Year Released: 1994
Original Price: £299.99
Buy It Now For: £15+
Associated magazines: Play, Playstation Plus, Official PlayStation Magazine, P2
Why The PlayStation Was Great: Some would argue that the videogame industry in the mid-Nineties was in dire need of a boot up the backside, and the PlayStation delivered this kick. Technologically groundbreaking and supported by a wide range of third-party developers, the machine is home to countless classic titles. While some of these games have aged badly, most remain just as essential today as they were two decades ago.
It’s almost impossible to conceive it now, but prior to the 32-bit PlayStation’s launch in 1994 there were real doubts in the media over its chances. Over 100 million hardware sales later, such pessimism seems woefully misplaced, but it’s easy to forget just how many hurdles Sony had to overcome to make a success of its first piece of videogames hardware – and media scepticism was the least of those problems.
The PlayStation concept actually has its roots way back even before the 16-bit generation had hit the marketplace – 1988, to be precise. Always thinking a few steps ahead of its rivals, Nintendo was actively courting manufacturers to create some kind of expanded storage device for its Super NES console, which was in development and due to hit the market in just over a year. Sony – in conjunction with Dutch electronics giant Philips – was working on a new format called CD-ROM/XA, a new type of compact disc that allowed simultaneous access to audio, visual and computer data, making it thoroughly compatible with the medium of interactive entertainment. Because Sony was already being contracted to produce the SPC-700 sound processor for the SNES, Nintendo decided to enlist the electronics manufacturer’s assistance in producing a CD-ROM add-on for its 16-bit console.
For Sony, it was a dream come true. Having been instrumental in the production of the ill-fated MSX computer format, the firm never hid its desire to become a key player in the burgeoning videogame business. Therefore, an alliance with what was unquestionably the biggest and most famous name in the industry would not only help elevate Sony’s standing; it would also enable the company to set the wheels in motion for its ultimate plan: to put its consumer electronics experience to good use and produce its own videogame hardware. The industry was growing at an alarming rate thanks largely to Nintendo’s hugely successful NES and Game Boy systems, and Sony was keen to obtain a foothold.
The initial agreement between the two firms was that Sony would produce a CD-ROM expansion for the existing SNES hardware and would have licence to produce games for that system. Later, it was supposed, Sony would be permitted to produce its own all-in-one machine – dubbed PlayStation – which would play both SNES carts and CD-ROM games. The format used by the SNES-based version of the PlayStation was called ‘Super Disc’, and Sony made sure that it held the sole international rights – in other words, it would profit handsomely from every single SNES CD-ROM title that was sold. It was a match made in heaven: Sony would instantly gain a potentially massive installed base of users overnight as the SNES was a dead cert to sell millions of units. SNES users would upgrade to the new CD-ROM add-on when they knew that Nintendo’s cutting-edge games would be coming to it, and Sony would make money on each software sale. What’s more, once the all-in-one PlayStation was launched, Sony would gain even more in the way of profits and become a key player in the videogame industry. The man behind this audacious scheme was Ken Kutaragi, the engineer also responsible for producing the aforementioned SNES sound chip.
However, behind the scenes Nintendo was predictably far from happy with the proposed arrangement. It was very protective of its licensing structure, which allowed it to extract massive royalties from third-party publishers. Allowing Sony leverage in this sector would only damage Nintendo’s profitability; the Kyoto-based veteran reasoned that it should be making the majority of the profit on SNES CD sales, not Sony. The plan – if it came to fruition – would ultimately benefit Sony far more than Nintendo: the former would merely be using the latter as a way of getting a ready-made market share and would eventually become a determined rival as a result. Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi was famous for being particularly ruthless in his business practices, but what happened next is one of the most infamous double-crosses in the history of the videogame industry.
It was at the 1991 Consumer Electronics Show that Nintendo dropped the bombshell. Sony went to the event full of enthusiasm and on the first day proudly announced the details of its new alliance with Nintendo, as well as news of the Super Disc format and the impending development of the SNES-compatible PlayStation. Sony had less than 24 hours to soak up the palpable level of excitement generated by this press conference before Nintendo confirmed that it was, in fact, working with Philips on the SNES CD-ROM drive. Yamauchi had gone behind Sony’s back at the last minute to broker a deal with the Dutch company – a deal that was predictably skewed in Nintendo’s favour – leaving Sony publicly humiliated at the very moment it had expected to usher in a new era as a serious contender in the videogaming arena. At the time, Yamauchi and the rest of Nintendo’s top brass were suitably pleased with their skulduggery; such swift action had prevented Sony from taking a sizeable bite out of the company’s profits. As it happened, the planned Nintendo-Philips alliance resulted in little more than a handful of risible Nintendo licences on the CD-i, and the abject failure of Sega’s Mega-CD seemed to lend credence to the viewpoint that expanding existing consoles was a mistake, so while Nintendo had protected its best interests by leaving Sony at the altar in such degrading fashion, it actually gained little else of note – aside from a dogged rival.
