In the early 1990s, Nintendo was the undisputed king of the video game industry. SEGA had tried to compete with the NES and SNES home consoles with its Master System and Mega Drive, and while the latter fared much better than the former, Nintendo was still firmly in first place once all sales were counted. As the SNES and Mega Drive generation was winding down, SEGA began toying with the idea of using CDs instead of cartridges, and even went as far as releasing the SEGA CD add-on for Mega Drive.
Nintendo, for its part, also dabbled in CD technology. They had discussions with Sony, famous for its work with CDs and accompanying hardware, to help them build a CD drive for the SNES. Sony spent time and money learning about the gaming industry and building its prototypes, but negotiations between the two Japanese companies fell through. Depending on who you ask, Nintendo secretly agreed to terms with another company and let Sony find out at the last minute, or Sony was asking too much money and Nintendo resisted the deal. Whatever the truth, the result remains the same; Sony was in his ear regarding the SNES CD. While that deal hadn’t worked for anyone, what became clear was that the gaming industry was moving toward CD as its medium of choice.
Sony decided to use what it had learned and developed working with Nintendo to create its own console and enter the fray; They called it PlayStation and released it in 1994, about two years before Nintendo released its next big console. What no one expected was that Sony would eventually dethrone Nintendo as the world’s most popular console maker and begin a twenty-year dominance of the industry.
One of the main reasons Sony was so successful with the original PlayStation was its excellent marketing of the console. Before PlayStation, almost all game consoles were intended for children. Sony made a canny move by specifically targeting young adults in its marketing, making PlayStation a hit with gamers who had grown up with a Nintendo console but now wanted something a little more, well, older.
Sony would put the PlayStation in nightclubs and have celebrities endorse the console or be photographed playing one. In general, the games began to lean more towards an adult tone, with new titles like Tomb Raider being considered cooler than Mario or Zelda. Ultimately, Sony took a hobby generally considered kid-friendly and openly mocked by many, and helped make it the most respected medium we see today. While it would be silly to say that they did it out of the goodness of their hearts (they made a ton of money making gambling more popular with the public), we cannot overlook what they did. Sony made great games.
When it came time for Nintendo’s next big console, the N64, the company surprised a lot of people by announcing that it would still use cartridges instead of CDs. The logic behind the decision made a lot of sense; CDs are much easier to hack than cartridges, and they feared that using them would cost them a lot of money thanks to the copied games. The decision to stick with cartridges and the additional two years of development time Nintendo had with the N64 meant that the system was more powerful than the PlayStation and loading times were virtually non-existent. However, the cartridges had drawbacks – they made games more expensive to produce, they were harder to develop, and that meant the N64 would have issues with storage, music quality, and fair market value.
Squaresoft had been working with Nintendo for a long time and had brought all of their previous Final Fantasy games to Nintendo consoles. But seeing the additional storage space that CDs would provide, and knowing that they could push the limits of production values with higher quality cut scenes, Square jumped off the boat and decided to produce the next title in their Final Fantasy series for PlayStation: Final Fantasy VII.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Final Fantasy VII. As an RPG, it introduced millions of players to its first Japanese RPG, and the subsequent popularity of the genre meant that the RPG mechanics began to leak into virtually every other genre. Today we have RPG systems in FIFA.
But just as important as Final Fantasy VII was to gaming, it was even more important to Sony. Final Fantasy had become big business in Japan and the switch to PlayStation meant that console sales increased in Sony’s homeland, cementing the console’s position as the sole property for JRPG fans. In the following years, PlayStation would see dozens of top-notch JRPGs released, and even today this time period is fondly remembered as a golden age for the genre. What was most surprising, however, was how well Final Fantasy VII was received outside of Japan.
While the Final Fantasy series had been quite popular with gamers around the world, Final Fantasy VII became a phenomenon. Thanks to stellar reviews, contagious word of mouth, and a strong marketing campaign, Final Fantasy VII became a massive hit that meant more to the industry than just impressive sales figures. Players embraced Cloud and Sephiroth’s story, and wanting more, JRPG sales overall increased. Final Fantasy became a top-tier brand, and future releases in the series became events that players would look forward to.
Final Fantasy VII also featured impressive visuals, for the time being, that would not have been possible if Squaresoft had created the game for the N64. The quality of the FMV footage in Final Fantasy VII was one of the main talking points around the game, and the cinematic edge that Squaresoft brought to the title was something other games still replicate to this day.
Thanks in large part to Final Fantasy VII, PlayStation made a huge mark on the gaming industry and things only got better from there. The added power the N64 had was technically negated by the greater storage capacity of the discs used by the PlayStation, and the higher quality of music and video available to developers. Titles like Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and Tomb Raider just wouldn’t have worked on N64, and they all became major selling points for Sony’s console. Also, Nintendo had no answer for games like these, instead generally sticking to tried and tested games like Mario and Zelda.
While the quality of Nintendo’s games remained as high as ever, their hardware had let them down this time. Whether they underestimated the threat from Sony as a credible competitor or failed to realize the impact CDs would have on the industry, Nintendo was ultimately number two for another company in the gaming space. At the end of the generation, the N64 had sold around 32 million units, while the PlayStation had more than 100 million in sales.
At the end of the generation, taking inspiration from the N64 controller that featured an analog stick, Sony released the first Dual Shock controller and it changed the way we play games forever. Nintendo made a smart move by including an analog stick in its controller, as 3D gaming would require a bit more precision than the standard D-Pad would allow. But Sony took the idea and did something nifty with it. With an analog stick to control the player character and an analog stick to control the camera, the way we play was redefined. Microsoft and Nintendo have copied this approach ever since, and now the control scheme is so common that playing a game in 3D before the dual analog time period feels awkward.
Nostalgia could paint Nintendo as the leader of console games; they were the explorers who went into unexplored territory. But Sony was the company that used what it discovered to make the gaming industry what it is today. PlayStation has been the leading video game brand for longer than Nintendo.
Part of the reason is the success of the original PlayStation console. The first steps in 3D gaming may have been awkward, but once the foundation was laid, console gaming was forever changed. The PlayStation helped establish that through a combination of smart marketing, changing people’s perceptions of the industry, and championing some key franchises that would become some of the largest in the world.
Today, the original PlayStation is remembered as a console that changed games for many people. Whether it’s Final Fantasy VII being their first role-playing game, Metal Gear Solid being the action movie they could play, or Silent Hill scaring them down to their trousers, PlayStation was a hugely important moment in video game history, and a console that gave an amazing library of games.