Console Graveyard: The Philips CD-i
Once again we strap on our work boots, sling our spades over our shoulders, and shamble on over to the Console Graveyard. This time we'll take a look at a system that never truly knew who it was. One that had the best of intentions, but just never committed itself. In a different time or place, it could have been a true legend. Sadly, its tale ended in slow death, and it came to rest with us here in the digital mausoleums of the Console Graveyard. Allow me to introduce today's embalmed console corpse...
Typically, Japanese companies have dominated the console market. Names like Nintendo, Sony, and Sega have brought us the platforms we're so intimately familiar with now, and only in recent years has the American giant Microsoft waded into this battle from the neighboring PC field. The CD-i, however, is a rarity; it was designed by the Dutch company Koninklijke Philips N.V. Founded in 1891, the company began by manufacturing carbon filament lamps and soon moved on to radios and engines. As electronics became the mainstay of the later 20th Century, Philips held its own in that market with a solid line of consumer devices primarily focused on media and home use. The company, along with Sony, helped standardize the format of Compact Discs. They even pioneered an early LaserDisc device, but held it back in fear that their tape device sales would suffer as a result. You know Norelco razors? That's them; the name is just branding.
Philips had become a respectably successful company during the 20th Century, and it felt comfortable taking a shot at multimedia. They began work on the CD-i in 1984, and it first hit retail shelves in December of 1991. That's seven (7) years of R&D. The CD-i was intended to be more than a gaming console. It was meant for use in a wide variety of applications, from education to music to the old standby of media playing. This is fitting, as the first model available to the general consumer market looked very much like a VCR with a gamepad plugged into the front.
The CD-i was also one of the first home media electronics with the capability of accessing networks. By partnering with fellow Dutch firm CDMATICS, Philips was able to connect CD-i players to the Internet (in its early form). This concept went over better in the Netherlands than anywhere else; a native grocery chain even implemented it for home shopping and delivery.
Despite all this innovation, there were enough problems with the ambitious CD-i that it died a slow death worldwide. One major complaint was the price point; initially released in the USA for a retail price of $700, the Philips CD-i wasn't seen as a toy, nor was it perceived as a casual purchase by any but the wealthiest (or most foolish) consumer. The system also got panned for its lack of true games and those games' inconsistent quality. You see, Nintendo licensed the production of some Zelda and Mario titles for the CD-i, but refused to develop said games. The results are famous among gamers on today's Internet, and while it's funny now, no one was laughing in the 90s when they played Hotel Mario (or one of three separate Zelda games) on their 700 dollar CD-i and saw this kind of crap:
That's it. Other than some cutscenes that look like they were made in MSPaint, that's Hotel Mario.
These games were so goofy that later on, the Internet would use them to spawn creations like this (one of my favorites, and there are a lot of these):
Needless to say, dedicated game consoles were outperforming the CD-i, and they were doing it for less money at the retail counter. The CD-i's controllers also caught major flak, often cited as “confusing” and “unresponsive.” There was a lot of variation in controller types across the different models, and none of them were well-liked.
Philips even let Sony and Magnavox take shots at revamping the CD-i, to no avail. The combination of an exorbitant price, small selection of titles, and cumbersome controls took the device down. It would continue to pop back up throughout the mid 90s with some new attachment or another, but it remained unpopular as Sega and Nintendo continued to outperform it in gaming markets.
PCWorld, GamePro, and GameTrailers all ranked the Philips CD-i as the fourth worst console of all time. It was in this judgment that the benighted little high-dollar console finally found its consistency. While it had been flagging since 1993, and Philips planned a discontinuation in 1996, the CD-i persisted limply until 1998, when it was finally given a shot in the head and laid to rest. Philips remains a strong contender in the consumer electronics market, but it has never ventured into gaming or multimedia again. While the idea behind the CD-i was ambitious and even admirable, the execution once again fouled the whole deal. Lesson learned: if you're going to pitch a console for $700, it had better be something world-shattering. It also better have a good game library and a controller that doesn't look like a soup spoon.
Thank you for joining me again in the Graveyard. There'll be more to come; we've just recently cleared some space for a new set of digital catacombs. I'll see you then, creeps.