Scrolling Pixels: When Sega and Nintendo went to war

1 Jun 2015

Scrolling Pixels is Dean Van Nguyen’s monthly column focusing on retro gaming. Check back on the first Monday of every month for the latest instalment.

Borg and McEnroe. Coke and Pepsi. Biggie and Tupac. All great rivalries that helped define the 20th century. These were adversaries that drove wedges between friends and families as the battle lines were drawn. Choosing a side was more than just throwing your support behind a single entity – it spoke of your personality, your character. These were not decisions to be taken lightly.

Few rivalries, however, were as ferociously fought as the battle for gaming console supremacy that broke out in the early ’90s. This was a clash not just for the hearts, minds and money of gamers everywhere, but for that prime real estate next to the TV in family living rooms. Electronics companies had duked it out to establish their product as the No 1 choice for consumers before, but rarely had those punters defended their brand of choice so passionately, and never before had consumer tech firms been so aggressive in pursuing their audience.

I’m talking, of course, about Nintendo and Sega. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System versus the Mega Drive (Genesis to our North American friends) was by a distance the most bitter, bloody, barnstorming console war to ever be waged. While such battles are constantly being fought by rival pieces of hardware – as they are today, most notably between Sony’s Playstation IV and Microsoft’s Xbox One – these were two incredible machines with very different personalities. Choosing which to invest in was no easy decision. The superior product has never been definitively chosen.

The history

Nintendo and Sega was your classic David vs Goliath story. The North American video game crash of 1983 had a scorched earth effect on the whole industry, swallowing up Atari, Coleco and every other company that had tried to make a quick few quid off gaming. It was Japanese company Nintendo, originally founded all the way back in the 19th century as a hand-made card company, that revitalised what was seen as a toxic industry with the release of their NES system in the US in 1985. By 1990 Nintendo had a 90 per cent market share, leaving Atari and Sega (which in the ’80s was pushing its Master System console) to battle it out for the scraps. But as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben once famously forewarned, with great power comes great responsibility, and as described by Machinima’s documentary The History of Nintendo, the company used its monopoly to impose strict restrictions on third-party game developers – policies that fuelled feelings of resentment among the firms.

Sega, which began operating in Hawaii in 1940 to develop and distribute coin-operated slot machines, needed to do something drastic to truly step into the area. The Mega Drive was launched in Japan in 1988, North America in 1989 and Europe in 1990. Just the second 16-bit console to be released (the first was the TurboGrafx-16, for your information), it was a far more powerful piece of hardware than the creaking NES. But Sega knew it couldn’t rely on its great tech alone. Taking down Nintendo was going to take some lateral thinking.

In an all-out attempt to crowbar its way into the marketplace, Sega of America CEO Michael Katz concocted a two-tier strategy. Firstly, to match Nintendo’s instantly-recognisable characters, the company would build titles around well-known celebrities. This birthed titles like James ‘Buster’ Douglas Knockout Boxing, named after the-then heavyweight boxing champion, and the absolutely batshit Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, where gamers played as the King of Pop as he rescues kidnapped children by defeating gangsters with his wicked dance moves (one button would initiate a special ability that would see all on-screen enemies dance along to Smooth Criminal in unison with Jackson before falling dead to the floor).

The second part of Katz’s scheme involved a marketing campaign that went straight for the throat of Nintendo. The NES had been pitched as a family-friendly console. Mario and the cast that featured in his games were the type of characters that you could easily slap on a Happy Meal. Sega wanted the Megadrive to be a more badass alternative. It was going after the teens and college-age kids in the hope that their little brothers would follow. This brattish, rebellious streak was summarised in the now infamous slogan: “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”.

It was pretty brash, if grammatically peculiar. Remember when Samsung had a cheeky dig at Apple last year, responding to reports that the new iPhone 6 was bending in owners’ pockets by tweeting that the then-forthcoming Galaxy Edge was “curved not bent”? That was deliciously mischievous. But could you imaging if Samsung tried to throw god-level shade on Apple by putting out a TV ad featuring a jingle that repeated the lyrics ‘The Galaxy will do what the iPhone don’t’ over and over again? It was crazy stuff, but Sega’s campaign worked. Plus, the company managed to rally significant support from third-party game developers, who were tired of Nintendo’s tyranny. Even when the company launched the 16-bit SNES (called the Super Famicom in Japan) a couple years after the Megadrive, the company had yielded a significant chunk of its market share.

School daze

Not that any of that was apparent to me and my childhood friends. We knew nothing of technical specs, marketing strategies etc… Our arguments on which console was king were based on what was tangible to an eight-year-old. I asked my parents for a Super Nintendo primarily for one reason: Street Fighter II. The game dropped on the system in December, 1992, but a version wouldn’t come out for the Mega Drive until the following year, and when it did, Sega’s three-button control pad was incredibly awkward to use, requiring gamers to press Start to move between punches and kicks. The SNES had a six-button control pad, perfect for getting to grips will each character’s every move. 1-0 Nintendo, then. But, as a beat ’em up fan and Sega loyalist could point out, their version of Mortal Kombat did have blood and Nintendo’s, ever the family-friendly brand, did not. The SNES did have Killer Instinct though. A clear MK knock-off, the game was launched with an amazing (and aggressive) ad campaign, giving plenty of new ammo to Nintendo fans in the schoolyard.

