The Weird History Of The Super NES CD-ROM, Nintendo’s Most Notorious Vaporware

The Weird History Of The Super NES CD-ROM, Nintendo’s Most Notorious Vaporware

Nintendo never released a CD-ROM gaming system. But for a while in the early 1990s, it flirted with the idea. That protracted will-they-won’t-they romance produced pages of breathless gossip columns in video game magazines, a mountain of vaporware, some terrible Zelda games, and one priceless prototype.

The legacy of the Super NES CD-ROM is also one of historical misinformation, confusion, and outright myths.

In the early 1990s, few people owned CD-ROM hardware, but it looked as if CDs were going to rapidly become the future of video games. A large, expensive game cartridge of the time might hold 2 megabytes of memory, while a cheap CD-ROM could hold over 600. Developers could use that massive storage space for lengthy video sequences, high-quality audio tracks, or anything they could imagine. And for a while, it seemed like Nintendo was on board with that, too.

“It’s just around the corner!” read the April 1992 issue of Nintendo’s in-house magazine Nintendo Power, in a piece about the SNES CD-ROM drive. The 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System had just launched in the U.S. the previous September, and Nintendo was now promising that players would be able to update their cartridge-only system to a CD-capable one in January 1993 for $US200 ($280). And not a moment too soon, as rival NEC already had a CD drive for its Turbografx-16 system, and Sega was about to release one for the Genesis later in 1992.

But Nintendo’s never materialised. To understand why, we should take a trip back in time to the origins of consumer CD-ROM hardware.

While we tend to think of CD-ROM as a totally 90s technology, the first CD-ROM readers rolled out in 1985. One major example was the Philips CM 100, which was about as big as a game console, cost $US1 ($1),500 ($2,098) (or about $US3,500 ($4,895) today), and was packed in with a Grolier’s encyclopedia disk—text only, no graphics. As you might imagine, it found a limited audience in the mid-1980s, when many home PCs didn’t even have hard disk drives. It seems to have mostly been adopted by libraries, corporations, and other organisations that needed to store a lot of data.

The first CD-ROM game machine — which was arguably the first CD-ROM device of any kind aimed at mainstream consumers — was the CD-ROM2, an add-on for the Japanese PC Engine console, known as the TurboGrafx-16 in America. Released in December 1988, it was quite ahead of its time and quite expensive at around $US600 ($839). The early games (like Fighting Street, a version of the original Street Fighter) were very similar to cartridge games, just using the CD’s extra space for better music and voice samples.

It still wasn’t quite clear how CD-ROMs could truly benefit video games. It was in this year, 1988, that a young engineer from Sony convinced Nintendo to let him put a CD-ROM drive into its next gaming console.

‘You Can Do Your CD-ROM Thing’

The SNES CD-ROM all started with Ken Kutaragi, a young engineer at Sony who’d later become known as the “father of the Playstation.” Kutaragi struck a deal with Nintendo to create the sound chip for the Super NES — a decision he apparently made without the knowledge of Sony’s board of directors. The project was a success—the SNES’s sound hardware is one of the most widely praised aspects of the machine’s design — and for the next step in what was looking like a fruitful partnership between Nintendo and Sony, Kutaragi proposed that Sony be allowed to create a Super Nintendo that had a CD-ROM drive built in. Nintendo agreed.

The behind-the-scenes of this deal are mostly shrouded in Japanese corporate secrecy, but in late 2016, we got some rare insight into how it all went down — from one perspective, that is.

Shigeo Maruyama, the former head of Sony Computer Entertainment, discussed it with the Japanese site Denfaminicogamer, translated by Nintendo Everything.

Kutaragi “was a strong advocate for pursuing CD-ROM support over cartridges,” Maruyama said. “But Nintendo wanted to stick to [cartridges] for games. CD-ROMs can take 10-15 seconds to load, after all. They probably didn’t think users would want to wait that long. But Kutaragi wouldn’t let up his arguments, so eventually Nintendo told him, ‘Alright. We don’t think it will be successful, but you can do your CD-ROM thing.’”

