As the late 1990s wore on, the video game industry was surging ahead into the future, and Sony, an electronics company best known for its televisions and portable walkmans decided the time was right to enter this ultra-competitive space. Fast forward more than 20 years later and we know Sony’s PlayStation console series as one of the most popular console platforms of all time.
What you might not know is that the PlayStation almost never happened and had it not been for a few key choice decisions going differently, the world might know the PlayStation as the Nintendo PlayStation. Let’s take a look at the history of this eponymous console and how its release changed an entire industry for the better.
The Nintendo PlayStation
While just about everyone knows the PlayStation as a Sony product, some video game industry followers recall that history could have played out very differently. Known as the Super NES CD-ROM System at the time, or SNES-CD for short, this hopeful add-on to the Super Nintendo was developed through a joint partnership between Nintendo and Sony. Development on the console began in 1998 when Sony and Nintendo agreed to produce CD-ROM hardware for the Super Nintendo and provide backward compatibility with existing games.
The agreement would give Sony control over what was called the Super Disc Format and would also give Sony a good amount of opportunity to control software licensing. At the time, Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi had already begun voicing concerns over the terms of the deal with Sony and started to look more toward partnerships with Philips for future console work.
In June 1991, at the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony announced it was manufacturing the SNES-compatible CD-ROM console dubbed the PlayStation only to see Nintendo announce its partnerships with Philips the very next day.
This announcement took Sony completely by surprise and while the two companies attempted to work out their differences afterward, Sony dropped its development of the SNES-compatible work. Thus, the Sony PlayStation was born.
Sony Goes All In
With the Sony/Nintendo relationship breakdown in the rearview mirror, it was full steam ahead for Sony toward their own console gaming future. To that end, Sony began making agreements with popular third-party game developers like Konami, Williams Entertainment, and Namco in order to have a solid lineup of launch-ready titles to help bring their new console to market. Being able to make these agreements would be critical and would help lead Sony to launch titles that remain popular to this day, including Ridge Racer and Tekken.
The biggest turning point for the PlayStation occurred in 1993 when Sony purchased Psygnosis, resulting in the company’s first in-house team of video game developers. In addition, this deal would eventually give Sony a huge advantage over rivals like the Nintendo 64 as Psygnosis’ team helped make video game production for the PlayStation as easy as possible.
The opposite was true for Nintendo as developers readily voiced frustrations with Nintendo 64 game development. Sony wanted its programming to be simplified and believed the use of the CD-ROM was a big contributor toward that plan. That the CD-ROM could hold 660MB of data against the 64MB of a Nintendo 64 cartridge was an easy way to lure developers to Sony’s new console.
The development of the original Sony PlayStation wasn’t without its troubles as there were numerous changes to the hardware in order to give it a solid architecture. However, in the end, Sony moved past its initial hardware hurdles and produced a console responsible for the development of over 7,900 games worldwide. That’s a huge number, especially when compared to just 393 games for the Nintendo 64, Sony’s biggest rival throughout the fifth generation of gaming.
The PlayStation Launches
The original PlayStation launched to the world on December 3, 1994, in the Japanese market and would sell more than 100,000 units on its first day. More than two million units would be sold within the first six months of release. Contrasting Sega’s big fifth generation launch of the Sega Saturn at $399, Sony famously went up on stage at the 1995 Electronics Expo and would say only the price of $299 and walked immediately off stage as an intro to the North American market.
Sony would launch the PlayStation in North America on September 9, 1995, where it would quickly outpace Sega Saturn sales and gather 100,000 pre-orders before it even hit store shelves. Launching 17 games at the time in North America gave the PlayStation a distinct advantage over the Sega Saturn and its six launch games. By the end of 1995, Sony sold more than 800,000 units in the U.S.
Europe and Australia
Lastly, Sony would release the PlayStation in the European market on September 29, 1995, and in Australia on November 15, 1995, thereby completing its global launch. Sony’s allocation of a marketing budget that nearly quadrupled Sega in the UK market ahead of the 1995 Christmas shopping season was just another way Sony managed to quickly dominate its rivals. The marketing efforts paid off for Sony as it would help drive sales of more than 2.2 million units by the end of 1996 including 700,000 of those coming solely from the U.K.
At the end of 1996, Sony had acquired more than $2 billion in gross revenue from the release of the PlayStation console. They had also moved mountains with developers to have another 400 games in the pipeline compared to Sega’s 200 and just 60 games under development for the Nintendo 64 heading into 1997.
The most notable aspect of the first PlayStation was the release of its first controller which launched with the console in 1994. This controller only featured Sony’s now famous four-button lineup (square, triangle, circle, x) and a directional pad. It wasn’t until April 1996 that Sony would launch a second generation controller that features its now famous analog joysticks which have been a staple of their controllers through successor console launches including the current PlayStation 5.
While there were some minor iterations of the original PlayStation during the initial years of its lifecycle, it was mostly focused on reducing the number of external connectors. The biggest revamp to the console would happen on July 7, 2000, when Sony would release the PS One, which was a smaller version of the console that was more rounded and a little more upscale looking than the original’s drab gray design.
In an effort to capture the resurgence of interest in retro gaming, Sony would release the PlayStation Classic in late 2018. Featuring 20 classic games like Tekken 3, Metal Gear Solid, Twisted Metal, and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, the PlayStation Classic struggled to find success. Compared to Nintendo’s two retro console re-releases with the NES and Super NES Classic Editions, Sony’s library was smaller and the overall interface was disappointingly slow which led to low sales.
The release of the original Sony PlayStation was something of a mixed bag as many reviews pegged the hardware as average but praised the emphasis on 3D gaming. At the end of the year 1997, more than a year and a half after its release, PlayStation had found its niche and the editors at the now-defunct Electronic Gaming Monthly gave it the highest score out of any of the five fifth-generation consoles reviewed. There was plenty of praise for the 3D gaming library that had been developed over the past year and a half and things were finally in motion for the PlayStation to dominate the fifth console generation.
One of the biggest differentiators for the original PlayStation was that developers heaped praise on the CD-ROM format which gave them far more space to build bigger and larger worlds over the Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64. The result was a huge gaming library that helped drive the PlayStation to sell over 100 million consoles, the first computer entertainment platform to do so and release more than 7,900 games worldwide.
5 Facts About the First PlayStation
- The first PlayStation console launched without the company’s now famous analog joysticks. They wouldn’t make their first appearance until well over a year after the console’s release to the public.
- Sony had originally planned to launch its CD-ROM-based video game work as an add-on to the Super Nintendo. Had a few key executive-level decisions gone another way, the entire landscape of the gaming industry might look very different.
- Sony sold more than 102.49 million units between 1994 and 2006 when the PlayStation was discontinued.
- The best-selling game of all time for the first PlayStation is the original Gran Turismo which sold 10.8 million copies.
- Sony chose the optical disc format because it could hold up to 660MB of memory compared to cartridges like the Nintendo 64 which only had 64MB of memory.
If it wasn’t for that fateful decision of Nintendo to go back on their Sony agreement, the gaming landscape might very well never know Sony as a major competitor. That the PlayStation 2 went on to become the best-selling video game console of all time is proof that Sony found its footing with the original PlayStation, and the rest, as they say, is history.
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