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Former Sony exec on the cancelled SNES PlayStation CD-ROM, including its last-minute death

Posted on November 13, 2016 by (@NE_Brian) in General Nintendo, News

Many, many years ago, Sony was working on the SNES PlayStation. It would have acted as as add-on for Nintendo’s classic console, allowing it to read discs. But unfortunately, it ended up getting cancelled.

Now in a new interview, we have some rare behind-the-scenes information about what was happening with the SNES PlayStation. Dwango head Nobuo Kawakami interviewed Shigeo Maruyama, who was once the the CEO of Sony Music Entertainment as well as the former chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment. Maruyama talked about the situation with the SNES PlayStation and also offered insight into the mind of Ken Kutaragi, who largely was the person who pushed for the device’s development.

Head past the break for our full translation.

Kawakami: It is said that the PlayStation was actually a dedicated Nintendo device.

* Editorial staff: There are many books that make that assertion, and it’s become accepted as the truth.

Maruyama: Well, that’s not entirely true. Ken Kutaragi was originally in charge of the sound chip on the SNES before he worked on the PlayStation. Sony was just supplying components, with Kutaragi in charge of the production.

However, he was a strong advocate for pursuing CD-ROM support over cartridges. He then came up with the idea to install/attach a CD-ROM drive to the top of the SNES, and use the core hardware to run discs instead of Mask ROMs.

* Mask ROM: A type of storage device used by computer systems, containing nonvolatile memory that cannot be overwritten. Because they were cheap to mass-produce, they [the technology] were widely used for mass-market game software and internal chips.

Kawakami: What? All he did was make an external CD-ROM drive for the SNES?

Maruyama: Yup, that’s all he did. But his idea didn’t really catch on. In fact, he tried to get me involved as well, but I was just like “Oh, really?”

But Nintendo wanted to stick to Mask ROMs for games. CD-ROMs can take 10-15 seconds to load, after all. They probably didn’t think users would want to wait that long. But Kutaragi wouldn’t let up his arguments, so eventually Nintendo told him, “Alright. We don’t think it will be successful, but you can do your CD-ROM thing”.

So they told him “You can’t do anything related to Mask ROMs, but you can work on whatever you want involving CD-ROMs”, and then he developed a CD-ROM drive that could be inserted into the cartridge socket. But it still needed software. He had to come up with something interesting to put on the CDs, and that’s when he came to me [for help].

Kawakami: So to recap, Kutaragi was told “You’re allowed to make a CD-ROM drive for the SNES”, and then he came to you saying “Can you make you some software for it?” Is that about right?

Um, I don’t see what this thing has to do with the PlayStation.

Maruyama: Well duh, it hadn’t happened yet (laughs). So the president of NoA at the time, Mr. Arakawa, who was in Seattle, probably saw it as a big problem. He supposedly warned the Japanese HQ over and over that if they let Kutaragi do whatever he wants, he might take over the whole company.

* Minoru Arakawa: Born in 1946. Acted as the president of Nintendo of America (NoA) from its founding in 1980 until 2002. Son-in-law of the former president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi.

Kawakami: I see. If you don’t mind, could you tell us a bit more about that? This was around the same time Nintendo was focusing on gaming as its main business, and there’s speculation that Sony was planning to monopolize the enormous non-gaming markets. In other words, Nintendo might have perceived Sony’s push for the CD-ROM format as an attempt to take over music and movie distribution/platforms. In actuality, that market ended up having more hidden potential than even the video game industry.

Maruyama: What are you talking about? There wasn’t any speculation at all, we explicitly told them we were going to focus on everything but video games, and they said “That’s fine”! (laughs)

Kawakami: Whaaaat!

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  • AquaBat

    Just think, if the Nintendo PlayStation became real, a whole generation of NOGAMES would never have existed.

    • NintendoPSXTheSecond

      The hardware power of Sony and the software power of Nintendo. If only.

      • Addy

        Nope, instead Nintendo bailed after realizing 99.9% of CD games are FMVs.

        • Bap

          To be fair, Sony still makes movies and calls them games.

          • Addy

            No no no you got that confused with that Ratchet & Clank film.

