Third-party exclusives have become much less common over the past few years, but they still have the potential make an impact. With Bloodborne having arrived last week, the PlayStation 4 now boasts one of this generation's most popular third-party exclusives (though it was actually published by Sony), giving it a significant boost over its competition. But what other third-party exclusives have made an impact through the years? Here are some of our picks. Feel free to share your own in the comments.
I have a feeling most people are going to cite PlayStation exclusives, since third-party games tipped the balance of the console wars away from Nintendo in the '90s. Every time Nintendo, Sega, and Microsoft gained an advantage, they did so on the strength of first-party titles like Mario, Sonic, and Halo. So please let me dare to be different just to keep this from turning into a Sony-themed dogpile and cite… Street Fighter II.
When Nintendo locked down a one-year exclusive on Capcom's insanely popular fighting game, it was a big deal. Much bigger than Sony's exclusive on Street Fighter V. SFII was the game in the early '90s, and wrapping it up as a console-exclusive would like if, I dunno, Minecraft were only available on one platform (but not in the way Microsoft is trying to make it happen). The Super NES version of SFII flew off the shelves — I spent about a month during the summer of 1992 haunting the aisles of Toys 'R' Us in the hopes I could beat the rest of the city to punch with the next shipment. Street Fighter II was like the Amiibo of its day, except with actual practical value.
And it was a desperately needed hit for Nintendo, whose Super NES had found itself struggling against Sega's Genesis in the U.S. and Europe. Sega had a several-year lead on Super NES, offered content and marketing to really spoke to Western game enthusiasts, and on top of that third parties were more than happy to see Nintendo taken down a peg. Nintendo scored a real coup with Street Fighter, and it began the seismic shift of the 16-bit era back away from the Genesis. It didn't single-handedly change the course of history or anything, but it offered much-needed evidence that Nintendo was still in the game — something that the first few years of the Super NES's life left rather in doubt.
It's hard to remember a time when the PlayStation wasn't a household name, but back in 1994, there were just two console manufacturers that most gamers cared about: Sega and Nintendo. When Sony announced that it was entering the console business, there were more than a few raised eyebrows, and while there was some excitement and fanfare, the general early consensus was that Sega's Saturn would wipe the floor with it.
However, that didn't quite happen, and one of the games I think helped establish the PlayStation's credentials was Ridge Racer. Back then, arcade racers were very much in vogue, and while there had been some 16-bit attempts to bring 3D racers to home consoles (and indeed Sega's failed 32x had also done the same with Virtua Racing Deluxe), nothing really matched up to the authentic arcade experience…
...until Ridge Racer came along.
Created by Namco, the System 22 game had already proven to be hugely popular in the arcades, and the PlayStation version bore an uncanny likeness to it. Sure, the resolution wasn't quite as high as the arcade version, but to all intents and purposes, Ridge Racer on PlayStation was the arcade game. And at a time when the PlayStation really needed to establish its credibility and help persuade consumers that it was the next generation console to have, I think Ridge Racer really helped do that. It was clearly a step up from the 16-bit machines, and showcased the full potential of the PlayStation's 3D prowess.
When you look at the rest of the games on Sony's US launch lineup list, it's rather a mixed bag of titles. The Raiden Project, Rayman and NBA Jam Tournament Edition all took tried-and-tested 16-bit concepts to the next generation, and they provided solid, if somewhat familiar fare. But none of them were technical showcases. There were three fighting games, a few sports games and Aquanaut's Holiday that are all barely worth mentioning. Even Air Combat aka Ace Combat and the quirky Jumping Flash!, both full 3D games, weren't exactly top-tier material. Instead it was Ridge Racer that was used in stores around the world to showcase the exciting new machine that was the PlayStation.
In that respect, I think the game is a little bit of an unsung hero. In amongst a group of fairly humdrum games, Ridge Racer really stood out as a title that showed the way forward, and it persuaded more than a few gamers to make the leap to this untried-and-untested new console.
You know what I miss? Konami's parity exclusives. Super Nintendo gets Contra 3, while Genesis gets Contra: Hard Corps. Turtles in Time vs. The Hyperstone Heist. Super Castlevania IV went head-to-head with Castlevania: Bloodlines. Different games on each system, providing an "exclusive" to both sides. It's sadly something you won't see these days, as development is too expensive for AAA developers and indies lack the resources to make two completely different games based on the same idea. (Sorry for the random divergence.)
