Whenever a new console is on the horizon gamers like to talk about the launch lineup, the games that will be available to purchase along with their shiny new piece of hardware on day one. As it takes time for most developers to get a handle for the newly available technology, many of these games are ultimately forgotten or remembered as disappointments. However, the excitement that exudes from a console’s launch is also an opportunity for a game to make a real impact and standout even more than it might have had it come along later. With the upcoming release of the Nintendo Switch, it feels appropriate to take a look back at some of the best launch games in recent memory. Here I make a distinction, however, between merely excellent games that released on launch day and those that have become legends precisely because of the day they released.
Nintendo 64 – Super Mario 64
There are very few game releases that would engender the same level of suspense as Super Mario 64. It didn’t just need to continue the legacy of one of the most essential franchises in gaming, it had to prove that franchise could be viable in the future. Looking back it’s easy to see why the game would become the classic that it is, but at the time Nintendo’s ability to transfer the pitch-perfect platforming of its mascot’s 2D platformer into three dimensions was completely up in the air. Super Mario 64 had to prove that three dimensional games could work. And it did just that.
Many gamers talk about the first time they booted up the game and watched Mario leap out of a pipe into the gardens of the Mushroom Palace. The freedom to run around and explore everything they saw captivated them from that instant. To myself and people who only experienced this game as a history lesson, this introduction may seem quaint. But it doesn’t take too much imagination to understand why that freedom opened a sense of discovery that allowed the Mushroom Kingdom to feel real in a way it hadn’t previously. This idea and the game itself are still referenced by Nintendo when they talk about their goals for the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey. 20 years later and its design philosophies retain their potency. There are very few games that help determine the paths, styles, and design principles that gamers will be exposed to. Super Mario 64 cleared the way for numerous games to follow in its footsteps.
Xbox – Halo
Remember when Microsoft wasn’t making consoles? Remember when the big 3 gaming companies were Nintendo, Sony, and Sega? Remember a time when first person shooters were the sole domain of PC gaming because they simply didn’t work on consoles? In 2001 the landscape of gaming changed with the release of Microsoft’s first home console: the Xbox. It was a gamble. There are many reasons why the door was open just enough for Microsoft to begin entering the home console scene (a flagging Sega being one of them), but one game blew open that door with a rocket launcher, planted a flag in the house, and refused to leave. That game was Halo: Combat Evolved.
When I think of launch titles I think Halo. Super Mario 64 may have had a larger impact on gaming as a whole, but Halo helped give rise to an entirely new console and industry competitor. It was the definitive “killer app,” a game so good that it inspired people to buy the original Xbox (anyone else annoyed that we can’t just say “Xbox 1” anymore) just to play it. A game that made any first person shooter that came out in the following years market itself as the “Halo Killer.” A game that solidified twin stick controls as a viable alternative to Mouse and Keyboard, introduced the now standard “rebounding health” system, and gave rise to one of the biggest companies in gaming.
Wii Sports – Wii
But what about Twilight Princess? I know I know and believe me, a part of me really wants to put that excellent Legend of Zelda game on this list, but the fact of the matter is that Wii Sports was a better launch game. It may seem somewhat childish and overly simplified now, in fact even at the time of its release it was not a nuanced game, but no Wii game ever fully encapsulated the spirit of Nintendo’s motion controlled console like this pack-in game.
It was intuitive to pick up and play, so much so that everyone in the house, from children to grandparents, were able to be part of the fun. Even “hardcore” gamers were won over by the uniqueness of the controls. This cross-section was something the company wouldn’t achieve even later in the console’s lifespan. It was like nothing we’d ever experienced before, and its simplicity actually worked in its favor. While it may seem awkward not to control the tennis avatar’s movement or be able to “run” the bases in baseball, the focus of each and every game was squarely on the motion controls of the Wii remote. Add on the fact that it was included with every console purchase and we see the inspiration for the “game with console” bundle packs that are so commonplace now. It was fun, intuitive, and more than any other launch title perhaps in history, it was a clear statement of the console’s ideals, abilities, and identity.
PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U – **Blank**
Let’s cut straight to the point, there wasn’t really any game released on launch day for either the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or Wii U that’s worth talking about much. Killzone: Shadow Fall, Dead Rising 3, and New Super Mario Bros. U were the primary releases for each console respectively, and none of them met with significant acclaim or were particularly memorable. That’s not to say they were bad games, New Super Mario Bros. U was a particularly good revisitation of the classic 2-D Mario games and had the addition of multiplayer, but Nintendo had already given us this nostalgia trip several times before. The most recent generation of consoles would ultimately wait months before a truly significant game would grace their systems.
A New Breath
On March 3rd the Nintendo Switch will begin a new cycle of gaming. Whether it marks the start of a proper new generation of consoles or something different remains to be seen. The console’s launch lineup is looking pretty bare but there are some bright spots. 1,2 Switch has the potential to be a showcase for the console’s unique controller inputs just like Wii Sports did for the Wii, and there are a smattering of third-party games like Skylanders and Just Dance that could have a broad appeal. Of course there is the Zelda-sized elephant in the room: Breath of the Wild. This game in particular has the potential to make or break the console’s reputation for the foreseeable future. It’s looking excellent, beautiful, and inventive but only time will give us the perspective to know whether it belongs in the company of these other fantastic launch titles.