From now until the start of the new year we're going to be republishing some of what we feel are our best features of 2015. Hopefully this will offer the chance for newer readers to catch up on content they might have missed and allow long-time fans to reacquaint themselves with features they enjoyed the first time around. Today's feature focuses on one of the big news stories of the year: the discovery of the SNES PlayStation prototype.
This week a piece of gaming history was unearthed in the form of the SNES PlayStation. Images of a prototype console - badly yellowed, but identical to press images that cropped up almost two decades ago - appeared online, with the finder claiming that his father had rescued it from the scrapheap many years ago and was oblivious to its historical value. An unlikely joint venture between Sony and Nintendo, it's easy to see why these fresh images of a machine once thought to be erased from existence have created such a stir online. Today, Sony and Nintendo are rivals in the hardware arena, but back in the early '90s the companies clearly saw some benefit in working together.
Sony and Nintendo's relationship began when the latter developed the sound chip for the Super Nintendo. Created by Ken Kutaragi, the SPC 700 was one of the most impressive technical aspects of the 16-bit console, offering near CD-quality audio at a time when its rivals could muster little more than beeps and buzzes. Nintendo was clearly pleased enough to consider expanding the partnership, with Sony being the obvious choice when it came to creating a CD-ROM drive for the console. A Nintendo-branded CD add-on would be released alongside a stand-alone system with Sony's name emblazoned on it - the SNES PlayStation.
Neither pieces of hardware ever made it into full production, with Nintendo backing out of the deal in the most explosive way imaginable - it announced that it would be ditching Sony and partnering with Philips at the same '91 CES event where Sony publicly unveiled the proposed SNES PlayStation. The effect was complete and utter humiliation for the veteran manufacturer - possibly the intention of wily Nintendo boss Hiroshi Yamauchi. Sony would retreat to lick it wounds and return shortly afterwards with a reinvented, super-powerful 32-bit console which would turn the games industry on its head. Nintendo had turned a valuable ally into a bitter adversary, and changed the course of gaming history forever.
However, it's easy to see why Nintendo removed itself from the deal as quickly as possible; Sony became increasingly brash with its demands, stating that it would retain publishing rights for all SNES CD-ROM games and would make money on every single CD game sold, even the ones produced by Nintendo itself - a request that would have no doubt set alarm bells ringing within Nintendo's Kyoto HQ. The deal was being stacked heavily in favour of Sony, a company with no prior experience in the field of gaming hardware - and that was something that Nintendo clearly couldn't allow to happen. If the deal had been allowed to proceed, Nintendo would be beholden to Sony, not only in terms of hardware, but software as well.
It's tempting to ponder what actually would have occurred if the SNES PlayStation had actually hit the market, and the deal went ahead as Sony had clearly hoped it would. It's worth taking into account how its rivals fared at the time. The NEC-made PC Engine CD-ROM attachment was the first to hit the market in 1988, and would be fused with the core machine in the form of the PC Engine Duo in 1991 - known as the TurboDuo in North America. It added little to the gaming experience aside from animated introductions and CD-quality audio, and although it had moderate success in its native Japan, it was a complete failure Stateside.
Sega's CD-ROM attachment didn't do much better, despite a global launch and the power of the Sega brand internationally. It was more powerful than NEC's system but the games were still largely unimpressive, offering an almost identical standard of gameplay as standard Mega Drive / Genesis titles. Attempts were made to create a unified platform in the shape of the JVC Wondermega and Sega Multi-Mega / CDX, but neither caught on. Alongside these two high-profile flops there were other disasters, such as the Commodore CDTV and Philips CDi. Simply put, combining 8 and 16-bit hardware with CD-ROM drives didn't seem to make commercial sense in the early '90s, despite the public's constant demand for new and interesting cutting-edge tech. CD tech arguably didn't come into its own until the 32-bit generation; everything prior to that was a false start.
In this respect, it's debatable that the SNES PlayStation would have offered anything different. It was a standard SNES console twinned with a CD-ROM drive running Sony's "Super CD" standard - it was the creation of this standard that allowed the company to make claims on publishing rights for software. It has never been totally revealed what kind of new custom hardware - if any - the SNES PlayStation would offer, but from what we know of other systems of the period, it's unlikely that the CD format would have been used for anything more than FMV and additional storage. Simply put, there's nothing to suggest that the console would have done any better at retail than the failures that preceded it. In fact, there's a good chance that it could have done a whole lot worse; even in 1991 the public's appetite for CD-ROM gaming was hardly ravenous, and many Nintendo fans would have baulked at the idea of buying another system purely for the benefit of CD storage, especially when a cheaper add-on unit would have also been sold. The list of rumoured SNES CD-ROM games is also somewhat disappointing, with FMV puzzle title 7th Guest being perhaps the most high-profile (video above). The game featured attractive CGI visuals but was painfully limited in terms of gameplay, and hardly the kind of release that would sell an entirely new console.
Ironically, had the SNES PlayStation become a solid reality it could have put Sony out of the console business for good. If Nintendo hadn't pulled out at the last minute, the SNES PlayStation would have hit the market and presumably gone the same way as Sega and NEC's CD-based challengers. The stand-alone SNES PlayStation was pitched more as a Sony product than a Nintendo one, and Nintendo would have been able to walk away from the system without too much trouble. Sony would have been left shouldering the blame, and one can speculate that the time spent trying to turn the console into a success would have given the company little room to work on any kind of 32-bit successor. Sony would have missed the start of the 32-bit revolution, leaving Sega and Nintendo to continue their war of dominance unhindered. It is widely reported that it was only the desire for revenge which convinced Sony boss Norio Ohga to allow Kutaragi to continue with development of the 32-bit version of the console. Had the SNES PlayStation made it to store shelves and flopped, Ohga and the rest of the Sony board would have almost certainly abandoned any ambitions the company had of entering the gaming market on its own.
All of this is hypothetical, of course - but it's nonetheless fascinating to look back at how Nintendo's actions created a dedicated and resourceful competitor. Looking at how the machine evolved during the early '90s it's amazing to think that Nintendo could ever entertain the notion of partnering with another firm on such a machine - although the existence of the Sharp-made Famicom Twin does show that the company has prior form in this regard. It's tempting to see the Sony deal as a little bit of speculative business that, for Nintendo at least, went a little too far; it is said that even as hands were being shaken between the two firms, Nintendo president Yamauchi was in discussions with Philips in order to plan an escape route. It shows just just how resourceful and ruthless the late boss was; Sony clearly believed it had the deal in the bag, only to have the rug unceremoniously pulled from beneath it in painfully embarrassing fashion at that 1991 CES.
The fact that the SNES PlayStation never went beyond the prototype state - not to mention the tumultuous story behind it - creates an allure that is almost unmatched by any other console in existence. Of course, what has come to pass since 1991 only adds to that appeal.