Before gaming on iOS and Apple TV, there was Pippin

A look back at the Pippin and why it failed.

It’s hard to deny that Apple’s got a hell of a track record. From the original Macintosh computer, to the iPod, to the iPhone, the star of Silicon Valley is constantly innovating. And with each new product comes new, greater success.

But this hasn’t always been the case. Remember when the seemingly infallible tech company tried, and failed, to crack the game industry? The Apple Pippin was built to be a revolutionary game-changer, but became little more than an embarrassing footnote in the company’s history.

It’s been more than 20 years since that colossal failure and now it seems that Apple is ready to take another run at gaming with rumors that the company is likely to unveil a gaming-centric update to the Apple TV this week.

But why did the Pippin fail and why does Apple think this new device won’t?

The Pippin software, which was named after a tinier version of the McIntosh apple, was an open platform operating system designed as a way to usher computers into homes at a friendlier entry price. To do this, it was built upon the existing Macintosh operating system to make it accessible for a wider variety of consumers.

Unlike today, when the Apple ecosystem is a tightly-controlled proprietary software, the company allowed other companies to clone its operating system. Apple provided the meat of its infrastructure through the Pippin platform and encouraged hardware manufacturers to contribute the bones.

pippin logo

Bandai Co. Ltd., the Japanese plaything powerhouse behind franchises like Power Rangers, saw potential in the innovative tech. It became the first manufacturer to take Apple up on its cloning offer, licensing the platform in order to create a brand new gaming system.

The Apple Bandai Pippin, stylized as PiPP!N, was not unimpressive hardware. The official website detailed its technical specifications: a 4X CD-ROM drive, expandable memory, 8- and 16-bit color. It supported accessories as well, like a keyboard and mouse.

Apple and Bandai sounded excited about the future of their collaboration in a December 1994 report on the console’s announcement by the Los Angeles Times. At a Tokyo press conference, then-President Makato Yamashima of Bandai spoke of the variety of software that the console would offer: not just games, but educational and informational products. Satjiv Chahil, vice president of Apple's New Media Group, was also on-hand to share his enthusiasm about the device’s multimedia innovation and accessibility. "This technology has been restricted so far to people who are familiar with the personal computer," he said. "When you introduce a product like this, it’s totally unintimidating."

The Pippin’s features were indeed, in some ways, excitingly progressive. The console included a modem in order to establish internet connectivity, which Apple and Bandai believed customers were looking for at the time. The web-browsing functions set the Pippin apart from other gaming systems at that time, and were poised to be its biggest, boldest feature.

The AppleJack controller.

Its controller, named the Apple Jack, was wireless and had a pronged, boomerang-style design atypical of its contemporaries.

Apple was an early proponent of backward compatibility, too. Software for the console, unlike cartridges for Nintendo’s consoles, would continue to work with future iterations.

Another unique trait: the Pippin was region-free. The Pippin was released in two versions: one, the Atmark, for Japan, and another, the @World, in the U.S. Because its CD-ROM software was not region-protected, software for the Japanese Atmark ran on the American @World and vice-versa.

It seemed like the Pippin had a lot going for it: powerful, forward-thinking infrastructure backed by two major companies. And yet, in spite of this, the console quickly proved it wasn’t long for this world.

At the end of March 1995, a few months after its press debut, the Pippin Atmark went on sale in Japan for 64,800 yen, or $620 back then. The large, plain white box, which resembled a cross between a cable box and a VCR and weighed in at 8 lbs., came with a dial-up modem and four bundled titles. In the United States, Bandai debuted a black version of the console, called the @World, on Sept. 1, 1995, eight days before the Sony PlayStation hit North American shores.

Sales were predicted at 300,000, but only hit 42,000.

The price at launch was similar to its Japanese variant: $599. (The PlayStation, for comparison, debuted at $299.) Included with a new @World was six months of unlimited internet access, which set you back another $24.95 per month. Bandai estimated that American customers would buy 300,000 @World consoles by the end of its first year, according to a profile of the company by Asiaweek following the Atmark’s Japanese launch.

