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Console Wars Part I - The NES Vs The Sega Master System

 


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Home entertainment took a decidedly upward turn when in the 1980s at-home game console wars heated up the market place. Initially the move away from arcade games was slow in coming and the frequently less than adequately conceived and executed games that had flooded the market made it hard for consumers to see the advantages of inviting costly consoles into their living rooms. Nonetheless, visionary game console designers were undaunted and before long they would take the bull by the horns and introduce themselves to a pensive but overall cautiously optimistic audience. On the one side there was the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), an eight bit videogame console that made its long awaited American debut in 1985. On the other side was the Sega Master System, another eight bit console, which made its mark on the American video game market in 1986. Both game consoles were considered third generation technology, and for at-home gamers who were unsure whether letting go of their Atari for the new technology really was the best move, advertising and public relations departments soon went into overdrive.

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

Made by Nintendo, this game console had already two years of user input in its corner. Since the video game device was originally released in Japan in 1983, manufacturers had a good idea of how to approach the American market. The actual console itself offered two controller ports and one expansion slot. Games were inserted via a front loading ROM cartridge. It was compact, easy to hook up and operate, and it made for a surprisingly well rounded alternative to arcade games and also to Atari, which had thus far defined the understanding of at-home video game consoles.

Sega Master System

Crafted by Sega, the Master System is a rebuild from previously marketed game consoles in Japan. The goal was to tweak the video output while at the same time increasing the random access memory to amplify game speed and prevent freeze ups that used to plague older versions. The Sega Master System featured two forms of input: a game cartridge slot and a game card slot. Several controllers could be connected for game play, including a light gun and 3-D glasses. The card slot did not see as much use as was originally anticipated, and it therefore soon became a somewhat neglected addition.

NES Marketing Strategy Set Up Successful American Reception

As the buzz from Japan had long since been making waves in North America, U. S. gamers eagerly awaited the long promised and extensively hyped 1985 introduction of the NES at the Consumer Electronics Show. True to form, it was an instant hit, but rather than immediately flooding the American market with the new gadget, marketers built up a four months marketing campaign that released the first actual Nintendo Entertainment System consoles in October, just before the holiday shopping season kicked off for Black Friday. Adding to the marketing genius of Nintendo's PR department is the fact that they did not supply the consoles to the entire North American continent all at once, but instead did a partial release, thereby further whetting the appetite of gamers who still had to wait their turns. Before long, those who had the consoles lorded it over those who were still waiting, creating a buzz that was second to none. A complete release to the entire United States was finally made in early 1986, and at that point there was a fever pitch in stores known to stock the consoles. At the same time, Nintendo released a collection of 18 games for the NES, most notably the famed “Super Mario Brothers. " This title constituted the best selling game for Nintendo, and within a short 13 years, more than 40 million Super Mario game packs were sold. Looking back to 1985, the year of its release, “Super Mario Brothers" sold about 10 million copies in a short three months.

Sega Master System Marketing Bows To the Competition

It is uncertain if the late release of the Sega Master System, as compared to the NES, contributed to the somewhat haphazard marketing the game console received in America. Without a doubt the NES dominated market would be a tough nut to crack, but even so it does appear as though Sega only made a minimal effort to bounce Nintendo from its hard earned throne. Although perhaps not the main reason, but another nail in the coffin for Sega early on was the virtually concurrent release of the Atari 7800 game console that had been long awaited and rumored since its initial test market runs. It is doubtful that Atari turned away a lot of potential NES buyers from their overall goal, but there is a good chance that it was more successful with possible Sega consumers. The Master System came out in 1986, and due to NES’ masterful PR work, Nintendo already had a close to 100% market share. It was problematic that Sega really had little in the way of unique features and popular games with which to offset the popular Nintendo videogame console. In 1987 it became clear that Sega could not win the popularity contest with Nintendo. The latter introduced “The Legend of Zelda, " a game so complex that it became an instant favorite of gamers who cut their teeth on “Super Mario Brothers. " Countering with “Phantasy Star, " a one player role playing game that is considered ground breaking in its own right, the release brought too little attention too late to the troubled console and its manufacturer. As a matter of fact, Sega decided to do away with its American Master System and in 1988 turned over the rights to Tonka. Not even “Alex Kidd in Miracle World, " the game that was a last ditch effort to woo away gamers from Nintendo's “Super Mario Brothers, " swayed too many consumers.

North American Consumers Prefer Nintendo

In the final equation, the Nintendo Entertainment System is said to have sold about 62 million game consoles, whereas the Sega Master System could only chalk up about 13 million console sales. These figures are not surprising, considering that Sega early on conceded the American market to Nintendo. Sega subsequently focused on the European and South American markets where it had a much better showing, especially in those venues that were either underserved by Nintendo, or had not yet been added to the NES marketing territory. Granted, even in those markets Sega could not outsell Nintendo, but it most certainly had a much better showing. Nintendo continued to cultivate its American client base by celebrating 1988 with the inaugural release of its “Nintendo Power" magazine, that is still in circulation today. The original issue began beating the drum for “Super Mario Brothers 2, " the next offering in the popular Mario game series. As the game was released, not even Sega's “Phantasy Star" could steal its thunder.

Back To the Future In 1989

As the first installment of the console wars between the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and the Sega Master System comes to an end in 1989, both companies are chomping at the bit for a rematch in the American market. Sure enough, in August of 1989 Sega released its fourth generation 16-bit Sega Mega Drive - known under the moniker Sega Genesis in the United States - which is countered in August of 1991 when Nintendo would release its Super Nintendo Entertainment System, also a fourth generation 16-bit videogame console.

Console Wars Part 2: the Super Nintendo vs. the Sega Genesis was on!

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