In January 1993, Pioneer Electronics introduced their new LaserActive system at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. At the time, it garnered enough media attention to make people wonder whether or not the upcoming 3DO would have significant competition when the two systems locked horns at the end of the year. That buildup of interest was quickly lost, however, at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show that same year.
Pioneer made the curious decision to display their system at a remote location by invitation only. That left the 3DO as the only "serious" next-generation system in the eyes of the press. Did Pioneer simply lack confidence in their system? Or were they so overconfident in its capabilities that another public display wasn't justified? Whatever the reason, the LaserActive fell on deaf ears in October 1993.
The curious thing about the LaserActive was that it couldn't play games by itself, relying instead on laser discs and audio CDs. The attraction was in its three different modules (available separately) that could expand its capabilities. The black laser disc player featured a slot in the bottom left corner that could house one of the following units: the Mega-LD pack, the LD-ROM2 pack or the Laser Karaoke pack.
The Mega-LD pack was developed in conjunction with Sega. It could play 16-bit Genesis cartridges, Sega CDs, CD+G discs and LaserActive Mega-LDs. The latter format took advantage of the unit's power to deliver MPEG-1 full-motion video backgrounds while the Genesis provided the 2D sprites needed for gameplay.
What this meant was that Genesis graphics were essentially "pasted" on top of video wallpaper for games using the Mega-LD format. Included in the bundle was a six-button control pad, a Mega-LD named Pyramid Patrol and a Sega CD featuring a compilation of four Genesis classics: Streets of Rage, Revenge of Shinobi, Columns and Golden Axe. All this could be yours for the price of $599.99. Of course, this sum only included the Mega-LD pack; the actual Pioneer LaserActive retailed for $969.99.
For those who preferred the relatively small lineup of software on the TurboDuo, the LD-ROM2 package was available for the same $599.99 price tag as the Mega-LD pack. Since this module was developed in conjunction with NEC Home Electronics, consumers had the ability to play TurboChips, Super CD-ROMs, CD+G discs and LaserActive LD-ROM2 discs.
The LD-ROM2 bundle came with a compilation CD featuring Gate of Thunder, Bonk's Adventure, Bonk's Revenge and Bomberman (the same games included with the TurboDuo), a two-button control pad and an educational game called Econosaurus that took advantage of the LD-ROM2 format. It is important to note that LD-ROM2 and Mega-LD software were incompatible with each other.
The third option for those who preferred a more offbeat form of entertainment was the Laser Karaoke pack, retailing for $349.99. This device allowed would-be singers to croon along with their favorite videos. Words would appear along the bottom of the screen and a microphone was included for players to sing along. By late 1993, this medium was compatible with over 200 karaoke titles.
The advantage the LaserActive had over both CD-i technology and CD-ROM was that software designed for the LaserActive could take advantage of the additional space provided by the laser disc. Instead of using 540 MB to store images or full-motion video, LaserActive software could store the equivalent of 108,000 still pictures along with one hour of audio. This was on top of the 540MB reserved for the actual program!
Despite the technology, games were few and far between. In fact, they were essentially non-existent. Besides the included Pyramid Patrol, Mega-LD owners could look forward to two announced titles: Space Berserker and Hi-Roller Battle. Like Pyramid Patrol, these games were shooters that featured full-motion video backgrounds. LD-ROM2 owners could also look forward to two titles: Vajra and Manhattan Requiem. While Vajra was a first-person shooter with a futuristic theme, Manhattan Requiem let players assume the role of a detective like Sherlock Holmes.
It didn't take a degree in marketing to figure out why the Pioneer LaserActive failed. After all, it was a textbook example of how not to release a gaming system. The first problem was the lack of media attention, something that was essential in order to inform consumers about the product and its possible benefits. Even then, the cost was the most significant hurdle, as the numbers simply didn't justify a purchase.
Why would gamers spend nearly $1,600 to play 16-bit Genesis games, Sega CDs and laser discs when they could walk into a store and get a Sega CD ($229.99) and Genesis ($89.99) for a combined price of $319.98? Even if they had to have a laser disc player, they could get one with more features (the LaserActive did not have a jog shuttle or digital display) for under $900.00. The LD-ROM2 wasn't even worth a second glance due to the lack of software available for the TurboDuo.
The exorbitant cost of the system and its modules could only be justified by the software available for either the Mega-LD or LD-ROM2 formats. As mentioned before, there were a total of three games for each format, so consumers were basically paying for a system that offered nothing unique. (Another lesson learned was not to divide your consumer base by releasing incompatible formats). The Pioneer LaserActive was DOA.
Even Game Fan magazine, a publication that went out of its way to support fledgling systems and low-profile titles, quickly stopped their coverage of the LaserActive within months of its lackluster debut. Perhaps editor Dave Halverson said it best with the following: "You're better off with a quality LD and a stand-alone gaming system. If the price on this unit ever drops to about $500, it may be a good buy. But at $1,500 fully equipped, the Pioneer [LaserActive] is a money pit you won't soon climb out of. That pretty much wraps up our coverage on this tank." The system quietly disappeared in 1994, just as the 3DO began gaining momentum with more software and greater third-party support. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide