The term ‘console war’ is often used to describe a more contemporary rivalry between today’s two largest consoles. The original console war, however, was between Nintendo and Sega, lasting almost a decade. But it came to an abrupt end with the entry of an unlikely contender.
Sony and its flagship console, the PlayStation, may be synonymous with gaming today, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, it was one grave mistake by Nintendo that prompted Sony to enter the video game industry and become its greatest competitor.
Here’s the story of the Nintendo vs. PlayStation console war.
The Japanese Dream
The 70s and 80s were a time of great hope for the people of Japan. Bouncing back from the brink of extinction is no ordinary feat, and the Japanese were proving that they were made of stronger stuff. At the midst of all the progress in the island nation, Sony and Nintendo were creating a legacy that would last for millennia.
Sony embodied the resourcefulness and spirit of entrepreneurship that have come to be associated with the Japanese. The growth the company had made in just a matter of decades was quite remarkable. From its humble beginnings as an electronic store, Sony had blossomed into the world’s largest manufacturer of audio recording devices. Of course, this was only the beginning as there were several horizons yet to be explored for the young company, with an ambitious lot at the helm to guide it forward.
Nintendo, on the other hand, represented something that is more fundamental to Japan — tradition. Its history is unlike any other company in the world, and the reason is its adherence to values and tradition that made Japan the envy of the world at one time. Throughout the course of its existence, Nintendo has done nothing but create games. From traditional card games to breakthrough gaming consoles, the journey of the oldest games company in the world is quite a study in itself.
An Alliance for the Ages
The 80s started with a bang for the two Japanese companies. With globalization taking root in the country, Sony and Nintendo were quick to cash in on the many opportunities that were available at the time.
Nintendo, who had already made inroads into the video game industry, began releasing titles such as Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. which became overnight hits across the world. The evolution of Nintendo consoles is a story in itself. The launch of the Famicom, the NES, and the Gameboy made Nintendo the greatest player in the video game industry.
Despite their adherence to tradition, Nintendo have always been the first to bring in innovations. This is evident in the progress they made in the late 80s alone. Their extensive use of video game cartridges made the storage format popular among video games and introduced concepts such as save games, which were breakthrough innovations at the time. There was no stopping Nintendo at this point, and they began investing in anything and everything that was developing within the industry.
Nintendo had the best innovation and technology available for video games at the time, yet the need to plan for the future drove them in a different direction that would ultimately lead to some events that no one in the company could have foreseen.
While Nintendo was offering the best technology available for video games, in another part of Japan Sony was working on something remarkable. Along with Dutch electronics manufacturer Philips, Sony had perfected the first commercial optical disc, thereby revolutionizing computer storage. But the new means of data storage was limited to personal computers and provided a great edge to PC games, which were taking over the games industry at the time.
While the popularity of PCs had an effect on the console industry, it was not to any notable degree that would have bothered Nintendo or their games market. However, the company decided it was time to give a better edge to the Super Nintendo and Famicom by switching to CD for storage. Nintendo’s partner of choosing for this venture was Sony. It was to be a merger of two giants that were going to take the games industry to newer heights. At least that is what it seemed like at the time.
Paranoia Strikes Deep
The Nintendo-Sony Merger began operating in secrecy in late 1989. Nintendo wanted to capitalize on the CD and create the first console that offered this new storage device. The ambitious new console was basically just an SNES with a built-in CD drive that worked in tandem with the ROM drives. It was proudly named the ‘Nintendo Play Station’, which in hindsight should have been copyrighted.
The venture operated in full swing for the next two years. The first prototype had already been built and both companies were proud of their new console, which was still hidden away from the public.
Despite things going swimmingly between the two, theory was circulating within the Nintendo management that Sony was trying to make its way into the video games industry through the Play Station project. This paranoia about Sony’s supposed coup came about when long-time Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi went through their contract drafted in 1988.
Yamauchi, who was largely responsible was Nintendo’s growth as a video game company, began projecting his displeasure at the alliance and the amount of freedom Sony had in the Play Station venture.
Et tu, Nintendo?
All the paranoia within Nintendo manifested into a redrawing of the terms of the contract with Sony. Yamauchi and other Nintendo officials objected mainly to the clause that offered Sony the licensing for all Disc versions of the SNES games. Nintendo on the other hand wanted to control all the profits as well as the licensing for the console. There was much deliberation on the issue with neither party wanting to yield.
Through the course of these discussions another Sony ploy came to light. It was revealed that Sony’s Ken Kutaragi, in charge of the project on behalf of his company, was indeed planning on launching a games division. This news coupled with Sony’s potential coup at obtaining most of the profits from the Play Station games sent the Nintendo HQ into meltdown.
Yamauchi was swift to act and sent out his lieutenants with explicit orders on the future of the Play Station. All this immediately resulted in a very public falling out after Nintendo, at the Chicago Consumer Electronics, revealed that they were partnering with Phillips to develop the console.
