You were either with Super Nintendo or with Sega Genesis. No middle ground existed (although the PC gaming was still carrying on strong).
All respect to the Turbo Grafx-16 (and no respect to the CD-i), but the fourth generation of home video game consoles was a two-horse race. The Big N followed up the Nintendo Entertainment System, the machine that revived the industry following the infamous crash of 1983, by adding the word “Super” to everything, and Sega rose from Master System-based desolation with the appropriately named Genesis. A rivalry between the two machines in the West — particularly the United States — created a direct competition series of ad campaigns that would define a generation of child gamers through tribalism and exclusives. And as much as adults bought the systems then and still argue over them now, the Console War as we knew it was most certainly a marketing push that skewed young.
People can easily still find lingering traces of what the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis wrought in today’s gaming landscape. What became known as the Console War is both a relic of its time and a more direct foretelling of what would become the future of a lot advertising psychology. In honor of the Super Nintendo’s 25th anniversary this past Saturday, let’s take a look back at the battle that defined the system, it’s rival, and a gaming’s most revolutionary generation.
Mutually assured demographics
Sega struck the first blow, with its newly formed Sega of America staff using the year head start the Genesis had in the US before the SNES’ arrival to come up with the slogan that would embolden game marketing for almost a decade: Genesis does what Nintendon’t. In order to get its tubular, too-cool-to-handle vibe to the masses, Sega would advertise aesthetic over technical specs. Announcers rattled off the system’s number of bits and colors (which was a thing) and blast-processing feature (which was not actually a thing) in authoritative, easy to digest — and repeat — talking points.
The games themselves barely factored into the commercials. Kids would pick up the system, and playing it would overwhelm them, with the game screen portrayed titled cameras or projected on distorted surfaces. Smoke and wind machines were also a common background occurrence. All of this emphasized a confrontational, “Can you handle it?” attitude.
And power was the key to Nintendo’s successful competition. The Big N had industry clout to burn, and began the Console War piggy-backing on what had worked before, namely expanding its “Now You’re Playing with Power” campaign by adding the phrase “Super Power” to the end.
But Nintendo eventually countered Sega’s in ads, and the fight was in full swing.
Nintendo and Sega began releasing competing commercials that directly compared and debated their rival’s merits, flexing their processing specifications and exclusive game titles in an ever-escalating bout of numbers and bragging rights. Their mutual calling-out of each other eventually went beyond the systems themselves, beginning a second Console War offensive on the hardware peripheral front. It was ridiculous, loud, and unforgivably ’90s. And it worked.
Buying in for good
At $200 for the SNES and $190 for the Genesis, these consoles turned birthdays and Christmases into single-gift occasions for kids (this writer included). Tack on the eventual hardware/game peripherals, and even most middle-income families stuck with one platform for the console generation. And with most exclusive titles staying exclusive — or at least until a few decades later — this was not a decision taken lightly. This, for many American schoolkids, was the first practical lesson in making an investment. Hell, for most of us, this was our first real commitment in life.
But give some credit to marketers. Both Nintendo and Sega expanded their brands in both awareness, scope, and design over the Console War to create and take advantage of the tribalism being sowed. Again, like Coke and Pepsi, Nintendo defined itself by the red of their mascot’s hat just as much as Sega made itself known by the blue of their mascot’s spikes. The calming gray (with purple affectations) of the SNES stood in marked contrast to the black gleam of the Genesis. Nintendo was family-friendly, and Sega was edgy. Super Nintendo versions of games had better graphics, but the Genesis versions had blood.
It took a former Nintendo partner to bring about a new front, and ultimately an end, to the console war during the very next hardware generation.
This is how the Console War died
While each successive hardware generation is desperately dubbed a Console War in the hopes of audience attention and comment numbers, the SNES-Genesis race ended when Sony devastated the former “Big Two” companies in the fifth hardware generation. With Sony being another major force in the same space, there were now just too many parties for direct, competitive advertising.
Sony, Nintendo, and Sega did try and continue with some commercial in-fighting, most noticeably a captured Nintendo winning over a hapless Sony and Sega with the power of Star Fox 64. But no one can have more than one true nemesis, and with three foes on the field, the melee between then can be too much to look at. Combative advertising campaigns with these many adversaries were and are difficult to properly contextualize within the time-span of a television spot. A multifront offensive is much harder to package in an ad campaign than a binary duel between two, distinct foes.
Subsequent console generations have also had diminishing returns in terms of distinctive features. If one of the hardware manufacturers did want to bring back the days of Nintendon’t, they may just have to pull a Sega and invent a new kind of “blast processing”. And with fewer and fewer game titles maintaining exclusivity, even those who can only afford a single console make their purchase decision more on price and multiplayer friend circles these days. The best attempt at resurrecting the brand identity battles was with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. But for all the in-fighting, you never would have guessed the Nintendo Wii was decimating both in actual sales.
Arguments over each new set of consoles superiority over one another will always persist, but the Console War most certainly failed to survive the nineties.
The legacy of the mascot duel
The fight between Nintendo and Sega will forever remain a — pun practically unintended — game-changer in the world of advertising, and not just in video games.
The Console War was an evolution of direct, competitive advertising. Even with the majority of commercials since returning to the unnamed competitor void of “Brand Xs” and “Other Leading Brands,” the incorporation of an identity, or the product as reflection of the user, persists in many campaigns. Ad campaigns have manipulated an idealized image of their users, even through mascots. But rarely in direct opposition to a competitor; Marlboro smokers were just more rugged than some “other smokers” somewhere. Any time two products want to compete on “what they represent” rather than just what they are, the line can in many ways be drawn back to the houses of Mario and Sonic. We were console kids way before we had to either be Macs or PCs.
But perhaps the strongest aspect of the Console War’s legacy was its effect on consumers. Many customers fought in the War not only during a hugely developmental stage in their lives, but in a growth period in the industry itself. Games were becoming a more prevalent force in entertainment, both in dollars and popular culture attention. And games made it’s biggest step toward cultural prominence by selling identity. Nintendo kids were mamma’s boys, and Sega kids were posers.
The Console War kids were the generation to see personal computing go mainstream, and carried their branded identity politics into the first gaming forums and websites. What systems you buy, what games you play (or don’t play), and even who you watch talk about them was — and still is — frequently taken as a projection of personality and values. The internet was and will ever be a portal of judgment and vitriol (and we are nowhere near as combative as we were in the early 90s) but the gamer subculture inherited a uniquely tribal undercurrent when the Console War kids came of age that we have been shaking off for more than a decade.
Modern gaming advertisements may have forgotten their competitors’ names, but they haven’t written off the most lucrative lessons learned during that time. A deep blue dominates Sony’s PlayStation 4 campaigns, Microsoft practically co-owns the color green, and Nintendo has more recently borrowed the deep white abyss from Apple (while still keeping Mario’s red hat prominent.) No one’s claiming to blast any more processes, but we have traded the scream of “Sega!” for instantly recognizable, console-identifying sounds. That PlayStation twinkle effect is unlike no other twinkle, and I’m not even sure how to describe what noise the Xbox logo makes on TV.
The Console War didn’t invent of these techniques, and it barely innovated on most of them. But it did capture and distill the loudest form of a risky marketing strategy, leading to one of the most seismic bouts in home entertainment marketshare since pay cable. What you played was who you were, and who you were was everything.