The Great Console Wars: A Brief History of Consoles and How Competition Birthed the Consoles We Know Today.

Ever since consoles started gaining popularity and began appearing in households around the world, they formed a special place in the hearts of the people who played them. So much so that people began to identify with these consoles personally. So when competition for their beloved console would arise , it figuratively became a declaration of war. Competition between which console is “superior” began to arise and it still exist today. And while it is possible to see how this could be considered childish, it is quite impressive how passionate people get about their consoles because of the impact its has in those peoples lives. In this essay I will analyze and discuss the history of consoles and console wars and how that history shaped the consoles we know today.

In order to be able to analyze when it was that competition between consoles began which led to these “console wars”, its best to first understand just how these consoles came to be.

The Birth of the Home Console

At the dawn of video games the idea of a gaming console for your house was far removed from society’s goals in America. Computer games were the first to make the idea of a home gaming console more realistic. The invention of games like OXO created by British professor A.S Douglas in 1952 , William Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two created in 1958, and Steven Russell’s 1962 Spacewars! , (which was the first computer game that could be played on multiple computers )were the catalysts to the creation of gaming consoles and video games in general.

All of those games were great for the advancement of video games toward a home consumer good, but none had as much as an impact as the “Brown Box”. Originally named “TV Game Unit #7” Ralph Baer and his co-workers at Sanders Associates created a prototype for the first ever video game console. The Brown Box had a variety of games including: checkers, target shooting, a variety of sports games, and its most popular game being ping-pong. The Brown Box utilized a series of switches to activate a specific game and “ Program Cards” would be used to show the user which switches pertained to which game . Ralph Baer is also commonly referred to as, The Father of Video Games, because the innovative Brown Box created features that console today still have, for example, multiple controllers and the ability to run multiple games. Ralph Baer eventually licensed the product to Magnavox and in 1972 Magnavox launched the first ever home console to hit the market, The Magnavox Odyssey.

The Original Brown Box Prototype (left) next to the Magnavox home console the Odyssey (right).

The Magnavox Odyssey turned out not to be as successful as the company would of hoped, but with the introduction of the home console to the market it was only a matter of time before other companies tried their luck with consoles.

In come a major player in the early ages of home console , the Atari. After the success of Pong, the at home version that is, the Atari created by Nolan Bushnell releases the Video Computer System, or as it is most commonly known the Atari 2600 in 1977. Which could be considered the Magnavox Odyssey’s competitor but it was no competition, the Atari was the more advanced in technology and sales despite Magnavox’s attempts at releasing updated versions of the Odyssey. In addition to that , Atari and Magnavox were partners of sorts after Atari got sued for copyright infringement ( for pong, and its not so shocking resemblance to Magnavox’s ping-pong) and decided to become an Odyssey licensee, if you can’t pay them , join them. The Atari 2600 was the starting point for the next generation of consoles, a generation that led to sheer chaos in the gaming industry, specifically the home console market. This effect would in turn, leave the industry wide open for one system to have a strong hold on the gaming industry.

The Great Video Game Crash

With the intriguing success of the Atari 2600 many consoles wanted a piece of the pie, the pie of profit. This led to an outstanding amount of consoles being made by various companies like, Mattel, Colecon, and Nintendo to name a small portion. However, this “gold rush “ to the home console industry led to some terrible side effects. The over saturation of consoles and low-quality of games ultimately led one of the most infamous “crashes” in video game history. By the year 1983 the home console market was in shambles ,with so many options for consoles but all of low quality, and even more so when it came to their games. One of the most infamous examples being Atari’s E.T. video game, which is often exaggerated as being the sole reason for the video game crash, but what many believe to have lead to the demise of Atari. The game was an excellent reflection of the gaming industry’s mentality before the crash was,rushed and made in only six weeks because of the upcoming Christmas season, it is now considered by many in the gaming industry one of the worst games of all time. This attitude games companies had at the time led to the demise of the large majority of companies in the home console market. When hope was at an all time low for home consoles one company finally took the hint that people valued quality just as much or perhaps more than quantity.

In Spawns Nintendo

This is where Nintendo becomes an iconic franchise in the history of home consoles and console wars. Nintendo which had already gained familiarity in the North American gaming industry with its arcade hit Donkey Kong , America’s first introduction to the ever so famous Mario, decides to jump right in. The introduction of the Famicom console from Japan in 1985, or as its most famously known in America the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was a clever and thought out process to take control of the gaming market in the states. With North American consumers just experiencing a crash on the industry Nintendo decided to design a console that resembled nothing the American audience had ever seen before. In fact, in its early marketing Nintendo avoided using the term “video game” because it would shy away consumers. This is also why the name of the console has “entertainment system” as they wanted it to be perceived as a more sophisticated piece of technology. And rightly so, it was the best and most enhanced 8-bit console on the market by far, this combined with various regulations they imposed on developers when making games for their system, led to the NES being a worldwide household success. A success that would prove to be the birth of a rivalry that has gone down in video game history as the first ever Console Wars.

