Sunday, June 24, 2012

Loftly Ambitions by the Dutch

Sometimes the smallest finds can generate the most enthusiasm.  One such item, a 2 disc VCD copy of Beverly Hills Cop, arrived from EBay two weeks ago and subsequently sparked my interest about all things CD-i.  For the uninformed, the Philips CD-i was a fourth generation video game console released by Dutch electronics giant Philips in 1991.  Although manufactured by multiple vendors over a period of five years, the system’s initial high cost, somewhat crippled hardware, poor analog control and lackluster software support ultimately doomed it to a niche market.  Originally positioned as an edutainment device designed to rival the personal computer (which by then was sporting CD-ROM playback, digital audio and hardware-accelerated 2D/3D video acceleration), Philips promised a multimedia experience families could use to learn, work and play without the added equipment or expense of a PC.  Although a novel idea when it was publicly announced five year earlier, consumers were apathetic by the time the console hit US shores.  Philips' reluctance to brand it a ‘video game machine’ hurt its chances further; while Nintendo and Sega battled it out over a burgeoning billion dollar industry, consumers who would have considered the CD-i as a viable...
alternative were turned off by a distinct lack of software support.  In lieu of games, Philips initially pushed learning-based titles loaded with full motion video (FMV) that was all the rage back then.  Unfortunately, most titles were expensive, buggy and just plain boring (e.g. Gardening by Choice and DISCoverBelgium, anyone?). 

Video CD- Precursor to DVD
Philips also tried to introduce a new video format with the video CD (VCD), but the advent of consumer CD burners along with limited copy protection measures kept most movie studios away. The few games that were made for the system sold well, and when Sega and NEC began to gobble up market share with their own CD-ROM based add-ons, Philips finally got the picture.

In 1994, they redesigned the machine’s exterior and rebranded it a full-fledged video game console.   An earlier relationship forged with Nintendo was put to use as games were released featuring popular video game characters Mario and Zelda.  The CD-i also saw quality first party releases in the form of Burn:Cycle and The Apprentice (among others).  Unfortunately, a new look and a handful of games was not enough to save the console.  The FMV fad fizzled quickly, and the public was content to wait patiently for the next big 32bit console releases from Nintendo, Sega (and newcomer Sony).  During its last days, late night infomercials could be seen hocking the system’s benefits, but these last ditch marketing efforts did little to improve sales.  By 1996, Philips wisely discontinued production and began the process of writing off nearly a billion dollars used to design, market and manufacture the console.

With obsolete hardware and only a handful of memorable games, the question remains: why collect the system today?    The answer really depends on your motivation.  Philips CD-i was an ambitious product, one that tried to revolutionize home entertainment by merging aspects of the personal computer, home video player and game console together into a single unit.  While it ultimately failed to supplant any of these technologies, the design concepts Philips helped pioneer eventually took hold in other, more popular devices (e.g. disc-based console gaming, wireless controllers, DVD, etc.).  Exploring the console today is an interesting journey into what might have been had the stars aligned. Additionally, Philips' partnership with Nintendo spawned some exclusive Mario and Zelda titles that today fetch a hefty premium with collectors.  While the games themselves aren’t very good (in fact some consider them to be among the worst games of all time), it’s refreshing to see someone besides Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo explore the properties.

For my part, I still remember my interactions with the console while it was on display at department stores back in the early ‘90s.  The salesmen usually left me alone to evaluate the unit, having long since tired of besting each other in The Palm Springs Open (impressive considering the console’s high cost).  I was immediately taken with the graphics, which displayed animations far more lifelike and fluid than anything I had seen before.  The wireless controller proved difficult to use, however, which quickly tempered my enthusiasm.  I distinctly remember missing putts and parking a lot of balls in the trees.  Another time they were demoing the CD-Video functionality by playing the movie Forest Gump.  Like everyone else, I grew up with analog; it was a real eye opener to see digital video for the first time.  I remember the picture quality being better than VCR, but the colors were somewhat muted and the video itself was pixelated and compressed.  I was impressed but not blown away, having seen reference quality laserdisc before.   

Of the consoles currently in my possession, I admit I do not own a Philips CD-i.  While it might seem strange to buy software for a device I don’t own (yet), such is the nature of collecting defunct technologies.  I happen to like Beverly Hills Cop anyway, so it’s a good test disc to have around should I ever score one. 


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