Book Review: Console Wars: SEGA, Nintendo, and The Battle That Defined a Generation
It’s 1990. Videogames are a $3 billion industry and Nintendo owns 90% of it. The other 10% is made up of wannabes that include SEGA, who in the next three years will transform themselves from obscurity into the market leader. This is the story of Console Wars, and Blake J Harris retells the greatest battle in videogame history in an exciting, detailed, and ever-so-slightly biased way.
The adventure begins on a beach in Hawaii, where former Mattel CEO Tom Kalinske is recruited by Hayao Nakayama, head of SEGA of Japan, to run the company’s American division. Over the next five years, Harris documents the triumphs of Kalinske and team as they redefine their company and position themselves as leaders in the videogame industry, only for everything to come crashing down thanks to the intervention of SEGA of Japan. Make no mistake, this is a rise and fall story that rivals the likes of Scarface, Casino, Boogie Nights, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Just replace the sex, drugs and violence with videogames. Lots of videogames.
The strength of Console Wars is that at its heart there is a real story to tell. The rivalry between SEGA and Nintendo is intense, as is the internal struggle between SEGA of America and SEGA of Japan. These factual events are weaved together with reconstructed dialogue to create a narrative that not only has the structure of a novel, but reads like one too, as opposed to a work of journalism. There are a few historical sections interspersed, but these are mainly used to provide quick overviews of the relevant companies in the industry, and it’s never too long before we’re back with Kalinske and learning about his antics at SEGA.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach, and it does allow the story to benefit in some significant ways, but it’s also the cause of a few major problems. The dialogue in particular is of questionable quality; in general the characters come off as wooden and insincere, and there are a few specific instances of completely bizarre conversation. Overall I’m sure that the majority of readers will conclude that a lot of what they’re reading was simply never said, that no one could have possibly talked in such an odd way, and that Harris’ dialogue isn’t written as competently as the rest of his novel.
On the plus side, the large amount of conversation demonstrates one of several aspects in which Console Wars provides an extremely detailed look at its subject matter. The book has been composed from over two hundred interviews, and whilst it’s clear that Harris spent more time with some people than others, the overall wealth of information that he’s packed into the pages is phenomenal.
Sure, David Sheff’s Game Over has less bias, and Steven Kent provides an excellent overview of twenty five entire years in his Ultimate History of Videogames, but Console Wars includes details from inside SEGA that really explains the success and eventual downfall of the company, alongside some fascinating stories and little known facts. Like did you know Castlevania was originally presented to Konami of America under the title ‘Dracula Satanic Castle’? This was toned down for obvious reasons, but pretty cool, right?
You’ve also got a detailed history of the creation of Sonic The Hedgehog (he initially had fangs), the truth behind SEGA’s legendary ‘blast processing’ gimmick, and explanations behind the onslaught of Genesis add-ons. But what’s perhaps most interesting is the potential partnerships Kalinske attempts to forge first with Sony and next with Silicon Graphics. Not only did SEGA come close to jointly releasing the PlayStation with Sony, but also acquiring the technology that would instead go on to power the Nintendo 64.
These deals fall through because of the difficult relationship between SEGA of American and SEGA of Japan, and SoJ are ultimately pinned as the real inhibitors of the companies’ advancement (whilst SoA are shown as just about perfect in everything they do). Nintendo is also occasionally villainised, although largely because their success usually results in a loss for SEGA, and the characters we’ve been following. And whilst their strict publishing and distribution policies may have been a nightmare for developers and suppliers, Console Wars sometimes forgets that from the gamer’s point of view Nintendo was leading innovation and releasing brilliant titles.
Harris walks a delicate line, at one point for instance the SEGA employees crowd around a SNES to play Super Mario World for the first time. This is a fascinating scene, but it’s also a little alienating that the majority of what’s said about the game is very negative. This is one of the best games ever made, yet in Harris’ history it is made out to be little more than an unoriginal rehash of the previous Mario titles. Meanwhile the similarity of the four Sonic Genesis games is later brushed over.
For me personally it was difficult to fully take sides with SEGA. Today we’ve had Sonic on Nintendo’s consoles for over ten years, and even crossover titles featuring both Sonic and Mario. I love games made by both companies and don’t see the point in choosing one over the other. But from a marketing perspective it’s a different story; SEGA’s strategies were significantly more exciting and in this regard I was behind them all the way. It’s worth noting that Harris’ novel is just as interesting if you consider it a book about business rather than about videogames.
Overall, Console Wars is an easy recommendation, but it’s not without its flaws. Specifically the shaky dialogue and occasional bias draws the accuracy of the material into question. This turns the large amount of new information provided by Harris into a bit of a double edged sword. Plans for both a documentary and a feature movie based on his work are already underway, and the book feels like it will be well suited to both adaptations. I’m also hopeful that a few of its flaws will be smoothed out in the process. In the mean time, Console Wars might not be as perfect as Tom Kalinske, but it’s still pretty good.