Nintendo Entertainment System released in 1985

The First Console War: Nintendo vs Sega

In 1989 Nintendo was at the peak of the gaming market. With the new release of the GameBoy it was hard to see how anyone could compete with the dominance Nintendo had in video games. On top of that, Nintendo released a variety of games that became hits and are still around to this day like Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. , The Legend of Zelda , and many more. However, 1989 was also the year the first real competition arises, Sega and its 16-bit Sega Genesis.

Sega who had little success competing with the NES through its previous consoles (Sega SG-100 1983, Sega Master System 1985) finally found a way to break through the NES stronghold with it successor the Sega Genesis. Through clever marketing Sega became an instant competitor of Nintendo, with one of its most infamous ads claiming “ Genesis does what Nintendon’t”.

“Genesis does what Nintendon’t” famous commercial.

With Sega gaining ground on Nintendo, Nintendo responded with the release of its own 16-bit console the SNES ( Super Nintendo Entertainment System). This along with the release of Street Fighter 2 (the then popular arcade fighting game developed by Capcom) was enough to fair good competition against Sega. Then came a competition of who had the better game titles. Both had their fan favorites Sonic the hedgehog and Mario, but it was the third party games that proved to push sales forward. In 1993 both parties received the game Mortal Kombat, however the game was a more PG family friendly version with sweat that replaced blood and far less graphic fatalities on both consoles . However, Mortal Kombat on the Sega had a cheat code that enabled players to activate the blood and graphic content, thus giving the Genesis the upper hand on sales for that game and their console. The release of Mortal Kombat 2 a year later, proved to be a more even playing field when both games allowed the blood and gore Mortal Kombat is famously known for today.

Sega became known for being on the outright offensive, never failing to take a shot at Nintendo through its advertising whenever they had the chance. Although the Super Nintendo as a piece of hardware was more superior it did face many issues when it came to processing speed with various games slowing down. Coincidentally or maybe not another one of the Sega Genesis’s famous slogans became “blast processing” while cleverly using their beloved Sonic to stress the speed of its processing power.

Sega Blast Processing Commercial, 1993.

Sega was not only attempting to take over the console world it wanted the handheld gaming market as well. The Sega Game Gear attempted to outsell the famous GameBoy by introducing the Game Gear. Not surprisingly, Sega advertised showing everything the Game Gear did better that the Game boy like its larger control set up and its full color capabilities. However this battle was far less successful than the Sega Genesis when Nintendo’s famous Tetris game kept the GameBoy on top.

As the Sega Genesis was a domestic success in the United States it was never able to compete with the SNES on the global level, so overall The SNES and Nintendo continued to reign supreme in the video gaming industry with 49.10 million units sold worldwide.

Although Nintendo had won this battle in the console wars the war had only just begun as a new competitor entered the market. With the advancements in technology and gaming, this competition brought forth a new generation in consoles. The 3D, CD era was becoming all the rave in the gaming industry and Sony’s PlayStation was at the forefront of the movement.

Console Wars 2: A New Challenger Appears

After a failed agreement between Nintendo and Sony for a CD-Rom addition to the SNES, which left both companies not on the greatest of terms, Sony decided to create a console of their own. The PlayStation was released in 1995 although, it was not the first console to release with the innovative CD capabilities . Sega managed to release its Sega Saturn system a couple months earlier than the Playstation ,but ultimately it was a failure and marked the beginning of the end for Sega in the console business. The Playstation, although it released months after the Saturn, had a cost $100 cheaper than the Saturn which gave it a significant advantage. Along with the price and PlayStation's revolutionary 3D graphics, Sony took notes from Sega’s marketing, and promoted the coolness of its console and the consoles maturity. A year later Nintendo introduced its newest addition to the franchise, the Nintendo 64. The most notable changes in this console were its addition of up to 4 controllers for multiplayer capabilities, and a new controller which featured a joystick making it easier to move in 3D games. Despite still using cartridges instead of CD's like its 2 main competitors, the Nintendo 64 went on to do quite well compared to the Sega Saturn, which flopped terribly and sold only 9.5 million units. But Nintendo’s 33 million units did not come close to the newcomer PlayStation, which won this console war convincingly by becoming the first console to surpass 100 million units sold. This huge victory Sony had with the PlayStation had a lot to do with the large variety of game titles it had available. Even though the Nintendo 64 had some of the most influential and beloved games by gamers to this date like Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it couldn’t compete with the massive third party support the PlayStation received. In total, the PlayStation managed to sell 102.49 million units making it a massive success for the newcomers in the gaming industry.

