View Full Version : Former Sony exec on the cancelled SNES PlayStation CD-ROM, including its last-minute

11-13-2016, 11:29 PM
I heard from other places that the other reason Nintendo canned the SNES CDROM was because in the agreement Sony can produce CD-ROM games for the system without loyalties, and that made Nintendo mad -- so Sony could gather other developers to make SNES CD-ROM games but without paying a penny to Nintendo. Despite Sony stated they were only interested in making non-game software on CD-ROM.


Former Sony exec on the cancelled SNES PlayStation CD-ROM, including its last-minute death

Many, many years ago, Sony was working on the SNES PlayStation. It would have acted as as add-on for Nintendo’s classic console, allowing it to read discs. But unfortunately, it ended up getting cancelled.

Now in a new interview, we have some rare behind-the-scenes information about what was happening with the SNES PlayStation. Dwango head Nobuo Kawakami interviewed Shigeo Maruyama, who was once the the CEO of Sony Music Entertainment as well as the former chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment. Maruyama talked about the situation with the SNES PlayStation and also offered insight into the mind of Ken Kutaragi, who largely was the person who pushed for the device’s development.

Head past the break for our full translation.

Kawakami: It is said that the PlayStation was actually a dedicated Nintendo device.

* Editorial staff: There are many books that make that assertion, and it’s become accepted as the truth.

Maruyama: Well, that’s not entirely true. Ken Kutaragi was originally in charge of the sound chip on the SNES before he worked on the PlayStation. Sony was just supplying components, with Kutaragi in charge of the production.

However, he was a strong advocate for pursuing CD-ROM support over cartridges. He then came up with the idea to install/attach a CD-ROM drive to the top of the SNES, and use the core hardware to run discs instead of Mask ROMs.

* Mask ROM: A type of storage device used by computer systems, containing nonvolatile memory that cannot be overwritten. Because they were cheap to mass-produce, they [the technology] were widely used for mass-market game software and internal chips.

Kawakami: What? All he did was make an external CD-ROM drive for the SNES?

Maruyama: Yup, that’s all he did. But his idea didn’t really catch on. In fact, he tried to get me involved as well, but I was just like “Oh, really?”

But Nintendo wanted to stick to Mask ROMs 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”.

So they told him “You can’t do anything related to Mask ROMs, but you can work on whatever you want involving CD-ROMs”, and then he developed a CD-ROM drive that could be inserted into the cartridge socket. But it still needed software. He had to come up with something interesting to put on the CDs, and that’s when he came to me [for help].

Kawakami: So to recap, Kutaragi was told “You’re allowed to make a CD-ROM drive for the SNES”, and then he came to you saying “Can you make you some software for it?” Is that about right?

Um, I don’t see what this thing has to do with the PlayStation.

Maruyama: Well duh, it hadn’t happened yet (laughs). So the president of NoA at the time, Mr. Arakawa, who was in Seattle, probably saw it as a big problem. He supposedly warned the Japanese HQ over and over that if they let Kutaragi do whatever he wants, he might take over the whole company.

* Minoru Arakawa: Born in 1946. Acted as the president of Nintendo of America (NoA) from its founding in 1980 until 2002. Son-in-law of the former president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi.

Kawakami: I see. If you don’t mind, could you tell us a bit more about that? This was around the same time Nintendo was focusing on gaming as its main business, and there’s speculation that Sony was planning to monopolize the enormous non-gaming markets. In other words, Nintendo might have perceived Sony’s push for the CD-ROM format as an attempt to take over music and movie distribution/platforms. In actuality, that market ended up having more hidden potential than even the video game industry.

Maruyama: What are you talking about? There wasn’t any speculation at all, we explicitly told them we were going to focus on everything but video games, and they said “That’s fine”! (laughs)

Kawakami: Whaaaat!

Maruyama: In fact, the only reason I got involved in this was because I wanted to produce a home karaoke system. Since the SNES is always connected to your TV, all you have to do is click the thing in and bam, you’ve got karaoke at home. Back then, we still didn’t have Karaoke on Demand.

* Karaoke on Demand: A Karaoke box that can access karaoke music from a dedicated server by using phone lines or their own dedicated network.

