The Sony PlayStation released in Japan on December 3rd, 1994. The war between Nintendo and Sega still ongoing as the two battled for market dominance. No one was sure how this newcomer would fair against these giants, it was by all means a dark horse.
This didn’t bother Sony, nor did the impending approach of the next-generation Nintendo and Sega systems. With revolutionary 3D graphics at an affordable price, the PlayStation primed to pull the rug on its competitors before they could even hit the market.
The PlayStation would be many people’s entry-point for 3D gaming. It was also a make or break moment for studios as the industry would heavily favour three-dimensional game going forward.
The story of the PlayStation is a story of software. Its release would set the stage for one of the most experimental and exciting periods in the history of games design. This is the story of the PlayStation’s library.
Many Japanese studios would benefit from the PlayStation and establish series which continue to be among their big hitters today. Names such as Squaresoft, Namco, Capcom and Konami would use the platform to become industry giants.
Namco would be on the technological forefront as an early adopter to the platform. The specs of the PlayStation would form the basis of Namco’s arcade hardware. Many System 11 games saw solid conversions to the PlayStation not long after release.
Ridge Racer would be a launch title and go on to spawn sequels including the masterpiece that was Ridge Racer Type 4. R4 was an amalgamation of everything Namco had learned. It would set a new standard for racing game presentation with its vibrant colours, slick transitions and mood setting soundtrack.
As impressive as R4 would be, Namco’s real crown jewel would be the Tekken series. While the first two entries would make for easy System 11 conversions, the third game would really show what Namco were capable of.
When Tekken 3 hit arcades in 1997 it represented a massive leap forward. Some believed a PlayStation port wasn’t possible on what was quickly becoming dated hardware. While taken for granted now, Tekken 3 on PlayStation was nothing short of impressive as it retained the same speed and fluidity which had made it such a big hit in the arcades.
Namco would further boost their catalogue with the likes of Ace Combat, Klonoa, Soul Edge, Time Crisis, Mr Driller and Point Blank. They took games made for the arcades and made them feel like they belonged on home systems. Namco deserves credit for keeping these arcade games alive and relevant into the modern day.
Comparisons can be drawn between Namco and Capcom. Namco would find success investing in 3D gaming while Capcom instead choose to support their already strong 2D games division.
When it came to arcade ports, the PlayStation was not the go-to system. Capcom’s 2D offerings couldn’t be done justice; a compromise made in the name graphical performance. Capcom 3D arcade titles would eventually make it to the PlayStation, but they were few and far between.
This limited selection of strong arcade ports wasn’t a huge loss for the PlayStation. Capcom knew the future of video games was on home systems.
Capcom never intended to make Resident Evil a major title. It was an experiment, a modernization of the classic horror-RPG Sweet Home. Trapped in a mansion infested with zombies, players must solve puzzles and escape the horrors who were out to make them their next meal.
Its production values were hilariously B-grade but there was no denying the games strengths. Resident Evil was dripping in atmosphere thanks to its sound design, detailed environments and most importantly, limitations.
Resident Evil would use the now infamous tank controls, a restrictive control scheme which fixed movement to an axis. These limitations would ultimately compliment the horror rather than detract from it.
Resident Evil would be a gigantic success, establishing an entire genre and inspiring a slew of sequels. The series would be a moment in the careers of legendary game designers Shinji Mikami and Hideki Kamiya. The success of Resident Evil would carry Capcom through the PlayStation era as the studio would hit their create peak in the generation that followed.
Konami was an absolute workhorse, publishing close to 100 titles for the PlayStation. They were the publisher with something for everyone. RPG fans were treated to the likes of Suikoden, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Vandal Hearts. Sports fans were catered for with the excellent International Superstar Soccer. Finally, the release of music titles such as Beatmania and Dance Dance Revolution would go on to cause a rhythm gaming craze.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night would release to little fanfare thanks to a market that had come to view 2D games as mostly “obsolete”. Sleeper sales and an outstanding critical reception would see SotN become a cult classic, creating the “Metroidvania” subgenre. Director Koji Igarash would become a major player at Konami and continue to lead the Castlevania series until his eventual departure.
Igrarashi wouldn’t be the only one as another promising game director at the company would come to overshadow everyone else. Metal Gear Solid would be a landmark title, shipping over 6 million copies. Its success would be a surprise to series creator Hideo Kojima who never expected the game to sell well at all.
Metal Gear Solid’s design was essentially a remake of the 1990 MSX2 game Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Not much need changing for the third dimension. This led to MGS becoming a very focused game as it contained some of the most satisfying level and set piece design in the entire series.
MGS was great game, but what elevated it to the status of classic was its unique creative flavour. Hideo Kojima was unabashed in his creative vision as he told a story heavy in political tension. Terrorism, nuclear fallout, the gulf war, corruption and conspiracy; MGS critiqued all these while taking heavy influence from Japanese media, anime, and otaku culture. Metal Gear Solid represented a huge leap in video game storytelling and was rewarded in kind. 20 years on it is still considered Kojima’s magnum opus.
