Nintendo and Sega both have backstories that predate the history of video game consoles. With regards to who came first, the answer would be Nintendo, who started up in 1889 as a playing card producer in Japan. Sega dates back to the early 1940s, when the company produced coin-operated jukeboxes largely for the Hawaii market.
The idea of home computer entertainment software was in production at the time, but the success and availability of said product was alien to the two companies. In fact, both Nintendo and Sega would have probably been unaware of the existence of each other, with both concentrating on such vastly different products at the time. They were just two small and unique companies creating very specific software; neither could have even dreamed of the success they would encounter in the future. Their rivalry would become perhaps the most intense in video game history, second perhaps to the ongoing Sony versus Microsoft rivalry, but it would certainly shape the future of video gaming.
Sega drew first in the home entertainment system battle when, in 1966, it released an interactive submarine simulator game called Periscope. At that time Sega had partnered with a Tokyo-based entrepreneur who saw the company as a viable asset to his ever-growing repertoire of businesses. Although based in Japan, the entertainment system saw a massive range of success over in the United States and on mainland Europe. It showed that video entertainment systems could be a successful asset to a company and that there was an expanding market for them.
Sega continued on the wave of video gaming by introducing a number of arcade games that boomed in popularity across the world in the 1970s. The brand and name became a worldwide presence, soon leaking into the world of celebrity. One of Sega's most notable celebrity attracters was Henry Winkler, a.k.a the Fonz. The wildly popular Happy Days character had reached cult status across the United States, with his popularity only increasing as the '70s wore on.
Sega saw this as a golden opportunity and, after reaching out to Winkler, created an arcade game called Fonz. Based on an earlier motocross game, Fonz was near enough an exact replica, the only difference being the new game featured the character riding his famous motorbike. The game, partnered with the success of Happy Days and the endorsement from Winkler himself, brought massive success to Sega, which grossed nearly $100 million by the end of the decade.
Nintendo was slow to compete with Sega in the video game industry. The arcade scene was dominated by Sega, and the successful release of Space Invaders by Taito likely made a leap into the arcade scene seem farfetched. Nintendo sought refuge in the home entertainment system, rather than in arcades. An early attempt to crack the market was the Color TV-Game, which was released in 1977. Really, this was little more than an updated version of the game Pong. But the marketing and availability meant Nintendo was able to sell nearly 3 million systems — quite the achievement at the time.
Nintendo continued down the road of creating new and innovative entertainment systems by introducing the Game & Watch. This was a portable console with a small LCD screen that was released in 1980. Although simplistic in its gameplay, the idea of being able to play a video game anywhere and at anytime was massively appealing to the growing gaming community, so much so that Nintendo was able to sell 43 million units worldwide — a huge success at the time and something Nintendo execs could never have envisaged 10 years prior.
Although Nintendo was building ground in home entertainment, it was still falling way behind the might of Sega in the arcade scene. Sega will still making a huge profit from the coin-operated devices and Nintendo was unable to compete, despite releasing several arcade games. But 1981 changed everything. The release of the Donkey Kong arcade game saw Nintendo not only rejuvenate its arcade presence, but match the might of Sega. Donkey Kong was a worldwide smash and also introduced three of the most famous characters ever: Mario, Donkey Kong and Princess Peach.
The Art Of War
With Nintendo catching up to Sega in the arcade scene, it only seemed natural for Sega to dip its toes into the world of home entertainment. By 1983, the arcade systems had seen a vast decline in popularity and the only natural alternatives for video game manufacturers was to switch their focus to home entertainment systems. Sega created it’s inaugural console in 1983. The SG-1000 was not exactly the most catchiest of titles and didn’t really set the cash registers on fire. Only managing to shift two million units worldwide, the console could have been considered a flop. But it did introduce the world to Yuji Naka, the producer who would later go on to create the iconic Sonic the Hedgehog character.
Nintendo was pulling away from Sega in the gaming world, and the release of the SG-1000 showed. With that console going on to underperform for Sega, Nintendo released its Famicom console on the same day. Nintendo’s console became the most successful console up to that date. Sega was in troubled waters with the switch from arcade to console, and seemingly had nowhere to go. Nintendo was only getting more and more popular.
Atari had driven itself to extinction by oversaturating the market with little or no creativity, and Nintendo was only growing stronger. The release of the Nintendo Entertainment System came in 1985, with the console showcasing a unique series of games and introducing the world to Super Mario Bros. and The Legend Of Zelda, arguably two of the greatest franchises ever created. Both games sold a combined total of 46 million copies and was a huge boost to Nintendo’s popularity.
A Bird In The Hand
Sega responded to Nintendo’s strong console sales by creating the 8-bit master system in 1986. Although it sold 13 million units, the console and company were still being overhauled, with Nintendo pulling way ahead in the console wars. The brand would continue to show innovation in the video games industry with the creation of the Game Boy. Launching in 1989 with the built-in game of Tetris, the handheld device would sell a mouthwatering 118 million devices worldwide. Nintendo was keeping a strong grasp on the video game world, driving Sega away.
Whilst Nintendo were focusing on the handheld world, Sega launched a new home-based console, the Genesis. The jump from 8- to 16-bit proved a success for Sega, who launched the console early in an attempt to break the growing wave of popularity Nintendo was experiencing. Sega also tried to compete with Nintendo by creating a new pop culture icon. While Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Sonic the Hedgehog, a fast-paced side scrolling experience that saw Sega receive both high praise and resounding success.
Sega's confidence grew after the launch of the Genesis, and in a bid to compete with the Game Boy, the Game Gear was launched in 1991 — but was a massive failure in comparison. Game Gear was known for having an incredibly short battery life and a frustratingly small number of games available. Due to these factors, the console only sold 11 million devices, which was tragically low compared to the numbers of the Game Boy.
Nintendo soon arrived to the 16-bit world with the Super Nintendo, or SNES. The console was partnered with Super Mario World, a new adventure for Nintendo’s most famous mascot. The game itself was a major boost for console sales and sold an amazing 20 million copies worldwide. Sonic was building ground for Sega, but Mario was still the figurehead when it came to character-based video games.
The Sound Of Violence
Sega countered this growing Nintendo success by introducing the world to violent video games. Streets of Rage and Golden Axe, whilst not containing blood or gore, showed that brutality could sell. This raised the credibility of Sega and offered an alternative to the somewhat child-friendly Nintendo fare. Sega pushed out the gritty and realistic racing title Road Rash, which Nintendo met with the colorful and child-friendly Mario Kart.
Nintendo would take down Sega here, with Mario Kart racking up 9 million sales worldwide. With Sega against the ropes and taking a beating, they took the violence to another level. Mortal Kombat took violence and turned it into a controversial topic. The gruesome nature of the game tied in with the brutal fatalities would prove too violent for Nintendo, who wouldn’t allow the game to be sold on its console.
The success of the violent games saw Sega receive a boost in revenue. This was in turn pumped into a $10 million advertising campaign for the upcoming release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Released in 1992, the game went on to sell around 6 million copies, but when you take into consideration the price of the advertising campaign, this was far from a resounding success. The game had still been outsold by Super Mario World and Mario Kart. All hope of Sega catching up with Nintendo was obliterated when Nintendo launched Donkey Kong Country. The game surpassed the sales of both Sonic 2 and 3, and showcased everything that Nintendo represented.
No Consolation Prizes
The scope of the console war is vast. If you were to take the arcade systems into consideration, one could argue that Sega was the winner, but purely looking at consoles, you can’t deny that Nintendo is the standout. The SNES sold many more copies than the Genesis and the characters created would last a lifetime. Although Sega had Sonic, Nintendo would offer the likes of Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong and Samus to the gamers' catalogue. Sega would try to create a stream of revenue with some add-ons to its already existing consoles. This wouldn’t prove a success and would only be a hindrance to the company, rather than a boost.
Sega would try to release a new console in 1995, with the Sega Saturn. The console was manufactured poorly and was nowhere near ready for distribution. Some of the company's employees didn’t even know the console existed. Of course, the console performed appallingly. Retailers were not impressed with the launch and claimed they were unprepared for its arrival on shelves. This was a desperate move by Sega to catch up with Nintendo and ended up only loosing the company more ground in the race for supremacy. The Saturn would crawl to an eventual 9 million sales worldwide.
How do you combat a new CD-ROM console? Stick to cartridges. A bold move by Nintendo didn’t see initial success. Its reliance on the tradition of cartridges was bold and risky, as many third-party game developers saw the future in CDs so refused to create content for the new Nintendo 64. But Nintendo had and ace up its sleeve. Super Mario 64 showcased how 3D worlds were possible and is still cited as one of the most successful games ever created. Nintendo’s sales saw Sega finding itself backed into a corner once again, attempting to fight back with the Dreamcast. But poor sales ultimately saw Sega withdraw from console creation in 2001. Your winner? Nintendo.
Sega had run itself into the ground. The company had tried and failed to create new and innovative consoles, which had ultimately driven the brand to an early grave. Nintendo continued to grow, producing consoles that would compete with both Sony and Microsoft.
The sign that Sega was well and truly dead when it came to the console war came when Nintendo started selling Sonic Adventure games. This was unthinkable 10 years earlier, but the growing financial concerns and lack of funds led to a desperation move on behalf of Sega. It had sided with its enemy in the ultimate show of defeat. Nintendo had well and truly won, with Sega now nonexistent in the console world.
For a long time Sega had been a viable competitor to Nintendo, but ultimately Nintendo had taken the lead very early on in the war and had maintained the momentum throughout. Sega’s desperation to keep up saw the release of many mediocre consoles that were rushed and ultimately unsuccessful. Not all of Nintendo’s consoles were spectacular, but the company took its time in development and created consoles without faults. The characters created by Nintendo eclipsed those founded by Sega, and Nintendo was able to found a legacy based off the reputation of its stellar characters.
Nintendo was the eventual winner of the console war, but in reality dominated from the start. Sega came close at some points, but was unable to match the dominance of Nintendo. Ultimately, Nintendo would push Sega to bankruptcy, with the pressure to keep up with its competitor's success leading to millions of dollars wasted. Nintendo would rule supreme and Sega would withdraw from console existence.
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