On its cover, Console Wars is summarized like this: Sega, Nintendo and the battle that defined a generation. Based on this summary, what I expected was an academic look at the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo in the early ‘90s, a history lesson about pieces of my childhood that I had only built a naive, youthful understanding of. And while I did find the detailed, historical account that I expected from the book, the way it was delivered caught me by complete surprise.
Console Wars is an incredibly personal story, told through the trials and triumphs of Tom Kalinske, the man that built and led a scrappy army at Sega of America against the Juggernaut Nintendo, and helped reshape the video game industry in the process. Author and filmmaker Blake J. Harris painstakingly interviewed over 200 former Sega and Nintendo employees in an attempt to recreate every major conversation, meeting and marketing stunt that shaped this altercation. The result is a tale that’s surprisingly emotional, wonderfully nostalgic, and often times infuriating.
Tom Kalinske was a veteran of the toy industry long before he was handpicked off of a beach in Hawaii to help Sega establish a presence in the North American market. After bringing some of the most iconic toys of the modern age back from the brink of obsolescence (Barbie and Hot Wheels), Kalinske was convinced to join Sega, in hopes that he could work that same directive magic in the video game industry. By curating a team of highly specialized and talented individuals, and repeatedly challenging the powers that be at Sega of Japan, he was able to take on Nintendo, the undisputed market leader at the time, and prove that there was room for more than one contender in the video game console market.
Yes, in some ways Console Wars paints Nintendo as a villain, the Goliath to Sega’s David, but never without paying it the respect that it deserves. It’s abundantly clear that Harris has at least as much admiration for the early leadership of Nintendo of America as he does the team at Sega. For every mention of Nintendo’s cutthroat business practices there are at least two nods to its brilliant ideas and unwavering commitment to making quality products. Even though Sega gets top billing in the book, you’ll learn just as much about the inner workings of Nintendo’s early years in the industry and rise to the top. From litigation over reverse engineered cartridges to the altruistic acquisition of the Seattle Mariners, there’s no shortage of exposition or reverence for Nintendo’s role in this story.
So how exactly did Sega manage to upset the near-monopoly that Nintendo had built with the NES? Simply put: marketing. I was actually a Sega kid, first and foremost, when this battle was going on. Like many American homes in the late ‘80s (one in three, to be exact) we had a NES, but when Sega’s commercial wheels started spinning, and the aggressive, edgy tone of Sonic and the Genesis started popping up during my Saturday morning cartoons, I was powerless to resist it. I didn’t realize, at the time, how desperately Tom Kalinske and his team were trying to reach me (and every other kid in America); but between a bevy of marketing agencies, mall tours and relatable star power, I was convinced that Sonic was Mario’s natural evolution. The quality of the games was never what truly mattered here; it was all about perception, and while time hasn’t been particularly kind to Sonic over the past few decades, this aggressive approach to branding and image was clearly enough to put him on top for at least part of this prolonged tug-of-war match.
The parts of this book that hit closest to home for me were the stories surrounding the development and marketing of specific games. I vividly remember the year that I reminded my parents every day, for months on end, that all I wanted for Christmas was Sonic the Hedgehog 2. What I didn’t know then was that Sonic 2’s release date, dubbed Sonic 2sday, was one of gaming’s first worldwide launches. Or that the T-shirt that I got along with it on Christmas morning was a bonus for one of the first pre-ordering campaigns ever. Mortal Kombat’s “blood code” is another fascinating anecdote. Sega was able to accommodate MK’s signature brand of grisly violence on the Genesis while deflecting some of the ire from concerned parents and politicians by locking it behind a simple code. This made the Genesis version of Mortal Kombat the undisputed king of both the playground and the sales charts, but it also led some within the industry, Kalinske included, to seriously question the integrity of what he was selling– and who he was selling it to. Console Wars is full of moments that give deep new insight into personal memories, and shed light on some of the simple events that have left an immeasurable impact on the industry.
It’s interesting to read a book that you know the ending to before you start. We all know that Sega’s hardware heyday was short lived and that by the mid ‘90s it had ceded all of the ground it had gained back to Nintendo and the new contender, the Sony PlayStation. Knowing all of this going in, I was still entranced with the way the final chapters unfolded for a few reasons: First, Console Wars will have you rooting for Tom Kalinske’s team at Sega of America by the end, no matter where your preferences and allegiances lie. But more importantly, the true nature of Sega’s undoing as a hardware manufacturer is fascinating, and has far less to do with its competitors than you might think. I’ve come away with a much clearer understanding of why things played out the way they did for Sega, its story is an invaluable cautionary tale for anyone willing to take the time to hear it.
I feel weird about giving a numerical score to a book, seeing as how I’m not much of a reader and this is a website about video games. So I’ll leave my assessment of Console Wars at this: If you’re even remotely interested in the history of video games, don’t hesitate to read it. At worst, you’ll learn a bunch of random facts about Nintendo, Sega and Sony that you had no idea you didn’t know. But at best, and more likely, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for an underdog that, while firmly planted on the sidelines today, had a massive and permanent impact on the hobby that we all enjoy.
Score: Read it!
Side Note: Blake J. Harris is currently working with directors Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen on a film adaptation of Console Wars, it is scheduled to be released sometime in 2016.