8-Bit Showdown: How popular were the Master System and the NES in the UK?

When it isn’t doing is it’s upmost to sabotage Western democracy, one thing that can be said for Facebook is that it does have some of the friendliest retro communities on the internet. A few weeks ago one particular discussion caught my eye: how popular was the Master System compared to the NES in the UK?

As far as I was concerned, it was a statement of fact that the Master System was the more popular machine by a long way. This was true of both my own peer group – where only one person I knew owned a NES – and of gaming culture more generally, where Nintendo seemed to lack a strong media presence until the release of the Super NES 1992. However a few contrarian voices comes into the debate. Not only had they and their peers grown up with a NES but, much more interestingly, they seemed to have support from the official Chart-Track data: As of 1994, both the NES and the Master System had shifted a surprisingly equal 1.5 million units in the UK. Was my impression of the state of the British gaming industry at the turn of the 1990s a massive misreading, or was there something else going on here?

Looking at the Chart-Track data, there seemed to be an immediate problem: it was far too late. With both the NES and the Master System first making waves in 1987, data from 1994 doesn’t allow us to view the situation when both consoles were in their prime. what proportion of those 1.5 millions represent premium sales from 1987, and what proportion represented discounted fire sales from 1994?

After a bit of digging, I stumbled across some data in an old Neo Gaf thread that claimed to be an annual breakdown of console install bases taken from internal research conducted by Electronic Arts. Providing breakdowns of 8- bit install bases from 1988 onwards, it tells a different – but somewhat complementary – story. Though the EA document agrees that both 8 bit consoles had an install base of 1.5 million by the end of 1993, the longer story is one of the Nintendo machine playing catch up: the Master System accounted for 5/8 of all 8-bit console sales in 1988, and maintained a healthy lead until at least 1991.

EA internal Data on Console install bases

Unfortunately this document doesn’t provide details we could use to corroborate it, but it’s interesting that the figures for the latter years tie in with the official Chart-Track data. Alongside that, the estimate of 200,000 sales for 1990 is also in the same ball park as the official figures Virgin Mastertronic released for that year, quoted here in Sega Power:

Sega Power, May 1991

In fact, there’s more! the figures from the EA document also tally reasonably well with the figures the Sega Power team (publishing then as S: The Sega Magazine) reported for 1989, and 1991.

Sega Power 30 – 1992
S the sega magazine – issue 6

Considering that the Chart Track, EA and official Virgin Mastertronic numbers are all in rough agreement (when you consider margins for error, import consoles etc,) I suspect that it’s reasonable to use the EA numbers as a rough guide to the state of the UK console market between 1988 and 1991. Indeed, the narrative they paint definitely corresponds with the anecdotal evidence: Thanks to the rapid rise of Sega’s Mega Drive, the company retained control of about 66% of the market despite a resurgence from the NES. Consequently, the UK was unquestionably a Sega region – though Nintendo’s sizable chunk allowed it some reasonably large Nintendo-focused enclaves around the country.

Case closed?

There might be a case for bringing the article to an end right now, but When we look at issues like this using only figures and statistics, we’re at risk of losing the wider context of the era. If you were looking to buy a games console in 1988, what would your impressions of the two consoles been? What would you have seen of the two consoles when you walked into a shop in your local town? Considering that magazines would have been your main source of information outside of your immediate peer group, what impression did they provide us about the relative success of the two consoles?


If you were a young gamer in 1987, your first experience of seeing either of these two consoles in the flesh might have been in a shop at a local town. Sadly, though a photo of the games section in a local Boots or Wh Smith would be an invaluable resource today, randomly taking pictures of shop shelves in 1987 would probably have had you seen at best as a weirdo and at worst as someone being actively up to no good. Consequently, such photos are a bit tricky to come by.

Thankfully, we do have a useful body of evidence from one particular retail giant: Warehouse-based stuff-peddler Argos. As their business model involved customers ordering items from an intimidatingly large catalogue at the front of the shop before hanging around for twenty minutes while some poor soul fetched the stock from the warehouse at the back; they ended up printing mass quantities of their gigantic catalogues – catalogues that today provide valuable inside into the world of 80s/90s retail.

