What you see: A Nintendo PlayStation prototype dating to circa 1990-1992, and evidently the only surviving prototype from the abandoned collaborative project between Sony and Nintendo. Heritage Auctions has declined to give an estimate.
The expert: Valarie McLeckie, director of video games at Heritage Auctions.
Let’s start by talking about how this Sony-Nintendo PlayStation project came about. I take it they weren’t direct competitors in the early 1990s? Yeah, essentially. Sony had no intention of becoming a video game company, but today, it’s one of the largest.
How well-known was the Sony-Nintendo PlayStation project at the time it was live? That’s a bit hard to say. Usually, companies are pretty secretive about projects. It did get to a point where the public found out about it, but it was late in the process, when it began to fizzle.
How did Sony and Nintendo divide the labor on the PlayStation project? It was not so cut-and-dried. Nintendo had created the Super Nintendo [SNES] by this point. It was released in 1991 in North America. This [project] was actually designed to be an add-on to the [SNES] console to play CD-Rom-based media.
CD-Rom based media? They said originally it wasn’t going to play games. It was going to play different types of media–karaoke was an idea, or encyclopedias. That’s why Nintendo let its guard down. They didn’t see it as a way to play games. And they thought people wouldn’t want to wait 15 seconds to load a game on a disc.
Why did the Sony-Nintendo PlayStation project fail? Nintendo realized the benefits of the contract it had with Sony were weighted so heavily on Sony’s side that it could be disastrous if they moved forward. Essentially, Nintendo would not receive royalties with software sales using discs. They announced at the 1991 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that they’d work with Philips instead.
It’s believed that 200 Nintendo PlayStation prototypes were made, but what evidence do we have to support that number? I’m not really sure. It’s a ballpark number based on the number of prototypes made for game development purposes.
Ok, but why was it necessary for them to make 200 prototypes? Why couldn’t they get by with five, or a dozen? Did they need to make that many for the people who were in charge of quality control? Or was it more like with action figures, where the prototype goes through distinct stages? I’m sure those all were factors. A lot goes into the development of something like this. Different teams need to get their hands on it. One or five prototypes isn’t enough.
So, the 200 number–is that back-calculated from what was probably made, based on what we know about how other gaming consoles have been developed, or are there surviving documents that mention there being 200? I’m sure there probably is an internal document showing the exact number or alluding to it, but internal paperwork is hard to get your hands on. It’s never released outside the company, and when they’re done with it, they destroy it. Based on what people said at the time, 200 is a reasonable estimate.
How do we know that only one of these Nintendo PlayStation prototypes survive? If there were others out there, it’s pretty unlikely they would have left the company. When a game company is done with them [the prototypes] they typically trash them or take them home as a memento. It’s unlikely there’s another one out there, especially with something like this.
Olaf Olaffson, a higher-up at Sony, owned this Nintendo Playstation prototype. Do we know why he kept it? No. I looked to see if Olaffson made any comments in the past [about keeping the device]. From what I can see, he never acknowledged it, not publicly.
How did the prototype leave Olaffson’s possession and end up with its second owner? That is an interesting story, and kind of long. Olaffson left Sony to work for Advanta Corporation [a finance company; he was there from 1997 to 1999]. He left Advanta before it went bankrupt, and the prototype was swept up in the company assets. It was in a mystery box in the [bankruptcy] auction and it was bought by a very lucky person. That person has said they thought they were getting kitchen utensils–they didn’t think there was tech in there.
When did the second owner learn what they actually had? It wasn’t until years later when it was posted to Reddit. There was a myth about this console. Someone made a post about the Superdisc, and he [the owner] responded with pictures. Reddit was in awe over the thing. The pictures got it out there. People didn’t think it was real. Turns out it was. [The Reddit poster also filmed a short video that displays the prototype.]
Does the Nintendo PlayStation prototype work? Originally, it didn’t function and the sound didn’t work. Ben Heck [Benjamin Heckendorn, a computer engineer known for modifying consoles] rewired it and got it to where it was working fully and completely.
What’s your favorite detail of the Nintendo PlayStation prototype? The controller itself is pretty finalized. The only difference between it and a Super Nintendo controller, aesthetically speaking, is you see Sony PlayStation on the front, and “Nintendo” is in raised plastic on the back. It’s so wacky to see, but it looks exactly like a Nintendo controller.
What games can be played with the prototype? It does play Super Nintendo games. It was meant to be an enhancement [to the Super Nintendo] though they also said there would be a stand-alone version. It’s typical for companies not to come up wiht game ideas until the console is in a finalized state. Any games [made specifically] for it may have been destroyed or may never have been created. There is a user-made game [for the prototype], a homebrew game. I haven’t played it, but I hear it’s very cute.
What is the prototype like in person? The thing that stands out when you see it–it’s Nintendo and Sony. If you look at the two companies and the relationship between them now, it’s purely competitive. It’s sort of shocking to see this, almost like it shouldn’t exist. [Laughs.] The controller really is my favorite part. It stands out the most. It’s like your playing a Super Nintendo, but then you look down and you see the controller–it’s like an alternative universe where [the project] worked out. It works exactly the same [as an SNES controller] but it’s a weird feeling to see the controller in your hand.
How did you set the estimate for the Nintendo PlayStation prototype? What comparables did you look to? I don’t have an estimate. We fully trust the market with this. It’s hard to say what it’s worth until it’s sold.
Are you sure you can’t give me some sort of number to work with? We’re doing our best not to set unrealistic estimates on the piece, because there are a lot of rumors.
Have other game console prototypes gone to auction? Might their prices hint at what the Nintendo PlayStation prototype might do? Nothing compares to this. It’s an unreleased prototype. It was not purchased with the knowledge of what it was, and was never sold for what it’s possibly worth.
So, until now, game console prototypes have changed hands in private sales, not at auction? Ebay sales aside, that’s correct. We’re the first to dive into this as a formal market.
The Nintendo PlayStation prototype was restored to functionality, but how important is that? If it didn’t work, would it be worthless? For me, I don’t care if it works or not. You want it for the historical value. It’s a Nintendo-Sony PlayStation. There’s not going to be another one like this.
Why will this Nintendo prototype stick in your memory? Because it’s the closest thing to a unicorn I’ve ever seen in person. It might be the only chance in my lifetime that I get to see it. I’m really savoring my time working with it.
Images are courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
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