For as long as there has been consoles, there’s been console wars. Whether it be Master System/Genesis vs S/NES, A 4-way battle royale between Sony, Sega, Nintendo or Atari or the modern day triple threat of Sony vs Microsoft vs Nintendo, people have always argued about hardware on school yards, internet forums or, last year, on excellent British Retro Gaming Shows. Some console wars have been more heated than others though and if you were old enough to remember the Mega Drive vs NES and SNES days, you’ll likely know what I’m talking about.
I was on the front line of the console war between Sega and Nintendo. And when I say ‘front line’, what I actually mean is ‘school playground’, but it sure as hell felt like a war zone back then. In my school, your choice of console (or the console your parents/Santa bought you) defined which friendship group you’d belong too. Even if you owned both a Sega and Nintendo console, you’d have to pick a side. Sega fans would call NES owners poor because the Mega Drive was 16 bit while Nintendo’s NES was only 8 bit. Nintendo fans would argue back to say it’s no good having 16 bit graphics if you had nothing other than Sonic to play. Then the SNES releases and Mortal Kombat 2 finally came to a Nintendo console uncensored for the first time, something which Mega Drive fans had lorded over their rivals for months. The fight that broke out on the school yard that day was as if Shao Kahn himself had shouted “FIGHT”. A number of people I’ve spoken too regarding the Sega vs Nintendo console war have said the same. That rivalry was nuts.
But why was the SEGA vs Nintendo rivalry so fierce? It was for 2 reasons. The first is that both companies were competing for the same space, especially in the US after the 1983 game crash. The games market hadn’t figured out how to expand beyond the demographics’ it had already cornered and all console manufacturers were concentrating their efforts there. Secondly, it was the marketing. A massive portion of the marketing from both SEGA & Nintendo was dedicated to taking pot shots at one another. The phrase “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.” was plastered in big print in many of the games magazines of the time. Nintendo fired back with a two page advert saying “Why did the Hedgehog cross the road? To get to Super Mario Bros. 2”. Each time a successful game from one platform eventually reached another, there was an advert celebrating the fact. i.e. When Street Fighter II eventually came to the Genesis as the “Special Champion Edition”, SEGA pushed the marketing hard and emphasised it was “Only On Genesis”. This type of marketing and the very public back and forth spats between the 2 manufacturers emboldened fans of each console to be just as ugly in their competitiveness as their chosen hardware had been.
The reason I mention the heated rivalry between SEGA and Nintendo is because history has repeated itself with the current tussle between Sony and Microsoft (and, to a smaller degree, Nintendo). During the last generation, both Sony and Microsoft were competing in the same space – HD gaming machines with additional online services, the only difference being their exclusive games and the HD media format they backed. While those 2 were butting heads though, the Wii which was considered little more than a gimmick when first revealed, stormed out in front because of its accessibility and library of motion controlled exclusives. Then came the PS4 and Xbox One, again, very similar machines competing in the same space and the cheap shots began. Sony’s “Here’s how you share a game on PlayStation” video. Xbox’s big marketing campaign around the 4K Blu-Ray player included in the Xbox One S that many expected to be in the PS4 Pro – but was absent. Entire marketing campaigns about being “the best place to play” or “the only platform with backwards compatibility” from both camps that were part boast and part dig at their competitor. While the official marketing strategies were heated, beneath that things started to get ugly. The increased visibility of console manufacturer executives and employees on Twitter and internet forums, enabling fans to interact with them like never before, had some interesting consequences. Tweets from one executive criticising the other platform would get shared thousands of times and emboldened fans to do the same. Anyone sharing a fondness for an Xbox One game on the internet has likely had a reply from a totally random stranger, commenting on the lower resolution of multiplatform games on the original Xbox One or relative lack of exclusive games on the platform. Similarly, anyone sharing a love of a PS4 game has likely attracted an internet stranger to comment on “soupy graphics” or how Sony’s first party titles last “just a few hours”.
Unfortunately, this spiralled. Online abuse, racism and offensive slurs between fans became rife. Fans of the PS4 were called “Rice eaters” (racist) and “Peadophiles”, simply because of their choice of hardware, often referred to as the “GayStation” (homophobic). Xbox One fans were being called “Xtards” (ableist) and had multiple derogatory impersonation Twitter accounts created about them. I won’t name and shame but just search those terms on any social media platform and you’ll get thousands of results. What’s more, this type of behaviour was perceived to be accepted by the console manufacturers as their employees continued to correspond with some of the most frequent offenders on social media and in forums. These internet beefs even spiralled into real world altercations. It was like my school yard experience dialled up to 11.
With a change in leadership at both PlayStation (Shawn Layden) and Xbox (Phil Spencer) though, the corporate jabs at one another cooled as the strategies for the hardware diverged. Sony, already market leader, focused their energies on first party productions, Microsoft started to rebuild a portfolio of studios, released the worlds most powerful games console while exploring subscription services and Nintendo forged ahead with the world’s first hybrid console. In the past 12 months, all 3 competitors have found relative success in their own corner of the market. Console and development executives and official platform social media channels would congratulate one another when they released an exclusive game. They started to lead by example by showing acceptance and inclusiveness towards one another. Even cross platform multiplayer became a reality.
This culminated in a world first at the Game Awards 2018. Shawn Layden, Phil Spencer and Reggie Fils-Aime, leaders and figureheads from all 3 of the leading console manufacturers standing on stage together to deliver a message. “As an industry, we are most powerful when we come together, united by our common love for the art form of games.”. Even as a symbolic gesture, it’s a powerful one and one that must continue. Gaming communities have always had a touch of gate keeping and otherism about them but without those self-imposed walls we put up around our hobby, it’s a much more pleasant and enjoyable one.
We all know that “next gen” is on the horizon. PlayStation 5 development kits are apparently in the wild. Xbox Scarlett and various other “Streaming only” versions of the hardware have been rumoured for months. Rumours of a newer, more powerful iteration of the Switch and a portable only version, while holding little weight, won’t go away. For the first time in generations, and if the rumours are true, each of the manufacturers next hardware pitches will be wildly different from one another with some healthy overlap. The question of the next generation might not be “which is the best console?” but rather “which is the best console *for you*?”. While some websites are already wiping up hatred among existing fans with articles like “Here’s how Xbox crushes the PS5 in the next generation” and “The Switch 2 is Dead On Arrival because of this competitor” (no, I won’t link to these articles because they’re trash but feel free to Google them if you want your face to implode through explosive cringing), the manufacturers themselves are showing the most inclusive and mutually respectful front towards one another in generations. Long may this continue, setting an example for their fans to follow. Of course, there will always be people arguing about which piece of hardware is the best on the internet, born out of insecurities that their own choice isn’t “the best”, but at least by distancing and separating themselves from the racism, bigotry, homophobia and abuse that some fans have conflated with competitive marketing, these ugly elements of console wars will hopefully become a thing of the past.