          • jsty3105

            think bap’s joke went ^ your head there

      • Señor Cardgage

        It’s funny though, the N64 hardware was more powerful than the PS1, and the GameCube was WAY more powerful than the PS2. The PS1 seemed more advanced just because its games could use hundreds of Megabytes on a CD, but N64 carts were between 16 and 64 MB.

        As for the PS2, it had features like a DVD player and online support, but nearly every cross-platform game from back then plays and looks better on the Cube.

        • NintendoPSXTheSecond

          To be honest, I always found that as bitter irony. Back then, no one seemed to want the best graphics but now look today and all people want are power and best graphics. If Nintendo went back to their mindset of cheap but more powerful from the past, I’m sure we wouldn’t have such an odd era of the Wii years.

          • ForeVision

            True on the power and graphics aspect. I myself vouch for power, but only enough so that third-parties stop complaining. I never once felt that the Wii-U’s graphics were bad or lacking, they were fine. And games like Mario Kart 8 ran really well, no complaints there.

            Graphical fidelity and such is what (as far as I’ve seen) Sony and MS are gunning for, and for people who don’t care so much about that, Nintendo will still be the nr.1 choice. Heck, I’ve clocked over 700 hours (what can I say, I love that game) on Terraria according to Steam, and that doesn’t have cutting edge graphics now does it?

          • NintendoPSXTheSecond

            Never said I preferred cutting edge graphical tech, though it helps.
            As much as we as core gamers can forget, the biggest market is in the casuals that buy a console for 4-5 games max or so of it’s lifetime. They just get the one their adult buddies have and buy CoD or whatever other open world realistic game appeals to them at the time. That’s the market of video games we easily forget that sales do not.

          • ForeVision

            I don’t know about the market right now, but if my I’m right about what I think, then in Switch, there are no losers, since everyone can find games that are for them.

  • JasonBall

    Why do people never shut up about this?

    • theFooFighter

      Because people assume it would lead to a perfect future with Mario and uncharted on the same platform but it reality it probably would have flopped and sony would have never made a console

      • Annie

        They probably would have made their own console eventually and Nintendo would have still stuck with cartridges for the N64

        • theFooFighter

          Nah I kinda doubt that. Sony entered the console market purely out of spite for Nintendo if the deal didn’t fall through the SNES CD probably would have come out and did ok but not super well then Nintendo would probably just take that knowledge and relationship to make a n64 with CDs and other sony parts.

          • Annie

            It wasn’t purely out of spite, they’re a multinational conglomerate, not an evil ex, Sony wanted to enter the market and Nintendo was their best option, Sony unveiled both the CD attachment for the SNES and their own stand-alone SNES PlayStation at the 1991 CES so if the deal had come to fruition Sony would charge licensing fees to everyone that produced software for the SNES CD and they’d also have their own SNES PlayStation which basically bundled all the hardware together so either way Nintendo had their new rival

          • jsty3105

            Didn’t this interview just disprove that?

            “Kawakami: Still, it’s only natural that the company would be angry.

            Maruyama: Well, you’re sort of right. But let me get back to the earlier topic. If you think about, all we were doing was making an external CD-ROM drive. It was just a drop in the bucket (bitter laugh).”

      • JasonBall

        Oh, so that’s why. That there is a perfect summary.

    • Annie

      Because it’s the story of how Nintendo unintentionally helped to create its biggest archenemy, just like Batman and Joker

    • I think it’s a pretty fascinating piece of history and would love to learn all I could about it.

  • Addy

    This thing. This thing not coming into fruition. This thing is what began Nintendo’s downward spiral.

    • JasonBall

      Except for, you know, several perfect games on N64, an admittedly less perfect GCN lineup, then the release of 2 of the top 3 bestselling game devices ever.

      • NintendoPSXTheSecond

        To say that Sony didn’t help push Nintendo out of the top would be foolish.

        • JasonBall

          But I fail to see the leap from this piece of junk to the current market positions.

      • Addy

        N64 games ran on cartridges, limiting memory capacity, making a number of ports inferior.

        GCN game ran on smaller discs, limiting memory capacity again, no DVD playback.

        Wii only sold because soccer moms casual market, 90% of games were shovelware.

        Wii U bombed due to poor marketing, and different development tools make programming games for it harder unlike XBox 360/One, PS3/4.

