I just finished reading Blake J. Harris’s Console Wars, about Sega’s war with Nintendo for dominance in the home console market during the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis era, and my mind is tingling with nostalgia.
Like many videogame-loving kids during that time period, my parents were only willing to buy me one console (and only after months of pleading and a hefty price drop). Having been a proud owner of an NES, the choice for me was clear, especially because, as the book points out, Sega didn’t really start offering much to entice players to switch allegiance until the Sonic games came around. So I was team Nintendo all the way, a willing participant (or consumer pawn) in this ‘war.’
There were times when my loyalty wavered just a bit, though, and the Mortal Kombat blood debacle was one of them. I was used to playing the arcade version of the game at a corner store near my house, and the idea of a watered-down, blood-free version did not sit well with ten year old Joey. I also remember gazing longingly at the screenshots of the Genesis version of Jurassic Park and wishing my SNES version looked as gorgeous.
There’s something to be said for the SNES version of Jurassic Park combining third person overhead segments and first person interior segments, especially given that the latter made good use of the SNES’s Mode 7 capabilities. But when you’re eleven years old and in love with the superb special effects of the Jurassic Park movie, you want your digital dinos to look as close to the ‘real thing’ as possible, and Genesis delivered in that department.
Aside from spurring a stroll down memory lane, the book prompted me to reflect on my experience as an observer of an ever-changing home console scene. In the late 70s (not that I was alive yet), Atari was huge. Untouchable. Until they weren’t (and they really, really weren’t). Nintendo owned 95% of the home console market during the NES’s reign in the mid-late 80s, and they too seemed invincible, until they weren’t. I would argue that they ‘won’ the SNES vs Genesis war, but not before losing a huge portion of the market to Sega. It seemed unimaginable that the generation after that would be anything but Sega vs Nintendo: Round 2 (well, Round 3, technically), but Sony changed everything with the introduction of the first PlayStation. The Sega Saturn was not very powerful and didn’t have much support in the software department, so it basically came down to Nintendo’s N64 and the PlayStation. The likely victor seemed obvious at the time. The N64 was (arguably) twice as powerful, produced 3D worlds that really felt expansive, had an innovative controller that introduced sensitive joysticks and rumble, launched at $100 less than the PlayStation had, and Nintendo’s first party games remained among the best on the market.
But they lost. It’s a fact we take for granted now, but it bordered on unbelievable at the time. It wasn’t Sega that slayed Nintendo, it was Sony who knocked them both down to size. Sony, who (as the book describes in some detail) had been on the verge of handing their original PlayStation design over to Nintendo and, later, Sega, before dumb corporate politics got in the way. But how? Well, Sega had a lot to do with it. Nintendo had an iron grip on the industry in the 80s and placed strict restrictions on how many games developers could release, and then monitored the quality of these games closely (which saved the market from collapsing in a heap of crap, as it had done in the 70s). To convince those same developers to make games for their Genesis, Sega promised far less restrictive control. While it didn’t help them outright win their war with Nintendo, it did change how business was done in the market and freed developers to seek more than one place to publish their games. While Nintendo failed to learn from this, continuing with expensive (but tightly controlled) cartridge manufacturing, closely monitoring third party output, etc., Sony capitalized on it and made their console easy and cheap to develop for, welcoming companies to produce games more freely than Nintendo had. This quantity over quality approach eventually resulted in a glut of poorly made, ugly, or buggy games, but PlayStation owners enjoyed the freedom of a vast library of games which Nintendo just did not have. And of course there was marketing and the perception that the PlayStation was for adults and the N64 for kids, and plenty of other of factors that contributed to the outcome. But Sony won in a big way.
They won in an even bigger way with the PS2, leaving Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft’s newly-christened Xbox to fight for second place. But in a huge upset the following generation, the Xbox 360 dominated against the PS3, and Nintendo’s Wii outsold both of them quite handily. In the current generation, it’s all mixed up again. Nintendo’s Wii U is a distant echo, and the PS4 is once again Sony’s claim to home console dominance.
I probably didn’t need to regurgitate all of that, but it’s, in part, what’s been running through my head lately. It’s been hard to determine which console or company will be the victor of any particular generation’s ‘war.’ But what really struck me is this: going all the way back to the NES versus the Sega Master System, consoles seemed to offer something noticeably different than their competition. SNES games looked different than Genesis games. You’d never mistake an N64 game for a PlayStation game. GameCube games were distinct from Xbox games. With the Xbox 360 and PS3, the lines began to blur, and now it seems as if having a home console that boasts any kind of obvious technological advantage is increasingly unlikely. The Wii changed the landscape a lot, forcing Sony and Microsoft to invest in exploring motion control and other avenues of expanding gameplay beyond the controller. So is this generation going to be defined by PlayStation’s virtual reality and Microsoft’s augmented reality? What about next generation?
Microsoft’s openness to cross-platform play with the PS4 was shocking, but could it be indicative of something more? Research and development of console hardware is incredibly costly, but game publishing is lucrative. Could Microsoft plan on moving strictly to Windows gaming in the future, developing and publishing games for the PS4 on the side? I know that people say similar things every generation (Nintendo has been on the verge of giving up the hardware game for 20 years, according to these people), but it’s becoming increasingly hard to not only imagine how consoles from two companies will define themselves in relation to one another, but how they will differ from a moderately priced PC. Those distinctions were easy to make in the past, but other than peripherals or interface or services, I have a hard time believing the next Xbox and PS will be very different at all, in terms of hardware. And if I were looking at having to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to keep up in that race, only to potentially ‘lose’ another round, I might think about other, less risky avenues to stay in the market.
This is all amatuer speculation, of course, and this generation still has plenty of potential surprises in store, I’m sure. But it’s fun to think about this stuff. And you never know what will happen. You might not have ever convinced 12 year old Joey that he would one day buy Sonic Adventure 2 for a Nintendo console, or buy an issue of Nintendo Power with Sonic on the cover, or play a Nintendo fighting game with Sonic as a playable character, or own a Sonic figure with a Nintendo copyright stamped on the bottom. But here we are. What a time to be alive.