The First Great Console War

Since man first learned how to fashion undergarments from fig leaves, humanity has scarcely lasted five minutes without starting a war. Whether it’s for land, for religion, or to take down a rotten egg like Hitler and his cronies, we as a people are prone to letting our fists do the talking a little too often. Commonly, resources are the reason that we go to war, whether those in power care to admit it or not. President Bush might like to tell you that he invaded the Middle East for the good of the people, but it just so happens there’s also a hell of a lot of oil over there. When there’s not enough to go around, everyone wants to make sure they get their share. As Tears For Fears once sang, ‘Everybody Wants To The Rule The World’.

The video game industry isn’t quite as dangerous as the Normandy landings, but with a finite number of potential buyers wielding a finite amount of money to spend, console manufacturers will do what they need to do to sell their product to the masses. When Pong was first released in a home version it had to duke it out with a slew of knock offs for market supremacy. Later came the Atari 2600 which dominated sales against largely forgotten systems like ColecoVision. After the North American video game crash of ’83 it looked like console gaming was done for in the States, but Nintendo and SEGA were about to enter the fray, and console gaming would be changed forever.

Nintendo were a card game company that had seen the interest in board games and card games decline since the arrival of arcades, and like any good company that sees the market they’re in shift, they adapted. Moving into arcade gaming and toys, Nintendo found some measure of success with their new ventures, and the next logical step was to move in on the home video game market. Atari were the big name in gaming but the crash of ’83 had decimated the company, leaving the industry wide open for a new challenger to take over. In 1983 Nintendo released the Family Computer in Japan, and after a successful run in their home country, made plans to go international. In ’85, the Famicom (as it had become known) was rebranded as the Nintendo Entertainment System and launched globally.

Meanwhile, SEGA were primarily known for making coin operated arcade machines, but they made an attempt at cashing in on the home console market too. Their SG-1000 console actually launched at the same time as the NES, but due in part to the aforementioned industry crash in North America, the lack of games available for the system, and the fact that their machine was underpowered in comparison to the Nintendo console, the SG-1000 never really found any footing. These days, the SG-1000 is largely forgotten about, remaining little but a footnote in the pages of video game history.

While the SG-1000 failed to make much of a splash, the success of the NES proved that console gaming could be a viable way to make money, and SEGA still wanted a piece of that pie. The SEGA Master System was launched in 1987 to directly compete with the NES for market share. Technically, the machine was more powerful than the Nintendo console, but with the NES having already been on the market for a few years, the Master System struggled. Gamers already had the NES, and trying to convince them to switch to a new system would be hard work; a problem made even harder because third party publishers were largely afraid to take a risk by releasing games on the system for fear of repercussions from Nintendo, and so the number of games available was limited in comparison to the NES.

The Master System didn’t come close to overtaking the NES as the number one gaming console, and so SEGA, still wanting to control the video game industry, decided to change their strategy. How do you convince people to switch to your console when they already have one that’s basically the same? You don’t. You make a better console, and then there’s no debate. And so that’s what SEGA did. In 1989 SEGA released the Mega Drive (named Genesis in the United States), a 16-bit home video game console that was so far ahead of the NES in terms of hardware power that it amounted to the next generation of gaming. In order to capitalise on the generational leap that their new console had made, SEGA decided to take the fight to Nintendo in marketing too, with the now infamous slogan, “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”. And with that, the first great console war had truly begun.

SEGA’s aggressive marketing of the Genesis was something that rubbed off on gamers. Kids would pick up the latest magazines, see the marketing mocking the NES and championing the Genesis as the future, and adopt it for themselves. Unlike any of the previous skirmishes between console manufacturers, the battle between SEGA and Nintendo drew gamers in and effectively put them on the front lines. Being at school in the late eighties meant that you were either a SEGA kid or a Nintendo kid, and you fought for your console regardless of whether you were in the right or in the wrong.

Thinking about it now, it never really made any sense, although you can still see that mentality today if you spend five minutes trawling gaming forums on the Internet and looking at some of the ridiculous things that PlayStation and Xbox fans say to each other. Anybody with their head screwed on properly can see that these companies are all essentially the same; they want your money. And while some might go about it in better ways than others, that fact never really changes. A lot of people talk about Nintendo like their HQ is a sort of gaming Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory; happy minions spending hours crafting games and the only payment they’ll ever need is a child’s smile. Life simply isn’t like that, and like most wars there’s rarely a clear cut “good guy”.

