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Under the Radar: The XaviXPort

Hardware

If asked to identify the last home video console to make use of the cartridge medium, you would certainly be excused if you inaccurately responded the Nintendo 64. While indeed the N64 was probably the last system to do so that you’ve heard of, a little deeper investigation reveals that another firm, a much smaller operation in fact, decided to give the circuit board method of game storage a go nearly ten years after the Nintendo 64 first hit domestic store shelves.

It’s probably an equally safe assumption that you’ve heard of a small motion control phenomenon Nintendo calls the Wii but believe it or not, the idea behind the Wii’s innovative player interaction didn’t originate with Nintendo’s in-house R&D department at all. To solve the riddle behind the last major cartridge based-system on the market as well as to whom the actual credit behind some of the Wii’s mass appeal belongs, we have to head back to the year 2004 and look to a small electronics developer called SSD Company Limited.

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It turns out Nintendo has been kicking around the idea of developing a motion control based system for quite some time. In fact back in the early 1990s, in effort to distance themselves from the unexpected popularity of Sony’s first PlayStation, Nintendo had already been assembling teams of engineers to come up with something revolutionary. Of course the public was given the abysmal Virtual Boy console at this point in time to stall for time while gamers flocked to the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. As we now know looking back, Nintendo would eventually release their Ultra-64 concept (the Nintendo 64 as it would be named prior to release) and the whole motion control concept would lie in wait for just a little longer.

SSD Company Limited was founded around that time, 1995 to be exact, in Japan by nine engineers; eight of which had been involved in developing the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The idea of motion control gaming was an idea they collectively deemed too important to give up on, even if Nintendo saw fit to try to compete with Sony and Sega directly.

Fast forward to the following home console era (which would witness Sega bail out entirely after their Dreamcast failed to reclaim slipping industry position) and Nintendo faced a double whammy of competition in the form of Microsoft’s first foray into the video game world and Sony’s seemingly untouchable PlayStation 2. Nintendo, realizing that solid first-party software, even as iconic as their Mario and Zelda franchises, was no longer enough to sway gamers into their corner, began to panic. As the Gamecube consistently held the last-place position of the three consoles being offered, it would be “do or die” in the next round. They needed something different, an angle none of the other hardware producers could match lest face the same fate as former-rival Sega. We now know their gamble would pay off and that the Wii would be the system that put the company back into the thick of the video game hardware battle but contrary to common misconception, SSD Company Limited beat them to the punch.

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In 2004, as the dust began to settle on the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Gamecube rivalries, gamers were already turning their attention to the upcoming generation of hardware. Microsoft would again return to the arena with an even more powerful system based on PC hardware and Sony was poised to continue on in the PlayStation lineage and amidst all of this speculation and anticipation, SSD quietly slipped a console of its own onto the scene. Called the XaviXPort, or XaviX for short, this little unit was cartridge based and came out with a library of only 3 games at the time of release.

Unlike Microsoft and Sony, however, SSD could not be found boasting about their console’s hardware specs. In fact, even by 2004’s standards, the hardware fueling the XaviX was literally 20-years old. Their proprietary chip contained an 8-bit high-speed central processing unit (6502) at 21mHz, picture processor, sound processor, DMA controller, and 1K bytes high speed RAM. Don’t forget, these were the same guys who designed the original NES so an intimate knowledge of the 8-bit 6502 chip was a given. SSD did make use of some of the technology that came into being in the roughly two-decades separating the NES from the XaviXPort. Among these: Processor speed clocked in at 21 MHz, 640 x 480 resolution output, and a pallet of 16.7 million colours.

Even still, SSD Company Limited didn’t want gamers getting hung up on the hardware specs as the XaviX’s multiprocessor was not even installed inside the system itself. In an unprecedented move, the multiprocessor powering the games would instead be found within each game cartridge itself, making the hardware’s own specifications only a small part of the equation. This is a concept largely missing from the video game industry since the 1970s when Milton Bradley’s had offered their Microvision system which was basically the game of Pong on its own chip. The logic behind this bizarre move was that since the games contained their own chipsets, the XaviXPORT was easily and infinitely upgradable.

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Rather than focus on chipsets or pixel-pushing power, it was what the XaviX did specifically that set it apart from the competition. The console contained image recognition and infrared sensors capable of detecting player movements. These movements, calculated by a proprietary multi-processor that measures both velocity and angle, would then translate the actions into real-time onscreen movement. In short, motion controlled interaction had been achieved.

Where SSD’s take on the concept and Nintendo’s eventual configuration would differ was the means of this interaction. Nintendo would develop a controller that works with any game in the system’s library while XaviX games would each support their own wireless peripheral to be used specifically with the game in question. Some examples include a miniaturized baseball bat and ball for use with their baseball game, a pair of small racquets for tennis, a bowling ball, fishing pole, boxing gloves and so on. Many of these peripherals required a pair of AA batteries to power the transmitters within them.

At launch the system consisted of a library containing Tennis, Bowling and Baseball and the company actually released bundles containing the Port and one of the three games (with the required peripherals of course). As is the case with so many smaller-scale consoles, the XaviXPort never definitively ended production so much as it dwindled further and further into obscurity. At the time of what is generally considered the system’s demise, around late 2009, ten unique titles had been released. In addition to the three initial sports games, Golf, Boxing, Fitness (J-Mat), Bassfishing, Eye Hand (which included thin gloves), Music & Circuit, and Lifestyle Manager had followed. Interestingly enough, not a single officially licensed game found its way to the XaviX although Jackie Chan was brought on board with the Fitness title; an interactive conditioning game and rubber floor mat generally considered a comparable, if not superior version of the Wii’s own Fit software/ hardware.

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Like so many small consoles before it, many attribute the fall of the XaviX to lack of exposure. SSD’s distribution channels here in the United States prevented it from ever reaching the type of household recognizability required to give the larger video game firms a legitimate challenge. In fact, the few chains that did carry the system and its software library often dealt with no other video game systems or games and were hence forced to lump the Port into the same category of novelty electronics as handheld puzzle games and electronic indoor golf clubs.

Nintendo would of course solidify SSD’s intuition that the world was ready for motion controlled video game interaction once the Wii came to market in November of 2006. The saddest part of the whole situation is that SSD Company Limited was in fact the first to attempt (and succeed) at the vast majority of aspects that would aid Nintendo in luring away potential Sony or Microsoft patrons to the Wii. The harsh reality of the video game industry is that whoever finds themselves standing last always trumps the company that got there first.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2011.

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