Sega vs Nintendo: A 90s Tale of Two Consoles

Forget the Xbox and the Playstation. The console wars of the early 90s were way more intense, especially if you were a kid back then...

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on our UK site. 

Gah, you people. You with your Xbox Threes and your Playstation 360s, quibbling over how many p your console can do. Xbox only does 900p, Playstation does 1080p. The difference is literally £1.80. You can’t even get drunk on £1.80 these days, unless you’re willing to buy Lidl’s own brand Mr Muscle (er, don’t try that at home etc). Kids today are young, so they know not the history they besmirch complaining about the sub-pixel detail in the rigging in Assassassins Creed XXVI – Templars in the Nip. Every console ever made is inferior to the Sega Mega Drive, for only it has Blast Processing.

Imagine the early 80s. An innocent, yet dangerous time, where the world had not yet learned to fear boybands, yet worried about Thatcher using communism to turn the Falklands into milk, or so the story goes. With Atari single handedly destroying the entire world’s* video game industry (*except Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Europe, Antarctica, Europe, Australasia, Europe and the bits of North America that weren’t the USA), two companies decided to enter this void that existed across the entire world* (*USA). One, a seasoned video games company hoping to bolster a dwindling arcade industry, the other marginally well known for making playing cards, it was easy to predict which was more successful.

Of course, history is littered with weird shit (like that bit in the middle ages when there were four popes), and so while Sega used its expertise to come up with the sexily named SG-1000 that bombed so hard they didn’t even bother translating the manuals and no one noticed, Nintendo released their NES, short for ‘NES Entertainment Computer’. It too bombed, until Nintendo released a gun attachment, at which point the entire world* (*Americans) started buying them in their billions, even when they already had twelve, or didn’t have a television.

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So, with Mario and his moustache marching into living rooms and arousing consumers with his dungarees (except ironically actual Italian plumbers), one might think that the gaming world were a monopoly. And so against Nintendo struck back Sega with its Master System. Armed with a much more powerful processor (nearly as fast as modern oven timers) and a sexy new name, it predictably bombed because everyone already owned three NESs. Also, it looked a bit a novelty desk tidy.

It was however mildly popular in Europe, where the minimalist monochrome gridlines of the box art appealed to stoic West German children. However, as any child who has ever read the back of an 80s Argos catalogue knows, being a Sega owner meant being a second hand citizen, forced to marvel at all the wonderful Master System games (like Alex Kidd in Fantasy Place, or Alex Kidd In Redditch) crammed into the top corner of page 749 to make way for nine thousand identical Hornby Intercity train sets and that weird radio that looked like a Coke can. Master System vs NES was less of a console war and more like that time the US Marines invaded the West Bromwich branch of WHSmith. Turns out they had Terrorvision, not Terrorists. Anyway.

In short, being a Sega fan meant pain, humiliation, and isolation. Sure, the Master System (and later Master System II) was a vastly more capable machine, but Nintendo’s stranglehold on the market meant almost all third party publishers stayed away for fear of being force fed “super mushrooms”, and the Master System only had about four games for it. At least, while it was Sega flagship. This was hardship, kids. The fact your Xbox One’s magic voice control device that reads your thoughts made your console marginally more expensive at launch is hardly a point to lament. Nor can you weep that your parallelepipedal supercomputer that lets you play games you don’t own is devoid of up to some of the features promised at launch. You’re drunk, children, go home until you learn how to grow up in the past.

Then, however, Sega hit upon a plan. Rather than release games consoles to compete with Nintendo, it was going to release a console with no competition at all. The NES was 8-bit. SEGA would release a 16-bit console. It had more bits, therefore, it was better. There could be no argument. 16 is clearly a bigger number. Two times as big, to be exact. Yet another way in which the modern console war is stupid. 1080p isn’t twice as big as 900p. How can anyone tell which is better? The future we live in is an idiot.

Released in 1989 as the Sega Mega Drive, the gulf in power between it and the NES allowed it to capitalise on Sega’s once again thriving arcade business, offering quality conversions of coin-op titles. Some shoulder-padded gentleman was probably yelling the word “synergy” while snorting coke to celebrate. Third party publishers flocked to the new system, hoping to capitalise on the more mature focus of the Mega Drive and escape Nintendo’s restrictive licensing policies. Yet even this, at first, was not enough, and the Mega Drive bombed as hard as its predecessors in its native Japan, even after Sega introduced the Sega Mega Anser, an online banking peripheral that doubled as an answering machine. I wish I were making that up.

In North America, things were better, where the rebranding as Genesis gained favour with Phil Collins fans. In Europe, it was a smash hit, overtaking Nintendo comfortably and forcing Mario to cry into his meatballs. Dressing up as a racoon didn’t appeal to your average British kid in the same way as turning into a rage monster and beating up a bunch of ancient Greek demigods. My personal favourite was World Cup Italia ‘90, especially when it glitches and you can kick the goalie repeatedly in the bollocks until the ball rolls in the net and you celebrate in front of a monkey. Okay, so you could kick goalies in the balls in Nintendo World Cup, and that’s how I once beat Cameroon 78-0, but my point remains valid. I’ve forgotten my point. The Mega Drive was called ‘Super Aladdin Boy’ in South Korea. I don’t think that was my point either. Oh, hedgehogs, that was it.

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Despite the Mega Drive enjoying success outside of Japan, Nintendo bosses didn’t see this ‘next generation’ of consoles taking off, missing entirely the irony considering that sort of thinking was exactly what allowed them a way into the market in the first place. Research on the NES 2 lacked any sort of urgency, and the Mega Drive slowly became the dominant force as the 80s spluttered into the 90s. Still, when the Super Nintendo ES finally started peeking out from behind the covers, Sega realised that a superior library of games mattered not if they were mostly Alex Kidd. Alex Kidd was shit. And so gurus banged their heads together and came up with something new, edgy, and fundamentally 90s. A fast hedgehog, oh how droll. But he’s also blue, and has attitude, and takes amphetamines (probably).

Suddenly Nintendo’s lebensraum was under threat. Third party publishers did not sign exclusivity agreements for the SNE System and instead started releasing games on both systems. Or worse… just on the Mega Drive. In truth Nintendo’s restrictive policies and the Seal Of Quality were largely anachronistic – the spectre of games not working or being incompatible was largely confined to the past, and consumer confidence was enough to support multiple players on the console scene. Sega took advantage by positioning itself as the cool consumer electronics device, the sexy living room accessory a world apart from Nintendo’s brightly coloured toys. Well, grey. It was the early 90s, people, colour was a luxury back then.

Then things turned ugly. The S Nintendo E System was easily more powerful than the Mega Drive, and without the hardware advantage as a novelty there was a real chance Sega’s market share could be eroded. Sega launched a host of negative marketing campaigns, dissing Nintendo and calling its mother names. The most famous of these was the ‘Genesis does what Nintendon’t’, but there were plenty of others, including a bizarre one for that had a psychiatrist wishing Sonic were slower and more cholesterol ridden like Mario. Nintendo hit back, with a joke.

“Why did the hedgehog cross the road?”“To get to Super Mario Land 2.”

I don’t get it.

Anyway, the console war opened up a second front, with Nintendo’s iconic Gameboy facing off against the more colourful Game Gear. Of course, the Gameboy went down in history, while the Game Gear devoured the entire world’s battery supply. Still, Sega issued adverts in the form of eye tests claiming that anyone with an IQ of more than twelve would buy a Game Gear. Stupid Sega, they’d forgotten it was the early 90s, and the world still was recovering from the excesses of the 80s. Even pastel shades were daring, let alone a 256 colour display. In case you weren’t there, things were very boring. My dad drove an Austin Montego. In beige. It pumped petrol fumes directly into the passenger seats. It did me no harm though. Beep.

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Eventually, in a nadir of an advert that saw Sonic and Tails setting about Mario and Luigi with claw hammers (possibly misremembered), focus shifted to the specs. Sure, the Super N Entertainment S trounced the Mega Drive in every way, but fortunately Sega had a convincing lie marketing trick up their sleeve. Only the Mega Drive had Blast Processing. No one’s sure what that actually meant, but from what I can gather through my meths induced fog, it was a fancy programming trick designed to get around several design limitations. Kind of like Xbox One’s EDRAM (oooh, burn). Alas, it didn’t work, and sales of the Super Nintendo Entertainment Computer overtook the Mega Drive.

In an effort to seem cool and relevant again, like your uncle suddenly wearing your converse and swearing, Sega dusted off the idea of peripherals, to cash in on the success of the aforementioned online banking attachment. The new trend sweeping the nation was the CD, and the storage space allowed for all sorts of cool things, such as music, and badly compressed video. The fact that the Mega Drive couldn’t actually play those videos was a marginal problem. The Sega Mega CD was born. The hype was so loud that it was impossible to hear anything for the entire launch year (1993 in these parts, and before that in foreign parts). “Look at these new games!” yelled the adverts. “Is that some tits?” yelled the censors. And then everyone realised that barely interactive, 16 colour videos with unintelligible sound made for crap games, and the interest was quickly lost.

Undeterred, Sega pressed on, releasing the 32X, an add-on that let you play 32-bit games if you shoved it in the Mega Drive’s increasingly swollen gusset. Because having twice as many bits must make the games better this time, right? No, it didn’t. In fact the games looked largely the same, except with the ‘benefit’ of a hardware flaw that made it crash constantly. Despite being promised as being compatible with the upcoming Saturn, it wasn’t, and the short life cycle of the product meant every game for it was rushed out the door. Some developers were even paid off to release their unfinished games, just so the 32X had some sort of library. And then Sega made the entire concept pointless by releasing the Sega Saturn the next day, or something.

By now Sega had fragmented its own consumer base so much that the Saturn was seen by many as yet another peripheral. And for those that knew what it actually was, previous Sega hardware launches had left a sour, burnt-hedgehog taste in the mouth. To top it off, the Saturn was built on the assumption that all new games would be still in 2D, just with shinier sprites. It’s dual core setup was largely unsuited to 3D, and it ended up being utterly trounced by the newest kid on the block, the PlayStation. The PlayStation ironically rose to the public consciousness in the exact same way that Sega had done years earlier – being sexy, sleek, and not a toy.

Sega tried again, in the form of the beloved Dreamcast, but the damage was done. The Dreamcast’s generation differentiated itself from the past by being bona-fide consumer electronics devices, the PS2 by including a DVD player, and the Xbox by being bigger than the average bedroom. Sega left the hardware market to focus on third party games and arcade machines, much as it had done in the early 80s. And considering Sega games since then, such as ‘Sonic The Hedgehog 2006’ and ‘Sonic The Hedgehog Needs A Kidney’, we can consider this a rousing success.

So consider this, kids, as you’re pretending to shoot up by injecting tea into your arms. The PS4 and Xbox One are the same. They have the same games. They have the same innards. They’re the same shades of black. Sure, one produces slightly more p, a difference so achingly unprofound you probably can’t tell because you’ve set your TV up wrong. But that’s it. So stop. Come back when you’ve got a real console war on your hands.

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I’m off to play Altered Beast.

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