Gone But Not Forgotten.
Imagine it – you are the representative rights holder to some obscure dusty old video game system that, for whatever reason, failed to hold its own during its original console generation, tumbling deep into the abyss of eBay obscurity.
Until recently, that was the fate of dozens of systems. Only video game purists and ultimate researchers know of consoles like the Apple Pippin, the Amiga CD32 or the PC-FX.
I bring all of this up because we live in a time where a very intriguing trend has developed, almost accidentally – companies are finding they can create scaled down cases of their original hardware, drop a fairly low cost emulator system inside of the shell complete with a few dozen of the original console’s library and expect to sell units like hot cakes. In some cases, projected numbers HIGHER than the number of consoles originally taken to market. How can this be possible? The answer is one of timing. Retro games and systems have become a hot commodity to both collectors and gamers alike who long for the simpler interactive experience (check out the proposed Intellivision Amico for more on this concept).
What this means, really, is that these modern “retro mini” consoles are being bought up by a large convergence of individuals; those who owned the original and wish to re-experience the nostalgia on a modern display (in a small form factor, and usually under $100 to boot), those who passed over the system the first time in favor of the more popular choices (explaining precisely why I must have a Turbo-Grafx 16 Mini despite not owning one in the 16-bit days), gamers who were not present the first time around who simply enjoy the unique gaming experience these things offer and of course collectors and completionists who must have one of everything.
In case you’re not following along, this trend is piping hot right now. So if you were sitting on the rights to a console from the distant past, this would be the optimal time to capitalize. That brings up today’s column discussion. There were two systems in the early to mid-1990s that, despite forward thinking and early adoption of the then-advanced CD-ROM media in a time when the world was largely limited by cartridges, failed to make a dent in the industry. The reason each of them failed was a bit different but in reality the two concepts had more in common than they did differences. Let’s take a closer look at the CD-i and 3DO; two nearly forgotten entries in the halls of video gamedom’s history that just may be due for the retro mini treatment.
Sometimes referred to as the Phillips CD-i on account of the fact that Phillips (Magnovox) was the first brand to release a dedicated CD-i unit to the market, the Compact Disc-Interactive concept wasn’t really so much a “console” as it was a media format.
Originally developed and designed by Phillips and Sony, a CD-i disc, though indistinguishable from a standard CD, could hold up to 744 MiB of digital data (a standard CD is good for 700 MiBs). It’s primary emphasis was to make better use of the potential for interacting with the data on the discs, be it graphics, audio, full motion video etc.
What all of this means is that while a CD-i machine was perfectly able to play standard audio CDs (at the time, a very big selling point), it could also run CD-i software; something a standard CD player could not. The players included controllers and in time the primary focus of the machines moved away from the prospect of digital encyclopedias and learning exercises to become dedicated game machines. The irony of this is that Phillips was very careful with their initial marketing strategies, going as far as to avoid talking about CD-i’s video game potential to avoid going head to head with giants like Nintendo and Sega.
Regardless, Phillips may have released the first unit but the concept was such that they did not hold exclusivity to hardware production. In a way, they were trying to do an early version of what Sony would later make successful with the blu-Ray Disc – a new standard that could be played on equipment of varying manufacturers.
As such units began arriving by manufacturers such as Sony, Memorex, Magnavox, LG (just to mention a few). Pricing was outrageous. Initially a base model CD-i player retailed for $799 in 1991. Yes that is still a lot of money for a console today but to account for inflation, that was actually closer to dropping $1,506 duckets on a system right now. Keep in mind that this was in an era where you could pick up a brand new Sega Genesis for $150. The CD-i did drop down to $599 within the first year but it was still largely out of reach for a majority of gamers interested in checking out the potential of the CD-ROM media.
What’s especially interesting is that since CD-i wasn’t a console so much as it was a format, it enjoyed an extremely long support cycle. Games began hitting store shelves in 1991 and were still being commercially released in 2002. Discounting homebrews, which are of course still being produced by fans of the system, CD-i managed to amass a library of 190 titles in that time frame, a majority of which were published by Phillips Interactive Media despite coming in from a wide variety of developers.
The vast majority of the game library consists of high quality (especially in the audio department) ports of games that were being released for the contemporary hardware of the era. However, and perhaps most famously, the CD-i would, as a result of an odd but brief collaboration of Phillips with Nintendo, receive three Legend of Zelda and one Mario title available absolutely nowhere else at the time and even to this day (Link: The Faces of Evil, Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, Zelda’s Adventure, and Hotel Mario). Perhaps even more intriguing is that Phillips was in the process of developing two more Mario titles (Super Mario’s Wacky Worlds and Mario Takes America) that were cancelled before release. Wacky Worlds was intended to be the official sequel to Super Mario World no less. This has bonus game material (like Nintendo did with Star Fox 2 on the SNES Classic Edition) off the charts.
Is the world ready for a CD-i Retro Mini system? Perhaps! Sales numbers are tricky to pin down on account of the fact that the hardware wasn’t produced by a singular entity but reports place the figure at about 400,000 units by 1996. I am convinced that even if Phillips filled the hypothetical CD-i Mini with 20 average contemporary ports but managed to include the ultra rare (and ultra expensive) Nintendo titles on the system, it would be a massive hit for collectors based on that alone.
