Nintendo Co. of Japan said yesterday it will team up with Sony Corp. to put video games on compact discs, a move meant to bring crisper graphics, full-motion video and high-quality sound to this form of entertainment.
A Nintendo spokesman said tentative plans call for the companies to develop a CD player that would hook up to its Super Famicom game unit. The new unit would appear in Japan in a year and in the United States in two years. Prices were not known.
If successful, the product would give Nintendo a new boost in a market that is approaching saturation. For Sony, it would mean a new outlet for films from its recently purchased Columbia Pictures unit and for music it obtained when it bought CBS Records.
Nintendo will be following NEC Corp., which 2 1/2 years ago came out with a similar system. "We believe that CD is definitely the future of video gaming," said Grant Schneider, vice president of marketing at NEC Technologies Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of NEC. " ... Over half of our new software launched in 1991 will be CD-based."
With only about 5 percent of home game sales, NEC remains a bit player in the U.S. market. But an endorsement of CD games from Nintendo, which last year had U.S. sales of $3.4 billion and 80 percent of the market, would likely give the technology the boost it needs to win acceptance.
CD technology is having impact across the computer industry. Many makers of personal computers offer units that read data from the high-capacity optical discs. "I think that within three to four years, virtually all software for all computers will be delivered on CD," said David Feldman, vice president of technology at ICOM Simulations Inc., a Wheeling, Ill., firm that is creating games for the NEC unit.
Nintendo currently sells its games, which include the popular Super Mario Brothers series, as cartridges. Inside the cartridges is microscopic circuitry that stores electronic instructions that the unit uses to run the game and display it on the screen.
Compact discs offer about 2,000 times more storage capability than today's cartridges. This lets the games' creators make the games longer and heighten their imagery, either with artificial graphics or scenes filmed with actors. In addition, creators can improve the games' sound quality.
ICOM is about to release a Sherlock Holmes game for which it filmed 120 scenes with 35 actors. The player makes decisions and alters the progression of the game in the process of trying to solve crimes set in London.
CDs have an important drawback when applied to video games, however. Because playback heads must move around the disc to "load" different parts of a game while it is being played, players experience delays of up to several seconds as they move from section to section of the game.
Conflicting technical standards and delays in games coming to market could harm the machines' popularity, too. "The software people don't want to commit until the hardware numbers are large enough," said Jim Willcox, news editor at the trade journal This Week in Consumer Electronics. "Yet without the software it doesn't give the consumer a reason to buy it."
Asked about yesterday's Nintendo announcement, Sony spokesman Steve Burke said that Sony was in discussion with Nintendo about cooperation in video games but that no final decision had been made.