Soon after the ZX Spectrum vs. C-64
conflict that raged so bitterly in the mid-Eighties, the home micro
boom began to fizzle out as gamers' attention turned to the new wave of 8-bit consoles
. Soon enough there was another battle waged by zealots
in playgrounds around the world, that would be fought in small pockets long after commercial dominance for either side was a possibility.
The long (and arguably pointless) holy war between Sega and Nintendo split the console gaming world for well over a decade. The opening salvoes took place around 1987, when the Sega Master System and the Nintendo Entertainment System had both been around for a couple of years. It was around this time however that Sega and Nintendo realised that they were the two major players in the console market, and that their machines were in direct competition.
In those days, it was a rare thing to own more than one games machine, so allegiance to one faction (and the exclusive and mainly first-party software catalogue that came with it) was a way of life for many gamers. The Master System was technically superior to the NES, and in the early days had the advantage of conversions of all Sega's big arcade titles. The NES had the advantage of (quite frankly illegal) exclusivity deals with third parties such as Konami, as well as a smallish raft of first-party titles that were undisputed classics.
Sega's biggest coup in the whole campaign was probably the release of the Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis) with a comfortable lead (of around a year, depending on territory) on the Super Nintendo. In this interim period Sega stomped and obliterated the NES, and (after some false starts) took a leaf from Nintendo's book, fostering third-party relations with Electronic Arts and Capcom among others.
The arrival of the SNES restored the balance - although the SNES was techically superior to the Megadrive, it initially had to play catch-up in terms of game libraries. The resulting big-money, big-userbase tussle split the market surprisingly evenly, and led to a period of fierce competition that makes the one horse race that was the Playstation years look almost sedate. Between 1991 and 1994, dozens of extremely high quality games were released as the two machines were pushed to their limits.
Both sides had a figurehead that supposedly embodied their values- Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog and Nintendo's Mario. This gave the 'rivalry' a personal side among fans and (stupider) magazines, although it's known that the creators of both characters and their games had a mutual respect for each other. Yuji Naka (co-creator of Sonic) is believed to have built an emulator to allow him to run Mario Brothers 3 on the Sega Mega Drive as a hobby project. Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario's 'dad') when asked about Sonic, jokingly claims to be flattered that Sonic Team have so clearly been influenced by his work.
Steven Poole, in his book Trigger Happy, summed up the difference between the two companies by comparing Nintendo to the Beatles and Sega to the Rolling Stones- by which he meant that Nintendo were squeaky-clean family fun, and had a technical virtuosity, while Sega were more raw and fostered a subversive image. (Sega, for instance, had a far laxer attitude to violence compared to Nintendo's sometimes Disney-like levels of censorial control.)
Sega were traditionally more tuned into world of 'hardcore' gamers, knowing that arcade titles were bankable. (Nintendo evidently learnt this tactic with the triumphant release of Street Fighter II on the SNES.) In the later years, Sega were playing almost solely to a hardcore audience with many of their releases on the Saturn and the Dreamcast getting far less attention than they truly deserved.
It was the eventual move to the 'next generation' (as it was then) that put paid to the chances of either side winning the 'war'. Nintendo were first stabbed in the back by Sony, who backed out on a CD-ROM project for the SNES and created their own platform, the technically limited by explosively well marketed PlayStation. Sega were stabbed in the back by Sega of America's constant demand for new hardware product, which forced them to develop the poorly supported 32X expansion for the Sega Mega Drive. Their 32-bit platform, the Sega Saturn, was rushed to market and proved too difficult to coax 3D performance from (ironically, considering Sega had pioneered modern 3D gaming with the Model 1 arcade board).
The Saturn played host to a number of excellent games, but as it was drowned out by the PlayStation's success, it was eventually chalked up as a failure. Nintendo had the foresight to wait a little longer (so long in fact that most people gave up on them and migrated elsewhere), and their N64, while never much of a commercial threat to the PSX, hosted a core of superb games and actually turned a profit. The development of the Pokemon franchise took the heat off of Nintendo's home console division to the tune of several $100 millions, and gave them the time and R&D resources to develop what many see as their most exciting platforms yet - the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo Gamecube.
Sega made a last ditch attempt to re-enter the hardware market with the Dreamcast, a machine that blew away the PlayStation in terms of power, but was poorly marketed and proved too expensive to manufacture. This is a great shame, as the Dreamcast had probably the most consistently high quality library of any Sega console, and publishers are now falling over themselves to release DC-debutted games like Crazy Taxi, Jet Set Radio, Sonic Adventure and Shenmue on other platforms.
Indeed, Sega's goal is now to become the largest software-only games company in the world in the next few years, and with their huge back catalogue, multi-platform strategy and stable of innovative development teams, this is practically guaranteed. One-time allies Electronic Arts (current holders of the title) are veritably crapping themselves at the prospect.
So now that Sega are aiming to be the best software company (but not for their machines) and Nintendo are aiming to be the best (but not only) console manufacturer, what does this mean for the Sega/Nintendo feud? It means that it's over - Sega are now developing games for Nintendo machines. Yuji Naka is enthusiastic about working on the Gamecube. Having put Mario on Sonic's machine, his next step is of course to return the favour.