PlayStation: 20 years after a grey box changed gaming forever

TOKYO - Twenty years ago, a small grey box of electronic tricks made its debut in Japan, heralding the birth of the global gaming phenomenon that changed the entertainment landscape, launching titles that now outstrip sales from Hollywood's biggest franchises.

The original PlayStation, which hit stores in early December 1994, brought revolutionary graphics, engrossing gameplay and the kind of complex virtual worlds that had only previously been available in an arcade.

"When we arrived, the videogame was seen as a niche hobby. One of our achievements is to have succeeded in making a legitimate cultural object, like music or cinema," Jim Ryan, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, told AFP.

The launch was Sony's first foray into computer games and pitted the company against the established giant of the sector, Nintendo, whose character-driven two-dimensional offerings like Super Mario had wowed children.

But unlike the 16-bit cartridges that powered the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Sony's PlayStation opted for cheap-to-produce CD-ROMs, a technology that allowed vast tracts of data to be stored.

The discs' convenience and powerful graphics in the original 32-bit machines lured game developers and players into a world where, suddenly, 3D was in reach.

And it wasn't just the insides of the machines that Sony had re-imagined; they shunned the plain rectangle controllers of the SNES in favour of an ergonomic device that sat neatly in a player's hands.

Titles such as Tomb Raider, Gran Turismo and Final Fantasy spurred console sales and launched what became multi-billion dollar franchises with legions of loyal fans.

Global blockbusters like Grand Theft Auto joined the PlayStation world, as well as other platforms. The latest instalment took a billion dollars in its first three days of sales, putting even huge cinematic hits in the shade.

Sleek design

In March 2000, PlayStation 2 burst onto the market, leveraging the mega-capacity of DVDs before the format was standard storage.

The trademark controller remained, but with additional features like vibrations and a sleek new design featuring a black tower with clean lines that had the grace of a designer's touch.

The company shifted around 150 million units worldwide, and the PS2 remains the best-selling console of all time.

Although addicts got a handheld PSP in 2004, it would be another six years until the main console got an update with the PS3, a Blu-ray equipped and Internet-ready device that allowed gamers in different continents to play against each other.

Where gaming had once been largely a solitary activity or done among friends close to home, there was now a global community of like-minded players.

Unlike the ever-contracting windows of release for mobile phones and tablets, gaming consoles have retained their strung-out lives, with engineers packing as much hardware and spare capacity into them as they can.

"In every generation, Sony has tried to bring an innovation in its machines to make the difference," said Laurent Michaud, head of consumer electronics and digital entertainment practice at Digiworld Institute/IDATE.

Acolytes had to wait until 2013 for the PS4, an ultra-powerful machine with 4,000 times the memory of the original and processing capacity orders of an ever larger magnitude.

The 13.5 million units Sony has sold in the last year allow users to play games straight from the Cloud in a universe that now includes compatible smartphones, televisions and tablets.

Sony is now introducing a cable-style television service in the United States delivered through PlayStation3 and 4 consoles, called "PlayStation Vue."

The PS4 symbolises Sony's strategic move for future growth, as the product positions itself for a Cloud-based future where consoles might even disappear, said Yu Okazaki, analyst at Nomura Securities.

"PlayStation4 is selling well. The product shows Sony is looking at five, 10 years down the road. The number of consoles sold and their network capacity make it extremely promising," Okazaki said.

To mark the 20th anniversary, Sony Computer Entertainment is releasing a special, limited edition PS4 in the original grey, which will be offered to 12,300 fans worldwide.

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