        Cancelling the Nintendo Playstation was the beginning of the end. Either way, they would still suffer.

        • Bap

          And yet people go back to play more N64 games than PS1 games. The lasting appeal shows.

          • Addy

            Playstation lifespan 1994-2005
            Sales 102.49 million

            Nintendo 64 lifespan 1996-2002
            Sales 32.93 million

            Lasting appeal. What?

          • KnickKnackMyWack

            Which is why Knack and Killzone on PS4 were vastly outsold by Mario 3D World and Wind Waker HD on Wii U despite how successful the PS4 was. Dude, Sony might have hardware sales but that is seriously only because third parties back them so hard. Without that Sony has almost nothing, certainly no IPs to their name with Nintendo’s staying power.

          • Addy

            That’s the problem Nintendo is facing for years. They need third-party support or else they become third-party themselves.

          • KnickKnackMyWack

            No. They quite literally survived four generations without a lot of third party support and have recently expanded into other markets whereas Sony has downsized. Your entire argument is based solely on wishful thinking and hyperbole.

          • Bap

            Yet all people want from the 5th gen are N64s. Hilariously the 64 aged better.

        • JasonBall

          Waaait. We have a different definition of successful and what constitutes a downward spiral. I say, successful is selling a crapton. You see having inferior tech and selling to a non-gaming market as “going down in flames” or something. Look, be it soccer moms or hardcore gamers, sales are sales. The low tech of the N64 doesn’t make it BAD or a FAILURE, I see the sales numbers and say it did pretty okay.

          This argument is really weird. There’s no right way to define “success”, all I’m saying is that the things you point out are true, and the things I pointed out are true, and we get different conclusions from them.

          • Addy

            I never said the Nintendo 64 was a failure, it didn’t do as good the Playstation. Making games for the N64 was difficult due to limited size of the cartridge based media as apposed to PS using optical discs and were easier to program.

            The GameCube did use optic media but the discs were made smaller in order to cut costs and ward off piracy, thus containing less data than DVD based media that the Playstation 2 used.

            The Wii’s success was due to casuals or those who rarely/never play video games bought the thing, tried out Wii Sports for about a week at most, and never touch it again. As long as they were sold, that’s what matters, right? Ugh! 90% of Wii games not made by Nintendo were garbage shovelware and you’d have to dig really deep to find the cream among the miles and miles of crap.

            Just because the Wii was successful, doesn’t mean it was beneficial success. Bad games selling well breeds more bad games.

          • JasonBall

            Once again, we define success differently.

  • Blanco8x8

    I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again.

    Nintendo created a monster.

    And from what I just read here, I can only speculated that Nintendo cancelled the deal due to their fear of Sony’s ambitions. Which led to a self-fulfilling prophecy, and thus the Playstation was born.

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  • errantrazor

    we actually already know why it didn’t work out. why doesn’t this former executive? the deal Sony wanted would have had Nintendo splitting its publishing licensing with Sony, which they weren’t excited to do, and allow Sony a foothold into the gaming industry because they retained the right to put their own console out there with the technology, thereby tricking Nintendo into creating a competitor for itself, which it did anyway in the end.

    • flyinb11

      I was thinking the same thing, while reading.

    • LuigiBlood

      Well, maybe things aren’t what it really was.

  • Addy

    *Nintendo sees Sega CD’s game line-up; 99.9% FMV games*

    “I’m outta here!”

    *Sony got deserted and are very pissed*

    “If that’s how it is, we’ll make a video game console ourselves!”

    *Sony releases the Playstation, Playstation 2, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Playstation 4 Pro while Nintendo falls from grace after releasing the Nintendo 64, Game Cube, Wii, Wii U, Switch.*

    “Our scheme for world domination has faild!”

    *Nintendo goes third-party, Sony buys out Nintendo, Nintendo kisses Sony’s …*

    • Tlink7

      Nintendo won’t go third party

      • Addy

        Unless the Switch isn’t a flop, they will.

        • Gamingfan

          No, they wont. They’ll go full mobile or do something completely different.They started off as a trading card game company.

          • Addy

            Playing card company you mean, they weren’t like Upper Deck back in the day.

            They are also in talks of entering the movie and theme park businesses.

          • Bap

            Making movies and theme parks isnt going 3rd party. Its called expanding your market. keep dreaming kid.

