The history of gaming is littered with examples of gaming consoles that were conceived, designed, and even built without ever reaching the market.
Some had makers who got cold feet at the last minute. Others were eclipsed by other possibilities their developers found more attractive. Still others fell prey to corporate politics and intrigue. And sometimes, somebody simply had enough sense to say, “Maybe a console that can only play games like Night Trap is a bad idea.”
These are their stories.
1. Nintendo Play Station
This is exactly what it sounds like: a videogame console co-developed by Nintendo and Sony. In 1988, before the Super Famicom/Nintendo had even been released, Nintendo was already exploring the idea of creating a CD-ROM peripheral for it. The technology was new and exciting. Replacing ROM cartridges with optical media promised vast increases in storage space and huge decreases in production cost. The bloated, vulture-encircled corpse of the Sega CD did not yet exist to provide its baleful warning.
Nintendo couldn’t go it alone, though. Compact discs were quite new at the time – in 1988, it had only been six years since the first commercially released CD, and three years since the first CD-ROM. Instead, Nintendo formed a partnership with one of the two electronics companies that had jointly developed the technology, Japanese electronics giant Sony.
A deal was struck. Sony would develop a CD-ROM add-on for the Super NES using a new CD-ROM format that could efficiently access visual data, audio, and game code simultaneously. In June of 1991, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Sony revealed one of the fruits of their labors – the “Play Station,” (note the space) a combined system that played both Super NES cartridges and “SNES-CD” games.
The next day, Nintendo announced at CES that they were terminating their partnership with Sony and would instead be developing a CD-based add-on for the Super NES system with the other company that had co-developed CD technology – Dutch electronics giant Philips.
Under their agreement, Sony controlled the SNES-CD format, which meant that Sony, not Nintendo, would control games licensing for Nintendo’s CD add-on. Nintendo, famously persnickety about controlling what was released for its systems, didn’t like this. Why they ever agreed to it in the first place isn’t clear, but Nintendo eventually thought better of it and signed a more congenial deal with Philips in May of 1991. Next month’s Consumer Electronics Show was the natural place to unveil this exciting new partnership. And so, like a pro wrestler who doesn’t realize his tag-team partner has turned heel and is coming up behind him with a steel chair, the Play Station marched obliviously to its doom.
What was Sony to do? Well, they say the best revenge – at least nowadays, when duels to the death or tricking someone into eating their own children is frowned upon – is living well. Sony took what they had, developed it further, and made their own console. And they already had a name.
Meanwhile, the SNES CD drive to be developed by the Dutch floozy Nintendo jilted Sony for never materialized. This did not prevent Phillips from using one of the benefits they received in their contract with Nintendo, the right to use Nintendo characters in games for Phillips’ own ill-fated CD-i system. This resulted in such timeless classics as Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon and Link: The Faces of Evil being added to the Legend of Zelda canon. Such are the wages of treachery.
2. Atari Panther
The Atari Jaguar surprised many when it appeared in 1993. Atari still made consoles? Atari’s last stab at the console market had been 1987’s Atari XEGS, a glorified repackaging of one of Atari’s cheaper lines of home computers. The last Atari console anybody had heard of, the 7800, dated back to 1984. The last Atari console anybody liked had come out in 1977. The handheld Atari Lynx seemed like the last pitiful vestige of a dead empire, Trebizond to the Atari 2600’s Rome.
(All 12 year-olds thought in metaphors based on Byzantine history in 1993. The American education system was better back then.)
That’s where the Atari Panther comes in. Or didn’t.
The 32-bit Panther began development alongside the 64-bit Atari Jaguar in 1988. It was intended to have a 1991 release date, allowing Atari to compete directly with Nintendo and Sega in the home market with a system that would, at least on paper, be significantly more powerful than the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis. A few years after that, the Jaguar project would come to fruition and Atari would follow up the Panther with an even mightier system.
