A World We’ll Never Know – The Nintendo PlayStation Prototype

Recently, there was a big hubbub over a find that, even in an artform/hobby like ours that seems to have “world-changing discoveries” of “lost treasures” every day, seemed pretty cool. Someone on Reddit allegedly found a prototype of the SNES-CD, or as you might know it, the Nintendo PlayStation.

Most of you who remember the 32-bit era likely had a strange (and justifiable) reaction to seeing those words in that order like that.

Here’s the short version: a Reddit user named Analogueboy claims to have found a prototype of the SNES-CD, a combination SNES and optical drive (not dissimilar to later units that combined the Sega Genesis and Sega CD, for example) that was in the works as a joint venture between Sony and Nintendo in his attic. According to his story, it was given to his father by a man named Olaf, who might turn out to be Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson, the founder of Sony Interactive Entertainment. Nobody can confirm or deny its authenticity, and while everyone online seems to have an opinion you can’t deny it’s a neat item one way or another.

An equally interesting story is exactly how this thing came to be. Come with me, gentle reader, to a more innocent time where anything went in the games industry and companies were either unconcerned with losing money or completely ignorant to the possibility: the 1990s!

Specifically, the early 1990s, and the heart of the 16-bit era of gaming. While Nintendo’s technically impressive SNES was a hit with Mario-loving consumers, it faced the stiffest competition it had ever seen in the video game space from its fierce rival Sega’s Genesis console, as well as scrappy upstart NEC with the TurboGrafx-16.

The Genesis would actually hold the sales lead for much of the first half of the 1990s, and game companies would resort to the bitterest of measures to have or maintain their hold on America’s game-playing youth. Special cartridges, system add-ons, and even loud and belligerent marketing would be employed to prove their systems were the fastest and coolest on the market. Perhaps the best indicator of this trend is the dreaded CD add-on.

Sega CD loading screen
If you ever saw this, it meant you were at the bleeding edge of technology for about a year or so.

CDs were a big deal in the 1990s, offering storage space and access speed previously unseen by digital media, and for a while slapping a CD-ROM drive into your product was considered shorthand for being cutting edge. Nintendo’s two rivals in the console space had already achieved this dream, with NEC’s ill-fated Turbo CD arriving in 1988 (!) and Sega’s not-as-big-of-a-failure-as-you’ve-heard Sega CD arriving in Japan in 1991 and America a year later. Even with the SNES’ advanced innards placing it ahead of the competition, it was in danger of being perceived as uncool and obsolete without a CD add-on. What were they going to do?

Enter Sony. Before the Nintendo 64 became the dorky kid brother to Sony’s lightning fast cool-kid PlayStation in most people’s eyes, Nintendo and Sony actually had something of a working relationship. The SNES had a proprietary (and very advanced for the time) sound processor designed not only by Sony, but by Ken Kutaragi, the man largely responsible for the first three PlayStation systems and the head of Sony Computer Entertainment from 2003 to 2007. Seeing the writing on the wall, Nintendo began considering making their own CD add-on, and knowing they had no experience with the medium turned to a close friend who did: Sony.

Now, ironically enough, Sony’s higher-ups were pretty resistant to video games at first. Seeing themselves as more of an electronics company (as games were still equivalent to toys in those days) they felt like gaming was beneath them, but a small handful of executives supported Kutaragi’s collaboration with Nintendo and allowed him to proceed.

Little did he realize he was dealing with early 90s Nintendo, a company that had yet to learn to shake off its rigid control freak-ness that made so many publishers loath to work with them in the 80s. Part of Sony’s design for the system, which would be called the “Play Station” (that space makes all the difference) involved the “Super-CD”, a proprietary format that the games would arrive on. Part of the stipulations of Sony developing this system included Sony being able to retain licensing rights to the Super-CD format, meaning they get a big cut of the money and a large hand in printing and publishing.

Nintendo, a company who was pretty used to being the sole source of distribution and manufacturing for games on their systems, didn’t like this too much, so in secret they began brokering a more favorable (to them) deal with Sony’s electronics rival Philips, which they announced at CES 1991…the day after Sony announced the PlayStation, in one of the earliest recorded examples of “video game trade show dick moves”. The PlayStation would lend its name to the sleek grey PlayStation we all knew and played Metal Gear Solid on, and the Philips/Nintendo collaboration would birth that un-redeemable punchline, the CD-i. I say “unredeemable” as a man who has defended the 3DO on occasion, to put it in perspective.

Hotel Mario CD-i
I want everyone to realize for a second that this image represents the legacy and repercussions of Sony and Nintendo collaborating.

So the legacy of the PlayStation is a strange one. If it had come to fruition, would it have prevented or delayed Sony from entering the market on their own? Would the Nintendo 64 have been a combination cartridge and CD system, not dissimilar to the 64DD or Famicom Disc System, but more permanent and integrated? Or would it have sold middling-to-okay like everyone else’s disc add-on and delayed the industry’s adoption of CDs even further? (Can you imagine a cartridge-based Sega Saturn? I can, and I’m pretty into it, but I’ve got weird opinions on stuff like that.)

Much like the true nature of this newly-discovered PlayStation prototype, the world may never know how different things could have been if Nintendo and Sony had made a system together. That said, if Analogueboy’s does turn out to be fake, I’ll happily buy one from whoever made his just to have it around the house – especially if it actually plays Super Famicom games.

Tim Allen

Tim has been a gamer since the very first Goomba in Super Mario 3 killed him one Christmas. He lives outside of Detroit and is very picky about music and beer.

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