The fifth generation of consoles is mainly associated with the rise of 3D graphics. While important and no doubt defining, none of that would have been possible without the inclusion of CD-ROM’s. 3D graphics were around beforehand of course; it was quite common on PC’s by the mid-90’s, for instance. However, the comparably minuscule storage capacity of cartridges used on consoles previously simply didn’t cut it. That’s where the seemingly endless (at the time) capacity of CDs came in.
When you think of early CD-based consoles, you’d be forgiven for thinking of the PlayStation One by default. The PSone (as it was so aptly shortened to in the early 2000’s) was a heavy hitter, selling over 102 million units in its lifetime. But ultimately, it definitely wasn’t the first console to use CD’s – although arguably, it was the first as far as mainstream attention goes. That’s not to say that any previous use of the technology should be forgotten, though, so counting backwards from the release of the original PlayStation (December 3rd, 1994 in Japan), let’s delve into what’s out there.
As far as I can tell there were only two other CD-based consoles released in ’94, with one likely being a lot more memorable to you than the other. The Sega Saturn released mere weeks before the PSone, however, its sales numbers are eclipsed by it totalling only 9.26 million units. This was also Sega’s second last effort in the console industry and it’s been suggested that it’s mismanagement in the corporate world led to its death rather than the hardware. Some think it was discontinued way too early for one, and other decisions, like there never being any exclusive Sonic the Hedgehog game released resulted in it not having a mainstream ‘killer app’ that consoles have always needed to survive.
Not to say the hardware wasn’t perfect either, though. While there was the ability to load from CD’s, its unique dual-CPU architecture (including eight processors) was difficult to program for leading to poor third party support.
In hindsight, fans of the system are quick to tell you of its fantastic SHMUP and 2D fighting library. There’s also a handful of playable 3D titles available too – so really, the Saturn is definitely worth collecting for in the present. However, it’s sad that it stood no chance against the monumental PlayStation back in the day (I’m a fanboy, can’t you tell?).
The Bandai Playdia Quick Interactive System (as it was so called) is the other 1994 release, launching exclusively in Japan on the 23rd of September. While I was unable to find sales numbers, it’s assumed its market penetration was quite low as it was marketed solely to kids with its games library consisting of nothing but edutainment and multimedia titles. Every single game was released by Bandai too, although amazingly, they squeezed out 39 titles between 1994 and 1996 utilising such licences as Hello Kitty and Dragon Ball Z. It’s unlikely you’d want to play any of them beyond their novelty factor, though, as the games are very basic, incorporating mostly FMV and menu selection. You’ll need to be able to read Japanese too.
Moving into 1993, we have the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, Amiga CD32 and the curiously named Fujitsu FM Towns Marty. You’ve likely heard of the 3DO before, releasing in the October of 1993. The 3DO actually didn’t have a central manufacturer, with its design being licenced out to Panasonic, Sanyo and GoldStar over its lifetime. It had a short shelf life of only three years, though, and had quite the botched launch because of its extremely high price ($700) and only a single game available initially. Ultimately, while there were over 200 games released in that period including some super early 3D titles, most were shovelware because of the 3DO Company’s lax licencing policy.
Released less than a month before the 3DO was the Amiga CD32. As you can probably tell from its name, CDs and being 32bit capable were the two main selling points it was going for. It touted its self as the first 32bit console ever released, and while it being the first ever is arguable (as you’ll soon see) it utilised CDs for more than just better soundtracks. For one, since it was manufactured by the (at the time ailing) Commodore, if you added a bunch of stuff like a keyboard, mouse, RAM etc. you’d have yourself an equivalent of the Amiga 1200 PC. After all, a huge portion of its games library was ported over from Amiga PC systems. However, if you added a MPEG Video Module, you’d also have yourself a fully functioning Video CD player. It was such a CD-centric system that during the Christmas period of ‘93 in the UK, the CD32 accounted for 38% of all CD-ROM sales. Sadly, though, it disappeared the following year as Commodore entered bankruptcy.
It was in the February of that same year, though, that the Japanese only FM Towns Marty was released. This was actually the very first 32bit console, beating the CD32 by about seven months. This interesting console included a floppy disk drive as well as a CD drive, however, it was so obscure, expensive and running hardware so unique (a similar story to the Saturn) that it just never took off and had very few games released for it.
As a side note, however, I can’t help but mention that there was a version called the FM Towns Car Marty designed for use in vehicles. This fascinating deviation even included an early consumer-level GPS complete with audio and video guidance, but for all its fascinating properties, it just wasn’t enough to thrust it into the public’s eye. While both versions (and a few others based on the initial console) are an interesting footnote in history, it was ultimately a commercial failure only moving 45,000 units.
Moving back even further to 1991, we don’t have a console, but an add-on. The Sega CD (or Mega-CD as it was known elsewhere) was an accessory that attached to your Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive depending on your country of choice) that allowed CD based games to be played. Plenty of people know about this so I won’t dwell on it too long, but the abridged version of its history is that all the Sega CD specific games were either FMV titles (most notably a controversial game called Night Trap) or basically the same Genesis cartridge games but with better soundtracks thanks to the disks. Although interestingly, its commercial lifespan survived until 1996 and it sold 2.24 million units – which is a lot more than what some other consoles in this article can claim (and also its younger add-on sibling, the 32X).
Lastly for 1991, only days prior to the Sega CD, the Philips CDi was launched. Marketed as more of an interactive CD player rather than a games console, it included releases such as interactive encyclopedias and edutainment titles. The games weren’t great, though, and included a bunch of FMV titles (are you starting to see a theme?) and some particularly terrible Zelda games. It did sell a million units – however, this was between 1991 to 1998 and it eventually lost Philips a colossal one billion dollars. Whoops.
So, we’ve made it to 1991 – three years before the PlayStation. Surely this is as far back as CD technology in gaming goes? The CD only came out in 1982 after all and for a long time was a very expensive format. But hang on! Obviously, the CDi wasn’t the first – I probably would have mentioned it otherwise. The first wasn’t released in 1990 or even ‘89 either, but incredibly, 1988. Six years before the PlayStation! And while it wasn’t technically a console, it was an add-on much like the Sega CD.
The CD-ROM² System was released on the 4th of December, 1988 and holds the title as the first gaming system ever to use CDs. This was an add-on for the TurboGrafx-16 (also known as the PC Engine) and likely deserves its own article since it took many forms over the years. For instance, if you’re American, you may recognise it as the TurboGrafx-CD which found its way to your countries shores in 1990. Ultimately, nearly 150 games were released for the format including licences such as Street Fighter, Castlevania, Populous and even Space Invaders. It was by no means a commercial failure which has been a depressing running theme for this article.
And, like I alluded to before, that wasn’t the only theme. FMV and edutainment titles were very common on these early CD consoles, and many didn’t utilise the extra storage space for 3D graphics, the texture maps and the associated game engines they required until very close to the PlayStations launch. Although arguably, this may not have been possible anyway earlier on because of the available technology. Regardless, next time you’re playing any console from the last 20 years (as the vast majority of them used disks) remember where it started. It’s been a thing for far longer than you may have realised.