But I wasn’t sure what happened back then. Yamauchi may have decided that “CD-ROMs have potential.” I can see how Nintendo might have felt uneasy due to Kutaragi’s pushy behavior.

* Hiroshi Yamauchi: Born in 1927. The third head of his family’s company, Yamauchi Fusajiro Shoten, which he turned into a global videogame enterprise. Acted as both the president and chairman of Nintendo.

Kawakami: Yeah, I guess so (laughs).

Maruyama: But right before the announcement, Nintendo put a lid on it. Kutaragi, Sony’s director and PR manager, and the not-as-of-yet-president Mr. [Nobuyuki] Idei had come to Kyoto. But while they were in a pre-meeting for the conference, they were suddenly told “No, the conference is being cancelled”.

Kawakami: But, they were under contract this whole time.

Maruyama: Of course.

Kawakami: Hmmmmm.

Maruyama: Yeah…but, there’s gotta be more to it than that, right? It’s easy to say that Sony was 100% the victim, and Nintendo 100% the wrongdoer.

Kawakami: Yes, that’s right.

Maruyama: In fact, that’s the story the company gave all of us while I was working there. It’s a real mystery why Sony never actually filed any kind of lawsuit against them.

Kawakami: Absolutely.

Maruyama: 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. But back then I was just a software producer, so I didn’t understand everything that was going on. In fact, my team threw a ton of money into the project. I remember thinking, “If I had that kind of cash to spend on up-and-coming artists…son of a b****!”

Kawakami: So, you’d tell your coworkers, “This is all Nintendo’s fault.”

Maruyama: Yeah, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Maruyama / Kawakami: (laughs)

Maruyama: Now, this is where the story really starts. Kutaragi set all of this into motion for some reason.

Kawakami: What do you mean?

Maruyama: The head of Nintendo, Mr. Yamauchi, and the head of Sony, Mr. Ohga, both approved the project originally. But it fell apart right at the end.

Kutaragi had begun stirring up trouble in the company. He even came up to Mr. Ohga and said “Sony’s very own Norio Ohga gave his approval, but the project got canned for no reason. If you back out now, how will you maintain your honor!” And Mr. Ohga responded “You are right. This has brought us shame…”

Maruyama / Kawakami: (laughs).

Kawakami: So you’re saying we still don’t know exactly what happened, but we do know Kutaragi took advantage of the situation.

Maruyama: That’s right.

Kawakami: Still, it’s only natural that the company would be angry.

Maruyama: Well, you’re sort of right. But let me get back to the earlier topic. If you think about, all we were doing was making an external CD-ROM drive. It was just a drop in the bucket (bitter laugh).

Kawakami: Indeed.

Even taking into account their software businesses, Sony didn’t consider it a big deal…?

Maruyama: It was a lot of money for us at Sony Music Entertainment, but to the whole of Sony, it was pocket change. Kutaragi belligerently argued over the royalties made from the sound chips, saying “I made this money, so let me use it at my own discretion.” So I’m assuming the budget was only about 2-3 billion yen or so.

* Business Size Back Then: Sony’s sales in the 1991 fiscal year totalled 3,617,000,000,000 yen.

Kawakami: Hrm. That’s certainly not a lot, considering the scope of an enterprise as big as Sony.

Maruyama: And, the CD-ROM drive was just this little thing you stuck on top of the SNES. It’s like we were just renting an office instead of building ourselves an entire skyscraper, and then at the last minute they simply kicked us out. Sure it sucked, but that should be the end of it.

Instead, Kutaragi managed to turned the story around, saying “How dare they! We’ll just have to build an even bigger skyscraper next to them (Nintendo).” But really, the two things had nothing to do with each other.

Kawakami: That sounds like a lot of nonsense (laughs). Kutaragi made the whole thing out to bigger than it really was, trying to use the situation to further his own ambitions.

Maruyama: That’s how it looks to me. He was really a crazy guy (laughs). Still, I don’t really know what went on with Nintendo.

Kawakami: But Kutaragi knows what really happened.

Maruyama: Right. I’m pretty sure Kutaragi knows the truth.

Massive thanks to Gessenkou and iYakku for their help with this translation!