Since man first learned how to fashion undergarments from fig leaves, humanity has scarcely lasted five minutes without starting a war. Whether it’s for land, for religion, or to take down a rotten egg like Hitler and his cronies, we as a people are prone to letting our fists do the talking a little too often. Commonly, resources are the reason that we go to war, whether those in power care to admit it or not. President Bush might like to tell you that he invaded the Middle East for the good of the people, but it just so happens there’s also a hell of a lot of oil over there. When there’s not enough to go around, everyone wants to make sure they get their share. As Tears For Fears once sang, ‘Everybody Wants To The Rule The World’.
The video game industry isn’t quite as dangerous as the Normandy landings, but with a finite number of potential buyers wielding a finite amount of money to spend, console manufacturers will do what they need to do to sell their product to the masses. When Pong was first released in a home version it had to duke it out with a slew of knock offs for market supremacy. Later came the Atari 2600 which dominated sales against largely forgotten systems like ColecoVision. After the North American video game crash of ’83 it looked like console gaming was done for in the States, but Nintendo and SEGA were about to enter the fray, and console gaming would be changed forever.
Nintendo were a card game company that had seen the interest in board games and card games decline since the arrival of arcades, and like any good company that sees the market they’re in shift, they adapted. Moving into arcade gaming and toys, Nintendo found some measure of success with their new ventures, and the next logical step was to move in on the home video game market. Atari were the big name in gaming but the crash of ’83 had decimated the company, leaving the industry wide open for a new challenger to take over. In 1983 Nintendo released the Family Computer in Japan, and after a successful run in their home country, made plans to go international. In ’85, the Famicom (as it had become known) was rebranded as the Nintendo Entertainment System and launched globally.
Meanwhile, SEGA were primarily known for making coin operated arcade machines, but they made an attempt at cashing in on the home console market too. Their SG-1000 console actually launched at the same time as the NES, but due in part to the aforementioned industry crash in North America, the lack of games available for the system, and the fact that their machine was underpowered in comparison to the Nintendo console, the SG-1000 never really found any footing. These days, the SG-1000 is largely forgotten about, remaining little but a footnote in the pages of video game history.
While the SG-1000 failed to make much of a splash, the success of the NES proved that console gaming could be a viable way to make money, and SEGA still wanted a piece of that pie. The SEGA Master System was launched in 1987 to directly compete with the NES for market share. Technically, the machine was more powerful than the Nintendo console, but with the NES having already been on the market for a few years, the Master System struggled. Gamers already had the NES, and trying to convince them to switch to a new system would be hard work; a problem made even harder because third party publishers were largely afraid to take a risk by releasing games on the system for fear of repercussions from Nintendo, and so the number of games available was limited in comparison to the NES.
The Master System didn’t come close to overtaking the NES as the number one gaming console, and so SEGA, still wanting to control the video game industry, decided to change their strategy. How do you convince people to switch to your console when they already have one that’s basically the same? You don’t. You make a better console, and then there’s no debate. And so that’s what SEGA did. In 1989 SEGA released the Mega Drive (named Genesis in the United States), a 16-bit home video game console that was so far ahead of the NES in terms of hardware power that it amounted to the next generation of gaming. In order to capitalise on the generational leap that their new console had made, SEGA decided to take the fight to Nintendo in marketing too, with the now infamous slogan, “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”. And with that, the first great console war had truly begun.
SEGA’s aggressive marketing of the Genesis was something that rubbed off on gamers. Kids would pick up the latest magazines, see the marketing mocking the NES and championing the Genesis as the future, and adopt it for themselves. Unlike any of the previous skirmishes between console manufacturers, the battle between SEGA and Nintendo drew gamers in and effectively put them on the front lines. Being at school in the late eighties meant that you were either a SEGA kid or a Nintendo kid, and you fought for your console regardless of whether you were in the right or in the wrong.
Thinking about it now, it never really made any sense, although you can still see that mentality today if you spend five minutes trawling gaming forums on the Internet and looking at some of the ridiculous things that PlayStation and Xbox fans say to each other. Anybody with their head screwed on properly can see that these companies are all essentially the same; they want your money. And while some might go about it in better ways than others, that fact never really changes. A lot of people talk about Nintendo like their HQ is a sort of gaming Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory; happy minions spending hours crafting games and the only payment they’ll ever need is a child’s smile. Life simply isn’t like that, and like most wars there’s rarely a clear cut “good guy”.
That being said, SEGA’s marketing strategy did seem overly sassy, even at the time. And I was originally a SEGA kid. While the insults might look tame today, at the time it was quite shocking to see a company not only address their competition by name, but publicly call them out. To their credit, it worked, and sales of the SEGA Genesis started very strongly, particularly in Western Europe where the Mega Drive, as it was called there, was a bona fide smash hit.
