Today Nintendo is a worldwide phenomenon. After helping to save the whole videogame industry after the 1983 videogame crash (particularly in the US, less so in the UK) by introducing an efficient system of quality control, it has developed and published some of the most critically acclaimed games ever. However, it hasn’t always been so successful in many parts of the world. The UK is one of the regions where Nintendo, traditionally hasn’t been the most popular console manufacturer or sold the most popular games. This article looks back at my experience of growing up playing games in the UK, with a focus on Nintendo. This is from my own perspective, partly influenced by how I experienced Nintendo products growing up.
Early Days – NES and Master System Rivalry
Back in the mid to late 80s, the NES was dominating the video game space in North America and Japan. However, in the UK and most parts of Europe, things were different. Sega had better links than Nintendo in Europe in terms of supply and marketing, and this was reflected in sales. The world was less interconnected back then, and Nintendo products were pricey. This meant that the Sega Master System, which is a great console with titles like Phantasy Star and Ys, outsold Nintendo by a wide margin between 1985-1990.
In the UK Personal Computers had become affordable, and the fact that you could rewrite games and trade them meant that they were a lot cheaper than NES cartridges. The classics (e.g. Super Mario Bros. 3) on the NES were still known and appreciated, but they didn’t hook consumers as much as early computers like the Amiga, and ZX Spectrum. Everyone still knew who Mario was. However, in the handheld space things were a lot different.
In the UK, the Game Boy was released in September 1990. The LCD (calculator technology) based Game and Watch systems that came before it was moderately successful, but the Game Boy was a legit phenomenon primarily because of Tetris. This puzzle game was addictive and satisfying, and everyone was playing it. People’s dads, office workers, barristers, everyone. I’m talking about the early days of the Game Boy in the early ’90s, the late ’90s and Pokemon are other stories, which I’ll get on to.
I was really young when the original Game Boy was released, but I remember my older brother had one, and we were always playing primarily Tetris, and Super Mario Land 2: The Six Golden Coins. At this time, Nintendo home consoles weren’t that popular in the UK, and I’ll always remember Super Mario Land 2 as the definitive 2D Mario experience. To be honest, it can definitely be argued that it’s the best 2D Mario game. It builds on Super Mario Bros. 3 with its top-down map, is quirky in it’s levels and enemies, has good mechanics, and has a nice difficulty curve. I’ll always argue that Super Mario Land 2 is better than Super Mario World, or Super Mario Bros. 3 (nostalgia is definitely the fuel for this).
SNES Vs Megadrive
In the UK, following the Sega Master System, the Sega Megadrive was released in 1990. The fact that it was the first 16-bit system to release, helped it to get a foothold in the market. The Megadrive has loads of cool sports games which were really popular with teenagers. Then there were titles like Sonic the Hedgehog, Golden Axe, and Vectorman which showed the power of the system and looked cool. Arcade ports also helped the Megadrive in the UK. The Megadrive port of Street Fighter 2 was just as popular in the UK as it was in the US, and was the best multiplayer experience you could get on home consoles for a while. Similarly to the preceding generation, Nintendo was struggling to gain a foothold in the UK home console market at this time.
However, Nintendo did better with the SNES than it did with the NES in the UK. There were arguments in playgrounds and parks across the land over what was better, the SNES or the Megadrive. The Megadrive sold slightly more than the SNES in the UK overall. The SNES had Nintendo’s classic series like Metroid, Mario, and Zelda. In 1994, the UK-based developer Rareware became a Nintendo second party and was responsible for some of the best games on the SNES and N64 over the next six years.
N64 and the Pokemon Era
Rareware (or Rare for short) had a good relationship with Nintendo, and the partnership that connected two videogame companies from opposite sides of the world led to games like Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, and Goldeneye being released. Goldeneye in particular is often credited as one of the best first-person shooters on a console ever released. It turns out that, surprisingly, Nintendo actually had the rights to James Bond for a while, not the UK developer Rare (but Nintendo hired Rare to use the IP to develop Goldeneye). Also, around this time, a phenomenon was about to hit the world, including the UK. The birth of the juggernaut that is Pokemon emerged around 1999 in most parts of the world outside Japan (where it was released around two years earlier).
I remember watching the anime and being excited for the games, before Pokemon Red and Blue even released in the UK. Then, once they released. Almost everyone in my school was playing the games, and people were trading and battling whenever they could meet. People’s parents, similarly to the themes of the South Park episode ‘Chinpokomon’ (series 3 episode 11) didn’t understand why Pokemon was so popular. I think it comes down to the idea of collecting creatures that you can build up to become stronger, and the great diversity of Pokemon that exist in the games. The strangeness of the anime caused confusion among parents. The UK was no exception to the Pokemon craze. The N64 Pokemon Stadium games were also popular.
Gamecube Vs PS2 Vs Xbox
By 2002/2003, from my experience, a fanboy console war was in full swing. The PS2 was smashing it in the UK like it was in most other parts of the world. There were a few Gamcube fans (but hardly anyone owned one compared to the PS2), and games like Burnout, Fifa, and PES were the most popular. However, the Gamecube had the best exclusives. The Xbox was also doing OK and was the console of choice if you wanted to play shooters, like Halo.
Around this time, the GBA SP was also popular in the UK, it was actually backlit, which seemed amazing for a Game Boy at the time. There were so many great titles on Game Boy, although I noticed that Pokemon games were only popular with the younger generation. Super Smash Bros. Melee was a popular fighting game (if you were a ‘nerd’), and the other fighter of choice was Tekken and its sequels at this time.
Mid-2000’s and the Hope of Console Power
By the mid-2000s games like Resident Evil 4 were being hyped up. This game looked absolutely amazing for the time and showed what video games would be able to look like in the future. The Xbox 360 was on the horizon, and people in the UK were amazed by the almost photo-realistic graphics. The UK gaming scene had moved on from the PS2 vs Gamecube vs Xbox rivalry, and the Wii was about to release and dominate the market through casual gamers getting involved with home consoles and the Wii’s motion controls. For me, maybe because I was approaching my late teens, it was a time of hope, and the new devices and games releasing took a back seat for a while. Gaming was as popular as ever in the UK.
The UK was once the home of personal computers that you could buy and share cheap games on. Nintendo didn’t have a massive impact on the UK gaming scene until the mid ’90s and before this Sega dominated with the Sega Master System and Sega Megadrive. The Pokemon craze swept the UK later that decade, and then the PS2 was easily the most popular console for a long while. Nostalgia is a strong feeling, and all these eras that I’ve described evoke nostalgia in me. Maybe I’m wearing rose-tinted glasses looking back, but video games in the 90s in the UK were a golden age.