Articles

The 16-Bit Console Wars are Over, Dude

By James Langston

A surprisingly bigoted reflection of irrational childhood opinions, and an attempt to make peace with a metaphorical opponent who wouldn’t give a shit if it were a physical thing

I survived the first console wars. To be honest, most people did.

I grew up with the “games” on the Acorn Electron and Amstrad CPC; so the first time I was in close proximity to Zelda II at a friend’s house was something of a revelation. The colour variation! The instantly-loading (and shiny gold) cartridge! The built-in game saving! The controller that made it possible to move and fire at the same time without destroying at least two separate tendons! Immediately I wanted to be a Nintendo kid. The Christmas my parents bought me a NES (which must’ve ate into their budget quite a lot; my parents weren’t well off) might’ve been the happiest day of my life. Still. Yes I am single; why do you ask? 

 This title screen was the start of the revolution.

This title screen was the start of the revolution.

Back in my day (stop me if you’ve heard this) , you were either a Nintendo kid or a Sega kid (unless, of course, you were an aristocrat, or had warring separated parents). Arguing over which console was better is what kids did. Why this was a big thing (it seems to have been for everyone) I don’t know; it might’ve helped that, growing up in Milton Keynes in the 90s, there wasn’t/werem't one/two local football team/s to argue over. But these things mattered. Which system had the best games? The most impressive colours? The music? (Er, actually, if I think about it, it really only was about games.)

A not-so-quick footnote, promoted to the main text here: Everyone knows that the “console wars” haven’t gone away; it’s just the borders and flags that have changed.  But compared with the nonsense spouted on the internet today, there was at least a reason to fight for one side of the other, with the SNES and the Megadrive having a significant difference in the capabilities, and more importantly, the software library. Compare this to the two elected modern-era behemoths, the PS4 and Xbox One; they have very little difference in those areas. So today’s warring tribes cling to any technical slip-up or banal/irrelevant developer quote, to mock each other, in a manner most familiar to lazy front-bench politicians. They both turn on the WiiU for being for babies; WiiU owners in turn see them as silly children. PC owners assume they are above all. (Disclaimer: this is a massive generalisation. A person is smart; people are stupid). So these things seem to continue as the always have done:

 #GamerCaveentrancerock

#GamerCaveentrancerock

But these things MATTERED. As a Nintendo kid, I didn’t want anything to do with Sega, their MegaDrive (or “Mug-O-Drive” as TOTAL! magazine called it LOL),  their in-your-face “look how cool we are” marketing strategy, and their stupid nob-end hedgehog. The latter was probably the biggest cause of offence. Wagging his finger at you, Sonic was one of those characters with “attitude”. Essentially a “Poochie” before Poochie was a thing, he was a terrible amalgam of all those awful cartoon characters of the late 80s and early 90s – you know, with the backwards baseball cap and the sunglasses indoors, actually describing things as “radical”; a 40-year-old Marketing Executive’s idea of what an 8-year-old aspires to. That character either worked on a kid or it didn’t; I’d like to say that, as a child, I didn’t liked being talked down to, little shit that I was, so I’m convinced that I saw through that nonsense. Mario didn’t do any of that; he was just a nice guy. 

As a kid, any Sega game “goes” were limited to brief trials at the houses of friends. Before December 2014, MegaDrive console interaction was limited to: about 20 minutes of the Sonic the Hedgehog Quadrilogy (childhood review: actually not as fun as it looked), about 5 minutes of Krusty’s Fun House (childhood review: the SNES version was better) and 10 minutes of Street Fighter II (childhood review: the SNES version was better). I should admit to downloading Alex Kidd in Miracle World on the Virtual Console though. It was always a curiosity, with its attract mode looping through many a toy shop window. That also turned out to be more fun watched from a shop window than played in reality.

