Reflecting on the PlayStation’s 20th Anniversary
In the universe’s ongoing campaign to force me to graciously accept the passage of time, this last week saw the arrival of the 20th anniversary of Playstation’s launch in the U.S. I’ve written a bit before about my affinity for the original PSX console (See Rayman!), and I can easily call it the console I’ve owned that has been the most memorable to me.
I suppose I was the right age for the PSX when it hit. It’s strange to think of it today, but gaming (at least on consoles) up until that point had been dominated by a focus on children’s entertainment in the U.S., which contrasts with today’s gaming landscape, where the biggest budget efforts target an 18-35 year old male demographic with high levels of disposable income. Playstation was the inversion point, as Sony realized that there was an emerging market of young adults who had grown up on video games as children, and there was no reason that they couldn’t continue to be gamers. Consequently, they put a lot of effort into pushing titles that would appeal to the maturing tastes of these young gamers. Nintendo, meanwhile, seemingly chose to focus on inducting the newest batch of kids into the world of gaming.
When these consoles released, I was a few years off from being a teenager, so I could have gone either way here. Even at the time, I don’t think the “kiddiness” of Nintendo’s games ever really bothered me. I mean, the N64 did have some really great titles, like Star Fox, Zelda, and Mario Kart. But in the end, I’m glad that my parents, for whatever reason, picked up the Playstation instead of the N64 that one Christmas. There were so many great games that resonated with my evolving world view at the time. For instance, I’ve written before on how and why Final Fantasy VII seems to resonate so strongly with gamers of a certain age (The Final Fantasy VII Remake and What It Means to Me).
In addition, the arrival of CDs were a great thing for gaming. I think so many of the reasons the system was a big event for me could be tied the distinct advantages that these discs brought to the scene. Up until that point, the primary expense in making a game went into the manufacturing of ROM cartridges. The cost-savings on the vastly cheaper CDs translated to greatly lower prices on store shelves. Those green-labelled Greatest Hits releases of popular games at $20 meant that my meager savings at the time could go a lot farther in buying games. The N64 analogue, Player’s Choice, had games retailing for double that.
Final Fantasy IX is my favorite of the series.
The low price of the CD medium was also a boon for third parties as evidenced by how they flocked to the system. For cartridge based games, failure to live up to sales expectations could bring a company to near ruin since a lot of money had been blown on producing costly cartridges that weren’t selling. With CDs, these losses weren’t nearly as severe, and, consequently, many developers were willing to take greater risks, and this led to a greater amount of diversity in the games that were released for the console. While there were a lot of quintessential games that were released on the SNES and the Genesis, the 16-bit era was also the era of the “me too” game, where too many developers were focused on making copycats of the few innovative blockbuster titles, and this led to a glut of mascot platformers, shallow beat’em ups, and lame Mortal Kombat clones.
On the PSX, there were many series born around taking risks on new ideas instead of playing it safe with the tried and true. Some of these include Resident Evil with its focus on atmosphere and suspense, Wipeout with its focus on high-speed, high-precision racing, Twisted Metal’s high-octane car combat, Tomba with its mix of platforming, RPG, and Metroid-style worldbuilding, and Tomb Raider which revolutionized the action/adventure genre with its mix of 3D platforming, combat, and puzzle solving. This list could honestly go on for a while. And even the games that were cloning the germ of other groundbreaking series tried to be innovative in their own ways. For instance, you wouldn’t have Silent Hill and Parasite Eve without Resident Evil, but Silent Hill created its own identity with its focus on psychological horror, as did Parasite Eve which fused survival horror with Squaresoft RPG design.
Crash Team Racing is a legendary kart game.
This was also the era when gamers became really obsessed with story in games. There had been story-driven games before on consoles (like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest) and, of course, adventure games like King’s Quest and Monkey Island were huge on PC, but with the relatively immense storage space that CDs offered, a new generation of heavily cinematic Japanese game design came to rule the roost. The biggest directors of this era were veteran Japanese developers that were heavily influenced by their interest in Hollywood-style storytelling, including Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil), and Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy). The influence of their cinematic approach to game design still dominates today’s big budget gaming landscape which gives just as much weight to storytelling as it does core gameplay mechanics.
Thus, Playstation was a major turning point in gaming. I often wonder if I would still be as interested in gaming today if I didn’t have PSX during my early teen years. It’s not so much because of the mature edge that it was marketed on, but simply because it enabled the birth of so many of the series that I love. If nothing else, I don’t think my tastes in games would be as developed as they are, which is to say that I don’t think I would be as interested in the variety of games that I am.