That being said, SEGA’s marketing strategy did seem overly sassy, even at the time. And I was originally a SEGA kid. While the insults might look tame today, at the time it was quite shocking to see a company not only address their competition by name, but publicly call them out. To their credit, it worked, and sales of the SEGA Genesis started very strongly, particularly in Western Europe where the Mega Drive, as it was called there, was a bona fide smash hit.

Nintendo were astonishingly slow to reply. They didn’t even announce their Super Nintendo Entertainment System until 1989, and it wasn’t released until the end of 1990 in Japan. It was released a year later in the States, and a further year later in Europe. This meant that SEGA had a relatively long time to get their claws into the market, and they also had time to prepare for the arrival of a new Nintendo console.

SEGA decided that they needed a mascot to rival that of Mario for Nintendo. They’d tried to make Alex Kidd a thing and bundling Alex Kidd In Miracle World in with the Master System was a clever move, but Mr. Kidd had never really taken off like Mario had. Now, with a brand new Nintendo console hitting the streets, SEGA needed their own mascot. What they came up with was Sonic the Hedgehog. He was bright, colourful, fast, cool and he had attitude to spare. In many ways, his creation summed up what SEGA were about at the time. The Genesis was seen as the cool, exciting new console while the NES was seen as a toy for children. The Genesis was taking games to the next level. Except when the SNES was released, the Genesis was instantly outdated. And that was a massive problem for SEGA.

The Genesis continued to sell well even after the launch of the SNES, but with the Super Nintendo being noticeably more powerful than the Genesis, they’d lost their ultimate bargaining chip. The Genesis was no longer the future. It was no longer the exciting console that laughed in the face of the competition. It was outgunned. And handsomely so.

To their credit, SEGA were at least quick to react in that they changed their marketing slogan to “Welcome to the next level” almost immediately after the SNES arrived, as though not wanting to leave themselves open to attack when people realised that “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” only works when the Nintendo console is weak. But it wasn’t power that was SEGA’s biggest problem. It was games.

Every Nintendo console, whatever you think of it, has had great games. The Wii U is a colossal failure for the company right now, but Mario Kart 8, the latest Smash Bros. and Super Mario 3D World are all stellar games. What is true now was true back then, only tenfold. The SNES has one of the greatest libraries of games ever amassed, and while the Genesis was quick out of the blocks and it made an impact, it simply couldn’t compete in terms of the quality of games.

The Super Nintendo had the likes of Mario RPG and Mario Kart. It had stacks of quality Japanese role playing games, with the likes of Final Fantasy VI still being talked about today as one of the best of all time. There was Zelda and Donkey Kong and Starfox. Even the likes of Street Fighter II, which could also be played on Genesis, was considered to be at home on the SNES thanks to the vastly superior controller on the Nintendo console. But nothing highlights why Nintendo are still in the game and why SEGA are now out of hardware more readily than the comparison between their flagship games.

Sonic The Hedgehog was created as a cooler alternative to Mario, but for all the attitude and all the speed, the games simply didn’t resonate with people in the same way that titles starring Mario did. Even today one can play Super Mario World and appreciate the impeccable game design that still holds up in 2016. Playing Sonic The Hedgehog today, unless you have the benefit of nostalgia, is not remotely as pleasant an experience.

As more and more quality games released for the SNES, sales grew, and Nintendo were gaining on SEGA. By the time the console generation wound up, the SNES had caught and overtaken the Genesis, with the Nintendo console sitting at around 49 million units sold, and the SEGA system being on just under 31 million.

SEGA made Nintendo sweat, but ultimately, they were bested by a stronger system with a better library of games. If SEGA could have capitalised on the strides they made in this generation and improved with their next console then perhaps they’d still be a major player today. Unfortunately, a series of catastrophic errors of judgement meant that their next two consoles failed. The SEGA Saturn was given a surprise release that caught everybody off guard meaning there were no games for the system at launch. After the failure of the Dreamcast, SEGA couldn’t stomach the financial hits any longer and decided to concentrate on software only. Today they’re mostly known for releasing increasingly terrible Sonic the Hedgehog games. And most of them are on Nintendo consoles.

As for Nintendo, their triumph was short lived. After going back on a deal with Sony to make a CD compatible version of the SNES at the last minute, an annoyed Sony used what they’d researched to develop their own console and enter the war in the mid-nineties. The Sony PlayStation laid waste to the Nintendo 64 in sales, and the PlayStation 2 went on to be the best selling home console of all time. Today, the PlayStation 4 battles the Microsoft Xbox One in the current console war while Nintendo are largely considered a quaint relic of a bygone era, outclassed and outsold by more forward thinking competitors.

