was ‘a last ten feature’, and not at all taken out because of a legal dispute. Nope.

There was even a rumour going round E3 that Sony was implementing a DRM system that would prevent used games from being played on the PS3. It’s uncanny how Microsoft would copy these same mistakes, to even more derision, years later with the XBox One. Even down to Phil Harrison having to defend these bizarre decisions.

Heavenly sword was the best of Sony's offerings for 2006

Heavenly sword was the best of Sony’s offerings for 2006

Sony’s E3 presentation at large was a mess. While competitors were slick, well produced and entertaining, Sony talked some dull sales numbers and tech specs before launching into long demos of games from product managers with absolutely zero stage presence. Yes, this is where Genji 2 sparked the legendary ‘giant enemy crab’ and ‘massive damage’ memes, and where excitement for (remember this one?) ‘Riiiiidge Racerrr! Ridge Racer!’ on PSP wasn’t exactly matched by the crowd of investors and journos. Elsewhere, games like Metal Gear Solid 4 and Final Fantasy 13 showed promise for now, but were a long way off, and only Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword represented a game close to completion that seemed to actually be of interest. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted was hurt by a dry presentation and other titles like London crime thriller Getaway, or barely existent tech demo- cum- cover based shooter Eight Days would never see release at all (neither would Final Fantasy Versus 13, which enjoyed its first E3 airing this year and is only now heading toward its final showing in 2016 as FF 15.

Microsoft had a much slicker presentation at E3 2006, focused on imminent games for the most part. Gears of War set the pace for E3 presentations for the next decade, a nicely produced trailer giving way to a lengthy gameplay demo free of awkward marketing talk. Meanwhile, Halo 3 was given a trailer, and GTA 4 was teased for grown ups while Viva Piñata was around for kids. Fable 2 and Forza Motorsport 2 looked to build upon foundations laid on the original XBox, and only Alan Wake would be subject to interminable delay over the next few years.

Yet MS didn’t come out of E3 spot free. As Somy hung their hat on their own BluRay platform, MS looked to hop in bed with Toshiba to present their own HD movie solution. The ensuing HD DVD add on drive was as doomed as the forMay it supported, and quickly appeared in bargain bins; luckily this was a movie only solution and not one built for gaming.

Gears of War sold a ton of 360s and sparked a lot of brown and grey copycats

Gears of War sold a ton of 360s and sparked a lot of brown and grey copycats

Then there was an embarrassing in retrospect look at Windows Vista and Games for Windows Live. In truth, synergy between Windows and XBox is only looking feasible today on XB1 and Windows 10 (and isn’t without issue in 2016). 2006 was far too early, and it didn’t help that Vista was woefully unpopular as an OS compared to the XP it succeeded. GFWL floundered as Steam gained ground, and the flagship for cross platform play between 360 and PC, Shadowrun, was a non-starter (fans of the table top and 16 bit RPG it was based on were dismayed at Shadowrun‘s reimagining as a multiplayer FPS).

It was actually Nintendo that appeared to win E3 2006 based purely on presentations. The Wii had a strong showing and plenty of curiosity, and the slate of titles that ran from the more mature looking Red Steel through to the core fan appeal of Mario Galaxy and the pure fun of WarioWare and Wii Sports seemed to offer something for everyone. It was a captivating introduction, one that players would receive in millions by Christmas, before realizing that Excite Truck‘s thrills were only temporary, or that Red Steel was just rubbish through and through.

Mario Galaxy would warm even the coldest of hearts to the Wii.

Mario Galaxy would warm even the coldest of hearts to the Wii.

The DS was going from strength to strength meanwhile, thanks to the Lite remodeling selling in big numbers in Japan and imminent in the west, alongside the Touch Generations slate of casual oriented games. E3 ’06 presented more reasons to pick up a DS, led by the Wind Waker inspired Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, which would artfully squeeze a full Zelda experience onto the touchscreen, and New Super Mario Bros., starting a 2D sub franchise for the plumber that would outperform it’s more well rounded stablemate. There was even Starfox Command, a return to form for Fox McCloud and pals that by all accounts owed a lot to the cancelled Starfox 2 on SNES from 11 odd years prior, and was a fun if sorely overlooked game at retail.

With everybody’s eyes on the rest of 2006, this was a slim month for new games, but there was a trio of new releases. Hitman Blood Money was arguably IO Interactive’s best murder simulator yet, its open ended playgrounds of death presenting some of Agent 47’s most memorable challenges. Rockstar produced Table Tennis, an unlikely hit that had a surprising amount of depth and presented a look at the physics and character animation that would drive GTA 4. Then there was Uno on XBox Live Arcade: not much to write home about, but a slickly produced version of the card game with excellent net code. The massive sales Uno managed to amass was a vital success for the XBLA platform in an era well before digital distribution for games small and large was widespread.

20 Years Ago This Month: May 1996

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E3 ’96 echoed the prior year’s event strongly. Both Nintendo and Sega walked in with a huge sense of bravado and new soft and hardware. Sony weren’t entirely spectacular, but with a single announcement, illustrated that they had now, in record time, become the industry leader.

Nintendo first. The N64 was making its last public appearance before being launched in Japan in June. Concerns over the amount of software on the platform had been many and valid after the system’s Shoshinkai outing in late ’95; Nintendo’s response was to show as many titles as possible, regardless of how early they were in development. As a result, Mario Kart 64 (or Super Mario Kart R as it was known for the time being), Starfox 64 and Goldeneye were shown ridiculously early in development, and while Rare’s title showed potential, the two in house Nintendo games were hurt by being shown off so early on with terrible fogging issues and frame rates.