Perversely, the Panther – and Atari’s chance to remain a serious presence in home gaming hardware in the early 90s – was killed not by failure, but by success. The more powerful Jaguar was expected to take considerably longer to develop than the Panther, naturally enough, giving the Panther a comfortable period of time in the sun before being eclipsed by its successor. Instead, the Jaguar’s development went so well that its expected completion date moved up significantly, spurring Atari to drop the Panther and focus all its efforts on the more powerful system. Thus, Atari’s reentry to the console market was pushed from 1991 to the end of 1993.
At least three games were developed for the Panther prior to its cancellation: Cybermorph, Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy, and Raiden. All three were quickly converted into Jaguar games – in fact, the first two constituted the Jaguar’s entire launch library. So the first two games to show the world the awesome power of the 64-bit Jaguar were actually ports of 32-bit games!
Would the Panther would have made a bigger splash in 1991 than the Jaguar did in 1993? (Insert your own joke about the unintentionally hilarious shape of the Jaguar’s CD add-on here.) Perhaps not. Along with its launch library, another hand-me-down the Jaguar inherited from the Panther was its infamous controller, an ergonomic nightmare that looked like it was spawned after a drunken Sega Genesis controller impregnated a typewriter, The launch titles passed on to Jaguar wouldn’t have exactly set the world on fire even in 1991. And aside from the 2600, Atari’s track record regarding game consoles is not very encouraging. Still, you never know. Had the Jaguar taken longer to develop, perhaps we’d all be playing Pac-Man’s gritty survival horror reboot Pac: Harvest of Souls on our Atari Ocelots today.
3. Panasonic M2
The 3DO, brainchild of Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, was one of the also-ran consoles of the early 90s. 3DO was not a single device; instead, it was a set of hardware specifications created by The 3DO Company that different companies could license to build their own 3DO-compatible machines. It boasted a CD-ROM drive, advanced technical capabilities that put it well ahead of its 16-bit competition, and extremely low licensing fees for games that made it more enticing to developers.
Released in 1993, it survived only three years. Raking in royalties by licensing out your design to other companies who’ll do the actual manufacturing sounds attractive – but it means your licensees have to actually make a profit selling the system instead of eating an initial loss and then making it up from game licensing fees. Which is why the first version of the 3DO, made by Panasonic, launched with a ludicrous price tag of $699. Mind you, that’s 1993 dollars, or about $1,150 today. A lackluster library with an abundance of FMV-heavy titles didn’t help either.
Undeterred, the 3DO Company announced even more powerful successor, the M2. It was initially conceived as an add-on for the 3DO, before being redesigned as a standalone system. (Presumably after someone in the office finally worked up the courage to ask Trip how many units they could hope to sell of a device whose potential market was limited to the eight people who already owned a 3DO.)
In 1995, however, The 3DO Company had had a change of heart about remaining in the hardware business, and decided to cut its losses to focus on game development instead. The M2 was sold to Japanese electronics company Matsushita, who continued work on its development until 1997.
The system came tantalizingly close to actually coming out. By the time it was canceled, actual gameplay screenshots of one of its planned launch titles, WARP’s horror game D2, had been released. Unfortunately, at 11th hour Matsushita decided it couldn’t compete with the likes of Nintendo, Sega, and Sony and pulled the plug.
This was not quite the end of the M2. Its hardware was the basis of Konami’s M2 arcade board used for several Konami arcade games in the late 90s, such as Battle Tryst (less interesting than it sounds) and Polystars. Aspects of M2 technology also found their way into other Matsushita products, such as office multimedia devices, interactive information kiosks, and – in a final indignity – coffee vending machines.
The different systems in this article vary widely in their legacy. The SNES-CD accidentally spawned the Sony PlayStation and its successors, radically altering the course of gaming history, while the M2 and Panther vanished almost without a trace.
And then there’s the Control-Vision, which managed to cause a nationwide moral panic and congressional hearings about violence in video games without ever being released.
In 1985, the company Axlon and developer Tom Zito began developing a videogame console, originally designated NEMO, that used VHS tapes rather than cartridges. These were not your typical VHS tapes – they contained computer data for the game, and multiple audio and video tracks the NEMO could switch between at will so that the game could respond to the player’s input. The audio and video from the tape could then be combined with more interactive images generated by the console.
