Game war heroes: Sega v Nintendo

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The Independent Culture
In a shop window near you, a moustachioed Brooklyn plumber named Mario is battling it out with a blue hedgehog called Sonic. Their weapons are developed at the leading edge of computer technology; their tactics are infinitely subtle, the most sophisticated expression of capitalist marketing techniques. And, after the initial skirmishes, their battlefield is moving out of the playground. For at stake in the war between the hedgehog and the little plumber is an industry worth a billion dollars

In his latest adventure, Super Mario, the little Italian-American plumber from Brooklyn with his tomato-red dungarees, blue shirt and Tom Selleck moustache, is fighting Bowser, the baddie, a dragon-faced turtle dude with sharp teeth, horns and yellow spikes on his shell, and his minions, the Koopas, who are little turtles with helmets. Our hero must rescue his friend Yoshi, the baby Tyrannosaurus Rex, and all his dinosaur chums, who have been kidnapped. He has to collect coins and mushrooms, and dodge everything that Bowser throws at him - Monti Moles, jumping piranha plants and Charging Chuck, the American footballer turtle, who tries to smash you - that is, Mario - down.

Meanwhile, back in the comparative reality of the computer games industry, Mario's even deadlier rival is Sonic the Hedgehog, the speedy woodland creature with an attitude and a spiky blue hairdo who scampers through his Green Hill, Marble and Scrap Brain zones, spinning and jumping to free his cuddly woodland friends from the robot shells in which they have been encased by the evil Dr Robotnik.

These are just two tales from the huge catalogue of games developed by Nintendo, creators of the Super Mario Bros, and Sega, Sonic the Hedgehog's parent company, which have turned youth culture into a whizzing, bashing, blipping euphoria, as children, teenagers and, increasingly, adults squirm around in front of screens frantically waggling joysticks and bashing buttons, the hunger for battle overcoming common sense as they refuse to surrender to the evil foe. While the jury is still out on the desirability of developing such intense relationships with a world beyond the screen, the console industry is set to smash all its own records this year, and in the longer term will play an increasing role in home entertainment, education and even medicine.

In 1992 alone, the console game industry is forecast to gross about pounds 500m. A Super Mario Bros film, starring Bob Hoskins and budgeted at dollars 40m ( pounds 22m), is due for release in 1993, as is a Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon series for television. And Nintendo is set to launch an attack on Sega's lead in the latest top-capacity 16-bit- memory machine market: at present the Super Nintendo has only eight games against the Sega Mega Drive's 80-plus, but Nintendo intends to have 30 games available by November, ready for the Christmas rush.

Consoles might be just the latest and most materialistic teenage fad, but it is more likely that they will be the inevitable next step on the road to the ultimate in home entertainment: a single, integrated mixed-media system - the couch potato's dream of instant gratification and pure escape into fantasy worlds complete with orchestral sound and Hollywood visuals.

IT IS EASY to forget that Sega was launched in the UK only five years ago, and that Nintendo is even younger. They arrived with pockets bulging from enormous successes in the US and Japan. By miniaturising the basic technology of arcade games - individual chips dedicated to graphics and sound - inside a piece of black plastic, Sega's Master System and the Nintendo Entertainment System rejuvenated a fading computer game market.

Early consoles, such as the Atari in the late Eighties, had caused a brief stir, but failed to convince players that a squareish green blob was a tennis ball and a green line at either side was a world-class tennis star. Second generation computer games, such as Spectrum and the Commodore C64, kept interest ticking over, but the games were difficult to play and failed to hold players' attention for long. What Sega and Nintendo managed to do, as Philip Ley, Sega's European director of marketing, explains, was to bring the arcades to the people: 'Our initial success was in reproducing great arcade games to play at home.'

But this was simply techno-evolution. The big difference was the injection of the fashion formula. At the top of Ley's agenda for his first marketing meeting, he wrote the words 'Street cred'. This formed the basis of the whole marketing philosophy. Along with skateboards, Reeboks, Nikes and Levi's, consoles have become essential fashion items - predominantly for teenagers, but increasingly the gospel is spreading among the twenty-, thirty- and

fortysomethings - there is even a Nintendo Granny game in the States.

Of course, it's a whole different plate of microchips across the Atlantic. The market there is almost two years older, with Nintendo planted firmly at the top - their penetration of all US homes is said to be 78 per cent, and their projected US sales in 1992 are dollars 4.8m. By last Christmas, Nintendo was commanding 85 per cent of the world console market. Mario is now a prominent figure in the American consciousness, more recognisable to kids than Mickey Mouse or George Bush. There are Mario cartoons and sit-coms; merchandising has introduced Mario shower heads, water pistols, watches and underpants; he appears in his famous moustache and red dungarees in every Nintendo promotion.

