Things are a bit different in the video game business today than they were two decades ago. Many companies don’t traditionally offer the public much of a real, human celebrity-style face (though there are some exceptions, to be sure). But in video games, we often see the head of each respective company appearing before their consumers to present them with their latest ideas, innovations, and products. Nintendo has Reggie Fils-Aime and Satoru Iwata, PlayStation has Kaz Hirai and Jack Tretton, and Microsoft has… er, let’s just go with Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb for this one.
Back in the day, before the internet kept us up to the minute with the latest news straight from the horse’s mouth, mascots would often serve as the faces of their company. They still exist, in some capacity, with Mario still representing Nintendo, Master Chief being the icon many an Xbox aficionado looks to, and PlayStation occasionally rolling out their Flavor-of-the-Month. But once upon a time, mascots– for all intents and purposes– were the company, and this led to an interesting sort of meta-narrative between the two most dominant companies at the time: Nintendo and SEGA.
Despite launching their SG-1000 system (predecessor to the Master System) in Japan on July 15th, 1983, the same day that Nintendo introduced their Famicom (known abroad as the Nintendo Entertainment System), the latter would blow their rival away by a considerable margin– especially when the competition took to stores across North America. Of course, part of this is due to Nintendo’s practice of asserting their dominance with retailers by insisting upon their product being carried exclusively, as detailed in David Sheff’s Game Over: The Maturing of Mario. So despite being in the console business for the same amount of time as their rival, this left SEGA in the position of a hungry young up-and-comer when they brought their 16-bit Genesis console to the West.
Nintendo, who sought to keep the industry from facing another crash by regulating and restricting releases from third-parties (a practice they didn’t tend to find favorable), effectively held a monopoly throughout the third generation of home consoles. But for the fourth generation, there would be no monopoly– there would be a war.
The first shots in this war didn’t come from SEGA of Japan, but rather from the executives heading the American branch of the company, Michael Katz, and later Tom Kalinske. Most of the Japanese board of directors disapproved of the more aggressive head-on tactics, as they didn’t mesh with the conventional business practices of their homeland. Their president, Hayao Nakayama, would however allow Kalinske to proceed, believing he knew what was necessary to succeed in the market where his predecessors had failed. One important, key part of Kalinske’s strategy was to remove Altered Beast as the pack-in game with the Genesis, and instead include the new, critically-acclaimed Sonic the Hedgehog, whose titular star was being positioned as the new mascot for the company, effectively mirroring the successful NES/Super Mario Bros. marriage Nintendo had been using for years. Shortly after, Nintendo fired back by releasing the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, bundled with Super Mario World.
With that, the stage was set and the players were in place for what would come to be known as the 16-Bit Wars.
War as Seen From the Front Lines
It should be noted that unless you were an odd one out who really dug deep into the inner-workings of the business, then as a kid, much of the behind-the-scenes practices of either or any company was well beyond your attention or care. Many articles have been written as facts have come to light regarding what went on behind closed doors, so to speak, and there will undoubtedly be many more to come. That’s not what I’m here to talk about today. Instead, I’m here to present how the conflict felt like it was presented to a young enthusiast audience who grew up in the shadow of these corporate giants waging a battle of industry.
Console wars in general and to this day are a childish thing, but then, we were still children after all. Of course, such arguments are hardly exclusive to video game consoles, at least in the States: Coke vs. Pepsi, McDonald’s vs. Burger King, or Sports Team A vs. Sports Team B. Arguing over who had the better console, though, was less like those and perhaps closer to Ford vs. Chevy, chiefly because unlike those others, most people could only afford one. It’s in that way that as childish as the argument is, there’s a certain logic behind it all: With a belief that there must be a winner and a loser, it goes beyond not wanting to be on the losing side, but straight into the fact that by making your side lose, the opposition is thereby threatening the continued existence of that which you enjoy. So in a beat or be beaten situation, one naturally wants with all their might to see the opposition go down in flames, because how dare they try to take away what you love?
“Mario vs. Sonic”
Though the war was SEGA vs. Nintendo, it was the idea of Sonic vs. Mario which lay at the forefront of the conflict. The two mascots represented their respective companies, with Sonic being the hip new kid with an attitude, ready to put the older, slower-paced Mario out to pasture with super speed powered by the mythical “Blast Processing.” Each had their own respective perks, their pluses and minuses, but the gaming media was only too happy to latch onto the idea of there being some sort of personal rivalry, an sense of enmity between the two fictitious characters. Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse might go skydiving together, but if Mario and Sonic were to cross paths, we were to believe there would be blood shed.
