Twenty-five years ago, countless experts believed that a company with no gaming expertise would never succeed against two of the biggest powerhouses in the industry. Critics be damned.
Today is the 25th anniversary of the Sony PlayStation, the upstart debutant that went on to dominate the console market, creating a hardware franchise that now accounts for four of the seven best-selling platforms of all time.
The early 90s were a time when Sega and Nintendo were on top, but each company had a vastly different strategy. After releasing the Genesis and add-ons like the 32X and Mega-CD–and still supporting the Master System and Game Gear–Sega pushed ahead with its next-generation Saturn, questionably dividing its team across yet another console in a push to be first to market: a risky strategy.
Meanwhile, Nintendo was once again keen to bide its time. It beat Sega’s worldwide Genesis sales with the SNES, despite launching it over two years later. What’s more, the SNES was still popular, and given Sega’s push towards expansion technology, Nintendo decided to explore the idea itself.
Nintendo shoots itself in the foot
Sony and Nintendo decided to partner with one another on a new product: a CD-ROM-based “Play Station”. It was to be officially announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1991, but after going back over the contract, then-president of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi read an earlier Sony-Nintendo contract, concluding that Sony had total control over anything published on the “SNES CD-ROM”.
Instead of renegotiating with Sony, Nintendo cancelled all plans for the joint Sony SNES CD expansion and, at CES, it instead announced that Nintendo was working with Philips to the same end goal.
Needless to say, Sony’s top brass was horrified–so much so that it flirted with a Sega partnership in response, which came to nothing. However, that 1991 Nintendo press conference ended up defining the PlayStation’s purpose; another games event would seal its international dominance four years later.
Going it alone
With most of the architecture figured out, and with a particularly bad taste in its mouth, Sony decided to put its hard work to good use, beat Nintendo to market, and teach it a lesson. Part of its success came from its decision to draw from its failed Nintendo venture, engineering better relationships with titans of the industry both at home and abroad.
Instead of entirely starting from scratch with its game development, Sony invested in existing expertise. It curated a strong third-party scene, specifically leaning on Namco and Konami in Japan, while outright buying Psygnosis in Europe. In time, these companies alone would be responsible for Ridge Racer, Tekken, Wipeout, Destruction Derby, Metal Gear Solid, Dance Dance Revolution and Silent Hill.
With a few arcade ports under its belt and plenty in the pipeline, the PlayStation finally landed on Japanese shelves on December 3, 1994 alongside an initial game line-up that’s still largely unrecognisable in the U.S.:
- IV Evolution
- Crime Crackers
- Gokujō Parodius Da! Deluxe Pack
- Mahjong Goku Sky: Atsushi
- Mahjong Station Mazin
- Nekketsu Oyako
- Ridge Racer
Competition in Japan between the PlayStation and Sega Saturn, which was released little over a week earlier on November 22, was healthy–understandably so, given the popularity of domestic companies in the Japanese market.
It wasn’t until the following year that the PlayStation started to get the upper hand. But despite having a great product, Sony’s success wasn’t much due to its own hard work–Sega instead made a severe series of mistakes, which publicly began when it dropped the ball on the first day of the first-ever E3 on May 11, 1995.
The beginning of the end for Sega
Sega decided the way to get the edge on its old and new foes would be to surprise its audience, and it certainly did at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Taking the stage, Sega of America president Tom Kalinske announced that the Saturn was available immediately for $399. This was as much of a shock to retailers as the attendees.
Apart from several select partners who had meagre supplies of the Saturn, others didn’t have any, and didn’t plan to receive them for a long time, as production had barely begun on the console. KB Toys, which Sega initially didn’t provide the Saturn to, was so angry that it retaliated by never stocking it.
If that wasn’t enough, Sony was given a right to reply at that very same E3. In what may be the most iconic moment of E3, Sony’s head of development Steve Race stepped up to the stage to make a devastating, three-word statement before leaving the stage: “Two ninety nine.”
The rest, of course, is history. When the PS1 launched on September 9, 1995 in the US, just one game from the Japanese launch line-up – the unforgettable Ridge Racer – made the initial U.S. release list. Gamers also had a choice of Battle Arena Toshinden, ESPN Extreme Games, Kileak: The DNA Imperative, NBA Jam Tournament Edition, Power Serve 3D Tennis, The Raiden Project, Rayman, Street Fighter: The Movie and Total Eclipse Turbo. The Japanese domestic scene promised games like Tekken, too, giving players all the more reason to invest for the future.
The results are now plain to see: the first PlayStation sold over 100 million units worldwide; the Nintendo 64, released 18 months later, shipped 32 million. Sega’s Saturn sold just short of ten million.
Twenty-four years after its release in Japan–and a year ago today–Sony released the somewhat ill-fated Sony PlayStation Classic, which brought 20 of its games to a miniaturised unit. Two of its launch line-up–Rayman and Battle Arena Toshinden–made the cut.
While Ridge Racer didn’t find a place on the final PS Classic shortlist, seminal successor Ridge Racer Type 4 did. It’s fitting, too: December 3, 2018 was R4’s 20th anniversary, so while we’re here, here’s wishing a happy 21st birthday to one of the greatest racing games of all time.