It was, by all accounts, Nintendo’s scepticism in the viability of CD-ROMs that caused it to give away too much in the contract it signed with Kutaragi. Sony got the rights to create and sell CD-ROM software that would run on the Super NES-compatible machine, which it called the “Play Station.” It wouldn’t have to pay Nintendo any royalties or get its approval for CD-ROM games. This meant that if developers and consumers did embrace CD-ROM gaming on the Super NES, Nintendo wouldn’t get a dime off any of those game sales — only the hardware sales.

Why would Nintendo allow this to happen? Maruyama said it was because Sony “explicitly told them we were going to focus on everything but video games.” In other words, Sony’s position was that it would make encyclopedias, home karaoke software, and other non-gaming applications using CD-ROMs, and leave all the gaming to Nintendo. But apparently this was not in the contract itself, and once the ink was on paper, Sony had carte blanche.

It’s also useful, to understand what was going on here, to look at how Sony was evolving in the late 1980s. As the decade dawned, Sony was an electronics maker with a life insurance business on the side. But in late 1987, it acquired CBS Records, home of Michael Jackson and Billy Joel. In 1989, it acquired Columbia Pictures. That same year, it founded Sony Imagesoft, a video game publisher. In the span of just two years, Sony had gone from a hardware-only company to a media juggernaut. This may have contributed to Nintendo’s mounting worries as the years went on and the launch of the Super NES came closer.

The Summer Screwjob

If you’ve heard any story about the Super NES CD-ROM, it’s probably this one: At the Summer 1991 Consumer Electronics Show, the entire world expected that Nintendo would stand up at its press conference and reaffirm that Sony would provide the CD-ROM drive for its upcoming Super Nintendo. Instead, Nintendo betrayed its partner and shocked the world by announcing that it had instead decided to partner with Philips for the SNES CD, delivering a stunning insult to Sony that caused the company to go it alone and develop what we now know today as the Playstation.

It’s a riveting story, but it’s not entirely true. What really happened is much more complicated.

It is true that, until very shortly before the Summer CES, the Nintendo-Sony joint venture was still on. A Nintendo Power article about Super NES in its June 1991 issue made reference to “the CD-ROM unit currently being developed jointly by Nintendo and Sony.” And it is also true that things fell apart rather quickly. But it was not, as the oft-told story goes, that Sony executives were sitting in the audience for Nintendo’s conference expecting to hear the word “Sony” and instead heard “Philips.”

Sony executives, wrote David Sheff in his 1993 book Game Over, “had learned about the pending press conference forty-eight hours earlier, and were… stunned.” Howard Lincoln, then a Nintendo of America exec, told Sheff that Sony had sprung into action when it heard the news, trying to put the kibosh on the whole thing. “There were tremendous efforts on a worldwide basis to keep that press conference from happening,” he said.

How did Sony’s spies find out that Nintendo was planning on announcing a partnership with Philips? Likely by the time-honored espionage technique of… reading the newspaper. “Nintendo, Philips Join In Games On CD,” read the headline of a Seattle Times story dated May 31, 1991, exactly two days prior to Nintendo’s June 2 event. “Japan’s Nintendo Co. Ltd. has agreed… with Dutch electronics maker Philips Electronics NV to put its popular video games on compact discs, a Nintendo spokesman said today,” the story read.

So a Nintendo spokesperson had already told the media that the company planned to go with Philips as its partner, notwithstanding the deal it already had in place with Sony. That meant that when Sony had its own press conference on June 1, 1991 and announced its “Play Station” device, it already knew what Nintendo planned to do the next day.

Perhaps that’s why the media came out of Sony’s conference with the impression that Sony was planning on using its contract with Nintendo to try to back-channel its way into game publishing.

