SEGA vs. Nintendo
BY: SAMUEL CLAIBORN
JUNE 26, 2014
Although Nintendo dominated the video game scene in the late 1980s, a new challenger appeared in 1991. The story of how SEGA entered the console race and turned it into a war is told in Blake J. Harris's book, Console Wars: SEGA, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation. While Console Wars focuses on SEGA's meteoric rise (which makes it a complementary read to David Sheff's definitive history of Nintendo,Game Over), it's also filled with amusing trivia about the inner workings of Nintendo and even Sony, who were already plotting to join the battle for teenage televisions in the early '90s. Here are 21 crazy historical tidbits I learned about Sonic, Mario, SEGA, Nintendo, and (the original) console wars.
1: Mr. Needlemouse
SEGA held a contest where its Japanese programmers came up with ideas for a mascot to match Mario. Some ideas included a rabbit with prehensile ears, a fat man that resembled Theodore Roosevelt in pajamas, an egg, and a hedgehog named "Mr. Needlemouse" designed by Naoto Oshima. The latter became Sonic The Hedgehog.
An early sketch of Mr. Needlemouse.
2: Sonic had fangs
The prototype for Sonic The Hedgehog faxed to SEGA of America (SOA) from SEGA of Japan (SOJ) had fangs and came with "extreme" accessories: An electric guitar, a spiked collar, and a ridiculously-proportioned human girlfriend named "Madonna."
3: Mario was too Italian
Although Nintendo never altered the Disney-like family game vibe of Super Mario Bros. to appeal to Sonic fans, Nintendo changed Mario's nose in 1990 to make him appear less like an Italian stereotype.
4: Dracula Satanic Castle
While SOA labored to make Sonic The Hedgehog appealing to American gamers, Konami had some localization struggles of its own: Konami of America's president, Emil Heidkamp, was presented with a game called "Dracula Satanic Castle," which he toned down to "Castlevania."
5: Sonic T. Hedgehog
Sonic The Hedgehog's middle name is actually "The," because SEGA thought it would "make a cool story one day."
6: Mickey + Felix = Sonic
For the initial design of Sonic the Hedgehog, Naoto Oshima claims that he just stuck Felix the Cat's head on the body of Mickey Mouse. He was surprised, later, that no one at SEGA noticed.
7: Atari Genesis
SEGA met with Atari to discuss licensing its in-development 16-bit system. The idea was to team up to take on Nintendo. The head of Atari's video game division, Michael Katz, was persuaded and brought the idea to Atari president Jack Tramiel -- who "took one look at the thing and passed." Katz then defected to SEGA.
8: The customer is right
Because of retail stores' extremely lenient return policies, people were able to return their NES systems purchased as far back as 1985 and use the refund to purchase a new Super NES in 1991. They didn't even need a receipt, packaging, or controllers. Nintendo was charged for the returned systems, and was not happy about it. Nintendo solved this problem by forcing reluctant retailers ("the customer is always right") to enforce a 90 day return policy, which still exists today.
9: The Howard fan club
Mario wasn't Nintendo's only mascot. Howard Phillips became Nintendo's de facto spokesperson, with the title of "Game Master." As Nintendo's popularity increased, Howard's likeness appeared in many places, including the Howard & Nester comics in Nintendo Power. This led to eventual rock star-like recognition in the streets, and a sort of strange video game industry groupie phenomenon. Howard recalled, "Then it started getting to the point where it was a little awkward with the moms -- the looks they would give me and the things they would say." Phillips eventually left Nintendo… and SEGA tried, unsuccessfully, to hire him.
Nintendo's Game Master, Howard Phillips
10: Sonic creator quits
Yuji Naka, Sonic The Hedgehog's co-creator and programmer, received little recognition for his creation. SEGA wouldn't even allow a credit at the end of the game. So he quit SEGA of Japan -- and was later re-hired by SEGA of America, who offered him more money, credit and a team at SEGA Techical Institute. STI happened to be run by Mark Cerny, who later headed up creation of the PlayStation 4.