That would ultimately prove to be the funny thing about it, though: Due to the simple logistics of the situation, that being Sonic was exclusive to SEGA platforms and Mario to Nintendo, the two would never meet, never truly throw down. It was purely symbolic at its core, but that only extended to the marketplace. In the fertile imaginations of young children, though, anything was possible, thus leading to various fan fiction and fan art that would be sent in to magazines, depicting one kid’s perception of the epic clash or their chosen victor standing tall over their conquered (and sometimes brutally dismembered) foe. As the internet came into mainstream prominence, the idea would be allowed to grow and spread further, some even creating elaborate animations (Warning: rather Not Safe For Work) based on the classic conflict. And as seen at left, the notion has even been powerful enough to last to the present day.
However, rather than, say, two kings locking swords for control of the land, the conflict was more like two armies firing shots from across the battlefield. Sonic was at the forefront of the SEGA revolution, leading the charge against Nintendo. But Mario? Much like Nintendo itself for what felt like the longest time (the passage of time being as painfully slow as it tends to be when you’re young), it felt like Mario wasn’t particularly interested in a war, a battle, or any sort of conflict at all. Whereas Sonic made consistent efforts over the span of a few years to assert dominance with his brand of platforming action, Mario appeared at the Super NES launch with Super Mario World, and then… went on to do other things.
When New Super Mario Bros. was announced for the Nintendo DS in 2006, there was much excitement and rejoicing, as Mario had long been absent from any new side-scrolling adventures. Aside from a literal backseat role in Yoshi’s Island, the plumber protagonist would only appear in one new 2D platformer during the 16-bit era: Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins for the Game Boy. A fine game, and one of my favorites, but when engaged in a battle for technological supremacy, a black-and-white (or “creamed spinach color,” as SEGA was keen to point out) title with a slower pace than normal wasn’t the first thing you wanted to go to on the playground when arguing over which side was better, particularly against a full-fledged console title.
There was also Super Mario All-Stars, which remade the three NES games with glorious 16-bit color and sound. That was a step up– or at least, it would have been, except the game was only 25 percent new content (and not even that in Japan). And when that quarter is The Lost Levels, a nigh-sadistically challenging game based on the original Super Mario Bros. mechanics… well, it helped satisfy some hunger for new Mario, but arguably wasn’t the go-to game to brag about when SEGA kids were boasting Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and looking towards Sonic the Hedgehog 3 on the horizon. There was even Sonic the Hedgehog CD, though that was of course hindered somewhat by the relative lack of people who could afford a SEGA CD in the first place.
As SEGA continued to inflict shot after shot on the ever-more wounded pride of Nintendo fans, the latter seemed by and largely content to take the higher ground. “Let them say what they want; we know we’re good, and we’ll just turn the other cheek” seemed to be Nintendo’s mantra, perhaps falling more in line with the aforementioned business practices of their country of origin. Unfortunately, this did little for the young fans who had rallied by Nintendo’s side and were now suffering SEGA’s aggression in the schoolyard. Nintendo’s fans needed a leader of sorts to rally behind, but as time wore on, it seemed less and less like Mario was truly up to the job.
A Time for New Heroes
Of course, as anyone who is familiar with Nintendo’s catalog of titles from that era knows, it’s not as though Mario wasn’t making appearances. He pioneered a new brand of racing which has lasted to this very day with Super Mario Kart, he took up some on-rails first-person shooting with a Super Scope atop Yoshi in Yoshi’s Safari, picked up a brush to create art in Mario Paint, and he even took to a unique form of turn-based battling in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. All of which were good games, but none of which scratched the particular itch felt at the time by the absence of the type of gameplay which made Mario a household name to begin with.
Platformers were the bread-and-butter genre of the 16-bit era, having matured from the previous generation while fighting games were just beginning to emerge as a dominant force and role playing games were still trying to get just the right foothold in the American marketplace. And besides Super Mario All-Stars and Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, the lack of a new Mario platformer wasn’t quite for a lack of trying; after the now-legendary falling out with Sony, a developer known as NovaLogic attempted to create a quasi-sequel to Super Mario World for Nintendo partner Phillips’ CD-i machine (which would have done Super NES owners little good anyway), while Nintendo themselves were secretly busy with trying to create a new 3D Mario title for the platform, only to push it back to their next console before ever announcing it.
Without Mario ready to lead the charge, it felt almost as though Nintendo had attempted to match Sonic in other ways, albeit arguably superficial ones. The all-new Star Fox took graphics into the third dimension with the power of the Super FX chip and a crew of cartoon critters out to stop a mad scientist who was using other such creatures in his plots for domination. Of course, Fox McCloud and his friends did so from the pilot seats of their SFX Arwing space fighter jets in a 3D corridor shooter game, rather than hopping from platform to platform.
