Tearing Apart The Nintendo PlayStation

The mid 90s were a weird time for video game hardware. There were devices that could play videos from compact disks. Those never caught on. Virtual reality was the next big thing. That never caught on. The Sony PlayStation was originally an add-on for the Super Nintendo. That never caught on, but a few prototype units were produced. One of these prototype ‘Nintendo Playstations’ was shipped to a company that went into bankruptcy. Eventually, the assets of this company were put up for auction, and this unbelievably rare game console was bought by [Terry Diebold] for $75.

[Terry] allowed [Ben Heck] tear into this piece of videogame history, and he has the video proof that this was a collaboration between Sony and Nintendo.

On the outside, this Nintendo PlayStation is more or less what you would expect. There’s an SNES video connector on the back of the unit, an additional video output in the form of what could be found on a 90s Sony Handicam, and a weird serial port connector. There’s a CD drive, naturally, and a slot for an SNES cartridge

Inside, things get a little weird. The CD drive is completely self-contained, and the numerous random leads say this is most certainly a prototype unit. Surprisingly, the PCB for this prototype unit isn’t much different from a standard Super Nintendo. The RAM chips are laid out the same, the architecture of the system is pretty much the same, and even some part numbers are the same. This means the Nintendo PlayStation wouldn’t have enough RAM to make full use of the CD-ROM. To fix this small shortcoming, the designers of this system put 256k of RAM on the cartridge. Yes, a cartridge would have been required to use the CD drive, and the cartridge itself would have been fairly expensive.

With this teardown, we finally know this Nintendo PlayStation is not a prototype for what would eventually become the Sony PlayStation. It’s basically a Super Nintendo with a CD-ROM add-on, and Nintendo and Sony’s answer to the Sega CD. Aside from politics between Nintendo and Sony, even if this Nintendo PlayStation went on the market, it probably would have been a spectacular failure.

With the teardown and documentation, the only thing left for [Ben] to do is to get it working. Now that someone with the skills has gotten a good look at the guts of this machine, there’s a very good chance this classic console will live again. That’ll be in [Ben]’s next video, and we can’t wait to see what happens.

30 thoughts on “Tearing Apart The Nintendo PlayStation

  1. The CD vs Cartridge wars were interesting times back in 1995-98. Before that, CD based games were just FMV junk for the Sega CD or 3DO or whatever, and nobody really knew what to do with it. But Sony changed that with their Playstation release, and Nintendo’s decision to stick with carts for N64 was a huuuuuuge point of contention. Everyone I knew had drawn battle lines over load times vs amount of storage available, and real-world differences demonstrated by GoldenEye 007 / Starfox 64 / etc vs Final Fantasy 7 / Metal Gear Solid / etc. By the end of the N64’s lifetime it was clear that carts could not continue to scale up, so Nintendo relented to a mini-DVD format for the Gamecube, and that was ubiquitous until digital distribution.

    The real selling point for the N64, at least for me and friends, was having 4 controller ports available… “couch multiplayer” still mattered back then, because there was no online play.

    Game consoles don’t have so much personality any more, which is great for 3rd party devs, but somewhat less interesting from an industry watcher perspective : )

    1. Couch multiplayer still matters (to players at least), but split screen cuts down on the amount you can render. Wowing the masses with pretty screenshots and video sells games, and doing that whilst rendering everything four times is a technical headache most studios would rather do without if they can get away with it. Fill rate used to be more of a limiting factor to graphics chips than it is today as well, so the problem has gotten worse.

      Not to mention if multiplayer is online, you can prevent pirates from playing. Online only multiplayer (and singleplayer if you can get away with it) is just going to make you more money.

        1. The resolution relates to the fill rate of the graphics chip, which doesn’t factor in as heavily as it used to. With modern graphics a lot of processing goes on before you ever get to the point of drawing dots on the screen. You are doing things like calculating and rendering shadows/reflections/complex lighting/parallax/texture effects, sorting transparent objects according to their distance from the camera and other stuff that doesn’t care what the resolution is.

          Reducing the quality is something you can definitely do, but if you have spent years perfecting a graphics engine that really pushes the boundaries of what the hardware is capable of it can be time consuming, difficult and painful. If I recall there are quite a few games around the N64 era that did things like just run at half frame rate to avoid having to optimize.

    2. Actually by the end of the n64’s lifetime it was clear that, at the point in time at least, the playstation and other disc based systems didn’t really have anything to offer but crappy fmv cutscenes and ridiculously long load times.

      If you look at a list of the all time greatest games, there are usually a few from the n64 in the top 10 and if you are lucky a psx game or two might make it into the top 100.

      In the next gen, Nintendo used their own brand of mini discs that were specifically designed to reduce load times. That wasn’t appreciated in it’s own time either.

