This article is part of a new initiative on IGN where we spend a whole month exploring topics we find interesting in the world of video games (and hope you will, too!). April is our Urban Legends month, when we’ll take a look at the bizarre, eerie, untold, and otherwise unexplained phenomena within the gaming community.
The discovery of one of gaming’s rarest and most valuable treasures is a tale of failure, loss, discovery, redemption, and a $360,000 payday when all was said and done. The Nintendo Playstation required no Indiana-Jones style mission through the thick jungles, nor an elaborately planned and executed heist to extract it from a secret government facility. It was simply one item – in hundreds – purchased at a bankruptcy auction. But how did one of gaming’s holy grails end up in a pile of random boxes in a failing financial company’s basement? It comes down to some astonishing coincidences, and a lot of luck.
The Birth of the Nintendo PlayStation Prototype
Nintendo and Sony are now old rivals in the video game world, but that wasn’t always the case. The two giants were working together in 1991, having signed an agreement in 1988 to cooperatively develop a CD-ROM system for a future Nintendo console. The Super Nintendo PlayStation CD-ROM system was expected to release in Japan in 1992, and would usher in a whole new era for both companies. Nintendo was (at the time) the biggest video game company in the world, and Sony was the biggest consumer electronics company by a massive margin. The coming together of two titans of industry was to change the worlds of both video gaming and electronics, and it did… just not in the way anyone could have imagined.
Of course, the collaboration never came to fruition. At the last minute, Nintendo announced it was also working on a CD-ROM system with Philips, the Dutch electronics manufacturer who would go on to create the Philips CD-i, home of some of the worst uses of Nintendo-licensed properties ever seen. To this day, no one – at least publicly – knows the official reason why Nintendo had a last-minute change of heart. In hindsight, it’s even more baffling, considering roughly 200 Nintendo PlayStation prototypes were reported to have been created, suggesting the system was far enough along to be near a mass production run. The prototypes weren’t quite the Sony PlayStation we know today, but it wasn’t wholly the Super NES we fondly remember, either. It was a single-piece unit with a cartridge slot on the top for Super NES games and a CD-ROM drive in the front. It resembled neither the Super NES nor the PlayStation in product design, but it had the ancestral DNA of Sony’s first console coursing through its circuitry.
In 1991, the New York Times reported Sony had “retained all licensing rights for any compact disk game developed for the new system,” meaning the deal with Sony left Nintendo uncharacteristically holding the short-end of the stick. This led to speculation around the competing Philips deal – perhaps Nintendo had negotiated more favorable licensing terms with the competitor. The terms of the original deal also meant Sony was still completely within its rights to develop, and sell, a CD-ROM system capable of playing Super NES games. Though that never happened, the prototypes had been built and were floating around Sony’s corporate offices. When it all went south, these prototypes disappeared. No one cared to track them or hold onto them for the future, since no one could have imagined the failed collaboration had any significance. Essentially, it was a physical manifestation of a failed business partnership. They quietly disappeared, most likely tossed unceremoniously into the trash or broken down and recycled for parts. All, that is… save one.
The Biggest Discovery in Gaming History
Terry Diebold worked maintenance at a storage facility in Pennsylvania. The company he worked for, Advanta Corporation –a financial services company that went belly-up during the recession of 2008 – was in the midst of bankruptcy and one of Diebold’s tasks was to organize and box up mountains of random company property for auction. He was particularly interested in purchasing some of the company’s assets for his own, placing his own bid on two rooms worth of boxes he previously helped pack. Among the massive stockpile of CDs, plates, cups, and other assorted detritus purchased by Terry Diebold from the Advanta Corporation,was an odd-looking console with both Nintendo and Sony branding. However, it wasn’t the console that drew his attention to the auction. In fact, he didn’t realize it was in there at all.
“A lot of the stuff was still new,” Diebold told The Ben Heck Show in 2016, “so that’s the stuff I wanted to bid on.” Diebold said the bidding went up to $75, and that’s where it stopped, landing him two rooms worth of “plates, cups, saucers, that sort of thing.”
It wasn’t until he brought the boxes home he discovered he was now in possession of the rarest piece of gaming hardware in history… and yet neither Terry nor his son Dan Diebold grasped the importance of their discovery. They tried finding photos online to match their discovery and came up empty-handed. Both Diebolds realized they had something unusual and rare, but still didn’t know just how massive their discovery actually was. It wasn’t until later when Dan posted about the console on reddit they knew they had stumbled onto something unique. The ensuing storm of interest, and skepticism, made it abundantly clear the Diebolds were now in possession of something both massively important and incredibly valuable.
Souvenir of a Failed Venture
How then did the only known remaining prototype end up at Advanta Corporation? It turns out one of the board members of Advanta, Olaf Olaffson, was the former president of the Sony Electronic Publishing Corp, and instrumental in the creation of the Sony PlayStation console we know and love today. Olafsson had also worked at Sony at the time of the NIntendo partnership, and saw it come together and then completely fall apart.
At some point after the partnership with Nintendo collapsed and Sony decided to strike out on its own, but before the rest of the prototype consoles were packed up or destroyed, Olafsson got his hands on one. The circumstances are unknown–it may have just been something he forgot to throw away, or it might have been a personal souvenir he kept as a reminder of Sony’s first foray into the world of video games . Whatever the circumstances, when Advanta Corporation went bankrupt, Olafsson left the one-of-a-kind prototype in his New York office and its contents were packed up and sent to a company storage facility in Pennsylvania with everything else. “There were also some plaques, some shoes, a tie,” Diebold told Engadget in 2015.
