How the development of Nintendo PlayStation let to the Zelda CD-i games.
For many fans of Nintendo, the three Zelda games that came out for the Philips CD-i are nothing short of sacrilege. The games are often referred to as the black sheep of the series, and many consider the titles to be Zelda-unworthy. Besides the fact that the gameplay is detested, the cutscenes in particular are a stumbling block for critics. Abominable animations adorn the first two Zelda CD-i games, and the last game in the series even featured live action scenes. However, of such an exasperating quality that it seems as if they were cut straight from a primary school film project. Zelda fans are typically inclined to scrub the games from their memory when they talk about the different iterations of this glorious gaming franchise. Nintendo also seems to regard the games as a black page from their past. The games are even not officially recognized by Nintendo as part of the Zelda series. Despite all this mischief, the Zelda games have gained some sort of cult status among gamers. Although in this case, it is one full of gloating, masochism and with a clear protectionist message that reads: Nintendo characters only belong on a Nintendo console.
The history of CD-i’s Zelda games, strangely enough, originates from a business battle between Sony and Nintendo. In the 1980s, Sony wasn’t a video game company. The company experienced a schism between a new and an old generation of engineers. During the 1980s, the tension grew between those for and those against the digital revolution. One company in particular drew attention to the proponents. This was the also Japanese company Nintendo. Nintendo had mass-produced a game console with the Famicom. It had almost single-handedly pulled the game industry out of the video game crash of 1983-1984. Nintendo managed to build a strong identity of its own, making it the market leader in the following years. This didn’t go unnoticed by Sony’s engineers. The Famicom was an advanced microcomputer system made accessible to families with a launch price that none of the competition could match. In addition, the Famicom was a great commercial success and Sony also had to admit that the console could deliver better graphics and gameplay than the MSX computers produced by Sony and other partners.
Without the management’s knowledge, Sony engineer Ken Kutaragi decided to enter into an agreement with Nintendo for the production of an audio chip. This chip, the SPC7000, was much more advanced than the chip used by Nintendo until then and allowed better sound quality and more versatile audio programming. Although the company’s new president, Norio Ohga, was initially outraged by Ken Kutaragi’s initiative, this anger faded away when it turned out that the deal was benefiting Sony due to the high sales of the SNES. Sony even became a privileged Nintendo partner. Mutual trust between the two Japanese companies grew. The relationship was so fruitful that Sony wanted to increase the collaboration between Sony and Nintendo on more fronts. In 1989, there was already talk of developing a CD-player for the SNES. This agreement replaced the obsolete cartridges with CDs and made it possible for Sony to access many Japanese households through the monopoly that the SNES had.
It had to be a 2-in-1 system that would combine the best of both worlds. This extension would allow games for the SNES to be released on both traditional cartridges and a new, specially developed ‘Super Disc’. This Super Disc would make it possible for Nintendo games to have better sound effects, sharper images and potentially larger game worlds. Under their agreement, Sony would develop and retain control over the ‘Super Disc’ format, with Nintendo thus effectively ceding a large amount of control of software licensing to Sony. Furthermore, Sony would also be the sole benefactor of licensing related to music and movie software that it had been aggressively pursuing as a secondary application. This was vital to Sony, which already owned its own record label, Sony Music. The main reason for Sony to release the Nintendo CD add-on was linked to this. Karaoke was a considerable business in Japan in the 1980s, with an annual income of over $500 million and over 100,000 karaoke boxes. Sony wanted to take its share of this. The company thought it could achieve this quickly by taking advantage of the SNES’s large penetration in Japanese living rooms. Pragmatically, they made an agreement with Nintendo to launch a home karaoke machine that ran CDs. This would allow them to take control of the karaoke market in one fell swoop. A deal that experts say was particularly favorable for Nintendo but also had its benefits for Sony. In 1991, a prototype was unveiled. The device should see the light of day under the name ‘Nintendo PlayStation’. However, the course of history determined otherwise. The ‘Super Disc’ was cancelled, and Sony decided to develop its own gaming console around its new CD-technology. It is now common knowledge that this Sony PlayStation would unleash a true revolution, and until now, its predecessors take the lion’s share of the gaming market.
