Console Wars Book Review

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Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris, It Books, May 13th, 2014

I vividly remember sitting on the grass in my group at an inter-school sports even in 1994 and talking about video games. Donkey Kong Country had recently been released which means this event must have been either late November or in December and shortly before the Christmas holidays. The conversation was an initially hostile one though, as some of us had Sega Mega Drives and many had Super Nintendos, and we all naturally insisted we had the better console. I was probably the most vocal Sega fanboy and I hid the fact that I too was blown away by Donkey Kong Country and actually loved playing on my cousins Super Nintendo. I remember we went back and forth for a while and amazingly came to the agreement that while the Super Nintendo had better graphics, the Mega Drive had better games. I bet most of us didn’t really believe this then and I’d certainly quibble with it now. It was nice that this group of children, most of whom would go on to the same middle and high school, could come to a pleasant truce. It is also unpleasant in contrast that while a group of eleven and twelve year old boys could come to such a truce, grown men on the Internet often cannot today.

That minor event almost twenty years ago was but a tiny skirmish in a much larger war that was being waged between rival companies that the young combatants on the grass had absolutely no idea about. This is the subject of Blake J. Harris’ Console Wars which follows the struggles of Sega against Nintendo for market dominance.

The book begins with a foreword by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg which is merely some back-and-forth banter reminiscing about their childhood gaming before belatedly trying to pull meaning out of it and address the subject of the book. It should be added that this book is also something of a vehicle for a possible feature film, with Rogan and Goldberg involved. This distracted me somewhat while reading the book as I couldn’t stop wondering which character Seth Rogan might play.

The book isn’t about fictional characters though, it is about real people and real events. Harris states at the outset that his approach is a narrative one and the events have been organised into conversations that happened but not necessarily as they are written in the book. They are based on recollections of events from the many interviews and from these sources he has crafted dialogue around the real events. As an amateur historian this bothered me as history with imagined dialogue based around real events is more properly called historical fiction. However, considering the audience Harris is after and the possibility of a film, this approach makes sense and it doesn’t take away anything from the actual events.

Most books written on the subject including David Sheff’s excellent Game Over have generally covered events from Nintendo’s perspective but the subject of Harris’ book focuses on Sega of Amerca’s CEO Tom Kalinske and his team with well-known people like Howard Lincoln and Minoru Arakawa as the antagonists. This isn’t to say that Harris sets out to paint Nintendo as the bad guys just that the narrative follows Sega as the underdog which at the time, Sega most certainly was. It begins with Kalinske’s unexpected meeting with the Japanese president of Sega Enterprises, Hayao Nakayama, while he is holidaying in Hawaii with his family. The book follows Kalinske, Shinobu Toyoda and Al Nilsen among many others from their beginnings in a warehouse trying to sell the Sega Genesis to Sega becoming a household name through aggressive marketing, great products and of course – Sonic the Hedgehog.

It is easy to forget that the original Sonic the Hedgehog came out years after the Mega Drive/Genesis was released and that before the Super Nintendo, Sega’s 16-bit console was competing with the 8-bit NES. Sonic the Hedgehog is where the story turns positive for Sega and Harris covers the struggles leading up to the games release and the marketing behind it. Harris also covers the early life of the Mega Drive as well as the Master System, Sega’s licensing deals with famous sporting personalities, Michael Jackson and its many unsuccessful but innovative hardware releases. It includes the controversies surrounding games like Night Trap and the console ports of Mortal Kombat and the sudden attention this attracted from previously indifferent media commentators and politicians.

Of the most interest is perhaps the uneasy relationship between the Japanese and American divisions of Sega. The Mega Drive was nowhere near successful in its home country as it was in the West and Console Wars shows how the different marketing philosophy of the parent company affected this. Sega’s marketing in the USA was famously antagonistic towards its competition; something frowned upon in Japanese culture but was very successful in getting Sega products on store shelves and into people’s homes in America. This along with aggressive price-cutting and bundling Sonic the Hedgehog essentially free with the consoles also helped and was something not done in Japan.

Along with the struggle between Sega and Nintendo there is an interesting side-story mostly following Olaf Olafsson, the then head of Sony Entertainment Publishing. The history between Nintendo and Sony is now well known but at the time Sony was also working with Sega on a possible console. In hindsight, this can be seen as a predator making subtle manoeuvres towards its prey and watching the reaction. This side-story with Olafsson of course becomes entwined in the ending which finishes shortly after the disastrous launch of the Sega Saturn; Kalinske leaving Sega soon after. We see the rise and fall of Sega, Nintendo diminished but still strong and Sony as the new king. What happens after is probably familiar to any gamer who is interested in the culture and history of gaming.

Harris keeps the book compelling from beginning to end and I found myself wanting to scream “nooo!” when reading about some of the decisions made by the Japanese division. Although this was not the focus of the book, I felt there could have been more on the developers. Yuji Naka is the only one given significant prominence around the development of the Sonic the Hedgehog games. What ultimately sold Sega were the games and while I wouldn’t dismiss the importance of good marketing, I would have liked to see more on the developers. This is perhaps better told in a separate book though.

One final observation is the way we (yes, me too), often decry the influence of marketing teams for diluting or altering a creators vision. The development of Sonic the Hedgehog is a reminder of the alternative should they not: which would have led to a fanged Sonic with a human girlfriend named Madonna. It could have worked anyway but I doubt it, and we will never know for sure.

Console Wars is both fun and informative and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the industry as a whole and especially to fans of Sega. If nothing else, it shows how much effort was put into those games you loved and talked about as a child. And writing about it as a grown man today, how successful they were and continue to be.

August, 2014

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