Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Pioneer LaserActive

Holy crap...

I am a lover for the odd, obscure, and less popular items in movies and games. I've already talked about how much I love the FMV adventure games of the early-mid 90s. I also wrote up an entire post on laserdiscs and why I love them so much! But this... oh this is something that takes the cake of obscure. It takes my love of laserdiscs to the next level. It makes the Atari Jaguar, 3DO, and even the Phillips CD-I or Apple Pippin look like frickin Super Nintendo. I am talking about the Pioneer LaserActive!

Hello beautiful.

History: The Pioneer LaserActive was released on August 20th 1993 in Japan, and September 13th that same year in the US. The console plays laserdiscs, CDs, karaoke discs with an add on, and a couple other add ons that you would need to play the laserdisc games but would also allow you to play games for two other consoles available at the time (which I'll expand on later when I can properly gush about it). A lot of the features were only capable with said add ons so the main machine was mostly limited without them. In short it was a very expensive laserdisc player that initially played video games if you were up to spending even more than the initial, staggering price. The core machine sold at launch for just under $1,000. Then if you wanted the add ons for the full potential of the system you're looking at spending anywhere from $350 to $600 a piece! Meaning if at launch you wanted the full package you were looking at paying around $3000! Or more! And that doesn't include the cost of games or karaoke discs to play, or laserdisc movies which were very expensive at the time as well. Dang. This makes the 3DO, which came out only a month after this in the states, and sold for $700, look VERY appealing by comparison. Safe to say the machine was a commercial failure and was discontinued within a year. It still goes for an outrageously high price used online. But more on that in a bit.

Time to Discuss: This is an amazing example of how great gamers these days have it for value. Back in the 80s and 90s you had to pay a hell of a lot more to get all the best features for a gaming console. Not like this last launch where $400 got you damn near every little feature that would ever come with the console minus the expense of games or access to online play. No, this was back in the days when a $200 console may have been the norm for Sega and Nintendo, but them some of the games would cost anywhere from $40 to $100 depending on how much extra hardware had to go in the cartridge. And those were consoles that ONLY played games. Nothing extra. Then the console that were trying to be ahead of the times would be far more expensive. I already mentioned the 3DO for $700. But then other consoles like the CD-I tried to sell for the same price with a minor set of extra features, or the Neo Geo AES that was anywhere from $400-$650 depending which version you bought. A console super expensive because of how accurate the games were to the arcade versions, which also called for MASSIVE CARTRIDGES  and a retail price of $200 and higher for any of those games. Some of these problems were fixed with the era of CD based gaming (such as the Neo Geo CD with games at the standard $50 price), but still back then you didn't get as much bang for your buck like you do these days. It would have blown or friggin minds if we knew what we could get for $200-$400 in 2014, looking ahead twenty years earlier. I'm just trying to say that if I hear any of you sons of bitches complain about the high cost of gaming these days, or how the Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures is too much at $15, then just remember that I paid more for Star Fox 64 at launch than you did for the last Call of Duty game on a next gen console, and that was in 1990s money!

In 1992 if you wanted to play Street Fighter II at home you had to pay $75. Not turbo, not a remix, just straight Street Fighter II.

Much like laserdiscs themselves it is hard for me to explain exactly why I have such a fascination with this machine. I know a part of it is the obscurity. I hadn't even heard of this console until a few months ago. And it got me so excited to know it exists! I though laserdiscs games were only something that existed in the arcades, and then those same games had lessened experiences at home. Like Dragon's Lair being ported to the Sega CD for example. Now the LaserActive had a very short lifespan, about the same length as the Virtual Boy if I've got my facts straight. So VERY few games were made for it. And of those games I couldn't tell you how close they were to the arcade originals for those that apply. So knowing now that a similar experience of what was played in the arcades was being done at home is awesome. Something that was mastered a long time ago. But as the common phrase goes when looking back, at the time this was amazing. It's just such a shame that the tech cost so much.
Before I move onto my favorite part (the add ons) I want to talk about the games actually released for the LaserActive core system.
As I mentioned in my laserdisc post only so much video can go on a laserdisc until you have to flip it over or put in a new disc. This is something I made sure to consider when looking into these games. I can't quote how long these games are since some could have come on more than one disc. But I know a few that weren't that long because of the technology. It made me think about some of the games for Sega CD or even early Playstation/Saturn. So much was packed in to impress with the tech at the time that actual gameplay and length were dropped. Kinda like modern FPS shooters. Ba dum tish.
Here's a rundown of the games released in sorta alphabetical order. I bunched them together for games that are similar. Don't worry. This wont take long:

-3D Museum (Japan/US), 3D Virtual Australia (Japan), Goku (Japan/US), The Great Pyramid (Japan/US), Melon Brains (Japan/US), Quiz Econosaurus (Japan/US): The console's selection of edutainment games. From what I've seen they mostly look like interactive documentaries. Not much that's too exciting here, but you can use the 3D goggles add on for some of these games if you're into that sort of thing.
-Akuma no Shinban (Demon's Judgment) (Japan): Had a lot of trouble finding out much of anything on this game. Apparently it is a quiz game based on a popular game show at the time. That's really all I know about it.
-Angel Mate (Japan) and Dora Dora Paradise (Japan): Strip poker with some ladies! It transfers between full motion video in the cut scenes with an anime style chick in the actual gameplay. Couldn't tell you how much nudity is actually in the game. The in game gameplay only shows the lady shoulders up. Dora Dora Paradise is similar but with mahjong instead.
-Back To The Edo (Japan) and Don Quixote (US): I can't find a damn thing about these games outside of some screenshots and intro videos. No idea what kind of games they are but if I had to guess I'd say they were interactive movies, or close to something like that. LOVE the box art for Back To The Edo, though.
-Bi Ryojon Collection (Pretty Illusion - Minayo Watanabe) (Japan) and Bi Ryojon Collection II (Pretty Illusion - Yuko Sakaki) (Japan), Dr. Paolo No Tokkeoki Video (Japan), Virtual Cameraman (Japan) and Virtual Cameraman 2 (Japan): You interact with some pretty Japanese women in hopes of seeing more skin. Seem like a very very simplified version of the mega popular dating simulations over there. From what I can tell they mostly consist of collections of videos and pictures of said women. The whole thing feels very voyeuristic.
-Ghost Rush (US): From what I've seen it's like and adventure game in the same realm as D and The 7th Guest, only crappier looking. There is some interactivity with crosshairs and shooting but not much. Could be fun with it's old school visuals and quirky looking story. I love haunted houses.
-High Roller Battle (Japan/US), Hyperion (Japan/US), Pyramid Patrol (Japan/US), Space Berserker (Japan/US), Vajra (Japan/US) and Vajra 2 (Japan): All are very similar style rail shooters. There's full motion video (pre-rendered early 3D, which I adore) and a crosshair is over it to shoot things. For such a straight forward game style I know these kinds of games can vary in quality so whatever floats your boat for this category. Couldn't tell you which is the best but I've heard Vajra is one of the better ones. That and it looks to be one of the best from gameplay videos.
-I Will: The Story of London (Japan/US): Looks to be another adventure game. A much worse looking one than the next game I'll be talking about.
-J.B. Harold - Blue Chicago Blues (Japan/US) and J.B. Harold - Manhattan Requiem (Japan/US): Part of a series of murder mystery adventure games. Must be pretty popular because they have appeared on multiple formats throughout the years. Probably most popular on the TurboGrafx 16. Except these feature full motion video with live actors and voice over work. Is supposed to be pretty dang good, so good that a port of Manhattan Requiem has been released for iOS, which I may pick up after doing this research. I've come to really enjoy adventure games after diving head first into them again.
-Myst (US): The classic that some people still love and others claim is out dated was set to be released here. However it was only a prototype so it was never properly released.
-Rocket Coaster (US): A racing game where the FMV in the background speeds up or slows down depending how fast you go. Looks like it would be a sluggish experience that wouldn't be very fun.
-Road Blaster (Japan)/Road Prosecutor (US), Time Gal (Japan), and Triad Stone (aka Strahl) (Japan/US): Interactive movies in the same way as Dragon's Lair. These all had arcade releases with the exception of Triad Stone. They look really fun despite their very limited gameplay. Still it's this type of gameplay that really keeps you on the edge of your seat knowing how little control you really have and that one screw up can lead to disaster. It birthed the QTE of modern games, too, and seeing these make me think of those moments in Shenmue and how pulse pounding those got. Still I wouldn't need a LaserActive to play any of these. I can get Road Blaster/Prosecutor for Sega CD (as Road Avenger) as well as Time Gal. Lower quality video but much more affordable.
-Zapping TV Satsui (Japan): Not a game in the traditional sense. You play as the director of a movie where you can change the camera angles, edit, and basically decide how this pre-made movie comes out. Probably not as varied as it may sound or was promoted but probably pretty cool for the time.