One possible reason Olafsson didn’t care too much about the prototype was the fact it didn’t work correctly. When the Diebolds tried to turn it on for the first time, they discovered the Super NES part worked, but didn’t have sound. The CD-ROM on the system, the part everyone really wanted to see in action, didn’t work at all. So while they had the world’s rarest console, it was merely a shell, and the most historically significant part was either busted or had never worked to begin with.
Playing With Power
It turned out to be somewhere in between. In 2016, When the Diebolds took their one-of-a-kind console to notable hardware hacker Ben Heckendorn, Heckendorn took the console apart, broke it down, and examined it.. It suffered the problem many older pieces of software suffer: bad capacitors.
Heckendorn made short work of replacing the bad caps, and had no issues modifying a power supply to feed the prototype’s unusual 7.5-volt DC requirements. Getting inside the device also revealed some hacking had been done before, most likely by engineers during the prototyping process. Heckendorn was able to trace soldered jumpers and suss out their purpose, as well as get a better understanding of the entire unit. Some of the jumpers inside the unit were there to completely cut the CD-ROM out of the equation, hinting that the functionality was deliberately undone to give the unit a basic functionality as a Super NES, which was still a hot system at the time the prototype was made. Since the CD-ROM was still in the prototyping phase, and no known software was available, hobbling its functionality was a conscious decision to keep the Super NES portion intact. Afterall, the Super NES was the biggest console of its time, so why let the whole unit go to waste? This was also a time when no one gave any thought to historical preservation of video game materials. What we now consider the holy-grail of consoles was then considered a worthless piece of junk with a salvageable Super NES built-in.
While Heckendorn was able to get the sound output working and the Super NES portion playable, it would be another year before he had the chance to get the CD-ROM working again.
Without documentation or even official software, the task had to be approached from the ground-up, and after deliberate and careful research and years of technological experience, Heckendorn was able to boot to the CD-ROM, access its menu system, open and close the tray, and even play a game.
Interestingly, since there are no known games for the Nintendo PlayStation, Heckendorn had to download and burn a CD with a homebrew Nintendo PlayStation game to test the system out, which ended up being a boon to the homebrew scene.
With no known software developed for the Nintendo PlayStation, any game playable on the hardware was built by hobbyists. Super Boss Gaiden the first game created by enthusiasts for the system, is actually a parody of the entire situation: you play as a Sony executive, furious to discover not all the prototypes had been destroyed. The game was programmed after the Nintendo PlayStation’s basic input/output, or BIOS information, was made public. This allowed curious programmers to write software designed specifically to run on the Nintendo PlayStation hardware, or at least emulators. Super Boss Gaiden was one of the games Heckendorn tried to boot up when testing the console. However, there were memory address problems preventing it from working on the actual hardware. Because Heckendorn repaired the system to working order, the homebrew programmers were able to tweak their code, meaning both the console and the enthusiast-built games now worked as originally intended. The world’s only known Nintendo PlayStation was now also the only working one, maybe ever.
The Auction Block
With the unit in working order in 2017, its astronomical value to a collector was higher than ever. Fortunately for gaming historians, the Nintendo PlayStation software had been made public ages before it went to auction, hence Ben Heckendorn being able to play a homebrewed game on the unit. With its software in the wild, and the unit meticulously broken down, studied, and repaired, Terry Diebold turned his once-in-a-lifetime find to the auction block.
“I can’t keep losing money. I’ve put a lot of work into this by traveling with it and we have made nothing on it,” Diebold told Kotaku in December 2019.
“Every trip that we… have taken with it has cost us money out of pocket.”
In February 2020, the Nintendo PlayStation prototype was listed on Heritage Auctions, an auction house with a history of selling rare gaming collectibles. At the time, no one knew just how high the price would go. Oculus founder Palmer Lucky tweeted his interest, saying he could only think of “a handful of other people” who would drop $300,000 USD on something so rare but so niche.
When all was said and done, the only known, working Nintendo PlayStation sold for $360,000 to Pets.com founder Greg McLemore, who plans to exhibit it. That final price made it the most expensive piece of gaming history ever.
What the Future Holds
One important note about the Diebold’s prototype: it’s not truly accurate to say it’s the “only” Nintendo PlayStation prototype in existence. It’s just the only one we know of. Noted gaming artifact hunter Patrick Scott Patterson thinks there could be more out there, waiting for some lucky person to find.
“I’ve seen enough crazy situations to believe that a few more of them are probably stored away in random places,” he told us. Patterson, who buys storage lockers for a living, says he’s “encountered a lot of one-of-a-kind and ‘long lost’ items thought gone forever.” It’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps him searching, and Terry Diebold’s stroke of luck makes him believe he could strike someone else.
The likelihood of a second unit of this mythical piece of gaming history being uncovered is not high, but without any records of what became of the other prototypes, or even how many were actually made, there’s no way to be sure. That said, the unceremonious way the only known console was treated – left behind and stuffed into a box with a pile of junk – means there is a real possibility that someone else out there has one in storage or their attic. To get as far along as it did, with at least one working prototype, means dozens, maybe hundreds of people worked for years to create something that never made it to the production line. But surely some engineer or product designer looked upon their works and stole off into the night with it, keeping it around as a monument to their hard work and, of course, ultimately forgetting about it as the days turned to weeks and the weeks into years. Think about it: when’s the last time you found a box from storage or a previous mood and surprised and delighted yourself when you opened it up? The possibility for another prototype could mean more than just a big payday for some lucky person: what if there’s software with it, too? A CD-ROM with a forgotten tech demo on a system previously believed to have been wiped from the Earth would represent an enormous find for gaming historians. It’s unlikely, sure – but so was finding the world’s rarest video game console in a pile of dishware from a failed bank.
Seth Macy is IGN’s tech and commerce editor and just wants to be your friend. Find him on Twitter @sethmacy.
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