Back in the days when Nintendo’s biggest rival was Sega, Nintendo had a plan to give them a huge advantage over the competition. In 1988, this whole ‘CD’ thing was getting really big. Nintendo thought, what if we did that, but put video games on it? Entertainment giant Sony didn’t understand or care for video games at the time, but still decided to get involved figuring there would at least be money in it. Things didn’t quite go to plan.
The whole “CD” thing
The SNES CD-ROM drive is something of a legend among retro game fans. It represents what could have been, as Nintendo likely would have dominated the market and games would have been changed forever. It also represents the turning point for Sony as they decided ‘hey, you know what? Let’s do our own video game thing!’ making them one of the biggest contenders to ever hit the console scene.
So how did it come about? Why didn’t the partnership follow through? What happened to the prototypes? Let’s go on an adventure through history.
How did it all start?
Originally, Sony had very little interest in making games or consoles, seeing it as a waste of time. One Sony engineer, Ken Kutaragi (whose name I’m sure many of you will recognize as former CEO of Sony) thought there was more to video games and that Sony would benefit from focusing on them. He’d come to this conclusion after watching his daughter playing the original Famicom and began working on a project in secret to develop the SPC 700. This would drive the audio side of Nintendo’s next big project, the SNES.
He developed this in secret, knowing Sony’s negative stance on video games. As a result, Sony was less than impressed when they found out. However, the then CEO of Sony, Norio Ohga, gave the green light to Kutaragi’s project and so he was allowed to complete it. The project was a huge success and lead to Sony deciding to experiment a little more in the realm of video games with the help of Nintendo, signing on to make add-ons for the SNES.
The contract between two unlikely partners
A contract was signed and Sony was given the go-ahead to develop a CD-Rom addon for the SNES. At the time, it was a revolutionary concept and would allow the SNES not only to play cartridges but also CDs. Though their contract and how the money would be split between the two companies is where problems began to arise.
Sony wanted full control over the disc-based side of the console. That included all profits from which Nintendo would receive a certain amount in royalties. This meant Sony would have control over who got to licence games for the system. Given Nintendo’s quality control standards at the time, as well as their fierce protectiveness over their own IP’s, this went about as well as you could imagine.
Prototypes of the Nintendo PlayStation went into production, with around 200 believed to be made. In the end, Nintendo couldn’t get over the contract details and instead began talks with another company, Philips, who was Sony’s biggest rivals at the time.
Where did it go from there?
From there, the rest is history. Sony took what they’d learned and developed and turned it into the smash hit, the PlayStation. Then, Nintendo made the CD-i with Philips which was a big ol’ mess from which sprouted the worst Zelda and Mario games in history… as well as some of the best memes. Some would argue that for this reason alone, we’re all a lot better off.
The prototype was found
In 2009, an American banking company called ‘Advanta’ went into bankruptcy. Everything from the company was put up for auction. This would otherwise be unremarkable if it wasn’t for the fact that one of the board members was Olaf Olafsson. He was the former CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment. And, among the boxes of boring bank stuff laid one of the few prototypes of the Nintendo PlayStation.
One man, Terry Diebold, worked at the company and attended the auction. He’d helped pack the boxes and so he knew that there was some pretty cool stuff, and wanted a piece of that. For the bargain price of $75, he walked away with a bunch of boxes containing everything from shirts and ties through to around 200 music CDs.
Rediscovering the Nintendo PlayStation
And, of course, one item he didn’t expect. He didn’t even realize the Nintendo PlayStation was among the items and for a long time. It sat collecting dust with Diebold’s other older consoles until his son, Dan, found himself on Reddit one day reading about the console.
In an absolutely wild turn of events that sounded a lot to other Redditors as yet another ‘my uncle works at Nintendo and said Mew is under the truck’ kind of stories… he asked his dad to take a few time-stamped photos. Then, he made a new Reddit post and from there the internet began to blow up with excitement, as it tends to do.
Though, it wasn’t until much later when the father and son were in Hong Kong was the console actually turned on, out of fear of breaking it. As the console was switched on, it was soon discovered that this prototype had two fatal flaws. One was that the audio output just plain didn’t work. Alright, fine, that’s not the end of the world. But the real kicker is that the disc-drive, the big draw of the console, also didn’t work. Though it could play cartridges just fine, so that’s… Something.
And the story continues
But the story doesn’t end here. Later, in 2016, boot ROM discs for the console began to turn up from an anonymous source. They were distributed to big name retro emulation community members of the time.
Then, later again, renowned computer engineer and console modder Benjamin Heckendorn got his hands on a console and managed to repair the disc drive to a certain extent, getting audio, and later, getting the disc drive fully functional. He managed to play some homebrew games.
We don’t know what games would have been on the console. Secret of Mana would have been one of them. It was an already huge game being even bigger thanks to the CD format. Other than that, all we have to go on is what we can see in videos in what other people have done with the console as is.
But, we know that from the ashes of Nintendo and Sony’s failed partnership, the phoenix of the PlayStation rose and gave us memorable games for years, and they still are. Nintendo, on the other hand, wouldn’t even attempt another disc-based console. Especially after the colossal failure of the CD-i until the Gamecube.
I’m sure in an alternate timeline, we’re all enjoying playing Crash Bandicoot, as presented by Nintendo.