If you grew up in the ’90s, chances are the original PlayStation was a part of your life. Arriving on the console scene long after rivals Nintendo and Sega, PlayStation was an altogether different kind of beast. Its games shipped on CDs, it boasted spiffy three-dimensional graphics, and one of its flagship titles even featured music by abrasive electro pop group The Prodigy. It may have been a dull grey slab of plastic, but PlayStation was the console that all the cool kids wanted.
By some cruel trick played on us by the forces of nature, Sony’s original PlayStation turns 20 years old today. This makes us feel tremendously bitter and old, but at the same time we thought this would be a good opportunity to look back at some of the great games that came into being through the console, and also to revisit the surprisingly dramatic tale of how PlayStation was born.
The original PlayStation launched in Japan on December 3, 1994, but it’s fair to say that the seeds were planted as far back as the late ’80s when video game giant Nintendo began working with Sony to produce optical discs intended for the distribution of their software. Nintendo’s own disks, which were released only in Japan for the Famicom (NES) Disk System add-on, were prone to data loss and could be easily copied by consumers, so Nintendo hoped to use new-fangled CD-ROM technology, a field in which both Sony and fellow electronics maker Philips were already key players, to distribute its games in the coming years.
Forming increasingly closer ties, Nintendo ultimately signed a deal with Sony–who was by this time was also making audio chips for Nintendo–to produce a disc-based add-on for their Super Famicom (Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the West), extending the console’s lifespan and allowing it to compete with rival video game company Sega, who was also exploring CD technology. Nintendo also granted Sony permission to build a console of its own, dubbed the Play Station, that as well as supporting Sony’s new disc technology would be compatible with Nintendo’s proprietary game cartridges.
▼ The prototype image for the SNES add-on that would go on to become the stuff of legend
Alas, things did not go quite according to plan…
Trouble in paradise
With the hardware almost ready to go into mass production, Sony looked set to make its first foray into the video game industry, safe in the knowledge that it would be doing so with the help of the global market leader. At the 11th hour, however, Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi got cold feet when he realised that the contract he had signed would give Sony significantly more power over software distribution than he had anticipated. Much to the company’s embarrassment, Sony was ditched by Nintendo in favour of Philips, with Nintendo breaking things off not through a series of boardroom meetings or awkward phone calls, but by publicly declaring that it would instead be working with the Dutch electronics company to bring its CD add-on to the world.
Sony, a company whose experience lay mainly in TVs, audio equipment and semiconductors, was now left red-faced and with a console that they could not legally take to market. Clutching at straws, they approached Sega in the hope of partnering with them and sticking it to Nintendo, but the gaming company reportedly scoffed at the idea of working with a group that had never released a single game or piece of gaming hardware as long as it had existed. Sony was on its own.
A question of space
Things were looking grim for Sony, but a man named Ken Kutaragi, the same Sony engineer who had singlehandedly developed the Super Famicom’s sound chip after–or so the story goes–being decidedly unimpressed with the original NES’s bleeps and bloops, pushed forward the notion that there was money to be made in the video game industry. Rather than scrapping the entire project and wasting thousands of hours of work, Sony’s bigwigs ultimately decided to make the best of a bad situation by launching PlayStation, as it had been rebadged, entirely on their own and going up against Nintendo. With the backing of then-CEO Norio Ohga, Kutaragi was tasked with making PlayStation a success.
Fortunately for Kutaragi, a decision later made by none other than new rival Nintendo helped PlayStation become a household name right out of the gate. Despite experimenting with the format and it being the very cause of the troubles between Sony and Nintendo, Nintendo’s CD-ROM add-on never saw the light of day. Instead, the games company pulled a complete 180 on the storage medium, citing long load times and–as later turned out to be painfully true–the ease with which CDs could be pirated as their reasons for not making the new format a part of their next console, the Nintendo 64, or Ultra 64 as it was then known.
