At the dawn of the modern era of video games, Nintendo rose from the ashes of a burned-out industry and revived the world’s interest in gaming with the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Mario Bros. Shortly after, another titan arose to do battle with Nintendo: Sega. Along with some less-successful consoles (such as Atari’s 7800), Nintendo and Sega brought about the 8-bit era, signaling the start of the Bit Wars.
Of course, prior to this time, previous consoles also were 8-bit or had some bits, but this was the first time that bits became a marketing tool. Both Sega and Nintendo’s offerings were 8-bit at the start, but things changed when Sega moved ahead and released the Sega Genesis (also known as the Mega Drive). In an effort to shut down the NES’ popularity, Sega marketed the Genesis as a “16-bit console” in an effort to impress consumers and demonstrate superiority through a number (though not many people knew the significance of the term “16-bit). Not long after, Nintendo released the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES, which was also a 16-bit console, and the battle grew even hotter.
Sega began aggressively marketing the Genesis, using ads to associate what’s cool and popular (for the time) with Sega’s system, while making the SNES look like it was designed for children. This was able to kick off to a successful degree when Sega released Sonic the Hedgehog, their official answer to Nintendo’s Mario games.They took this opportunity to market the Genesis as a “faster console,” by demonstrating that it can run a game like Sonic without any notable slow-downs — an ability that they dubbed as “Blast Processing.” And it was technically true — the Genesis’ CPU ran faster than the SNES’ by about double the MHz.
Though that was the Genesis’ only technical edge on the SNES, it was the only edge they needed to trash-talk the SNES — and it worked well. Of course, the SNES still went on to out-do the Genesis commercially, as we all know, but the fact that Sega was able to use techno-babble to impress consumers set a precedent for future video game marketing.
From there, we moved into the 32-bit era, when Sega went ahead of Nintendo and released the Sega Saturn (and predictably playing off on the fact that it was 32-bits), while Sony came along and released the Playstation, another 32-bit console. Eventually, Nintendo came out with their answer to both: the Nintendo 64, dubbed “64” for its 64-bits. It was during this time that bits stopped being used as a marketing tool and other factors came into the spotlight.
Sony and Sega hanged their hats on the fact that their consoles used CDs and had 3D graphics, suggesting that they were forward-thinking companies. Sony went a step further with allowing the Playstation to play music CDs — something the other systems didn’t do. Nintendo’s 64 took a lot of flak for having decided to stick with cartridges versus CDs, but they were able to market their system as being able to create true 3D games, as well as being able to point to the analog stick on the console’s controller. From here, it was a battle of who sold their concepts the best, and ultimately, Sony made it out on top, with Nintendo coming second, and Sega being last.
Since then, speaking about consoles in terms of bits has fallen to the wayside. Though they are still mentioned, it is no longer a gauge of power. Marketing stuck to other things, like console features and exclusive games. But just this past generation, the Bit Wars have begun to make a resurgence. No, not the actual war of the bits, but a successor to the war: the Rez Wars.
When Microsoft and Sony unveiled their HD gaming systems back in 2005 and 2006, Nintendo decided to buck the trend and bring forward a console that remained SD. Thus, the battle of resolution began, though this time, fans were the catalyst for the war rather than marketing ads from the companies themselves. Nintendo’s Wii spent the entire generation being looked down upon as inferior primarily due to its inability to display in HD, meanwhile Sony and Microsoft had a battle of their own — the famous “format wars.”
Microsoft brought forth HD DVD for the Xbox 360 while Sony brought forth Blu-ray for the Playstation 3. From there, the question was about which format would win-out. Eventually (and fairly quickly), Blu-ray was decided as the winner, thanks to the Playstation 3 having Blu-ray built-in (Microsoft erroneously made their HD DVD player as an add-on).
Beyond a few skirmishes here and there, the Rez Wars went quiet for a few years — that is until the next generation of consoles came around, starting with Nintendo’s Wii U. Nintendo reignited the war by stating that the Wii U was going to be the only console on the market (at the time of its release) that could display games in true HD (i.e. 1080p), sending gaming communities into a frenzy. The Wii U being in 1080p was perfect ammunition for Nintendo fans to fire back at fans of the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 (both barely had games that could play in 1080p).
Not long after, however, came the rumor mill for the Xbox One (then dubbed “Durango”) and the Playstation 4, saying that the systems would be a significant improvement over last generation. Naturally, fans of the two systems fired back with these rumors and expectations, most of the rhetoric being that the Wii U would be a repeat of the Wii for this coming generation. Some expectations included the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One having even greater resolution than 1080p — 4K.
Since all the systems of the eighth generation have released, the war has continued on with little sign of slowing down. Xbox One fans have had to defend their system of choice against Playstation 4 fans who mock their multiplatform games for having lower resolution or framerate issues. Both Playstation 4 and Xbox One fans attack Wii U fans that point to Nintendo’s 1080p offerings, saying that Nintendo’s games are not visually challenging for the hardware to render. Playstation Vita fans jeer at 3DS fans for the 3DS’ dramatically lower resolution than the Playstation Vita. On top of all of it are the PC fans that continually shout down all console fans for PC’s superiority to consoles. Debates often get so heated that it isn’t uncommon to see graphs, spreadsheets, and numbers for stats that you never knew existed. All for the sake of defending one’s choice of gaming system over another’s.
And so, nearly 20 years later, we’re still busy talking techno-babble, though in the form of resolution specs rather than bits. If there is one legacy of Sega’s that has lasted, it is its marketing strategy. It was sheer brilliance on their part to use simplified system specs to convince customers to buy their system and to give system owners a reason to take pride in their investment. The idea of using system specs to justify your system of choice stuck in the minds of kids and teens all over America and persists to this day, though now in the form of resolution specs (and in deeper detail with the more technically competent).
This constant fanboy warfare is what makes the game industry unique among entertainment media. In movies, there are movie fanboys, director fanboys, actor fanboys, and even studio fanboys. With cable TV, there are channel fanboys, and all the sorts of fanboys associated with TV shows. With music, there are fanboys of bands and individual performers and record companies. But all of them lack the sort of intense front-lines that that video games industry have fostered.
Though we may find ourselves annoyed by the obnoxious fanboy every once in awhile, the Bit Wars and the current Rez Wars display the vital spirit of growth and movement of our young and fledgling hobby. More than any other industry in entertainment, progress in all forms is what game fans demand and expect. In the spirit of the Bit Wars, let the wars continue!