The Playstation was an incredibly important point in the history of gaming. It led the charge for home consoles to embrace 3D graphics and CD media. The controllers and games we play today can all be traced back to Sony’s first foray into home gaming.
Ken Kutaragi is the man most responsible for bringing the Playstation to life.
This story begins way back when Kutaragi (while working with Sony) secretly (yes, secretly) developed the SNES sound hardware. Many of his bosses were angered by his covert op, but he received enough support to retain his position. He continued to coordinate with Nintendo, pitching the idea of a CD attachment to the SNES.
Nintendo’s think tank was against CDs. They figured the frustrating load times outweighed any potential gameplay advantages (a là the N64). Kutaragi was eventually allowed to develop a Nintendo Play Station prototype as long as it remained completely separate from the SNES and cartridge format.
Kutaragi found support from the founder of Epic/Sony records, Shigeo Maruyama (who provided most of the details of this particular story). Interestingly, Maruyama stated he only went along with Kutaragi’s CD console idea as a way to get Karaoke in the homes of consumers.
Kutaragi was known as an ambitious and even eccentric man. Nintendo of America President Minoru Arakawa warned Nintendo’s Japanese HQ to reign in Kutaragi, for fear of him taking too much power.
The deal that changed gaming
There are various accounts of how this went down. Many report that Sony and Nintendo had intended to announce their Play Station at CES 1991, until Nintendo pulled the rug out. Sony announced the deal as planned, while Nintendo proclaimed the next day they would be working with Phillips instead.
Others state the deal was reworked and Nintendo had intentionally protracted negotiations to slow Sony’s eventual launch of their own machine.
Most stories report that Nintendo was upset with how much ownership Sony would retain over the games. A quick look at how Nintendo has always valued their first-party games and struggled with third-parties from the N64-era on, lends support to this theory.
Kutaragi wakes the giant
Maruyama accounted for how Kutaragi gained the final push for his machine
“Kutaragi had begun stirring up trouble in the company. He even came up to Mr. Ohga and said “Sony’s very own Norio Ohga gave his approval, but the project got canned for no reason. If you back out now, how will you maintain your honor!” And Mr. Ohga responded “You are right. This has brought us shame…”
Many at Sony were not convinced that home gaming was the way to go. So much so that Kutaragi and his team were moved from the Sony HQ to Sony Music to sidestep the opposition and work on their project without interference.
2D or 3D?
In hindsight it seems ludicrous that gaming would remain in 2D, but at the time it wasn’t a simple decision. 2D was at its peak, producing gorgeous sprites that looked far more polished than the clunky early-gen polygons.
Virtua Fighter‘s massive success in the arcades was the tipping point and pushed Sony to choose hardware that could handle 3D visuals.
Ironically, although Sega had created Virtua Fighter – the very game that inspired Sony to go 3D – they still insisted on their Saturn focusing on producing the best possible 2D visuals and simple polygons. Sega’s mistake was failing to anticipate how fast 3D technology would evolve and they struggled to keep pace with the Playstation/N64. Multi-platform polygonal games almost always looked and ran better on Sony’s console.
In a bizarre twist, the tech that enabled the N64 to produce the best 3D graphics was initially offered to Sega! Sega of America insisted it be included, but Sega of Japan (still resentful of the Genesis/Megadrive’s success in the West and failure in Japan) ignored their advice to embrace 3D.
Sony Computer Entertainment
The legendary SCE was formed in 1993 and was soon approached by EA and Namco to make games. Both companies were lured by the promise of lower production costs and higher storage capacity compared to the expensive and limited cartridges needed for the N64.
Sony was also proactive in working with third-party developers. They provided programming information that was constantly updated and invested in tech support teams to help development.
Nintendo on the other hand, cranked out fabulous first-party games, but seemed to leave third-parties to fend for themselves. Some, like Rare, were able to produce top-notch products (Goldeneye, Banko-Kazooie), but many others struggled or didn’t bother.
The First E3
A few months prior, Sega had stated they would release the Saturn in Sept, 1995 on “Saturnday”. But in order to beat Sony to the market, they announced at E3 1995 (July) they had already shipped 30,000 units to the biggest retailers. The console would cost $399, and include a copy of Virtua Fighter. This burned a few bridges with other retailers taken by surprise and not included, causing Sega to be dropped by KB Toys.
Sony’s E3 mic drop moment
Sony capitalized on Sega’s mistake with one of the greatest E3 presentations of all time.
CPU 32-bit 33. MHz
Ram 2MB 1MB video
colors 16.7 million
polygons 180,000 per second textured. 360,000 flat-shaded
resolution 680×480 480i
sound 16-bit , 24 channel
Since Sega had rushed the Saturn to market, they had fewer games at launch than Sony. Although a case could be made that Sega still had the stronger lineup with Virtua Fighter, Daytona USA, Panzer Dragoon and Clockwork Knight headlining the group.
Sony tried to provide a game in every genre and had Toshinden, Ridge Racer, Rayman, Raiden Project, NBA Jam TE among others. Namco had also created a Playstation-friendly arcade board, which led to great ports of both Ridge Racer and Tekken.