At this stage of my life, as a grown-up with what I hope is compassion and empathy, I now know better. I now know that arguments about game consoles are stupid, and will paraphrase LaserTime host Chris Antista summing the situation up better than I could:

Which side are you on in the console war? I’ll give you a clue; it’s the side with the piece of plastic you paid money for.

We could all do without this nonsense now, as gamers in general are under a lot of scrutiny. Politicians attempt to blame videogames for potentially-associated violence. The media blame them for the poor health and social skills of children. There’s an implosion within its own community that seems to want to alienate large proportions. Nintendo and Mario are just about surviving an often-illogical bashing, and Sonic’s stock has fallen further than ever before (even from GamesRadar legend, former NGamer stalwart, and Sonic apologist, Justin Towell). With all this, we need to stick together! (#videogamecommunism)

 It's actually not fun to bring this up any more.

It's actually not fun to bring this up any more.

One alteration to the start of the previous paragraph: I should know better. Even now, if someone (probably younger and less wise than I) describes Mario as a “baby game” this still causes, if not a nervous twitch, but a riling deep in the stomach. Likewise, I suspect that gamers who grew up on the Blue Team during the war would’ve reacted angrily, and perhaps rightly so, to my description of Sonic the Hedgehog above.

But – no – I do know better. For one thing, the prospect of putting a cartridge into a 16-bit console, whether it be a SNES or a MegaDrive, often seems like a lot more fun than starting a current-gen AAA 80-hour adventure. As well as the benefit of low loading times (Pro-tip, The Last of Us: If your loading screen needs to show a percentage with decimal places, you’re doing it wrong), there’s unlikely to be a 20-minute long and badly-acted cutscene to sit through after pressing start, and there certainly won’t be an hour long wait to download a day one patch. Those facts – which essentially all boil down to “I don’t have a lot of time any more and being an adult is rubbish” – mean that a mediocre 16-bit game is so much more appealing than a 70-average-metacritic game released in 2014. Also, if I’m more honest than I was earlier: even as a Nintendo kid, Sonic the Hedgehog – the game, not the character – was very tempting, despite my indifferent reaction to my brief “goes”. I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t drawn in by the speedy twisty turny movement, and the chunky, stylised (before that was a thing) graphics.

So now, after 20-odd years of being a Nintendo kid, I’ve made a conscious decision to sit down and properly play Sega’s first party games of “that era” (I’ve played other Sega-published games after that period, but not really any Sega-y ones; the exception being Super Monkey Ball). A friend of mine kindly bought me the MegaDrive collection for the PS3 as a Christmas gift (yeah, see, I have a PS3! NOT BIASED). I mean, I still dip into Nintendo’s back-catalogue, either on my old consoles or via the eShop and Virtual Console, so I should be happy seeing how the “other side” lived. Now I’m armed with over 30 more 16-bit games from one of the biggest companies of that era. Do I get double the fun?

 VectorMan is Sega's equivalent of Donkey Kong. They rendered... a robot with attitude.

VectorMan is Sega's equivalent of Donkey Kong. They rendered... a robot with attitude.

Er…
Well…
Kind of.

Explanation theory 1: Hopefully not the right one, this, but it could just be nostalgia, or rather a lack of. I have to assume that an 8 year-old kid today (an open-minded one) would have just as much fun playing Super Mario World as I did/do. I hope they would, because it always seemed to me that Nintendo were, and are, experts in making a game “feel” correct; Super Mario World was still one of the best SNES games right up until the end of the console’s lifecycle, and Nintendo’s first-party games usually dominate their “top ten” console game lists. However, I do still worry that it’s just my sense of nostalgia that puts Mario as the king of the 2D world; after all, I’m still playing Starship Command on the Acorn Electron. But there are plenty of Acorn games I wouldn’t even bother to load up, even with the benefit of near-instant loading (cassettes anybody), so I’m going to assume that those games are still just fun. To me, it feels that Sega’s first-party offerings haven’t aged nearly as well mechanically. However, this might be related to…