Sony had, by this point, poured a significant amount of cash into the proposed PlayStation concept. It had even moved as far as the prototype phase, with PC CD-ROM titles such as Trilobyte’s The 7th Guest being mooted as possible launch games. Despite the tumultuous events of the 1991 CES, a deal was signed between Nintendo and Sony that would allow the latter to make its machine compatible with SNES CD-ROM titles – with the proviso that Nintendo would retain all software royalties. Although it was nothing more than a clever stalling tactic by Nintendo to keep Sony from entering the market on its own, this proposed alliance nevertheless kept the increasingly frustrated Kutaragi and his team busy. However, by 1992 it had become clear that such a union was going nowhere. Sony cut off communication with Nintendo and the company was painfully close to withdrawing from the arena for good.
Only Kutaragi’s intense resolve and determination prevented the PlayStation dream from ending in 1992. During a meeting with Sony president Norio Ohga in order to decide the future of the project, Kutaragi made bold claims about the kind of machine he had been developing. He argued that the 16-bit PlayStation, with its reliance on a union with the incumbent – not to mention untrustworthy – Nintendo, was a dead end. The only option was to go it alone and create a brand new piece of hardware capable of shifting 3D graphics at a hitherto unprecedented rate. When Kutaragi’s ambitious proposal was greeted with derision from the Sony president, he presented another side to his argument: could Sony’s pride allow it to simply walk away when Nintendo had so blatantly abused its trust? By making the PlayStation project a success, the company would experience the sweet taste of revenge at the expense of its one-time ally.
Kutaragi’s speech hit a nerve, and early in 1994 Sony confirmed that it was entering the videogame arena with its own console, and even formed subsidiary Sony Computer Entertainment in order to oversee the new venture. Keen to differentiate this new project from its previous namesake, Sony branded it the ‘PlayStation-X’ – this gave rise to the abbreviation ‘PSX’, which is still used even today, even though the ‘X’ was later dropped when the console was officially launched. Early reports were impressive, with some developers confidently proclaiming that Sony’s console would blow away the competition. Despite the company’s wide entertainment portfolio – which included music label CBS Records and Hollywood studio Columbia Tri-Star – Sony boldly decided not to focus on the multimedia market, as its rival Philips, with its CD-i and 3DO, had done, to its great cost. Instead, the PlayStation was unashamedly proclaimed as a dedicated gaming machine, with SCE’s director Akira Sato confidently stating that: “If it’s not real-time, it’s not a game” – a thinly veiled criticism of other CD-based consoles and their reliance on FMV titles that featured live actors but little interaction. The sheer power of the new system shocked other players in the industry; Sega of Japan president Hayao Nakayama was reportedly so furious when he read the specs for the PlayStation that he personally visited Sega’s hardware division and gave them a stern talking to. His tirade would result in the Saturn, Sega’s entrant in the 32-bit console war, getting an additional video processor to boost its graphical muscle, but this would make the system harder to program for – an issue that had severe ramifications in the future.
When you take into account Sony’s position as one of the world’s foremost electronics manufacturers, it’s hardly surprisingly that the original PlayStation was a highly desirable piece of kit. Unmistakably a games console but showcasing a hint of mature design, the machine seemed to speak to those gamers who had cut their teeth on the likes of the NES, Mega Drive and SNES and were now ready to progress to an entirely different level of challenge. Everything from the two-pronged joypads to the removable Memory Card storage system seemed to drip sophistication. Sony later revealed the numerous hardware designs that had been considered before the final version was decided upon; this was the work of a company that was taking its entry into the videogames market very seriously indeed. Kutaragi – and the entire project in general – had come under fire from high-level Sony executives who argued that videogames were toys for children, and therefore, one of the PlayStation’s key aims was to challenge that view. As a result, the final design for the machine was sleek and serious, mimicking the appearance of a top-end piece of audio-visual equipment rather than a games-playing device.
Four Great PlayStation Games
Hardware images: Copyright Evan Amos
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 71, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
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