On December 4, 1988, NEC and Hudson Soft released the CD-ROM2 System. An add-on to the PC Engine (which was a massive success in its native Japan despite poor market performance elsewhere), the system pioneered the idea of video game consoles using the CD-ROM format for games, and managed to push enough units to catch the eyes of competing console developers.
That same year, after a favorable partnership that resulted in the Super Nintendo Entertainment System's SPC700 sound chip and Sony's NEWS Workstations being selected to be used as part of the official development environment for the SNES, Ken Kutaragi, sole brainchild of the chip, got the idea to produce a CD-ROM add-on, one that would eventually result in two disc-based systems in response to NEC & Hudson's move: a CD add-on for the SNES called the "Super NES CD-ROM" and a SNES/CD hybrid console entitled the "Play Station" (two words). Nintendo at first didn't really warm up to the idea of games on discs, noting that CD-ROMs had load times. Kutaragi, according to an interview with Shigeo Maruyama, insisted that Sony would create CD-ROM software for everything (i.e. karaoke, informational software, etc.) but video games. (As of this time they were mostly an electronics company.) Nintendo signed off, telling him "Alright. We don't think it will be successful, but you can do your CD-ROM thing."
It turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes they would make. Sony had been rapidly expanding their media empire, entering the '80s with a life insurance business on their side before acquiring Columbia Records in '88note and also Columbia Pictures in short order. In early '89 Sony started its first game publishing wing, Sony Imagesoft. It became evident that Sony/Kutaragi were not planning on keeping their word, but Nintendo had already signed away final oversight and royalties of video games published on said CD-ROM system. Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi wasn't exactly happy with this. If you thought his response was "call up Sony to renegotiate the contract in Nintendo's favor," you'd be dead wrong. Instead, Yamauchi ordered the executives over at Nintendo of America to secretly create a new deal with Philips, the other company that helped create the CD-ROM format. Fast-forward to the 1991 Consumer Electronics Show: Sony proudly announces their partnership with Nintendo, only for Nintendo to announce the day after that they were terminating their contract with Sony and had already began development work with Philips instead. Enraged, Ken Kuratagi, who had been dragging Sony's feet through this entire scenario, convinced Sony, who had mostly seen the snub as a minor loss, to let him and the other engineers build their own console in revenge. But before Kuratagi, who had the idea of Sony getting into video games to begin with, set upon doing that, he had another idea. After all, if there was one other company that hated Nintendo as much as Sony now did, it was Sega.
An oft-forgotten part of this whole affair is the role that Sega played. After their relationship with Nintendo crumbled, Sony proposed a deal for Sega to assist their developer Sony Imagesoft in developing games on optical discs, which Sega of America accepted while also convincing Sony to finance Digital Pictures alongside them, on the basis that said developer had made the most progress on programming games on discs (both Sony and Sega would eventually each publish three games from Digital Pictures). This led to a close relationship between the two parties, with Sony even assisting Sega on development of the Sega CD, which in turn led to the idea of a standalone optical disc-based console to be jointly marketed by the two companies, with Sega and Sony splitting any losses made. Sega of America loved this idea and pitched it to Sega of Japan for their approval, only for it to get shot down as the head of Sega of Japan was unwilling to believe Sony was capable of developing hardware or software for video gamesnote . Sega and Sony would go their separate ways as a result, and Sega would go on to make their own disc-based console, the Sega Saturn. The Saturn's development and marketing ended up being an utter mess that doomed it to complete failure in the West, but this isn't the place to discuss that entire debacle.
Back at Nintendo, the contract with Philips was scrapped. Instead, it was replaced with a new one in collaboration between Nintendo, Sony and Philips. The day before the Sega CD's formal release, the trio announced that they would be working together this time with a more favorable licensing deal for Nintendo, who would retain final royalties and oversight over video game software, with the rest going to Sony. The resulting model would use CD-ROMs and sport further enhancements over the two preceding models. However, the project would still not come to full fruition. Reportedly, a major issue with the project that also stretched back to the initial Sony deal was complications with finding a way to combat piracy of CD-ROM titles: on all occasions, Nintendo asked to enclose the discs in a locked plastic caddy (similarly to what Sony themselves would do for the PlayStation Portable's UMD format years later, and to an extent, what RCA had done for the CED home media format) with a built-in lockout chip, while both Sony and Philips were adamant on using the bare discs (indeed, the sole surviving Play Station prototype uses a standard tray-loading drive without the need for a caddy). The reason for Sony and Philip's pushback on this idea comes down to a few things:
- At the time, CD burner technology was still prohibitively expensive to typical consumers, and the significantly higher capacity of discs made it impractical in theory to try and copy the content to floppy disksnote anyway, provided that games actually made sufficient use of the extra space. CD-ROM itself was a relatively niche format as well, so implementing such an elaborate anti-piracy system was considered overblown. It would take until The Fifth Generation of Console Video Games for CD-ROM piracy to become a cause for concern.
