What Is the Pioneer LaserActive?
The Pioneer LaserActive was a Laserdisc-based video game console released by Pioneer Electronics in Japan and North America in 1993.
Rather than being sold as a stand-alone game system operable out of the box, the LaserActive used a modular system. The core unit of the LaserActive was the CLD-A100 player, a bare-bones Laserdisc player (composite video only, no disc flipping, no digital still frame) with an expansion bay (“PAC Port”) in its lower-left corner that allowed for one of four released expansion modules (“PACs”) to be installed and used with the system.
- Sega PAC S-1 (Japan) / S-10 (North America): The most popular LaserActive module. Allowed the LaserActive to play Sega Mega Drive (Japan)/Sega Genesis (North America) cartridges, Mega CD (Japan)/Sega CD (North America) discs, standard CD+G discs, and LaserActive-exclusive Mega-LD Laserdisc video games. Was not compatible with the Sega 32X addon, due to the lack of the appropriate RGB inpuy on the CLD-A100 unit itself (a Sega Power Base Converter will work with the module if its PCB is removed from the case, which normally prevents the Power Base Converter from fitting into the PAC cartridge slot).
- NEC PAC-N1 (Japan) / N-10 (North America) Much rarer than its Sega cousin. Allowed the LaserActive to play NEC PC Engine (Japan) / TurboGrafx-16 (North America) game cards, NEC CD-ROM² and Super CD-ROM² games (also supports Arcade CD-ROM² games if the Arcade Upgrade Pro/Duo card is present in the game card slot), standard CD+G discs, and LaserActive-exclusive LD-ROM² Laserdisc video games. HuCard region converters are compatible with all NEC modules.
- Karaoke PAC K-1 (Japan) / K-10 (North America) Provides two mic inputs and balance controls for use with LaserKaraoke discs and karaoke CDs. The only additional hardware in this PAC was for handling CD+G discs, the popular format for karaoke CDs – otherwise, it essentially just acts as a microphone passthrough.
- Computer Interface PAC PC-1 (Japan only, not pictured) By far the most elusive of the LaserActive PACs. This PAC allowed the LaserActive to connect to a Mac, DOS PC, or NEC PC98 via serial port, and was packaged with floppy discs containing program editing software and examples. The module, released at the tail end of the LaserActive’s two-year lifespan, is incredibly rare; however, the editing software (despite it requiring a connected PAC PC-1 to run) has been recovered and is emulatable in DOSBox. While collectors have often speculated that this PAC was intended as development hardware for LaserActive homebrew games, this is likely not the case, since having a PC-1 PAC inserted means that you cannot insert a Sega or NEC PAC to use for development (and the included editing software does not allow you to mimic any Sega or NEC functionality).
It is worthy of note that the Sega and NEC PACs (not the Karaoke or PC PAC) enhanced the LD playback capabilities of the CLD-A100 player. While viewing an LD movie, the PACs allowed for the CLD-A100 to perform frame-by-frame, multi-speed jog, still frames, and other advanced features not possible on a vanilla CLD-A100 player. Thus, in a sense, an upgraded CLD-A100 player was a highly versatile LD player, only disadvantaged by its lack of S-Video out.
In addition, the LaserActive also supported LCD-shutter 3D goggles (linked via an adapter), sold separately as the Pioneer 3D Goggles GOL-1 and Pioneer 3D Goggle Adapter ADP-1. In reality, any CRT-based LCD shutter controller can be used with the LaserActive, as can any pair of LCD shutter 3D glasses that connect via 3.5mm jack (this includes the Sega Master System and Famicom 3D glasses). The official Pioneer goggles and adapter are incredibly rare, making third party stand-ins far more affordable.
What About the Exclusive Games?
LaserActive games were stored on either Mega-LD Laserdiscs or LD-ROM² Laserdiscs, to be used with the Sega and NEC PACs respectively. The format was region-free – Japanese games could be played on American hardware and vice versa (in fact, many LaserActive games are bilingual, or use the English language in both regions).
To fit the games on the disc, all audio on the disc was mixed down to the LD’s FM analog audio tracks, clearing the PCM audio sector of the disc and freeing 500 MB of storage space per side. This section of the disc stored the game data, in the form of a modified Sega CD or Super CD-ROM² disc image. Real-time sprite graphics (as well as in-game music/SFX, on many an occasion) were generated via the Sega or NEC hardware, while Laserdisc video provided either still images, motion backdrop, or a combination of the two. This not only allowed LaserActive games to feature FMV of then-unparalleled quality (aprox. single 480i/dual 240p NTSC analog video streams with relatively little seek time, vs the longer load times of digital competitor MPEG-1), but also to feature rich, DVD-like menus and navigation. This allowed LaserActive games to expand upon the concept of the “FMV game”, offering action-packed scrolling shooters, interactive films with seamless player-controlled cuts, and definitive ports of some Laserdisc arcade games.
Why Did It Fail?
The Pioneer LaserActive failed in both Japan and North America for a very simple reason – the price. The base CLD-A100 player retailed for $970 upon North American release in 1993. This excludes the cost of the PAC modules, which had to be purchased separately. The PAC S-10 and PAC-N10 retailed for $600 each, and the PAC-K1 retailed for $350. (The late release date of the LaserActive, which only beat the Sony PlayStation to the Japanese market by a year, also didn’t help matters).
Any “universal media center” value that the console held was utterly invalidated by these prices – a LaserActive player with all three PACs would have cost approximately $2550 in 1993 (not adjusted for inflation)! Barring the small number of LaserActive-exclusive games, the exact same functionality could be achieved by purchasing a separate LaserDisc player with built-in Karaoke compatibility, a Sega Genesis, a Sega CD, and a TurboDuo – for less than half the price of the LaserActive’s equivalent.
Why Is It Worth Preserving?
We at the LaserActive Preservation Project believe that any piece of video game history, success or failure, is worth preserving, simply due to the fact that it is history. We chose to focus on the LaserActive in particular because of its software – unlike many console failures, the LaserActive’s software is actually of remarkable quality. It boasts the definitive ports of several classic Laserdisc arcade games, in addition to original and innovative exclusive games. The LaserActive’s graphical fidelity was second-to-none in 1993, and many of its games have visuals that still shine today. Without preservation, all of this unique software would be lost to time, especially considering the volatility of both the LaserActive hardware and of the Laserdisc medium itself.