“Sony, Nintendo’s Partner, Will Be a Rival, Too,” read the headline of a New York Times piece on June 1, following the conference. “While Sony and Nintendo have collaborated on the machine, Sony will clearly become a competitor of Nintendo,” read the piece. “Sony confirmed yesterday that it had retained all licensing rights for any compact disk game developed for the new system.”

“By that oversight, Sony ended up with a very important business advantage,” Larry Probst, then the CEO of Electronic Arts, remarked in the story. “I heard they gave the store away,” said one analyst. Sony made it clear that it planned to leverage its new holdings in the music and movie businesses, noting that it planned to release a game based on the movie Hook and floated the possibility of a Michael Jackson game as well.

So, while the shift from Sony to Philips did all happen in whirlwind fashion, the fact is that when Nintendo finally made it official on June 2, nobody was surprised. Once all the dust had settled, Sony still planned to release the Play Station, which was simply a Super Nintendo with a CD-ROM drive attached to it, and create CD-based game software for it. Separately, Nintendo and Philips would team up to create an add-on for the Super Nintendo that would add CD-ROM capability and be compatible with the standalone machine that Philips was going to release later that year, called the CD-i.

“Our engineers reached the conclusion that from a technical standpoint that it was better for Nintendo to work with Philips,” Howard Lincoln told the New York Times. “There is a dispute between Sony and Nintendo as to the terms of the agreement.” Meanwhile, the Super Nintendo itself had not even been released yet, and the Times correctly noted that all of the backstabbing had taken away attention from the actual, really cool, games that Nintendo was showing off at CES.

“It’s easy to say that Sony was 100% the victim, and Nintendo 100% the wrongdoer,” said former Sony Computer head Shigeo Maruyama in the 2016 Denfaminicogamer interview. “In fact, that’s the story the company gave all of us while I was working there.” But he wasn’t so sure that Sony had no culpability. “I get the feeling something was going on behind the scenes. After all, there had to be a reason Sony wasn’t able to go after them.”

Since it would clearly have no backing from Nintendo, Sony ultimately decided to not push forward with the original Play Station, and the device became the stuff of legends. In 2015, a prototype of the unit was discovered to be in the hands of a man who had bought the property of former Sony executive Olaf Olafsson at an auction. It is the last remnant of a history that never came to be, with its Sony logo sitting atop a Super Nintendo controller.

The Million-Dollar Guest

That was the end of the story of the “Play Station,” but the saga of the SNES CD-ROM continued on. In its April 1992 issue, Nintendo Power updated the Nintendo faithful on the progress of the SNES CD-ROM. While the details were still vague, it was clear that what Nintendo and Philips were planning was not like Kutaragi’s device, which was just a CD drive attached to a Super Nintendo. The new add-on would also enhance the computing abilities of the Super NES, adding eight megabits of RAM and the ability to display full-screen video.

While Nintendo took this opportunity to proclaim that the device was “just around the corner,” it didn’t announce any actual SNES CD-ROM games. Instead, the Nintendo Power piece mentioned some of the relatively few games that were available for PC CD-ROM systems of the time, implying (but never stating) that the games might come to its device. One game it mentioned was Cosmic Osmo by Cyan Worlds. Cyan had published the first PC CD-ROM game, The Manhole, and was a year away from launching CD’s first killer app: Myst.

The other game it mentioned was an in-development project that it simply called Guest, which turned out to be The 7th Guest, another breakout CD-ROM game that would release the next year. A puzzle game taking place in a haunted mansion created from pre-rendered 3D video sequences, 7th Guest was a whole bundle of clever technical tricks that added up to a very impressive-looking, but ultimately shallow game. But it was so good-looking that Nintendo wanted to secure it as an exclusive for its system.

“We got a call one day from… Nintendo,” said a former Virgin Interactive employee in Steven Kent’s 2001 book The Ultimate History of Video Games. “They were trying to find games that would be appropriate for their CD-ROM drive that was eventually gaming to happen.” Virgin showed Nintendo The 7th Guest, and “within days” Nintendo was negotiating a deal to lock down the exclusive console rights to it. Nintendo ended up paying $US1 ($1) million for rights it never used, and The 7th Guest never came out on any consoles—except for Philips’ CD-i.