Unfortunately – Bearing that in mind that the catalogue-based model led to them being the closest thing the late 80’s had to Amazon – 80s Argos catalogues can tell us remarkably little about the relationship between the Master System and the NES, as Argos didn’t really begin to stock consoles in earnest until the 1990s. The only piece of evidence we do have is the Autumn/Winter catalogue of 1987, which unexpectedly does reveal something about the retail strategy behind the Nintendo machine:

Argos Autumn/Winter Catalogue 1987

Two things immediately stand out. The first is the logo used to advertise it. Though we can see the logo is coloured in a bold shade of red, the design isn’t that of Nintendo but of their UK distributor Mattel. This tells us that the Nintendo name wasn’t well enough known in the UK to carry the console on its own.

Alongside this, the second thing that stands out is its’ placement. Despite the buoyant computer game market at the time, the NES was the only dedicated games machine to appear in the Argos catalogue that year. Rather than Sega and Atari, it appeared next to a weird Bandai light gun novelty, a bunch of single game LCD devices and some general electronic novelty toys.

Intriguingly, not only did its description fail to differentiate it from the (cheaper) single-game electronic items it appears next to, but Argos failed to stock any supplementary game cartridges for the system or even refer to their existence. Mattel, clearly, were following the US strategy of selling the system as a standalone toy rather than a video game system.

Consequently, though you would expect an international giant like Mattel to have a much larger reach than a more local distributor, the opposite actually turned out to be the case. Growing up, the only place I personally remember personally seeing the NES on sale was in our local branch of Boots. There’s a good reason for that: According to Mike Hayes of San Serif (who took NES distribution after 1989) Boots the Chemist were the only major retailer Mattel had managed to get on board, and the system wasn’t selling terribly well there either. Unsurprisingly, when Argos replaced their Winter 1987 catalogues with the Spring 1988 update, the NES was nowhere to be seen.

Its easy to be critical of Mattel, but in their defence it’s important to remember that at this time there wasn’t a dedicated retailer of video games on the high street. Game and Future Zone – the two chains that would lay the foundations for the GAME stores that are found in every town and city in the country today – weren’t founded until 1990 and 1991 respectively, while the first brick and mortar Computer Exchange (later, of course, CEX) didn’t appear until 1992 (and they remained small independents for another 13 years). In 1987, there simply wasn’t a clear, defined route for getting games consoles into the market place.

They have been smaller than Mattel, but Sega’s partner Mastertronic (later Virgin Mastertronic,) proved to be a much wiser pick for a distributor. As a company, they had thrived in the UK retail environment of the early eighties and were a key architect of the emerging UK software business. There may have been no obvious route to retail for console games in 1987 but to Mastertronic that didn’t matter: throughout the 1980’s they’d built up a huge distribution network for software that had infiltrated a number of unlikely locations – from stationers and chemists to corner shops and petrol stations. By 1987, they had also recently also signed software supply agreements with major high street chains like Woolworths and – to add insult to Mattel’s’ injury – Toys’R’Us. Though £24.99 Master System games were too costly for the news agents stocking £1.99 budget game cassettes, they were a natural extension of the £9.99 – £12.99 full price games Mastertronic were supplying to the larger chains.

Sega had a surprising advantage in the large retailers then but what about local computer shops? Though in theory the smaller retailers should be a lot harder to snapshot than the larger retailers, we do have one useful trump card at our disposal: the advertisement sections of multi-format games magazines. Though these don’t represent a hugely stratified sample (a number of the larger independents ran adds across multiple months and magazines) they should at least give us a feel of how things stood with independent retailers at the time.

Predictably, one thing that becomes apparent is that – of the independent shops that stocked consoles – more tended to stock Sega wares than Nintendo. That’s not to say there weren’t any Nintendo specialists, but it seems there were generally more Sega stockists available across the country at any given moment – presumably because of Mastertronic’s prior experience of keeping them stocked with software cassettes.

