M.Y.O.P.I.A. # 5: Ringside for the Sega Genesis versus Super Nintendo Rivalry

Twenty-five years ago, The Sega Star Kids Challenge premiered in the summer of 1992. The show pitted teen and child TV stars from various networks against one another in obstacle course style challenges. Aiming for a certain cool factor, Sega got Scott Baio to host the show. What was the major significance of this event?

There wasn’t one. The challenge came and went, and I don’t remember anyone caring. It serves as an example of Sega of America’s marketing strategy that helped the company battle the king of the mountain, Nintendo, who’d gotten comfortable in their reign. Throughout the early 90s, Sega’s rising significance sparked a rivalry that went beyond a decision at a toy store. Genesis or Super Nintendo: the choice could make or break friendships. Why did this rivalry matter and why do children and teens of the 90s still speak of it? Let’s take a close look at the circumstances surrounding the fight.

The mindset of owning a videogame system in the early 90s was different than today. A home might have multiple common appliances like a phone or TV, but a gaming system was a luxury, like a CD player or VCR. Gaming systems were expensive toys and it was fairly unheard of that a kid might have more than one. When someone did have multiple systems, people spoke in whispers about them like they were a bigamist or something. Seriously, I can’t recall a single kid from my school who owned both the Genesis and a Super Nintendo.

The pricing structure on videogames was also different. Cartridges, microchips, and royalties to the brand, created a cost the producers needed to recoup. There were no greatest hits, and a crap game cost as much as a good one. Also, videogames were still mostly played by people under 17. Parents thus served as disinterested gatekeepers to which system and games a child could convince them to get.

The history of videogames in the US also played a part in the mindset of the era. In the 70s, Atari 2600 reigned as the common home console until it crashed like a drunk E.T. hitting a wall in Elliot’s house—the E.T. game adaption often gets some blame for Atari’s crash. The sudden failure of videogames in the early 80s left consumers skeptical of systems going obsolete. The Nintendo Entertainment System revived videogames in the mid-80s. Nintendo’s popularity went beyond the system, spreading to magazines, TV shows, cereal, and movies…“I love the Wizard, it’s so bad.” Competitors like the Sega Master System and Turbo Grafx-16 could make little headway in this climate. Kids loved Nintendo, and parents put faith in the company. When Nintendo announced plans for an updated system in the early 90s however, many parents were pissed.

Consumers today expect electronic upgrades. In 1991, consumers felt blindsided. Although the 8-bit Nintendo was still popular, an upgrade seemed necessary. The Sega Genesis had come out in the US in late 1989, and it was superior to 8-bit Nintendo. Annoying commercials with admittedly catchy songs, rubbed it all in for Nintendo owners.

When Super Nintendo came out midway through 1991, it was more advanced than Genesis in many technological areas, but it was also an infant-system. The Genesis had a bigger inventory of games and a console at fifty dollars cheaper. Major retailers did have a relationship with Nintendo, but some felt frustrated with the supplier’s policies. Nintendo was strict, naming retail prices and even punishing retailers who didn’t follow policy. Many retailers feared reprimand from Nintendo if they carried Sega products, hence the reason for promotions like the Sega Star Kids Challenge, or Sega’s regional promotions at malls and on radio stations. By the time Super Nintendo came out, the Genesis was in enough demand that most retail chains began stocking them and Nintendo had to face the competition. Here’s when the battle got real personal.

To say Sega hit below the belt wouldn’t be enough. Sega aimed straight for the crotch. Their marketing campaign over the next years focused on how cool their company was compared to Nintendo. Commercials often struck at base fears, showing kids with a Genesis as popular in school, and kids with a Super Nintendo getting picked on. Sega marketers had skewed comparison commercials, and they invented fake terms like “blast processing,” (kids were too illiterate of tech back then to realize this was meaningless). Sega’s commercial were loud and in your face, and what they did worked. Sega seemed cool. On the other end of the spectrum, Nintendo didn’t even respond to the attacks at first. Nintendo fans had to argue their system had a higher level of quality, which honestly, came off pretty lame.

Yet, Super Nintendo games often looked and sounded better. Nintendo had mascots like Mario, Link, Star Fox and Donkey Kong. Sega had Sonic, Ecco, and…not much else. Some games for Genesis were better than Super Nintendo. Sega allowed for greater freedom from its creators. Disney games were different and arguably better on the Genesis. Mortal Kombat for the Genesis featured blood and gore, which, terribly pixelated blood somehow helped result in better sales and an appeal to older audiences.

Over the course of the battle, Sega gained at least half the share of videogame sales. But to keep up with Super Nintendo, Sega often hyped games that consumers found subpar. The Genesis, despite “blast processing,” got add-ons, like the Sega CD and 32X. These attachments shoved everywhere made the system look pretty unappealing—kind of like when watching a serene nature show and all of a sudden it cuts to a mating scene—it was just awkward to look at. Consumers seemed to grow dismayed with the expensive add-ons for Genesis and its sales began to fall while Super Nintendo held steadier for a few more years, with Nintendo eventually even striking back at Sega with its own marketing.  Each system would have successors, and the home videogame market would change more when Sony soon entered the scene, although there never seemed a more bitter rivalry over gaming than when Nintendo and Sega had battled.

So, who won? In my opinion, neither, and both. I’d say the rivalry was for the best. Some of the best games developed were due to each company trying to outshine one another. Sega proved that there was room enough in the videogame industry for more than one system. Sure, kids used to argue which system was definitively better, but if most kids back then were like me, they secretly loved them both.

We may have argued with neighbors, cousins, friends, but knowing someone with the opposite system meant getting a taste of the competition. Eventually, the rivalry adapted into something that was fun to remember. Whether someone was a Genesis or Super Nintendo kid back then, they likely nowadays share in common a fondness for that good old rivalry…even if discussions do still sometimes lead to continuing arguments about which system really was the better of the two.

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