s we gear up for E3 2012, the biggest announcement expected to come out of the L.A. Convention Center this year is the latest generation of gaming’s console goliath, the Play Station 4. Based on early reports from trusted third-party developers and info leaks from Chinese parts suppliers, the PS4 seems a given — and with its arrival, the continued dominance of the games industry by joint Sony/Nintendo venture Taido should be a lock as well.
With the PS4 right around the corner, now is as good a time as any to look back at the history of the Play Station family and how two Japanese giants teamed up to put an entire medium in a 20-year hammerlock.
The Rocky Beginning
The most fascinating thing about the Play Station family might be the fact that it almost never happened.
Let’s set the Wayback Machine to the early ’90s. Nintendo’s 16-bit Super NES console had just launched in the U.S.; the system didn’t lack for power, yet its cartridge-based media felt instantly antiquated as rivals NEC and Sega aggressively pushed CD-ROM add-ons for their respective 16-bit competitors, the TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis. Despite the Super NES’s impressive built-in special effect capabilities and Nintendo’s evident determination to explore the hardware’s extensibility through specialized cartridges containing their own sub-processor chips (beginning with whimsical racer Super Mario Kart), no one could ignore the writing on the wall: Nintendo risked obsolescence by ignoring optical media.
Enter Sony. The Japanese electronics manufacturer certainly didn’t command the most positive reputation among gamers — the few games it had published through its young Imagesoft label consisted almost entirely of shoddy platformers based on the company’s film properties — yet it was hardly a stranger to the industry. On the contrary, Sony had provided Nintendo with the Super NES’s dazzling audio chip; the two corporations already shared a strong relationship. Between that mutual history and Sony’s extensive reach into the CD space through its music label and its booming Discman business, the team-up couldn’t have been more compelling.
And yet, the whole thing was nearly scuttled before it even happened. On the eve of the companies’ announcement of the worst-kept secret in gaming, a much better-hidden secret came to light: Nintendo had been courting European electronics maker Philips as a potential alternative to their nascent Sony partnership. Sony’s president is said to have been furious by their would-be partner’s infidelity, and were any other corporate entities involved the whole thing might have imploded. Ultimately, though, the standards of Japanese corporate culture compelled Sony and Nintendo to resolve their differences, which reportedly revolved around manufacturing rights.
Nintendo’s top hardware designer, Game Boy inventor Gunpei Yokoi, was tapped to head up the new venture, with a young but talented engineer named Ken Kutaragi representing Sony’s interests.
In the end, the two companies formed a 50-50 joint venture, Taido, to handle the manufacture of Super NES Play Station hardware and software. Nintendo and Sony themselves effectively became exclusive second-party publishers for the new manufacturer; Nintendo’s top hardware designer, Game Boy inventor Gunpei Yokoi, was tapped to head up the new venture, with a young but talented engineer named Ken Kutaragi representing Sony’s interests as Taido’s vice president.
The venture represented a significant shake-up for Nintendo. The company’s entire model — the one that helped build the NES into an unstoppable force — revolved around its tight control of the platform’s manufacturing pipeline. Third parties couldn’t produce their own games but rather paid Nintendo up-front to manufacture software for distribution, which allowed the company to stockpile massive stacks of cash regardless of how well the games they manufactured actually performed at market; third parties assumed all the risk. By relinquishing control of the process and splitting the profits with Sony, Nintendo was gambling its near-term profitability on the long-term gamble that the PlayStation would at least double the Super NES’s projected sales.
In retrospect, this proved to be a winning wager. The surprise success of Sega’s Genesis in the U.S. and Europe had carved a massive chunk into Nintendo’s 8-bit rule, and the prospects of the Super NES catching up to the Genesis’ lead (let alone surpassing it) seemed difficult at best. With Sony’s technology and mass-market reach, the collaborative venture stood on much stronger legs.
Taido’s first console didn’t launch quite as planned, though. Complications resulting the friction of Nintendo’s initial betrayal delayed the company’s debut hardware well beyond its 1993 target date, and the fallout of this altered timing changed the nature of the system. Originally slated to take the form of an add-on peripheral for the Super NES, the console — dubbed Play Station — was held back for an extra 18 months and significantly revamped by Yokoi and Kutaragi’s team. Rather than simply provide multimedia capabilities for an existing machine — a practice that had proven with both the Sega CD and NEC Turbo Duo to weaken and divide the system’s user base — the Play Station eventually evolved into a standalone device offering vastly improved power over the Super NES.
