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.

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.

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.