All that innovation and still no trophy support.

As I mentioned before there were also plenty of add ons. More than the Sega Genesis! But unlike the Genesis these were ideas clearly made for the intent of adding onto the core console. The first I want to comment on is the karaoke add on.
This was one of the cheaper add ons costing a mere $350. Trust me, when I say mere, I mean mere... or you'll soon learn from the other add ons. This was exactly what it says it is, a karaoke add on. I can easily see this being a desired add on in Japan knowing how popular karaoke is over there. But over here it tends to be what your aunt does after she has just a few too many and nobody seems to enjoy it. Maybe there was something with early 1990s culture I was too young to understand. Keep in mind I was born in the late 1980s. I apologize to anyone who may find that upsetting and decide to give me a hard time for whatever reason (old people are weird).
Another add on that was only somewhat perplexing was the Computer Interface add on. I say somewhat only because this was before everyone and their dog had a computer. Not like today where just to talk on a phone you have to use some form of a computer. I would say this could have been an alternative to buying a personal computer, which I'm sure the aim was, but I just don't see it. From what I've read the whole process seems much more cumbersome than even the early days of windows. A very niche add on that I'm sure not many people bothered with outside of computer geeks. I have no idea how much this was at retail. Have been having the hardest time finding information on it.
The next two add ons were required to play the laserdisc games. Only some would work with the first, and the rest would work with the other. Meaning you would have had to buy both add ons to play all the games available. Bad enough you'd have to buy one add on just to play some of them. But this is my favorite part of the add ons!

Recognize those controllers?

