clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

PlayStation's legacy is a sense of style

New, 67 comments

Within the febrile swamp of gaming history, just about every anniversary is met with droning songs of nostalgia, insectoid paeans to the past.

But the joyful choirs that have met this week's celebration of the PlayStation's 20th birthday are merited. The launch of the PlayStation in December 1994 was understood at the time as a matter of deep significance to the evolution of gaming, and the passing decades have added full gravity to the occasion.

PlayStation's arrival was a big deal, certainly, but what can we learn from the console's impact on us, then and today?

In 1994 it was significant that a company of Sony's scale and ambition felt able to impose its will on a business that had swung from the depravity of the late Atari era to the highly centralized stitch-up of Nintendo's heyday. This was a niche industry run on relationships, passing fads and rapid technological change.

It was a big risk for Sony to enter. (As is often recalled these days, the company had originally planned to work with Nintendo.) It was a matter of having the courage to place a big bet, and the nouse to see it through.

The competition made it easier. Other companies, like Philips, chose to hedge their bets with junk like the CD-i. The 3DO, originally an EA play, was doomed by a lack of experience in the electronics market. Nintendo and Sega were learning all the lessons they were pleased to learn while ignoring those that didn't fit their particular skills and agendas.

kutaragi

What Sony understood was design and marketing. In the early 1990s, this was a brand that still represented quality and sophistication. The original PlayStation delivered style, with a box that has rarely been beaten in terms of sheer good looks. I personally do not believe any of the later PlayStations looked anywhere near as good as this box and I am certain that they didn't deliver as much ‘woah' upon their arrival.

Looking back now, it's instructive to view the big console players of the day through the prism of the personalities who best represented their strengths. When I think about the people who signified the big console brands at the time, I think of Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, the sublime game designer. I think of Tom Kalinske, the canny marketing hustler at Sega. And I think of Ken Kutaragi (above), the gifted engineer at Sony.

It's a simplification, but it bears scrutiny. Sony was really, really good at designing great hardware. In terms of delivering a box that was exactly right for its time, and packing as much power as its price would allow, it's hard to best the PlayStation.

This was the era when 3D graphics and high storage CD-ROMs were changing computing and computer gaming. The PlayStation took those technological advances and squeezed them into a little gray box. Kutaragi captured the essence of the disruption that 3D gaming and big graphics represented.

PlayStation's arrival in gaming also represented an acknowledgment that the industry was moving on from its roots in the toy business, to something broader. Sony was also able to deliver this message through its marketing.

These guys didn't need the cheeky marketing chutzpah that Sega had previously shown in giving Nintendo a run for its money. Sony's approach was a little more classy. That logo and musical familiar on a white background still carries power today.

Its ad campaigns at the time were provocative, sophisticated and deliberately adult. If, like me, you had been a child in the 1970s, a teenager in the 1980s and in your 20s in the 1990s, this sort of stuff was absolutely singing your song.

ps1
And so we come to the games; perhaps the most interesting part of the package. There were some good ones on the original PlayStation, but if you ask me to name my ten fave games of the '90s, I doubt I'd place a single original PlayStation game on that list, and certainly not one from its first few years on the market.

The game launched with Namco arcade ports Tekken and Ridge Racer: These were technically impressive because they looked like the arcade games, but they were not especially fresh. WipeOut was a visually stunning creation that showed off the console to nightclubbers, but it's difficult, now, to get overly excited about it.

Tomb Raider (1996) and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997) tend to be remembered as PlayStation hits, and they certainly helped sell a lot of PlayStations, but they were not PlayStation exclusives.

Resident Evil from Capcom arrived in 1996 as did Parappa the Rappa, both of which gave the console more depth and originality. By 1997 we were getting into the era of Bushido Blade, Final Fantasy VII, Gran Turismo and Xenogears. Metal Gear Solid arrived in 1998, which is closer to the launch of PlayStation 2, than of PlayStation 1.

There were a lot of good games on PlayStation, but the console did more to redefine gaming through itself, rather than the games it hosted. I get the sense, looking back, that Sony saw gaming much as it saw other media and entertainment, like music.

The company wanted to allow third parties to do all the creative heavy lifting, and it offered way better terms than Nintendo. But I think it also wanted to commoditize gaming, so there would be easily categorized hits each year, as if, say, racing games were basically equivalent to romantic R&B albums.

In the period of 1994-to-1998, PlayStation hosted a great many good games, but it doesn't stand out as a notable platform for classics, especially not compared with Nintendo at the time, nor the innovation that was being shown on PC.

It's interesting that Sony subsequently spent a vast amount of effort and money on developing its own studios, and that the company now has a good reputation for nurturing development talent.

By the time PS2 arrived, Sony had entirely figured out how to make big games and how to work console exclusives. Sega was a spent force. Nintendo had waited too long to abandon cartridges. Companies like Microsoft wanted a piece of the action, believing that games were the key to controlling home entertainment. This was the disruptive wave that Sony rode, better than anyone else.

Sony's PlayStation gave the world a console that represented the early-to-mid 1990s need to move out of the era of toys and into an era of style, even if the substance had to wait a while. The gaudy good looks of PlayStation games were enough, at least in the short term, to hook an adult generation of gamers who had less time to play games, but a greater need for visual satisfaction.

PlayStation was a thing of its time, and it allowed Sony to learn important lessons and to reap the enormous benefits of PlayStation 2, before its own hubris and threats from competent competition finally caught up.