What’s In A Name? The Names Of The Boxes That Play Our Games

Have you ever stopped to wonder where the names of video game consoles come from or why they sound foreign to us at first only to become an accepted part of daily conversation?
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The beauty of video game consoles is that their popularity has a way of making what would normally be odd sounding names part of daily conversation. 

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These days we no longer stop to contemplate the oddity of a device calling itself the Wii U or the fact that the third incarnation of a machine called the Xbox goes by the designation of One.

See we human beings stop pondering the origin of the things we say after hearing them repeated enough times and the first time we discover the name of a new product, that’s perhaps when we are most in tune with how odd, silly or otherwise nonsensical it really may be.

The more familiar we become with it, the less it tends to stick out like a sore thumb.

It’s a Colorful World

The big manufacturers spend millions of dollars paying marketing people to come up with these labels.  All sorts of silly tests are performed to determine which combination of letters and numbers are most likely to get stuck in your head.  Even logos and color associations aren’t overlooked.  The 6th console generation was a shining example of  this – Sony wanted the PlayStation 2 to be associated with blue, Microsoft opted for green with the Xbox and Nintendo cornered the market on purple with the GameCube.

Once in a while we see things get switched up in the middle of a generation.  Nintendo wanted the first Wii to be associated white: white packaging, logo, console shell, controllers. The whole thing was reminiscent of my backyard in January. 

Then, as the generation wore on, they weren’t quite so adamant about the whole “purity of white” motif and in fact began releasing their hardware in just about every other color in the spectrum.  Even to this day, the latest incarnation of the system (Wii Mini) sports a red and black scheme that carries over into its packaging.

Microsoft, too, began to dilute its green and black color combo with the original Xbox by splashing in silver with their Platinum Hits line of game releases.  By the time the 360 came into being, they had moved almost entirely over to white with green accenting while Sony has transitioned from blue to red to market the PlayStation 3. 

It’s possible you were vaguely aware of these things but probably hadn’t really stopped to consider that none of these changes happened by chance. Market research and focus groups were called into play to determined precisely which symbols and colors were best suited for brand recognition.

But we Must Choose a Suitable Name for the Child

What about those names, though?  It’s hard to believe something as wacky as “Game Boy” could go on to be an overwhelming success while a piece of equipment called “The Jaguar” could end up failing miserably.  Yet that is precisely what has happened, proving that marketplace can be a fickle mistress.

Amazingly, it seems as though there is no singular formula for guaranteed success either.  Nintendo, which would sell over 118-million Game Boys, couldn’t even crack a million units moved globally with Virtual Boy.  Sega achieved generation-leading sales with their Genesis (Mega-Drive elsewhere in the globe) only to fail miserably when they decided to shift their marketing model to the heavens. 

Saturn is the best known example of this shift but behind the scenes they were working on hardware called Mars and Neptune as well.  Perhaps they should be grateful the bottom fell out before they created a system called Pluto only to have the namesake become stripped of its planetary status.

Atari, after years of slapping personality-less numbers on their systems, decided to go the way of the feline with their Lynx, Jaguar, and (unreleased) Panther but they too had the proverbial plug pulled before ever gracing the public with the truly majestic examples of the family: the tiger or lion.  Better still, a hybrid of the two! Lets be honest here, the Atari Tigon namesake alone may be enough to warrant the company trying its hand at hardware manufacturing one more time.

Sony’s operating on the “if it aint broke, why fix it?” approach to hardware vernacular but one does have to wonder how long this approach can hold out.  Will our great-grandchildren be excited to come home to their PlayStation 29?  I suppose only time will tell.

Microsoft has also been content to just keep adding on to what was originally deemed the DirectX Box; a title that has become interesting because it outlived the popularity of the application programming interface on which it was based (DirectX 11.2 graces Windows 8 but you’d never know it). 

The 360 moniker was surely selected because 360 degrees represents one complete rotation.  Of course, were you to think too deeply on this concept you would realize that a complete circle takes you back to precisely where you started.  So much for the idea of progress. 

Things are even more muddled by calling the third iteration the Xbox One as it really doesn’t leave a whole lot of options to go to from here.  Perhaps next we’ll get the Xbox 1/2?  Simplified via marketing lingo as the XB.5?  Or maybe they’ll feel more comfortable going the other direction with their numeration.  The Xbox Number Two – great ring to it, that is of course until fans and detractors alike begin to affectionately label it “The Deucer.”

Let’s hope Microsoft doesn’t ever turn to their Windows products for the inspiration for future Xbox nomenclature. “Windows 8 will be followed by Windows 10 because we had to scrap 9 on account of all the negative feedback we received about 8.”  

Hmm, but couldn’t they still call it Windows 9 for sake of our sanity?

Even The Scammers Recognize

Perhaps the ultimate video game console name coup came from Infinium Labs back in the early 2000s.  In what is generally considered one of the video game industry’s biggest scams in history, they proposed a new piece of hardware that would forego the need for CDs, DVDs or any physical media whatsoever and instead use the internet to deliver PC games digitally (perhaps you’ve heard of Steam).  What made their invention so controversial, however, was that they raised over 73-million dollars on the concept and failed to ever produce, well anything

To date, this is one of the most notorious cases of gaming vaporware to ever scar our industry.  Investors were out literally millions of dollars but anyone with a rudimentary grasp of console naming wasn’t too surprised nothing ever manifested.  What did Infinium call their hypothetical cutting edge system?  The Phantom.  Brilliant.

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Jason Russell
Jason Russell has been working in video game journalism since the early 1990s before the internet existed, the term "fanzine" had meaning and sailors still debated as to whether or not the earth was flat. More recently he has been the guy responsible for Thunderbolt Games' Under the Radar column. He's somehow managed to author seven novels, writes The Astounding Amoeba Armada comic book series for Coast Comics and runs the blog CG Movie Reviews in his spare time: https://cgmoviereview.wordpress.com/ And sometimes, when the planets align and the caffeine has fully left his system, it's rumored he sleeps.