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Retro Revisit: Sony PlayStation

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Posted October 8, 2013 by Esteban Cuevas in Features
Retro Revisit

Do you know about the Sony PlayStation? You should! It was the first console made by Sony and remains one of the best consoles to ever been released. The console gave us great games like Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, and Crash Bandicoot. However, do you know the original story behind the creation of the first PlayStation and why Sony decided to get into the video game industry to begin with? In this edition of Retro Revisit, we take a look at the drama-filled history behind the Sony PlayStation.

Our story actually begins not with Sony but Nintendo. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo’s then-current console, was facing some stiff competition from the Sega Genesis. Even though the Genesis was technically inferior to the Super Nintendo, the success of titles like Altered Beast and Sonic the Hedgehog had gained them a respectable portion of the market share, something Nintendo, who had dominated the video game industry in the late 80s with next to no competition, wasn’t used to. So when Sega announced the Sega CD, an add on device that offered games on the new compact disc format, little did everyone know that Nintendo had a CD add-on in development as well.

Nintendo themselves had actually been toying around with disc technology ever since 1986. At first, it was the magnetic discs used with the Japan-only Famicom add-on, the Famicom Disk System. However, the discs were easily erased and had no copyright protection. After hearing about Sony and Philips developing a new add-on for CD-ROM drives called the CD-ROM XA (which solved both those problems), Nintendo asked Sony for assistance in developing an add on for the Super Nintendo. Nintendo asked Sony specifically because of Ken Kutaragi, who had sold Sony’s SPC-700 processor for use in the Super Nintendo’s audio capabilities. This actually almost got Kutaragi fired, as he did the deal outside of the company’s knowledge.

Nintendo and Sony struck a deal and work began on the add-on, tentatively named the “SNES-CD”. In addition to the device, Sony also worked on their own Sony-branded console that would serve as a home-entertainment system that would play Super Nintendo games as well as the add-on’s disc-based games. The console was given the name “Play Station” with a space in between “Play” and “Station”. Finally, Sony was to develop a special disc format for the CDs for copyright and durability purposes. All of these arrangements gave Sony a lot of control over the project, despite Nintendo being the dominant leader in the video game industry and Sony almost having nothing to do with the industry at all.

 

This started to make Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi very nervous. After going over the original contract, he made the discovery that in addition to all of the control Sony already had, Sony also essentially had complete control over any and all games written on the Sony-created SNES-CD format. Yamauchi decided the contract was unacceptable and secretly canceled the plan without informing Sony. The project was set to be announced at the May 1991 Consumer Electronics Show but instead of the SNES-CD project between Nintendo and Sony being announced, a project between Nintendo and Philips, Sony’s partner in the CD-ROM XA add-on, was announced instead. Nintendo chairman Howard Lincoln and Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa had flown to Europe prior to the announcement and had made an agreement with Philips, one that gave Nintendo total control over its licenses on Philips Machines.

Their agreement with Nintendo now having collapse, Sony at first was going to halt all of the work they had done. However, they ultimately decided to continue the standalone console, the Play Station. Nintendo filed a lawsuit against Sony as a result, claiming that they had complete control over the name “Play Station” and the release of the console would be a breach of contract. During the time of the lawsuit, it is said that 200 of these “Play Stations” were produced but never released to the public. The lawsuit lasted for over a year and resulted in Sony being cleared to release the Play Station with the SNES support and SNES CD format but Nintendo would retain the rights to the games made for the console, and they would receive a majority of the profits.

Sony CEO Norio Ohga was understandably cross over the fallout of the deal with Nintendo and the man behind the deal, Ken Kutaragi, was determined not to leave this project in the way that it is. Kutaragi went to Ohga and pitched the idea of making their own console, free from Nintendo’s involvement to compete with their former partners. This idea had actually been pitched before by Kutaragi but Sony execs had rejected the idea as they felt that they were a consumer electronics company and not a “toy maker.” However, with Nintendo’s betrayal fresh in Ohga’s mind, he now gave Kutaragi the go ahead to move forward with a product to compete with Nintendo and enter the video game industry in their own right.

Kutaragi and his team decided to rework their original idea for the Play Station. They decided to design a console for the following generation of hardware and create their own CD-ROM format. The SNES slot was removed from the hardware and the name was changed from “Play Station” to “PlayStation”, legally removing Nintendo from the project. Code-named the PS-X, the console featured the R3000 processor with a VLSI chip that was modified heavily by Kutaragi in order to allow 3D graphics to be processed quickly. The GPU also excelled in making various graphical effects such as fog and transparency. The controller created featured two extra shoulder buttons, a d-pad that was not one piece of rubber but four divided pieces of plastic and extended grips for players to hold the controller, three new concepts that had not been done before and made the controller stand out next to its competition.

Finally, having learned from the 3DO’s failing, Sony managed to gain a large amount of third party support, namely Namco who would provide the Tekken series exclusively on PlayStation consoles for over a decade and deliver one of the biggest launch titles for the system, Ridge Racer. Some titles, like Mortal Kombat 3, that were previously planned to be released on Nintendo’s upcoming Ultra 64 console were canceled and moved to the PlayStation. Most controversial of all was Sony’s straight out acquisition of Psygnosis, the developer behind Lemmings. Though a relatively so-so developer at the time, the acquisition resulted in the Demolition Derby and WipeOut series and the SN Systems development kit, which was made by Psygnosis collaborators Andy Beveridge and Martin Day and made developing for the PlayStation extremely easy as the kit worked on any standard PC.

Sony opened a new division for its games development, Sony Computer Entertainment, and released the Sony PlayStation on December 3rd in 1994 in Japan. They outsold Sega, who had just released their own new console, the Sega Saturn, and had a hit with Ridge Racer. Sony then impressed American audiences at the first E3 conference in 1995, blowing away Sega’s Saturn and Nintendo’s Virtual Boy. The PlayStation was then released in North America on September 9th, 1995, outselling the Sega Saturn again at 100,000 units in pre-orders alone. At this time, Nintendo’s new console had been delayed numerous times and by the time the Nintendo 64 was released in the following year, Sony had not only rise above Sega but had taken much of the market share Nintendo had thought was waiting for them. Sony had succeeded in besting Nintendo.

The Sony PlayStation would go on to sell over 100 million units. Compared to the Nintendo 64’s 33 million and the Sega Saturn’s 9.5 million, Sony dominated the generation. Ken Kutaragi is now known as the “Father of the PlayStation”. On a personal level, this console holds a special place in my heart and despite it destroying my beloved Sega Saturn, the original PlayStation is my favorite console ever. Games like Tekken, Ridge Racer, and Crash Bandicoot were astounding when I got my first Sony PlayStation. What do you think of the development of the Sony PlayStation? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below and be on the look out for the next entry in the Retro Revisit series.

Sources: Wikipedia [1] [2] [3], G4 Icons, IGN

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About the Author

Esteban Cuevas


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