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What If: Sony and Nintendo Hadn’t Cancelled the SNES-CD?

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Welcome to the first in a series of hypothetical questions about the history of the PlayStation. This series explore how the video game industry could have turned out differently had a few key details about the development and life of the PlayStation franchise been different.

The first, and most important question has is related to the very invention of the PlayStation console. Sony had little to no video game experience before launching its console in 1994. What you may not know is that their console was a spin-off of a partnership with Nintendo to bring a disc reader to the Super Nintendo. Sony, along with Phillips, helped create the CD-ROM in 1986, allowing more efficient storage of data than traditional discs or cartridges. Two years later, Nintendo approached Sony about creating a Super Nintendo add-on, originally called the SNES-CD, to allow larger games for the system. Sony agreed, and began working on the new console.

In 1991, the “Play Station” was displayed at the Consumer Electronic’s Show. The system could play SNES games as well as new disc based games.  However, due to disputes over licensing agreements, Nintendo pulled out of the deal and went into business with Phillips (Zelda fans know how that ended). But, as Sony had already put a lot of work into the system, and had a strong knowledge of the technology, they continued on with the project. By 1994, they were ready to compete with Nintendo and released the Sony PlayStation in Japan.

But… What if things had been different? I can imagine two distinct scenarios playing out.

A. Nintendo utilizes the technology to its fullest, decisively crushing Sega

Could Nintendo have won it all?

Had the deal not fallen apart, the industry might be a lot different than it is today. Sega and Nintendo were in stiff competition for the home console market, and the new system would have been a counter to the Sega CD. While the system would have been limited by the power of the base SNES, the use of the system may have shown Nintendo the benefits of CD-based gaming, which might have influenced the design of the N64 away from cartridges. While it would be hard to argue that the N64 did not have great games, it was during this era that Nintendo began to lose its once strong third-party support, as cartridges were much more expensive to produce than discs, cutting into publisher’s profits.

While it is hard to say how competition between the Sega Saturn and a potential disc-based Nintendo console would have played out, smart use of the technology would have benefited Nintendo greatly. Sega had already been hurt by many marketing errors during the 32x period, and many gamers were reluctant to trust the publisher going forward. Yet, Nintendo already had a strong following, and had they kept the strong third-party support that made the SNES so successful, the console could have benefited from the advantages that the PlayStation enjoyed during that console generation, including the strong technology and cheap games.

As far as the games themselves are concerned, it is fair to assume that Nintendo’s games would have been much different, but harder to speculate about whether many PlayStation brands would have evolved. Without Sony’s need to find console-selling exclusives, would games like Crash and Spyro see the light of day? Or, would they have simply become new Nintendo franchises? Assuming they aggressively tried to stop Sega, it is fair to say they could have successfully sought out innovation and many of our favorite franchises would still exist today, albeit in a slightly different form.

B. Sega and Nintendo continue their tit-for-tat competition, without a clear winner

It’s like the Cold War, but more fun

On the other hand, the new disc-based add-on could have just been used to counter the release of the Sega-CD, and only included gimmicky, shovelware. Instead of being a breakthrough, the Play Station would have just been a marketing tool, quickly forgotten by the heads of Nintendo. After all, they did decide to continue with cartridges, despite the proven success of disc-based gaming.

Had this happened, Sega would have undoubtedly benefited from the Sega Saturn’s disc drive. First, the Saturn would have been in development longer, since it wouldn’t have to try and race the PlayStation out of the gate. This would have helped the system be more powerful, but would have also given Sega time to improve the launch line-up and arrange third-party support. The focus on discs would have been an important leveraging tool as it increased publishers’ profits. It is easy to imagine that many franchises that developed for the PlayStation could have gone to Sony. Had this happened, the race certainly would have been close, as Nintendo had a strong following and more memorable franchises. This could have opened the way for a more successful showing for Sega in the next generation, or given Microsoft a clear advantage, had it still decided to develop the Xbox.

Whatever the result, it is fair to say that things would be a lot different than they are today (For instance, this site might not exist). Looking back at the introduction of a new player into home consoles really helps show the power of competition in terms of product innovation. Whatever may have happened, we the gamers have benefited from the new franchises and attempts to impress us.

How do you think things would have played out? Let us know in the comments.

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Comments (2)

  • Reigen

    yea, stuff would be very different
    but at the same time, i don’t see myself getting pulled into video games if the CD-S were a reality, i love zelda, but the adult games like mgs, silent hill, they kept me playing games into my teen years

  • anna

    Sony sucks. Nintendo(for me)takes the cake!

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