It was an unthinkable scenario at one point. The two mascots of rival console kings Nintendo and SEGA appearing in the same game. With the release this month of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, we take a look at the history of the two tribes, and how this outbreak of gaming glasnost came about.

1980s

Having had a smallish presence in arcades, save for monster smash Donkey Kong, Nintendo hit home in the west with their Nintendo Entertainment System – or NES – console. A sizeable grey box, it looked markedly different to its red and gold Japanese counterpart, the Famicom, but soon began infiltrating US homes, then European ones in 1986, and eventually Australian ones in 1987.

The secret to its success? A moustachioed plumber, originally known variously as “Mr Video” and “Jumpman” until he was dubbed Mario, and given Italian birth records. He became the mascot for Nintendo, and has since appeared in over 200 games.

Meanwhile, SEGA had celebrated many an arcade hit and wanted in on some of that sweet home console market action. Their weapon was the Master System, which hit the US in 1986, and Australia a year later – first in an aborted attempt, before changing distributors and going great guns based on its major advantage over the NES: its sizeable library of arcade games.

But who would take SEGA’s mascot fight to Mario? A kiddie character named Alex Kidd had the gig in Japan, but he didn’t go down very well in the west as he seemed a tad wussy. Mario wins the ‘80s.

1990s

As Nintendo continued to bank on the NES, SEGA threw down the gauntlet with their Mega Drive 16-bit console. Better graphics, better sound, better games. It actually snuck out in the US in late 1989, but didn’t hit Europe and Australia until late 1990. It was the perfect console upgrade path for many Aussies, especially as it had an impressive library of games ready to rock at launch.

But SEGA still needed a mascot with grip, especially as Nintendo weren’t resting on their considerable laurels, with their sensibly-named (things like ‘Wii” would come much later, of course) Super Nintendo in development. It hit the west first via, you guessed it, the US in 1991, before finally arriving in Europe and Australia in 1992. By this time, SEGA’s Mega Drive had gained quite the market share, yet the Super Nintendo soon gained traction. After all, it had Mario on its side.

Despite SEGA hitting back with increasingly adversarial ad campaigns, including the classic “SEGA does what Nintendon’t”, it was the arrival in 1991 of a little blue ball of attitude that brought equality to the mascot wars. Sonic the Hedgehog was specifically designed to be SEGA’s representative, bringing attitude and cool to the brand. It worked – and thankfully his first game on the Mega Drive was an instant classic, soon cementing Sonic in people’s hearts.

But competition heated up in the “console wars”, with Sony’s PlayStation entering the fray. Mario’s mob had the Nintendo 64, while SEGA had the Saturn. Two out of three of them did well in the west… Sony and Nintendo win the ‘90s.

THE 21st CENTURY

After the relative failure of SEGA’s Saturn console and, later, the Dreamcast – despite them both being superb games machines – the Japanese gaming behemoth made a huge decision: They would remove themselves from the home console market.

Still armed with a cash cow, erm, ‘hog in Sonic, SEGA went big into software, and eventually the blue blur began appearing on various PlayStation and Xbox consoles. Then, the unthinkable – but inevitable – happened. Sonic arrived on… the Nintendo Game Boy Advance, quickly followed by their latest home console, the GameCube.

Despite consternation from some mega-fan corners, Sonic got on well with his former rival’s hardware. But if these people were upset that SEGA had capitulated to Nintendo by letting their mascot loose on their hardware – after all, Nintendo never let Mario play with their competitors – they’d seen nothing yet.

In 2007, Nintendo’s Wii console was taking over corners of the market hitherto uninterested in gaming. Its use of motion controls attracted a whole new audience, and mega-sales. It also heralded what to many was an unholy alliance – Mario and Sonic came together in the one game!

Developed by SEGA, it was Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, released in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It let loose characters from both Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom and the universe of Sonic in 24 Olympic event battles, allowing fans to ultimately determine which mascot ruled the roost.

The Olympic truce has subsequently continued between the two factions every four years, and this month we get the latest entry in the series in Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The pair not only get to duke it out on their home turf, but they also get to partake in more events than ever.

But it’s the memories of waggly sports classics like Track & Field, HyperSports and Summer Games that the new 8-bit, 1964 Tokyo Olympics mode brings that classic console fans are especially sure to love – along with the memories that they invoke of those simpler times when Mario was Nintendo, and Sonic was SEGA.

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is available now exclusively for Switch. Read STACK‘s review here.

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