Following that, Nintendo dug back into their past to bring back another hero who one might argue bore some similarities with the Blue Blur. Samus Aran had her third outing in Super Metroid, where she was quite capable of rolling into a ball herself, as well as cutting through foes with a Screw Attack-powered somersault. Despite more or less matching Sonic’s skills in these departments, though, Super Metroid was by and large about slow and methodical exploration, finding hidden rooms and items, and increasing your power so as to allow further access to the secrets of planet Zebes.
Even so, the game’s introduction of Samus’ Speed Booster power-up almost felt like a subtle finger at SEGA’s boasts of “Blast Processing” that supposedly allowed characters like Sonic to blaze trails as quickly as they did. The blur of motion seen as Samus literally tore through numerous enemies and obstacles in her way seemed to say “you want fast? We can do fast.”
Incidentally, it’s probably worth noting that barring a lightly-veiled reference to SEGA in their Star Fox commercial (“Why go to the next level when you can go light years beyond?”), Super Metroid felt like the first notable instance of when Nintendo began to fight back, as the advertising for the game felt almost as if it came straight from SEGA’s own marketing department, albeit minus the famed “SEGA Scream”:
Nonetheless, while both were excellent games in their own right and certainly worth bragging about, neither felt like they had that certain “it” factor needed to stand up to Sonic, who by this point was quickly covering the ground needed to catch up to Mario. Not only was he the star of two cartoons running simultaneously (one on weekends, the other weekdays) from DiC (the same company who’d formerly partnered with Nintendo for The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and Captain N: The Game Master), but also a comic book from Archie which ultimately blew Valiant’s Super Mario Bros. comics away, making him even more of a mainstream darling. And as much as I enjoy it on its own, the Super Mario Bros. movie didn’t really help to even the score.
Furthermore, Sonic was also starring in numerous games which seemed to be coming out all the time, giving his fans plenty to choose from. With that, his cast of friends, enemies, and rivals was ever-expanding, including love interest Amy Rose, his sidekick Tails (whose popularity led to his own spin-off title), and then most recently, a burly brawler from a lost civilization known as Knuckles the Echidna, a “friendly nemesis” who at the time was beginning to look like a potential break-out star in his own right with the upcoming costarring title role in Sonic & Knuckles, a game which had potentially revolutionary repercussions on the industry.
It seems only fitting, then, that Nintendo had been planning something with their own mascot’s old rival.
The Beast is Back
There was no dancing around it this time; with the pounding of war drums in the background, Nintendo told SEGA directly: “If it’s a war you want, then it’s a war you’ll get.”
To players, another message was also abundantly clear: “This isn’t your father’s Donkey Kong.” They meant it quite literally, too, as one of the series’ most beloved characters, the sharp-tongued elder Cranky Kong, was revealed to be none other than the original Donkey Kong who had squared off against Mario on a construction site all those years ago. While time had been kind to the plumber protagonist, the same couldn’t quite be said about old Cranky, who lamented the ongoing virtual arms race for bigger and more sophisticated video games.
Representing the younger generation was the new Donkey Kong, the ambiguous relative of the elder DK and possibly the grown-up version of Donkey Kong Junior. As the new game began with a scene of Cranky playing the classic Donkey Kong theme song on an old gramophone atop an updated version of the old construction site, DK soon swung in from above, knocking the older gorilla from his perch and dropping in a big honking boombox with a more upbeat rhythm. “Out with the old, in with the new,” it seemed to say… that is, just before Cranky got the last laugh by chucking a barrel of TNT at his successor.
Of course, Donkey Kong Country was banking a lot on the new by taking advantage of developer Rare’s ability to employ some clever software trickery with pre-rendered computer graphics. While SEGA attempted to raise the bar with such add-ons for the Genesis such as the SEGA CD and the 32X, Nintendo was able to offer visuals which not only trounced the best “The Leader of the 16-Bit Revolution” had to offer, add-ons or no, but even compared to much of what the next generation was bringing to the table– all in a standard (albeit large for the time) cartridge. The musical contributions of David Wise complemented the visuals with a variety of different tunes which were not only ambient and well-suited to what you were seeing on screen, but catchy as well.
Together, these brought to life a new world of adventure which felt a bit more down-to-earth (or arguably more “mature”) than the Wonderland-esque lands of Mario’s journeys, or the extremely-stylized pop-infused zones Sonic ran through. Donkey Kong ran, jumped, and swung through jungles, treetop villages, ruins of ancient civilizations, rundown factories, icy mountaintops, and more with a sense of realism not seen by plumber nor hedgehog. Day turned to night before players’ very eyes, and they would bear witness as thunderstorms rolled through with lightning filling the sky or snowstorms built up from a light flurry to a full-on blizzard, forcing our heroes to continue their journey inside an ice cave as they weathered the storm.
