Two warriors stand on the field of war; one, the blood-and-viscera drenched upstart with everything to prove and the other, the battle-hardened veteran marred with the puckered scars of fights long forgotten.
No other time and place had ever seen a war fought such as this, and it’s doubtful if anything like it will ever be seen again. Two titans fought, tooth and nail, inch-by-inch, for supremacy over the hearts and minds of children for years.
There was no middle ground.
…unless you were that rich bastard Kyle who had lived in the big mansion with the giant TV.
I’m talking about Sega versus Nintendo.
Specifically, the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo.
Now I want to make this plainly clear as I write this – I had a Genesis, but I also had an NES. In reality, I didn’t find either of them truly interesting as I probably owned 5 games between the two. As lame as this sounds, I found my immersion in books and the gaming consoles of the time really boring.
At best the games of the time had a mildly interesting story, and if I wanted to follow the adventures of a two-dimensional character I’d crack open a comic book.
That’s not to say I hate videogames – it’s just that they held little appeal to me until PlayStation, Dreamcast and the N64 showed up on the scene much later with actual storytelling and, well, three-dimensions.
What I’m saying is, I really have no pony in this race other than an interest in revisiting this nuclear-level console war.
First, a little history. I won’t get too in-depth because there have been plenty of articles written about this event by guys that were way more into videogames then I was; guys that probably have beards, work on Apples, and go to restaurants that serve cereal at $9.00 a bowl.
In the early late 80s and 90s there was really two companies that were on the scene – Sega and Nintendo. Nintendo, having dominated the home console market for almost a decade, was sitting pretty on the top of the heap. However, Sega had a tight grip on arcade systems – something that, at the time, meant a lot.
Sega was trying desperately to break in to the console market and in ’89 they released the Sega Mega Drive that had 16 bits instead of the NES’s 8.
“What is a bit?” you may ask? Well, I could give you a smarmy, hipster answer that a lot of these articles seem to love; but, instead I’m going to tell you via Wikipedia:
A bit is the basic unit of information in computing and digital communications. A bit can have only one of two values, and may therefore be physically implemented with a two-state device. These values are most commonly represented as either a 0 or 1. The term bit is a portmanteau of binary digit.
The two values can also be interpreted as logical values (true/false, yes/no), algebraic signs (+/−), activation states (on/off), or any other two-valued attribute.
Anyway, Sega threw in 16 bits of gaming processing versus Nintendo’s 8; however, Nintendo not only had the experience and existing market share, but a gigantic library of licenses that Sega simply couldn’t touch.
…that is, until a little blue hedgehog in shiny red shoes ripped through the scene.
You see, in the beginning the lion’s share of the videogame market were children who wanted fun, light, colorful characters – hence Nintendo’s 90% dominance of the scene. Nintendo not only had Kid Icarus, Donkey Kong, Zelda, and others, it had the godfather of them all: Mario, the little red plumber that got cock-blocked at every turn by Bowser.
Sega was doing its best, but simply couldn’t get a mascot to stick with the children.
Hell, early on their console came with the game Altered Beast, which I already did a review so I won’t waste my time explaining that piece of impossible crap game.
So in burst Sonic with it’s beautiful graphics and immensely fun gameplay, and Sega had a hit. Not only that, but Nintendo’s competing machine, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, wasn’t even out yet as Nintendo took its sweet time to develop. This catapulted the Sega Mega Drive – renamed The Sega Genesis to us western folks, into a much larger market share; actually beating out Nintendo for a few years.
Now to the real war: what Sega did next was something that wasn’t done before and really not done since – an all-out smear campaign against Nintendo.
Over the next few years, Sega mercilessly dragged Nintendo’s name through the mud; essentially calling it a “child’s toy” as compared to Sega’s “extreme,” more adult oriented games. In doing this, Sega singlehandedly pitted about 50% of the children in the schoolyard against the other 50% because, well, that was the market – sometimes fluctuating but mostly about 50-50. Seriously, we would have intense debates over what the better machine was, simply based on what we owned.
Sure, today you have the PlayStation versus Xbox; but, nothing hit quite as hard in the 90s when someone would pull up the difference between Mortal Combat having blood in it as opposed to sweat.
There was a constant bombardment of ads from Sega telling you how awesome they were; akin to some huge dude with a Mohawk, Oakley shades, and bulging biceps screaming at your 13-year-old face.
Sega expanded the market even further with third-party developers and “peripherals;” little additions to your Sega Genesis that would boost the power or put you on an early version of the internet.
Unfortunately, these peripherals weren’t well thought out and failed miserably; eventually making Sega’s empire so bloated that it collapsed in on itself.
Nintendo, however, had a different issue; one that it suffers from today.
Although the company kept its head down through the 90s, meticulously monitoring both its licenses and games, it pigeonholed its image as just what the Sega intended to make it out to be – a children’s machine.
Again, I’m not much of a gamer and haven’t owned a Nintendo product since the introduction of the Gameboy; however, I can say from a layman’s standpoint that the Nintendo appears to me as a children’s toy. And can anyone really disagree?
I’m sure the games are great, but if choosing between a Xbox One, a PlayStation 3, or a Wii, do I want to play as a colorful plumber squashing mushrooms or steal a car and plan a heist?
It’s interesting now, looking at both companies; Sega almost dead and Nintendo cornered into an image that it cannot shake – almost like two toothless, broken ex-soldiers, sitting quietly on their front porch, rocking gently in their rocking chairs, and talking about the “good old days.”
I guess if companies are considered people, then Sega and Nintendo are those old men meeting to play chess in the park as the rest of the gaming industry are preparing for a hard night of partying.
Regardless, the time spent deeply entrenched in the console wars was one to behold, and easily one of the most interesting times for videogames.
Until next time…