There was one notable Japanese developer that publicly planned to support Nintendo’s CD-ROM drive: Square, which was “busy designing the software that will become the next generation in gaming — CD-ROM.” This was according to the Spring 1992 issue of The Ogopogo Examiner, a newsletter that the RPG publisher mailed to its fans. “Characters in the games will actually speak to you as you play the game, and paper game manuals will become a thing of the past as these are placed right on the screen for easier access,” the story read. (Well, one out of two ain’t bad.)

Square’s newsletter did not mention any specific game titles, but we would later learn that its inaugural SNES CD-ROM game was meant to be Secret of Mana. As the release of the CD-ROM drive was pushed further and further back, the action RPG was moved from CD to cartridge, resulting in some cut content. “I think that when you play it you can get a sense of areas where it seems that something might be missing,” Square’s Ted Woolsey said of the game in a 1994 interview.

But Square still believed that the CD-ROM unit was coming out, so it made initial plans for another upcoming game, Chrono Trigger, to use the CD drive. That’s why the game revolved around time travel, one of its developers said: “We wanted to take full advantage of the space afforded by that media, and make a game where you visit multiple different worlds.” But Chrono Trigger, too, soon had to be converted into a cartridge game.

Sabotage At Sony

As 1992 drew to a close, there was still very little substantive information about the SNES CD-ROM, but there was one major behind-the-scenes development. On October 14, 1992 — the day before Sega released its much-hyped Sega CD in the States — Nintendo and Sony announced that they had mended fences, and that Sony would now be collaborating with Nintendo and Philips on the SNES CD-ROM add-on after all.

“Nintendo and Sony are teaming up on the next generation of video game technology,” read an Associated Press article. “The agreement also allows Nintendo and Sony to licence other companies to develop, manufacture and sell disk software, with all licensing activity going through Nintendo.” A little over a year after the dueling press conferences, Sony and Nintendo had apparently resolved the key issue—Nintendo would now make its money from the licensing fees, rather than Sony being able to do an end-run around them.

So all was resolved, right? Well, obviously not, as we know now that Sony would release its standalone Playstation in 1994, launching an all-out attack on Nintendo. So what happened?

Ken Kutaragi, who as a young engineer didn’t hold much institutional power at Sony, still wanted the company to go its own way and create a video game console. He was opposed by the older, more conservative Sony board members, who had no interest in creating a console. But Kutaragi had his ace in the hole: He had the ear of Sony chairman Norio Ohga, who had backed up the young engineer when it was revealed that he had created the Super NES’ sound chip in secret. Kutaragi convinced Ohga that what Nintendo had done to Sony at the 1991 CES was an unforgivable slap in the face, and that Sony had to respond forcefully. Ohga let Kutaragi pursue the Playstation project.

Sony’s board would not take this lying down. In the book Console Wars, Blake Harris says that the announcement that Sony would rejoin the Nintendo project was an action of the “old guard,” a sign that they still wielded power within the company. It was also the smart conservative move. Nintendo was the 363kg gorilla of the game industry, and on the surface it made little sense for Sony, with no game experience, to attempt to defeat it. Better to work alongside Nintendo and collect royalties, went the thinking.

Nintendo’s Last Stand

The SNES CD-ROM project, though delayed, was still alive on February 1, 1993, when Nintendo held a technical conference to update developers on the latest specifications for the format. Documents from that session, recently obtained and scanned by my friend and gaming historian Steve Lin, give us a detailed glimpse into how the hardware would work.

By this point, Nintendo had made a major new addition to the CD-ROM hardware: a 32-bit coprocessor. This would make the CD-ROM sort of a combination of the Sega CD and the 32X, although one assumes it would have looked a bit more elegant than Sega’s unwieldy tower of add-ons. The SNES’s built-in 1 megabit of RAM would be supplemented by an additional 13 megabits, so a lot of data could be loaded off of the CD-ROM at once. At the center of all of this would be a chip called the Hyper Advanced Nintendo Data Transfer System, or HANDS. Clearly, Nintendo was going the extra mile to attempt to solve CD-ROM’s biggest problem, load times.

