The Unusual History of The Sony Playstation

By: Steve Zachmann, contributor

With the 20th anniversary of the original Sony PlayStation upon us it felt like a good time to go back and reminisce a bit about what might have/could have/should have been.  As you may or may not know, the original PlayStation has a somewhat troubled past. At the very least it had a rocky start.  Before the PlayStation became the gaming giant that it is today it had some tough battles to fight, many of which it nearly lost.  And if you’re not familiar with the story, the villain may surprise you.

Let’s start back in 1988, not with Sony, but with Nintendo.  The CD-ROM was a bright light on the horizon of gaming, music, movies, and, well, basically everything digital.  As the compact disc technology began to take shape, Nintendo, as a company always ready to innovate, began toying with the idea of making it a part of their next project.  Nintendo was a game company though; not an electronics development company.  The idea of a CD-ROM based gaming console sounded great, but Nintendo needed a partner.  As you can imagine based on the title and intro of this article, the partner was none other than Sony.

Sony wasn’t interested in video games at that time, and Nintendo wasn’t interested in not-video games.  Plus, Ken Kutaragi, who’s name you may recognize as the former CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment had already developed the chip that powered the SNES’s audio system.  Sony was the perfect partner.  Keep in mind that most Sony executives weren’t even remotely interested in video games, so even the SNES audio chip was hard sell.  It was only with the help of another Sony executive, Norio Ohga that the partnership with Nintendo even began.

As many business partnerships do, this one fell apart.  To this day, the details are a bit sketchy as to what exactly the falling out was over.  It’s believed that Sony wanted to maintain its rights to the SNES-CD format; something that Nintendo was not comfortable with.  From Nintendo’s side though, they read format to mean titles created on a SNES-CD.  That is to say that if Mario 64 had come on an SNES-CD, those rights would have been owned by Sony.  Regardless of who’s side you believe, there’s no doubt who struck the first blow.

CES 1991
At the 1991 Consumer Electronics Show Nintendo president Howard Lincoln stepped on stage and announced the project for a SNES-CD in partnership with…Phillips.  Nintendo was angry at what they viewed as an underhanded attempt by Sony to steal their IPs, so they secretly partnered with Sony’s industry rival Phillips so create an SNES-CD.

Remember Norio Ohga?  He’s the executive I mentioned earlier; the only one who supported Ken Kutaragi when the original partnership with Nintendo began.  At this point he was the president of Sony, and after Nintendo’s public betrayal at CES he was furious.  He immediately appointed Kutaragi the head of the PlayStation project and set its new course: a console to rival Nintendo’s.

That wasn’t the end of the battle for the PlayStation’s fate though.  Sony executives were more convinced than ever that the video game industry wasn’t one that they would have success in.  Research continued on the project until 1992 when a meeting to finalize the PlayStation’s fate took place.  It is said that the project was retained only after Kutaragi reminded Norio Ohga of Nintendo’s betrayal.  The project continued after yet another nearly fatal blow.

E3 1995

At this point the Sony PlayStation was on track.  The team focused on the 3D polygon technology, separating itself from the sprite-based games that Nintendo was making.  On September 9, 1995 the Sony Playstation became available in North America and our love affair hasn’t stopped since.  What I find most entertaining about the story is how ironically everything played out.

First off, it seems clear from most accounts that Sony had zero interest in video games before the Nintendo betrayal so my guess is that the underhanded contract that Sony wrote was nothing more than boilerplate legal-speak.  That said, Nintendo didn’t see it that way, and when your company is based on the characters you’ve created, you protect them at all costs.  The bottom line is that this all feels like a big misunderstanding.  One who’s outcome ultimately created Nintendo’s biggest rival, instead of its greatest partner.

Can you imagine what the gaming world would look like today if the SNES-CD had produced all of the classic N64 games and all of the classic Sony Playstation games on one platform?  Not only would it be regarded as the greatest console ever created but it would have forever changed the landscape of gaming.  Microsoft may well have never entered the fray. After all, it was probably the success of Sony that gave them pause in the first place.  Steam and PC gaming would have gained much less of a foothold with such a behemoth to contend with.  And most importantly Nintendo itself would be in a much different position.  Nintendo might look more like a Google-sized company than just another player in the console market.