Finally, there was Silent Hill, a project which served as an exile of sorts for Konami’s “failing” employees. Doomed for failure, Team Silent were given free rein to do what they wanted. The result would be a game which placed emphasis on emotional response over reactive horror. It was a game whose terror was based on a fear of the unknown.
Silent Hill would demonstrate the intuitive ways developers worked around the PlayStation’s hardware limitations. Draw distance was often an issue with tricks being used to hide model and texture pop-in. Silent Hill itself would resort to such measures as the town contained long roads and open areas for the player to explore. Instead of attempting to minimise these workarounds, Team Silent increased the visible fog and made it a major part of the game’s narrative, treating it as a supernatural occurrence.
Silent Hill would make a strong impression when it was finally unveiled, going on to sell over two million units. It was certainly a turnaround for the “doomed” project.
Konami’s games really were bona fide system sellers as the likes of the Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill and Pro Evolution Soccer would help make the PlayStation 2 a leading platform years later.
The final member of the Japanese elite four would be Squaresoft, a studio who would singlehandedly popularise the JRPG in western markets. Final Fantasy VII would find wide appeal with its dystopian cyber punk setting and cast of characters whose more grounded appearance and relatable backstories would resonate with many.
Final Fantasy VII would be Squares first true 3D game and yet this would hardly be an issue as the studio pushed on with stunning confidence. The pre-rendered environmental design was legitimately jaw dropping, blowing away the results achieved by the likes of Resident Evil.
Through strong artist direction Square were able to build a heavily detailed and immersive game world. With its impressive graphical showcases Final Fantasy VII would wowed and entice people to buy it in the millions.
Final Fantasy VII would be many peoples first RPG and bring the genre into the mainstream. With audiences left with a newfound hunger for role-playing experiences Square came to be seen as the gold standard. Any game with the Square logo would find an audience through association alone.
Square would go from strength to strength with Final Fantasy VIII & IX representing something of a technological milestone. The series cutscenes demonstrated better than anyone else the advances that had been made in computer animation between 1997 and 2000.
It’s easy to take Square for granted as the Final Fantasy company. But look deeper and you’ll find profound games whose excellence has only come be appreciated years later. Games like Vagrant Story and Xenogears displayed the sheer depth of talent which existed at Square at the time.
The PlayStation would turn Square into an industry giant, but it would also create new problems for the company. Their insistence on pushing the technological edge would normalise a level of expectation which continues to burden them to this day.
The United Kingdom would be an important region for Sony during the PlayStation years. They would steal Sega’s thunder as market leader and gain the backing of studios who further boost the systems popularity.
Codemasters, Eidos and Virgin Interactive would be strong allies, but one publisher would stand above them all as a key component in Sony’s European success. Their name? Psygnosis; a storied studio known for publishing hit games on the likes of the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga.
The release of the PlayStation would see Psygnosis expand and reach new levels of global success with what would be their most iconic game. Wipeout would be a European launch title and quickly become a best-seller. To understand its success would require a quick history lesson on the popularity of electronic house music.
When Wipeout released in 1995 the UK was in the middle of a dance music craze. Clubs would fill up on weekends as people sought a rush whether it came from music, from dance, or from drugs. With the Designers Republic giving the game its distinct look and popular artists like The Chemical Brothers featuring, Wipeout would be a hit with club goers.
These elements would be major parts of the game’s popularity and controversies. An ad branding Wipeout “a dangerous game” caused backlash as its depiction of a bloodstained Sara Cox would see it accused of depicting a drug overdose.
Regardless, Wipeout would help make the PlayStation an immediate success in the UK. Psygnosis would spend the next 5 years releasing a slew of PlayStation titles such as Destruction Derby, Formula 1, Colony Wars, Rollcage and Kingsley’s Adventure.
Psygnosis would not be alone in putting the spotlight on British studios as Core Design would create one of the biggest media phenomenons of its era.
Core never expected Tomb Raider to be the success it was; the games original release wasn’t even on the PlayStation. It’s solid level design and emphasis on free exploration made the game a hit with critics and players alike. Technical achievements would put Tomb Raider in the spotlight, but it would be the games protagonist who would keep it there.
Lara Croft would be one of the world’s first true cyber celebrities. Her presence would go beyond video games. The character appeared on magazine covers, in comic books, in TV advertisements for Lucozade, and in major Hollywood blockbuster films.
Outside of these giants the UK still held a handful of talented studios. Bizarre Creations, Traveller’s Tales, and DMA Design. These studios would use the foundations laid down by their PS1 titles to eventually move onto bigger and better things.
The UK may have been the epicentre of Sony’s European operations, but it would not be the only country to deliver hit games. A special mention needs to go to Ubisoft’s Rayman. This French developed 2D platformer would be a constant presence and the UK’s highest selling PS1 game. Ubisoft didn’t release many titles for the PlayStation, but Rayman would ensure their place in the history books as one of the systems more noteworthy studios.