So, Nintendo was confronted with a difficult existing state of affairs. The deal with Sony certainly hadn’t failed, Nintendo simply wanted a bigger piece of the pie and Sony was not willing to give it. In addition, Nintendo was not impressed by the technical capabilities of Sony’s new hardware. The mutual trust between the two companies was fading. Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi was wary of Sony at this point and started to see them as a potential competitor who would use the Nintendo penetration to acquire a jump start in the gaming marked. Although Sony had no real experience in video gaming, they were a giant in consumer electronics with the power of a multinational conglomerate. Furthermore, Sony, as the sole provider of the audio chip, the S-SMP, used in the SNES, required developers to pay for an expensive development tool from them. They tried to get more rights over the SNES and thereby undercut Nintendo’s right to self-determination over its hardware. The CD-add-on could be used as a Trojan horse to take over de market.
Several experts indicated that the contract that Sony and Nintendo concluded regarding the CD-add-on gave Sony for too much of an advantage over Nintendo. It gave them the power to develop what they wanted for the PlayStation and also gave Sony all royalties associated with their marketing. Nintendo could also lose control over their software production. The agreement therefore suffocated Nintendo and drove them into the hands of another electronica superpower.
The ‘Philips Shock’
Nintendo’s Yamauchi started to see a more favorable partner in Philips. Philips was not only the co-developer of the CD technology, it was also one of Sony’s biggest rivals in the entire industry, and Yamauchi thought he could play off Philips and Sony against each other. So to counter the proposed agreement, Yamauchi sent Nintendo of America president, Minoru Arakawa, and executive Howard Lincoln to the Netherlands to negotiate a more favorable contract with Philips. This was a risky negotiation strategy for Nintendo. The SNES cartridges were beginning to be a major constraint for game developers, and the Japanese toy maker lacked the technological know-how to develop a new storage technology on its own. Nintendo could not afford to be left empty-handed. To top it all off, Nintendo had aroused the interest of Sony in the gaming market through its collaboration, and would thus lay the breeding ground for a future competitor.
It is safe to say that the conversations between Nintendo and Philips took place simultaneously with the conversations that Nintendo and Sony were having with each other. The relations between Sony en Nintendo were already deteriorated. But largely behind the curtains. At CES in 1991, journalists were eagerly anticipating the truthfulness of all the whispers about the great new technology deal between Sony and Nintendo. Sony announced that they were the only ones with the weights to the Play Stations CD-ROM and that they would license the PlayStation’s CD-ROM to the entire software industry. At the CES, Sony announced they partnered up with Nintendo to develop the PlayStation. The console was announced to launch in late 1991 for a price of 400 dollars. This resulted in a lot of anger by Nintendo. This one-sided announcement from Sony was the last straw. Just a day after Sony’s announcement at CES, Nintendo announced their partnership with Philips. A surprise to the entire audience, including Sony. Every one was flabbergasted, and Sony felt violated and stabbed in the back. The whole episode would go down in history as the ‘Philips Shock’. After their announcement, Nintendo and Philips stayed completely silent. Not only with the press, but also with Sony. It brought on a period of stagnation and doubt about the entire video game venture, but above all, it marked the clear start of what would let to the Sony PlayStation.
Meanwhile, despite the silence, the contract between Philips and Nintendo was continued. The initial results of Philips’ take on the CD-add on were promising and more to the like of Nintendo. Philips designed an extension with a 32-bit processor as well as a CD-ROM system encased in plastic like a floppy disk. A feature that Sony had refused. However, also in this case, it would never come to the planned CD-Rom extension. Probably witnessing the poor reception of the Sega Mega-CD, Nintendo scrapped the idea of making an add-on entirely. Strangely enough, another provision in the contract between Philips and Nintendo would be fulfilled. The companies had agreed that Philips had the right to feature a total of 5 Nintendo characters (including Link, Princess Zelda, Ganon and Mario) in a few games for its CD-i multimedia device. And Philips decided to live up to this agreement.
Various sources suggest that, like Sony, Philips also decided to develop its own gaming console based on CD technology after the failed deal with Nintendo. The genesis of the CD-i is directly related to the add-on that Philips would develop for Nintendo. However, this is incorrect. The Philips CD-i was already in development when Philips and Nintendo were still negotiating the CD add-on for the SNES. As strange as it sounds nowadays, Philips also had more knowledge and experience when it came to gaming compared to Sony and was therefore easier to develop a console independently. The company had gained experience with the Videopacs and Magnavox systems, and also later on with the Philips MSX computers. However, it had already shifted its recourses to the audio and TV market. The interest from Philips for gaming was largely gone. The CD-i was far from a dedicated gaming console. It was rather an Edutainment and Video system, on which games could also be played. Dale DeSharone, former manager of the development team behind Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, stated in an interview in 2007 with Zeldauniverse.net:
‘It (CD-i) was just obviously not a game system, and Philips was actually obvious in telling us that they didn’t believe the market for this device was games. There was a subtle hostility toward games that I noticed from the upper echelon of execs at AIM. Philips thought that people would buy the machine for home educational purposes. This all changed after the launch of the CD-i platform because the only titles that actually sold were the game titles.’