More impressive were the titles that were all but ready to go. Blast Dozer (later renamed to Blast Corps), Pilot Wings and Shadows of the Empire all impressed, but it was Mario that was the star of the show. Nintendo’s announced US price point of 250 USD seemed worth it for the plumber’s big leap to 3D, and Nintendo had an OK showing overall (let’s paper over the Virtual Boy’s last trade show before being pulled from sale, interesting looking action RPG Dragon Hopper and top down platformer Bound High being shown and never making release).

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Sonic XTreme didn’t get much past this stage.

Sega seemed to have more comfortable at E3 ’96 than in ’95. The Saturn/PlayStation race was really a lot closer at this stage than it would be a few scant months later in the west, and in Japan Sega had a slight lead if anything. They would lead with Panzer Dragoon 2 and Sonic Team’s spectacular Nights, and had strong third party support with Eidos and Core’s Tomb Raider (this before Sony sewed up rights to the franchise). Sega were even venturing into the online space with the peer to peer driven Netlink service. It was a fine show; much like Nintendo’s VB though, we’ll conveniently forget that the demoed Virtua Fighter 3 wouldn’t make it to Saturn, and the ludicrously early proof of concept Sonic Xtreme would never come out at all.

Then there was Sony. They had an OK showing, building on franchises gaining ground on their hardware. Tekken and Ridge Racer both had their sequels shown off. Wipeout had a pseudo sequel in the form of XL (2097 in Europe), and Naughty Dog were able to leverage Universal’s licensing capabilities to make Crash Bandicoot seem a big exclusive deal for PS.

Crash would be a key part of selling the now 199 Dollar Playstation to younger gamers.

Crash would be a key part of selling the now 199 Dollar Playstation to younger gamers.

Yet the bombshell, just as it was the prior year, was a price. 1995 was all about the 299 number, and this year, it was 199. The cut caught both Nintendo and Sega completely off guard, and both companies would follow suit by the next day, in Nintendo’s case sowing confusion by cutting price before the system even launched. In hindsight, this made Nintendo’s approach to Europe and the U.K. in ’97 even more bizarre; the N64 launched there in March, nine months after Japan and six after the US, at an insane 250 GBP, roughly double the price point elsewhere.

On the shelves this month were a pair of Japanese games, as the west was busy with glamour and sales pitches. Fire Emblem Seisen no Keifu was the second FE game on Super Famicom and broadly appreciated for its new wrinkles to the combat system, adapting a Rock Paper Scissors approach to melee and magic combat. Then SNK brought us Metal Slug to arcades and the Neo Geo, a wonderfully presented run and gun with big ol’ robots to hop in, boat loads of humour and a glorious cartoon look.

30 Years Ago This Month: May 1986

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While new games were thin on the ground in 1996 and 2006, May ’86 had quite a few strong titles both in the east and west.

The first game we’ll look at wasn’t one of those, however. World Cup Carnival, released with the football tournament around the corner would be the first licensed World Cup game, US Gold picking up the rights. There was every reason to believe WCC could be a strong game of soccer for the 8 bits, but with problems mounting in the development process, US Gold scrambled to get a game on shelves before kickoff. Looking through the Spectrum/C64 library, they found the lesser known and unlicensed World Cup Football, put a new title screen on the front and called it a day, in a long standing tradition of taking a big license and doing a ‘my lovely horse’ with it.

Faring better was Electric Dreams’ Spindizzy. An isometric action puzzler very heavily inspired by Marble Madness, it had you exploring pseudo 3D maps in the guise of an inertia heavy spinning top. With strong reviews, Spindizzy fared well in its native Britain, but poor marketing by publisher Activision scuppered it in the US (along with a sequel and SNES remix).

Knight Tyme was notable for being the first strong game built around the new Spectrum 128. The graphic adventure would later be ported down to the 48k systems, but its impressive visuals made it a neat showpiece for the new system.

Brattacas was a technically impressiv game that lacked in the gameplay department, starting somewhat of a reputation for Psygnosis.

Brattacas was a technically impressiv game that lacked in the gameplay department, starting somewhat of a reputation for Psygnosis.

Speaking of technical showpieces, we saw one for the Amiga this month in the form of Brattacas. This was the first title from Liverpool group Psygnosis, a studio formed by David Lawson and Ian Hetherington after their former company Imagine folded. Imagine was broken by constant spending, much of it on marketing and developing a pair of mythical ‘mega games’. That would lead to a lot of speculation that Brattacas contained the remnants of one of those two games, Bandersnatch (the other, Psyclapse, was never actually in development).

The game had a neat scifi setting going for it, along with strong animation and a clever AI system. Every NPC in the game had their own routines and movements, and could even engage one another in combat. Brattacas handled abysmally though. Attempting an analogue control system, the game used the mouse to directly control the player. No pointing and clicking here; move the mouse slowly to the right and you’d walk, faster and you’d run. Supposedly. The control scheme was incredibly vague, and input lag rendered things nearly unplayable.

In Japan, a pair of franchises were born that each had long legs (though only one remains today). Konami brought us Goemon in arcades. Based around the real life Peter Pan like figure Ishikawa Goemon, this was a side scrolling platformer that lacked a lot of the charm and absurd humour later games in the series would gain, but still provided a fun enough foundation for a franchise that ran for the next two decades.

Goemon’s successes would only be modest, however. Dragon Quest however, swept its home country, and made publisher Enix a household name.  Enix had moved into videogames from the publishing business, and would often solicit games from outside developers through magazine contests. That’s how Yuji Horii and his Chunsoft team entered the fold with the publisher, and the epic DQ was the result of a year long development cycle, and the involvement of Dragonball artist Akira Toriyama. Slow sales snowballed into a two million figure by the end of its life, and while a late localization in 1989 looked significantly old hat, it was influential for a console RPG at the time.