Egad! I pop off on holiday for a couple of weeks and Sony go and release a full list of the titles they’re baking into the Playstation classic. Needless to say, the list has proved to be a little bit divisive. In fact, given that the full roster contains questionable choices like the Playstation port of Rainbow Six, I’m really not surprised that they only unveiled a partial list of big hitters when they announced the console.
To an extent, it was always going to be this way. Though Nintendo’s introspective approach is probably one of the reasons they lost market share throughout the nineties, when it comes to classic consoles it serves them incredibly well. Because the likes of the SNES were based so squarely around their own titles, the SNES classic only needed a handful of third party titles to feel relatively well-rounded (if slightly underwhelming in my own personal opinion.)
Sony, however, find themselves in the opposite position. Though their aggressive courting of third party publishers goes a long way to explaining how they were able to hoover up the industry in the ’90s, when it comes to the PS classic they presumably found themselves needing a lot of titles to which they would need to acquire the rights – something complicated further by the amount of Playstation titles that licensed their soundtracks. Given the size of the Playstation library and the number of negotiations involved, it was always inevitable that a number of highly popular and influential Playstation games would be missing. Still there is one glaring omission that leaves me baffled: where on earth is Wipeout?
From a purely practical angle, I would assume that Wipeout would be a very good fit for the classic. Developers Psygnosis were already Sony-owned when they developed Wipeout and have subsequently been disbanded by the tech giant, so there’s no license issues when it comes to the game itself. Though the series has become famous for its use of licensed music, the original contained just three licensed tracks with two of these being from Sony-signed artists. As these tracks were omitted from the non-European versions of the game, there should be no real soundtrack complications either.
More important than the licensing practicalities, however, is the symbolic importance of Wipeout to the Playstation brand (In Europe, at least.) Though the Playstation released with multiple titles in other regions, when it arrived in Europe on the 29th of September 1995 it was accompanied by Wipeout and Ridge Racer alone. Though Ridge Racer was an incredibly popular title at the time, it was still Wipeout that ended up doing the bulk of the heavy lifting.
Like Sega before them, when launching the Playstation Sony realised that their console had to be perceived as cool if it was going to break into the market. Sony’s strategy was more ambitious. Rather than target younger teens who might have a Saturday job or paper round Sony targeted young adults who had student grants or income from full-time employment. The only snag was that, by targeting those aged 18 and up, Sony were dealing with a lot of people who had either never been into games to begin with or who had owned previous systems but believed they had outgrown videogames. Sony needed a strategy that would convince twenty-somethings that games weren’t just for kids.
One of the solutions Sony came up with was to target music culture and to do so aggressively. For the 1995 Glastonbury festival, they produced a Playstation-adorned flyer that was pre-cut into convenient roach-ready tabs. At the famous Ministry of Sound nightclub they established a chill out room that was packed with Playstation demo kiosks. In print, their advert for Wipeout (which featured a bloody-nosed Sara Cox) left many wondering whether the enlarged E in the game’s logo was a reference to ecstasy.
Of course, just being present in the right places wasn’t enough. Sony needed something to demonstrate that fit in with the surrounding culture and the grown ups. Sonic the Hedgehog or Street Fighter 2 wasn’t really going to cut it. That’s was where Wipeout came in.
Normally when we talk about old games (and games in general, in fact) the sentiment is that gameplay trumps graphics. When it comes to the rise of the Playstation…well, the fact that Wipeout just happened to be one of the seminal futuristic racing games is merely a nice extra. Here, the aesthetic was the main thing. Sony needed a game which dissolved seamlessly into a club environment and Wipeout was part of that.
Understandably, music was a big part of this. As we’ve touched on, the game contained licensed tracks from Orbital, Left Field and the Chemical Brothers but the remaining tracks – written by in-house composer Tim Wright – were every bit as memorable and club-ready.
As important as the audio side of things was, the sonics needed support from a gripping visual style. Wipeout’s was perfect. From a technical perspective, the richly detailed polygonal models blew away anything a prospective gamer may have already seen on a Super Nintendo, Megadrive or Amiga, while the iconography and boxart supplied by the Designers Republic helped to both round-off Wipeout’s grown-up sci-fi world and place it in the same design bracket as Warp Records’ respected (but still relatively obscure) musical artists.
Wipeout, then, was a game that seemed custom-built to deliver on Sony’s marketing promises of sophisticated cool. The best bit, however, was that there was nothing cynical or forced about it. As a young team, Psygnosis were active clubbers themselves who were immersed in the music and the culture. Wipeout wasn’t a product trying to infiltrate a scene, it was a product born from one – with a huge cultural impact as a result. Such was it’s success that, when a little-known Austrian energy drink attempted to crack the US market a year later, Wipeout’s sequel, 2097 was chosen to be their Trojan horse.
When it comes to the Playstation classic then, Wipeout feels like a larger omission than any other title on the Platform. While there were of course plenty of other influential games that shaped the direction of the console, none were as fundamentally tied to the story of its early success (at least in Europe) as Wipeout. By failing to include it Sony are not only leaving the classic a little light on racing games (a genre in which it actually excelled), but are excluding an important part of their own heritage.