But game developers were already very much in love with CDs. They allowed for vastly more data to be stored, making it possible to include things like pre-rendered backgrounds, full-motion video and high-quality voice samples in games. Not only that, CDs were markedly cheaper to make than Nintendo’s cartridges and were a format that consumers were becoming increasingly fond of and familiar with. Slow load times or not, developers such as Square and Enix (then entirely separate entities) urged Nintendo to ditch cartridges for optical discs, but Nintendo dug its heels in and vowed to stick with its existing format. As a result, a number of big-name software developers chose to cut ties with Nintendo, shifting development of their games to newcomer PlayStation, a console which had not only been built from the ground up with CD technology at its core, but whose creator was at that exact time aggressively courting software developers. Securing key titles such as Final Fantasy VII and Dragon Quest VII, both of which were originally destined for Nintendo’s next console, PlayStation suddenly became the only place to play a number of much-loved franchises, and fans took notice.
Like Sega before it, Sony aimed to distance its console from Nintendo’s own by positioning it as something intended for more mature audiences. Taking advantage of its clout in the music business and numerous corporate connections, Sony wooed developers, recording artists and commercial makers alike, establishing Sony Computer Entertainment (a name that, notably, omitted all mention of the term “game” due to its slightly childish connotations) and building an altogether sexier and more mature public image for its console; one that its key demographic of teenagers and young adults would be enticed by.
PlayStation launched in Japan on December 3, 1994 and with its futuristic 3-D graphics and grown-up image was met with much fanfare. The console took almost a full year to reach North America and Europe, but by the time it, did Sony had already started bombarding the TV-viewing public with a series of bizarre ads (a strategy they would go on to employ once again in 2000 for the launch of PlayStation 2) that set tongues wagging and expectations high.
▼ The original PlayStation launch date teaser
▼ The console’s UK ads were equally odd. Heads up for the manic staring Scottish kid at 00:42.
▼ The “Society Against PlayStation” ads took a slightly different approach, at one point even showing an actor tossing the very product he’s selling into the bin.
It was PlayStation’s software library, though, that was key to its success. Sony lacked a mascot to rival Nintendo’s Super Mario or Sega’s Sonic The Hedgehog, so instead aligned itself to be seen as home to the kind of content that older, more image-conscious consumers would be happy to associate themselves with or be seen to enjoy. As well as ports of arcade titles that pushed technological boundaries, games appeared on PlayStation which featured mature themes that would have seemed positively alien on Nintendo’s decidedly family friendly platforms.
We’re sure we would have eventually seen some of the following games on some console or other had Sony not decided to step into the ring, but it was thanks to their little grey box that we first got to experience some of these 32-bit gems:
▼ Capcom’s Resident Evil, complete with its now legendary ropey voice acting and live-action video.
▼ Straight from the arcades, 3-D fighter Tekken spawned a number of sequels and was one of PlayStation’s flagship titles. Developer Namco even slipped a watered-down version of Space Invaders into the game’s loading screen to keep impatient gamers entertained.
▼ You may have forgotten it existed, but Destruction Derby took our breath away back in the ’90s. There were bits actually falling OFF the cars!!!
▼ Psygnosis’ futuristic racer Wipeout had The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” as one of its background music tracks. Enough said.
▼ Riiiiidge Raaacer! How did that woman holding the placard not get mowed down at the start of every race?
▼ Free to shove as much game data as they liked onto the disc, Square brought us the now iconic RPG Final Fantasy VII
▼ Metal Gear Solid was one of the first truly “mature” titles many gamers ever played, and featured hours of cinematics and expertly voiced dialogue. It even had credits appearing during the opening level.
▼ Grotesquely proportioned as she once was, would the gaming world be the same without Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft?
Despite its unlikely beginnings, PlayStation went on to take an enormous chunk out of Nintendo’s share of the console market, and spawn a number of successors and the brand, as we know, is still going strong. By the time it was discontinued in early 2006, more than 102 million units of the original console had been sold worldwide, and in many countries “PlayStation” had become a generic term for the box under your TV that plays video games. Not bad, as we’re sure Sony would agree, for the little console that got dumped at its first prom.
Happy 20th birthday, PlayStation. Your younger siblings might have smarter graphics, online capabilities and controllers that lack the long lengths of cable required to make the spaces between our couches and TV sets veritable death traps, but your blocky, awkward graphics, that weird ticking noise you sometimes used to make, and, yes, even your frequent disc read errors will always have a special place in our hearts.