Screenshot of the Project A-Ko Hyperguide that depicts a still from Project A-Ko with a chunky mouse cursor hovering over it.

History

The Wild World of Anime CD-ROMs in North America


When looking through the lens of the current era, it can be difficult to imagine that anime was once a fairly scarce commodity outside of Japan. It wasn’t long ago that fans would search high and low to find VHS tapes, LaserDiscs, magazines, and anything else they could get their hands on. While I doubt that many would really want to return to the days of paying $29.99 for a three-episode VHS tape, it’s certainly an era that created countless fond memories for an entire generation of fans, myself included. While VHS tapes and laserdiscs have earned permanent places in the hearts of fans of a certain age, the CD-ROM has all but fallen through the cracks of anime history.  This is particularly egregious, as anime and CD-ROMS once shared a unique relationship that coincided with the rise of both media,  particularly in the United States.

By today’s standards, CDs are treated as a relic; they’re big, fragile, and have a limited capacity. Back when the format was new in the consumer market, though, it was nothing short of a revolution. For users used to storing data on floppy disks, the CD-ROM format, with its shiny optical discs that could hold  hundreds of megabytes of data, seemed like something straight out of a science fiction movie.

The format was unveiled to great excitement at 1985’s COMDEX computer show in Tokyo. A year later, Microsoft would present the first publicly available CD-ROM product, Grolier Academic Encyclopedia, which compiled all twenty-one volumes of the famed encyclopedia on a single shiny disc. Personal computer manufacturers soon began including CD-ROM drives with their hardware, and the software quickly followed.  companies like Commodore and Philips would deliver several of the first multimedia devices based around the format to people’s living rooms with limited success. Meanwhile, in 1988, NEC would offer a CD-ROM add-on for their PC-Engine console. Three years later, Sega shipped the Sega CD peripheral for their Genesis console in 1991.

The revolution wouldn’t be fully realized until the mid-1990s, though, which would see tens of millions of CD-based consoles enter consumers’ homes. with the launch of the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation in 1994. Games had more storage space to utilize, letting developers store more assets, CD-quality sound, and even full-motion video. Even mundane software like encyclopedias seemed to come to life on the screen. After all, why pay for a set of books with text and a few pictures, when you could get all of the same information on a couple of discs–with video! In the days before YouTube became the de-facto place to look up videos of practically anything, the ability to view a five-second clip of a cheetah running felt absolutely mind-blowing.

Cover art for the World of US Manga Corps CD-ROM, which features two catgirls, clad in leather and holding guns as they pose on a motorcycle.

The first official anime CD-ROM released in the United States was The World of US Manga Corps, which Central Park Media shipped to stores in 1992 . The amount of content was massive when compared to other contemporary options, with one thousand images and one hundred digital video clips included. Sadly, the title was only sold for a short period of time. According to anime journalist Michael Pinto, a  copyright holder found the title in Japan and mistook it   for a video game. As a result, the product was quickly removed from store shelves.

The World of U.S. Manga Corps was only the beginning, though. Before broadband became common, and even before internet access was widespread, CD-ROMs provided a glimpse into topics that would otherwise require several expensive purchases (or, for the lucky ones, a trip to their local library).

The format did not want for variety, as multiple anime franchises began to branch out into the CD-ROM format in myriad ways. Some, like Bubblegum Crisis and Ranma ½, shipped to stores as screen savers, combining the solution to a genuine need for people using CRT monitors with the ongoing desire of users to customize their computers. Others were celebrations of the series they covered, delivering bespoke experiences to delight fans as they explored never-before-seen content from their favorite shows. For example, with Anime Hyperguide: Project A-Ko, developer Vanguard wrapped a collection of stills, video clips, interviews, and storyboards. The entire experience was wrapped in a menu that simulated fanzines of the era, right down to “cut-out” styled text and icons that wouldn’t be out of place in Encarta. It isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that such unique experiences would be unthinkable without the increased storage size of the format.

Screenshot of the main menu from the Project A-Ko Hyperguide

And, of course, there were numerous full-blown CD-ROM video releases.

Indeed, while the Video CD format was a more common sight overall, actual video releases on CD-ROM were also available. Most of the earlier releases of this nature used Cinepak video compression and required QuickTime as a means of playing the actual video files. The video quality on these early releases was far from ideal, but the novelty factor proved to be a draw for some audiences.

As time passed, other codecs would lead to improvements in video quality, with the most notable of these being the Motion Pixels codec used by the MovieCD format. While the MovieCD library isn’t large by any stretch of the imagination, it ultimately played host to sixteen anime releases, including Ghost in the Shell and Dominion Tank Police. MovieCD didn’t set the world on fire, but it did have some moderately successful releases.

Cover art from the Anime Pin-Up Beauties CD-ROM

Software Sculptors quickly proved to be a major proponent of the CD-ROM video format in the anime world.  The company was founded by John Sirabella (later the founder of Media Blasters) in 1992 focused heavily on computer software in its early days. For their early releases, the company focused on licensing properties from other anime companies like Viz and AnimEigo. Costs were low for the young studio, as founder John Sirabella noted in an interview that their costs averaged about $60,000 per release, and each took six months to a year to complete.

The company was eventually acquired by Central Park Media in the mid-1990s. They continued to produce software, but the label was used for releases on formats like VHS and DVD, as well. Sadly, Software Sculptors disappeared along with Central Park Media after the company declared bankruptcy in 2009.

So, why aren’t we consuming all of our anime and information about anime via CD-ROM today? Despite being one of the top buzzwords of the early 1990s (along with multimedia), the format, as a video platform, was more of a gimmick than a true wave of the future.

Cover art of the Legend of Lemnear anime CD-ROM

The format never really caught on for home video releases. According to MediaOCD owner Justin Sevakis, “a few […] popular CPM titles got CD-ROM releases, but none sold very well that way. Years later, while I was at CPM, we were still trying to get rid of those discs at conventions.”  The format’s chances of becoming a viable market contender were quickly snuffed out by DVD’s entry into the market in 1997.

It was also during this period that the Internet began to cement itself as a mass medium. The utility’s ability to offer a wide array of downloadable software curbed consumer demand for more offbeat variants like screen savers or information discs.

For many, CD-ROMs will never strike the same nostalgic chords as video tapes and LaserDiscs, though they can still elicit a powerful response. Maybe it’s because of how closely I associate anime with my early days of accessing the web, but there’s just something magical about the relationship between anime and old PCs. Loading up a Bubblegum Crisis screensaver just feels right; it brings me back to the days of browsing the Anime Web Turnpike and trying to find any scrap of anime information that I could.

Box art for the Bubblegum Crisis Screen Saver

Sure, I could watch the new Blu-Ray of Cyber City Oedo 808, but there’s something fun about loading up the disc on an old PC. No, the quality isn’t great, and yes, it can be a pain to get everything up and running.

Still, when you do, it feels a little bit magical; like a small piece of the past just snuck right into the present.

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