The following year, Nintendo came in with easily the smallest launch lineup in console history: Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64.
Sony targeted teenagers with their marketing, while Sega aimed at adults, even advertising with Playboy. Sony’s marketing philosophy was that children aspired to be teenagers, and adults felt younger when playing games.
Sony used colorful, edgy themes for their commercials and even the memory card UI.
The Playstation was very successful in the UK, outselling the Saturn 3-1, also outspending them $20 million to $4 million in terms of marketing. This was an important step as previous home consoles had failed to usurp PCs as the gaming go-to in the UK (this is why many UK gamers call them “computer games”).
The Playstation’s use of CDs and the mainstream availability of CD burners meant the console was ripe for piracy. The iconic Playstation logo and sound was actually there to detect region and legitimacy before booting the game. If the game didn’t pass, it would boot to a menu that allowed gamers to play audio from their CD. (Some audiophiles have proclaimed the first Playstation’s with RCA jacks have tremendous audio).
Modders were able to solder chips onto the system’s board in order to play pirated and non-regional games. A ‘soft’ mod required the use of a GameShark, a legitimate disc, and a spring. The legitimate disc was inserted first and the spring was used to trick the console into thinking the lid was closed. Once the system finished its check, the user would swap the legitimate disc for a pirated one. The GameShark plugged into the I/O port caused the disc to stop long enough for the user to swap it.
The 5th Generation’s rocky start
Many analysts had predicted a second video game crash as the 5th generation was flooded with consoles, similar to the first crash. The Atari Jaguar, Panasonic 3DO, Amiga CD32, FM Towns Marty, Neo Geo CD, PCFX, were all after a piece of the pie.
The three leaders after the 1995 Christmas buying season were the Playstation, Saturn, and 3DO, but sales were unexpectedly poor, even failing to outsell the previous generation! That year, the SNES released Chrono Trigger, Yoshi’s Island, DKC 2, Megaman 7, Megaman X3 and Tetris Attack (amazing combative puzzle game). Even the Genesis had a strong year, pushing forward with Vectorman and Comix Zone.
Sony vs Nintendo
The N64 faced many delays and didn’t launch until 1996. Sony had gained a significant lead over the Saturn by then, and it came down to a two-horse race.
Nintendo’s cartridges pushed several publishers away due to memory constraints and higher costs of development. A CD could hold 680 MB while cartridges ranged from 4-32 MB (only RE2 and Conker’s Bad Fur Day were 64 MB). Most notably, this led to Square switching the release of Final Fantasy VII to Sony’s console, selling 9.8 million copies, the second-highest PS1 seller of all time.
CDs allowed for large files like sound, FMV, detailed textures, and pre-rendered backgrounds. The hours of narration in Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil, the licensed soundtrack of Wipeout XL, and the epic scope of FFVII could only be done on CD.
The downside was that the Playstation could only hold a small amount of information and had to constantly load new chunks from the disc, causing frequent load times.
Nintendo’s cartridges had zero load times and were more durable, but sound had to be compressed, and many features had to be left out. This made it difficult to port some games from Playstation to the N64, but when working within the strengths of their own hardware, Nintendo was able to produce stunning games. Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time are fantastic examples of using flat polygons to create beautiful worlds and characters.
Quality vs Quantity?
Nintendo’s mantra in this time was “Quality over Quantity”, but it would be incorrect to assume Nintendo had unmatched highs while Sony relied on an army of mediocrity. Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Mario Kart, Goldeneye, Smash Bros, and even the better AKI wrestling games were certainly some of the best of the generation. While Sony had a lower average of quality due to the sheer amount of titles released, they could still match (if not surpass) the amount of high-end games with: Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy VII/VIII/IX, Gran Turismo, Tekken, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Final Fantasy Tactics and many more.
Playstation’s lower cost of development and third-party friendly philosophy also led to more experimentation and variety.
After the 5th generation’s sluggish start, the Playstation went on to become the first home console to sell over 100 million units. It settled at 102.49 million, for 4th all time, behind the PS2 (155 mil.), DS (154 mil.), Gameboy/Color (118 mil.).
Sony’s first attempt at a console was a gigantic success that helped bring gaming into the mainstream. The Playstation reached a broader audience and helped legitimize gaming as a hobby and passion for people of all ages. It cannot be overstated that every console controller today owes its design to the dualshock.
The games may look clunky now, but many of the franchises that started on the PS1 were groundbreaking and are still around today. 3D gaming was a brave new frontier and both Sony and Nintendo were instrumental in how 3D gaming would evolve.
It’s also interesting that after the PS2 refined the strengths of the PS1 and went on to be the all-time best seller, that the PS3 would get so far away from what made the first two so strong. Instead of developer-friendly hardware and an approachable price, the PS3 used powerful, but difficult architecture and launched at a ludicrous $599 (it still came around to sell 80 million). Sony wised up with the PS4, but it goes to show that how difficult it can be to get a console right.
What are your thoughts on the Playstation?