The potential was obvious. In an era where the Super Mario Brothers had mustaches because their sprites were too small and crude to depict a mouth, NEMO could provide full motion video of live actors! Hasbro wanted a piece of the action and invested several million dollars. In 1986, Tom Zito and company made three short demo games to demonstrate the potential of the technology before following up with the first full-length game, the interactive movie Night Trap.
Yes, that Night Trap. The 1992 Sega CD game that helped launch a national uproar about video games that still echoes to this day. Zito followed Night Trap up with another future refugee to the Sega CD, Sewer Shark.
By 1988, however, Hasbro had lost confidence in the project and backed out just months before the NEMO – now dubbed the Control-Vision – was supposed to release. High manufacturing costs would meant a planned retail price of $299, unlikely to be an attractive prospect to consumers when the NES was better-known and $100 cheaper. The failure of other VHS-based consoles like the Action Max may have sapped enthusiasm for the project as well. Or maybe some far-sighted soul at Hasbro simply realized that barely-interactive quasigames starring the girl from Diff’rent Strokes were not the future of gaming.
But while Hasbro may have lost faith in the idea of interactive movies, Tom Zito had not. He purchased the rights to the Control-Vision games and waited for gaming technology to catch up with his vision. It did just a few years later, with the advent of CD-ROM based gaming peripherals and the vastly increased storage space they provided – enough space to contain large quantities of full-motion video. Hideously low-res video, perhaps, but video nonetheless.
His company Digital Pictures released a whole series of FMV-based games for the Sega CD, 3DO, and home computers, including such immortal classics as Prize Fighter, Slam City With Scottie Pippen, Ground Zero: Texas, and Marky Mark: Make My Video, as well as ports of the two games he’d made prior to the cancellation of the Control-Vision: Sewer Shark and Night Trap. The latter shocked moralists with its frank full-motion video depiction of benightgowned young women being menaced by vampires, bringing a new era of political scaremongering about video games, and the rest is history.
Rarely has a console been so aptly named as the Phantom. At the start of 2003, a newly founded company called Infinium Labs announced plans for a new game console that, instead of playing games on CDs or cartridges, would download them directly from the Internet via a broadband connection. Old hat now, but back when consoles with any online functionality at all were a novelty and Steam was a glorified Counterstrike patcher, that was a bold idea.
It would revolutionize gaming. It could play PC games, while providing the simplicity and ease of use of a console. It would be the most powerful console on the market. It would have 5.1 surround sound. It would cost less than $400. It would put a library of thousands of games at your fingertips, instantly. It would be available in little more than a year. It would probably provide a limitless source of cold fusion energy and bring lasting peace to the Middle East, too.
To its credit, the gaming community and press reacted with skepticism to these promises – skepticism that would be validated when the Phantom failed to appear on Infinium Labs’ announced release date some time in early 2004. And its announced release date of November 2005. And its announced release date of January 2006. And… Well, you get the idea.
Meanwhile, Infinium Labs was busy suing computer news website HardOCP for publishing a critical article, and then failing to comply with court orders to produce financial documents during the subsequent legal proceedings. And being fined for stock fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. And stiffing their office landlord and other creditors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And repeatedly failing to even show up in court after being sued by said creditors. And paying employees with increasingly worthless Infinium Labs stock instead of actual money. And finding a new CEO after founder Tim Roberts signed a consent decree promising to not serve as an officer of a publicly traded company for five years to avoid possible federal prosecution for the aforementioned stock fraud. And… Well, you get the idea.
By 2008, Infinium Lab – renamed Phantom Entertainment, perhaps the most unintentionally accurate company name ever – had suffered net losses exceeding $70 million and appeared no closer to actually producing a console than before. They decided to scale back their ambitions and instead release the Phantom “lapboard,” a combined wireless mouse and keyboard designed for use on a couch. Makes sense for something originally intended to be used with a console style-device plugged into a television that could also play PC games, right? What made less sense was paying Phantom’s asking price of $130 for the thing. Few did.
Phantom Entertainment apparently still exists. At least, their website does, though it hasn’t been updated since late 2011. Perhaps their webmaster got tired of being paid in stock.