“Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined a Generation” by Blake J. Harris (It Books, 576 pages, in stores)
The late 1980s were the best of times for video game hero Mario and the company that created him: industry giant Nintendo.
The famous plumber ran amok through his virtual universe, rescuing princesses, killing bad guys and even starring in a Saturday morning cartoon.
But in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog bolted onto the scene. With his snappy red shoes and his snappier 16-bit graphics, upstart video game company Sega’s little blue guy sped right into gamers’ hearts — often stealing the place occupied by Mario and his friends.
“Console Wars” is the story of how Sega, with its hedgehog and its edgy marketing campaign, took the industry by storm and for a while managed to beat Nintendo at its own game.
And like Sonic himself, the book is weird but strangely enticing and endearing.
For gamers who grew up during the Sega-Nintendo war, “Console Wars” will be entertaining and revealing.
The book tells the stories behind many moments that greatly affected video gaming, like the creation of Sonic and his sidekick Tails, the development of revolutionary games like Super Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Country, and the decisions by Nintendo and Sega not to work with Sony, causing the company to eventually release its own console, the PlayStation.
“Console Wars” is told mostly through the eyes of Tom Kalinske, the former CEO and president of Sega of America who was hired to slay Nintendo.
The weird part lies in the format of the book. It’s presented as narrative nonfiction — as in, the basic facts are real, but, as author Blake J. Harris explains in a note at the beginning of the book, some conversations and details have been altered or imagined.
That style is both a blessing and a curse. The narrative form makes for a very compelling read, but some of the dialogue feels awkward and unrealistic, and the author’s attempts at conveying characters’ emotions are borderline cringe-worthy.
At times, the book feels like it was written solely for the purpose of being turned into a movie, and the author is indeed working on a documentary about the topic and has a feature film in the works.
But that doesn’t stop “Console Wars” from being a terrific read. Harris does a strong job fleshing out Kalinske’s character — in fact, he does an excellent job introducing all the Sega employees and juggling a full cast of characters without muddling the picture. And he certainly captures the renegade feeling that Sega employees had about their place in the industry.
The key figures at Nintendo feel less well-developed — it’s clear the former Sega employees provided a lot more information than the Nintendo staff. There’s still some great background and stories, but the Nintendo portions don’t have quite the same insider feel to them.
While the book is presented as a battle between Sega and Nintendo, much of it actually focuses on the strife between Sega of America and its parent company, Sega of Japan. The company’s internal cultural problems do make for interesting reading, but there’s so little input from anyone who worked at Sega of Japan that it leaves the book feeling a bit incomplete.
“Console Wars” is far from perfect, but it still makes for fascinating reading. Harris has captured both the importance and the energy of a seminal time in video gaming history. And while perhaps Mario and Nintendo don’t remember it quite so fondly, it’s certainly a tale worth telling.