The Polygon Count: A PlayStation Retrospective (published on The Gamer’s Challenge)

The original PlayStation; can one console be given enough plaudits?. Who would have thought a simple research engineer relatively green to the video gaming industry back in the early 90s, would upstart Sony into creating one of the most successful gaming platforms in computer game history.

Little refute can be made on the impact of original  Sony PlayStation to the gaming world  at large, surprising many sceptics  who initially believed that the system would merely add to the status quo of  terrible 3-D based gaming formats. The PlayStation boasted a 32 bit processor, the ability to render real time 3-D technology at 360,000 polygons per second as well as the use of texture mapping to create three dimensional character models and allow for fully interactive environments which added a third dimension to gameplay.

The concept for the PlayStation was initially the pipedream of one of Sony’s underlings, Ken Kutaragi, who then was a just a simple research engineer in the lower strata of the company’s management structure. From witnessing his daughter play the Famicom (the Japanese NES) he began looking into the current gaming fads at the time and was shocked by the profit made by such companies as Sega and Nintendo.  He believed it was in Sony’s best interest follow suit, and was convinced that he could utilize the CD-ROM technology manufactured by Sony at the time, into creating the next generation of gaming consoles.  Kutaragi took this idea to Sony’s senior executives in place at the time, who were already convinced that any forays into the gaming industry were “only suitable for toy companies”, and were quick to reject it.

This dismissal however only strengthened Kutaragi’s resolve, and with this stern rejection from his bosses, decided to take his idea to Nintendo, who wished to collaborate with Sony to create a CD-ROM peripheral for the SNES that would rival the Sega-CD. However the venture was abruptly halted due to Nintendo’s apprehension over the licencing rights of the system, and would later make plans with Phillips on creating a similar add-on behind closed doors. With the discovery of Nintendo’s shift in partnership, Kutaragi became even more determined to get this project off the ground and after appealing to Sony’s Chairman Norio Oga, who sympathized with Kutaragi’s frustration, got the green light on the project to continue on the development of the console as a standalone system.

But of course it would take more than just impressive hardware and the promise of an innovative gaming format for the PlayStation to take off.  In 1993 Sony put together a subsidiary called Sony Computer Entertainment to handle the development and marketing side of the system.  Through this subdivision, Sony closely examined the current market trends of the gaming culture at large as well as the reasons for the lack of success of other previous 3-D based consoles such as the Atari Jaguar. From acknowledging the poor 3-D game line up from each of these consoles at the time, it was decided that it would be a better priority to secure  support from third party game developers first, before considering  the system’s launch. They began a campaign to contract these developers in producing games for the system, which, as expected, were heavily against the proposal due to the expensive requirement to program games matching the console’s software. It wouldn’t be until late 1993 that the developers would have a change of heart when witnessing how 3-D technology was utilized in arcade titles such as Virtua fighter which showcased 3-D incorporated gaming and how such technology had a potential to be applied in home consoles.

But what put PlayStation on the map, particularly in the UK, was the shrewd marketing campaigns that tailored their game content for the young adult market, which at the time was under represented. Most of the 2-D gaming industry had developed its mainstay by gearing its content towards younger audiences, with cartoon-like mascots such as Sonic and Mario and gameplay that had a focus on simplicity. This isolated a broader audience, who were looking for a grittier and more adult gaming experience.

The release of the PlayStation was perfectly timed at a period in gaming when most of the 90s youth, who had grown up on 16-bit generations as children, were making the transition into their teens and young adulthood, and now had demands for more mature content that was now made available from what the PlayStation had to offer (with such titles as Ridge Racer, Tomb Raider and Toshinden. ) As well as the graphical upgrade and launch titles that gave the console a fresher and professional presentation, many onlookers began to realise that the PlayStation could really deliver a new gaming experience in place of the other attempts that failed.

What we got was probably one of the most innovative consoles of the 1990s which, while not  quite the first of its kind,  was the first console to effectively manage the transition from 2-D to 3-D gaming, as well as providing CD-based games from third party developers and publishers that could fully utilize the systems much touted specs.  A simple idea first thought by most to be success in a pigs eye, became one of the gaming industry’s biggest shift in graphical and gaming paradigms.

When reminiscing my youth with the PlayStation in the early part of 1997, a fusillade of memories of my gaming experience bombarded me in all its polygon glory like my own mental image of a poorly rendered Reboot episode. Memories such as the early use of flat-shading used to represent the character models like weird computerised origami figures. The First Person Shooters promptly ported from the PC that had that awkward compromise with the shoulder buttons to control the camera, due to analogue sticks still being in development at the time. And let’s not forget the weird advertisement campaigns attached to the system such as Chris Cunningham’s promotional advert on the mental wealth of gaming.

My Experience with the console when I first had access to it did not extend outside the main movers and shakers, such as Resident Evil 2 and Final Fantasy 7 (with a few exceptions such as Abe’s Oddysee and Armored Core).  Like most, my youthful impressionability fell victim to the garish promotional adverts at the time as well as a media focus that insured the more popular games were pushed to the forefront.

But hidden behind the slew of derivative football games by Electronic Arts and the tiresome 3D0’s Army Men releases are a small vestige of unique games that at the time became nothing more than pearls before swine. Some titles such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night would see a re-release as downloadable game content on consoles such as the Xbox 360 (or PSN if you’re lucky enough to live in  the United States or Japan). However there still remains a large subset of games that remain untouched by these current mediums and it wouldn’t be until my late teens that I fully released what the PlayStation had to offer.

Of course  most of the more worthwhile titles were kept neatly out of reach  on the shores of Japan and the US, which I was assume was mainly because they were not in-keeping with the UK’s  less impressionable demographic at the time ( surely they must have gotten bored by  seeing the same re-release  of  Fifa 96 at some point). The system gave us some great overseas classics such as Tail of the Sun, Xenogears and Brave Fencer Mushasi, as well as a scant selection of titles localized for Pal regions that were kept well under most people’s radars. Most of these obscure games had some great gameplay on offer, however there are also a few other titles that while outright horrendous, have some very interesting history attached to their inevitable failure.

In this fortnightly retrospective I will be delving into some of the best and worst games of the system that most people raised up by Metal Gear Solid and Syphon Filter will probably have never have heard off.  In two weeks’ time I will delving into one interesting title that any avid adventure fan’s will surely get their teeth into.