Book Review: Console Wars - Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation
Posted by Jake Shapiro
An insightful history with a bit too much Blast Processing
It's crystal clear from the first page of Blake J. Harris' Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation that the book is destined for the big screen. With not one, but two movies based on Console Wars already in production before it even hit bookstore shelves– a documentary and a feature film starring Hollywood's favourite funnyman Seth Rogen – this self-described "business thriller" looks to capture the lightning in a bottle of Michael Lewis' Moneyball, the business-exposé-turned-cinema-blockbuster produced by Scott Rudin, who will also produce Rogen's Console Wars adaptation. Console Wars tells the tale of Sega of America's rise to prominence led by charismatic president Tom Kalinske, who reinvigorated the Sega Genesis and introduced Sonic to a generation of fans. While the book recollects Sega's lightspeed ascent in the early 1990s, author Blake Harris & Co. look to do the same with Console Wars in 2014.
In cinema-ready form, Console Wars opens with a foreword by Rogen and his collaborator Evan Goldberg. Rather than a traditional introduction to the book, the foreword consists of Rogen and Goldberg bantering back and forth with pontifications on the history of video games, reminiscent of a scene from one of their comedy films like Superbad or Pineapple Express. The two clearly have a love for games, but they come off as slightly out-of-touch with the gaming crowd likely to pick up the book. When discussing their current gaming habits, Rogen quips, "These days I mostly like to play games where you shoot people. Call of Duty, GTA5, and such." Goldberg responds, "I'm an iPad tower defense addict."
This sets the tone for Console Wars, appealing to the widest audience possible while still targeting the gaming community. Console Wars doesn't present itself as a dry history book, but rather "a narrative account based on information obtained from hundreds of interviews." Blake J. Harris has put an unprecedented amount of work into these first-hand perspectives on Sega's famous console war with Nintendo, but perhaps to prepare the story for its impending movie adaptation, he makes up his own dialogue between the people involved to make Console Wars read more like novel than a textbook:
In certain situations, details of settings and description have been altered, reconstructed, or imagined. Additionally, most of the dialogue in this book has been re-created based on source recollections of content, premise, and tone. Some of the conversations recounted in this book took place over extended periods of time or in multiple locations, but have been condensed, or re-organized in a slightly different manner, while remaining true to the integrity and spirit of all original discussions.
Whether you can get onboard with this approach determines whether you'll enjoy Console Wars or not. If you can stick with it, Harris presents a riveting, insightful look into the game industry in the late '80s and early '90s through the eyes of Tom Kalinske, from his pre-Sega career reinvigorating the Barbie brand at Mattel through his fateful exit from Sega in 1996. Console Wars explores the entire gaming landscape during this period, elucidating events at Nintendo, Sony, and other major players at the time, but Kalinske remains the story's protagonist. Readers get to see first-hand how Sega marketed itself as the anti-Nintendo, the rebellious upstart against the rigid incumbent that topped Nintendo in the United States for a few years before a spectacular collapse at the hands of the Sega CD, 32X, and hastily-released Sega Saturn.
While the book's title leads readers to believe the conflict will be Sega vs. Nintendo, Console Wars' real battle turns out to be the fight between the pioneer spirit of Kalinske's Sega of America and the ultra-conservative domineering of its parent company Sega of Japan. Kalinske is presented as an infallible figure, a marketing expert who thinks outside the box because he hungers for success, while the faceless Sega of Japan becomes the book's villain, ruining the party at every step of the way for no real reason other than jealousy of Sega of America's accomplishments.
This sets up an enticing dichotomy for Console Wars, and the America vs. Japan conflict reflects the xenophobic anti-Japanese fear spreading throughout the United States during this time period. It seems to deliberately tell only one side of the story, though; despite illustrating the motives behind nearly every company in the games industry at the time, from Nintendo to Sony to Electronic Arts, Harris never explores Sega of Japan's perspective. Harris presents a culture war between the pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude of the Westerners and the strict, traditionalist attitude of the Japanese overlords. In fact, the only Sega of Japan figure whose motives are explored in the book is Mike Fischer, one of the parent company's sole Americans.
Harris expertly places events within their greater societal context. Explaining why Sonic was so popular in the United States, he writes:
Sonic embodied not only the spirit of Sega of America's employees but also the cultural zeitgeist of the early nineties. He had captured Kurt Cobain's "whatever" attitude, Michael Jordan's graceful arrogance, and Bill Clinton's get-it-done demeanor.