Earlier I mentioned there were two add ons to play games for gaming consoles available at the time. The first of these two was the Sega Mega Drive... or the Genesis if you're American like me. With this add on you can play any cartridge based Genesis game or Sega CD games. This means, despite only having a couple dozen laserdisc games for the main console, you could now play over 1000 additional games! (Not taking into consideration of different regions and some overlap between Genesis and Sega CD but you get the idea). All of which would have improved visuals, or so I've heard. Usually stuff like video feeds and the difference of quality between RGA and Composite and S-Video, blah blah blah is a matter of opinion. Which I'm a bit of a snob with but not as intense. Anyway, this was the go to add on that most people bought with the core system. It's easy to see why. The Genesis was a great console and the Sega CD even had a small share of good games. Unfortunately for some this was not able to support 32X games. It wouldn't be for another year until the 32X came out, and the add on had the Genesis and Sega CD capabilities built in together. This add on wound up costing a whopping $600 at launch! A price I find hard to justify. Even at launch in the US the Genesis was $200, and when the Sega CD came out that was $300. So the combined cost of both consoles, brand new, on day one would be less expensive than buying this add on. And by this time the Genesis core system would have cost less because that was originally released in 1989. So while it's a nice add on to have to build a more "complete" system, it seems unnecessary for the time in terms of cost. It would be pretty slick to have it all together. But even then you could have just waited for a year to buy the Sega Multi Mega which also had a Genesis/Sega CD built in together as it's own console. Not as slick or appealing but it was still only $400. Much like the LaserActive itself, not cost efficient yet strangely appealing from a perspective like mine.
The last add on to talk about is the NEC add on. This add on is a lot like the Genesis add on. But this time it allowed the playability of games for the PC Engine, or TurboGrafx 16 for the American audience as well as the CD add on. Again, like the Genesis this added on a lot of extra games for the console. Between Japan and America, and between the card and CD format there are over 500 games. I know some of them are crossed between CD versions and card version so that number is a mega estimate. Just like the Genesis add on this went for $600 at launch. And this time around it's somewhat of a fair price. The TurboGrafx 16 was $200 at launch with the CD add on being $400. Granted there were better deals as time went on especially since the console wasn't very popular in the states. But at the time of release if you were into the TurboGrafx 16 then you may as well have gone for it. You already spent almost a grand on a specialized laserdisc gaming console, what's stopping you from dropping another 600 on another obscure console?

Buying this console nowadays is far from an easy task. Since it was only out one year not a lot of consoles were produced. Also unlike other consoles that had a very short lifespan (The Virtual Boy, Dreamcast) it had a very high price tag and wasn't made by one of the major gaming companies. With that said it is a major challenge just to find a listing for this console being sold online. When I did find something it usually started at around $600+ after shipping for the core console. Just as is. Then the add ons cost almost as much as they did when they were first released! I found a posting for the Genesis add on pack being sold for $500. But easily the most expensive I've seen listed so far was for the Japanese model (technically making it an import) that included both the Sega and NEC add on. After shipping it will cost you around 2700, but again that's for the Japanese model.
And that will just get you the console itself. You'll need some games for it. Of course Sega and Turbo games can range anywhere from a few pennies to a whopping stack of cash. But there's a lot of great games to choose from all for a reasonable price. I think pre-owned gaming stores give away cartridges of Sonic 2 with every purchase. That or the Super Mario Bros/Duck hunt combo pack. However I did a search on the laserdisc games and those are a different story. You won't be paying less than $100 each for some of these laserdisc games. Some much higher than that. One of them I found for $300! And with how limited these games are that is asking a lot of money for what is essentially bragging rights as a game collector. You could buy a brand new XBox 360 (not that I would advocate buying one) and 5 discounted older games for the price of one of some of these single games.
The other downside of this is that laserdisc players don't have the best lifespan. They have some inherit deficiencies that cause them to simply break down over time. Thankfully my old, beat up one hasn't gone through that. But can you imagine spending all this money on this console, have it testing fine at sale, take it home, then after just a little bit of game playing it craps out like the red ring of death? That would make me furious! On that note this console is so rare that I even saw a busted one on sale online for $250. Damn, this sucker is notoriously expensive.

The LaserActive is not a cheap whore and she does not put out easily.

