The Playground Wars – Sega VS Nintendo
From the mid 1980s until the late 90s the big rivalry in gaming was always Sega VS Nintendo. Both where the big players at the time and many a playground argument revolved around which system was better. Gaming magazines would thrive on it and every issue would always feature some form of attack on the opposing system and it’s mascots. The most bizarre thing was only a minority owned both opposing systems at the same time! It would be easy to assume it was due to the financial costs of buying two different systems, however I don’t think it was that. Choosing a system was an investment into that brand, gamers would passionately defend their choice and join the legions of like minded folk who had also made the same choice. Much like supporting a football team, switching allegiances was not in the gamers code and you stuck by your brand no matter what.
Originally released in 1983 in Japan, by 1987 the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES as it is known in the west, was available almost everywhere. Up until then the Atari 2600 and home computers such as the ZX Spectrum with it’s painfully long cassette tape loading times was as good as it got. The NES however blasted onto the scene with full colour graphics and arcade gameplay, and the best part was it used joy pads. Up until then, single button joysticks where the norm, now there were two buttons, each controlling a different action, and a D-pad for effortless directional control. The NES was actually a bulky cumbersome looking machine, with gigantic cartridges that were loaded sideways into the system like thick slices of bread into a toaster. Nobody cared, as what the NES did have was games. And by that I mean complete, well made, professional games.
At the forefront of the massive library was Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt and The Legend of Zelda. These titles were head and shoulders above the competition, Duck Hunt allowed players to use a light gun to shoot moving targets live on screen. Something rarely before seen on a home system. The Legend of Zelda allowed players to control a hero around a massive landscape filled with a perfect balance of action and puzzles. But the main man was Mario. Mario quickly became Nintendo’s mascot. The side scrolling action platformer Super Mario Bros took gaming to a new level. It was fast and fluid with a theme tune that every gamer to this day would instantly recognise. The game sold over 40 million copies and made Nintendo a household name. Nintendo followed this up with Super Mario Bros 2 and 3 which were also huge hits, although both games were more polished, they never hit the sales numbers of the original. There where many other top titles on the NES, Punch out, Metroid and Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles to name a few. The bottom line is, Nintendo instantly took the number one spot in the gaming world.
Shortly after the release of the NES, SEGA, who were known for arcade games at the time and the SG-1000 consoles, released the SEGA Master System. The Master System boasted more power than the NES and was capable of producing faster games with better graphics. The system itself looked, in my opinion, nicer than the NES and the cartridges were more compact and it too had a two button joy pad (thought without a pause button, that was on the console). Surely SEGA had this in the bag! Everyone would move onto the newer more powerful console right!? Wrong.. what the Master system lacked was games. Shinobi was a big arcade hit at the time and the Master System did a nice port of it, but that was about as good as it got. The games just did not resonate in the same way with gamers, and some were outright clones of better games. Safari Hunt was a Duck Hunt wannabe and Alex kidd in Miracle World, although a excellent game, was never going to come close to Super Mario Bros. In the later years the Master System catalogue improved dramatically, especially with the release of Golden Axe in 1990 and Sonic the hedgehog the following year. At this time SEGA released the Master System 2, a sleeker smaller design with the Alex Kidd in Miracle World pre installed. This gave SEGA a sales boost but based on worldwide sales, the NES outsold the Master System by 6 to 1. But did this matter? Not at all.
The worldwide sales figures only created such a ratio due to the Master Systems failure in Japan. The system sold only one million units in its early years as opposed to the NES selling nearly twenty million. Conversely in the UK the Master System was selling in equal numbers to the NES. I remember at school as kids we would constantly bicker. “Sonic is harder than Mario” and go into detail about how Sonic’s spin attack would destroy Mario, the counter argument to that was always that Mario would dodge and then jump and squash him. I am pretty sure fist fights started over that very debate. Games were constantly being compared, third party games released on both systems would be discussed in detail, which had better graphics, which ran smoother or had better sound. I owned a Master System and even to this day I say the games look significantly better, especially third party titles. I chose the Master System purely because a few years prior to me getting one, my Nana was the manager of an Amusement Arcade, and buried away between the usual fruit machines she had Shinobi.
I had never seen anything like it and remember constantly asking my Grandad to take my brother and I to see her at work so we could get free plays of this now legendary game. And when offered a games console for Christmas, the Master System was the immediate choice as it had the best port of Shinobi available at that time. Around a year after getting my Master System I found out a friend of mine had got a NES. I remember going to his house and seeing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the first time. I could not believe it, the cartoon at the time was a huge hit and to be physically controlling the characters on a home console was a dream. Given the option I would have swapped my Master System there and then! This was considering I had over ten games which was a huge collection back then as the games were thirty pounds each and I was only eleven years old. I remember going back home later that day and looking at my collection with a feeling of emptiness. None of the games were as good and I wished I too had a NES with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In hindsight it was probably due to the fact I had played my games for hours on end and I think my NES envy that day was more the fact of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game itself rather than the hardware that was running it. I never did get a NES, in fact Christmas that year I ended up choosing a Master System II with a host of new games and it remained my system of choice up until well into the 16bit era.
So who won the 8-bit war? On sales alone? Nintendo. On power and graphics? Sega. The truth is they were both winners, particularly in the UK. SEGA have long since left the home console manufacturing market and Nintendo are no longer the powerhouse they once were, but both started a trend of console rivalry that continued through the 16-bit era and continues to this present day with current generation consoles. I for one, would not have it any other way.
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