Nintendo were astonishingly slow to reply. They didn’t even announce their Super Nintendo Entertainment System until 1989, and it wasn’t released until the end of 1990 in Japan. It was released a year later in the States, and a further year later in Europe. This meant that SEGA had a relatively long time to get their claws into the market, and they also had time to prepare for the arrival of a new Nintendo console.
SEGA decided that they needed a mascot to rival that of Mario for Nintendo. They’d tried to make Alex Kidd a thing and bundling Alex Kidd In Miracle World in with the Master System was a clever move, but Mr. Kidd had never really taken off like Mario had. Now, with a brand new Nintendo console hitting the streets, SEGA needed their own mascot. What they came up with was Sonic the Hedgehog. He was bright, colourful, fast, cool and he had attitude to spare. In many ways, his creation summed up what SEGA were about at the time. The Genesis was seen as the cool, exciting new console while the NES was seen as a toy for children. The Genesis was taking games to the next level. Except when the SNES was released, the Genesis was instantly outdated. And that was a massive problem for SEGA.
The Genesis continued to sell well even after the launch of the SNES, but with the Super Nintendo being noticeably more powerful than the Genesis, they’d lost their ultimate bargaining chip. The Genesis was no longer the future. It was no longer the exciting console that laughed in the face of the competition. It was outgunned. And handsomely so.
To their credit, SEGA were at least quick to react in that they changed their marketing slogan to “Welcome to the next level” almost immediately after the SNES arrived, as though not wanting to leave themselves open to attack when people realised that “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” only works when the Nintendo console is weak. But it wasn’t power that was SEGA’s biggest problem. It was games.
Every Nintendo console, whatever you think of it, has had great games. The Wii U is a colossal failure for the company right now, but Mario Kart 8, the latest Smash Bros. and Super Mario 3D World are all stellar games. What is true now was true back then, only tenfold. The SNES has one of the greatest libraries of games ever amassed, and while the Genesis was quick out of the blocks and it made an impact, it simply couldn’t compete in terms of the quality of games.
The Super Nintendo had the likes of Mario RPG and Mario Kart. It had stacks of quality Japanese role playing games, with the likes of Final Fantasy VI still being talked about today as one of the best of all time. There was Zelda and Donkey Kong and Starfox. Even the likes of Street Fighter II, which could also be played on Genesis, was considered to be at home on the SNES thanks to the vastly superior controller on the Nintendo console. But nothing highlights why Nintendo are still in the game and why SEGA are now out of hardware more readily than the comparison between their flagship games.
Sonic The Hedgehog was created as a cooler alternative to Mario, but for all the attitude and all the speed, the games simply didn’t resonate with people in the same way that titles starring Mario did. Even today one can play Super Mario World and appreciate the impeccable game design that still holds up in 2016. Playing Sonic The Hedgehog today, unless you have the benefit of nostalgia, is not remotely as pleasant an experience.
As more and more quality games released for the SNES, sales grew, and Nintendo were gaining on SEGA. By the time the console generation wound up, the SNES had caught and overtaken the Genesis, with the Nintendo console sitting at around 49 million units sold, and the SEGA system being on just under 31 million.
SEGA made Nintendo sweat, but ultimately, they were bested by a stronger system with a better library of games. If SEGA could have capitalised on the strides they made in this generation and improved with their next console then perhaps they’d still be a major player today. Unfortunately, a series of catastrophic errors of judgement meant that their next two consoles failed. The SEGA Saturn was given a surprise release that caught everybody off guard meaning there were no games for the system at launch. After the failure of the Dreamcast, SEGA couldn’t stomach the financial hits any longer and decided to concentrate on software only. Today they’re mostly known for releasing increasingly terrible Sonic the Hedgehog games. And most of them are on Nintendo consoles.
As for Nintendo, their triumph was short lived. After going back on a deal with Sony to make a CD compatible version of the SNES at the last minute, an annoyed Sony used what they’d researched to develop their own console and enter the war in the mid-nineties. The Sony PlayStation laid waste to the Nintendo 64 in sales, and the PlayStation 2 went on to be the best selling home console of all time. Today, the PlayStation 4 battles the Microsoft Xbox One in the current console war while Nintendo are largely considered a quaint relic of a bygone era, outclassed and outsold by more forward thinking competitors.
As the industry moves on and changes, new players come and go, and companies rise and fall. Perhaps Nintendo will announce a new console that will allow them to reclaim market share. Perhaps we’ll reach a day when SEGA return to the hardware fold to have another go at taking the crown. Until then, the battles between Nintendo and SEGA will remain an essential and interesting piece of gaming history; the first great console war.