Saturday is a school day in Japan, but that didn’t stop thousands of kids from sleeping on blankets or slabs of cardboard in front of electronics stores on the night of Friday, March 3 — or even earlier, in many cases. According to one store manager in Akihabara, Tokyo’s ”Electric Town,” there were lines with as many as 4,000 people in front of some of the bigger stores. It wasn’t a rock concert or the latest Star Wars movie the crowds were jonesing to see. No, the faithful were camping out because they wanted to be the first to get their mitts on…a videogame console.
Of course, this isn’t just any joystick-junkie box. The PlayStation 2, retailing at 39,800[yen] (approximately $370) and available in the U.S. in September, is the latest and most breathlessly awaited megamachine from Sony, which has sold 80 million units of the original PlayStation worldwide and controls 55 percent of the console market (versus Nintendo’s 31 percent and Sega Dreamcast’s 14 percent). Yes, the PlayStation 2 plays videogames — but it also reads DVDs, which can hold more than 25 times as much information as regular compact discs. That storage space can be converted into longer games, voice tracks, or even multiple games on a single disc. It also means that the PS2 can be used as a DVD movie player: If you get tired of, say, playing a James Bond game, you can pop it out and watch The World Is Not Enough instead.
But what’s really putting the gleam in Sony Computer Entertainment president and CEO Ken Kutaragi’s eye is PlayStation’s broadband network. That feature will not only set the stage for multiplayer gaming — much like the Dreamcast console that Sega launched last year — but could also make the PS2 a Trojan horse for the ultimate convergence of TV, games, and the Internet. Suddenly, Sony’s competition is no longer Nintendo and Sega, but cable modem services like Time Warner’s Road Runner and Microsoft’s as-yet-unannounced set-top ”X-Box.” And those companies don’t have the game expertise that could result in a whole new form of entertainment. ”As a game console it’s a great machine,” says Edward Williams, analyst at institutional research and investment banking firm Gerard Klauer Mattison. ”The fact that it plays movies is a nice added benefit. What’s interesting going forward is that you’ll have the ability to hook up a modem and a hard drive to it. What they’re trying to do is expand the households worldwide that will buy a game system.”
For the time being, the PS2 is merely a hell of a game console — one so powerful that George Lucas has gone on record as saying that it offers more on-the-fly graphics-generating power than all of the computers he used on The Phantom Menace. At the heart of the box is a graphics processor called the Emotion Engine: Where the original PlayStation dazzled gamers by rendering approximately 350,000 polygons (the basic unit of game graphics) every second, PS2 renders 66 million polygons, which translates into cars with reflective surfaces, fighters who look human, and monsters that would give Stephen King a nightmare. ”The kids at school say that PlayStation 2 games are like real life,” says Jonathan Daniels, a 13-year-old gamer in Pleasant Grove, Utah. ”That’s how good the games look.”