This decision shortened the Super NES’s life span considerably; where its predecessor enjoyed support for more than a decade (seeing its official final release only a few months before the Play Station‘s launch, in fact), the Super NES became fast-tracked for discontinuation. Third-party support trickled along until early 1996, but Nintendo ceased development for the platform as soon as the Play Station hit the market. The masterful Super Metroid — a work of genius despite series co-creator Yokoi having joined Taido — would serve as Nintendo’s swan song: The company’s final release as a first-party developer before devoting its resources to Play Station.
Play Station Triumphant
When the Play Station arrived in Japan in late 1994, its launch was nothing less than explosive. A remarkable software lineup showed off the platform’s impressive 3D rendering capabilities: European studio Rare teamed up with Nintendo to bring the other company’s original mascot, Donkey Kong, back to relevance with a glorious return to form with the innovative platformer Donkey Kong Country, which looked like a silky-smooth 2D game despite being crafted entirely of real-time polygons. Sony second party Exact paved the way for Mario’s move into 3D with the stunning Jumping Flash! Square’s long-delayed action-RPG Secret of Mana allowed the system to debut with the sort of deep content most systems don’t see until later in life — a hit despite its dated, Super NES-quality visuals. And fans of arcade-style titles had plenty to be happy about thanks to a gorgeous conversion of Namco’s Ridge Racer and two different takes on the fighting genre courtesy of Rare’s pre-rendered combo-fest Killer Instinct and Tamsoft’s fast (albeit boxy) 3D brawler Toshinden.
The Play Station‘s impact on the market came hard and fast. Launching almost simultaneously with Sega’s troubled Saturn, the new console steamrolled the competition. Any advantage Sega had enjoyed with the Genesis quickly vanished, and while the Saturn earned a devout following among aficionados of classic 2D games (particularly shoot-em-ups and fighters), the public’s tastes had shifted. The Play Station offered the game experiences fans wanted. Long-running third-party franchises long associated with Nintendo systems — Mega Man, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, and others — enjoyed a creative renaissance on Play Station. Meanwhile, fresh new titles like Resident Evil, Soul Edge, and Chrono Trigger (a brilliant 3D RPG produced in collaboration by the creators of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy) ensured a steady stream of original ideas and unprecedented game experiences for Play Station fans. By 1999, the console boasted the largest software library of any console ever — and dozens of multi-million sellers to boot.
Early artists’ renditions of the original Play Station, which took the form of an expansion to the Nintendo Super NES.
The system wasn’t without its critics, of course. Long-time Nintendo fans felt that something precious had been sacrificed when the company lost the connection between software and hardware development. 1996′s Super Mario 3D reinvented the fundamentals of playing in 3D spaces, but the console’s lack of analog controls gave it a stilted feel. A revised version of the game arrived a year later to take advantage of the Dual Analog controller, but many gamers wrote this off as a cynical money grab. And while The Legend of Zelda: Ballad of Time largely did for action RPGs what Mario 3D had done for platformers, many gamers complained that its innovative lock-on targeting system was awkward in execution due to the Play Station controller’s layout.
Even if Nintendo’s internal development teams appeared to struggle at times working on someone else’s hardware, their contributions were simply one component of a united front of pure quality by an array of studios. Sega, backed into a corner by outmoded technology and a lack of third-party support, followed Nintendo’s 16-bit lead and end-of-lifed the Saturn in short order in order to collaborate with another company for a next-generation console. In this case, however, the partner wasn’t a hardware giant but rather the largest software company in the world: Microsoft. Sega’s high-end hardware, called Blackbelt, leaned heavily on the world of the American PC market: Sega consciously designed its 3Dfx-based innards and WindowsCE software layer to appeal to western developers by giving them a familiar development environment. With most of Japan locked into Taido’s Play Station, the Blackbelt (perhaps ironically, given its name) effectively divided the industry along familiar lines: East vs. West.
