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The History of the Philips CD-i, Failed PlayStation Ancestor

This ill-fated CD console produced some amazingly off-brand Nintendo games.

Remember the Russian-animated Zelda game from the Philips CD-i? (Photo: ミントキュア/Youtube)

Behold the Philips CD-i! It’s got Mario! Zelda! Movies on CD! Uh… interactive encyclopedias! What could go wrong? Apparently, everything.

Born out of the same aborted efforts to create a CD-based console for Nintendo that would eventually produce the Sony Playstation, the CD-i was an ambitious attempt to create a multi-purpose home entertainment console. However, instead of kickstarting the trend of CD-based gaming, the CD-i turned into one of the great failures of the video game industry, reportedly costing Philips near a billion dollars by the time it was discontinued.

Nonetheless, it did end up fostering some amazingly idiosyncratic (and widely reviled) pieces of video game history.

The origins of the CD-i can be traced back to the mid-1980s. In 1986, Dutch technology company Philips and Japanese electronics giant Sony joined forces to develop an extension of their previously codified Compact Disc format. The new version would provide an interactive experience to users, including not just music and text, but programmable data that could produce graphics and video. Called CD-i Discs, the new format opened the door to a number of new media uses for the medium, including creating games.

One of the original consumer CD-i consoles. (Photo: Evan-Amos/Public Domain)

From its inception, the format was technically owned by Philips, and anyone who wanted to create a machine capable of employing the CD-i encoding methods needed to license the privilege from the company. By 1990, Philips was selling kits to developers to start promoting and building up interest in the format, and one of the interested companies turned out to be none other than Japanese video game company Nintendo.

At the time, the cartridge-based Super Nintendo console, along with the Sega Genesis, was the king of the home video game… game, but the industry was moving toward CDs as the preferred format. Near the end of the 80s, Nintendo entered into a deal with Philips and Sony to create a CD-i-based add-on to the Super Nintendo, which ironically would have been called the “Play Station.”

Unfortunately, the SNES-CD never came to be. While Sega released the Mega-CD add-on to the Genesis in 1991 (using a different technology than the CD-i), Nintendo decided to break off its deal with both Sony (which was working on the hardware) and Philips (which provided the CD-i format). However, Sony and Philips had already invested development in CD-i consoles. In 1991, the first Philips CD-i machine aimed at consumers hit the shelves.

Unlike the gaming-focused consoles that Nintendo and Sega were marketing, the Philips CD-i positioned itself as the first all-around home multimedia platform. Sure, there were games, but the machine could also be used as an interactive learning platform via educational CD-i’s, play your standard music CDs, display photos on your TV screen, and even play full-length films (once you purchased the optional digital video cartridge).

The controllers for the CD-i varied from traditional video game types to TV-style wireless remotes to a bizarre hybrid of the two.  (Photo: Evan-Amos/Public Domain)

Whether Philips liked it or not, the CD-i would come to be best remembered not for its format or well-rounded interactive uses, but for some of the strange games. All said, over 150 games would be released for the CD-i, including titles like the classic horror puzzler, The 7th Guest, and Dragon’s Lair successor, Braindead 13.

The console is best remembered for the games that came as a result of the broken deal between Philips and Nintendo. While Nintendo didn’t want Philips’ help making a machine, Philips was contractually still able to create games using some of Nintendo’s most indelible characters. They used them to create some of the worst games in video game history.

A CD-i running Hotel Mario. (Photo: Frédéric BISSON/CC BY 2.0)

First, there was Hotel Mario, in which Nintendo’s star plumber runs around hallways, stomping and avoiding goombas while trying to close all the hotel doors in the levels. While the gameplay wasn’t completely outside of the purview of a Mario game, the off-model animated cut scenes were surprisingly shoddy. See below:

Three games were also created using the Legend of Zelda characters. In 1993 there was Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, followed in 1994 by Zelda’s Adventure, produced by a third-party company. While none of the games had anything to do with the Nintendo originals other than the characters and world, they each stood out for their cut scenes. The first two games were notable for their jerky, Russian-sourced animation scenes, while the third treated players to some spectacularly awkward live-action video sequences. The gameplay was flat and difficult to control, doing nothing for the CD-i’s reputation as a gaming machine.

Whether it was the confusingly broad way in which the system was marketed, the hefty price tag (the machine cost $1,000 in 1992), or its near-instant obsolescence in the face of ever-evolving CD technology, the CD-i was a flop upon its release. In 1994, the machine was redesigned to look more like a standard video game console, and the marketing was changed accordingly—but it was too late. Sony released its far superior PlayStation console in 1994, which continues to see iterations today. By 1996, the CD-i was discontinued altogether, having supposedly only sold 570,000 units.

Today, the CD-i and its games are regularly remembered as some of the worst video game products ever released. In reality, the machine just reached too far, too early. But without the CD-i we would never have gotten this baffling sinister science-fiction infomercial about the product. Thanks, CD-i.