The deal with Nintendo did not seem to hurt Philips. Apparently, the company had the pleasure of using the popular Nintendo intellectual property, but it didn’t have the burden of developing a CD player for the SNES. Now it’s time to cash in. Several developers pitched Philips with ideas. Philips, relying on the popularity of the most prominent Nintendo characters, commissioned many independent studios to develop games for the CD-i. Philips instructed its developers to make full use of the capabilities of the system. The games had to become the paragon of what CD-i had to offer, make full use of its comparative advantage. The large CD-storage, CD audio, and Full Motion Video capabilities made high bit rate music and animated cutscenes possible. In Zelda’s Adventure, the cut scenes are even brightened up by real live action video.
The implementation, however, accomplished the opposite of what Philips envisioned to achieve. The games were of a low standard. Besides the fact that Philips wasn’t planning to introduce the CD-i as a gaming console, this had two other reasons. Foremost, the developers simply lacked sufficient development time and money. The development budgets were not high, with around $600,000 per game. This resulted in the fact that in the case of the first two Zelda games, the developers had to maximize the quality of the games by combining the funding to develop only one game engine that would be used by both games. This was in 1991-1992 a low budget. Even at the time, a U.S. technical employee costs about $100,000 per year to support (salary, taxes, office space, equipment, insurance, administration costs). This was also a time when a 1 GB hard drive cost $3000. As a result, the development teams had to be kept small. The first two Zelda games were therefore made simultaneously with only a team comprising three programmers, one audio engineer / composer, four artists, one scriptwriter and a producer. A sharp contrast to the more than 500 developers who nowadays work for several years on only one triple A-game like Cyberpunk.
Secondly, developers had to deal with the severe technical limitations of the system. As mentioned, the CD-i was not primarily intended as a gaming console, so Philips did not opt for a potent CPU and GPU during development. The CD-i hardware was also plagued by significant delays and delays, which further delayed game development considerably. Once the hardware was up and running, it turned out to be dreadfully slow and severely limited. If you look, for example, at the scrolling in Link or Zelda, you’ll see that you can only scroll about 2 or 2.5 screens horizontally. This was dictated by the video memory available. This imposed a major constraint on game development. The levels had to be kept small, loading times were long and textures blurry. Worst of all, however, was the laggy steering.
The controls emphasized the limitations of the hardware to produce smooth gameplay even more. The CD-i is notorious for its unintuitive controllers, which emphasizes the fact that in 1991 Philips was more a TV builder than a console developer. The idea was that there was a specific controller for every use case, and Philips forced developers to implement support for every controller in their CD-i software. So, even with a controller that is mended for controlling business room presentations (second controller on the left) you could also play Zelda. One controller is even crazier than the other. Especially when using the wireless and not very reliable IR controllers, games were virtually unplayable. This formed a sharp contrast to ‘regular’ Nintendo games, which were characterized by responsive gameplay. It is an understatement to say that all these limitations provided a lack of immersive experience.
The limited financial budget and with the aforementioned technical challenges in mind, the developers had to get the most out of the system to produce an acceptable game. Fortunately, although to a limited extent, they could draw on Nintendo’s rich intellectual property. But unfortunately, the developers received little or no support from Nintendo. Nintendo only provided some input regarding the looks of the characters, but did not support the development whatsoever. As a result, the feel of the games was miles away from the Nintendo games.
Link: The Faces of Evil en Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon
The first Zelda games released for the CD-i were Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: Wand of Gamelon. As already stated, Philips apparently was not afraid of cannibalism and even convinced of a long-term sales success, as it released the games at the same time. Both games were created by third-party US-Russian studio Animation Magic, which outsourced the game’s cut-scenes to a Russian subsidiary (in the aftermath of the Cold War, this was nothing short of remarkable). The simultaneous development and shared graphics engine because of budget limitations, resulted in the fact that both games have the same look and feel.
