“There was a sense that video games were toys. And Sony is not a toy company.” That’s how a new mini-oral history about PlayStation revolutionizing console gaming begins over at IGN. The words belong to former head of Sony Worldwide Studios, Shawn Layden, and they ring true for anyone who grew up with an NES or SNES. The Nintendo consoles built for angular cartridges could take a beating like children’s building blocks, and the games often revolved around colorful worlds full of knights, dragons, and magic mushrooms. In the ‘90s, PlayStation felt like something entirely different.
Speaking to IGN at length, Layden and former CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Interactive, Andrew House, both of whom joined the company around 1990, describe how PlayStation managed to break into the market and how even people within Sony thought it was doomed to fail. “My boss said to me, more or less, ‘You’re an idiot and it’s a toy and it’s destined for failure,’” said House. “There was kind of a sense from the finance side, it’s like, ‘Please lease everything, because in nine months you may not be there anymore anyway.’” said Layden. “We’re up against this sink-or-swim dichotomy.”
The company’s big advantage was discs. Whereas cartridges were expensive and harder to make, CDs were cheap and could be printed on-demand. “With optical disc, you can just order 10,000 discs,” Layden says. “And if your game sells out on Thursday, give us a call, and we can replenish you by Wednesday the next week.” House adds that this also helped lower the barrier to entry for more developers, which allowed PlayStation to become a breeding ground for new genres and experimentation—something it desperately needed since it had no prestigious first-party studios to lean on at the time.
Elsewhere the two describe PlayStation’s cultural impact, and how it turned gaming into a lifestyle. In addition to the pitch of bringing arcade-level graphics into the home, there was the idea of a video game console that could channel the same feeling of cool imbued in the Sony Walkman and your older sibling’s collection of grunge and hip-hop CDs. “If you were older, in your twenties and upwards, it was that fun mindset that you had when you were 17 and that’s what [PlayStation] was going to offer,” House says. “If you were younger than that, then it was what you aspired to be, because that was cool and hip.”
That feeling is perfectly captured in an old video 2000 captured at a midnight launch for PlayStation 2 that’s recently been making the rounds online. It shows lines of teens hanging out at the mall to pick up their pre-orders from GameStop trying to awkwardly explain why they dragged their parents out of bed on a school night to get a sleek new black box when they already have the old one at home.
“It’s one of those things you’ve been waiting for forever,” says one kid wearing a ‘90s Ralph Lauren polo. “Just having an arcade inside your room, maybe even better than arcade graphics,” says another. One fan even brought his kitten to the midnight launch, while someone else waxed poetic about Silent Scope, an arcade port IGN gave a 6 out of 10 to at the time. They play Madden at a demo station or sit on the ground and read the latest issue of Game Informer. Perhaps one of the last times you could take a brand new “next-gen” console home and not be instantly reminded by the online collective that all of the launch games sucked.
Like the PS1, the PS2 came at just the right time to take advantage of the move to DVDs. In addition to playing movies, the new format also greatly expanded the amount of storage for developers to play around with. It felt like another radical leap forward, and one console players haven’t quite gotten to match the experience of since. The games have continued to get better, but they don’t always feel as novel anymore either.
PaRappa the Rapper and Crash Bandicoot might not go down in history as two of the best games ever, but they certainly felt like something fresh and different at the time. The PS2’s first year, meanwhile, delivered both Ico and Grand Theft Auto III, classics that broke new ground still being built on today. It went onto be the best selling console ever, and the last PlayStation free of microtransactions, downloadable content, and online outages. I would never want to go back to that, but I’m glad I got to experience it first-hand while it existed.