It’s fascinating to think of what might have been had Nintendo and Sony’s partnership coalesced.  As it stands though, the rivalry it created has led to plenty of innovation in its own right, and I don’t think most of us would trade in our PlayStation memories for anything.  Well…except that time that Chris cheated in Twisted Metal 2.

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4 thoughts on “The Unusual History of The Sony Playstation

  1. Sony would be where Panasonic is now to Nintendo. Think about it. a complete paradox. Either the PS1 never happen, which means the PS2 never came, which was the hardware(not just console) that started the DVD revolution in Japan or the Nintendo 64 ( or whatever successor this console would have) starting the CD based gaming generation, SEGA still in the hardware business because 2 japanese compnaies making hardware is good and again PS2 never came to be, and finally Microsoft would have never made the Xbox because their reason to get into the console market was to “STOP SONY” (Joachim Kempin, VP of Windows Sales at Microsoft)!

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  2. Two things come to mind when I contemplate a world where Nintendo and Sony joined forces for the “PlayStation.”

    One, I wonder if Sony still would’ve bothered to have their own “first party” games. When you partner with Nintendo on a platform, you’d probably just let them handle that. So maybe we never would’ve even seen Parappa, Twisted Metal, Jumping Flash, Intelligent Qube, Hot Shots Golf (which then may have never evolved into Mario Golf), Gran Turismo, and so on. Maybe you’d still have had Crash and Spyro since they were published by Sony but distributed by Vivendi/Universal (which is why Activision/Blizzard – not Sony – owns them both now), but then again, if Sony had Mario would they have bothered with Crash? Would Naughty Dog had made a completely different type of game if Sony wasn’t looking for their own platform mascot? I believe Sony would’ve been content just being strictly a partner on the hardware side and left Nintendo to handle the first-party software, and a lot of the “PlayStation brands” that were eventually born would’ve never existed. Some would’ve gone on to be third-party games, sure, but I have a feeling that a lot of the quirkier, more original games that got funded mainly got so because Sony wanted to build a strong portfolio of great, original first-party games, and who knows if games like Jumping Flash or Parappa would’ve found a third-party publisher during that time.

    The other thing I think about is Sega and Microsoft’s brief flirtation in the overlap between the Dreamcast’s end and Xbox’s beginning. The two companies were in talks to have the Xbox be able to play Dreamcast games, and this potential partnership – likely to try and combat the PS2 juggernaut – also led to a lot of Xbox-exclusive Sega games. Clearly there were plans being considered that went deeper than a standard third-party publisher/platform holder relationship (that, sadly, didn’t pan out for whatever reason). Assuming the Saturn still existed – and assuming it would’ve been beaten even worse by Nintendo and Sony’s partnership – perhaps Microsoft WOULD have still gotten the itch to enter the console fray, and teamed with Sega to create a Nintendo/Sony killer together. Microsoft’s money could’ve helped keep Sega afloat during its leaner years, and the Sega that was at the top of their game in the Dreamcast era might’ve been able to survive, with the added muscle and clout of Microsoft.

    Nintendo/Sony vs Sega/Microsoft: Now THAT would’ve been one hell of a showdown. And yes, as Steve said in his in his piece, the PC market would’ve most certainly had a much tougher time against that type of competition and may have still remained relatively niche as it was through the mid-90’s. Who knows, maybe companies like Valve and Blizzard might not have hitched their wagons so firmly to the PC world had, say, the Sega/Microsoft console been extremely PC-friendly, which was part of the AIM of the original Xbox but didn’t quite pan out due to its defeat by the PS2. That defeat might not have been so assured with Sega and Sega’s best teams making their best games – and ALL of their games – for the Xbox.

    And I never cheated in Twisted Metal 2. You wouldn’t have known I was looking at your screen to see where you put that remote bomb if you hadn’t been looking at mine to watch me AVOID that spot.

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  3. As someone who has owned all four of Sony’s consoles I am glad the deal fell through. Had Nintendo embraced CD technology then perhaps they would be in a stronger position now. A lot of third parties seemed to abandon them when they decided to persevere with cartridges.

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