After years of being a fanatic for the Nintendo Entertainment System, as well as the culture that came with it in the mid to late 80s, I became a Sega kid. At first I felt like I was turning my back on Mario and the system that raised me. I had the Mario calendar. I ate the Mario cereal. I even had the Mario bedsheets. All of that was forgotten when I saw and experienced what amazing power a 16-bit console brought to the table. Sega got me. The flashy commercials, the edginess of Sonic the Hedgehog, and all the rest of the marketing behind Sega, are what got me to switch allegiances. The Sega Genesis was magical, and it peaked at the perfect time for me, when I was growing out of my child phase and blasting into my pre-teen years. The argument on schoolyards went on for years. Which was better, Sega or Nintendo? Then, PlayStation came along and wiped them both out.
This book, Console Wars, by Blake J. Harris, goes back to those old times. This historical non fiction book is written like a third person narrative, much in the style of The Accidental Billionaires, which we all know as the movie The Social Network. Seth Rogen and company even optioned a movie version of Console Wars even before the book was released. I’ve read it, and yes, I pictured it all in my head as a movie. This book talks about things I remember from my youth, and sprinkles in tidbits that I did not know. The author, Blake J. Harris, talks about both sides of the coin, and doesn’t just focus on one company. However, make no mistake, the protagonist of this story is little scrappy Sega, who started with 50 employees, and experienced growth on a massive scale. The antagonist here is obviously the big bad video game empire known as Nintendo.
The story begins with Tom Kalinske, former head of Mattel, being approached on a beach by one of the executives of Sega. He wants Kalinske to be the CEO of Sega of America, and to help put the company on the map. After much debate, and a visit to the Sega offices, Kalinske agreed. What followed was an aggressive and adversarial ad campaign launched toward Nintendo. He instituted a lot of the changes we see as common place in video games today, like launch dates and price drops. He changed Sonic the Hedgehog from this horribly drawn character that Sega of Japan was pushing for, and made him into the lovable character he became.
The history of both companies are told in very interesting ways, ones that would require twinkly flashback music on an 80s sitcom. Nintendo’s history is told when Tom Kalinske sits down and reads a dossier on his rival. Sega’s history is revealed when the founder, David Rosen, is introduced at a company party. Console Wars covers everything in striking detail, from the recording of the now infamous “Sega Scream,” to the “eureka” moment when Minoru Arakawa is shown gameplay footage of Donkey Kong Country, and he realizes that he was witnessing the thing that would put Nintendo back on top. As I said, the book is very cinematic, particularly in one part, that plays out like something in a courtroom drama. Sega and Nintendo are in a hearing, and Nintendo is roasting the hell out of Sega for its penchant for violence in video games. In a moment that almost mirrors the “You can’t handle the truth!” scene from A Few Good Men, and would be the ultimate mic drop in the courtroom, Sega executive Bill White pulls out Nintendo’s Super Scope 6 and waves it around the room announcing that THIS is what Nintendo created!
As I said, they expound on moments we knew about, like Sega putting all their eggs into the Buster Douglas basket, Sony’s betrayal by Nintendo at CES, Tom Kalinske’s “Oh, shit” reaction to the “Price heard round the world,” and we’re even taken inside the conference room during Nintendo’s battles with Target. There is even a very detailed retelling of Sega trying to steal Ken Griffey, Jr. away from Nintendo. The climax of the book happens when Tom Kalinske and Nintendo’s president Howard Lincoln almost come to blows inside an elevator, with the president of Toys R Us having to pull the two most powerful men in video games apart. I had no idea this sort of tension was really happening behind the scenes while I was sitting in my bedroom and playing games.
Ultimately, Sega’s decline came when Tom Kalinske started to become ignored by Sega of Japan. They vetoed a lot of things that ultimately would have taken Sega into the stratosphere and definitely would have crushed Nintendo. For one, they were in talks to make a Sega/Sony console, but Sega of Japan proved too difficult to work with. Then, Tom Kalinske recruited STI Graphics to help make the Sega Saturn better. Sega of Japan said no. Finally, Kalinske wanted Rare Games to work with Sega. Sega of Japan said no. Rare would take their talents to Redmond, Washington, where they created the biggest blockbuster at the time, Donkey Kong Country. Kalinske felt that he was being undermined from every angle. He tenured his resignation in July of 1996. The book ended as it began, with Kalinske relaxing on the beach with his family.
This was a very good book with a lot of detail, more than I would have ever expected, to be honest. Blake J. Harris definitely did his homework here, and it shows. It really dives deep into the history of Tom Kalinske, and his life before Sega. Also, it tells us about tragedy of Howard Phillips, Nintendo's game master, and how he was almost lured away by Sega. If you grew up playing video games in the 80s and 90s this is definitely a book you need to read. A+ all the way.