‘Super Mario, this is your Extra Life!’
A history of the 2-D, gravity-defying adventures we love
Nintendo and its mustachioed plumber stood alone atop the video game console mountain in the ’80s. Then came an upstart, spiky-haired blue hedgehog leading the charge for Sega and its console. In this installment of Where Are They Now? we explore the beginnings of the console war between Nintendo and Sega.
The year 2015 marked Super Mario Bros.’ 30th anniversary, meaning that the iconic Italian plumber has been around for longer than some of our readers and many of his fans. He’s still going strong, with new games always eliciting some sort of fanfare. And although he’s been around for nearly four decades, it’s not as though we’ve been running and jumping on the same turtles the whole time.
In fact, over the years he’s been a teacher, an artist, an athlete in several sports, a referee in a kind-of-racist boxing tournament, a kart racer, and even the subject of many childhood arguments of who would win in a fight between him and Link (subsequently starting even more arguments of what “tier” they were in). Mario has, almost literally, been in every genre of gaming: FPS (first-person shooter), rogue-like, and text-based RPG being his only outliers for obvious reasons. And let’s not rule out the possibilities of Super Mario Zork and Call of Duty: Mushroom Kingdom Warfare.
The real question, however, is how did he get there? How did Super Mario Bros. become the perennial platformer and its leading man one of the most recognizable characters since Mickey Mouse? It couldn’t just be a matter of “getting there first.” There are examples of later games getting better recognition. Perhaps the games’ variety? Well, not necessarily. Titles like Grand Theft Auto and Fallout seem to be popular for using the same mechanics and gameplay time and time again. And even amongst Nintendo, the Pokémon series has had the same aesthetic and game play for 15 years with no signs of slowing down in popularity. So, what could it be that kept this title in its formative years all the way through to adulthood so strong? Competition.
That might seem like a cop-out answer, but it’s the truth. As anyone can tell you, competition is healthy for all markets; video games are no different in that respect. Competition pushes innovation. It’s why we have the Switch, the Xbox Series One, and PS5 all fighting for a piece of the pie. It’s a big part of why there are cars on the road running on electricity. And Nintendo in the early 1990s had one very big competitor: Sega.
Enter the Competition
Sonic the Hedgehog was easily a match for Mario’s nearly unstoppable rise to infamy. Whereas Mario was the slow (relative to Sonic), plodding, red-clad plumber who hit turtles, Sonic was so much different. He was fast, agile, and quick. And if the manual and cartoons were any indicator, he was quicker on the wit, too. Whereas Mario’s games could be tackled by pausing to assess the situation, Sonic was intended to take a running jump over the enemy, curl into a ball, spring forward, and rocket past a hazard. The games were similar enough that their fanbases frequently interacted (or, more accurately, clashed), but different enough that there were battle lines drawn by fans, with a defining rivalry that shaped many of our readers’ (and the author’s) childhoods.
But how did it come to be, anyway? It can’t possibly be how their release dates synced up because the last NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) Mario game was released a year and a half before the first Sonic game [ 1 ].
To truly understand how the rivalry began, one must look at the Nintendo-Sega rivalry. I won’t go into too many details here, as I feel that it’d be stepping on the toes of Blake Harris’ Console Wars book [ 2 ]. Suffice to say that Nintendo in the early 1990s owned approximately 90 percent of what we know as the “Video Game Industry” [ 1 ]. Ninety percent! It makes the answer “competition” seem a lot less of a cop-out when you understand the playing field as it was in the early part of the extreme decade. Nintendo had little to no competition. Chances were, if you made a video game, it was either on the Game Boy or the NES. Then something came along and changed that: Sega. They added the Sega Genesis (Master System to our readers across the pond, and Mega Drive in Japan) to the mix. Sonic the Hedgehog was their answer to Mario. It kind of worked!
Sonic had the advantage, ironically, of patience. The Hedgehog came out in 1991, which was, again, several years after the first Mario game [ 3 ]. This gave Sega a distinct step up: to look at all the things that Super Mario Bros. did and adapt it to their own game. Now, not to mince words, but whereas competition is an important part of development, then one can say ripping off ideas is an important part of innovation. We would have gotten nowhere if someone had not looked at an invention or creation of another and said to themselves “Yeah, it’s nice… but I can do better.” Granted, we’d also have easier access to electricity if Edison hadn’t screwed Tesla, but that’s another story, and I’ll refrain from referencing it again.
