E3's PS4 vs Xbox One battle is nothing compared to the console wars of the 90s

Before it was Microsoft vs Sony, it was Sega vs Everyone

At a gaming festival in Nottingham last year, I found myself sitting on the top floor of an excellent Indian restaurant eating some amazing curry, washed down with expensive but much-needed beer. I was surrounded by dozens of hungry, friendly folk who were, given the nature of the event, primarily discussing the latest games they were playing or eyeing up the banks of computers that were lining the wall nearest the toilet.

But there was a dividing line. Each of the tables were covered with one of two colours of cloth, each one indicating which side of the fence the diners wanted to sit. Their choice was a simple one: they either adored the Commodore 64 or loved the ZX Spectrum and there was no grey area, nor Amstrad CPC, in sight. It was the perfect cue for an 8-bit home computer battle and the diners relished getting stuck in.

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For so many of them, it was a chance to re-enact their school days of fierce playground debate over who owned the better machine. It was like a game of Top Trumps, each side trying to out-spec the other for an eventual winner. In many cases, it was a defence over which computer their parents had foisted upon them and there was much at stake: the wrong choice in the wrong school would inevitably lead to isolation and envy as rivals packed C60 tapes with copied games that just wouldn't run on your machine. Such grudges stick.

But that was then. Today, it is said we are in the grips of yet another war, only these days it revolves around consoles rather than old home computers. The PlayStation 4 is up against the Xbox One and Nintendo is battling hard to boost sales of the Wii U and there have already been casualties.

Nintendo's president Satoru Iwata slashed his pay in half after disappointing revenue earnings in January. Microsoft had hoped to follow up its successful Xbox 360 with an all-in-one entertainment console but it has frequently slunk away for a rethink – the latest being the removal of its controller-less add-on Kinect in a new, lower price bundle.

So far, Sony is in the lead. It has sold seven million PS4s to Nintendo's 6.17 million Wii Us and Microsoft's five million Xbox Ones at the last count. It has also had a good E3 so far. At its press event at the video game expo, it confirmed the exclusives Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and Little Big Planet 3. it also showcased a revived Grim Fandango. But Microsoft is not resting. A strong conference was essential and it provided it with a look at Forza Motorsport 5, Fable Legends and new IP in the guise of the shooter, Sunset Overdrive.

 

And yet compared to the console wars of yesteryear, the current battles are disappointing. While all sides are showcasing some great content – Nintendo turning things around with the launch of Mario Kart 8 – the sniping and one-upmanship of days gone by appear to be lacking this time around, perhaps because the PS4 and Xbox One are so similar in make-up. In comparison to the console wars we've seen in the past, today's spat is relatively sanguine.

If you want proof you need only consider the inaugural E3 in 1995 when Sega was unveiling the Sega Saturn, the highly anticipated follow-up to the Mega Drive. Tom Kalinske, president and CEO of Sega of America from 1990 to 1996, took to the stage and described his machine, retailing at $399, to the assembled mass who applauded and got their credit cards ready.

Then Stephen Race, head of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, walked on stage for his own presentation and he announced that the PlayStation would make its debut in North America and Europe later that year. He uttered one word: “$299”. With that, Sega's work began to unravel. The crowd went crazy and Mr Race simply walked off stage. His job, he sensed, had been done and in undercutting his rival by $100, he knew he had dealt a devastating blow.

It was a carefully planned attack and one from which Sega would never recover. Badly wounded by the new kid on the block, the Sega Saturn went on to sell 9.5 million machines and was considered a commercial failure. The PlayStation, meanwhile, sold 102.49 million and became one of the best-selling consoles of all time.

It was a real coup for Sony. Having had no experience in the gaming space prior to the PlayStation, it had managed to break the stranglehold Sega and Nintendo had on the market. Its amazing 3D graphics, beautiful design and launch games such as Ridge Racer and Tekken were more than enough to secure it victory. Sony marketed it as a machine for the masses, placed it in nightclubs and commissioned cool games that appealed to the in-crowd, WipEout being a notable gem.

To make things worse, Sega went head-to-head against Sony yet again when it launched the Dreamcast in 1998. It was a wonderful machine, remaining much-loved today by retro gaming fans and it proved ground-breaking with its online mode. Shenmue and Crazy Taxi were two of its more notable games and yet as soon as Sony released the PS2 attention swiftly moved away, thanks in no small part to its ability to play DVDs. The 10.6 million Dreamcasts sold was dwarfed by the staggering 155 million PS2s sold. To add insult to injury, the PS2 took the title of the all-time biggest selling machine, a title it retains to this day.

It was hard to feel entirely sorry for Sega, though. After all, Sega had pulled the same trick on Nintendo, a company it wanted to destroy in the 1980s when it launched the Master System in Japan in 1985 to take on Nintendo's NES which had launched two years earlier. The Master System was given a faster processor, superior audio and more memory but it just wasn't enough. By 1988, Nintendo has 95 per cent of all home console sales and it rankled with Sega.

Rather than give up, Sega sparked the fiercest console war of all. It drew up an aggressive marketing campaign for the Master System's successor, the Mega Drive or the Genesis as it was known in the US, and this time it launched its machine first. Sega had noticed that its debut console had sold well in Europe and Australia and so believed it had some kind of fan base upon which to build. It also realised that it needed a strong library of games in order to turn heads so it ensured many of its own successful arcade games were converted for the console at launch.

Crucially, it tried to put as much distance between itself and Nintendo as possible – just as Sony later wanted to distinguish itself from Sega. Rather than market games as being entertainment fodder for children, it decided its audience should be more mature. Sega deliberately chose a sleek, black style for the Mega Drive case so as to appear more “grown-up” and it aggressively targeted people over the age of 16 with advertisements in the cinema and on television, humiliating Nintendo in the process.

A Sega advert from the early 90s.

“I took on Nintendo in advertising and made fun of them, basically ridiculed Nintendo and basically all their consumers,” Mr Kalinske says, recalling to the “Genesis does what Nintendon't” strapline he used. “They were a little kids product. If you were a five or six-year-old you can play a Nintendo but if you wanted to be a teenager or play like a college kid you needed a Genesis. All that stuff worked and we became a very large and important entity at that time.”

By the time Nintendo released the Super NES or SNES in 1990, Sega was running away with the market. Not wanting to give up any ground, it reassessed its position in the gaming market and decided it needed a new mascot to rival Mario, Nintendo's Italian plumber with blue dungarees. Sega introduced a spiky, streetwise-looking hedgehog that ran incredibly fast. He was called Sonic.

Launched in 1991, Sonic was a huge success and the vice-like grip of Nintendo was loosening. By 1992, Sega had taken 55 per cent of the American market and it was keen to battle against Nintendo on all fronts. It attempted to beat the Nintendo Game Boy using the same tactics that had beaten the SNES only this time it failed.

“We compared their Game Boy device to dogs which are colour blind,” says Mr Kalinske. “We basically said that if you wanted to play the Game Boy you were missing out on all the great visual capabilities of the Game Gear because Game Gear is colour and Game Boy was black and white.”

And so it went on. Everything Nintendo did, Sega tried to do better. Although Nintendo continued to reign supreme in Japan, in America and Europe Sega was toppling its rival. What's more, there was a feeling of intense dislike in the Sega camp towards Nintendo that was driving them on and the console market had never quite seen anything like it.

Sonic and Mario - friends at last, or friendly rivals at least.

Today, of course, things are very different. Sega makes games for Nintendo consoles and Mario and Sonic have even appeared in the games together. Sega eventually gave up and Nintendo went on to achieve incredible sales with the Wii, taking gaming further into the mainstream. Nintendo's saving grace was its excellent number of first-party games and it saw them through troubled waters with the Nintendo 64 and GameCube consoles.

It was the Xbox 360's emergence in 2005 that finally managed to take on Sony, the Wii having essentially forged its own niche and revolution without need for head-to-head comparisons. With 83.7 million sales – some 3.7 million more than the PS3 – it was the most closely fought battle of all with both sides constantly trying to outdo each other with exclusive games and peripherals (for Kinect, read Move, both inspired by the Wii). It was hard to declare a winner but, in the latter years, the PS3 just about edged it for exclusive content.

The same level of intensity of yesteryear hasn't been felt with the current generation yet but it is early days. With so many millions of pounds at stake and with many years of life to go for both machines, you can be sure that full-on war will rage soon enough. One thing's for sure, if it turns into anything like the battles between Sega and Nintendo, we're in for one amazingly fun ride – with gamers being the overall winner

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