The next generation of game consoles — Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and Series S, and Sony’s PlayStation 5 — is less than a month away, and we know what early adopters will be playing on day one. Xbox Series X and Series S owners can jump into games like Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Gears Tactics, while PlayStation devotees get exclusives like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls.
But can anything on the next-gen consoles match up to the undisputed champion of launch titles, Wii Sports?
No joke. Wii Sports is the king of console launch titles. The simplistic sports title, which came bundled with the Nintendo Wii, was specifically built to show off what Nintendo’s console could do. Easy-to-understand gameplay, paired with the Wiimote’s intuitive design, made the game a casual sensation, stealing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess’ thunder.
Sure, Wii Sports may not be as memorable as Super Mario 64, a successful guinea pig for the Nintendo 64’s 3D graphics — but it taught an important lesson. A great launch title shows off what’s special about new hardware.
Fresh games are always exciting, but the new console is (or should be) the center of attention. There’s joy in unboxing a piece of technology and learning what it’s capable of. The secret to a successful launch isn’t necessarily about releasing a game that’s an instant classic, but making a convincing case for a console’s new features through software.
So, will anyone deliver a console-defining Wii Sports moment this generation?
That will prove to be a tall order. Microsoft is hammering home its Game Pass ecosystem and features like quick resume, while Sony’s main selling point is reduced load times. It’s hard to imagine everyone and their grandmother sitting around the TV and marveling at how fast games launch.
Still, there are a few games that could make a case for each systems’ advanced technology. The biggest ace up Sony’s sleeve is its new DualSense controller, which uses haptic feedback to reinvent rumble.
If the DualSense is as impressive as it sounds on paper, Spider-Man: Miles Morales could give the PlayStation 5 the kind of “you need to play it to believe it” moment it needs early on. The game uses controller feedback in a variety of applications, including by letting players “sense” the direction an attack is coming from.
Astro’s Playroom, a free game that comes with the PS5, may serve a similar purpose. The cute platformer looks specifically designed to show off the DualSense’s features. The first game in the Astro franchise, Astro Bot Rescue Mission, remains one of the PlayStation VR’s best titles, and used the PlayStation 4 controller in a variety of inventive ways. If Astro’s Playroom contains the same design philosophy, it could be the kind of sleeper hit that doubles as an effective introduction to the PlayStation 5.
Dirt 5 could be a surprise hit that turns some heads. The racing game might seem too familiar at first glance, but it takes full advantage of both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5’s impressive hardware. Players can choose to play the game with a 120Hz refresh rate, bumping the game’s frame rate up significantly.
The feature is a big marketing point for Microsoft, in particular, which finds itself in a tricky situation this console cycle. It’s hard to sell “true 4K gaming” as a flagship feature when many gamers don’t own the kind of high-end equipment that’s needed to take advantage of it. Games like Dirt 5 could help convince console skeptics that the Series X can bring the power of modern PCs to a TV screen.
When it comes to reduced load times, Destiny 2: Beyond Light may be the true test for both consoles. Bungie’s looter shooter can be unbearably slow on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, which means a transition between levels can take well over a minute. The next-generation version of the game will offer one of the most direct points of comparison for players.
Next-gen games have an uphill battle
Still, none of that will be as groundbreaking as swinging a digital tennis racket, taking a console-quality game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the subway, or loading a genre-defining title like Halo.
We may be past the days when each new console marks a major step forward for the industry. As graphics plateau and consoles become more iterative in nature, buying a system on day one will become a harder sell.
That’s already apparent in the Series X/S launch line-up, which is comprised entirely of games that will be available on PC and Xbox One. These games won’t do much on the Series X that they can’t do elsewhere.
It’s unlikely this generation will give players a standout launch game like Wii Sports (Nintendo even failed to repeat its own success for the Switch’s release, as Joycon showcase 1-2 Switch was a flop), which reflects how consoles are changing.
Buying a new Xbox or PlayStation this November will be less like getting a new toy, and more like upgrading an iPhone.