Explanation theory 2: Nintendo decided to jump out of the arcades and focus on home consoles a lot earlier than Sega did. A lot of the games on the MegaDrive collection are conversions of Sega’s coin-ops (as we used to say), and a large chunk of those are brawlers – Altered Beast; Alien Storm; 3 Golden Axes and 3 Streets of Rage…s… games that were designed to eat up as many of your 10p/quarters as possible. It’s these sort of games that are letting the side down (I know a lot of people swear by Streets of Rage, but, well… I don’t get it). This all sounds a bit negative – after all, that’s not quite a third of the games on offer that I’m talking about, and others are gems – but if Nintendo released a compilation disc of 30 of their own SNES games, in my opinion there’d be a lot less filler [list removed due to bloatedness].

I also have to be honest and say that, after falling again for the graphics, I just don’t get Sonic the Hedgehog. The reasons for this are potentially a separate article (this is too long already). Is it just me? Plenty of intelligent human adults love Sonic the Hedgehog.

 FUCK YOU LABIRYTNH ZONE

FUCK YOU LABIRYTNH ZONE

But – BUT – I am still very happy to play MegaDrive games, and bury the illogical hatchet; to finally stop the automatic sneer of “ugh, MegaDrive” (which I shouldn’t admit to my former self expressing, but has surfaced even at after work games nights, where I should be as civil as possible). Just basing opinion on this MegaDrive Collection is unfair; the games on offer aren’t a complete representation of the MegaDrive’s popularity at the time. Firstly, many people will argue that the third-party offerings were better on Sega’s system than that of Nintendo (Mortal Kombat and Aladdin are two often-used examples). Secondly, there are some key titles missing (I asked a friend who grew up with Sega what her favourite game was; ToeJam and Earl was her answer, which is, sadly, missing from this disc). It also helps that the collection disc is a set of 30-odd games; after all, unless you planned to purchase that specific list of games, anything you don’t instantly recognise rings the “Ooh! Bonus!” bell in your head (I don’t know why, but now, if I plan to buy a game and then plonk down £40 for it, I feel immense pressure to enjoy it; any free/unexpected game is a relief in some ways).

More importantly than all of that last paragraph is that there are some definite gems in this collection. I’d argue that Shining Force is better than the Fire Emblems of that era; The Story of Thor is close to being Zelda (in fact, a lot of these games appear to be Sega’s “version” of a Nintendo franchise), and after the first Sonic game they do appear to become more agreeable to play (something which I can’t qualify without spending another 1000 words explaining by dislike for Sonic 1). And I cannot begin to express my love for Ecco the Dolphin; a hauntingly beautiful puzzle platformer (also consider that it’s essentially a giant water level), and a great example of how to tell an emotional story without ramming it down your throat (there’s no “hold X to pay respects to Blue Whale”).

Anyway, after all that, what’s the point of me writing all this? You know what? I don’t really know. It seemed like a good idea at the time. So the only thing I can do is boil down to a few GCSE science coursework-style bullet points:

  • Blindly ignoring all Sega games and system is childish and stupid and if continue to think that then I’m part of the “problem”
  • However, it does seem that Nintendo games really were/are better
  • However, this is a big generalisation as there are some excellent MegaDrive games
  • There’s still an immediacy to the fun that a lot of today’s overblown games don’t have
  • An OK Megadrive game is more appealing than an OK WiiU game

Right, that’s enough. Next up: Amstrad vs. Spectrum vs. Commodore.

Actually, just one more point: I touched upon Nintendo releasing a compilation disc. WHY DON’T THEY DO THAT? If you said to most gamers “here’s 30 SNES games for £40 to play on your WiiU” they’d jump at the chance.

Also, what the fuck is Gain Ground about?

 Looking at this screenshot, you might think you understand what's going on. You don't.

Looking at this screenshot, you might think you understand what's going on. You don't.