- The locked caddies would have invoked extra manufacturing costs. CD-ROM releases were already fairly pricy with just bare discs, and increasing that price tag would make it harder to sell them to consumers (at least before conventional cartridges became even more expensive). What's more, the available technology in the early 90's would have made it difficult to pull off the idea without making the caddy fairly thick. In addition to complicating potential packaging for games, thicker caddies would also limit the system's ability to match the dual functionality rival systems had as audio CD players.
- The importance of audio CDs must be emphasized, as this sort of dual functionality was (and would continue to be) a major selling point for disc-based gaming consoles and multimedia PCs, as it made them a more attractive purchase than dedicated units. At the time, the latter were often just expensive as a gaming console, if not more so.note To retain audio CD functionality, the SNES-CD would need to either add extra girth for a tray that could accommodate both Nintendo's special game discs and standard CDs, or come with separate openable caddies to enable users to listen to audio CDs on the system. According to a retrospective EGM article, Nintendo did indeed make plans for the latter, with the caddies using pullout trays instead of a more conventional hinged door; ultimately though, they'd abandon the idea of multimedia functionality once they actually adopted optical discs in the 2000s.
Because of all of this, neither of the two companies Nintendo worked with had any interest in using caddies. Fifth generation CD anti-piracy would ultimately make use of a "wobble" in the discs' pre-gap areas that the system would check for during boot-up, though the top-loading nature of the PS1 and Saturn still made it easy to run burned discs through careful hot-swapping while the tray door is forced open, so you could perhaps argue that Nintendo was vindicated in this belief.
All of this said, the old guard at Sony was still keen on sticking with Nintendo, wishing to stick with the latter's expertise. Kutaragi, however, still had his own ideas, convincing them to go it alone and start developing the future PlayStation. More on that a little later.
Several months after Sony's departure from the project, Nintendo concluded that CD-based consoles just weren't worth the hassle following the failure of the past add-on attempts, and so their next home console (the Nintendo 64) would end up being the only cartridge-based system of that generation. This is generally seen as a boneheaded move, as it gave the excuse that third-party developers such as Squaresoft, who were already frustrated with Nintendo's business practices, needed to pledge support for Sony's console instead.note So began the trend of Nintendo home consoles struggling to regain the support of many major third-party developers for the next two decades. As for Philips, despite the failure of their two contracts, were still given access to two Nintendo properties of their choice to develop for the Philips CD-i, a multimedia system best known today for some of its odd gaming software. These ended up being The Legend of Zelda which got three games made, and the Super Mario Bros. franchise, which got one.note These games are best left unmentioned in discussions about their parent franchises, but still managed to be the most successful games released for the device (for as much as that means).
Finally, back with Sony, the team there used what they had learned from working with both Nintendo and Sega to continue work on the PlayStation, which launched at the end of 1994 in Japan (and the end of 1995 everywhere else). Thanks to Killer Apps published by both third-parties (Final Fantasy VIInote , Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid) and Sony themselves (Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon), the system quickly trounced all rivals during The Fifth Generation of Console Video Games by a wide margin. Its successor (the PlayStation 2) would do even better and currently stands as the most successful console of all-time at over 155 million units sold. And while they initially stumbled with the PlayStation 3, it still went on to be the second-most successful console of its generation, followed by the PlayStation 4 which would put Sony back on top for a while, and become the fourth best-selling console of all-time. And yes, the PlayStation 5 is doing pretty well for itself too.
In short, Nintendo and Sega indirectly created one of their greatest rivals. A rival that actually killed Sega as a console developer; Sega only avoided total bankruptcy after the failure of their Saturn successor, the Sega Dreamcast, thanks to an especially generous shareholder giving them the $695 million USD needed to transition into third-party game development. Nintendo fared rather better. They're still a major player in the gaming industry, and while they have spent the years since Sony's entry into the market zig-zagging between trailing far behind them (Nintendo 64, Nintendo GameCube, and especially the Wii U), briefly reclaiming the top spot by a wide margin (Wii), to finally overtaking them again (Nintendo Switch) they continued to keep a stranglehold on the portable gaming market that both of Sony's attempts have failed to make a dent in.
