The original video game console war—Sega vs. Nintendo—was a technical contest, but also, as with so many other competitive marketing campaigns, a cultural referendum.
What kind of gamer are you, and what kind of games do you play? Did you prefer cutesy JRPGs and adventure games? Did you prefer beat-em-ups, shoot-em-ups, and sports titles licensed from the major leagues? How about Mario or Sonic? Your taste and temperament determined your console, and at a costly price point—your selection was a decisive one. So you chose your fighter.
Now, as an adult, you might grab a handful of games for each console, compare them side by side, and recognize two very different childhoods. But only one of these brands, Nintendo, would persist in the console market to the present day. Sega now publishes games—great games, in fact, such as Yakuza, Persona, and Bayonetta—but the company exited the console business at the turn of the century. The Dreamcast, launched in September 1999, was Sega’s final, bittersweet failure. The Genesis, launched a decade earlier in August 1989, was Sega’s one uncomplicated success.
This week, Nintendo launched its online retro gaming expansion, porting a selection of games from the Sega Genesis and the Nintendo 64 to the Switch. The Genesis titles include Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Castlevania: Bloodlines, and Streets of Rage 2; the N64 titles include The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. Sega and Nintendo are now content to replay the 1990s together without litigating the decade’s greatest conflict. A couple of years ago, Sega launched the Genesis Mini, a throwback console preloaded with 42 games. But the Genesis Mini, similar to 2017’s SNES Classic Edition, is a dedicated device and thus a tough sell to all but the most devoted partisans in ’90s console gaming. In its online, subscription-based service, Nintendo promised easier, casual access for Switch gamers to the libraries of Genesis and the N64, as well as the NES and SNES—though the service’s $50 per year pricing and buggy launch for the N64 titles this week have complicated the proposition.
In any event, Nintendo and Sega reconciled long ago; Sega and its former rivals in the console market have worked well together for two decades now. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft wage a lesser, milder version of the console war in the 21st century. But it’s no longer so novel to see the Sega logo light the screen on a Nintendo Switch.
It’s remarkable, though, to see Nintendo juxtapose the Genesis and the N64—an anachronistic contrast that mostly serves to flatter Sega. At the dawn of 3D gaming in the mid-1990s, Sega’s alternative to the N64 wasn’t the Genesis but rather the Saturn, an expensive yet limited console with a disastrous commercial launch that foreshadowed the company’s surrender in the console wars once Sony and Microsoft entered the market. Sega had launched the Genesis a half-decade earlier to compete with the imminent Super Nintendo, a matchup that earned Sega far more goodwill that outweighed the company’s many subsequent missteps in the console wars. Sega never beat Nintendo in commercial terms, not even with the Genesis, but on the strength of the Genesis, Sega persists as an alternative creative vision for the 1990s and beyond.
Ultimately, though, Sega overcommitted to an alternative competition with Namco in arcades, a subculture in decline by the late 1990s. Though impressive on arcade cabinets, repetitive points-driven games in the vein of Virtua Cop, After Burner, and Daytona USA carried Sega only so far on home consoles. Sony launched its debut console, the PlayStation, on September 9, 1995, and Nintendo followed with the N64 just over a year later; both systems emphasized the potential for epic, immersive, single-player gaming over a lengthier period of time. The N64 ran Ocarina of Time; the PlayStation ran Final Fantasy VII, and these titles—far more than Virtua Cop or the Saturn’s Panzer Dragoon Saga—were the future of gaming. Worse yet, Sega mismanaged the hardware releases for each successor to the base Genesis console: first the Sega CD and 32X expansions for the Genesis; then the Saturn with its compromised technical capabilities compared to the N64; and then, finally, the Dreamcast in commercial collapse against the PlayStation 2—9 million units sold by Sega vs. 157 million units sold by Sony.
Suddenly, Sony was the “mature games” publisher while Nintendo gobbled up the youth-friendly market. Sega was cast to the fringes, an overgrown, underachieving fuck-up with no future in console development.
And yet, Sega, more than any other console manufacturer, engenders a certain alt-nostalgia about console gaming in the 1990s. It’s the stuff of vaporwave and emulation. Sonic, Castlevania, Contra, Streets of Rage—these are video game franchises that more or less incinerated upon contact with the 21st century. But of course millennials on the Switch, nostalgic for 16 bits, will always find a way back to 1990.