Needless to say, Sony did not see this coming but took the gesture to heart. This grim episode in the venture between Sony and Nintendo would not only change the course of both companies’ history; it would also reshape the gaming industry.
A 3-Dimensional Threat
The aftermath of Nintendo’s betrayal was quite intense and came in several stages. The outright effect was that all Nintendo executives were now quite content at the fact that they had avoided a potential power struggle with Sony and could maintain their dominance over the industry. Little did they know of the events they had now set in motion.
Up until this point, Sony was least interested in venturing into the video games industry. It was just Ken Kutaragi who was the sole voice urging for a push in that direction. Nintendo’s betrayal lit a fire at the Sony HQ and Kutaragi became the man of the hour.
Sony’s first move to retaliate came with the most obvious decision: To side with Nintendo’s rival, Sega. But Sega were less than graceful in expressing their displeasure at a joint venture with Sony. Then-Sega CEO Tom Kalinske was supposedly laughed out of the board of directors’ office when he presented Sony’s proposal.
The harsh criticism from Sega did not faze Sony; instead, it motivated the company to go solo. Helmed by Ken Kutaragi, Sony launched its own gaming division Sony Interactive Entertainment with the pilot mission of launching the company’s own console and games. All this armed with just a name which was under dispute and the possible wrath of the entire gaming industry — the odds couldn’t have been greater for Sony.
Sony’s console had a very minor rebranding before launch in 1993; the space was now removed, and the console was named ‘PlayStation’. Wording aside, there were several major aspects Sony intended to achieve with the new console. At the top of the list was the migration from 2D graphics to 3D.
The biggest selling point for Sony’s PS console, apart from the CD storage, was that it was ready to handle 3D graphics. This was a bold move that was poorly received by the industry. Not only was 3D an experimental concept at the time, many game developers refused to implement it or even explore given its infancy.
Sony made use of the very little time it had to learn from its own mistakes as well as that of other console makers to create a strategy that could help launch its 3D dream.
A Make-Believe Approach to a Serious Problem
Sony had an advantage going into the console business. They had the failures of other console makers to learn from and therefore a clear vision on what to expect from their new console.
There were many previous attempts at making 3D games, but because the hardware was not designed specifically for the new graphics, those never took off. With the PlayStation, however, the idea was to focus only on 3D. Conveniently enough at the time of the console’s launch, Sega’s Virtua Fighter had famously given a glimpse of what 3D games could actually do.
After the success of Sega’s first 3D game, Sony’s strategy began taking shape. It was still not easy to convince developers though, but fortune struck the PlayStation soon enough. It came in the form of the best ally any gaming hardware company could have hoped for.
Bandai Namco was the first developer to collaborate with Sony and release a game on the PlayStation console, and it did so after severing ties with Nintendo. Revenge couldn’t have been sweeter. By the dawn of 1994 following the success of Ridge Race, the first PS 3D title, it was clear that the console wars were truly on.
One Shall Stand One Shall Fall
By 1996, Sony had amassed quite the list of titles, including PlayStation exclusive and original releases. Resident Evil and Tomb Raider had set a new standard for video games and put all other consoles on high alert. Tekken was the highlight of the PS console and had created a massive following which continues to this day.
Sony had created a console that took gaming to much higher level. It was clear by this point that all other console makers were left in the dust by the PS maker, but Nintendo’s fall seemed to be of biblical proportion. While the rise of Sony didn’t do much to hinder the progress Nintendo had already made, going into the new age of gaming posed a great quandary for the legendary game developer.
To add to this, there was Hiroshi Yamauchi’s adherence to tradition which went into the decision behind making the new Nintendo 64 a cartridge-exclusive console. While ROM cartridges were still relevant at the time, all the advancements that came with the dawn of CDs clearly made them the preferred mode of storage for many years to come.
Nintendo’s stubbornness got in the way of their progress, and what could have been a great rivalry for the console platform ended almost immediately after it started.
Don’t Be Sorry. Be Better.
For any aspiring or budding entrepreneurs out there, Nintendo is an open book on what and what not to do when running a company. Very few companies have the kind of legacy Nintendo has created, and fewer still would have gone through all that it has.
But what sets Nintendo apart is that it always finds a way to bounce back and, in the process, become more powerful. There is always a new innovation on the horizon for the oldest video game company in the world, and they like to cherish the moments that lead up to those.
Sony’s fortunes undoubtedly changed through this little chapter, and Nintendo’s role in making Sony the giant it is today is not to be taken lightly. The irony here is that in its attempt to maintain a monopoly in the gaming industry, Nintendo sowed the seeds for a more devious giant who is in a perpetual struggle to dominate an entire industry.
Sony’s offhanded tactics at beating its competition has been the point of dire scrutiny in recent times. It may be a moot point now, but it is worth pondering what the gaming industry would have been like had Nintendo honored their deal with Sony at that very crucial of junctures in gaming history.