There was a lot of games exclusively released to one system, while games that did appear on both often differed wildly. Aladdin was a huge movie in 1992 and a game adaptation was created for both consoles. They were totally different experiences though, and the argument as to which was the better edition is ongoing (SNES for me). Earthworm Jim was designed for the Megadrive and subsequently ported over to the Super Nintendo, with altered graphics, awful sound effects and music, and, to many a gamer’s horror, one of the levels from the Genesis version missing completely. These are just a few examples of the sticks we used to beat the consoles we didn’t own as kids back in the day, but nowhere was the difference between both systems as pronounced as on their flagship platform games.

Best of enemies

Sonic and Mario. Mario and Sonic. Both mascots indicative of the companies they represented. You had Mario, who debuted way back in 1981 as ‘Jump Man’ on arcade smash hit Donkey Kong. An Italian plumber, for some reason, it was the graphical limitations of the day that helped forge his look. Characters couldn’t boast nuanced features back then, so Mario was created with red overalls and a blue shirt for contrast, a red cap instead of tough-to-depict hair, and a big ol’ pixel for his distinctive large nose. He was bright, colourful and accessible to kids.

Sonic, on the other hand, represented everything Sega wanted the Megadrive to be. With his ‘in yo’ face’ attitude, you couldn’t have made him more Generation X if you tried, while the speed of the first Sonic The Hedgehog game was unparalled for a platformer, something Sega trumpeted as highlighting its, ahem, ‘Blast Processing’ – essentially an expression the company made up in another ad campaign to further stick it to the SNES (as pointed out by Cinemassacre, the Megadrive’s 7.6MHz processing speed was about the only spec that the Mega Drive topped the 3.6MHz SNES, losing out in RAM, colours, maximum sprite size and display resolution).

Both mascots appeared on some of the greatest games to grace both consoles. Mario might have missing the cool factor, but his games came with a level of universe building that Sonic didn’t. Super Mario World is straight up the greatest, most immersive platform game ever made. But in second place is Sonic The Hedgehog 2, which not only brought the speed, but also incredibly creative level design and some of the best 16-bit music to ever feature on one of the consoles.

If you’re looking for a symbolic end to Nintendo and Sega’s rivalry, look at Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games, released in 2007. Once you saw both characters on the same box art, you knew it was all over.

New rivals

For all the right decisions Sega made in reaching the top, its fall from grace included so many world-class terrible decisions it’s hard to know where to start. Having tested its audience’s patience with a series of Megadrive add-ons that proved about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike, 32-bit console the Sega Saturn was launched in Japan in 1994. But a poor line-up of launch titles and third-party developers’ struggles to figure out how to make games for the machine – not to mention Sony entering the arena with the stellar PlayStation 1 – sank the Saturn pretty quickly.

The Dreamcast, an amazing machine, came out in Japan in 1998 and the rest of the world the following year, but by then it was too late. Sega’s goodwill has been burned up and they just couldn’t compete with Microsoft and Sony, companies that probably have more money than some continents. Having pushed the Dreamcast for a couple of years to no avail, it announced its exit from the hardware industry to focus solely on creating games for other systems.

Nintendo also suffered with the introduction of new rivals. The N64 had some classic Nintendo-made games, but their insistence on sticking with capacity-limited cartridges over the larger CDs (to combat piracy) upset third-party developers, who took a lot of their business elsewhere. The almost totally unsuccessful GameCube followed, but the release of the Wii in 2006 took the company back to the top of the sales charts with software that focused on the simple intuitive gameplay it had been a master at two decades previously.

So who won the console wars? According to the figures, Nintendo, who sold 49m units to Sega’s 29m. In the US, however, where Sega’s aggressive ad campaign had been most prominant, it managed to reach 55pc marketshare before the SNES was released – not bad when you consider the firm basically came from a standing start. But the Mega Drive was most popular here in Europe, where it easily dominated the market. The Master System was actually a pretty big hit on this side of the globe and it’s estimated that Nintendo’s European market share might have been as low as 10pc by the time the SNES was released.

The real winner though was, of course, the gamer. Like all great rivalries, Nintendo and Sega pushed each other to be better than they ever could have been without an enemy to work off. The SNES and Mega Drive were great machines for different reasons. The technical advancements of the SNES meant that classics like Star Wing and Donkey Kong Country just wouldn’t have been possible on the Sega, but the Mega Drive was home to a huge selection of iconic arcade beat-em-ups (the Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, Shinobi triple back that often came bundled with the console is one of the pillars on which all our childhoods were built), while I was proper addicted to shooters like Mercs and Raiden Trad. Nintendo had the brilliantly barmy racer Mario Kart, while Sega had the brilliantly barmy racer Road Rash. We’ll easily be having this argument for the rest of our lives.

I can’t choose which console I prefer though, I love them both too much. And if you’re a grown-up reading this for nostalgic purposes, I suggest you do the right thing. Buy both.

Dean Van Nguyen was a contributor to Silicon Republic