Review of Blake Harris' Console Wars
Written by long-time gamer and gaming enthusiast Blake J. Harris, Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation is a unique read that differs from most books reviewed thus far. Its narrative style is what draws in the reader in and builds interest - even if he/she has no real understanding of the subject matter, the book establishes itself as a strong foundation for various viewpoints of analysis. The author goes at great length (600 plus pages in fact), to explore the subject matter of videogames as a competitive industry rather than the form of creativity and innovation as it is often compared to today. Yet even with the book’s limitations and somewhat one-sided view on the battle for console supremacy, Harris creates a biographical account that takes liberties with its source material without damaging the overall story.
With that in mind, Console Wars tells the story of how Sega, an unremarkable and lackluster Japanese arcade-gaming cabinet manufacturer came out of the shadows of competitor Nintendo for videogame dominance during the first half of the 1990s. It is here that the reading becomes an analysis in the market of videogaming and all that it implies. Nintendo was holding an incredible 90% of the videogame share in Japan and the United States by mid-1990 while offering little in terms of competition for the videogame market share. Thanks to their breakthrough advertising and marketing strategies, along with Mario, a mascot that exemplified the company’s “play” state of mind, Nintendo for all anyone knew, could do no wrong and that there was no reason for anyone else to try to make money off the videogame market. However, behind the scenes, the company had a literal monopoly on the industry and held that lead with an iron fist. With strict terms and agreements for new and generally unskilled game developers as well as an alienating attitude towards the console’s retailers, Nintendo had become a force no one could stop – at least, that is the persuasive view the book wants you to think.
Readers are given an awfully one-sided view of the console wars with Nintendo being the bad guy in most cases. While it is generally unclear as to why the dedicated side against Nintendo was made throughout the book, readers are left with the idea that the company did not want to comment on the research needed for an equal retelling. We can draw a comparison to a persuasive documentary that would normally be seen on television or in the movies; where editing and agenda-setting tactics can be used to make an argument or define the desired perspective. To that end, we are not given any sort of acknowledgements, notes, or bibliographies by the end of the book – the readers are left to their own imagination when it comes to credible references and to what caliber we are to believe what we’re reading.
The book tells us that it utilizes an array of resource materials for its composition. The amount of specific data and scenarios tries their best to provide information to the reader about the time, place, and process of proceedings taking place between the war of Nintendo and Sega. But as stated, readers can be left scratching their heads as to the validity of events happening. To that end, there is one dominant source of reference used over and over again in this book. By this, we are given insights into the battleground thanks to the participation of the CEO of Sega of America Tom Kalinske.
Before his aforementioned position, Tom Kalinske had already established himself as an outstanding marketer for leading brands such as the educational technologies company Leapfrog and toy manufacturer Mattel. It was his aggressive drive for the Sega Genesis console however, that established his role in the American division as a promotional leader for the company’s US sector. “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” was Kalinske’s advertising campaign that spearheaded into the heart of rival Nintendo that turned audiences and critiques’ heads towards looking at Sega. While this hostile style of marketing did not translate well into the pacifist world of Sega’s Japanese counterparts, it however reinforced the company’s desire to be number one in the videogame console market.
Promoting an advanced graphics chipset complete with stereo sound and faster processing, the Sega Genesis drew in a more mature videogame audience. The Sega system attracted a larger and older crowd who has moved on past the child-like ambitions of the Nintendo Entertainment System and who were also tired of waiting for the next big Nintendo system. All that combined with Sonic the Hedgehog, a new mascot that represented the power and speed of the Sega Genesis, quickly rivaled and soon after stomped over Nintendo’s Mario.
While of course, we are lead to believe these accounts are as accurate as they can be. We can’t help but wonder as to the degree of the perspective we have coming from Tom Kalinske himself via the author’s research. It’s clear that Kalinske had played an important part during this stage of the console war but we are left unsure if his role was of a commander or just a general grunt on the battlefield.
This source, while indeed providing interesting information on the narrative, is not without its skepticism. While we were given a great deal of insight via the interviews and stories from Kalinske we can’t help but wonder at what length he was used as a resource for the book. It is obvious that the author wrote this book around the accolades and endeavors of Kalinske, yet we cannot ignore the degree of “fandom” that drips from the pages. Were this to be a story of fantasy, Kalinske would be the accomplished, but brash underdog and Nintendo the shadowy corporation of oppression and greed. But unfortunately for the readers, the story does not end happily for the hero. Instead, the underdog flies too close to the sun like Icarus of Greek myth and falls at the feet of the still alive giant that is Nintendo.
From the way the information about the console wars was presented, readers are to assume that Tom Kalinske can do no wrong and the overall financial and manufacturing struggles of Sega of Japan did not hit the shores in America. Our views are altered towards Kalinske who, rarely makes a mistake or acts out of spite or anger. We experience this to various degrees throughout the book but more so during the beginning of Sega’s downfall. Through no apparent fault of Kalinske, and just a short three years of beating Nintendo, Sega, now on top of the console market, falls from its pedestal.
After rejecting Kalinske’s proposals to collaborate with Sony (another Japanese electronics company), to make a new and advanced gaming system, Sega of Japan instead releases its own in-house console with dated technology – the Sega Saturn was then released to an unimpressed audience and thus the beginning of the end for Sega’s console manufacturing. In this example, the glorified Kalinske utilizes his gifted marketing tactics to try and push the stubborn Sega of Japan to a new level with rewards of future greatness. But the decision not to go with Kalinske’s plan seems oversimplified compared to his pitch with Sega. It is at this time that the book goes through a weird imbalance between telling the story of Nintendo vs. Sega and the biography of Tom Kalinkse.
While the story does end with Mr. Kalinkse leaving Sega of America shortly before the company’s downfall we can’t help but feel relieved that that section of the book is over and passed on. However, by this time the book is near its final chapters and after the eventual fall of the Sega Dreamcast, the successor of the Sega Saturn, there is not much left of the great console war. This is ultimately a defeating end for Sega.
Yet throughout the book we read accounts of Sega’s push to compete with Nintendo’s avalanche of videogame-console success. Looking at Nintendo by themselves, it’s amazing how the company re-invented the at-home videogame market after the great Atari videogame crash of the late 1980s. Turning a presumed fad into the all-out industry, Nintendo’s achievements cannot be ignored, especially when they are still releasing videogame consoles today. Sega, however, while no longer console manufacture has found success in publishing 3rd party developed games and will continue to collect royalties from their Sonic the Hedgehog franchise – especially since the Sega mascot can now be found on Nintendo consoles.
Though the reading did its best to give an accurate representation of the key players involved in the console battle, it did very little to keep the two armies balanced. Can we place blame on either side of the conflict, however? On one side we have Nintendo represented as the devious corporation who we assume provided limited material for the book. And on the other end of the spectrum, we have Kalinske who provides readers with more than enough material for which to contemplate. A possible counter to counter this could have been Nintendo of America who is mentioned sparingly with little impact on the narrative.
Still, the popularity of this book continues to rise with the author on tour across the country promoting his work. And with the ease of narrative this book provides, it was also easy to adapt its contents into a screenplay and is well underway in being made into a full-length feature film. As stated, it’s good that this book was written, even if a bit one-sided, it offers a unique perspective that up until now was non-existent. Let’s just hope that as time passes, more resources will arise as the popularity of videogame history continues.