Advert for Timesoft in Advanced Computer Entertainment, June 1988.
ACE, December 1987. Though the NES and the MS are stocked at the same price, the NES looks more expensive.

Though there were some shops that stocked the base Nintendo unit, Mattel seem to have been more aggressive in up-selling their packages than Mastertronic. Unfortunately for Nintendo this meant that, even in shops that stocked both consoles, the Master System could often look cheaper than the NES even when the base units cost the same. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Master System was also generally sold alongside a larger selection of games that were – thanks to the dominant influence of the arcade scene over the UK software market – more desirable than those available on the NES at the time.

Consequently, from the retail side, we see that the odds were stacked against Nintendo from the start. What should have been an epic showdown between the reach of a global giant against the nimbleness of a plucky underdog turned into one way traffic: Mastertronic managed to get into a wider variety of shops at better prices with a more desirable range of software. It probably isn’t a surprise that the Master System raced to the early lead suggested by Electronic Art’s figures.

CVG June 1988 – Sega games were desirable even when they weren’t on the Master System…


In the era before the internet, games magazines were one of the main methods gamers could use to connect to the gaming world that existed beyond the confines of their local town. Best of all, they tended to crop up reasonably quickly too: when the Zx Spectrum Launched in the April of 1982, Sinclair User was on news stands within six months and the likes of Your Spectrum and Crash followed  soon after.

Unfortunately, when it came to the new wave of games consoles, the response was remarkably cagey. Considering that Spectrum publications began to appear in less than six months, Future Publishing’s S the Sega magazine (later Sega Power) took over two years to arrive (December 1989) and even then there were caveats: the first issue was a free magazine sent to Sega owners who’d filled out the warranty cards and – considering the publisher’s biggest fear is unsold stock – for the next five issues it remained a subscriber only affair. Only once the Mega Drive had arrive did the magazine go on general sale and even then it took a further year and a half for it to receive a solid amount of Sega-focussed competition.

On the Nintendo side things were even worse. There was a short promotional Nintendo Club magazine that ran for a brief spell from 1989, but unlike S it never made it to a full commercial print run. NES owners in the late eighties were thus forced to rely on general magazines like EMAPs Computer & Video Games and Future Publishing’s Advanced Computer Entertainment for their games media fix. Nintendo-centric magazines only begun to take off on the eve of the SNES’ launch (Dec 1991), with console generalists Mean Machines splitting into specialist magazines Mean Machines Sega and (the officially licensed) Nintendo Magazine System.

Concequently, If you were a console owner before 1991, your connection to the wider gaming audience beyond your immediate friendship group would probably have been through one of the more general computing/gaming mags. How did they cover the divergent consoles? First mentioning the imminent arrival of a new breed of consoles in October 1986 (alongside the Atari 7800, which never gained a significant foot hold in the UK), Computer & Video games didn’t start formally covering them until they launched their “Mean Machines” section a year later.

From the very first mention of the impending wave of consoles, it wasn’t looking good for Nintendo. While Sega’s was clearly already a recognised name that needed no introduction, Nintendo need contextulising – something we’ve already seen from the 1987 Argos catalogue: Though relatively unknown in the UK, C&VG explained, Nintendo had found a good deal of success overseas so were one to keep an eye on. Before the Master system and NES had even arrived, it was clear Sega already had a demonstrable upper hand.

This feeling carried across into the very first Mean Machines section (October 1987,) Where main writer Tony Takoushi already had a little repair work to do when it came to his standing with Nintendo owners:

“Sega as you may already know i rate very highly. In fact, I used to think that the Nintendo machine had no chance against it. Well things have changed.”

Although he went on to point out that NES had a number of exciting third party titles on the way and tremendous international support, he still adds a caveat that most of the current NES library was a bit old. This point would be driven home in the first few Mean Machines sections, where a review of the Master System’s brand new port of Outrun (a game which had already topped the all formats charts) was pitted against a number of relatively unremarkable NES titles that originated from the early days of the NES’ Japanese launch in 1983-4.

When Mean Machines finally got their hands on some more Master System titles to review in the following months – ominously for the NES there had been a chronic shortage of Sega carts – it became obvious that the Master System titles were fresher than the titles available for the Nintendo machine at the time. while the likes of Soccer looked like games that had been produced in 1984, Enduro Racer was a great modern-looking take on a recent Sega arcade game.

Indeed, by the December edition of Mean Machines it was clear that Nintendo had squandered their only potential advantage. Even though, globally, Nintendo had bullied a number of important third parties into supporting their machine exclusively, the PAL NES had just 27 titles on the market against the Master System’s 30. If we look at the reviews that featured in subsequent editions, it was clear that Sega carried this momentum into the following years: Though in 1988 the systems were in touching distance – there were nineteen Sega reviews to thirteen Nintendo ones – in the following year there were just four Nintendo reviews to twenty Sega – and three of the Nintendo reviews were for Game Boy Games. If we look back to the EA sales figures above, a relatively Paltry release schedule goes a long way to explaining why Nintendo could only shift 125,000 NES’ to Sega’s 195,000 Master Systems.

Of course, there was more to magazines than just the reviews. In particular, the financial pressures of publishing meant there was ample room for advertisements, including glossy full colour adverts from publishers, smaller black and white ads for local computer shops and even a couple of pages of classified ads from readers looking to buy and sell second hand gear.

We’ve already looked at the advantage Sega seems to have had with the computer shops, so perhaps we should now look at the glossy full-colour adverts, as these were a form of marketing both Sega and Nintendo utilised. Interestingly If we focus on their direct advertising, we can see that Sega’s tended to be slightly more frequent and focused on the Master System console and game range as a whole, while the advertising aimed at Nintendo owners tended to be more focused, generally pushing a particular title (Super Punch Out, for some reason, received a particularly big push.)

Was Sega’s approach more effective? It’s difficult to tell to be honest: alongside their own adverts Sega also benefitted a from an impressive amount of free advertising from other publishers. As we’ve already seen, Sega was a name already known for producing quality arcade titles and – regardless of any legal obligations – licensees who bought the rights to port Sega games seem to have been keen to advertise their license’s origins, often putting Sega’s famous blue logo in prominent positions on box art and advertisements. Better still, by 1989 a lot of these titles were available on the Master System in a guise that looked (and often played) better than the versions available on the 8-bit microcomputers. As Nintendo had largely withdrawn from the UK arcade market by this point, this was one area they couldn’t really compete at all- save for an Ocean software port of the original aged Mario Bros arcade game.

An Activision Advert from January 1989. Note the Sega Logo

Sega had the advantage when it came to retailer and publisher adverts then, but what of the classified ads published by readers? Was there a quiet Nintendo-based subculture bubbling away beneath the surface? If so, they didn’t leave much of a mark. Though the classified pages weren’t exactly inundated with Sega adverts, an average CVG/ACE carried about five in 1989. On the Nintendo side it wasn’t uncommon to find either a single advert or nothing at all.

Classified ads from the January 1989 issue of Advanced Computer Entertainment.

Looking to the future

As the 1980s made way for the 1990s, the Master System had every possible advantage then: better retail placement, more – and more famous  – games, more users and more media coverage. This advert for a local computer shop perfectly  illustrates this in a single picture:

At this point we should probably recognise that we owe the existence of the UK console scene to the Sega master system. With the NES having fallen off both the media and retail radars by 1989, we can say that it was the Master System which kept media and retail interest alive until the heralded arrival of the 16-bit consoles.

Over the course of 1990, however, the NES staged quite a dramatic come back. How? The first factor was due to Nintendo’s license passing from Mattel to local board game distributer San Serif. The second was the arrival of Turtle Mania: as the official Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle game was console-exclusive to the NES, the Nintendo machine finally had a title UK gamers wanted to play. Seizing the initiative, San Serif went against Nintendo of America’s wished and bundled the game with the machine – an interesting foreshadowing of the row that was about to take place between Sega’s Japanese and US arms over Sonic the Hedgehog – and sales increased by 2000%.

