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Nintendo ‘laughed their a**es off’ when Xbox tried to buy them out, Microsoft exec recalls

By Benjamin Bullard
Mario in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

The game console wars aren’t so much “wars” these days as they are a high-stakes tournament among perennial giants. Judging from the current hot sales of all three major platforms, the console business is more a rising-tide competition that benefits Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony, rather than a battle royale that leaves only one player standing.

But back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when great ideas like the SEGA Dreamcast were sputtering out of existence to leave only Sony and Nintendo as console gaming’s pair of powerhouses, the big three’s position today didn’t seem nearly so assured — especially when the Xbox was still just a strange idea held by a small handful of self-confessed gaming newbies at Microsoft.

When Microsoft decided to make its first Xbox, it entered an already-volatile console market totally from scratch, as Bloomberg’s recently-released Xbox oral history explains in the words of the insiders who lived through it all. And in a telling (and funny) revelation that validates not only Nintendo’s well-established position at the time, but its continued market domination today, an insider shared that one of Microsoft’s Xbox strategies was to try to buy Nintendo — all in the hope that the Big N’s game-making know-how could jump-start the early Xbox’s threadbare gaming library.

In hindsight, it turns out that taking a swing at Mario might not have been the best idea. Microsoft’s new Xbox executives approached Nintendo and sat down for a meeting, where the Japanese game makers listened to their acquisition offer…and then pretty much laughed the upstart Xbox team out of the room.

“The first company we reached out to buy was EA,” Xbox head of business development Bob McBreen told Bloomberg. “They said, ‘No, thanks,’ and then [we approached] Nintendo.”

Microsoft’s director of third-party relations Kevin Bachus picked up the story from there.

“[Then-Xbox CEO Steve Balmer] made us go meet with Nintendo to see if they would consider being acquired,” recalled Bachus. “They just laughed their asses off. Like, imagine an hour of somebody just laughing at you. That was kind of how that meeting went.”

Though it’s not reported in the article, we’re gonna go ahead and imagine it was an hour of Bowser laughter — just because. Of course, Nintendo declined to provide a present-day comment to share its version of the story, simply telling Bloomberg, “Nintendo does not talk about confidential discussions with other companies. In any event, nothing came of these discussions.”

In addition to trying to snag both EA and Nintendo, Microsoft also took aim at Final Fantasy maker Square (now Square Enix), another studio whose proven game-making chops might’ve given the fledgling Xbox some much-needed software star power. As with its other efforts, though, the Xbox team struck out there, too.

As most Xbox fans know by now, it was a little first-person shooter from a completely unknown studio named Bungie that eventually became the Xbox’s early system-seller. Bloomberg’s report dives deep into how the original Halo: Combat Evolved turned both Master Chief — and the Xbox — into a household name; as well as tons of other fun details from the console’s uncertain early days. The full article, found here, is definitely worth a read — regardless of whether you’re an Xbox fan or just a geek for gaming history. Looking back, we think it’s safe to say that things ended up working out just fine for both Master Chief and Mario.