Link: The Faces of Evil tells a typical hero-saves-princess story. The player takes control of Link, who goes on a quest to defeat Ganon and rescue Princess Zelda. Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon is more modern by changing the roles and has the player control Zelda, who goes out to save Link and defend her kingdom from Ganon. Both travel to a new world (Korodai and Gamelon, respectively) to thwart Ganon’s plans. Link: The Faces of Evil’s side-scrolling gameplay is clearly inspired by its Nintendo predecessor, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Although the animations seem to be from the Stone Age by today’s standards, the game received largely positive reviews. Due to its limited edition, the games are relatively rare nowadays.
Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon changes the roles and has the player control Zelda, who goes out to save Link and defend her kingdom from Ganon. Both travel to a new world (Korodai and Gamelon, respectively) to thwart Ganon’s plans. Reversing the traditional Link-saves-Zelda plot line, Wand of Gamelon stars Zelda as she adventures to rescue Link and her father the king who have not returned from their quest. As with Faces of Evil, the game was patterned most closely upon Nintendo’s previous side-scroller, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and again features outsourced Russian animation for all cutscenes. Despite the game’s similarly positive contemporary reception along with Faces of Evil, modern critics have almost unanimously derided and ridiculed the game for its inability to live up to modern expectations with the animated cutscenes again having become a particular target of negative reception.
After the limited success of the above Zelda games, Philips decided to change track for the third iteration. The collaboration with Animation Magic was discontinued. Although Philips itself had also gained the necessary experience with in-house development of CD-i titles, they again contracted a third-party developer, named Viridis, to make a sequel. Eight months after the release of the earlier games, Zelda’s Adventure saw the light of day. The game again follows a nontraditional Zelda-saves-Link plot line, but it uses a different game engine than Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon. Whereas the first two CD-i games were patterned on the side-scrolling Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Zelda’s Adventure took a top-down approach, much like the original Legend of Zelda. The game is set in the land of Tolemac (the attentive reader will recognize ‘Camelot’ spelled backward). Just like in The wand of Gamelon, Princess Zelda is the main protagonist who must save Link from Ganon. She achieves this by collecting the seven celestial signs. Zelda’s Adventure featured FMV cutscenes, but rather than using drawn animation, the game used live-action scenes. These work well on the laughing muscles because they are of an abominable quality and look like a cheap dress-up party. The gameplay was laggy, the levels tiny and all together the game got a poor reception by reviewers and gamers a like. Whereas some modern critics have given more nuanced reviews of the first two games, modern criticism for Zelda’s Adventure is unanimously negative. This poor quality contributed to low sales, and therefore, ironically, nowadays, you have to pay a hefty sum to get it on the second-hand market.
Was it all doom and gloom, then? Well no, there is also a CD-i game with a Nintendo character that was of an acceptable quality. In this case, the game came was developed by Philips itself. Hotel Mario came from an internal Philips studio outside the Netherlands and was released in 1994. It was not a typical Mario game. The studio was aware of the CD-i’s clunky controls and realized that the fluid platform gameplay that Mario had become known for could not be achieved on the CD-i. Therefore, they decided to make a Mario puzzle game with platform elements. The game is called Hotel Mario and is still quite entertaining and looks nice for CD-i standards. After a relative success, Philips began developing two other Mario games, Super Mario Wacky Worlds and Mario Takes America, but these were canceled due to an already diminishing interest in the CD-i system by consumers.
To judge the past with today’s knowledge is not entirely fair. With budgets of hundreds of millions and super fast chips, current game developers can produce photo-realistic graphics, crystal clear audio and smooth gameplay on everyone’s screen. Accustomed to this level of quality, any comparison with the games of the early 90s is flawed. There is nowadays little tolerance for the CD-i games. And it must be said, the games of its direct competitors like the SNES and later on the PS1 were nicer and played better. But yes, those were dedicated gaming consoles and Philips was far from a gaming company. Philips just didn’t go all in with their gaming aspirations, and developers consequently didn’t make the most of the possibilities that the treasure chest of Nintendo characters offered them. However, retrospectively, we should probably not judge them too harshly.
- Mellado, Fabien a.o., Playstation Anthology (2015).
- IGN staff (August 27, 1998). “History of the PlayStation”. IGN. Archived from the original on February 18, 2012. Retrieved March 8, 2012.
- Nintendo-Philips Deal Is a Slap at Sony – The New York Times, June 3, 1991.