Console Wars, Blake J. Harris, Dey Street Books, 2014.
Coke vs Pepsi. Nike vs Adidas. Jordan vs LeBron. Nintendo vs Sega. Some of the greatest philosophical debates of our time —at least in the context of popular-culture.
I’m not going to take sides on the whole Sega versus Nintendo argument. I enjoyed and played Nintendo and Sega equally as much in the 1990s. That said, gamers of today have Sega to thank for the delightfully violent and blood-filled games that sit on their shelves. Sega targeted a different audience than Nintendo, a cooler, more mature one. Someone’s older teenaged brother perhaps. Looking back, Sega seems to be focused towards feeding the hardcore gamer crowd. They were edgy and something about them was cool in a way Nintendo wasn’t. I was too young to comprehend the whole console wars as it was happening in the ’90s but my fascination with this era of gaming remained. Why all the Sega talk? Because Console Wars focuses on Sega.
Soon to be a motion picture, Blake J. Harris’ Console Wars is largely told from the perspective of former Sega CEO Tom Kalinske. This choice will perhaps raise gamer’s eyebrows but it makes perfect sense. How can a book on a pivotal moment in video game history be seen from one point of view? The short answer is somehow, strangely, it works. Telling the story through Kalinske’s eyes—at least for the most part—creates narrtive and an emotional connection with the reader. Harris could have chosen just as well to tell it from a faceless, corporate point of view or that of an obsessive and enthusiastic fan. Instead, having someone whom the reader can actively live the console wars through works to maximum effect.
To this aspect, a lot of names are thrown and mentioned. Many are recurring and given importance, others get a mention here and there. That’s not to say readers will remember everyone who was mentioned in the book and played a part in the war, they won’t.
The book portrays Sega as an underdog and rightfully so. Even if one isn’t a fan of The company or overtly prefers Nintendo, its hard not to root for Sega with each page turned and newly arising conflict. Most serious gamers already know how the console war ends (as well as the eventual downfall of Sega as a hardware manufacturer). It’s a long road to get there and Console Wars does an admirable job of helping the reader relive these moments. From the creation of the blue blur, Sonic the Hedgehog, and his rivalry versus Mario and Nintendo, to the internal struggles at Sega, it’s a journey.
Truth is while the book centers on the console wars, a large part of the book comes down to strategy, advertising and marketing. In that sense, its very good business book. Console Wars delves into tactics, resources used by Nintendo and especially Sega. Some tactics are fairly ridiculous and over-the-top and on occasion, downright slander. How appealing that will be to someone who enjoys video games might vary, unless they enjoy the history of games that is.
In retrospect, it is fascinating to read about Sega’s imminent implosion. In this case the manufacturer tried to push too many different products at once effectively cancelling some of its own revenue and marketing. Too much, too fast, too soon.
Most of Sega’s troubles were caused by… Sega. They stuck it to Nintendo and gained the bigger share of the market only to effectively dismantle its own success through internal conflicts. Therefore Sega’s biggest competition may have very well been itself. For instance, it’s almost comical that Sega of America was given the task of finishing Sega of Japan’s 32X concept, a console SoA didn’t want on the market, in order to let their subsidiary concentrate on the Sega Saturn. It’s interesting how Tom Kalinske wanted to prolong the life of Genesis—a system who was dominating the video game market—only to be met with opposition from his Japanese.
I found a few issues with Console Wars. The book focuses almost entirely on Sega. While Harris really delves into Sega it feels like Nintendo is either ignored or overlooked most of the time unless they are mentioned in the context of rivalry. The book takes a look at the history of Nintendo, it’s relationships with third-party publishers such as EA Sports and Rare, it’s grip on the gaming industry and the development of the Nintendo Power publication. There is Nintendo content. Yet I still can’t help but feel the book is extremely one-sided. Nintendo’s coverage is minimal compared to Sega’s. There are a few recurring names from the Nintendo camp, but it’s only a fraction of the amount devoted Sega employees. Same with promotions, games and events. As such, Console Wars might’ve benefited from an alternate title —one preferably using the words “Tom Kalinske” and “Sega”.
Harris tells the reader in the introduction that he had to recreate dialogue for the story to take shape. The problem is that we’re left with dialogue that is not 100% accurate and some of the quotes and sentences are overemphasized and exaggerated for dramatic effect. The author adds dramatic effects and colourful adjectives that, although movie-ready, are out-of-place. I also wasn’t a fan of the occasional two-page chapters, I felt they took away from continuity.
There are great lessons in Console Wars. A lot of what caused Sega’s eventual fall was due to what happened on the inside. The divisions between Sega of America (SOA) and Sega of Japan (SOJ) most notably. It is clear that a company split into parts without clear focus on one singular goal cannot succeed.
Console Wars looses steam towards the end where it feels slightly rushed at some point after the launch of Sonic 3. Reading transcripts of a Nintendo conference and a play performed by Nintendo employees is about as thrilling as it sounds. There is no definitive ending to the war as we know it in the book: Donkey Kong Country came out for the SNES and sold 7.5 million copies, the Saturn came out and Tom Kalinske leaves Sega. It could’ve benefited from more reflection and insight.
The foreword by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg is both amusing and engaging. They are clearly video game fans and I was surprised to see their names in the book and delighted at how their personalities shone through their words.
Is it worth reading? Yes. It’s insightful and offers a worthwhile look at the events that shook the video game industry between 1990-95. Fans of video games will no doubt find great content but it doesn’t delve as deep into the games as they might hope from this type of book. As previously mentioned, it is very business-oriented. I really enjoyed Console Wars and liked that the book was told from Tom Kalinske’s perspective. It is well researched and provides good information. With the issues I’ve addressed, it lacked a certain closure, was too focused on Sega and the recreated dialogue wasn’t always on point.
Some key/interesting points:
*Tom Kalinske’s career pre-Sega, how he came to be at Sega, his decisions, marketing strategies, advertising, etc.
*Nintendo making life difficult for software publishers, stores carrying their products and video rental stores.
*Sega taking advantage of Nintendo’s difficult relationships with the above. Making deals with Electronic Arts, publishers and retailers.
*Nintendo essentially shrugging their shoulders at how bad the Super Mario Bros. movie was.
*Sega’s use of marketing and advertising to brand itself as a hip, edgy alternative to Nintendo.
*Sega gaining the lead in the war only to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot.
*Sega of Japan’s constant insistence on wanting to be in charge, going as far as deliberately sabotaging Sega of America’s efforts.
*Nintendo’s stubborn ways, effectively being labelled as a bully by many game publishers. Console Wars almost pushed the notion of Nintendo as a villain in the video game industry.
*Nintendo’s early relationship with Sony leading to the development of Sony’s Playstation.
*Relationships of Sony with Nintendo and Sega and entry into the world of video games.