The efforts of UK studios would be a boon for Sony, but they weren’t the only westerners out there helping the PlayStation achieve world domination. Something was also brewing in America.
North America is to put it lightly, absolutely bonkers about video games, boasting the largest market in the world. It’s no surprise then that the region would make a big impact on the PlayStation, producing some of the systems most well-known titles.
California is the video games capital of America, housing the headquarters for Naughty Dog, Insomniac Games, Crystal Dynamics, and Neversoft. Combined these studios put out the likes of Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Legacy of Kain, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Electronic Arts and Activision were also based in California, publishing over 150 titles between them.
Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon would become iconic characters, acting as the PlayStation’s mascots. Their games would be a resounding success with combined sales of over 35 million units. Both Naughty Dog and Insomniac continue to be to be major studios for Sony today.
Crystal Dynamics have come far since the days of their gothic vampire epic. Today, the studio works on the same Tomb Raider series that put Core Design on the map years earlier.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater emerged when skateboarding was hitting it apex in popularity thanks to the exploits of Tony Hawk, the first person to land the 900. The game only further pushed skateboarding’s popularity. It reached a level of excellence which propelled it into the public conscious, becoming one best-selling game series on the PlayStation.
Sony’s success in America would solidify them as the global market leader. They snatch away Nintendo’s market lead and become the death of Sega as a platform holder. Not even the Dreamcast could dent Sony’s lead, consumers knew the PlayStation 2 was due to arrive not long after.
Third parties represented the backbone of the PlayStation but like any system the platform holder ultimately decides the platforms fate.
Before Konami came along with the PlayStation port of their arcade hit Dance Dance Revolution, Sony had already began publishing their own series of musical games such as PaRappa the Rapper, Um Jammer Lammy, and Vib-Ribbon. Made by Japanese studio NanaOn-Sha, these games took advantage of the CD playback capabilities of the PlayStation.
Vib-Ribbon was the most intriguing of the three. The game could be loaded on the system memory and played without the original disc. This feature opened the door for the games core concept, the ability to play along to any music CD of your choosing, making it one of the first procedurally generated music games.
Experimental titles such as these is where the PlayStation came into its own. With the system being easier to develop for than the N64 and Saturn, many studios would try their hand at creating experimental games at a relatively safe cost. It was the age of exploration as developers were still dipping their toes into three-dimensional realm.
When discussing the PlayStation it would be amiss not to mention what is arguably the most important title ever published by Sony. It would completely blow the doors open on the console wars, quickly becoming the PlayStation’s most valuable property.
Dubbed “The Real Driving Simulator”, Gran Turismo was the creation of Polyphony Digital. The game was the result of a five-year endeavour with Kazunori Yamauchi only spending four days a year at home during its development.
The sacrifices would pay off however as Gran Turismo released to outstanding critical acclaim; raising the bar for racing games and simulation software. With 140 vehicles, 11 tracks, sophisticated AI, realistic physics and a heavy emphasis on driving tests it was the standard setter for driving simulation in the late 90s.
Gran Turismo excelled the PlayStation beyond being a mere gaming machine. Sony viewed interactive media as the future of digital entertainment. Gran Turismo wasn’t just a game, it was a statement on how serious Sony was about developing digital entertainment software.
Gran Turismo’s numbers speak for themselves. At 10.85 million units sold it would become the best-selling game on the PlayStation. The series remains a big deal today and continues to break sales records. Kazunori Yamauchi would become an important figure in the automotive industry, working on the likes of the Nissan R35 GT-R and taking up a racing career on the side. The impact of Gran Turismo is one which extends far beyond the scope of video games; a legendary piece of software.
When the PlayStation finally ceased production in 2004 Sony had managed to shift 102 million consoles. With the systems insane popularity, it may seem odd that only one game managed to sell over 10 million units. Well, there was a very good reason for that…
The PlayStation would be ravaged by piracy. Cheap and easily installable mod chips would bypass the systems region locking and copy protection. The availability of these chips made the issue almost akin to an epidemic; it was likely you knew someone who had one. The idea of playing the newest games at little to no cost was attractive to many.
The topic of whether piracy pushes hardware sales is an argument which rages on today. Considering Sony rely heavily on software sales, piracy cannot be considered as anything other than a danger to them.
Developers would fight back with better copy protection methods, but the damage had been done. It did however lead to some amusing results when studios would make their pirated games borderline unplayable.
25 Years Later
There is much more that can be said about the PlayStation. With around 1,500 titles known to exist worldwide it would be impossible to do the system justice in one article. This large pool has allowed the PlayStation to remain a good system to collect for. It has the perfect mixture of iconic staples and cult classics which continue to serve as an influence well into the modern day.
It is one of the most storied systems in the history of video games and while it would be eventually eclipsed by the popularity of its successor, its impact is undeniable. 25 years on Sony’s grey box still has something for everyone. If you’ve never delved into the PlayStation library then I strongly suggest you do. You never know, you might be surprised.