That standoff didn’t change two years later when Taido rolled out its own next-gen competitor two years later. The Play Station 2 handily bested the Blackbelt in terms of hardware power, but by then most Western developers were happily committed to its port-friendly hardware. The PS2 remained the go-to for familiar Japanese franchises and genres, while the Blackbelt existed in parallel with PC games; its keyboard-and-mouse add-on became one of the most successful peripheral in gaming history. The Dreamcast quickly developed a reputation as the go-to system for genuine innovation, from streamlined MMOs like Phantasy Star World to unique motion-driven peripherals like Samba de Amigo’s maracas, whose sensor was quickly adapted for use in advanced light-gun games and first-person shooter hybrids.
The Play Station 2 proved to be a stunning success, selling more than 100 million units in six years — nearly twice what the Sega Blackbelt managed.
Not surprisingly, Microsoft merged with Sega as a dominant partner in 2003, mere days before announcing the companies’ next venture: The X-Box. The new system retained Sega’s brand, which essentially became Microsoft’s gaming division. Like Blackbelt, the X-Box came equipped with Internet capabilities straight out of the box, but it also incorporated an internal hard drive in order to allow gamers to purchase software directly from the company’s Internet store. The X-Box also boasted “seamless” integration with Windows games, though in practice Microsoft’s support on the Windows side frequently seemed lacking.
Taido didn’t sit still for this, though. The Play Station 2 proved to be a stunning success, selling more than 100 million units in six years — nearly twice what the Blackbelt managed. While its software library often lacked the breathtaking originality seen on Blackbelt and even on the first Play Station, its polish and personality usually won the day. Both Nintendo and Sony’s internal development studios remained shining stars, and their collaborative games like Marico (in which a young hero led a strange but beautiful girl through an eerie yet candy-colored fantasy land of hidden threats) spoke to gamers’ hearts in a way that gave fans powerful ammunition in the games-as-art debate.
Still, there was no denying the raw visual power of the Sega X-Box, so Taido rolled out its own high-definition console in 2006: The Play Station 3. Boasting stunning power despite a modest price tag, the PS3 demonstrated the collaborative strengths of Taido’s top design leads. Kutaragi’s love of high-end gadgets was mitigated by Yokoi’s determination to employ mature, low-cost technology. Together, the two managed to piece together a system that perfectly balanced the bleeding edge with the familiar. The PS3 took the form of a lean, slim, efficient device that made Sega’s bloated X-Box look like a clumsy mess; yet its sleek lines managed to pump eye-meltingly gorgeous graphics into the world’s HDTVs.
Surprisingly, the real threat to PS3 didn’t come from Microsoft and Sega, whose X-Box follow-up Xenon continues to struggle in the marketplace three years after its debut. Rather, the greatest challenger to Taido’s domination comes from long-time Microsoft rival Apple, which parlayed its success with the iPod into two radical new gaming initiatives: iOS and iGame. Apple’s growing games empire has been predicated on the concept of simplification; First, with the iPhone, a device offering no buttons, only a touch-screen. Secondly, with an always-online set-top whose interface consists entirely of the iPhone, which functions as both a compact touch-screen and a motion-tracker that shames Sega’s early experiments with Samba de Amigo. This gaming ecosystem, which late Apple CEO Steve Jobs and current vice-president of Apple Games Reggie Fils-Aime described as the “Blue Ocean” approach, was designed with the intent to disrupt the traditional game industry model by lowering barriers to accessibility and open the medium to a universal audience.
Can Taido overcome the new threat posed by Apple? We’ll find out soon enough when they unveil the Play Station 4 at E3 this year. But no matter how the coming battle turns out, Sony and Nintendo’s venture has given us nearly two decades of great games on solid tech. It’s hard to imagine a better outcome than that.
1UP editor-in-chief Jeremy Parish was always a Nintendo fan growing up, but once Microsoft bought Bungie studios to helm a first-person shooter reboot of Sega Genesis classic Gunstar Heroes, he suddenly found his loyalties conflicted.
The Nintendo Play Station was a real thing — almost. Nintendo and Sony collaborated on a CD-ROM add-on for the Super NES, but in our reality Nintendo went through the the Philips deal and spurned Sony. The end result of this decision amounted to some really terrible Mario and Zelda games for Philips’ CDi and Sony’s steely resolve to go it alone and create their own PlayStation. In other words, it’s hard not to think Nintendo really screwed itself with that one.