The Savior of the Industry
Like Edison and Tesla (d’oh!), Sega saw great success by taking clues from what Nintendo was doing and developed from that. And for good reason. Super Mario Bros, the game that started it all, was very much a marvel of the technologies they had available at the time and marked a turning point in gaming. See, SMB wasn’t simply the first platformer to really make a splash. This was the game that is credited for singlehandedly saving gaming. This is not an exaggeration, either! Sometime in the early 1980s, the game market was flooded with imitators and businessmen who simply wanted a piece of the PAC-MAN and Donkey Kong pie; they were unconcerned with what made them great. They didn’t care if Space Invaders had slowly increasing difficulty, it is why it was a quarter-muncher.
This brought the video games industry to its knees, fast. Video games were everywhere, to the detriment of shop owners. No one wanted to stock new games if their old stock was still overflowing. Many great companies struggled under the weight of loss, and electronic entertainment as we know it ceased to be.
So, Nintendo did what they are now best known for: they innovated. Rather than try and sell yet another home computer console, they marketed it as a toy, with a robot companion in the Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.) [ 4 ]. This allowed them to make a bit more of a foothold with a wary audience, but even that wasn’t enough to really jump-start gaming. It got the foot in the door that they needed though. And that’s where Mario came in to rescue the hobby we know and love. Mario was recognizable as a character; gone were the days of blocky figures vaguely resembling humanoid shapes. The plumber had a very distinct mustache, hat, and clothing. For one, this is much easier to identify with; for two, the concept of power ups was huge. Playing Pitfall, if you got hit by a scorpion, that was it. Pitfall Harry was done for and had to restart, but Mario stumbling into a turtle simply made him smaller until you could find a mushroom or flower.
The idea that the player was allowed to make mistakes, alone, revolutionized gaming. It made it so much easier to get into video games. A newcomer wasn’t immediately punished because their ability to time rope swings was lacking. Video games were coming back after what seemed like their doom. It was imperative that quality and fun went hand in hand. Super Mario Bros. was by no means an easy game, but it was simple, and it was colorful. It was a great reintroduction to video games as we know them. It has been a formula Nintendo has followed for decades now. They were almost literally uncontested! At one point, the company owned 95 percent of the market share. They were nearly unstoppable. So, of course, the logical progression here is that they were stopped rather abruptly [ 5 ].
How do you topple a company with 95 percent market share? How do you go about stopping a corporation that, for the longest time, had competitors that consisted of mostly forgettable action titles that resembled the least loved Zelda game in the series and those who actively damaged the market? Some would argue that you don’t. And Sega did just that.
This isn’t to imply that Sega never wrestled control of the industry away. For quite a while, it was Nintendo struggling to stay relevant with Sega playing the big dogs. But it wasn’t out of effort, or some sort of power struggle. It was, in fact, very anti-climactic. Sega simply waited. The Super Nintendo was slow to come out, nearly a year later to the United States than to Japan, and nearly two years after the Sega Genesis. And thus, the Console Wars [ 1 ] began.
The Great Console Wars
It’s not as though Sega sat on its laurels and simply took over. The company watched Nintendo’s movements carefully and used many of the same tactics: a mascot game, merchandising deals, making its games family friendly to draw the appeal of children who want the next cute thing and parents who want their kids to be happy. Whether this was simply a fluke or a calculated maneuver is up for debate, but it cannot be argued that Sega managed to snatch up the market. They did so with a brand-new IP (intellectual property) that rivaled Nintendo from the start: Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sonic and Mario were not completely unlike each other. You run from one side of the screen to the other, jump on enemies, and pick up power-ups as well as golden items to gain a one up. But the real difference was where the battle lines were drawn. Mario was very avuncular (I’ll save you a trip to Dictionary.com; it means having qualities of an uncle), whereas Sonic has a much “cooler” or, as the kids say, “radical” attitude. He was fun, he was sarcastic. All the media portrayed him as a good-hearted character, much like Mario, but more like a peer for the audience they were going for. His cartoons were full of one-liners and jokes, his comics were full of comebacks and darker adventures. Stories involved more than “My not-girlfriend got kidnapped by the guy I go kart-racing with.” A darker side of fantasy with body horror and living beings turned into robots. Even the games implied heavily that the robots were merely trapped woodland creatures, who Sonic would rescue [ 6 ].
But the real meat of the Sonic brand was games, of course. They weren’t much deeper than Mario games, as I mentioned above, but the worlds felt larger simply because of all the holes and passages that could be explored. Even Super Mario Bros only had a few areas where you could jump over level boundaries to get to warp zones to much later levels. But in Sonic the Hedgehog and its two sequels, these passages weren’t off the beaten path. Whereas SMB put literal invisible blocks full of coins or extra lives, in Sonic, they were hidden in plain sight. Or even with minor indicators like a “window” that revealed an item or a spring that seemed superfluous. This was revolutionary for platformers at the time, to reveal the secret. It made the reward apparent and clear. You knew exactly what you were looking for, but the path was hidden, and thus the modern platformers like Shovel Knight and even Mario games, like Super Mario 64, have made use of this tactic.
The four (five, if you count Sonic CD) original Sonic games of the Genesis era each used the super-speed moments to really show off the power difference between the Genesis and the NES. The colors would flash by creating a blurring effect that really gave you the image of speeding down the ramps and loops at near the speed of sound, while still being distinguishable enough that an enemy looming ahead wasn’t a surprise, giving you plenty of reaction time to curl into a ball and attack head on.
Fast and Furious
Gameplay for the Sonic series was always fast and a little bit hectic. There were times when the screen would lag just a bit before catching up to Sonic as you zipped down a corridor or changed direction at top speed. It was an incredible experience and a drastic change of pace from the much more methodical movements of Mario, where each step and each move were deliberate, with puzzles and traps very much designed in such a way as to utilize jumping ability and timing more so than sheer speed. Not to say that Sonic games didn’t have their fair share of jumping puzzles. Although the games were fast paced with terrain that lent itself well to quick movements and darting past enemies, there were plenty of springboards, nooks, and crannies to discover and find power ups and items. It was not the first platformer to do so, but it was perhaps the most popular platformer to really lend itself to exploration over simple jump and dodge mechanics of the time. This let the Sonic series stand on its own two feet and really make its name known to the gaming world, allowing the main character to take his rightful spot alongside Mario as one of the premier mascots of gaming, with exploration and pick-ups becoming something of a necessity to platformers even today.
When the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) was released in North America, Sonic had been out only a few months. But the damage was done. Sega was a competitor worth keeping an eye on, and even the return of everyone’s favorite plumber in Super Mario World wasn’t enough to unsettle the new kid on the block. Super Mario World was proof that Sega were not the only ones watching the competition and taking notes. It had the exploration, the colorful environments, and a variety of new enemies. More than the standard additions to iterative sequels, it was a whole new experience whilst still being familiar. It truly told Sega that Nintendo was still the big dog, and they weren’t letting go without a fight.
Round Two: Fight
And fight they did! Almost as a response to Mario gaining his mount-and-companion, Yoshi, Sega introduced a two-tailed fox character with Miles “Tails” Prower, a flying fox who the second player could control to a degree on screen. He could beat up enemies just ahead of Sonic and soak up bullets, as well as collect rings in bonus stages just ahead of you, before getting hit by bombs and completely screwing up your progress towards the chaos emerald at the end! Yoshi, of course, was no saint, making your “hit box” larger (meaning that ducking did not reduce you to Small Mario size to avoid traps), which kept you from entering doors. But both proved themselves additions to the series that many fans couldn’t imagine playing a modern version of the game without them.
Even still, Sonic was pumping out games at a pace that made it seem like the series would catch up to Mario in no time. Whereas the SNES was the console where Nintendo’s “one of each” strategy came into play (releasing only one mainline Mario or Zelda title per console, not counting remakes and spinoffs), instead taking that time to really perfect each game and make them memorable. Sega, on the other hand, quickly began pushing Sonic the Hedgehog titles. There were four Sonic games between the time of Super Mario World and Super Mario 64, and the signs of age and stress were already beginning to show. New characters were appearing at a rapidly increasing pace, and each of them seemed either more derivative or more uninspired.
Whereas designs like Tails the Fox and Knuckles the Echidna fit roles that Sonic himself could not (flying and breaking down barriers), new characters seemed almost superfluous in their redundancy. Characters in that mold included Mighty the Armadillo (who was strong enough to break barriers), Charmy the Bee (who flies), and Vector the Crocodile (who… breaks barriers). A Mario character, however, was introduced, given a personality (brief as it may be, with Luigi being a coward and Yoshi being a kind-hearted if voracious companion and guardian), and then given their own game to star in if their abilities were different enough. Sega’s Knuckles Chaotix spinoff fell into obscurity, whereas the Wario World series slowly evolved into the Wario Ware games, and Yoshi’s Island became Yoshi’s Story and then became Woolly World. Where Sega had once hoped to trump Nintendo in the field, Nintendo had once again proved itself formidable.
