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Video game consoles jostle for position at E3

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The game industry’s annual E3 convention isn’t just about showing off new ways to play -- it’s also about showing up the competition and walking away the “winner” of the expo. Is “winning” a trade show a totally ridiculous concept? Absolutely, but E3 is a ridiculous trade show, a chaotic whirlwind of hot games, new technology, and enough corporate smack talk to make Donald Trump blush.

The idea of an E3 victory is so ingrained in the heart of the 20-year-old conference that it’s difficult not to think in these terms. Besides, it’s good fun.

So who “won” E3 2013? Truth be told, it was over before it began. With the show in the rear-view mirror, here’s how the Big Three are currently stacked up:

Sony: All’s well that begins well

During their annual pre-show press conference on Monday night, Sony blasted away at Microsoft, undercutting the Xbox One’s $499 price tag by a full $100 while taking the company to task for their confusing, consumer-unfriendly stance toward always-on internet connectivity and the used games market. Twitter blew up, videos went viral, and pretty much every gamer in the free world suddenly smiled when they thought about Sony.

That’s how you “win” E3. And make no mistake, Sony came out of this show looking better than they have in years.

E3 2013 marked a startling turnaround for the company, who unequivocally proved they could learn from past mistakes. It was only seven years ago when they famously fumbled the E3 2006 reveal of the PlayStation 3 by announcing a $600 price point for the system (not to mention the whole giant enemy crab thing, or the Riiiidge Racer thing, or, well, like ten other awful things).

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But there stood SCEA boss Jack Tretton, calmly and plainly relating to gamers like a modern day video game Matlock as he broke down Microsoft’s terrible policies one by one. The crowd applauded. It was focused, shocking, and glorious.

The rest of Sony’s E3 showing was a bit of a mixed bag. Only a handful of exclusive PS4 games were on display, and the system’s killer app is still undefined. But the company played it smart by opening its doors to small, independent developers, lending an air of credibility – and undeniable quality – to their console future. While games like Killzone: Shadow Fall and Infamous: Second Son will enjoy bigger marketing budgets, games like Transistor (from the team behind critical darling Bastion) and The Witness (from the man behind critical darling Braid) deliver the kind of offbeat design that the industry lusts after these days. This versatility has always been Sony’s strong suit. The company played it beautifully.

It’s been years since one of the major players showed teeth at E3 – and that kind of moxie has helped give the PS4 the current edge in the console war.

Microsoft: Good game, poor sport

Sony’s press conference performance effectively stole Microsoft’s thunder, which is too bad, because the Redmond giant started off E3 in fine fashion.

After dropping the ball during their Xbox One reveal event in May by failing to talk much at all about games, the company pivoted seamlessly and went absolutely game-crazy at their press conference, touching on over 20 games in a rapid-fire show designed to take the focus away from their controversial policies.

And it would have worked, were it not for those pesky Sony kids.

Microsoft didn’t do itself any favors later trying to respond to pricing and policy complaints, either. Xbox boss Don Mattrick’s attempt at damage control resulted in a pretty big gaffe when he awkwardly explained to GameTrailers that consumers who can’t get online should probably just forgo the Xbox One and grab a 360 instead. That’s not exactly the sort of thing that inspires confidence. Microsoft’s bullish, almost antagonistic attitude toward gamers is baffling, but it’s undeniably present.

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On the other hand, so are the games, and that’s really what’s saving the Xbox One from utter disaster right now. A slew of impressive Xbox One titles debuted at E3, from in-house exclusives like the gorgeous Forza 5 to third-party killers like the exclusive Dead Rising 3 and the absolutely stunning Titanfall. You might not like the policies, but the software lineup is robust.

Will that be enough to overcome the Xbox One’s myriad hurdles? At the moment, no. Mindshare matters, and the public perception of this expensive system right now is, in a word, ugly. Despite coming in hot, the Xbox One leaves E3 with a troubling road ahead.

Nintendo: Wii U, we hardly knew you

While most of the show’s focus was on Sony and Microsoft, the company with the most to gain -- and lose -- barely made a peep.

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been seven years since Nintendo absolutely ruled E3 2006 with its innovative Wii console, but it’s easy to see why the company’s lost a step. With Wii U sales tanking, Nintendo needed to bring its full mascot roster to bear at E3 2013. More essentially, it needed to give gamers a reason to choose a Wii U over the competition this holiday season.

It sadly didn’t do enough. Despite a few bright spots, Nintendo failed to deliver the software barrage needed to turn the Wii U into a must-have system. Gamers itching for a brand new Mario game were treated to one, but the four-player fun of Super Mario 3D World isn’t exactly what they had in mind. Other exciting new games -- including a Wii U take on mascot mash-up Super Smash Bros., the anticipated Mario Kart 8 and the explosive Bayonetta 2 -- won’t appear on the system until 2014. And other system sellers, such as a brand new Legend of Zelda game built from the ground up for the Wii U, were nowhere to be seen.

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This development pipeline problem has plagued the company for years; many fans are accustomed to a slow roll-out of compelling new titles. But with the console competition heating up in a few short months, the window is quickly closing on the Wii U. Third-party publishers like Ubisoft and EA have backed away from it; it was impossible to overlook the lack of Wii U games on display at E3 outside of Nintendo’s own booth. This is a system starving for games, but Nintendo is being stingy with the food.

Claims that the Wii U will somehow follow the same pattern as the handheld 3DS (slow sales and few games, followed by a price drop and a deluge of software) are unlikely to take shape. Nintendo’s always enjoyed pole position in the handheld market, where the current competition comes not from Sony but from that phone sitting in your pocket. It’s a different story on the consoles. While the toy-like Wii could happily co-exist next to a PS3 or Xbox 360, the more mature Wii U has lost that edge.

And so has Nintendo. Barring a stunning turnaround, Nintendo will remain on the outside looking in this year.

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