PlayStation Revolution review: Fascinating history of Sony consoles glosses over embarrassing bits

With the PS5 and Xbox Series X launches mere months away, it’s the ideal time for a nostalgic look back at Sony’s early days in the video game industry. From Bedrooms to Billions: The PlayStation Revolution explores Sony’s 26 years of making consoles.

The documentary is directed by Anthony and Nicola Caulfield, whose From Bedrooms to Billions series previously covered the rise of the British video games industry and the Commodore Amiga. It hits streaming, Blu-ray and DVD on Sept. 7.

Veterans of the late ’80s and early ’90s console wars will immediately feel at home with this documentary. Sega and Nintendo were locked in battle, so newcomer Sony snuck into the game by partnering with Nintendo for a SNES add-on dubbed “Play Station.” When the two companies fell out, Sony reworked the name for its first console.

1994 flashback

In covering the original PlayStation and Sony’s rise to power in the industry, the documentary is utterly gripping for anyone with a passing interest in video games, pop culture or business. It spectacularly highlights how the Japanese company shifted gaming from something you leave behind with childhood to a pastime for sophisticated adults through archival footage, old marketing materials and interviews with people who lived through the era.

People like ex-Sony Computer Entertainment exec Phil Harrison and former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske (a name readers of Blake J. Harris’ Console Wars will know well) offer fascinating insights into the business and marketing successes of those early days, with lead PS5 architect Mark Cerny and other developers making easily digestible technical points about the challenges of programming console games in 3D for the first time.

Fans of Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy 7 will be delighted to see Shinji Mikami, Hideo Kojima and Yoshinori Kitase talking about those series’ PlayStation entries as well. The technical jump from the 16-bit SNES generation to Sony’s 32-bit console created new opportunities for cinematic gaming experiences that looked like nothing gamers had seen before, and made these guys legends whose influence continues to this day.

The documentary indirectly highlights how male-dominated the industry was. We don’t see any women until Tomb Raider artist Heather Stevens discusses her role in developing Lara Croft’s first adventure.

Going next-gen

Unfortunately, after spending more than two thirds of its 2-hour, 40-minute runtime on the original PlayStation, the PS2 — the highest selling console of all time — gets less than 30 minutes. This section highlights the technical leap forward with footage of classics like Jak and Daxter, Grand Theft Auto 3 and God of War.

That also meant it was more difficult to program games for the new console, meaning there weren’t many third-party games ready for the PS2 launch in 2000. The film also reminds us of the importance of the PS2 being one of the cheapest DVD players on the market.

The PS3 era fares even worse — the filmmakers take the time to acknowledge that console’s comparative failure and somehow only give it a 10-minute segment. And Microsoft’s Xbox, which rose as Sony’s main competitor during the PS2 era and whose Xbox 360 gobbled up a chunk of PS3’s market share, is only referenced once. We don’t get much insight into the PS4 either, beyond some commentary about its incredible success and a segment about PS VR that feels more like marketing than analysis.

Sony’s portable gaming devices, the PSP and PS Vita, aren’t covered at all despite the PSP’s enormous popularity. (It was overshadowed by Nintendo’s DS.) These omissions are particularly pretty jarring since the PocketStation, an odd memory card peripheral that was only ever released in Japan, gets a mention.

Early success

PlayStation Revolution is a fun journey when it’s covering Sony’s initial foray into the video game industry and the excitement of the mid-’90s. Less satisfying is the way it glosses over follow-up consoles, the company’s failures and impact of the competition despite the documentary’s long runtime. It might have felt more even as a multipart series that looked at each era more equally.

If you’re a gamer who’s been on the PlayStation journey since the original console or just want to see how Sony went into battle against Nintendo and Sega back in 1994, the initial segment of the documentary will be a nostalgic treat. Just don’t expect the same level of insight into subsequent generations.