16-Bit Week: Genesis Does What Nintendon’t (The First Console War)

The notion of video game fanboys predates the modern “Xbox vs PS3 vs Wii” Internet squabbles. In fact, it more than likely began when console and PC gaming began to cross paths on the mid-Eighties. It wasn’t until the 16-bit era, though, when it finally became “a thing”.

In 1990, the lines were definitely drawn thick between Nintendo and Sega fans. It got brutal, and at times even bloody — pixelated, of course.

Sega had “lost” the Master System vs NES battle years before it even started. The majority of my friends had an NES, and those that had a Master System usually never had a voice in our conversations about Castlevania or Dragon Warrior. In order to sell hardware, Sega would need to abandon the platform and start anew.  Enter the Genesis — or, the Mega Drive everywhere else in the world.  Launched the Genesis in the US in 1989, it was instantly competing with the most recent and popular Zelda, Mario, and Megaman titles.  It didn’t register a blip on our radar.

The company immediately began working with recognizable sports and entertainment personalities to build up  its Western gaming credo: Pat Riley Basketball, Joe Montana Football, Buster Douglas Boxing, etc.  Suddenly, my aging copy of Punch-Out was irrelevant.  This helped the console slowly begin to edge out the NES in North America, as the Genesis was seen as being slightly more “American” than the NES (or Turbografx 16).  Touting several arcade ports — Altered Beast, for example — the Genesis was off to a good start, but still couldn’t quite break through.  I still had Super Mario Bros 3, after all.

Until Sonic.

New Sega of America CEO Michael Katz wanted a pack-in game and iconic mascot that could directly take on the humble Mario.  Sonic the Hedgehog was that character, and his associated 1990 game was (and still is) heralded as one of the best of all time.  I remember being extremely jealous of my friends when they would bring it out.  The speed! The rings!  The pinball levels!  It was the most impressive game I had ever seen.  Many of us still said that Mario’s pixel-perfect jumping was king, but Sonic was showing us that the plumber was, well, too fat to do what the rodent could.

When the Super Nintendo launched in 1991 in the US, it came packed in with Super Mario World, the latest game in the popular series. The game became an instant showcase for me, thanks to its endearing gameplay, stunning visuals, and beautiful audio.  I would regularly have friends over to show them that “Hey, Mario has multiple scrolling levels!  Koopa can grow and shrink on the screen!”  The SNES was technically far superior to the Genesis, offering the now infamous Mode7 graphical gimmicks and an impressive Sony-supplied audio chipset.  It launched at a disadvantage, though, as Sega already had a considerable head start in terms of install base and library.  Even though Mario Kart was fun, it seemed like no match for Sega’s endless racing titles.  Super Play Action Football looked like garbage compared to Madden NFL.

Nintendo began packing-in more games and turned to classic franchises to drive sales.  By April of 1992, the Genesis and Super Nintendo had evened out their marketshare.  Sega wasn’t content at losing to Nintendo, and began touting buzz words as technical merits, with “Blast Processing” probably the most famous during the release of Sonic 2.

The Genesis was also pushed as the home of “mature” gaming, with Sega hoping to portray the SNES as a console for young children instead of serious gamers.  This was perhaps most evident with the release of Mortal Kombat for home, as the Genesis version not only had many of the original arcade fatalities lost in the SNES version, but it included a secret code to unlock even more violence by changing the color of the “sweat” to blood red.  Yes, the now infamous “Blood Code” was born.  By now, my friends’ chest-thumping had become thunderous.  The Genesis was superior in terms of what it was delivering: games.  The Super NES was down.  I was a “baby” for having it, and would often tell friends that I had a Genesis instead.

Nintendo had until that point been censoring its games for children, but after a landmark Supreme Court case that lead to the creation of the ESRB ratings the company no longer needed to do so.  So, when Mortal Kombat II was released for home consoles and the graphical and audio power of the SNES shined over the Genesis, it became the instant favorite for us.  We held nightly tournaments over the Summer, and the SNES version was quickly outselling the Genesis’s. This hurt Sega, which had been holding onto a slim market lead thanks to mature content.  Sega had to prematurely release the Sega CD and 32X to general malaise just to counter.

With mature gaming appearing on the SNES, Nintendo hit back at Sega… HARD.  Their “Play it Loud” campaign featured serious/core gaming for the console, such as Super Metroid and Mortal Kombat II.  Soon afterwards Killer Instinct, Donkey Kong Country, Star Fox, and Super Mario RPG showcased that the SNES hardware didn’t need accessories and attachments to provide stunning visuals.  By now, my Super NES wasn’t hidden away; it was front and center in my home, attached to our living room television almost all of the time.

Coupled with the release of the Playstation by Sony, Sega’s hardware days were numbered.  Their marketshare eroded, forcing them to release several hardware redesigns just to make some sales.  It was over.  Nintendo had won.  I was vindicated.  The console wars had subsided… for now.