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Some Thoughts About the "Nintendo PlayStation"

The history of video games offers no end of opportunities for speculation and what-ifs, but certain critical junctures in our reality's timeline stand out even from the rest. Sure, it's amusing to say, "What if Valve still made video games — what would Half-Life 3 have been like?" In the end, though, that's just a blip in the greater scheme of things.

Only at a few points in gaming's five decades have events transpired that radically shaped the nature of the medium, or of entertainment in general. And of these, none perhaps had quite so profound an impact as the near-miss between Nintendo and Sony in the early ’90s.

What makes the tale of the two gaming giants' near-collaboration especially enticing isn't simply their respective roles (and subsequent fortunes) in the years since. A big part of the world's collective fascination with this alliance gone wrong is that the collaboration advanced far enough that working physical prototypes were produced. We saw images of those early models in magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly... and last year, when two men discovered they owned one of those prototypes, the entire concept of a Nintendo/Sony team-up ceased to be mere pictures in forgotten magazines and took on a new, physical dimension.

The prototype, which has been informally dubbed the "Nintendo PlayStation," has been making the rounds to various events over the past few months, and this weekend it appeared on display at Midwest Gaming Classic. Needless to say, when I was asked to moderate a panel during which the PlayStation prototype's current stewards — father and son duo Terry and Dan Diebold — would be showing off the hardware and its operating system ROM cartridge, I couldn't say no. With as much ink as I've spilled on the topic over the years, the opportunity to get an up-close look at what might have been proved irresistible.

Admittedly, the panel didn't go quite as well as planned; the PlayStation prototype powered up and clearly was sending a video signal to the television, but it wouldn't read the ROM cartridge, or any retail cartridges, for that matter. That came as a letdown to the sizable crowd that gathered in MGC's tiny presentation space (likely in violation of several fire ordinances), but it's not entirely surprising: This was, after all, a proof-of-concept of technology, manufactured in a lot of 200 unit a quarter of a century ago. Not to be snarky, but I've yet to own a piece of Sony-manufactured gaming hardware that doesn't die within five years, so given the makeshift and incomplete nature of the PlayStation prototype, its occasional breakdowns can't reasonably be helped.

Thankfully, the system itself is fascinating enough to merit discussion all on its own. The fact that it even exists offers a window into a major turn of events that could have changed the games industry forever — or rather, did change it, simply through its failure to come to fruition.

I wish I could say I experienced incredible new insights into this odd corner of history after spending an hour up close and personal with the prototype, but that wouldn't be entirely true. The Diebolds' experience with the system has been documented comprehensively online, and they've yet to come into contact with anyone who worked directly on the hardware, so the panel was more of a chance to be first-hand witness to a widely circulated oral history than to witness a grand revelation. While a few games are known to have been in development for the PlayStation before Nintendo terminated the project, including The 7th Guest and Secret of Mana (which ended up being pared down to fit onto a cartridge), no one has come forward to offer any hidden knowledge about their development processes. The Diebolds have been unable to get in touch with Olaf Olaffson, the Sony executive through whom the prototype passed into the Diebolds' possession, and neither Nintendo nor Sony has made a peep to acknowledge a blip in history they'd probably just as soon be forgotten.

Even so: For me, simply seeing this PlayStation-that-wasn't went a long way toward giving shape to all the rumors and speculation that have surrounded the failed merger for so many years. The PlayStation originally would have been an expansion for the Super NES, developed by Sony to make Nintendo's console competitive with Sega CD and Turbo CD. Two different concepts appeared in magazines of the time. The first saw the PlayStation taking the form of a device that docked with the standard console, similar to the "Model 1" Sega CD all the way down to the disc tray that would inevitably have proven fragile and failure-prone. The second, however, would have been an all-in-one unit that still accepted cartridges on top while looking more sophisticated and compact than the tower version. It's this second version that manifested in the known prototype, which bears a strong resemblance to magazine photos of the time, albeit with some changes — a trio of front-facing A/V inputs on the mockup image has been reduced to one on the prototype, and the real thing includes a cartridge slot that can read and play standard Super Famicom games (in principle, anyway).

Some reports have indicated (as has the fact that the Diebolds acquired the prototype by way of a former Sony executive) that Sony would have been responsible for manufacturing the all-in-one device, and that this is why the collaboration ultimately fell through. The idea of a third party manufacturing Nintendo hardware variants wasn't without precedent; on the contrary, the PlayStation would have followed in the footsteps of the Sharp Twin Famicom, which saw a major electronics firm producing an all-in-one model that combined the Famicom (NES) with the Famicom Disk System. The Twin Famicom proved to be a minor success, undergoing a couple of minor revisions and fondly regarded by some fans as the best version of the console, if only in terms of aesthetics.

The PlayStation would almost seem to be the Twin Famicom redux. Just as the older hybrid console was produced by a company that played a major role in the original console's design — Masayuki Uemura came to Nintendo from Sharp, and that relationship proved pivotal in the console's development — so too did Sony help create the Super NES, providing the 16-bit console's groundbreaking audio chip. Plus, Sony had an additional "in": It had been one of the handful of companies responsible for defining the specifications for the CD and CD-ROM formats back in the late ’70s. But Sony reportedly expected more control over its collaborative console than Sharp had; details vary from source to source, but generally historians agree that the company insisted on enjoying first-party privileges, controlling manufacture of and collecting royalties on PlayStation CD-ROMs the way Nintendo did with carts.

Nintendo didn't get to be the world's biggest game maker in the ’80s by ceding control to anyone, and it's not hard to imagine former company president Hiroshi Yamauchi killing the deal on principle alone. Nintendo made its money by controlling NES, Game Boy, and Super NES game manufacturing and distribution at every level, and giving Sony leverage over a Nintendo platform's software surely seemed an intolerable compromise. And who knows — while people tend to regard the 32-bit PlayStation Sony began selling a few years later as the result of a "take that" act of revenge for Nintendo's "betrayal," it's entirely likely that Sony had plans to go it alone in any case, and that Yamauchi recognized the 16-bit PlayStation would have essentially amounted to giving a future competitor a free ride into the industry. For example, Sony could potentially have parlayed its relationships with Super NES PlayStation third parties to build support for its own standalone console.

While it's fun to speculate about what might have been had the Super NES PlayStation panned out, the eventual outcome (Sony launching the PlayStation as a 32-bit console at the expense of Nintendo's N64) quite possibly would have been the same either way — or perhaps even worse for Nintendo. On the other hand, we wouldn't have been subjected to those terrible CDi Zelda and Mario games.....

The discovery of the PlayStation prototype offers a concrete connection to one of gaming's most tantalizing could-have-been, but this story is far from over. Given the guarded nature of Japanese business culture, we'll probably never discover the full truth behind Nintendo and Sony's near-allegiance, and perhaps it doesn't ultimately matter all that much in the end. The Diebolds have indicated their interest in touring with the prototype to events like MGC, so their travels may well put them into contact with people who worked on games for the failed system or can offer additional insight into its workings. Still, even if we never learn another driblet of information about the failed PlayStation, every time a curio like this or the mystery Neo Geo game prototype that also appeared at MGC this past weekend is discovered and preserved — and not hidden away forever in some hoarder's closet — is a victory for the art of video game history.

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