This is part one of a three part series, All is Fair in Love and Console Wars: Check back over the next two Fridays for the remainder of the series.
A Consistent Console Truth
The “Console Wars” are nothing new. There have been two key players battling it out for gaming supremacy since the beginning of the home console age. The names of the players have changed over time and so have their marketing outlets, but the overall message has remained the same — “Choose my device, not theirs.”
There are many people that find it difficult to justify the purchase of an entertainment machine because of the different options that are available. As a result, marketing companies need to ensure that consumers are confident about the devices they choose to buy. Video game console companies have to prove the value of their machines not only to consumers, but to each other as well. These rivalries are important and necessary for the industry to grow. There would be little reason for companies to innovate without having competitors to force creativity.
The Underdog Becomes the Top “Hog”
The Console Wars began way back in 1989 with the release of the Sega Genesis. Nintendo was the undeniable leader of the video games market with 90% of the US video games sector by 1990. Sega had their share of titles, but none of them had the same gravitas as Super Mario, Zelda, or Metroid. This all changed with the introduction of a certain blue hedgehog.
Sega officials knew that they needed a console seller in order to compete against the gaming juggernaut. The company hosted an in-house contest to see which employee could create the next gaming icon. The contest was open to every employee within Sega.
Naoto Oshima, one of the character designers of the Phantasy Star series, created the original design for what would become Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega officials were enthusiastic that the new character would allow Sega to break out of Nintendo’s tight grip on the market.
Programmer, Yuji Naka, developed the first game with the star character. Naka designed Sonic as a fast-paced action platformer to differentiate the title from the Super Mario Bros. Sonic’s speed translated into Sega’s corporate culture. Sega needed to be fast, cool, and adaptable in order to take gaming’s console crown.
Let the Games Begin
Perhaps it was Sega’s most memorable marketing campaign, “Genesis does what Nintendon’t,” that shook the foundations of friendly competition. Both companies needed to create strong advertisements to convince players that their console was the supreme gaming machine.
Nintendo had to act efficiently to maintain their market prevalence. In 1990, the Super Nintendo was their answer. The Super Nintendo had 16-bit graphics, just like their competitor’s Genesis system, and better performance nearly across the board. Nintendo maintained their fan favorite franchises while also introducing new titles like Star Fox and Donkey Kong Country. Nintendo needed to show the world that it still had the best characters and gameplay mechanics and Sega needed to live up to their slogan to rise to the top.
The Sega Genesis held 55% of the gaming market by 1994. This was due, in large part, to Sega tapping into the older gaming demographic. The video game company grasped this new market by using more aggressive advertisements that showed the Genesis to be the “cooler” option. Nintendo took a more subtle approach, making them appear to be the classier choice.
One Short Step for Sega and One Big Jump for Everyone Else
After maintaining dominance of the video game market in the US, Sega learned that it was not easy to rule on the throne. Other competitors came to challenge the market, and due to poor decision making, Sega would no longer be king.
Atari released the Atari Jaguar System in 1993. The Jaguar was the world’s first 64-bit system. Because of the boost in processing, Atari was able to produce 3D graphics beyond the 16-bit Genesis and Super Nintendo. Sega wanted a quick solution to stutter Jaguar sales and thus the Sega Saturn was born.
Sega succeeded in halting the success of the Jaguar, but the company’s true rival had yet to appear until a few months later. Sony released its PlayStation on December 3, 1994. It was fast, powerful, and a whole hundred dollars cheaper than the Sega Saturn. It was also easier to code for, which brought stronger support from third-parties. Sony also targeted older audiences while Sega was still marketing to teens.
Nintendo eventually released a new console, as well. The company hit the ground running with the Nintendo 64 in 1996. Nintendo developed a fully-3D Mario title that was available at the console’s launch. Super Mario 64 became a huge system seller that defined the 3D platformer.
This begged the market to ask the question, “Where is Sonic the Hedgehog?”
Too Close to the Sun
The Sega Saturn ultimately failed due to a lack of strong titles. Fan favorites like Virtua Fighter, NiGHTS into Dreams, and Sega Rally Championship were not enough to sell the console.
Sonic did make appearances on the Saturn, but they were not the next evolution of the franchise that fans expected. The canceled title, Sonic X-treme, was going to be the Saturn’s killer app. Unfortunately for Sega, the game never made it through development. Sonic X-treme alone might not have been enough to save the Saturn, but the game’s release would have definitely impacted the market in a big way.
This was not the end of Sega’s involvement in console development, but it did mark the beginning of a downward spiral of missteps for the company.