By now, veteran gamers will have seen the news and are no doubt preparing to re-ignite ancient rivalries.
Old consoles will be dusted down and powered up, classic games re-discovered, raging arguments that have stalled for decades, unearthed once again.
Sony Pictures has secured the movie rights to the book Console Wars, a forthcoming ‘business thriller’ about the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo in the early nineties. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are reportedly lined up to direct. This is weird and exciting news.
But wait, a mainstream movie about warring consoles - who’s going to want to see that? Tut, if you’re asking that question you are a) very young in which case we’ll let you off, or b) missing out on some key cultural history.
Let me set this up for you. In 1989, Nintendo controlled the video game business. It wasn’t just a big player, it wasn’t just the manufacturer of a really successful console (the Nintendo Entertainment System). It was games , it was consoles.
In the late-eighties, Nintendo had a 95% share of the market. In the US and Japan, people didn’t play games, they played Nintendo. In Europe, we were a bit distracted with home computers like the Spectrum and the Commodore 64, but we knew what was going on, we saw the conflict brewing.
Because on the periphery was a company called Sega, and it looked to Nintendo’s home console domination with jealous ire. Set up by ex-US airman David Rosen in the sixties, the company specialised in arcade machines, at first semi-mechanical beasts, but later video game coin-ops.
Rosen had been stationed in Japan during the Korean war and started out importing photo booths into the country before building his own games cabinets and setting up a string of arcades.
In the eighties, Sega produced some of the greatest arcade games ever made – Space Harrier, Outrun, Hang-On – but its early attempts to break into the home console market failed – because, just to reiterate this again, Nintendo was IMMENSE. It had deals with all the best Japanese developers to ensure they couldn’t make games for anyone else. There was no way in.
But Sega wanted in, and it was going to fight.
Player two, press start
So what we have is a classic Hollywood underdog story – the established champion against a scrappy upstart with ridiculous dreams. But the dreams weren’t so ridiculous. Sega built the Mega Drive, a powerful console capable of effectively porting the best arcade games onto a home machine for the first time.
And in America, the company’s president Michael Katz had the great idea of targeting the machine at an older audience: instead of competing directly against Nintendo and its output of cute family gaming titles, it would go for the teens and the twenty somethings, with cool edgy beat-’em-ups like Streets of Rage and grown-up sports sims like Madden NFL.
Sega hired in cool advertising firms to make insane adverts blasting heavy rock music and showing kids rebelling against the status quo by, erm, playing Altered Beast. The ads had kids screaming ‘Sega’ at each other. It was like a mini-revolution – a youth cult with its own language.
So this is Beatles vs Stones, or Blur vs Oasis territory. It’s the kids taking sides and expressing themselves, it is youth identity expressed through consumer products on a hyper-kinetic level.
There was so much rivalry. Sega mags hated Nintendo mags, Sega players scorned Mario, Nintendo fanatics hated Sonic. Every major release was fodder to the fight. Who had the best role-playing games, the best shooters, the best version of Street Fighter? This stuff mattered. It mattered to us.
The hero of this underdog story is of course Sonic. When Sega released the Mega Drive (or the Genesis as it was known in the states), the console did okay and built a good user-base, but Nintendo wasn’t too worried.
But then a small development team housed within Sega had the idea of a platformer based around speed and evasion, and eye-searingly bright colours. Its hero wouldn’t be a portly plumber or a weird alien, it would be a foot-tapping hedgehog. In 1991, it unleashed the turbo-charged result: Sonic the Hedgehog, a platformer so ridiculously fast, so layered, so challenging, it changed mainstream game design ethos.
By then Michael Katz had been replaced by Tom Kalinske at Sega of America and this guy had a profound and brilliant idea - reduce the price of Genesis and bundle Sonic the Hedgehog with it. It was the razer and the blade, of course, the classic loss leader, but it was risky in such a volatile market.
But it worked. Sales exploded – 15m Genesis/Sonic bundles shot off shelves. The game was adored. Sonic was cool and irreverent, like a teenager with even bluer spiker hair than a lot of teenagers already had in the early nineties. Sonic said, don’t wait for anything, time is of the essence, you have to live fast or you’ll die.
I’m fascinated to see how this is captured on the big screen without making everyone throw up.
Trapped in the future
This was also a time of fear and controversy; there was even courtroom drama. When Sega released the schlocky horror game NightTrap, America’s right-wing worry-warts got into such a lather, the US games industry was called in front of a senate hearing.