        • Tlink7

          I don’t think the Switch will be a flop. It has great potential for success and Nintendo is playing it well so far.
          Even if the Switch flops, I don’t think Nintendo will go third party. They still have the 3DS, which is doing well. My guess is the company would stop making home consoles, at least for a while.

    • Mentro140 .

      Completely neglecting the glory of the handhelds are we?

      • Addy

        *Nintendo ends handheld lineup, makes shallow, wallet leaching, poorly optimized mobile games.*

        “I wish I was dead.”

        *Sees Sega’s corpse, and shudders.*

        “Get back to work!”

        • Mentro140 .

          Awwwww, that was adorable

        • KnickKnackMyWack

          Can your comments get anymore ridiculous?

          • Addy

            Can you not pull your head out of the sand? If Nintendo doesn’t shape up, this could happen.

          • KnickKnackMyWack

            Sure it could. And Sony could go third party.

          • Addy

            Sony would rather exit the video game market than do that.

          • KnickKnackMyWack

            It was sarcasm.

  • ben

    And if games had not been so easy to pirate on PS1 the story would have ended there… but piracy made the Play station a massive success. and console only fanboys like to call pc gamers pirates..

    • flyinb11

      And pc pirates were still worse.

      • ben

        I am guessing you were not old enough to see every market dealing selling copied ps1 games? PC piracy is done by a minority who dont usually even have the pcs capabable of running the games they steal.

        • flyinb11

          Oh, I am, but I’d say, at that time, most pc owners didn’t pay for any games, while most psx users still did. It was rampant, no doubt. The need for a mod chip was still a hurdle for the average gamer at the time.

          • ben

            All you needed was a boot cd. You didnt have to do anything to you ps1. It was easier than playing pirated pc games by a long shot.

    • Michael Cortorreal

      Finally someone who said it.
      Piracy made the PSX and PS2 really successful

      • jsty3105

        Especially in southeast asia where sony’s brand name was already much stronger than nintendo’s

      • flyinb11

        And killed the Dreamcast? The biggest thing that made it successful, was the games being substantially less expensive vs n64 games and a head start.

        • Bap

          Dreamcast Piracy only took off long after its demise. The worst was the PSP. As Konami put it, more people where using Peace Walker’s online than copy’s sold. People only bought a PSP to put a SNES emulator on it.

          • flyinb11

            Piracy of Dreamcast was going on within the first year of release and required no hardware modification.

          • Bap

            It was super easy, yes. But didn’t become huge until after it was dead. The PSP happened while it still had big titles coming out for it.

        • Michael Cortorreal

          Well to be honest there are multiple factors, but you can’t deny that piracy did have a impact on sales of said consoles.

          I remember all my friends had a psx, and every single one of em had them hacked.
          Then the PS2 came along and in my hometown is considered the most hackable piece of hardware ever made, not even the Xbox or Xbox 360 took the tittle.

          Nintendo was the only company that I remember trying to fight hard against piracy, the GameCube got hacked almost at the end of its cycle.

          Then Microsoft with its online policies have controlled hacking and the PS3 didn’t have much of a problem since the games were super heavy and a lot of people didn’t have what it took to try getting the games pirated and Sony also did it best to prevent hacking on the PS3.

          Nowadays, at least in my hometown I don’t see people talking about pirating the games cause:
          1. It’s expensive to do so.
          2. Takes a lot of time.
          3. Chances to get banned online.
          4. In general, is a hassle to have a pirated console.

  • Locky Mavo

    For a former Sony exec from back then, he sure is skipping a few key details.

  • Ektoras Kalderis

    Why noone did the most obvious thing? Intereview Kutaragi?

    • Annie

      Because Kutaragi already released a short biopic telling how it all happened:

  • Blanco8x8

    I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again.

    Nintendo created a monster.

    And from what I just read here, I can only speculated that Nintendo cancelled the deal due to their fear of Sony’s ambitions. Which led to a self-fulfilling prophecy, and

  • Of course sony exec will defend sony

    Why no one interview nintendo exec on it

    • jsty3105

      Not sure what you mean by defend. He just threw kutaragi under the bus.

  • MagcargoMan

    Well this turned out to be less-straightforward than I imagined…