Another area that the two contended in, if even only incidentally, was certainly the music. Even back then, with limited sound technology, the score for the games was amongst the most memorable. One of the most notable, of course, was the original theme for Super Mario Bros. on the NES. Koji Kondo’s masterpiece has lived on in both gamer and non-gamers alike, truly spanning generations. While Sonic has much less recognizable music, however, it is still quite well composed. The themes fit well, with a very appropriate sense of scale and urgency to boss battles, as well as the desired emotion of being trapped in a chemical plant or expansive desert.
Breaking the Stalemate
For the better half of the 1990s, Sonic and Mario were evenly matched. Both were putting out quality games; both were crossing back and forth over merchandising lines into Happy Meal toys, cereal, cartoons, and comic books. Both companies were trying to outdo each other, making claims of the SNES being more powerful than the Genesis in spite of Blast Processing and how Sega “could do what Ninendon’t” [ 7 ], and other, less clever pot shots. The two were bitter rivals. It was akin to asking a room full of strangers whether the Dark Knight was better than Iron Man; you’re liable to start a fight, and some countries consider this an act of war!
Again, however, things were not to stay this way for long. Even as Nintendo made poor business decisions that led to the creation of one of its biggest rivals (Sony’s own PlayStation), the Super Nintendo and Super Mario proved to have staying power unrivaled even today. There were other contenders, of course, to the Mascot Thunderdome that Sega abandoned almost entirely for the (sad and shallow) lifespan of the Sega Saturn, such as Crash Bandicoot. Although, to give most of them more than an off-hand mention would be doing a disservice to the rivalry and, for a brief stint, tri-valry (probably gonna use that one again) that was Mario, Sonic, and Crash Bandicoot in the mid to late 1990s [ 8 ].
Following in the footsteps of Nintendo, Sega made a poor decision that arguably began its downfall. At E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in 1995, Sega revealed the $400 console to North America and announced it had already shipped to major retailers around the country [ 9 ]. This surprised even the retailers, many of whom were not happy. KB Toys dropped Sega from its lineup, angered by being told the Saturn would be available the following September, as opposed to the May arrival date. To make matters worse, Sonic the Hedgehog was, as stated above, almost completely absent from new console games for four whole years. There were spinoffs: kart racers, card games, cameos, and all sorts of interstitial appearances of everyone’s favorite blue rodent, but there were no big games. Sonic X-Treme was canceled, and Saturn players were left high and dry for the console’s lifespan with regards to the mascot they loved. Meanwhile, Crash Bandicoot easily filled the “animal with attitude” gap left behind, if sloppily.
Crash Bandicoot was a game created by Naughty Dog, a team now known less for its animal mascot which is now as obscure as the animal he was based on, and more for the Uncharted games. Good for you, Naughty Dog! The Crash Bandicoot games weren’t bad. They simply just… were. Their style, while unique, was merely turning 2-D side-scrolling platformers a few degrees to the right and making them second-person platformers. The controls weren’t as tight as Mario’s, and the graphics weren’t as vibrant as Sonic’s, but the game filled a hole. Unfortunately, (or, depending on your love of Nathan Drake’s antics, very fortunately) for Naughty Dog, Crash’s staying power was like the Spice Girls. Huge in the 1990s, inexplicably still around in the 2000s, and surprising people that no, they’re not all dead, in the 2010s. Maybe not so much that last one, but the point stands. Crash Bandicoot had an arc like Sonic in that it quickly fizzled out on platformers and flew too close to the sun for a Mario-level of spinoff games. Even the lifespan of the character as a mascot was short lived, lasting a scant six years before showing up on the GameCube and Xbox consoles.