In Britain, expectations for sales of the new Super Nintendo console are high. 'Our eight-bit machine and the Game Boy are aimed at families, children and adults,' says Mike Hayes, director of marketing for Nintendo's UK distributors, Bandai. 'We aim to cater for the mass market, not just the top 5 per cent who are games fanatics and who always want the next piece of technology, and this involves waiting to launch until the games are right.'

They forecast that by this Christmas, 50 per cent of all British households with children will own a Nintendo game system.

IN A WORLD of shirt-and-tie business types, Philip Ley and his team are a ponytail brigade. Their street-awareness is credited for giving Sega, which missed out on the US market but is now acknowledged as the leader throughout Europe, a flying start in Britain.

Gone, thanks to the work of Ley's team, is the perception of gameheads as spotty Herberts with anoraksia nervosa, inhabitants of seedy arcades where they could come into contact with drugs, gambling and the corruption of British gangland. Consoles may have become a fashion statement, but they have also gained mainstream acceptance.

The link with arcades was damaging to their image, and the successful break from it critical to their success. Children - and therefore Sega - needed parental approval to get consoles into homes. The way to generate that positive feeling turned out to be through the endorsement of the product by celebrities. In the US, Michael Jackson probably gave Sega its biggest coup when, in September 1990, the company launched a game based on his film Moonwalker. As games go, it wasn't such a great one; but as a tool to increase awareness it was a brilliant success. Not until their sponsorship of the European Football Championships earlier this year did Sega receive such a promotional boost.

Nintendo's European counter-attack is being plotted in alliance with Hollywood. Next year the hype will boil over when Mario starts his first adventure on the big screen. Bob Hoskins, as Mario, and John Leguizamo, as his brother Luigi, star as the Mario Bros, outsmarting Dennis Hopper (King Koopa) and his sidekicks. Hoskins and Hopper aren't the only big names involved. The film's directors, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, created Max Headroom for British television. The art director, David L Snyder, was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. The screenplay comes from Barry Morrow (Rain Man) and Ed Solomon (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure), and the director of photography is Dean Semler (Mad Max 3 and Dances With Wolves). Reports of advanced animatronics and a never-before-seen 3-D moving landscape add to the anticipation.

Sega and Nintendo agree that, in 1992, the UK market will be worth about pounds 500m, though forecasts vary according to the source (each also claims to be the market leader, with a 60 per cent share). And as if figures like this were not enough, yet more money is being made from spin-off industries - most of them not purely parasitic, since each adds to the commercial momentum.

The booming computer-game magazine market sells in the region of a million copies a month, outperforming all other youth magazine genres. Within 12 months of their launch, magazines can reach a circulation of 100,000. There may be 18 titles on the market, but, says Eleanor Bailey, the consumer magazines reporter on Media Week, any launch is a fairly safe bet: 'Even the smaller titles have circulations around 35,000 - and, with low costs, owners can still make a comfortable profit.'

Because they preview games before they arrive on the market, magazine editors and writers have themselves become cult figures. Andy Smith, editor of Sega Power, and Matt Bielby, editor of a new magazine, Superplay, have both been made aware of their fame in the video game world. 'We recently went to a primary school that is setting up a Sega fanzine,' Smith says. 'I didn't need an introduction - all the kids said, 'It's Andy]' ' Bielby adds: 'It's a sobering thought that in every playground in the country there will be at least one console player who knows my name.'

Game renting started almost as soon as the console craze got under way, but it became a hot issue at the end of last year when Sega and Electronic Arts, the world's largest producer of home-computer software, announced they would enforce the copyright laws that make renting illegal. A six-month confrontation with rental shops ensued. The 'try before you buy' principle was supported by many in the industry and specialist media as the customer's right, and figures came from the US to suggest that 79 per cent of children who rented would still buy a good game. Sega did a U-turn earlier this year, introducing a pounds 400 licence system for rental shops organised through the Video Trade Association. Simon Jeffery, marketing and communications manager for Electronic Arts, says renting is a sound concept, since a game is pretty dire if its initial attention span is less than 50 hours.

Finally, there is the 'grey' (unofficial) import market, bringing in US games not yet released here. Grey sales are worth approximately pounds 6m from a market created by the manufacturers' inability to introduce a single global release date for their products; pounds 6m may seem insignificant in such a big business, but both companies are eager to wipe out grey importers and want retailers and magazines not to cover grey products or carry grey advertising.

