Hardware Classics: Uncovering The Tragic Tale Of The Philips CD-i
23rd Jul 2018 12:00
Jack of all trades, master of none?
Compared to the relatively conservative video game hardware market of the modern era, the '90s seems like a wasteland of failed systems and also-rans. The 3DO, Atari Jaguar, Commodore CD32, NEC PC-FX and Sega 32X were all pieces of hardware which, at launch, found themselves positioned as the next big thing in interactive entertainment, yet all failed to live up to their promise and consequently endured short lifespans thanks to consumer apathy.
You can add to that rather pitiful list the Philips CD-i, but what makes this particular machine so fascinating is its long history and – of course – the fact that it is one of the few non-Nintendo platforms in the history of the games industry to play host to officially licenced Nintendo games – but more on those shortly.
Despite launching in 1991, the CD-i's origins actually stretch back to the mid-'80s. The compact disc – a digital storage medium created jointly by Dutch firm Philips and Sony – had made sizeable impact in the world of music, and was beginning to make itself known in the realm of computing; its ability to hold large amounts of data (as well as high-quality music and video) made it attractive to developers, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that as soon as the cost price of CD drives dropped, the format would take over from the likes of expensive cartridges, slow-loading cassette tapes and volatile, low-capacity floppy discs.
The CD-i hardware was refreshed several times, with the 450 system being positioned as an entry-level machine with a gaming focus.
With this in mind, Philips and Sony decided to work together to lay down the foundations for a new CD standard which would leverage the format's potential for multimedia functionality. Work on this 'Green Book' spec began in 1986 and was finalised at the close of 1988. By this point, NEC had already released a CD-ROM drive for its popular PC Engine console and gaming giant Sega was also investigating the potential of the compact disc; however, the fact that Philips and Sony convinced Japanese veteran Matsushita – then the world's largest electronics company – to join its new 'interactive CD' alliance spoke volumes; Matsushita would later exit this trio but there remained a real sense of optimism about the format. For Philips, there was a hope that CD-i (as the format would come to be known) would create a nexus for the worlds of music, movies, games, education and digital entertainment. Instead of buying a CD player, VHS player or games console, consumers would simply invest in a single machine that could cover all three bases. Curiously though, the company decided to avoid mentioning the potential for gaming in its early promotional material, instead aping Commodore's messaging around its ill-fated CDTV system and pushing the more worthy elements of its feature set, such as interactive CD albums and encyclopedias. The first version of the console – the boxy 205 – looked exactly like a CD player, and only had one joystick port. The controller that came with it was totally unsuitable for gaming, although over time hardware revisions would attempt to fix this oversight, as well as add a second controller port for two-player software.
The optional Digital Video Cart gave the CD-i MPEG-1 capabilities - as you can see from the rust, it hasn't aged all that well.
Upon its launch in 1991, the CD-i was met with a muted response, something the company later acknowledged was down to poor marketing and the fact that it generally ignored games as a means of getting the system into homes. Another major issue for Philips was the fact that by 1991, the CD-ROM war was really beginning to hot up; Sega's Mega CD arrived at the end of the year in Japan and systems like the 3DO would soon start gobbling up column inches worldwide. Meanwhile, the CD-i's 'Green Book' spec was drastically inferior to what true 'next gen' CD-based consoles were about to offer. For example, data streamed from a CD was limited to 170K/sec, around half what the 3DO would later manage. Philips had been bested by the fast-moving nature of home technology – and there arguably hasn't been a period in gaming history where tech moved as fast as it did in the early '90s.
Despite a lacklustre start and the arrival of more powerful systems on the market, Philips persevered. A revised model – the 400 – clad the hardware in more console-like clothing, and the system finally got a proper joypad. The release of the Digital Video Cart – which included an MPEG-1 chipset and allowed CD-i users to play Video CDs as well as enjoy high-quality FMV in certain games – gave the machine a real selling point; lest we forget, this was a time before DVDs had arrived and while Video CD movies suffered from compression problems, they represented a definite step up from VHS. The cart not only turned the CD-i into a valid replacement for your ageing VHS player, but also added 1.5MB of RAM which could be utilised by developers to create better games.
Of course it has a version of Tetris.
Slowly but surely, Philips awoke to the potential of gaming on its platform, and the standard of software rose. Titles like Burn:Cycle, Chaos Control, The Apprentice, Lost Eden, The 7th Guest, Creature Shock, Flashback and Kether proved that with the right amount of effort, CD-i was capable of hosting semi-respectable titles. However, it is the handful of Nintendo games available for the platform which are perhaps the most well known – if not for all the right reasons.