Insights like these are glimpses of what Console Wars could be if it hadn't decided to go with the cheesy narrative approach. The chapters focusing on Nintendo and Sony stand head-and-shoulders above the Sega chapters, if only because they feature far less of the imaged dialogue of the Kalinske-centric Sega sections. Kalinske's narrative story could work if it weren't so haphazardly written, from unrealistic dialogue ("I suppose your jumping to conclusions is a testament to the type of guys we are and, perhaps, also a sign of the times we live in," Sony exec Olaf Olafsson tells Tom Kalinske in a very deep and meaningful way) to over-extended sports metaphors:
But just because they would be playing defense didn't mean that they'd act passive; as any football fan knows, there are tons of strategies, schemes, formations, and blitz packages. With so many permutations, the key to winning on defense is all about identifying the offense's play as soon as possible and then calling the right audible to shut it down.
This was apparently Kalinske's train of thought going into a Consumer Electronics Show against Nintendo. Although everything in the book may be completely true, it's hard to quote any of its juicy stories for fear of the stories being simple conjecture by Harris rather than direct quotes. It's a shame, because there are some genius quotes in Console Wars. When exploring the origin of Sonic:
Fischer leaned in. "This is one of my favorite stories. Naka-san gets all the credit, because he designed the game and, you know, he's this powerful personality, but because of that I think Oshima-san gets lost in the shuffle. So one time I went up to him and asked Sonic's true creator where that spark of an idea had come from. He's really shy, this unassuming kid, and I expected him to say something like 'It was a team effort,' or 'It was just one of those things,' but he smiles really small and he says: 'I just put Felix the Cat on the body of Mickey Mouse.'"
This is a fantastic story, but can readers reliably quote it in confidence? We're not sure whether this is a direct quote from Mike Fischer or an imagined conversation by the author. Insightful stories throughout Console Wars suffer from this ethical dilemma.
The story of Sonic's origin is one of the few times in Console Wars that Harris focuses on the content of Sega's video games. Perhaps like Sega itself, the majority of Console Wars concentrates on the history of the marketing and business competition during the Genesis/Mega Drive years, and disappointingly avoids in-depth analysis of the games themselves. Harris appears more comfortable writing about more traditional topics like sports and movies than writing about video games; entire chapters are devoted to such topics as the defunct Seattle Pilots baseball team, the the history of Betamax tapes, and the profile of the marketing firm Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein.
These chapters are fantastic ways to broaden the story's scope, but they highlight the lack of focus on the core of the games industry: games. Harris devotes more pages to the production of the Super Mario Bros. live-action film than to the development of the first Sonic the Hedgehog. While other recent popular video game books like Tom Bissell's fantastic Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter and Harold Goldberg's All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture centre around people with deep passions for the games themselves, Console Wars is very much a book about business and marketing. This fits Sega of America's style-over-substance approach in the '90s, and the book often feels like a giant list of shout-outs to people involved with the company strung together by stilted narrative.
If you persevere to the end, Console Wars hits its stride in the later sections of the book, as high-profile CESes and E3s mean there are more documented direct quotes from game industry figures involved. By far the best sequence in all of Console Wars is the section covering the U.S. Senate hearings on violent video games in 1993 that would lead to the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Sega's infamous Night Trap and bloodier-than-SNES version of Mortal Kombat are the primary scapegoats, and since Senate hearings are full of documentation, these chapters in Console Wars are full of direct quotes for Harris to pull from; they perfectly capture the complicated rivalry between Sega of America and Nintendo of America during the early '90s. By the end of Console Wars Tom Kalinske's story finally becomes a page-turner, and while the book fittingly ends with the introduction of the Sega Saturn at the inaugural E3 in 1995 and the ensuing fallout, readers hunger for more. What about the story of the Dreamcast?! This ending point provides a nice story arc for Kalinske, though, and despite our misgivings with Blake J. Harris' writing style, we look forward to the film adaptations.
Console Wars employs a polarising narrative style and a business-focused rather than games-focused perspective on the Nintendo vs. Sega battle of the early 1990s. If readers can forgive the liberties taken with the story, Blake J. Harris provides unparalleled insight into the minds of the U.S. industry leaders during a transformational period for the gaming medium.
You can pick up Console Wars today in North America and 19th June in the UK; check out the official Console Wars website for more info.