'Grey games spoil the co-ordination of a release by arriving in the shops before the reviews are in the magazines,' Simon Jeffery says. 'This reduces the playground buzz. Also, there are no guarantees on grey products. And although, for example, only about six games are officially available for the Super Nintendo, many games shops will have at least 20 in stock and sell them for up to pounds 100, even though the average price is only between pounds 30 and pounds 40.'

WITHIN the industry, there is a feeling that the market is good for another two years before profits start to tail off. But the long-term future for console games is more exciting. 'I believe,' Simon Jeffery says, 'that by the end of the Nineties there will be one black box that will provide for all our audio-visual needs.'

Technophobes may be horrified by the prospect of a human race so environmentally impoverished and lacking stimulation that it fills its leisure time with computer-generated home entertainment. But, the industry says, there is a clear plus side - and it comes from something they call 'edutainment'.

'It's very important part of our research and development,' Simon Jeffrey explains. 'It's a buzz word in America at the moment, and soon it will be here, too. We have a number of role- playing whodunit games, with the players as detectives going round various parts of the world or going back in time to solve the mystery. Each game comes with a reference book, an encyclopaedia or an almanac in which clues are found or solved. It's the idea of having fun while you learn.'

Technophobia, however, is a tough opponent. Many people cling to the belief that computer games are inherently harmful - a view promulgated, for example, by Martin Amis, in his 1982 book Invasion of the Space Invaders, in which he described the players' characteristic trance-like state as 'bleeping sickness'. But support has come, recently and unexpectedly, from the medical and academic world.

Dr Margaret Shotton, a Nottingham-based psychologist and the author of Computer Addiction?, an analysis of the potential dangers of video games, sees them as just another form of escape, like books, television and radio. 'Computer games are fun, as well as innovative. They require co-ordination, skill, logic, memory and concentration. In fact, television is less interactive. It doesn't force viewers to engage their minds - yet people watch it for 12 hours a week, and it's our most popular pastime. We've got our priorities wrong. Adults don't play enough to understand the fascination.'

When she heard about the role-playing whodunit game, Dr Shotton thought it a marvellous idea. 'Of course, I'd prefer all children to roam free in the countryside,' she said, 'but those days are gone. Flight-simulation computer games are widely used to train pilots. Computer games can stimulate children, so why not develop educative computer games for them?'

Ian Brown, a psychologist based at Glasgow University, whose special field is computer addiction, allows his own children to play video games at home as much as they like. 'There have always been fads and fashions for children that change seasonally - I remember the hula-hoop in my day. But only a very small percentage show significant addictive involvement by dedicating over 80 per cent of their available money and leisure time to any one activity. I was probably as hooked as that on books - and I'm sure it deskilled me socially more than these kids are deskilled by computer games.'

The problem with most developmental studies of computer games - as Professor Valerie Walkerdine of the Department of Media and Communication at Goldsmith's College, London, point outs - is that psychologists use models based on interaction with the real world rather than a virtual one. But she and many psychologists in the field echo the results of the computer theorist Sherry Turkel's observations of American teenagers. The big buzz and total absorption for players comes from the sense of power and control they get from beyond the screen. Turkel says this can lead to frustration in real life, where their actions do not have the same effect - particularly in interpersonal relationships.

The relationship between the player, the screen and the world beyond is one of the key factors of console culture. The American science-fiction writer William Gibson had the idea of introducing the concept of 'cyberspace' into his books after noticing that gameheads are convinced that there really is a space on the other side of the glass.

Most computer games are littered with spatial metaphors - maps, secret passages, rooms and, of course, space itself. Some psychologists say the spatial aspect of video games takes players back to an earlier stage of childhood development, back to the womb. Sean Cubitt, senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at Liverpool Polytechnic, sees video consoles and virtual reality as the latest stage in our historical relationship with the screen. 'What's interesting is the position vis-a-vis the screen. In the theatre, there's a distance between the audience and the stage. In the cinema, there's the same distance - but the stage has become a screen so large that it creates the illusion of proximity. We sit 10 or 15 feet away from the television, but only one or two feet away from a console screen - and virtual reality comes via a mask you wear over your eyes. They're even trying to develop virtual reality using lasers that print straight on to the retina, doing away with the screen completely. The effect is a reduction in the sociability of the audience - when people watch television, they still chat a lot. This physical proximity also helps to explain why video games are so absorbing.'