I think the way I see this is similar to the Neo Geo. Like I mentioned much earlier the Neo Geo cost between $400-$650 at launch. And like the LaserActive it hasn't gotten much cheaper. It's still a challenge to pick up the system at a reasonable price. Sometimes going for as much as a couple hundred or more. Which is still a lot considering most old, used game consoles run between $40-$100 on average. Depending on the era, quality, etc. But then those massive cartridge games still go for as little as a budget game these days to hundred, maybe even a couple thousand dollars due to their rarity. I once heard someone say that buying a Neo Geo and it's games is not a collection, it is an investment, simply because of how much it costs. And it's for good reason that it costs so much. For what it was at the time, the rarity, it makes sense. And if you're hardcore into Neo Geo then go for it. I'm a Dreamcast man myself and I am thankful that is a much more affordable console. All this talk about the LaserActive and Neo Geo makes the $40 I plan on dropping to buy D2 again seem like petty cash.
Still the major difference here is that Neo Geo has a strong cult following. While the LaserActive was simply a commercial failure that only lasted a year. The people who love are part of an extremely small crowd. A crowd I frankly wish I was a part of. I think the system looks awesome! Mostly for the way it worked in the add ons and made the system look sleek for the time. I could be having some of the most unique video game experiences of all simply because of the rarity. But the price it would cost just to get the core console is so extreme. I recently got a new TV that cost around $500. It's 47 inches, full HD, and it's beautiful. It looks great whether it is running a state of the art PS3 game, something simple as Wii Sports with a composite out, or even a SD DVD it looks great. It was a great buy that has a variety of purposes even though it's essentially a box that displays what my machines can do. But that price would only get me the core console. With the money it would take to get the best experience possible on a LaserActive I could get one of those new 4K TVs. Even better I could expand my already growing game collection. Imagine how far I could get in collecting Dreamcast games with that cash? Even with imports I could go a long way. That or I could climb a similar tree as the LaserActive and buy a better laserdisc player (mine is pretty poor) and explode my laserdisc collection! The movies go for really cheap nowadays.
I definitely see the awesome perks of collecting a LaserActive, but upon reflection it seems like a dream that is only fun for the journey. In no way could it be as cool to own and play one as it would be searching for the best deal, the best games, the best everything for it, especially when it comes down to the cost. It's just all too much. If I were ever to get it, it would be because I just won the lottery. That or I found out I had a secret uncle who left me his millions, or I made it big doing... something... whatever it may be. This is a mega pipe dream for me. Something I know I'll never get unless I somehow stumble across it at a garage sale, surplus sale, flea market, whatever it may be. Until then I'll just fawn over how much I adore laserdiscs and how amazing it would be to own such a unique piece of hardware. But hey, at least it's not the Halcyon... know what? Screw it. Let's close out talking about that!

The Halcyon was another laserdisc gaming console this time made by RDI Video Systems. But this was released way back in 1985. It of course played laserdiscs and laserdisc based games but it also had a computer attached. Both the player and computer were the size of VCRs at the time. Massive! There was promise of the console being entirely voice activated (suck it Kinect) and would have AI comparable to the HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not exactly something we would want on our hands, would we? The console sold for $2500 (or $5400 adjusted for 2013 dollars). Only two games were every released for it. The console was discontinued in no time after RDI went bankrupt. It's crazy how ambitious this RDI company was with releasing this. How much of a success did they think it would be? It's insane that they went this direction and so expensive. But that was their mistake. Still it goes down as the single most expensive gaming console ever released. Although I'm pretty sure technically speaking it isn't a game console and more of a limited computer. But hey, at least it now makes the LaserActive look cheap!

Credits: Due to my immediate lack of knowledge for this console it required a lot of digging around. Actually I would say this post had the most research of all my posts. With that said I want to give credit where credit is due.
-Game Sack is where I first heard about this game. Their LaserActive episode was very informative and gave me a great head start.
-Segagaga Domain provided me with some great info on the Genesis/Sega CD add on.
-Video Game Console Library was one of the most informed pages I found. They had a ton of general details as well as tons of photos, an overview on the product's quality, screen caps from games, old commercials and links to other websites.
-Cyber Roach was able to give me some info on the very obscure items I had trouble finding details on. Still couldn't tell me much about Back To The Edo or Don Quixote, though.
-And of course many youtube searches that gave me extended gameplay videos to find out just what the hell some of the games were all about.

1 comment:

  1. Video Game Console Library, some of those pictures are mine. They got them from Cyber Roach. I sent them to Cyber Roach for his site. The pictures I'm referring to are from the brochure. They have them in the wrong order and are missing the back page. If you want them I can send them to you as well.