It's tough to say how much of this could have been avoided. Thanks to Ken Kuratagi, Sony had already entered the game market by assisting Nintendo on the SNES sound chip. And even before then, Sony had toyed with the idea of getting involved by manufacturing MSX computers and even before that, a quiz machine that also plays simple games. Had any of the various CD-ROM add-ons and consoles of the 1990s successfully taken off, Sony would have made tons of money on royalty fees alone, piquing their interest further. Indeed, prototypes of a solely Sony-produced Play Station had made the rounds, and Sony owning the means to production guaranteed they would have full control. As such, unless Kutaragi had been overridden, Sony was bound to make their own gaming hardware attempt at some point; the fumbles of their rivals simply meant they went alone in the endeavor sooner than later. But considering their quick rise to dominance, they probably have few regrets about how everything went down, even if it was irritating at the time. As for, Nintendo and Sega, it would be surprising if a curse or two wasn't muttered and "what if"s imagined by executives within both companies during the early years of the PlayStation's dominance.
Over the years, fans have questioned how powerful the system would have been. One enterprising emulator developer, Near (at the time working under the pseudonym "byuu"), took it upon themself to create a "What If" situation as to what this CD-ROM add-on could've been capable of. To that end, the MSU-1 enhancement chip was created with media streaming capabilities and a storage capacity of 4GBytes, well above any official game ever released. There's currently one game that uses it: Super Road Blaster, a homebrew SNES port of the Sega CD game Road Blaster (size 512MBytes). If nothing else, it's worth watching a true CD-quality game running on an actual SNES (albeit with a modern flash cart with a built-in MSU-1). Due to Near's retirement in 2019 and death in 2021, the project saw no further significant developments past a few hacks that add MSU-1 capabilities to other SNES games.
We got our actual answer about the capabilities of the SNES CD-ROM when a prototype Play Station unit (as shown on the page image, and possibly the last of its type, as both Nintendo and Sony ordered the 200 prototypes destroyed) was discovered in 2015, and the owner gave several interested parties the right to do a teardown and reassembly. Information obtained from the teardown has been scrutinized by various parties, and the owners of the prototype would later bring the console to renowned console modder Ben Heck, who would spend the next few years fixing it and documenting the repair on The Ben Heck Show.
Based on Ben's findings, the Play Station was no more powerful than the standard Super Nintendo; though it would have boasted superior audio quality and a faster disc drive than its competitors. The Other Wiki lists its specifications in comparison to the Sega CD and TurboGrafx-CD on its own page concerning this scrapped system. That said, power boosts could've come from game cartridges with co-processors, a technique Nintendo had already been using with a fair number of SNES games via various iterations of the "Super FX" and "SA-1" chips, which opens up the possibility that some Play Station SuperDisc games (as its format would have been called) could have required the purchase of a special cartridge in order to play them (ala the N64's Expansion Pak) had the system come to market and shown success. The ROM for the prototype test cartridge and the CD-ROM portion of the device was dumped in 2016, giving people a good idea of how the SNES CD-ROM could have worked in action and the information needed to create emulators and a slew of homebrews.
Ben would be able to get the system's disc drive working and able to boot up one of these homebrew games the following year, that being Martin Korth's Magic Floor demo, from disc. Upon which it was discovered that emulators got their assumptions wrong and failed to emulate the real deal correctly; the game ended up glitching out, while another game (the highly acclaimed Super Boss Gaiden) didn't run at all. With Ben retiring from The Ben Heck Show in 2018 and the console being subsequently sold to a private collector in 2020, it's unlikely that we'll ever get to see the console make another public appearance for a long, long time.
It has also been revealed through hacking that the drive bore similarities to the Sony Data Discman, which was released in the summer of 1990, and read a special CD book format compatible with the SNES CD drive, in a What Could Have Been on the other use cases of the format had the deal not been canceled. Indeed, Sony, in addition to never being too different in wanting to own the means of production in their media, and thus royalties from Nintendo, already had their own history of media patents, many of which took off as standards and helped grow the company, though some, like the CD, were co-developments with companies like Philips. They were also known for notable past, present and future failures or partial successes at their own proprietary media (Betamax, MiniDisc, MemoryStick, UMD, Blu-ray) in hopes of major royalties from those that became dominant. Needless to say, creating the first to cash in on the biggest new entertainment industry in decades would be a real golden goose, and Ken must have had that as a trump card to pique Sony's interest.