But it is not true that gameheads play in total isolation. There are games for up to four players together, players invite their friends round for games sessions, and the grapevine element is particularly strong. Staunch supporters suggest that console culture has not only entered but altered the fabric of childhood life and is rebalancing classroom dynamics. Gone are the days of the hero of Tom Brown's School Days, who gained his respect through lots of brawn and just possibly a grey cell or two. Now the hero among the boys is the one who gets the latest games first, the one who always gets the highest scores, the one who is prepared to share his superior knowledge - his 'taktix', as gameheads call the hints and tricks with which they beat the computer - with his classmates.

The increasing number of beguiling characters such as Nintendo's Mario and Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog suggest that the perception of heroes beyond the screen has been affected, too. Mario's designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, wanted his character to be short, hard-working and 'a kind of Everyman, who rises to heroism in the face of adversity, whose insignificance makes him appealing'.

Dr Shotton remains sceptical. 'It's still the macho men at the top,' she says, 'not the underdogs.' But Matt Bielby says this is reading it incorrectly. 'These characters reflect the difference between American and Japanese society,' he claims. 'Mario has no intrinsic superpower, unlike Superman, but he and others use technology to defeat the enemy. Batman doesn't have superpowers, either, but is he physically stronger than Penguin and the Joker? It's the David and Goliath idea, I suppose - the underdogs who come good.'

Sean Cubitt says that this first mass export of Japanese youth culture coincides with our own New Ageism. 'The Japanese have taken the expression 'hi-tech' and used it to mean a blend of the organic with the technological. Their hi-tech has produced a bulbous, more fluid design sense that is less rectilinear than that of the Seventies. This creates a more friendly, less imposing aesthetic in the style themes of electronics and car design, which make these products part and parcel of life. The characters incorporate this, too.'

PROFESSIONAL opposition to video games is increasingly thin on the ground. Even the Professional Association of Teachers, the right-wing teachers' union whose members have been rumoured to take an anti-console stance, maintain that they are not against them in themselves, but feel parents should monitor their use and ensure children are involved in a variety of activities.

'There's an assumption by parents,' explains the association's assistant general secretary, Jackie Miller, 'that because their children have to be prepared for the technological world, any relationship with computers must be educational. Although video games do help to develop useful skills, if they are overplayed children will not be developing other skills. Some children in the top 5 per cent range are aware of their difference from other children and can find it easier to relate to a machine than to their classmates, and then they become even more isolated.'

Not all teachers reserve judgement in this way. The National Union of Teachers has no particular line for or against, but says that computer games can be useful with children who have learning difficulties. Success beyond the screen breeds confidence, which can then be used with specific teaching programmes.

Radio Lollipop, the children's hospital radio, and the Starlight Foundation, the children's charity, have highlighted the potential benefits of work with consoles. Radio Lollipop's director of operations, Dave Glass, says: 'Research done in Perth has approved 'diversion therapy', showing that during Radio Lollipop's sessions children ask for fewer painkillers. We use the Sega Master Systems, and the children lap them up. They help them through the trauma of being in a strange environment and divert them from their pain or illness. The games put smiles on their faces - happy children get better quicker.'

Marc Samuelson, a director of the Starlight Foundation in the UK, takes this point further. 'Our work is with seriously ill children,' he says, 'and we have specially designed rooms in hospitals that are children-friendly, with various forms of entertainment, including video games, which both Sega and Nintendo have helped a great deal to buy. We also have entertainment systems on trolleys for children who are bedridden.

'Now we're looking into video games in connection with visualisation and psycho- neuro immunology. If children can fight cancer, for instance, by imagining their bodies fighting off cancer cells, the potential for a video game based on this scenario, something which would make the children happy at the same time, is enormous.'

But, hey, gamers don't care about psychology and medicine - they just love the games. There are shoot-'em-ups and beat-'em-ups, Dungeons-and-Dragons role-plays, sports games and cute character-platform games. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are there, as well as a host of Hollywood movie spin-offs. For the likes of the Disney Corporation, video games are too hot a medium to ignore. But Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog are still the biggest names around, the central figures in a playground sub-culture that aims to keep adults at bay.

But this is one kids' craze that has backfired on the kids. Consoles have had such an impact that it is now hip for adults, too, to be into Nintendo and Sega. The portable Game Boy console is especially popular: Ian Botham, Betty Boo, Linford Christie, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Prince William, George Bush and General 'Stormin' ' Norman Schwarzkopf are among the adult celebrities named as Game Boy heads in Nintendo's publicity. Salman Rushdie is known to be another. And the columnist Julie Burchill recently told the Daily Telegraph that if a girl has a Game Boy, she doesn't need a boyfriend. She plays, she says, because she loves to be in control.