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Marketers Reflect on Sega and Nintendo's Console War

Until the Sega Genesis came along, "you didn't play videogames, you played Nintendo."

Nintendo / Super Smash Bros.

Heading into the 1990s, Nintendo was the king of the gaming world, with a console market share of 95 percent.

In those days, as Al Nilsen recently recalled at San Diego Comic-Con, “You didn’t play videogames. You played Nintendo.”

And he would know — he directed global marketing at Sega between 1989 and 1993, helping to launch the Sega Genesis. Sega’s decade-long dramatic run as a challenger to Nintendo, which died with the flop of the Sega Dreamcast in 1999, paved the way for Sony and Microsoft to enter the fray in 1994 and 2001, respectively.

Nilsen was one of the panelists at a session all about the early days of the Sega-Nintendo battle, moderated by the guy who literally wrote the book on the subject, Blake Harris. One of the big initiatives in launching the Genesis, fellow ex-Sega marketer Tom Kalinske said, was advertising directly to teenagers and college students rather than parents.

Another key decision: Openly mocking Nintendo in TV advertisements.

Ads like the one above and “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t” used humor to successfully poke at the market leader, not unlike Apple’s “I’m a Mac” ads or Sony’s viral video mocking unpopular (and quickly abandoned) game-sharing restrictions on the Xbox One.

Sega’s Japanese leadership hated the idea at first, Kalinske said, but the marketing was so effective that to this day, the brilliant-but-bullshit marketing phrase “blast processing” is still in circulation among gamers of a certain age. In line with its edgier games, Sega went right for the jugular.

That’s not to say Nintendo was toothless in the fight. Fellow panelist Perrin Kaplan, a former VP of marketing and corporate affairs at Nintendo, said the company came very close to launching a messy marketing stunt to promote Donkey Kong Country for the Super NES, before deciding that it would be a waste of food.

“We had planned a huge dump truck of bananas that we were going to dump in your parking lot,” Kaplan said to the ex-Sega panelists.

So, one person asked during the panel, did the marketing folks play the games they were promoting?

“We were all players. We were eating our own dogfood,” Nilsen said. “We [also] played Nintendo games. We wanted to know what was out there, and it was fun. Wasn’t as fun as Sega, but …”

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