We can trace the effects of San Serif’s decision it two ways. The first is that we can see that NES games began to appear more regularly in the media again (beginning with a C&VG review of Mega Man in January 1990) . The second is the install base figures contained in the EA numbers above. Adrift of the Master System in 1989, Suddenly the NES was neck and neck with the Master system the following year.

However, Though it my look like the odds were shifting towards Nintendo, the emerging console industry was already changing. As early as 1988, we can see that the magazines were already looking towards the next generation of consoles, with both C&VG and Advanced Computer Entertainment running lengthy articles about the Japanese gaming industry, where the 16-bit PC Engine was already on the market and Sega’s Mark V hovered ominously on the horizon.

CVG May 1988 – PC Engine Special

By 1989, C&VG began reviewing import titles for these upcoming systems, with PCE titles arriving first before being followed swiftly by games for Sega’s new machine (now renamed Mega Drive.) We’ve already seen that 1989 was a bit of a dry spell for the NES, and this point is hammered home by the fact that by the end of that year C&VG had reviewed more Japanese titles for the PCE than they had PAL NES releases.

Import Review – C&VG January 1990

As impressive as the NES’ resurrection was, it was clear that the era of 8-bit consoles was coming to end before it had really got going. Though it’s true that San Serif managed to increase the amount of Nintendo reviews in magazines like C&VG, the frequency of reviews for import 16-bit consoles increased too. Worse still, from the Summer of 1990 the Mega Drive was officially released in the UK. Though the Nes was to have a bumper Christmas it wasn’t the only one: By the end of 1990 Sega managed to shift 60,000 Mega Drives on top of their Master System sales – ensuring that Sega would continue to control the largest share of the console market – while magazine news sections discussed the imminent Japanese launch of Nintendo’s Super Famicom.

Life After SNES?

The exact nature of the 16-bit console battle in the UK is probably the subject for another article, but for our purposes it’s worth noting two things: not only were Sega unarguably the winners in the UK, but the Super NES arguably did worse than its predecessor: despite a healthy NES install base and high profile adverts hilighting the SNES’ superiority to the Mega Drive in areas like on screen colour, it never managed to push as close to the Mega Drive as the NES did the Master System between 1990-91. There are of course a number of reasons for this (an 18 month head start and a certain blue hedgehog spring to mind) but there’s one that’s of particular interest to us: the longevity of the NES Vs the Master System.

Though the SNES was originally designed with backwards compatibility in mind (even targeting a slower processor in order to ensure compatibility was maintained) the final unit was unable to play NES titles. The Mega Drive, on the other hand, contained within its sleek black shell all of the guts of the Master System, and needed only a simple pass-through converter to allow Master System games to be connected to it. It’s noteworthy that, when Sega released a cost reduced Mega Drive in 1993, they made sure to release a new Powerbase Converter that worked with the Mega Drive 2’s redesigned fascia.

The continuing existence of the NES and Master System wasn’t just for the benefit of 16-bit owners wanting to play their older game collections, mind you. Both machines would continue to live on as remarkable budget systems in their own right enjoying healthy schedules of new releases. Unfortunately, after Nintendo had done so well to stage a come back between 1990 and 91, the period afterwards saw a change of distributer (Bandai UK) and another period of relinquishing the initiative.

After all the hard work involved with getting NES consoles into living rooms across the country, Nintendo did relatively little with the machine after the release of the SNES. Though the console received a handful of new releases going into 1993 and 94, simple puzzlers like Yoshi’s Cookie weren’t going to cut it when the NES’ bigger brother received a full new Super Mario Bros release, became the default home version of Street Fighter 2 and was home to a load of fancy futuristic-looking titles like F-Zero and Pilot Wings. Though the US and Japanese markets received a cost-reduced top-loading NES in 1993, the model also never made it to the UK.