All of this extra hardware — the 32-bit processor, the RAM, the HANDS, and more — would not be located in the “ND Drive” unit that would sit below the Super Nintendo, but would actually be stored in a cartridge that would go into the SNES’s top slot, where games usually went. The ND Drive underneath would simply be the CD-ROM drive, and nothing else. However, it would still require its own AC adaptor.

There’s one other interesting wrinkle in these documents. A handwritten note next to the picture of the CD-ROM disc itself reads “cartridge or caddy.” Remember CD caddies? Early drives had you put the disc into a plastic case, then insert that case into the drive. This helped protect the disc from scratches, but Nintendo had another use in mind: It would put a security chip into the caddy as an anti-piracy measure, then seal the disc inside. So if the SNES CD-ROM had actually shipped, the games wouldn’t have been loose discs, but CDs in plastic cases with security chips inside.

Another handwritten note on the document suggested that Nintendo intended to ship the “Super NES CD-ROM System” in 1993 or 1994. But that was the last anyone heard of it. Nintendo never made any official reveal announcement for the SNES CD-ROM: it never showed off the final hardware, never announced any lineup of games, never committed to a date or a price. The device just quietly disappeared.

Part of the reason for its disappearance was surely the impending arrival of the next generation of hardware. In early 1993, Nintendo started working with the American company Silicon Graphics on what would become the Nintendo 64, announcing their partnership and the development of the new, 3D gaming platform later that year. And in early 1994, it made what the New York Times referred to as the “surprise announcement” that its new system, then known as “Project Reality,” would not use CD-ROMs, but instead use cartridges.

That’s not to say that no Nintendo games, in a sense, ever ended up on CD-ROM. As part of its partnership with Philips, Nintendo gave the Dutch hardware company the rights to create games using its characters for the CD-i platform. Philips took this golden opportunity and created the three worst Legend of Zelda games ever made, plus the barely passable Hotel Mario.

Meanwhile, Nintendo’s decision to avoid the CD-ROM format entirely turned out to be tantamount to opening up a golden door for Ken Kutaragi and Sony to waltz through, scooping up nearly all of Nintendo’s market share. The Playstation, an elegant system built around the CD-ROM, leveraged all of the benefits of the medium: It allowed developers to create massive games with lavish video sequences and orchestrated soundtracks, then let them spend much less money manufacturing the discs, freeing them from the stranglehold Nintendo had on the ROM chip market.

One such developer was Square, which felt so burned by Nintendo’s refusal to use discs that it defected entirely to Sony, taking other developers along with it. Square’s Final Fantasy VII, which shipped on three CD-ROMs, would become one of the most successful games of all time, helping ensure the Playstation’s dominance for years to come—and prove how CDs could let developers create truly unique games.

The SNES CD-ROM, and the way Nintendo talked about it for years, always had a whiff of vaporware to it—not just in the sense that it was never fully detailed and never shipped, but because it always seemed to be, in part, a make-believe product that was intended mostly to stop consumers from buying the actual CD-ROM drive that was being sold by Sega.

The discovery in 2015 of Sony’s “Play Station” prototype was an important moment for the history of the SNES CD-ROM. Now that hackers have been able to get into the system and understand how it all works, that means that if any game prototypes are ever discovered, they’ll be able to run in emulation or on the real device. (Who knows, maybe there’s an uncut Secret of Mana out there somewhere.)

But the real Holy Grail of SNES CD-ROM hunters has yet to be found: a prototype of the 32-bit add-on that Nintendo was planning to release. Should that, or games that run on it, ever be found, that would be a fascinating glimpse at a long-lost Nintendo game platform.

Assuming, that is, that it ever existed.

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