How the PlayStation Changed the Game

In the early nineties Nintendo was the undisputed king of the video game industry. SEGA had tried to compete with the NES and the SNES home consoles with their Master System and Mega Drive, and while the latter did a lot better than the former, Nintendo were still firmly in first place once all the sales were counted. As the SNES and Mega Drive generation was winding up, SEGA started toying with the idea of using CDs instead of cartridges, even going so far as to release the SEGA CD add-on for the Mega Drive.

Nintendo, for their part, also dabbled in CD technology. They held talks with Sony, famous for their work with CDs and the accompanying hardware, to help them build a CD drive for the SNES. Sony spent time and money learning about the gaming industry and building their prototypes but negotiations between the two Japanese companies broke down. Depending on who you ask, either Nintendo agreed terms with another company in secret and let Sony find out at the last minute, or Sony were asking for too much money and Nintendo baulked on the deal. Whichever is true, the result was still the same; Sony was out on their ear in regards to the SNES-CD. While that deal hadn’t worked out for anybody, what became clear was that the gaming industry was moving towards CD as their medium of choice.

Sony decided to use what they’d learned and developed working with Nintendo to create their own console and enter the fray; they dubbed it the PlayStation and released it in 1994, about two years before Nintendo would release their next big console. What nobody expected was that Sony would ultimately dethrone Nintendo as the most popular console manufacturer in the world and begin a twenty year dominance of the industry.

One of the main reasons that Sony was so successful with the original PlayStation was their superb marketing of the console. Prior to the PlayStation, almost all games consoles were aimed at children. Sony made a shrewd move in specifically targeting young adults in their marketing, making PlayStation a hit among gamers that had grown up with a Nintendo console but now wanted something a little more, well, grown up.

Sony would put the PlayStation in nightclubs and have celebrities endorse the console or be photographed playing one. Games generally started to drift more towards an adult tone, and new titles like Tomb Raider were seen as altogether cooler than Mario or Zelda. Ultimately, Sony took a hobby that was generally seen as for children and openly mocked by many, and helped to make it into the more respected medium that we see today. While it would be silly to say that they did it out of the kindness of their hearts – they made a hell of a lot of money through making gaming more accepted in the public eye – we can’t overlook what they did. Sony made gaming cool.

When it came time for the next big Nintendo console, the N64, the company surprised a lot of people by announcing that it would still use cartridges instead of CD. The logic behind the decision made enough sense; CDs are much easier to pirate than cartridges, and they feared that using CDs would cost them a lot of money thanks to copied games. The decision to stick with cartridges and the extra two year development time Nintendo had with the N64 meant that the system was more powerful than the PlayStation and load times were virtually non-existent. Cartridges did have downsides though – they made games more expensive to produce, they were harder to develop for, and it meant that the N64 would struggle with storage, music quality and FMV.

Squaresoft had long been working with Nintendo and had brought all of their previous Final Fantasy games to Nintendo consoles. But seeing the extra storage space CDs would afford them, and knowing that they could push the boundaries of production values with higher quality cut-scenes, Square jumped ship and decided to produce the next title in their Final Fantasy series for the PlayStation: Final Fantasy VII.

It’s impossible to overstate just how important Final Fantasy VII was. As an RPG, it introduced millions of gamers to their first Japanese role playing game, and the subsequent popularity of the genre meant that role playing mechanics began to filter into practically every other genre. Today we have RPG systems in FIFA.

But as important as Final Fantasy VII was to games, it was even more important for Sony. Final Fantasy had become a big deal in Japan and the move to PlayStation meant that sales for the console went up in Sony’s homeland cementing the console’s position as the one to own for fans of JRPGs. In the years that followed, the PlayStation would see dozens of top notch JRPGs released, and even today this period of time is remembered fondly as a golden age for the genre. What was more surprising was how well Final Fantasy VII was received outside of Japan, though.

While the Final Fantasy series had been fairly popular among gamers around the globe, Final Fantasy VII became a phenomenon. Thanks to stellar reviews, contagious word of mouth, and a hefty marketing campaign, Final Fantasy VII went on to be a massive hit that meant more to the industry than just some impressive sales numbers. Gamers embraced the story of Cloud and Sephiroth, and hungry for more, JRPG sales generally went up. Final Fantasy became a premier brand, and future releases for the series became events that gamers would look forward to.

Final Fantasy VII also featured impressive – for the time – visuals that wouldn’t have been possible had Squaresoft made the game for the N64. The quality of the FMV sequences in Final Fantasy VII was one of the major talking points surrounding the game, and the cinematic edge that Squaresoft brought to the title was something that other games still replicate to this day.