11: Hidden credits
Even though SEGA did not allow credits at the end of Sonic The Hedgehog (mainly to prevent poaching by other developers), Yuji Naka included his team's names in black text on a black background at the end of Sonic The Hedgehog. No one could read the text, and SEGA never found out about. But Naka knew.
12: Sonic 2sday
In the late 80s and early 90s, games just sort of showed up in retail stores. Some got them before others -- there were no hard release dates. That all changed when SEGA devised a global launch for Sonic 2, dubbed "Sonic 2sday," which happened on November 24, 1992.
13: Nintendo Gambling System
Nintendo explored the idea of selling lottery tickets via the NES in Minnesota, but the press got wind of the venture and used it as more evidence that Nintendo was somehow corrupting kids. Not only did we miss out on Nintendo gambling, but also the NES modem which was in the works to bring this and other services to homes.
14: Hedgehog hunting
Sony fired some crowd-pleasing shots at Microsoft during its E3 2014 press conference, but Nintendo pioneered that practice back at 1992 Winter CES. Nintendo's Peter Main took the stage with the large, plastic Super NES bazooka, the Super Scope 6, and pointed it at SEGA's booth, saying "Nintendo's newest light gun has pinpoint accuracy from long distances. It's also rather perfect for hedgehog hunting."
15: Blast Processing
When Super Mario Kart was released, Nintendo plugged the Mode 7 technology that allowed for its revolutionary 3D-like effects in its commercials. SEGA producer Michael Latham was charged with finding a similar term to tout in SEGA commercials. He discovered a "Burst Mode" listed in Genesis development documents that, in theory, allowed the Genesis to process code at a faster rate than the SNES. But Burst Mode didn't have any visible effect on how games looked or performed. Nevertheless, it was rebranded as "Blast Processing" and included in a wave of advertising.
16: Sony spurned
In the pre-PlayStation days, Sony came close to forming an alliance with Nintendo to create CD-based hardware, but were shocked when Nintendo suddenly announced a deal with Philips to create the CD-i. A counter-alliance was forged when Sony helped SEGA create the SEGA CD.
17: Little NEMO
Two SEGA CD games, Sewer Shark and Night Trap, were developed for a canceled Hasbro game system called NEMO. The unreleased games were owned by Sony and were ported to SEGA CD for its launch in 1992.
18: Mammals of the World
Although it wasn't released until 1994, the PlayStation was first revealed shortly after the Super NES was released, way back in the fall of 1991 at the Tokyo International Electronics Show. There wasn't much "play" involved in the earliest incarnation of the PlayStation; it was touted as a multimedia educational experience with "killer apps" such as National Geographic's Mammals of the World.
19: Eggman vs. Robotnik
SEGA of America got its way with Sonic's design, but when SEGA of Japan wanted to call his nemesis Doctor Eggman, and SOA wanted to to go with Doctor Robotnik, the impasse led to two names in different regions. The international conflict raged again when SOJ introduced Miles Prower, Sonic's two-tailed fox sidekick. SOA thought the name was completely ridiculous and countered with Tails. They settled on a combination of the two: Miles "Tails" Prower, which somewhat obscured the awful pun.
20: Sony fires its first shot
Sony first entered the console war by making sound chips for the Famicom and then briefly considered creating its own console that could play Super Nintendo games. All the while, Sony engineer Ken Kutaragi secretly worked on a dedicated console, which he finally revealed to Sony's board in June of 1992. They were not amused, but eventually consented to the PlayStation's development partially out of spite for the company's treatment by Nintendo.
21: Sonic The Happy Meal
Sonic 3 was facing delays that would affect a McDonald's Happy Meal toy deal in early 1994. To preserve the deal, Sonic 3 was released in an incomplete form -- it was short a few levels and featured only a brief cameo by Knuckles. Later, Sonic and Knuckles was released as a Game Genie-like cartridge attachment with the rest of Sonic 3 packed in it.
For much, much more on the saga SEGA vs. Nintendo, go buy Console Wars -- it's an essential historical document and a great read. Even better, an upcoming documentary based on Console Wars and co-directed by author Blake J. Harris is in the works, as well as a feature film adaptation produced by Scott Rudin, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg.