|Written By:||Blake Harris|
|Published by:||Atlantic Books|
If the 2000’s have come to be dominated by the tussle between Sony and Microsoft for gaming supremacy, the battleground of the late 1980’s and 1990’s was played out between Nintendo and Sega.
After the video game crash of the early 80’s, Nintendo picked through the ashes of a burned kingdom, restoring credibility to the concept of home gaming consoles. Hot on their heels were Sega, eager to carve out a slice of the pie for themselves and in so doing, helped to redefine gaming for a generation and to lay the groundwork of the multi-billion pound industry we enjoy today.
Utilising a combination of historical fact, anecdotes and a hefty dose of creative licence, Blake Harris attempts to chart this period in gaming history, looking through the eyes of some of the industry heavy hitters and exploring the motivations behind some the decisions that led us to where we are today.
The 80s and 90s are a fascinating time in gaming history. After the ground breaking releases of Pong and Asteroids, the subsequent crash of the home market in the early 80s brought the market to its knees. Harris picks up the story at this point, exploring how Nintendo sought to rebuild credibility through the NES. It seems quaint now, but Nintendo faced a serious challenge convincing stores to stock its new machine, most having had their fingers burned with Atari. But the quality of the games slowly started to make an impact, with both Donkey Kong and Mario helping to get the NES into a significant proportion of homes and establishing Nintendo as the dominant player in the market.
Our story though focuses not on the industry leader but rather the battle to topple them. Sega had entered the 8-bit home market with the release of the Master System but it failed to achieve much success outside of Japan. Attention then turned to the 16-bit scene and the release of the Megadrive / Genesis which, driven forward by Sonic, saw Sega not only challenge but, for a time, overtake Nintendo as market leader. It is an incredible story, one that gamers that lived through it will remember fondly, no doubt recalling their own playground battles over which console was superior or which game was better.
Although presenting the story from the perspective of both Nintendo and Sega (and to a lesser extent, Sony), there is a clear Sega bias. