A Brief History of Japanese Video Games - Part 1: From Space Invaders to Sonic
Nintendo, Sony, Sega. If, like me, you were born in the 1980s or later, chances are you had at least one Japanese video game console when you were growing up.
For me, I was lucky enough to have several. It started in 1992 when I got a Sega Mega Drive (that’s Genesis to my US friends) for Christmas. About a year later, I was lucky enough to pick up a second hand Nintendo NES (known as the Famicom in Japan). A few years later in 1996 I made the jump to the next gaming generation when I got a Sega Saturn, again for Christmas. Unfortunately, much like the Betamax video recorders of the mid to late 80s, despite being a superior format, a lack of decent marketing and a limited catalogue of gaming titles meant that the Saturn lost most of its market share to the technologically inferior, but far better promoted Sony Playstation. Eventually caving in to the peer pressure of my high school friends, I sold my Saturn and got a Playstation in 1997.
I’ve been with Sony ever since. I upgraded to a Playstation 2 in 2002 and then finally to my current Playstation 3 in 2009. No doubt I will probably get a PS4 eventually, but at the moment there just aren’t enough good games available.
The history of Japanese video games goes back far beyond the early 90s “console wars” between Sega and Nintendo, to a time when CDs were still a conceptual design and Sony was good for making portable stereos and not much else.
Believe it or not Nintendo as a company actually dates back to 1889. From its inception until the 1950s, the Kyoto based firm traded primarily in card games. As time went on and playing card games saw their popularity fade, the ever-versatile Nintendo Corporation experimented in a number of new ventures, from love hotels to instant noodles and almost everything in between. Ironically not one of these businesses succeeded and that ultimately forced the big bosses in Kyoto to rethink their approach.
It wasn’t until 1973 that Nintendo finally saw merit in the emerging electronic entertainment industry.
The Japanese love of all things Americana had already brought the likes of pinball and tenpin bowling to Japan some years earlier. However, as bowling’s popularity dwindled, Nintendo saw an opportunity. They converted several former bowling alleys into venues for their “Laser Clay Shooting System”. More than a decade later, this same technology would be condensed into the classic NES game “Duck Hunt”.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Nintendo would take its first tentative steps into the home console market, with their Japan-only “Color TV-Game” system. This very basic system offered a series of variations on arcade games such as “pong” and “space invaders”. It was also around this time that an ambitious young product design student named Shigeru Miyamoto joined the company. The rest, as they say, is history.
Many think that the Nintendo Gameboy was the world’s first mass-produced handheld gaming system, released in 1989. In actuality, Nintendo released their first handheld system some 10 years earlier. The Game and Watch, released in 1979, spawned a series of handheld games, utilizing some of Nintendo’s most famous characters, like Mario, Donkey Kong and many others. This also led to the first “D-pad” directional control, an integral part of all modern gaming consoles, being patented by Nintendo in 1982.
With the huge success of the Miyamoto-designed Donkey Kong game in 1981, Nintendo realized the time was right to enter the home console market. The “Famicom” System was launched to much fanfare in 1983 in Japan. It would not find its way to North America and Europe until 2 years later. A substantial redesign and rebranding saw the system released as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
After an uncredited appearance in the early hit Donkey Kong, Mario and his palette-swapped brother Luigi were given their own game, packaged with the system. This proved a marketing masterstroke as the Super Mario Bros went on to become one of the highest selling games of all time, and propelled the designer Miyamoto to gaming godhood.
Nintendo didn’t get it their own way all the time though. To the north, in Tokyo, a new rival was emerging to challenge their dominance of the arcades and the home console market.
Borne out of a series of mergers and acquisitions of different gaming and entertainment companies, running back to the 1940s, SEGA Enterprises Ltd emerged in the 1980s as a force to be reckoned with. The Sega Master System was their first globally distributed console launching worldwide less than a year after the US launch of the Nintendo NES, in 1986. In an unfortunate precursor of things to come, the Master System was superior technically to the NES, but far greater marketing clout and brand awareness on Nintendo’s part saw the Kyoto firm ultimately claim round 1 of what would become known as the “console wars”. However the Master System was still a huge hit in Europe with characters like Alex Kidd and Shinobi earning a following to rival even that of Nintendo’s legendary red-clad plumber Mario. The console’s superior hardware saw it far outlast the NES in those territories too. It continued to sell new units well into the mid-90s, long after the NES had been largely discontinued.
But that time however, the next generation of the console wars had begun, and this time it was being fought on two fronts: home systems and gaming on the move.
This time around SEGA took the fight to Nintendo, with the launch of its Sega Mega Drive (released in North America as the Sega Genesis) in 1989. This was a full 2 years before Nintendo’s own entry to the 16-bit console generation, the Super Famicom (Super NES or SNES in US and Europe).
To many, 1991 would be the pinnacle of Nintendo and Sega’s achievements on the home console markets, with the release of two of the biggest video games of all time, one for each console.
Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior, based on the hit arcade game of the same name launched a franchise that still continues to this day. Likewise SEGA’s cutesy platform game Sonic the Hedgehog gave SEGA a new mascot and launched a global marketing phenomenon all of its own. SNES vs Mega Drive was the argument that drove most playground debates in the early 90s. I was a SEGA guy, but plenty of my friends swore by their beloved SNES.
However, as the early 90s drew to close, another Japanese electronics powerhouse was preparing to enter the “console wars”. Things were about to get very interesting, and nothing would ever be the same again…..
Coming in part 2: the Rise of Sony