Master System and NES game reviews could still be found in multi format mags in October/November 1993

Sega, on the other hand, were much more proactive in supporting their 8-bit platform. Not only did Sega have their own cost-reduced hardware – the Master System II – it was already on the market by the end of 1991. While Nintendo published seven new NES titles in 1992 and just four in 1993, Sega published sixteen in 1992 and a whopping twenty nine in 1993. This wasn’t a case of quality over quantity either: Not only did Master System get decent ports of Streets of Rage 1 & 2 and Mickey Mouse-based platformer Castle of Illusion, but Sonic the Hedgehog 1 & 2 were completely different titles on the Master System that still managed to match the 16-bit games in terms of quality.  When it came to their 8-bit hardware and software, Sega did everything right, and made a strong case for existing Sega owners to stay within their eco system and for NES owners to jump ship.

The frustrating thing about Nintendo’s lack of support for the NES was that, in terms of wider support, the console was doing better than you might have expected. Third party support was strong enough for the NES to end up with more new titles overall than the Master System in 1992, and – in spite of the gaming world becoming a lot more 16-bit centric – multi-format games magazines were still devoting a surprising large amount of space to Nintendo reviews.

Unfortunately for the NES, after 1992 the Master System simply felt like the more alive console: not only was Sega’s 8-bit receiving its own version of all the big releases from its parent company, it was still regularly featuring in combined Mega Drive – Master System print ads as well.

Indeed, without a push from its parent, Third party support wasn’t enough to keep the NES going indefinitely. We can see that, as Winter 1993 made way for Spring 1994, the NES finally disappeared from the console pages of the catalogues produced by the likes of Argos and Index, with NES coverage soon beginning to dry up even in the magazines that were dedicated solely to Nintendo.

Argos Catalogues – Winter 1993 on the left, Spring 1994 on the Right. See how the NES has vanished.

Thanks to continued support from Sega, the Master System soldiered on for a lot longer, however. Continuing to sit on the front of the Official Sega Magazine well into 1995, The Master System wasn’t dropped from the Argos catalogue until the end of 1996, where  it had recently been sold alongside both the Mega Drive and Sega’s new 32-bit Saturn. I suspect that the figures we have for the NES’ overall sales are probably flattered by the fact they only going as far as 1994.

slashed to a discounted £34.99, it seems bizarre to think of the Master System appearing alongside the Playstation and Saturn.

One last thing sir…

So that’s the mystery all sorted then isn’t it. Or is it? When looking at the popularity of the Master System and NES there’s another vital piece of context we haven’t really considered. Better still, like any good mystery novel, this mystery ingriedient has been floating in front of our faces for the duration of the article.

While it’s true that magazines carried more Sega classified ads than they did Nintendo, for example, the total number of console adverts they carried were few. Six Sega classified adverts may have been impressive against one single Nintendo ads, but neither number seems impressive when we consider that there were 95 other adverts for Zx Spectrums, C64s, Atari STS and Amigas.

Likewise, before it became a stand alone mag, the Mean Machines section was never longer than about eight pages. As C&VG was at least ninety six pages long, this left at least eighty eight pages for examining the latest goings on in the world of microcomputers. It might have been called “Computer and Video Games”, but up until the early nineties the emphasis was almost entirely on the computer part of that equation.

And let’s not forget the wider retail environment. Mastertronic might have done well to get console games onto the shelves of Toys’R’Us and Woolies, but we should remember that over the same period computer games were everywhere – from the premium card board boxed games you’d find in the big chains down to the rack of jewel cases you would find at the local petrol station or newsagent.

Sometimes, we can get so wrapped up in trying to come up with an answer for a phenomenon, we can forget to question if it’s a phenomenon that needs explaining. It’s easy to frame the development of the 8-bit consoles as a Nintendo Vs Sega showdown because we know that’s exactly what happened next (Sega’s “there’s over a hundred reasons to buy something Mega and only six to buy something Super” advert makes that abundantly clear.)

