The early ’90s were something of a second coming for the wild west of video game console manufacturing.
The early ’80s saw a number of console manufacturers trying to make a go of it after the success of the Atari VCS. Then there was the crash of ’83 and companies shied away from developing new gaming hardware.
Nintendo would eventually re-pave that broken and beat up road while also making a tollway to try and discourage competition. Then Sega knocked the tollways down and re-opened the road for any number of upstarts that believed they had the tech and the talent to grab a portion of that sweet, sweet video game money. Enter the 3DO Company. Founded by Electronic Arts’ very own Trip Hawkins, 3DO had the technology to be a game changer in the early ’90s, they just needed someone to manufacture it. That’s where Panasonic, Sanyo and Goldstar came in. Reputable companies in their own right and fully capable of taking the specs from 3DO and making a disc-based video game console that would offer high resolution 3D graphics, interactive video games and full motion video.
Unfortunately, while the 3DO did offer impressive 3D graphics, CD quality sound and forward-thinking games, the initial price of the machine, $700 U.S. (about the equivalent of $1200 today) meant that a number of gamers would be priced out of owning the machine. The price of the console would eventually drop, but the glut of other available options, including the near equivalent Sega/Mega CD, the Atari Jaguar and the Super Nintendo, would provide stiff competition, and the arrival of the Sega Saturn and the game-changing Sony Playstation would eventually see the console discontinued.
I was a student during the 1990s and wasn’t exactly flush with disposable income to spend on video game consoles. I owned a used Super Nintendo that I bought around 1993, and then a PlayStation once I graduated college, so the 3DO was completely off my radar during it’s short lifespan. It’s possible I was aware of it tangentially but it never resonated like the dominant companies of the era. The 3DO machine I finally bought was the original front loader manufactured by Panasonic. Also dubbed the FZ-1 model, the full name was R.E.A.L 3DO Interactive Multiplayer. You can see why everyone shortened this to 3DO. The name of the console implies that there were lofty goals for these machines as not just a video game console, but a CD player and interactive learning machine with boundless add-ons and expansions. The system came with a demo disc and one controller, but Panasonic made the curious decision to include only one controller port.
In order to play 2-player games, the second player would need to plug their controller into player 1’s controller, which was plugged into the console. Player 3 would have to plug into player 2 and so on and so forth for as many players and controllers as the games would allow. What a weird design decision, and just one of a myriad of reasons why the 3DO would ultimately fail. Poor Trip Hawkins. The man had been wildly successful as the head of Electronic Arts, but by the early 1990’s it was clear he had greater ambitions than leading a software company to prominence. With the idea of combining cutting edge video gaming with multi-media add-ons, he recruited individuals (Dave Needle, RJ Mical) with high pedigrees and visions that matched his own. After the announcement of the creation of the 3DO Company, there was a lot of industry buzz thanks to the success rate of those in charge.
Nevertheless, questions began to pop up as details of what was being worked on emerged. Nintendo was for kids. Sega was for teens and young adults. What was the target audience for the 3DO console? Families? Adult gamers? I believe the intent was for the console to appeal to everyone thanks to its unrealized versatility, but that is only my best guess. The console’s print ads tended to lean towards the “radical and extreme” concepts so prevalent in the 1990s. However, unless you were a very well-paid pizza delivery boy or drug dealer, the 3DO was somewhat beyond the “radical” and “extreme” gamer’s price range at launch. $699 U.S. in 1993….ouch.
Mr. Hawkins has since admitted that outsourcing initial console production to Panasonic was probably the biggest mistake the 3DO company made. It meant that Panasonic, Goldstar and Sanyo (in Japan only) had to sell at a profit (after 3DO’s cut) since they couldn’t take a loss on console sales with the assumption they would make up the difference with software sales, which was done through 3DO Co and other third party manufacturers. By the time the second iteration of the Panasonic-manufactured 3DO console, the FZ-10, and the Goldstar manufactured version were released in 1995 at a significantly reduced cost, it was too late. Sony and Sega had already either released or were about to release their own CD-ROM-dedicated consoles and Nintendo’s Project Reality was close to becoming a reality in stores. In the minds of consumers, the 3DO didn’t have enough must-own exclusives to warrant the risk.
On paper, the 3DO should have been successful. It was a cutting edge disc-based system, the only one readily available at the time. CD-ROMs could offer amazing music and in-game sounds, full motion video, 3D graphics, cut scenes and a whole plethora of bells and whistles one could dream up. The original FZ-1 model had a very clean, solid look and feel, the perfect addition to a multi-media TV stand. The 3DO Company had visions of being more than just a toy, marketing itself as an all-encompassing form of family entertainment. The game library contained family-friendly games meant to replace the outmoded board games sitting on your shelf. It contained high-concept shooters and futuristic titles that were intended to appeal to a more sophisticated gaming audience, while an early partnership with Electronic Arts provided top-notch sports and racing titles.
3DO wanted to be everything to everyone, an ambition that would prove detrimental. Was it just a console? If so, why was it so expensive compared with other consoles? Was it not only a console, but also a CD player and multi-media receiver? Was all the stuff they wanted to be the reason why it was so expensive? If so, I certainly wasn’t the target audience. I already had a CD player. I had no use for CD-ROM- based learning discs. I didn’t recognize many of the games that were available for the system. I was the wrong gamer at the wrong age with the wrong socio-economic status, and I don’t believe I was alone. Today, the 3DO is considered one of those widely derided oddball consoles (see Phillips CD-I and Atari Jaguar) from a time when everyone seemed to be throwing their hat into the video game arena. There doesn’t appear to be a widespread documented community of 3DO archivists, fans or game reviewers, which is a shame. I am an avid listener of retro gaming-related podcasts and there is ZERO 3DO presence out there that is either dedicated to talking about the 3DO or at least covering it in part.
I think the general consensus of the retro gaming community is that the 3DO’s library is a bit daunting (over 200 worldwide titles) and there are a lot of junk titles available thanks to the relative ease of making a game for the system. There are a few titles available for the 3DO that are widely considered the best or one of the best versions (Road Rash, Out of This World, Flashback, Need for Speed, Samurai Showdown, Super Street Fighter 2), which can be considered reason enough to pick up one of the console iterations. Because there is so little information out there on some of the more obscure 3DO titles, this is one of the few consoles that fits the “Hidden Gem” description, but there just aren’t enough compelling reasons to own a 3DO over a Saturn or PlayStation. Unfortunate, in my opinion.