Fashionably late: The same rules for when to arrive and leave a party hold true for video game consoles as well. Never show up too early. Is it exciting to get there before everyone else, maybe wait in line for a midnight release, sharing some weird, high-end booze you brought? Sure, but you’ll just end up buzzed before everyone else and playing lame games like Knack. It’s far more important to leave late, though. You never want to leave before things get weird. Parties and game consoles don’t necessarily peak when the guests do.
Sometimes you need to wait until its 5 a.m., when there’re only a few people left drinking straight from the Franzia bladder, and you’re all watching the sun come up after you decided to trade pants. The video game equivalent of this is the last 18 months or so of a gaming machine’s commercial life span, long after its successor has already come out. At the end, not at the beginning or even the middle, is the best time to explore a machine’s library. Not only do you get to reap the benefits of all its past successes, you get to indulge in those precious last licks, games that aren’t necessarily the greatest but that are almost always worthy, distinct, and blessedly weird.
The pattern reaches back a long way, and the shape of these gems can vary. Sometimes they’re unusual new versions of existing games. The very last game released for the Sega Master System in the U.S. was a version of Sonic The Hedgehog, which shipped two full years after the Sega Genesis went on sale. A technological marvel with plenty of quirks, the 8-bit version actually has features not in its famous 16-bit inspiration, like an animated map screen.
Other times, the last licks are translations of games written off as foreign exclusives. The U.S. Sega Saturn got Magic Knight Rayearth, a gorgeous action RPG, at the end of 1998, right as the Dreamcast was hitting Japan and four years after the game’s Japanese release. PlayStation 2 hosted games like Persona 4 (2008) and Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love (2010). The former made it to the U.S. promptly, while the latter arrived five years after its initial Japanese release. Sakura Wars was a quintessential last days release: a game from a series trapped in a single country since the mid ’90s, finally coming out because a publisher said, “Why the hell not?”
Specific circumstances that arise from a console’s last days allow developers and publishers to ask that question. Capcom can release a story-dense spinoff like Rockman & Forte (known in the U.S. as Mega Man & Bass) on the Super Famicom in 1998—after the series had moved on to more advanced consoles—because after years of working with a machine, developers have honed the process of creating within its quirks, making development more efficient and cheap. And the console makers themselves, like Sony or Nintendo, don’t give a damn what their brand story is anymore. They’re just trying to milk whatever profits they can out of the aging kit. Meanwhile, the developer has the luxury of a ready-made audience, people who still have the older machine sitting around or decided not to move onto the new system (the discerning partygoers still smartly pre-gaming before heading out).
As the financial risk lessens, the opportunity to make something outré starts to rise. The last game Sega itself ever published for the Dreamcast was Under Defeat, a difficult arcade shoot-’em-up with a killer soundtrack. Other publishers continued to release small print runs of Dreamcast games, including other arcade games like Karous, but this was the close for Sega, who proclaimed Under Defeat “decorates the end of the Dreamcast!” It came out in 2006, more than five years after Sega discontinued the console.
Scrolling shooters like Under Defeat and Karous—games where you constantly, uncontrollably move from left to right or bottom to top, shooting spaceships with your spaceship—found a new home on the Dreamcast after dwindling elsewhere, even in arcades, for years. Under Defeat has you piloting a helicopter that can shoot in three directions—forward and to the right or left at 45-degree angles—and lock into any of those positions, creating a layer of strategy that’s awkward at first but rewarding once it clicks. Succeed in shooting down your foes and not getting blown up in this alternate-reality World War II, and you’re treated to grim portraits of your determined anime-lady pilots dressed in disturbingly Nazi-like uniforms between levels.
A game like Under Defeat would have languished on shelves even during the Dreamcast’s zenith, modest as it was. At the end of things, though, G.rev could serve the lonely, loyal few that remained. That’s the glory of late releases. Not only do they give people the opportunity to play something developed by people who know the host machine inside and out, they also re-ignite interest in the console across the board. They invite reconsideration while delighting with something unexpected and new.
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are consoles, but they’re not quite the same thing as the consoles that came before them. They’re built to be more similar to computers, a move meant to ease the game development process. What makes them different is their software and services, not their innards, so they will mature in different ways than consoles like the PlayStation 2 or the Dreamcast. This is a good thing; the familiar technology lends itself to efficient development right out the gate, meaning people can go ahead and get weird right away with less risk. (Hence games like Pix The Cat or Starwhal.) But while the age of the console may not be over, the age of the last-lick game as we’ve come to know it may well be. Maybe in 2024 there will be some bizarre complete recreation of a major game for our dusty old PlayStation 4s, just like that Sonic on the Master System. Maybe not.
While these new machines bring people into their respective parties, their predecessors are sliding into their wacky final days. PlayStation 3 has been enjoying its twilight for months. It’s seen games like NIS’ The Witch And The Hundred Knight, which is about a witch in a bikini summoning up a pint-sized knight and forcing him to explore swamps. Sony itself is helping to bring over some of these oddities. Sega refused to localize Yakuza 5, the final PS3-exclusive entry in its series of melodramatic mob adventures, to the U.S. because previous games sold so poorly—and those were about living out the lives of hardened criminals. Yakuza 5 has you playing as the series’ main character after he attempts to start a new life as a taxi driver, as well as his surrogate daughter in her pursuit of pop stardom. It’s not exactly the kind of thing you could shove on the shelf at Best Buy in 2008. Here at the end of things, though, Sony itself is helping Sega localize and release it—as a downloadable game on its digital storefront, anyway. Why the hell not? The party’s ending. There’s no better time to enjoy it.