GameSpite Quarterly 8 | Chapter I: Sony's Big Ploy

They seemed like the best of friends, Sony and Nintendo. Two major Japanese tech companies whose interests dovetailed perfectly: The former created pricey but innovative electronics, the other created must-have video game machines. And in the days of the Bubble Economy -- the late ’80s and early ’90 -- we here in the United States saw Japan as a unified front. Sony even provided Nintendo with the industry-leading sound co-processor embedded in its powerful 16-bit Super NES console, the first expression of what appeared to be a long-term partnership between the electronics giants.

But that’s not how it really was. That’s never how it is. Japanese culture encourages its subscribers downplay the true extent of conflict and disagreement beneath a façade of cooperation, as embodied in the twin concepts of honne and tatemae: The reality of one’s true feelings versus the public-facing expression of their desires. The tatemae of Sony and Nintendo’s relationship was that of a grand collaboration. The honne, however, was less congenial.

We may never know the true nature of the companies’ relationships, of course. Even in the West, the dealings of such powerful collective entities are opaque to the public, the politics of back rooms and boardrooms hidden behind press conferences and press releases. Sometimes, inside parties leak details and tell-all confidentials result, but such things are much less likely when dealing with the Japanese. Tatemae adds an extra layer of obfuscation to the already murky nature of corporate politics. Worst of all, Nintendo’s key personnel are all but inaccessible to the general public, having learned the value of controlling their own message with the candid (but carefully vetted) “Iwata Asks” interviews wherein the company’s president grills his underlings. The resulting articles offer amazing insight into the creative process, but not the politics.

So no, we may never know what really happened between Sony and Nintendo, but we can speculate. We know that, by several accounts, Sony’s management was furious when Nintendo released the video game equivalent of the Sony Walkman: The Game Boy. Not necessarily furious with Nintendo, but rather at having been beaten at its own game. The Walkman made music portable, and it single-handedly made Sony an industry behemoth. The Game Boy did likewise for games, and its moniker was a clear reference to Sony’s groundbreaking cassette player.

Sony had dipped its toe in the games business, but only in the most perfunctory sense as a publisher of mostly mediocre licensed goods. But despite its music and film connections, Sony was ultimately a hardware company, and the move into gaming hardware only made sense. Maybe it was the Game Boy’s arrival that spurred Sony into action, or maybe their plan already existed; whatever the case, the Super NES sound chip appeared to be simply the first phase of their new ambition. The second phase was to be the Play Station, a CD add-on device for the Super NES that would give Nintendo a stake in the budding CD-ROM games market... and that would simultaneously give Sony a stake in the lucrative Nintendo software business.

Concept art of the Super NES Play Station courtesy of an old issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly.

Nintendo’s strategy for making money since the launch of the Famicom in 1983 had been to rely heavily on the profitability of software. By retaining exclusive manufacturing and licensing rights to all games published for NES, Game Boy, and eventually Super NES, Nintendo raked in cash on every game released for its consoles, even if its licensees took a beating. By all accounts, the Play Station deal would give Sony a portion of Nintendo’s formerly exclusive royalties -- not only for CD-ROM games, but reportedly for all Play Station compatible software. Since the idea behind Play Station was that it would be able to play both CD-ROM and Super NES carts, Nintendo’s exclusive rights to its licensees fees would presumably be divided on all games.

There are some elements of this third-hand account that seem rather suspect. For starters, how could Nintendo’s canny legal team fail to realize that their contracts with Sony were signing away the rights to the company’s revenue stream? Nevertheless, the facts remain: At the 1991 Chicago Consumer Electronics Show, Sony announced its plans for the Play Station. Then, the following day, Nintendo announced that it would be partnering with Philips rather than Sony for its Super NES CD-ROM add-on.

Another rendition of the Super NES Play Station, this one a standalone device sporting Sony branding and a downright godawful rainbow logo.

Sony’s executives were again said to be furious, but this time that ire was presumably (and quite reasonably) directed at Nintendo. This wasn’t a matter of being beaten to market fair and square by an innovative product; here, Sony had been publicly slapped in the face with a blatant breach of contract. Gamers got a raw deal, too, as ambitious in-development Super NES CD-ROM games from publishers like Square were trimmed down to buggy messes; cart prices stayed high; and the software that resulted from the Nintendo/Philips collaboration was terrible.

Whatever plans Sony may have had for entering the hardware market were galvanized by Nintendo’s double-dealing. The company’s plan for a sneak attack by riding the Super NES’s slipstream into the increasingly competitive hardware market was abandoned in favor of a frontal assault. The Play Station plan continued apace, initially as a CD-based system with a Super NES cartridge slot, but eventually as its own creature... one with the power to humble the era’s other contenders. The Play Station eventually evolved into the 32-bit PlayStation, a beast of a machine with 3D capabilities far beyond those of Philips’ pitiful CDi, the 3DO standard, Atari’s Jaguar, and even Sega’s impressive Saturn. Only Nintendo’s Ultra 64 would be able to stand toe-to-toe with PlayStation... but Sony completed its machine efficiently, gaining an 18-month lead on the often-delayed system that would eventually come to be called Nintendo 64.

And so was Sony’s plan for sweet revenge set into motion.

Zelda’s Adventure (top) was one of the more ignoble results of Nintendo’s decision to partner with Philips. This CDi game was one of the few Zelda titles ever to be developed without Nintendo’s input, and it shows. Super Mario’s Wacky Worlds was ostensibly more promising -- it had the decency to rip art directly from Super Mario World, at least -- but its eventual cancellation was probably for the best, in the end.

By Jeremy Parish? | April 17, 2011 | Next: Sony Before PlayStation