The Japanese and American versions combined moved an estimated 42,000 units, a far cry from the predicted sales.

The Pippin’s failure to light the industry on fire on both sides of the globe was caused by a whole slew of poor decisions, as Colm Gorey wrote for Silicon Republic in a Pippin retrospective. While Apple has long been acclaimed for its marketing campaigns, the Pippin received no such thing. Apple left the brunt of that work up to the licensees. According to Gameological, Bandai poured almost $100 million into promoting the Pippin consoles, but still failed to leave an impression.

The heavily-touted internet features were not as good as advertised. As Businessweek mentioned in an article anticipating the console’s U.S. debut, the included modem ran at a painfully slow 14.4 kilobytes-per-second to cut costs. On top of that, TV sets were not able to provide a picture clear enough for looking at web pages.

There was also the issue of market saturation. Bandai had the Herculean task of establishing a new, expensive console amidst more established brands. The Pippin Atmark and @World’s competitors included the Super Nintendo, Sega Saturn and Sony’s newborn PlayStation, as well as Windows PC games. These consoles had strong name recognition and dedicated fanbases, popular with both consumers and developers. Few gamers felt loyal to Bandai and Apple, and developers expressed reservation about working with the companies. A reporter for the New York Times spoke to some American software developers before launch who said that "American developers did not know much about Pippin because Bandai lacked the sophistication to support the software community while Apple did not have enough people devoted to the project."

Of most importance to a game console are the games. A majority of the titles available for the consoles were educational, or based on licensed properties like Dragon Ball. Less than 25 titles received a commercial release. Unfamiliar with or uninterested in the Mac OS, many developers chose to go for the more appealing PlayStation instead. The games that did end up on the system were forgettable, ugly and belied the strength of its hardware.

(One studio that gave the Pippin a chance? Bungie Studios, which released its Mac-exclusive first-person shooter — a Halo predecessor — Marathon for the console.)

While Apple and Bandai had high hopes for the console to succeed not only on the strength of its game software (which turned out to be weak), but also the unique and accessible nature of its computer technology (lackluster), an unforgiving consumer market had no interest in a piece of hardware that it saw as trying to do too many things.

In 1997, newly reinstalled Apple exec Steve Jobs put an end to all Mac clones. The Apple Pippin platform ceased development, and Bandai ended all production of its consoles later that year. All remaining @World units were sent back to Japan where they were rebranded as Atmark and dumped in stores.

Today, collectors interested in testing Apple’s first attempt at a game console should look to eBay, where rare, boxed units of both the @World and the Atmark consoles can go for more than $700.

The Pippin remains Apple's only foray directly into gaming, a stunning misfire for a giant with an otherwise sterling success rate. The tech giant shifted its focus back towards innovation in the computing and consumer tech realm.

Fast-forward 20 years from the console’s debut. A new console launched in 2015 would be dead in the water if it lacked the same capabilities that the Pippin failed to popularize. The world was not quite ready for a console that saw itself as not just for games, but as a multimedia platform.

After striking gold with gaming on its iOS devices, though, Apple is beginning to demonstrate a renewed interest in the video game industry. At this year’s DICE, Apple’s vice president of the iPhone Greg Joswiak told Polygon that "the success of the App Store is really tied to this incredibly diverse developer community we have [and] their amazing games."

Will its next attempt at reinventing video games prove more successful than the Pippin? We may be finding out sooner than later: big news is likely to come out of this week’s annual event. A new report suggests that the next Apple TV will have a huge emphasis on gaming. Like the Pippin, it looks to be another multimedia machine trying to do it all. This time, however, game consoles as multi-purpose entertainment systems are the norm.

Either way, with the Pippin as Apple’s benchmark, there’s nowhere else to go but up.

Correction: The Pippin supported 8- and 16-bit color, not graphics, as was originally stated. This article has been updated to correct the error.