Speaking of crossing console lines, something happened to Sonic in the end of the 1990s. On Sept. 9, 1999, something big happened. Final Fantasy VIII was released in North America [ 10 ]. Oh, and the Sega Dreamcast released. This was either Sega’s ill-advised plan to enter a market in which, historically, they were the most capable, or Square-Enix’s (then still SquareSoft) brilliant plan to keep Sony, who was currently signing their paychecks, in the lead. Either way, Sega did not fare well. The Dreamcast did many things that consoles even today are trying to do. It had handheld connectivity, internet access and online gaming, peripherals out the wazoo, and graphics that were leaps and bounds ahead of anything on the market! But it wasn’t enough—despite accumulating a small, but loyal following. On March 31, 2001, the Sega Dreamcast was discontinued, and Sega was out of the console business [ 11 ]. Many thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but Sega insisted it was the sad truth. Whether adding insult to injury, or merely proving the rivalry was not as bitter in the boardroom as it was on the playground, a few months later, Sonic Adventure Battle was released for the Nintendo GameCube. Nintendo had won. Whether as a show of good faith, or a sign of supreme victory, Nintendo was now the primary home for Sonic the Hedgehog.
In recent years, the rivalry has become little more than a memory. The red-clad plumber and the blue blur appear in games sharing both their names heralding the Olympic games. Nintendo has even extended their hand in a display of ultimate honor and reverence for their once-hated rivals. On Oct. 10, 2007, more than 7 years after the release of the final Sonic game on Sega’s own console, Sonic the Hedgehog returned to his former glory; Nintendo announced he would be playable in Super Smash Bros. Brawl [ 12 ].
And just like that, the rivalry was born anew.
- “First appearing together in 2007’s Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, these figures had a bitter rivalry throughout the ’80s and ’90s.” Source: https://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2016/10/01/how-sonic-made-the-leap-to-nintendo-consoles.aspx
- “The two have had a long history of spoofs and unsubtle homages in one another’s titles, as their ‘handlers’ Nintendo and Sega would be known to make referential publicity jabs.” Source: https://www.nintendolife.com/news/2021/09/random_wait_a_sec_that_sure_looks_like_mario_in_sonic_the_hedgehogs_marble_zone
A cosplayer who’s worked with Nerd Caliber and Cosplay Court Case, Juno Rebecca Delphi combines an academic approach to otherwise “flippant” subjects with significant attention to detail. In addition to her love of gaming, Juno’s an accomplished fiction writer, performer, and nerdy historian, but is most passionate when it comes to social justice and queer culture. Originally joining Steam-Funk Studios in 2014, Juno’s personal journey has been revelatory, as she continues to evolve.
- Kelion, Leo. “Sega v Nintendo: Sonic, Mario and the 1990s Console War.” BBC, 13 May 2014, bbc.com/news/technology-27373587.
- Harris, Blake. Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation. Illustrate, Dey Street Books, 2015.
- Thomas, Lucas M. “Sonic the Hedgehog VC Review.” IGN, 14 May 2012, ign.com/articles/2007/01/27/sonic-the-hedgehog-vc-review.
- Dvorchak, Robert. “NEC out to Dazzle Nintendo Fans.” news.google.com, 30 June 1989, news.google.com/newspapers?id=qKIbAAAAIBAJ&sjid=R04EAAAAIBAJ&pg=5459,6856521.
- “Miyamoto on World 1–1: How Nintendo Made Mario’s Most Iconic Level.” YouTube, uploaded by Eurogamer, 7 Sept. 2015, youtube.com/watch?v=zRGRJRUWafY.
- “Game Masters: Yuji Naka & The Sonic Team Interview.” YouTube, uploaded by ACMI, 13 Oct. 2016, youtube.com/watch?v=fHkosWFNRko.
- Thomas, Aaron. “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t.” Venture Beat, 29 July 2009, venturebeat.com/community/2009/07/29/genesis-does-what-nintendont.
- “History of the PlayStation.” IGN, 21 June 2012, ign.com/articles/1998/08/28/history-of-the-playstation.
- Stuart, Keith. “Sega Saturn: How One Decision Destroyed PlayStation’s Greatest Rival.” The Guardian, 14 May 2015, theguardian.com/technology/2015/may/14/sega-saturn-how-one-decision-destroyed-playstations-greatest-rival.
- “Final Fantasy VIII.” IGN, ign.com/games/final-fantasy-viii.
- Lindbergh, Ben. “The Dreamcast Died Too Soon, but Its Legacy Lives On.” The Ringer, 11 Sept. 2019, theringer.com/2019/9/11/20860353/sega-dreamcast-20th-anniversary.
- Bozon. “Sonic Crashes Smash Bros. Brawl.” IGN, 14 May 2012, ign.com/articles/2007/10/10/sonic-crashes-smash-bros-brawl.