Rounding things out were an endearing cast of characters: In addition to Cranky, DK was joined by other members of the Kong clan, the most prominent of which being the young breakout star, Diddy Kong. Donkey Kong’s cap-sporting sidekick would aid him in battle against the Kremlings– foes borrowed from another project Rare had been working on– would go on to cause trouble for our heroes time and again. These crocodile-styled enemies had a cool albeit cartoony design sense about them, making them seem more intimidating than a Koopa Troopa or Motobug, but without being scary (though some would come close).
In many ways, from the whole “animals with attitude” angle to Donkey and Diddy’s mid-air somersaults and rolls/cartwheels along the ground to blasting at high speed from one barrel cannon to the next, Donkey Kong Country felt very much like the answer to Sonic the Hedgehog that Mario could never truly be. All together, it was the perfect package at the perfect time.
Donkey Kong Country would clash with Sonic & Knuckles during the holiday season of 1994, with DK’s sales ultimately crushing Sonic’s by more than three to one, and going on to sell 9 million copies worldwide. The tide had most definitely turned, and the folks in Redmond no doubt celebrated the news with a toast over some chilled banana smoothies.
Things would still remain interesting after this clash, however. Donkey Kong would take a backseat to his sidekick the following year as Diddy came into his own as a hero alongside his girlfriend and new fan favorite, Dixie Kong, in Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest. She too would get to star in her own Super NES sequel with neither of the series’ two original stars in sight in Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie’s Double Trouble!. But by this point, Nintendo had finally released its entry into the next generation with the Nintendo 64, and Mario returned to reclaim his throne with the long-awaited revolutionary 3D platformer Super Mario 64.
Meanwhile, SEGA seemed to be falling into disarray as they dealt with internal strife between its eastern and western divisions, and Sonic seemed to somehow fall through the cracks. Knuckles struck out on his own with some new friends in the ill-fated Knuckles’ Chaotix, a 1995 exclusive for the 32X add-on for the Genesis. Sonic would return a year later, but not in a new platforming adventure– at least, not one of the sort fans knew him for– and as it would turn out, not by the hand of his creators, either. Instead, Traveller’s Tales brought Sonic 3D Blast to the Genesis and the new 32-bit Saturn, utilizing pre-rendered graphics similar to Donkey Kong Country as the Blue Blur ran around stages in an isometric 3D perspective.
As this was going on, the company seemed to be in search of a new face to fly their banner. SEGA further attempted to replicate the success brought on by Donkey Kong Country‘s visual style on the Genesis with two Vectorman titles, while Sonic Team brought a new face to bear in the underrated cult favorite Ristar. Over on the Saturn, SEGA seemed to be grooming another new mascot for a new generation as Bug! was brought on to usher in their era of 3D platforming. In one moment which feels like it might have been meant as a passing of the torch, the 32-bit Bug even races a 16-bit styled Sonic in a bonus level. SEGA also later attempted to bring Sonic himself into the next generation with the ill-fated Sonic X-Treme, whose cancellation would ultimately go on to become the stuff of legend.
However, as all of this went on, Nintendo and SEGA’s rivalry all but vanished, as they had a new, more prominent competitor to deal with in Sony and their entry into the home video game console market, the PlayStation. But, that would be another story for another time.
In more recent years, after SEGA went third-party and began doing the unthinkable– publishing not just games, but Sonic games on Nintendo platforms– the bond between the two companies who had once been fierce enemies began to grow. And from that growth, something even more unthinkable happened:
Though Donkey Kong was the one to effectively “take Sonic down,” the legend of “Mario vs. Sonic” continued until the point the two companies decided to have them officially square off, albeit in a series of Olympic sporting events on the Wii and Nintendo DS. Those still thirsting for blood from the 16-Bit Wars, however, soon got the answer to their prayers:
And the rest, as they say, is history.
So there you have it: The Console War of the 16-Bit era, as seen through the eyes of a young boy who didn’t know what an NPD Group was and ultimately just wanted to play some games.
Of course, the real story is much different, and probably much more interesting. In Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation, Blake J. Harris goes behind the scenes of what went on at both Nintendo and SEGA at the time by using over two hundred interviews to piece together how former SEGA of America president and chief executive officer Tom Kalinske took the fight to Nintendo– and was ultimately ousted for his efforts.
But regardless of which side of the glass you look at the events from, it should be clear that in the end, it wasn’t Mario who overthrew his longtime “rival” Sonic; that credit belongs to Donkey Kong. The Blue Blur might want to keep that in mind and watch his back the next time he faces down his new buddy in a Smash Bros. match of Olympic event.
Banner image courtesy of Project M.