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Console wars can be an amazing phenomenon for gamers to witness. When two consoles are struggling for dominance of the video game market, both manufacturers will compete to create some of the best system features and highest quality video games ever made. Console wars can also get nasty, as they involve fans who are ultra-passionate about their favorite console and they’ll argue to defend the choice they’ve been spending their money on. That’s exactly what happened in the 1990s when Sega and Nintendo went into a console war. This is the story of the Sega-Nintendo War, one of the greatest business wars of all time.
A History of Console Wars
Console wars are nothing new to the world of gamers and gaming. Before there were video games, the manufacturers of board games and backyard games competed for the greatest market share. When the earliest home video game systems were released—Pong, Atari, Magnavox, Nintendo Color, etc.—those consoles’ manufacturers were competing for dominance in market shares.
Fierce competition started up with future generations of video game systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Atari 2600, and of course, the Sega Master System. The latest console war is between the Sony PlayStation 4, the Microsoft XBOX One, and the Nintendo Wii U. That doesn’t even include various handheld game systems.
Beginning of the Sega-Nintendo Console War
Sega and Nintendo had been competing since the 1980s between Sega’s Master System and the Nintendo Entertainment System, and later between the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo NES. Also in competition were the Sega Game Gear and the Nintendo Game Boy handheld systems. The most popular video game characters of the 1990s were Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario.
The console war officially began when Sega made the first offensive move. The two large manufacturers didn’t just market their own products to the best of their ability. They took pot shots at each other. Sega took the first swing with a TV commercial featuring hockey players battling on the ice. Though both consoles were highly popular, the Sega Genesis boasted 16-bit capabilities that, frankly, blew the NES’ 8-bits out of the water. “Genesis does what Nintendo don’t!” shouted the spokesman hockey player after scoring the winning goal.
Marketing schemes varied, but for several years in the late 80s and early 90s, Sega and Nintendo competed for customers by selling high quality value bundles. Sega released a bundle with the Genesis and controller, and a 16-bit extension allowing gamers to play Altered Beast. At first it was a great value and Sega Genesis bundles sold well, until Nintendo released its own bundle with Super Mario World. They made a killing.
At the same time, the two manufacturers’ handheld consoles were competing for supremacy. The combatants were the Nintendo Game Boy and the Sega Game Gear. The Game Gear was clearly superb in all forms of innovation except for one. Game Gear had superior high-resolution graphics and a backlit screen. Game Boy looked heavily pixelated and its games were in black and white. The one place where Nintendo had the best innovation was where it mattered most: battery life. The Game Gear required 6 AA batteries which drained battery life in two hours or less. The Game Boy only required 2 AA batteries which lasted dozens of hours.
Rise of the Machines
Nintendo stepped up their A-game with the Super Nintendo and its most popular new game: Street Fighter 2. Street Fighter 2 continued on the modest success of the first installment, though the sequel for Super Nintendo had significantly richer graphics, sound quality, and interesting new characters. Sega would only get to release a limited edition Street Fighter game a year later, but sales suffered because it required gamers to buy a special six-button controller.
Not ones to stay down for too long, Sega recovered with the Mortal Kombat series. Even though everybody loved Sonic the Hedgehog and his faithful sidekick Tails, Sega was not afraid of introducing mature elements. The Mortal Kombat games quickly became notorious for its blood and gore, whereas Nintendo had a policy of producing only family friendly games. On the Sega, gamers could watch Scorpion performing a gruesome execution to "finish" Sub-Zero. On the Nintendo, the Street Fighter characters would get hit and gray drops of sweat would fly off their face, or the Koopas would just fall completely off Mario’s map with a sad face.
More video games started to become more violent. When video game content became increasingly mature, more parents began to notice and show deep concern for what their kids were being exposed to. There were even members of Congress denouncing video games. That’s a trend that hasn’t gone away—just a few years ago Al Gore was talking trash about the Grand Theft Auto games. To deal with the growing backlash from consumers—or consumers’ angry parents—the video game rating system was born.
Beginning of the End
By the time the attack ads were airing on television, Sega kids and Nintendo kids divided themselves into factions, almost like Bleeding Kansas’ pro-North and pro-South mobs (but with less bloodshed and more cattiness and ego-smashing). Sega came incredibly close to beating Nintendo in the console war. Two specific things happened to keep this from happening.
First, there was a "civil war" within the console war in Sega. Sega of America actually did several times better in the US market than Sega of Japan could do in the Japanese gaming market. This was humiliating to the Japan branch’s leadership and, since Sega was a Japanese company, the Japanese leadership was constantly undermining the American branch to save face. At one point, Sega of America’s CEO approached Silicon Graphics about making a 64-bit Sega system with 3D graphics.
If that dream system had happened, Sega would have crushed Nintendo, which for several years it had successfully labeled as the game system for little kids. Sega of Japan crushed the idea. Sega Saturn got annihilated in the market by the revolutionary Nintendo 64 and the new Sony PlayStation. Sega held out a little longer with the Dreamcast, but by then Sony and Nintendo were already drafting plans to make PS2 and Game Cube. It was over.
Legacy of the Great Console War
The console war for the greatest market share was ultimately a win for gamers. Those who enjoyed playing the game systems and video games coming from Sega and Nintendo surely had a ball. The console war drove both manufacturers to innovate the best game system features, to improve the graphic quality as well as the thematic quality of video games, and to produce more video games more often. This gave gamers a much bigger selection to choose from when buying or playing Sega and Nintendo games.
The pot shots and jabs that Sega and Nintendo threw at each other also changed the way technology is marketed. That first commercial with the hockey players identified Sega with a winning sports team. This type of advertising was imitated a decade later by Apple with the “I’m a PC, I’m a Mac” commercials. What we see in both of these advertising campaigns is the implied message: if you don’t stick with this team, you’re a loser!
The Sega-Nintendo War also shaped the way people around the world understand video game consoles and video games. For example, this console war gave rise to the modern ESRB rating system. At first the manufacturers printed unique advisory warnings for mature content. Several years later, PlayStation began releasing games rated E for everyone, T for teens, and M for mature gamers only. Now most video games for computers and home gaming consoles have ESRB ratings.
Without the Sega-Nintendo War, video games may have stayed cartoonish, may not have evolved as a complex and dynamic art form, may not have become relevant to older audiences. All of this history is memorialized in intriguing detail in Blake Harris’ fantastic book Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle That Defined a Generation. Better yet, Console Wars is being adapted into a mainstream movie by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Be sure to check out the book and the movie!