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20 Things You Didn't Know About the Console Wars

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Getty Images

Video games were supposed to be a fad whose time had come and gone with Pong. Then Nintendo happened, and the niche arcade manufacturer burst into America's living rooms with the NES. After years of Nintendo's dominance, rival Sega attempted to dethrone the behemoth with aggressive pricing, clever marketing, and a blue hedgehog on speed. Here are some tidbits of what happened during the early days of this unlikely battle, as uncovered by Blake J. Harris in his book Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation.

1. Nintendo started off as a playing card company in 1889. Loosely translated, Nintendo means "leave luck to heaven."

2. Sega began in the 1960s as a merger between two jukebox manufacturers. The name is a condensed portmanteau of "service games."

3. In 1989, Nintendo launched Nintendo Power, a publication that featured video game hints, previews, and news. It became the fastest magazine to ever reach one million paid subscribers.

See Also: 25 Things We Learned in the First Issue of Nintendo Power

4. Howard Phillips, Nintendo's warehouse manager, had a knack for mastering the company's video games. This didn't go unnoticed, and soon the affable, bow tie-wearing Phillips became Nintendo's official "Game Master" and spokesman. He even starred in his own comic strip in Nintendo Power.

5. In order to guarantee constant demand for the NES, it was Nintendo's policy to always under-stock—they purposefully made fewer units than they could sell in order to keep the public wanting more.

6. Mario was named after Mario Segale, Nintendo of America's landlord. No one at the company had ever actually met Segale.

7. As Sega was struggling to compete with Nintendo, their Japanese division was adamant about producing a game version of Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, the schlock film from director Lloyd Kaufman. Sega of America had to repeatedly rebuff them until it became a running joke.

8. Sega spent millions of dollars to develop a game featuring Buster Douglas, the boxer who upset Mike Tyson to become the heavyweight champion of the world. The game was to be released right after Douglas' bout with Evander Holyfield, and when Douglas was humiliated in the third round, Sega had to regroup to acknowledge the overmatched spokesman's defeat in their advertising campaign.

9. In 1982, Universal Pictures accused Nintendo of copyright infringement, citing Donkey Kong's similarities to the 1933 film King Kong. The studio demanded that all profits from the popular game go to them, and promised a long legal battle if they didn't acquiesce. Howard Lincoln, Nintendo of America's lawyer, decided to take on the huge corporation in court knowing he had a card up his sleeve: For all their tough talk, Universal never even secured a copyright for King Kong in the first place. Nintendo won the case, and they were awarded over one million dollars in legal fees and damages.

Wikimedia Commons

10. The original design for Sonic the Hedgehog came from Japan and depicted the critter as "villainous and crude," with "sharp fangs, a spiked collar, and an electric guitar." He also had a scantily clad, buxom human girlfriend named Madonna. Sega of America had to delicately push back, as their Japanese counterparts were all-in on their design.

11. Developers hated working with Nintendo due to the company's stringent policies. Companies had to pay Nintendo for the cartridges themselves, pay a licensing fee, and, on top of all that, agree to only make five titles a year.

12. Nintendo was well known for their strong-arm tactics. When Tengen, a game developer, invented a work-around so they could make games for the NES without having to pay a licensing fee, Nintendo allegedly convinced retailers to pull Tengen's products from the shelves, lest they lose the most powerful name in video games.

13. Even Wal-Mart was afraid of Nintendo. When Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske met with the retail giant about selling a small number of Genesis consoles in their stores, Wal-Mart turned them down, fearing Nintendo's wrath.

14. In an attempt to convince Wal-Mart to carry the Genesis, Sega of America turned Bentonville, Arkansas, the retailer's home, into Segaville. They bought up all the billboard space that was available in the town and turned a strip mall location near Wal-Mart's headquarters into a free Sega arcade. (The plan worked. Eventually.)

15. Playstation was originally the Nintendo Playstation. Sony and Nintendo came to an agreement to release a CD add-on for the Super Nintendo, but Nintendo surprisingly ditched Sony (without telling them) and went to Phillips instead. Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi worried that Sony was getting too ambitious, and by agreeing to a partnership, the gaming company would be ceding too much control.

16. To drum up excitement for the debut of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega filmed an hour-long TV special featuring young TGIF actors and actresses duking it out in a series of extravagant athletic competitions at Universal Studios. It was called Sega Star Kid Challenge and it was hosted by Scott Baio. Naturally, it's on YouTube.

17. For three straight years, the number-one selling toy in America was a Nintendo product. This dominant run was eventually halted when another iconic toy, the Super Soaker, dethroned the game company and took the top spot in 1991.

18. Sega's identity as the badass, in-your-face Nintendo alternative came from a Reebok Pump commercial that SOA CEO Tom Kalinske saw late one night on TV. It was so influential, Kalinske hired the man behind it to join Sega.

19. Dustin Hoffman was so intrigued by the film version of Super Mario Bros. that he requested to play Mario. However, Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa was not a fan and didn't think he was right for the role.

20. Tom Hanks, fresh off Joe Versus the Volcano, agreed to play Mario for $5 million, but Nintendo and the producers backed out of the deal because they feared Hanks couldn't handle a dramatic role.

For more history on the glory days of video games, pick up a copy of Blake J. Harris' book Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
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iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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