It's been ten years now since Sony stunned the gaming world with the reveal of the PlayStation Portable and Shigeru Miyamoto stepped onto the stage wielding the Master Sword. Depending on your point of view, it was either the end of one era, or the dawn of another.
The E3 2004 is justifiably remembered by fans for being one of the more action-packed shows in memory; a final hurrah for the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube eras. Jeremy Parish and Jaz Rignall were both at that show, and even a decade later, they still have plenty of memories of their own.
E3 2004 was my very first E3 ever. I had followed the show closely every year since about 1996 via the Internet, but strictly as an outsider. However, 1UP.com had taken me under its delicate wing when it launched late in 2003, and this was back in the day when (1) websites could have more than a dozen people on staff and (2) afford to bring along every single employee, even the novice support staff.
And that was me! I was the low-totem art monkey, putting together promo images for the stories that would run that week. It was basically hell, because the site was supposed to relaunch out of beta the first day of E3, but it didn’t. So all the art I had prepped in advance had to be recreated on the spot for the old format. The fact that USgamer launched last year on the first day of E3 and just relaunched with a new design has not done my nerves any good. I have severe PTSD from that 1UP disaster.
Still, my view of the show was not entirely limited to a big room midway between the show floors; I made it onto the floor a few times. And it was a pretty fantastic show, even accounting for the inevitable “holy crap" factor of it being my first E3. The show floors were packed, and this was back in the day when E3 spanned all three of the LACC’s halls, including the leftover weird stuff at Kentia Hall. Every publisher was there to be spectacular, with massive booths crammed with games. Booth babes flung giveaways at attendees with reckless abandon! Awkward dudes waddled through the cramped floor with arms laden by swag bags! Noise boomed across the show floor!
The thing that really strikes me most about E3 2004 is the way mid-tier games were already being squeezed out by the industry. Portable games occupied unloved corners of booths, except at Nintendo, where crowds gathered around to confirm their unkind assumptions that the DS would be awful. (In fairness, the E3 2004 DS demo units were awful.) The shape of games was bending toward big and expensive, and lesser games struggled to shine.
I know this for a fact, because those were the games I wrote about. I wrapped up my art duties and hit the show floor to write about all the stuff no one else wanted to, it and it basically amounted niche and portable games. Which is fine, that’s my groove. I was happy to write about Puyo Pop, or to draw attention to Namco’s tentative test demo of Katamari Damacy; they stuck a demo unit on the floor to see if enough people would care to make a U.S. release worthwhile, because already by 2004 the quirky import games that thrived during the PlayStation had fallen from favor with consumers and publishers.
It’s interesting to consider how much E3 and the games industry have changed in the past decade. The show is much smaller, because the industry itself is smaller. Oh, it makes more money, sure, but it produces fewer games each year than it used to. Most of the stuff that I scoured the floor to find in 2004 was pushed entirely away when E3 began to contract and booths (and publishers) turned their attention toward a handful of key releases. It’s made something of a comeback with outsider status thanks to the rise of indie games, which are seeing better representation this year than ever before, but you still need to make an active effort to seek out the indie ghetto. And there’s that dire proclamation that the indie bubble has burst, and even that scene is doomed to contract.
The truth is, though, I like the more mellow nature of E3 these days. The spectacle isn’t nearly as obnoxious as it used to be, and the reason we go — to meet with game creators and tell readers about what we see — is much easier and less frustrating than in olden days. I just hope everyone takes Nintendo’s lead and abandons press conferences altogether. Those things are the worst!
E3 2004 was an odd show for me. That’s because I didn’t attend as a journalist, but instead went as a representative of Dell who was needed in exactly two short business meetings on different days. I was given a roving brief to write a general report on the PC gaming business, and had the rest of the time to wander around and take in the show at my leisure – a rare luxury for me.
My first port of call was Sony’s booth. Although I was interested to see Nintendo’s new hand-held, the PSP looked sensational – like some kind of born-again Atari Lynx, blacker, meaner and seemingly all screen, with barely enough room for a joypad and buttons. It was still three years before the first-generation iPhone, and the PSP’s sexy looks and vibrant screen put it way out there on the cutting edge of technology. I just loved it – the coolest piece of entertainment kit I’d ever laid hands on at that point.
Which of course was about the worst thing possible in terms of a set-up for my introduction to the Nintendo DS. I’ve always been a fan of Nintendo handhelds, but let’s face it, sexy tech is not their forte. But even taking that into consideration, the DS felt cheap and clunky. I might be mistaken, but I’m sure the DS demo units had cheaper, creakier-feeling plastic than the production versions – or perhaps it just felt that way after handling the tight, beautifully tactile PSP. But either way, the DS just didn’t feel impressive, and its screen was not as crisp as the PSP. Oh, and it had a stylus. Just like a Palm. How cute!
However, one of the things that did worry me about PSP was the fact that there were almost no playable game demos on Sony’s booth. There were some impressive titles being shown on what seemed like demo reels – most of which became launch games – but I was surprised, and a little concerned that this close to launch, Sony wasn’t out there aggressively showcasing its inaugural PSP lineup.
Nintendo, on the other hand, made up for an unexciting-feeling machine with game and tech demos that wrote the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” on a wet codfish, and slapped you around the face with it. Each one showcased an interesting and different application of a gaming mechanic, or use for the system. It was a real stroke of genius. I wasn’t sure whether this new guy called Reggie Fils-Aime who’d taken the stage at the Nintendo keynote earlier in the week had anything to do with it, but regardless, in the space of a few hours, I’d gone from “this thing’s a bit crap,” to, “so when can I buy it?” Looking back, I was sold on Sony’s PSP tech, and sold on Nintendo’s DS games. But as we all know, it’s the games that count, which is why I still have a sizable DS collection, and absolutely no PSP games whatsoever.
Moving from handhelds to consoles, one of my favorite games of the show was Burnout 3: Takedown – the finest example of arcade racing of its generation, and still a benchmark in terms of pure automotive madness and mayhem. Another driving benchmark was Gran Turismo 4, this one representing all things serious and technical about driving. And there was yet another – a new game that came out of the blue called Forza Motorsport. I wasn’t much of an Xbox fan in 2004, but after playing Forza at E3, I was sold on the system, and I bought a console specifically to play that game.
Other games that impressed were Devil May Cry 3 – which just looked bonkers – and Halo 2. That was no surprise, really. The only thing that would have been shocking is if it hadn’t looked good. A pair of fighting games I also noted were Dead or Alive Ultimate, and a silly, but entertaining brawler called Rumble Roses.
Perhaps the most-hyped game of the show was God of War. That was shown amongst much brouhaha, and despite all the noise, actually managed to live up to the ridiculously high expectations Sony had set for it.
But despite all the great games I’ve already talked about, the star of the show for me was on display at the Vivendi Universal Games booth – an up-and-coming MMORPG known as World of Warcraft. I’d heard that it was looking good, but seeing it in person absolutely blew me away. I’m a huge MMORPG fan, and WoW’s graphical style, variety of characters, and its landscaping were just stunning. I can’t remember exactly how long I actually spent on VUGames’ booth, but I’m sure I’ve never spent as much time on any other E3 booth ever. I just remember looking at it and wanting to play it game so, so badly. I ended up doing just that - almost every day for the last decade.