The Short History of the Nintendo Playstation
With the Nintendo Switch now announced to have a worldwide release date of March 3, the dawn of the company’s seventh home console is upon us. The future of Nintendo and gaming is not what I’m here to talk about today though. Instead, inspired by my yearly trip to MAGfest, I’m here to talk about their past, perhaps the most famous video game console nobody ever got to play, the fruit of a broken business partnership whose end would prove to be one of the most pivotal moments in gaming history. This is the short history of the Nintendo Playstation.
Yes, you read that correctly, and no, that photo you’re looking at isn’t a fake. What you’re looking at is perhaps the only still existing prototype of the Nintendo Playstation, more properly known as the SNES-CD, the fruit of a partnership between Nintendo and Sony that would have sent shockwaves through the world of gaming, and as a direct result of its failure, changed gaming forever in a very different way.
The year was 1988, Nintendo was near the high water mark of the successful Nintendo Entertainment System, while Sony was busy pioneering a then revolutionary technology known as the CD-ROM. While Sony had little interest in getting involved in the video game industry, they’d worked with Nintendo to create the SPC-700 sound processor for the eventual successor to the NES, the eventual Super Nintendo, or SNES.
Where it gets interesting though is that the man who designed the SPC-700 sound processor, a Sony product designer by the name of Ken Kutaragi, had a vision for an even greater project – a home video game console that could play CD-ROMs. It was an idea that intrigued both Nintendo, which saw CDs as a way to surpass the technical limitations of cartridges, and Sony, who saw the potential to sell millions of CDs, and so a deal was struck.
Sony began work on a pair of devices: a CD-ROM peripheral for the Super Nintendo (not unlike the Sega CD that was released in 1991) that would run Super Disc games, and a standalone console that could play both SNES cartridges and CDs. Several prototypes were designed and produced, the specs would have been far ahead of the competition, and the companies planned to unveil the hardware to the world at in June 1991 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago.
It should have been a winning coupling if there ever was one – Sony, one the world’s most successful electronics company working with Nintendo, the world’s biggest video game company. One can only imagine the heights such a partnership might have reached had things played out differently. As it often is though with big corporations and even bigger egos, things soon began to fall apart.
The issue was that part of the deal, in addition to granting Sony licensing fees and cut of the profits, would have given them a degree of creative control that made famously protective Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi nervous. While it may seem silly with the benefit of hindsight, one can understand why for the man who had turned his family toy company into a multibillion dollar corporation, granting Sony, a company with zero experience in the video game industry, such a sizable chunk of company profits and creative control might have rubbed him the wrong way.
So, in a move that may well have proven to be the worst business move in the history of the video game industry outside of the E.T. game that killed the Atari, Yamauchi sent Nintendo of America chairman Howard Lincoln and president Minoru Arakawa to the Netherlands to sign a more favorable agreement with Philips, Sony’s chief rival, for a Super Nintendo CD-ROM add-on with a different format. Nintendo announced this partnership the 1991 Consumer Electronics Show the day after Sony unveiled its Nintendo Playstation prototype. The move was a surprise to everyone, including Sony.
It was a public betrayal so bold the only thing missing was a rendition of “Rains of Castamere”, and the consequences would be enormous for both Nintendo and Sony.
In one of the ultimate ironies of this tale, Nintendo’s partnership with Phillips never never resulted in a CD-ROM add-on for the SNES. In fact, the only thing that did come of it was that as a result of a provision in the contract with Phillips, they had the right to feature Nintendo’s characters in a handful of games for its short-lived CD-i multimedia device.
The results were… disappointing to say the least. In yet another twist, the betrayal born from fear of what Sony would do with a degree of creative control directly resulted in probably the worst Mario and Zelda video games ever made.
With egg on their face, but many important lessons learned, and perhaps just as critically, a working prototype for a video game console, Sony would allow Ken Kutaragi to continue working on a newly-branded Sony Playstation. Now sporting 32-bit graphics, the Sony Playstation would be released in 1994, and would go onto become the first home video game console to sell 100 million units, and its successors have sold hundreds of millions more. Sony has been a titan in the video game industry ever since.
Nintendo meanwhile wouldn’t release a disc-based console until the Gamecube in 2001, and would never again enjoy the market share they did prior to Sony’s entry into the video game industry.
As for the Nintendo Playstation, most of the prototypes were destroyed, and gamers wondered if it had ever existed at all. At least until the one known still existing model you saw photographed above was discovered in 2015 by Dan Diebold, who has occasionally allowed it on display at conventions like it was at MAGfest this year, and is potentially looking for a museum to house this permanent reminder of a temporary dealing.
Aside from Mr. Diebold though, and the lucky few who have seen his console for themselves, the Nintendo Playstation remains a fascinating turning point in the history of the video games industry, serves as a potent reminder of the steep price one pays for not keeping your business deals, and a fun little reminder of how close we can come to things playing out very differently indeed.