Nintendo vs SEGA: who won the early 90s?
Mario Sonic

Let’s face it: the early ’90s console war between Nintendo and SEGA was the greatest ever

As the two titans faced off against each other playgrounds were divided, pals argued over the respective virtues of Mario and Sonic, and popular culture was invaded by video games on a major level.

Following the announcement of the NES Classic Edition recently the world has gone retro gaming crazy, with speculation about a mini SNES release, as well as a mini Mega Drive with 80 bundled games being a big talking point this week.

As such, it seems an ideal time to re-visit a time of dusty cartridges, exciting arcade ports and platforming icons, and the infamous virtual battlefield of the early ’90s.

But who emerged truly victorious? Nintendo, or SEGA? It’s time to solve this conundrum once and for all…

The consoles


Ah, the SNES. God bless Nintendo’s seminal grey box of quirky fun.

It was neat. It was simple to use. Having been released a while after the Mega Drive too, it had some significant technical advantages over its 16-bit rival.

And yet…

Mega Drive

The Mega Drive, or Genesis to our American cousins, was definitely a cooler proposition. Clad in jet black, sleeker and more streamlined than its grey, slightly dull cousin, and with controllers that looked like batman’s ‘batarangs’ to boot, it had something of an edge about it.

The SNES felt safe. Proper. A nicely designed toy.

The Mega Drive meanwhile was like the Knight Rider of games consoles; serving up a dose of danger for the trendy kids (aided, as we shall see later, by the more ‘controversial’ side of its gaming line-up).

Oh, and it had by far the more comfortable control pad too. Seriously.

Winner: SEGA

The handhelds

There’s no doubting that SEGA’s Game Gear was fun. It was nifty, it was intuitive, and it allowed you to play Sonic on the move. What’s not to like?

But while the handheld sibling to the Mega Drive retained the cool factor of its living room bound brother, it simply wasn’t able to compete with Nintendo’s equivalent, no matter how many gold rings we collected on long family car journeys.

The Game Boy gave us Mario on the move. Its design and the way it nestled into the hands just seemed more natural, instant, and suited to long, epic sessions wherever you may be.

And to cap it all off, it had Tetris.

Yes, that’s right. Nintendo’s portable actually came bundled with one of the greatest games of all time. And I bet that memorable music started playing in your head the moment we mentioned the addictive puzzler, didn’t it?

Many of us liked the Game Gear. But we LOVED the Game Boy.

Winner: Nintendo

The games

super mario bros snes screenshot

A tough one this, to be sure. For between them, both gaming giants had possibly the strongest brace of line-ups in rival console history.

Nintendo had Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart, Zelda, Star Fox, F-Zero and the Final Fantasies to name but a few.

When it came to fun party games, colourful platformers and fantastical RPGs they arguably had the edge – with even Sonic paling into insignificance when pitched against Mario’s level design magnificence.

But you know what Nintendo didn’t have? Streets Of Rage, that’s what.

Streets of Rage

Together with the glorious Golden Axe, the side-scrawling brawler and its sequels forged an unbelievably brilliant line in beat ’em up co-operative fun; something that the SNES simply could not match up to.

Listen to this music, and tell me you’re not instantly whisked back to your giddy childhood.

With its punky aesthetic and techno-pop soundtrack, SoR was an embodiment of SEGA’s more edgy, daring approach to games too.

From Road Rash to Shinobi, the Mega Drive’s line-up was full of excitement, action and forward-thinking bombast; not just cutesy fun. Oh, and the fact that its thrilling Mortal Kombat titles weren’t watered down for a child-friendly audience, and were literally full-blooded, compounds that fact.

Winner: SEGA

The sales


This is where Nintendo nets serious bragging rights. You simply can’t deny the sheer success of its platforms and their games.

The SNES sold around 50 million units to the Mega Drive’s 30 million, while the Game Boy was even more dominant than the Game Gear – selling almost ten times as much over their respective lifetimes.

Those numbers speak for themselves.

Winner: Nintendo

The legacy

Sad sonic gif

In terms of continuing, enduring impact on the ensuing years and into the modern gaming landscape today, it’s clear to see that both companies have lost their place at the top of the console food chain. In SEGA’s case: spectacularly.

The company stopped making platforms altogether around a decade later, after a series of hardware disasters that ended with the Dreamcast, while on the software front there are also reasons to be tearful.

Sonic is a shadow of his former self – few releases since his heyday managing to delight and enthrall – while the other classic staples of the classic early ’90s line-up remain conspicuous by their absence. SEGA remain a well-known publisher, but where’s that SoR reboot?

Nintendo meanwhile, despite the disappointing sales of the Wii U, and being overtaken in the console race by Microsoft and Sony, have continued to ensure that their ’90s legacy – at least on the actual games front – remains as relevant as ever.

Super Mario Maker proves that their famous pin-up is as loved and delightful as he was twenty-five years ago, while the likes of Zelda continue to inspire excitement and devotion.

Winner: Nintendo

Overall winner: Nintendo

When all is said and done, Mario’s corner definitely come out on top where it counted. Not least in the actual cold, hard battle of popularity.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t remember both sides fondly when we recall the great ’90s console war. Simply put: we were spoiled. What a time it was to be a gamer.


Eight things you only know if you had a Sega Mega Drive

SNES classic edition: 10 games we’d love to see

The greatest ’90s video games (that defined a generation)