Before we dig into these releases, it's worth looking at exactly how the likes of Mario and Link ended up on the CD-i. Sony's work with Philips on the format in the '80s wasn't just for the good of humanity; like its Dutch partner, it too wanted to capitalize on the explosion of interest in interactive entertainment and established a publishing arm – Sony Imagesoft – to this end. Sony was, by all accounts, jealous of the kind of domination that Nintendo had achieved in the Japanese games market, and hardware like the groundbreaking Game Boy caused such consternation in the halls of Sony HQ that it was reported that one engineer resigned from his post in shame, with the general feeling being that Sony should have used its burgeoning Walkman range to launch a similar device, but had been beaten to the punch.
The rear of the 450 model in all its glory.
Despite this growing animosity, Sony was wise enough to know that it couldn't force its way into the games market and saw the obvious potential in becoming a hardware partner with Nintendo, the world's biggest gaming brand. It designed and manufactured the SPC700 chip at the heart of the Super Nintendo's S-SMP audio processing unit, lending the 16-bit system with the kind of music that even CD-based systems struggling to better. Around the same time that the Super Nintendo was in its development phase, Sony signed another agreement with Nintendo to create a CD-ROM drive for the console, using the CD-ROM/XA standard that had been authored by Sony and Philips.
For Sony, this deal represented a way into the games industry – in addition to creating a bolt-on drive for the SNES, it would also create a stand-alone console known as the PlayStation. As part of the proposed deal, it would also retain licencing rights to the 'Super Disc' format that both variants of the hardware would use; effectively, Sony would make money off software released for Nintendo's system. The rest is, of course, well-documented history; Nintendo rightly deduced that Sony was simply using the agreement to satisfy its ambition to gain a meaningful foothold in the games arena, and in 1991 it publicly broke off the engagement at the Consumer Electronics Show, announcing that it had penned a new deal with Philips to create CD hardware for Nintendo's home console - the day after Sony had revealed its plans for the SNES CD-ROM.
Lost Eden was high on CGI and low on gameplay, but Stéphane Picq's soundtrack remains incredible.
The hardware never happened, and the SNES PlayStation became the stuff of legend – until very recently, when a working prototype surfaced which made it clear just how far development had progressed before it was shelved. Sony would lick its wounds and create a new PlayStation system, but Nintendo would ultimately pull the plug on the CD-ROM hardware for the SNES – ironically because it felt the CD revolution, as spearheaded by the likes of the CD-i – had failed to make an impact. Still, it was now indebted to Philips, and as a means of extracting itself from the proposed deal, it allowed the Dutch firm to use some of its most recognisable properties to bolster the CD-i's pitiful games library.
The end result was a selection of games which don't do the source material justice; Hotel Mario hardly ranks as one of the plumber's best outings and although both Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon have an interesting place in gaming history, they're generally regarded as poor takes on the famous Legend of Zelda franchise. Zelda's Adventure is even more of a disaster, while Mario's Wacky Worlds never got as far as store shelves. While the deal resulted in some modest software sales for Philips, these games did little to endear the CD-i to Nintendo's audience and certainly didn't convince the masses that the platform was the future of gaming. Philips continued to pour money into promoting the platform but it was ultimately for nought; even the introduction of basic internet connectivity via the CD-Online service wasn't enough to give the CD-i a stay of execution. Subscribe to Nintendo Life on
Philips eventually abandoned the system in 1996, with around 570,000 units sold globally. It is believed that the project cost the company around a billion dollars, a reminder of just how high the stakes were in the games industry at the time. While the CD-i is utterly fascinating from a historical viewpoint, it's a difficult machine to recommend today, even if you're a seasoned lover of retro. So many of its key games are FMV releases lacking in engaging gameplay; relics from a time when developers seriously believed that gamers would be satisfied with basic interaction as long as live actors and CGI sequences were included. Another rock block for potential collectors today is the fact that the lithium battery which powers the CD-i's 8k of non-volatile memory dies over time, and many systems won't even boot up properly unless a drastic and invasive modification is undertaken. This fact – combined with a lack of decent software and the surprisingly high value of machines on the secondary market – makes CD-i one to avoid, unless you're hell-bent on collecting every piece of gaming hardware ever.
Philips abortive attempt to crack the games market seems destined to be little more than a footnote; a well-intentioned move to unify the music, movie and gaming mediums in one place, but one that was almost doomed from the start. But hey, at least it has Mario and Zelda, right? Right?