PlayStation Commercial appealing to the “coolness” of the console.

Console Wars 3: Sony Continues to Dominate

Sony continued its success into the next generation of consoles. The PlayStation 2 released in the year 2000, would become the best selling console of all time with a whopping 150 million units sold . Game titles and innovation were once again its main selling points. The PS2 was the first console to support DVD which was a new technology at the time. The PS2 also had great game titles support with exclusives like Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo and it once again had huge third party support from game developers. The Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft’s first console the Xbox were both great consoles that had their own audience but with both companies selling little over 20 million units in their lifetime, it was not enough to remove PlayStation from the throne it had already previously sat on.

The Sega Dreamcast which released internationally in 1999, was the last console ever made by Sega before it turned into a third party game developer. Even though its revered by its loyal fan base(that still exist today) as being one of the best consoles ever made because of its innovation, like being the first console to have internet connectivity, Sega never managed to regain the success it once had. Many believe Sega’s rush to release consoles was largely to blame, whatever the reason the Dreamcast sold even less than the Saturn and on March 1, 2001 Sega stopped production, making it the last Sega console ever made.

Recent Console Wars

In the Most recent of the console wars Nintendo saw its way back to the top with the Nintendo Wii. Microsoft and PlayStation were fighting their own battle against each other with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 both being similar consoles in terms of hardware capabilities. Sony however, had a pretty rough start to this console war with the price of the PS3 being considerably high starting at 600 dollars, and much of the initial marketing was perceived as arrogant. Xbox of course was able to have a great start because of their cheaper console and great online support. Towards the end Sony was able to turn it around with price cuts and their great lineup of game titles and exclusive like, most notably, The Last of US. Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 sold approximately 80 million consoles respectively. Where was the Wii in all this you may ask? It was making serious sales and skyrocketing to the top of this console war. The Wii was not doing well based on its highly advanced hardware unlike its competitors, in fact it was the exact opposite. The Wii’s simplicity is what gave it the winning edge on its counterparts. The simple but new, motion controls were casual and easy enough that anyone could play. And anyone was playing it, from Grandparents to Moms and Dads no console had ever been able to get this large variety of people interested in gaming. Despite the Wii not being held to a high image in the more hardcore gaming community, its success was undeniable and it made history by joining Sony in over 100 million units sold club ,selling 101.15 million units worldwide.

The Nintendo Wii became a huge success due largely to its simplistic yet innovative controls.

This generation of consoles so far has shown how history repeats itself. The 3 juggernauts of the console industry Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have established themselves so well in the industry that it’s hard to imagine a new generation of consoles without them. Currently, Sony’s Playstation 4 is on top with sales thanks to its well perceived launch and reasonable pricing, learning form the PS3’s mistakes. The tables turned for Microsoft however, when the Xbox One released at a higher price point and focused more at marketing the Xbox One as an entertainment system rather than a gaming system. Nintendo released its new addition of consoles first with the Wii U which turned out to be a terrible flop and came nowhere near being as successful as the Wii. Both Microsoft and Nintendo are making a comeback currently, thanks to Microsoft’s price cuts, and Nintendo’s new system the Nintendo Switch witch is doing quite well.

Future of Gaming and Consoles

As speculation of new consoles being announced this year by Sony and Microsoft emerges, it’s interesting to look back on how far consoles have come largely due to the rivalries that fueled the fire. At first it was the SNES and the Sega Genesis that gave video games more meaning than just being fun, it created a sense of community within video games. Although these console wars took form in a rivalry it created an essential component of advancement for these video games, competition. The same competition that introduced the world to just how much of an impact a console could create through Sony’s PlayStation, and also the same competition that brought Sega’s run in making consoles to an end. No matter what the outcome of these console wars have been its helped the gaming community grow into what it is now, and its impacted millions of gamers in the process. And with inter connectivity becoming more and more important everyday games are beginning to allow gamers of any console to play together , but most likely against one another. Like a war or something.

Additional Note: The debate of which console won each respective console war can be up to debate if you base it on who had the better games or hardware. But for the simplicity of this article’s argument I decided to go by units sold to determine the winner, because after all, numbers don’t lie.

Sources:

Video Game History. History.

Console Wars: A History of Violence. PCmag.

Here’s Who Won Each Console War. Venturebeat.

A History of Console Wars. Pojo.

Sega and Nintendo Console War: Greatest Moments. Primagames.

Ten Facts About The Great Video Game Crash of ’83. IGN.

Evolution of Home Video Game Consoles: 1967–2011. Hongkiat.

The Brown Box, 1967–68. Americanhistory.