GAME ON ‌ Elite Beaten Agent 

Microsoft's latest game? Keeping up with the Joneses

My first reaction was to think of that old cartoon, where the little kid with the sidewalk lemonade stand finds himself trumped by the rich neighbor with the sidewalk lemon tree orchard and the Godzilla-sized juice squeezer.

In this case, the lemonade stand is the Xbox 360 and the squeezer is the new Xbox 360 Elite. Microsoft unveiled the Elite last week and expects to make it available at the end of the month, with a price tag of $479. It sure sounds appropriately spiffy: Black finish, 120 GB hard drive, HDMI cable. Basically, everything we're all now wishing had shipped with the original Xbox 360 in 2005.

And just like that, in the blink of a green, glowing eye, what was cutting-edge cool a few days ago is suddenly second-class.

The Machiavellian businessman in me — he's about 6'3" and looks a lot like Michael Chiklis from The Shield — can appreciate the way in which the 360 Elite is a direct uppercut to the PlayStation 3's market demographic ($20 less for twice the hard drive and an accompanying HDMI cable? Ouch.). The realist in me — he's significantly shorter and more boring — also recognizes the Elite as a logical response to cries from developers who found their plans to unleash their new (and classic) content on Xbox Live thwarted by Microsoft's download caps.

Somehow, that knowledge doesn't make it feel any better. Console gaming just lost something important, folks. And it's never coming back.

The biggest advantage console gamers always held over the PC crowd was plug and play — the fact that for multiple-year intervals, PlayStation 2 and Xbox owners could count on their machines handling anything thrown at them. No worries about how many Roman numerals were perched behind your Pentium processor.

Suddenly, I'm feeling the same way I used to feel when I spent more of my time gaming on my PC — like at any moment, my graphics card and processor were going to be declared prehistoric by a game like Max Payne or Warcraft 3, and the only way to stave off extinction was to pony up four or five Benjamins for an HGH-sized upgrade. If you're looking for proof that consoles and computers are becoming as indistinguishable as the Olsen twins, well, here it is.

There are differences. You'll still be able to play Halo 3, Left 4 Dead and every other numeric-inflected game on a basic — now there's a depressing word — Xbox 360. But now, you're going to have to worry about whether that 360 hard drive that seemed so endlessly vast a few months ago is going to have room for your save games, your music library, and the download of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. (Here's a hint: it won't.)

Microsoft says it'll make the 120 GB hard drive available as a stand-alone accessory, but that won't change that second-class citizen vibe. What, you don't have the latest model? Clearly, you're not elite, baby.

The Devil May Cry advocate in me wonders if what Microsoft (and Sony, if rumors of a supposed 80 GB PlayStation 3 prove true) is doing is really that different than what the fashion industry does to women every year, when, with a seemingly random ruthlessness that would probably make Mark Burnett nod in appreciation, experts determine that cerulean blue is passé and magenta is the new black. That sound you hear is the hordes of fashionistas who annually drop $300 on a single pair of Manolo Blahniks shaking their heads in woeful unison.

What the arrival of the Elite really means, unfortunately, is that the millions of people who bought 360s were really Consumer Base 1.0, Microsoft's grand experiment of gaming that revealed, essentially, that 60 GB of hard drive space just ain't what it used to be.

And neither is your $400 investment.

Aaron R. Conklin anxiously awaits Sony's response — cerulean blue PS3, anyone?


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