    3. For the game producers and publishers, the difference was pretty significantly in Sony’s favor. Cartridges were not only expensive to build, they took time to set up for manufacturing (programming ROMs, populating boards, testing, that sort of thing.) CDs could be stamped out in no time for a small fraction of the cost of building a cartridge. Along with the FMV capabilities, it’s no wonder Square jumped ship to Sony for the Final Fantasy titles.

  2. I’m sure that the M.A.M.E. (M.E.S.S.) people would love to preserve the ROM for this, so that when the hardware has long since turned to dust the history would be preserved.

  3. I wonder what the relation was with CD-i by Sony and Philips. I know Philips had a license to produce some Nintendo games on CD-i because they had worked together and it was in a contract somewhere.

    CD-i was doomed of course, the minute they put into the standard that all CD-i players must be able to play all CD-i discs. That meant that all CD-i players would forever have a 7MHz 68000 and a single-speed CD drive. I worked on programming some educational CD-i discs in 1994-95 and at that time I already had a 4x CD-ROM in my PC that ran at 100MHz.

    1. Basically Nintendo and Sony collaborated on a CD-ROM addon for the SNES, to compete with Sega’s Mega CD / Sega CD. Nintendo also shopped around to Phillips, Sony’s rival in the CD-ROM market, for the same thing. At one point during development, Nintendo abruptly cut the Sony deal off and fully committed to Phillips instead.

      Furious, Sony took what they had contributed to the Play Station project, finished it into the Playstation we all know, and released it to market out of spite.

      1. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to call Philips and Sony rivals in the CD-ROM market. They were rivals at many things, but the CD and subsequent standards such as CD-ROM, and even the CD-i standard, were co-developed by Philips and Sony. All CD royalties are also split between both parties. I mean, sure, Sony and Philips are rivals when it comes to consumer products (or at least, were, since Philips is only an empty shell of what it used to be), but the CD was the one thing they did together. I think Sony was more pissed off at just being cut off and replaced, than their replacement being Philips.

  4. The PC Engine (TurboGrafx-16) used “system card” cartridges for storing the firmware for the CD-ROM addon, and some of the later versions of these also included extra RAM.

    1. Yes, and I believe even the basic System Card had RAM inside it. But this machine really shouldn’t need it; When the PC Engine Duo came out (which integrated the PC Engine with the CD ROM unit), it was built-in.

      But I think this one is pretty understandable that this one needs it; they were probably developing this prototype as a “hybrid” of sorts; it used the cartridge because they were going to use it for the CD expansion, and that hardware would have been built in to the final version of the standalone hardware.

    1. Yes, but then he would have to explain how clock speed isn’t the most important thing when it comes to processing. I have a hard enough time explaining that an old “fast” Pentium 4 chip isn’t going to outperform a new “slow” i5 except on heat generation.

    2. Still, it was an 8/16-bit chip when the 68000 was a 16/32. I’d be AMAZED if the SNES’s CPU could out-perform the Megadrive’s.

      Far as I know they chose the 65816 for NES back-compatibility. The SNES’s graphics chip includes NES modes too, there were cheap Chinese adaptors you could buy to put NES carts into the SNES. In the end, though, Nintendo chose not to go with the feature, didn’t launch an adaptor themselves. I can see the idea, the NES had a huge software library, and likely in the hands of kids who’d be buying the SNES. But maybe they didn’t want to be associated with the NES’s utterly obsolete hardware. The NES was pretty archaic even when it was launched, very low-powered, in the end the game carts ended up with more power than the console.

      Fortunately the SNES’s graphic and sound chips were well ahead of Sega’s, so that’s how they managed to do well. Developers often complained about the CPU though. Still pretty 8-bit, just a 6502 with wider registers, and a couple of extra features. Ran terribly slow. That’s why so many SNES games used on-board CPUs or DSPs.

  5. I worked for a games developer in the mid ’90s, we were a Sony Playstation developer and dealing with SCEE for product approvals. Though this machine was history by then it was very much not a myth, as SCEE were very careful about the branding. In particular we were told some versions of it were branded as “Play Station” with a space, rather than “PlayStation” without the space. Therefore woe betide any marketing bunny who got it wrong and slipped a space in. Interesting to see this one has no space.

    I never got to see one in person, but I do remember pictures of it in trade publications. Must have been an earlier version, the pic I saw incorporated a 5.25″ Sony cardridge loading CD drive as you’d find in a PC. Interesting to see the evolved version, and glad at least one escaped into the wild.

  6. I think that this one might have been really close to production-ready; there weren’t really that many bodge wires in there.

    And I severely doubt that they would sell the unit without the cartridge. That would be an insane move.

    As for having the expansion memory in cartridge, it may have actually been a good idea. Hudson did it with their SUPER-CDROM addon, and as a result it allowed them to upgrade the system as it went on.

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