However the UK games industry of 1993 was a very different place to the industry of 1989. Though by 1994 the industry had indeed turned into a prize fight between two oversized combatants – and in the latter stages of their lives the NES and Master System did definitely get caught up in that – but we should always remember that back in 1987 the market was fragmented, computer-based and not one that would inevitably welcome a new range of consoles.

There’s no denying that the 16-bit generation was a bit more…competitive.

Indeed, the aged 8-bit microcomputers (the Spectrum and C64 both launched in 1982)  dominated game sales well after 16-bit machines first started to arrive. Though for the simplicity of the narrative we tend to minimise the importance of the 8-bit micro computer scene following the release of the 16-bit Amiga and Atari ST, this is actually a hugely misleading error – as the example of Sonic the Hedgehog can demonstrate.

Appearing in the summer of 1991, Sonic was Perhaps the first “must-have” console-only game in the UK, attracting the money of pretty much every existing Mega Drive owner in the land while single handedly shifting a whole load of new console sales to boot. Though it consequently shot straight to the top of the Sega chart, it reached just number 13 in the all formats chart, outsold by the likes of the Spectrum port of Bubble Bobble and shape-sorting Dizzy spin off “Dizzy Panic”. Crucially, this fact wasn’t seen as an abject humiliation – on the contrary, a chart placement of 13 was actually seen as a major achievement for a single-format console game.

C&VG Chart, September 1991

Though the arrival of the Amiga and Atari ST had meant that the 8-bit micros were theoretically superceded as early 1987, a cursory look through the game charts of the era quickly shows that 8-bit computers actually continued to be their driving force well into 1992. To llustrate, In the March 1992 issue of C&VG – the issue before the launch of the SNES – we can see that full-price collection Dizzy’s Excellent Adventures is placed at number two in the all format chart, despite the pack not featuring in the Amiga and Atari ST charts and not being released on any of the consoles.

C&VG Charts from March 1992. We can see WWF Wrestlemania doing well on the 16-bit computers, but the Atari ST and Amiga clearly aren’t pushing Dizzy or the Simpsons into spots two and three.

With all of that in mind, I would argue that “Sega Vs Nintendo” isn’t a great framework for examining the Master System and NES, as it obscures the fact that at the time of their launch the UK games industry was entirely Microcomputer-focussed. When we look at it from the perspective of console versus computer, a couple of things stand out.

On the Sega side, their achievement in creating a UK console industry is, I think, generally massively understated. Though we give a tremendous amount of (well-deserved) credit to Nintendo for launching the NES into a US market that was incredibly hostile to a new gaming system, the questions posed by the UK market were potentially just as daunting. Sure, computer games might have been an embedded part of youth culture by the late 80s, but how could you convince people to buy software for £25 when it was realistically only a modest upgrade from the software that was already available at £2.99? Considering that the likes of C&VG originally treated consoles as an amusing novelty and that both the NES and the Atari 7800 failed so spectacularly between 1987-1989, we should not treat the creation of the UK console market as an inevitability. Sega deserve a great deal of credit both for the ingeniousness of their strategy and for possibly being the only player who could have established the new market when they did.

On the Nintendo side it’s easy to shrug and just say that the UK was always a Sega territory, but this doesn’t tell the whole truth. As we’ve observed, by 1992 the console market was still relatively small in comparison to the  existing computer games market. As Sega’s lead was relatively small, it was still possibly for Nintendo to catch up and San Serif were able to do a tremendous job in making that happen between 1990 and ’91. Though we should acknowledge that the market was effectively created and owned by Sega, on the eve of the first real UK “console war” Nintendo were in a much better position to challenge than we generally give them credit.

Overall then, though the conclusion is largely the same as the one we expected to write in the beginning (the UK was, historically, a Sega territory), the picture is very different when we examine the year-by-year detail. When judging matters like this, it’s always worth remembering that one set of statistics is unlikely to tell you the entire story.