Back in my youth, the most heated debate amongst kids on the schoolyard was about home game consoles. Which was better, Nintendo or Sega? The controversy became more than just a comparison of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, or the Game Boy versus the Game Gear; it became a matter of identity. The Nintendo kids and the Sega kids clashed on everything, vehemently arguing the superiority of their chosen videogame manufacturer as if it affected them personally. And in a way, it kind of did. Your videogame preferences did have the potential to affect you socially to a degree.
It was simply a matter of common experience. If you and another kid both shared knowledge of a particular game then it became a common interest from which you could forge a friendship. When the NES was really the only game in town, most everyone knew many of the same games. Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Contra, Techmo Bowl, Ninja Gaiden, Skate or Die, Marble Madness, Mega Man—more often than not, the games kids were talking about were games that you had played and could speak to. But when Sega burst onto the scene in the early 90’s, it wasn’t just a one-console gamescape anymore.
The fear of being left out was further compounded by Sega’s ad campaigns, which aimed to cast Nintendo as an old, boring toy company for little kids, and Sega as the hip, rebellious upstart and sole purveyor of “cool”. Things got personal. Now if you preferred Mario to Sonic, you weren’t just old-fashioned, you were a dork. And subsequently the reverse stereotyping evolved—if your preference was Sonic over Mario, you were an idiot. Everyone seemed to choose sides and battle lines were drawn.
I remember these childhood conflicts very well because I was right in the thick of it, proclaiming the virtues of Nintendo to all who would listen. A diehard Nintendo fan from the moment I played Super Mario Bros. 3, I couldn’t stand to hear claims that the Genesis was better than the Super Nintendo. (Blasphemy!) With religious fervor, I clashed with the Sega kids at every turn. The debate continued throughout my grade school years, until the videogame industry moved past 16-bits and all of my peers turned to the NFL for something to speculate on and argue about.
If you too remember the halcyon days of 16-bit videogame consoles, you will likely find Console Wars by Blake J. Harris quite engaging. If not, you probably have no interest in reading it. Beyond the videogames themselves, the book does contain some interesting information on the toy industry of the 80’s and 90’s. Some of the stories told here are fascinating from a marketing strategy perspective alone. In fact, there’s a lot more material here about the business of marketing and distributing products than there is information about the creative process of making videogames.
A thoroughly researched book, Console Wars is essentially the novelization of Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske’s career in the videogame industry. Kalinske is the protagonist of the book and it’s mostly through his perspective that we experience the story. If you’re looking for a straightforward documentary-style account of events, this is not the book for you. Harris writes Console Wars like scenes from a dramatic reenactment—think Lifetime original movie. In order to craft his narrative, Harris has contrived not only conversations, but entire scenes (setting, event chronology, inner monologue of specific characters) in which they occur. He openly admits in his author’s note that “details of settings and description have been altered, reconstructed, or imaged” and goes on to state that conversations have been “condensed or reorganized…while remaining true to the integrity and spirit of all original discussions.” In other words, the story is not told exactly as it happened, but you’ll have to take his word for it that it’s accurate in spirit. In any case, it probably is a more entertaining story when told this way.
Console Wars is really about the experiences and personal relationships of the people involved in the videogame industry in the early 90’s, with the stories of Sega of America staff most emphasized. Business tactics and hostile exchanges between executives of competing companies can make for fun drama, and Harris had gone to great lengths to tell as complete a story as possible.
While the subject matter is fairly interesting, this book is greatly overwritten. Dialogue is clumsy and stilted, sometimes unnatural, often melodramatic. The book could use a bit more brevity overall, as key details reiterated from chapter to chapter made certain sections repetitive. It’s an enjoyable book, but Harris won’t be winning any awards for his style.
Speaking of poor writing, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg provide a forward for the book that is as forgettable as it is lazy. The duo behind comedies like Superbad (2007) and This Is the End (2013) are set to adapt this book into a movie, which I think has the potential to be genuinely good. Hopefully they’ll put more of an effort into writing the screenplay.
Overall, the book tries to be evenhanded with its depiction of many real-life characters, whether their alliance lay with Sega, Nintendo, Sony, or elsewhere. (This might be because Harris has a lot of sources and, in reconstructing scenes from their lives, he doesn’t want to piss anyone off.) However, since the story is told from Kalinske’s perspective, many of the views expressed skew pro-Sega. While this makes sense within the narrative style, the book is brimming with overwrought descriptions of Sega’s heroic efforts to market their products more effectively, which Harris has painstakingly chronicled in all its capitalist glory. There’s no irony there, it’s a celebratory account of how advertising put Sega on the map.
Whether or not he began writing this book as a devoted Sega acolyte, Harris has definitely been taken in by master marketeer Tom Kalinske. Every Sega victory is celebrated earnestly, while the less virtuous bits are glossed over or played off as a gag. Case in point, Harris admits the fact that “Blast Processing” was meaningless advertising jargon, but since it helped Sega reach more market share, it’s portrayed as a great thing. It's bullshit, sure, but it's good bullshit.
And not to be an obstinate Nintendo fanatic, but the most egregious partiality I found in Console Wars was the recount of Sonic the Hedgehog’s debut, and specifically how the game compared to Super Mario World. It makes sense that the folks at Sega would be enamored with Sonic and, having drank the company cool-aid, they might honestly believe that their game was superior to Nintendo’s. The book certainly portrays Sega’s confidence as absolute. However, Harris never really mentions that Super Mario World was an genuine masterpiece, a game that was not only better than Sonic at the time, but undeniably holds up as the far better game today. It’s a minor quibble, but I felt that part of the book was a bit biased.
Speaking of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sega’s success with him, reading this book has made me wonder if the Blue Blur has always been all style and no substance. One could come away from this book with the impression that Sega was only able to break Nintendo’s iron grip on the videogame industry through sheer marketing genius alone. The book doesn’t really casts judgment on whether this is a good or bad thing. (Although from Kalinske’s perspective, as a marketing guy, it’s certainly fine with him.) For retro game enthusiasts like myself, it raises the question: Was Sonic the Hedgehog really ever that good of a game, or was it just widely promoted and skillfully sold? And even if it was all hype, if a generation of Sega kids genuinely enjoyed the game, does it really matter?
I was impressed not only with how much information Harris managed to pack into this tome, but also with the pace of the book and its build to an engaging conclusion. As foreshadowing alludes, in the end, the true threat for our hero Kalinske comes not from Nintendo or Sony, but internally. Of all the conflicts represented in the book, the awkward relationship between parent company Sega of Japan and runaway success Sega of America is the most compelling. Finally, the existence of the asinine Sega CD and 32X is explained!
For every console generation there is a showdown for market supremacy. After this one, we saw PlayStation vs. Nintendo 64, PlayStation 2 vs. Xbox, Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3 (both handily outsold by the Wii, by the way), and even now, it’s PlayStation 4 vs. Xbox One. But no arms race of pixels and polygons can compare to the original conflict. Sega vs. Nintendo was the Great console war, the console war to end all console wars. And if that sounds at all interesting to you, then I recommend reading the book.
But you don’t have to take my word for it…