On Dec. 3, 1994, electronics giant Sony released an unassuming gray box that could play CD-based video games. And while the PlayStation brand would go on to bigger, better things, the company owes a debt to the system that got it started.
The PlayStation was a revolutionary. It set standards the industry would follow for decades. Crucially, it kicked off a legacy that turned Sony into a household video game name.
But it wasn’t always a feather in the company’s cap. While the PlayStation division is currently one of the pillars Sony is relying on to help turn around its struggling empire, the company wasn’t thrilled to get into the gaming business. In fact, were it not for longtime rival Nintendo, Sony may be, at best, a sideline player in today’s gaming scene.
It all started in 1988, when Nintendo and Sony agreed to work together on a CD-ROM device for the Super Nintendo system. Three years later, Sony debuted the machine at the Consumer Electronics Show.
Crash Bandicoot, the PlayStation’s first mascot.
But the day after the reveal, Nintendo dropped a bombshell, declaring it would not work with Sony and would instead partner with Philips, an announcement that made Sony officials flip their lids. Sony President Norio Ohga quickly assigned Ken Kutaragi (who has since been dubbed “The Father of the PlayStation”) to the task of developing a competitive system.
Typically, major business decisions made in the heat of anger tend to flop. As Sony officials calmed down a bit, they began to reconsider the directive. In May 1992, Kutaragi was forced to defend his project to company officials, who were skeptical about diving headfirst into a video game industry dominated by Nintendo and Sega. Kutaragi was successful, and the PlayStation division was shifted from the main corporate umbrella to Sony Music, where it found a more welcoming environment.
Game companies, fortunately, were a little easier to convince. Developers quickly fell in love with the system’s CD-ROM storage system and 3D graphics and signed on to make games.
When the system hit store shelves 20 years ago in Japan (it wouldn’t launch in North America for nine more months), gamers liked that the $300 system was $100 cheaper than the competing Sega Saturn. The first 100,000 units immediately sold out, and it didn’t slow down. By the time production on the original PlayStation ended in 2006, the system had sold 100 million units, a home console record at the time (it would eventually be eclipsed by the PlayStation 2).
The groundbreaking Final Fantasy VII.
The secret of that success? The CD format, for one thing, which was cheaper than the N64’s chunky cartridges. But where Sony truly left Nintendo behind was in its willingness to let third-party game makers experiment and create the bulk of the software for the system.
Over the course of its life, nearly 8,000 games were made for the PlayStation, with only a handful coming from Sony’s internal studios. Third-party blockbusters like Resident Evil, Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Tekken, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater all got their console start on the PlayStation. Despite initially releasing simultaneously on the PlayStation and Saturn, Tomb Raider and its immediate sequels called Sony’s machine home. Add Sony-created hits like Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and the cult fave PaRappa the Rapper, and the system simply outplayed the competition.
“Sony Computer Entertainment, founded by my mentor Ken Kutaragi, was a project borne out of sincere passion and deep admiration for the craft of game development,” said Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios in a blog post. “The mid 90s were an exciting time for game developers, driven by the explosion of powerful but affordable 3D graphics rendering hardware and the birth of many young and adventurous development studios. The original PlayStation was meant to embody that sense of adventure and discovery, that sense that anything was possible.
“We sincerely thank you for joining us on our exciting 20-year journey. You have made every bump and scrape we took along the way worthwhile.”
Sneaking around in Metal Gear Solid.
Sony is still a leader in the video game world. The PS4 is currently the best-selling console of this generation and is serving as the launching pad for several new initiatives, including a game streaming service (PlayStation Now) and an over-the-top television network (Vue).
But the original PlayStation, whose blocky graphics wowed us in the ’90s, will always hold a warm spot in gamers’ hearts. For a system that almost didn’t make it out of the gate, the PlayStation built a legacy few companies can match.
To celebrate the milestone, Sony has announced a limited-edition, retro-looking PlayStation 4 that features the gray color of the original system. It also happens to coincide with the company’s open-to-the-public PlayStation Experience event in Las Vegas.
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