Senator Joe Lieberman saw in games the next big youth quake, the thing that was going to destroy society when television and rock-n-roll didn’t. Nintendo and Sega squared up against each other in the court room. Nintendo’s US chief Howard Lincoln said he was disgusted with NightTrap - he was trying to score business points in a room where politicians were seriously thinking about banning mature-rated games. It was chaos.
Along the way, Sega invented the concept of the synchronised global video game launch with Sonic 2’s Day, the nuclear hyped arrival of the Sonic sequel. There were also the gore wars over visceral fighting game Mortal Kombat (Mega Drive showed the bloody fatality moves, the Super Nintendo didn’t), and in the same genre, there were fanatics round-housing each other over whether the SNES version of Street Fighter II was better than the Mega Drive edition.
Then you had the fantasy adventure fans smiting their enemies over who had the best titles: Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star? Zelda vs Landstalker? It was intense. It was war.
I’m not sure how Rogen and Goldberg will set all this in a narrative film. Perhaps they’ll follow two kids whose friendship is torn asunder when they find themselves on opposing sides, perhaps it will follow one of the real-life eccentrics involves in the crazed business machinations.
We’ve mentioned Katz, Kalinske and Lincoln, but there are so many more – Trip Hawkins, for example, the founder of Electronic Arts who held Sega to ransom by reverse-engineering the Genesis game carts then threatening to manufacture his own, busting the whole business model wide open. Or Yuji Naka, the difficult genius who coded Sonic, who made other programmers gasp in awe at his achievements.
The war we’re now involved in – the war between Sony and Microsoft – is mild-mannered and businesslike by comparison. The two companies even congratulated each other on the respective launches of their expensive next-gen consoles. The games industry is a billion dollar concern controlled by sensible corporate ghosts who make conference calls to investors and talk about games in the same way they’d talk about agricultural or chemical products - just the things that bring in the money.
Sega vs Nintendo wasn’t like that. We all knew it. It was intense and all-consuming. The guys in control lived this stuff. Sega of Japan CEO Hayao Nakayama virtually destroyed a meeting room when Kalinske flew over to explain his idea of making their best game, Sonic, free with the console. The twice-yearly Consumer Electronic shows were like battlezones, with the Sega and Nintendo booths fortified beneath game screens and neon, like science fiction citadels.
If a movie can capture a fraction of the reality of this era, it will be enormous fun. I’m writing a book about the Mega Drive right now and I’ve spoken to hundreds of execs, developers, fans and journalists; the passion still burns 20 years later. Video game culture has been poorly served by cinema over the last four decades. A handful of excellent documentaries really doesn’t cut it – especially when you consider the mass of god-awful tie-in shockers like Street Fighter: The Movie. Games deserve better.
Sure, if you’re going to look back at the nineties, Blur vs Oasis had the sex and glamour of popular music, but that faux-showdown didn’t define the era for me in the way that cultural pundits insist. Sega vs Nintendo did. This was the first hint that games were vying for space in the same socio-cultural arenas as pop music and TV.
Sega vs Nintendo was post-pop, post-cinema and super focused on a new tribe of kids who didn’t subscribe to the ideas of rebellion and identity that grew out of fifties rock-n-roll. Parents were terrified because their kids weren’t picking up guitars to rebel anymore - they were picking up controllers and learning multi-move fighting combos – and no one over the age of 30 had any idea, any frame of reference to cope with that.
The rivalry between gamers, the intensity of the game worlds being conjured on the Mega Drive and Genesis screens - all of it was utterly alien. It was Baudrillard’s idea of hyper-reality captured in every front room. It was the beginning of the future.
So yes, Ninetendo vs Sega. It is not a silly little retro computing face-off that can be summarily dismissed as geeky nonsense by people who weren’t there or don’t get it; it was the start of a new way of thinking about interactive technology, and the dawn of an era in which gamers self-identified as gamers.
Communities arose, genres formed, and pixels and polygons were were the constructive forces, the semiotics of a new communicative medium. I’m not sure Seth Rogen will go for any of that, but you know, even if his film is about a cute plump kid who gets the girl in the midst of the console battle drama, it’s still a recognition of something important.
Not every youth cultural phenomenon of the last forty years is about music or TV and not everything we got up to in the nineties – amid the dour gloom of grunge and the self-celebratory fizz of Britpop – can be pacified and eulogised into a Mojo Collector’s Edition.
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