I think I'm going to go with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. People may not remember, but for a time - five months from July to November - Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic. The release marked the Xbox as the refuge for the PC gamer looking towards consoles and it also put Bioware on the map for the average game player. I had no idea who Bioware was until Knights of the Old Republic. I just saw "full-fledged Star Wars RPG" and the rest was history.
It was a temporary Xbox exclusive thanks to the deep pockets of 2000's era Microsoft, but even then it never released on a competing PlayStation platform. Knights of the Old Republic was a legitimately great game that Xbox owners could point to and blunt the surge of PlayStation 2 exclusives smashed in their faces. It was one of the few they had outside of first- and second- part releases or other PC ports like Thief: Deadly Shadows.
Knights of the Old Republic is also significant because it marks the beginning of modern Bioware. There's a throughline that starts at KOTOR, moves to Jade Empire, and culminates in Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins. It's an unbeatable run from 2003 to 2010 (Mass Effect 2's release) that cemented Xbox platforms or PC as the place to be to experience some of the best RPGs on consoles.
I guess it's on me to cite the most important third-party exclusive of them all; which is, of course, Final Fantasy VII.
Let me take you back to 1996. The PlayStation was doing very well for itself, but Nintendo was still seen as an industry juggernaut, and Sony simply didn't have the franchises to compete with the one-two punch of Mario and Zelda. Following a very successful launch in which they had effectively managed to define the look and feel of 3D platforming in the context of Mario, Nintendo seemed primed to mount a very strong challenge against the PlayStation.
But as it turned out, the Nintendo 64's fate was sealed before it event launched. In a move that forever altered the gaming landscape, Square defected to PlayStation to take advantage of the increased storage afforded by the console's CD-ROM technology, bringing with it one of the world's most popular RPG series. A year later, Final Fantasy VII launched, where it instantly became the system's most popular game. By some accounts, it had a nearly 100 percent attach rate in Japan. In the U.S., it did what Dragon Quest could not do in 1989 and made console RPGs a mainstream genre.
For Nintendo, it was a double whammy. Final Fantasy VII made their decision to stick with cartridges look foolish, and it dramatically boosted Sony's image at Nintendo's expense. It dispensed with the artificial numbering system of previous games, which made it seem more "authentic" in comparison to the releases on Nintendo's platforms. Its script was also largely uncensored — a dramatic shift from the tight control exercised by Nintendo. Like the Sega Genesis before it, the PlayStation suddenly seemed "cool" and "mature" compared to the "kiddy" Nintendo 64.
Square became Sony's de facto flagship studio, developing almost exclusively for the PlayStation family of consoles through the PlayStation 2 era. When the Dreamcast arrived in 1999, Sony and Square saw to it that Final Fantasy VIII was released the same day. The numbered Final Fantasy releases would remain Sony exclusives until Final Fantasy XIII, when Square Enix again shocked the world by announcing that they would also be releasing on the Xbox 360.
Given all that, it's tough to imagine a more influential third-party exclusive than Final Fantasy VII. In many ways, it was the embodiment of its generation. I doubt we'll see anything like it again.
I was tempted to choose Resident Evil 4, but since this sequel has wriggled out of its GameCube exclusivity to appear on just about every platform ever, I hardly think it counts. So I'm going to have to go with another Nintendo-centric choice: Dragon Quest IX.
I'll admit, Dragon Quest heading to the DS didn't cause quite the same stir as it did in Japan, where the series is a cultural institution. Over time, though, Dragon Quest has always stuck with the most popular platforms—no doubt making them even more popular as a result. After the release of 2004's Dragon Quest VIII, which finally dressed up this RPG series with production values on par with its big-budget contemporaries, fans naturally assumed there was nowhere to go but up—and dreamed of those vast, rolling fields from the PS2 game given even more breathtaking scope with the power of HD consoles.
So, in 2006, it was more than a little shocking to hear Dragon Quest IX would head to the Nintendo DS, a platform not exactly known for its well-rendered polygonal graphics. And this RPG would be like no Dragon Quest we played before; developer Level-5 would focus on multiplayer, and ditch the traditional menu-based gameplay for real-time battles. Fans couldn't really handle that much change at once, so Dragon Quest IX eventually reverted back to its old turn-based rut, but still let friends play together in a way that broke new ground for the series. Before Dragon Quest became an MMO, this installment was the most revolutionary one to date, offering a staggering amount of depth and customization—and on the DS, of all platforms.
Even though Dragon Quest doesn't have the same significance in America, this announcement, made in the early years of the DS, showed us Nintendo's strange new portable was Serious Business. What was once Nintendo's "third pillar" now hosted one of the most important Japanese RPGs of all time—simply put, the DS was here to stay.