Bonus Fact – The CD-i could be viewed as the template for the PlayStation in a very round about way. It literally came into existence when Nintendo sought to work with an audio electronics manufacturer about potentially developing a CD-based system for them. Nintendo bailed before the hardware came to market but in this case Phillips fought to retain rights to some of the properties they intended to collaborate on thus resulting in the Nintendo series that were developed entirely outside of N’s control. A nearly identical failed collaboration with Sony a few years later resulted in Sony deciding to pull a Phillips and enter the video game market with their CD-based hardware without Nintendo. We all know how that turned out.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about the 3DO is how little the individuals behind its development learned from the CD-i. Somehow they managed to make nearly identical mistakes and hope that they would succeed where their competition failed. It didn’t work for them either. But we’ll get to that.
Like CD-i, 3DO is not a video game console so much as it is a format; a set of specs that could be licensed to any manufacturer willing to pay to do so. Also like CD-i with Phillips, 3DO wasn’t actually exclusive to Panasonic though they did manufacture the first (and arguably most well known) unit: the FZ-1 R.E.A.L. 3DO Interactive Multiplayer. Also like CD-i, brands like Sanyo and LG (GoldStar) signed on board to produce players of their own.
3DO hit the scene in October of 1993 and, again, like CD-i, its claim to fame was that it would capitalize on the potential of CD-ROM technology and do so at a cost that was exuberant in comparison to its contemporary competition. A 3DO player’s 93 MSRP was $699. And even more discouraging is that the system launched with only a single game (Crash ‘n Burn). Unlike CD-i, however, 3DO would have its proverbial hands full due to the lateness of its arrival. The 4th console generation was just winding down when the 3DO arrived, meaning its only CD-based competition coming from the much weaker Sega CD and Turbo CD were very short lived. In fact, it found itself dropped into battle with the 5th generation offerings in short order; two of which were also CD-ROM based, much better supported and considerably more affordable: The Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. Suffice to say, the writing was on the wall. The system only lived from late 93 till 1996, moving about 2-million units worldwide.
In roughly three years of existence the 3DO managed to amass a library of 162 domestic titles. The bad news is that very few of these games were exclusive to the 3DO platform. As such it became known as a library of ports; many of which boasted superior soundtracks to their cartridge counterparts but again, once the Saturn and PlayStation hit the scene, that advantage was nullified.
The idea of the concept actually dated back to 1991 when The 3DO Company was formed by Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins. His vision was to alter the way the video game console industry made money; something that seems to happen across nearly every hardware generation only to fall into obscurity while the standard model of hardware manufactured by a single company and sold at a loss to recover profits on the licensing software back end runs away with the success.
Anyway, the Hawkins strategy was that 3DO would collect a very small royalty on each console sold and on each game manufactured. To game publishers, the low US $3 royalty rate per game was a fraction of the royalties paid to Nintendo and Sega when making games for their consoles. As a result, many publishers signed on to the 3DO platform but with such a relatively small install base, most were reluctant to grant exclusivity.
Additionally, the reason for the ultra high hardware MSRPs was that the manufacturers, who had absolutely no way of recovering capital on the software side of things, had to make their profits on the hardware itself. No taking a loss on the system to make money on the games later on here. It should be noted that lesser manufacturing costs in subsequent incarnations did make the hardware cost come down considerably. The GoldStar model, for example, launched at a much more realistic $399 and within the first year, the price of the flagship Panasonic FZ-1 had dropped to $499.
All in all the entire tower of cards collapsed under its own weight just shy of three years and in the process once again reminded that regardless of how noble the intent, the standard video game manufacturing and distribution process works.
So is the world ready for a 3DO mini? Possibly. The 3DO lacks the appeal of CD-i’s rare Nintendo collection, there are about 35 titles that really can’t be found elsewhere (Captain Quazar, Blade Force, Tip’D, Soccer Kid). Many of the ports were strong as well. Gex, for example, sold a whopping 1-million copies for the 3DO. Since there were only ever 2-million systems sold, that means it graced 1 of every 2 libraries.
All told nearly half a million CD-i players graced the world in a time where the generation leaders (SNES moved 49.1 million units and Genesis 30.75-million). The 3DO managed to fair slightly better in the following hardware generation with 2-million units out there though actually had a smaller market share comparatively as the leaders managed to post far more imposing figures: PlayStation with 102.49-million, Nintendo 64 at 32.9 million and Sega Saturn at 9.2 million.
What this means in terms of how well retro mini versions would do today – CD-i could actually plan to equal if not exceed original sales figures and 3DO actually managed a nearly double install base over the Neo Geo (980,000 units) the first time around.
If I had to choose one, though, I suppose the rarity of those Nintendo titles would make me lean toward the CD-i side of the equation. While generally regarded as poor games in terms of technical merit, their sheer collectibility is such that it isn’t uncommon for the games to command several hundred dollars each on the secondary market (and keep in mind there are 4 of them).
While there is no official word of either console yet – Phillips actually had this to say regarding a tweet requesting a retro mini of the CD-i: Thank you for your love, encouragement and interest! We will try our best to fulfil your dreams and release something you suggest, but cannot promise anything yet. Please be a bit patient and stay tuned. Thank you in advance.