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.
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.
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.