Thanks largely to Final Fantasy VII the PlayStation made a serious mark upon the gaming industry, and from there things only got better. The extra power the N64 had technically was negated by the increased storage capacity of the discs the PlayStation used, and the higher quality of music and video that available to developers. Titles like Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Tomb Raider simply wouldn’t have worked on N64, and they all became major selling points for Sony’s console. What’s more, Nintendo had no answer for games like these, instead generally sticking to the tried and tested games like Mario and Zelda.

While the quality of Nintendo’s games remained as high as ever, their hardware had let them down this time around. Whether they underestimated the threat of Sony as a credible competitor or whether they didn’t realise the impact that CDs would have upon the industry, Nintendo were finally number two to another company in the gaming space. By the end of the generation, the N64 had sold around 32 million units, while the PlayStation racked up over 100 million in sales.

Late in the generation, taking inspiration from the N64 controller which featured an analogue stick, Sony released the first Dual Shock controller and changed the way we play games forever. Nintendo made a clever move in including an analogue stick in their controller since 3D gaming would require a little more precision than the standard D-Pad would allow. But Sony took the idea and did something ingenious with it. With one analogue stick to control the player character, and one analogue stick left to control the camera, the way we play games was redefined. Microsoft and Nintendo have both copied this approach since, and now the control scheme is so commonplace that playing a 3D game from before the dual-analogue time period feels awkward.

Nostalgia might paint Nintendo as the leaders of console gaming; they were the explorers that went out into uncharted territory. But Sony was the company that used what they discovered to build the gaming industry into what it is today. PlayStation has been the premier brand in video games longer than Nintendo ever was.

Part of the reason for that is the success of the original PlayStation console. The first steps into 3D gaming might have been awkward, but once the foundations were laid, console gaming was changed forever. The PlayStation helped to establish that via a combination of clever marketing, shifting people’s perceptions of the industry, and championing a few key franchises that would go on to be some of the biggest in the world.

Today, the original PlayStation is remembered as a console that changed gaming for a lot of people. Whether it Final Fantasy VII being their first RPG, Metal Gear Solid being the action movie that they could play, or Silent Hill scaring the pants off them, the PlayStation was a massively important moment in video game history, and a console that gave us an incredible library of games.

Acorn Assault: Rodent Revolution – Revolutionary? Or Not?

If you’re looking for a new turn-based strategy game, we’re talking about Acorn Assault: Rodent Revolution. This little title is all about an Acorn tax gone bad, raising your own army, and overthrowing a king… So that’s part of the story behind it, but what’s the rest of the story?

How can you start playing, and are there any cool “secrets” or strategies that you should know about? Welcome to my preview of the Ultimate or maybe Not-So-Ultimate, Acorn Assault: Rodent Revolution.

Story Mode:

As it fittingly is, AARR (for short) starts you off in the middle of an unfair acorn tax. I know. I told you it was fitting.

The game has 5 bosses and 25 levels.

When the king of the town, King Lous the Umpteenth issues an unfair acorn tax and a rebel-squirrel refuses to pay, the Revolution begins… That’s the impression I received, anyway.

Brief Strategy and How to Play:

The game is setup on a 6×4 board on both sides of the field (unsure if this grows later) with settings that range from waterfalls and castles, to rural areas and homes. Your goal is to raise an army of squirrels by using acorns (money) to buy your soldiers.

You can place 3 soldier-squirrels next to each other, and make one powerful one. This has been compared to ‘kinging’ your piece in a game of checkers. More powerful squirrels have more health, and can perform stronger attacks.

Throughout your turn, there are a number of number of different moves that you can make to create a more powerful squirrel-army.

You can use Power Ups to make a more powerful armed forces unit!

Increase your Strength
Increase your Defense
Increase your health

You can choose to place more squirrel soldiers on the board along with sandbags and barrels for soldier protection. Since all attacks are horizontal-based attacks, it’s preferable to place your protection in front of whatever it is you don’t want attacked.

I know. Simple.

You can complete your turn by choosing to attack the tyrant king (probably at the end of the game) and his evil army of other squirrel soldiers, or by performing the Power Up moves we discussed earlier.

The game is over once you or your opponent’s health bar reaches zero.

After you conquer the Tyrant King and beat AARR you can take the game online with your friends. I couldn’t imagine the game taking more than a few hours a day and 1 week to beat. That’s only my best bet.

Graphics:

AARR is a an ‘OK’ game graphically. The game has beautiful colors and well-defined edges. The cartoon-style to the game suits it well… Then you get to the closeups of the squirrels. They’re boxy and very “N64 era.” It’s okay, but is a full reminder that you are really just playing a $10 game. To me, this is a disappointment.