This intriguing book's subtitle is somewhat misleading for two contradictory reasons.
First, it doesn't only deal with Sega and Nintendo, but touches on almost every industry player worth mentioning from the 1983 video game crash till the launch of the original PlayStation in 1995.
Second, the balance of the book's content is heavily weighted toward Sega.
That's not entirely the author's fault, though. Blake J. Harris relied on primary sources whenever he could, and Nintendo's legendarily tight-lipped corporate culture made getting information right from the horse's mouth a nigh herculean task.
With those disclaimers out of the way, let's dig into the meat of the book.
The Secret Masters of Gaming
To call Console Wars eye-opening would be a massive understatement. Revelatory is a more accurate word for Harris' chronicle of the take-no-prisoners commercial war that defined my formative years in particular.
Paraphrasing Benjamin Disraeli, "Gaming is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes." As a kid, I pictured the folks who made video games as inhabiting a Wonkaesque wonderland staffed by magic elves somewhere in the mysterious east.
|10 year-old me's image of NOA|
Despite having long since abandoned such naive illusions, I still held out hope that the gaming industry was somehow exempt from the demands of corporate culture; that it was mostly run by people who, first and foremost, loved playing and making video games.
Yeah, that romanticized outlook was the first casualty of Console Wars.
|The actual NOA|
It turns out that the gaming industry is run by an elite class of people whose skill sets are highly specialized to do one thing and one thing only: run companies.
In fact, the folks in charge of Sega, SCEA, and Microsoft's gaming division are the same people who run toy, consumer electronics, and pasta sauce companies. In the apparent majority of cases, they neither play nor especially like video games.
Nintendo was the sole partial exception. At least during the time period covered by the book, they were still a family-run enterprise who employed people like Howard Phillips and Tony Harman.
|NOA paid this guy to play video games.|
In contrast, Sega enjoyed its meteoric rise to fame under the steady hand of this cool customer:
|How to make Gamer of the Year without being a gamer: be the US market midwife to Sonic the Hedgehog.|
Before his legendary tenure at Sega, Kalinske served as CEO of Mattel and Matchbox. He's had a lifelong passion for integrating education and technology, and he's still the Vice Chairman of Leapfrog.
Much of Kalinske's success can be credited to his personal marketing philosophy: telling people stories is a great way to make them buy from you.
As an independent author struggling against long odds to buck the status quo and bring you a refreshing brand of fun, imaginative SF that the Big Five don't publish anymore, I heartily endorse Mr. Kalinske's approach.
Speaking of pro authors, Blake Harris also took Tom Kalinske's marketing advice to heart. Console Wars does attempt to weave the corporate conflicts of the 16-bit generation into a linear narrative, complete with protagonists and antagonists.
Kalinske serves as the book's main protagonist, partially by default due to Nintendo's introversion; mostly because telling the story from his point of view sets up a compelling David vs. Goliath story.
It's certainly thrilling to read about how Kalinske took the American branch of an obscure Japanese company unworthy of Nintendo's notice and inside of three years turned them into the undisputed king of the gaming hill.
What's even more interesting is what emerges when you read between the lines.
Two things save Harris' book from reading like a Sega fanboy puff piece: a) the fact that this David actually failed to slay his Goliath because [Spoiler Alert!] Nintendo won the 16-bit generation, and b) the Shakespearean-caliber betrayals suffered by Kalinske's team and their initial sense of integrity.
Look, it's a cutthroat world out there. Even those of us with the highest ethical standards can stumble under the weight of fiscal responsibility to employees and shareholders.
Which is why the reader fully understands Sega's decision to hype up the Genesis' "blast processing", which didn't technically exist. Or Sony's firing of their entire US team despite the unprecedented success of the first PlayStation.
Actually, scratch that last one. Sony pulled a total dick move.
Not as bad as contributing to the death of Michael Jackson, but still...
Console Wars is a sometimes one-sided but always engrossing look behind the curtain at events that shaped an entire generation's childhood. If there's one lesson to take away from Sega's rapid rise and Icarus-like fall, it's a warning against the fate that too often befalls revolutionaries.
Today's rebel is tomorrow's oligarch, so beware of staking your success on a perpetual underdog image.
And before you admonish me to practice what I preach, don't worry. I plan to make the most of my short reign by skipping the "well-intentioned compromise" phase and going straight to "Caligula-style power madness".
Would Sega of America have made the transition from upstart to establishment without their parent company's fatal meddling? It's impossible to say.
What we do know is that the Big N revived an industry left moribund after the crash of '83, weathered Sega's assault to successfully reinvent their image, and beat two new challengers to regain their crown as the top name in gaming.
We also know that they're still obsessed with foisting dead-end gimmicks on their players, which is part of the reason why Nintendo's on the ropes right now. But if I were a gambling man, I wouldn't bet against them.
That's my two cents. For completeness' sake, here's author Blake J. Harris explaining the impetus of Console Wars.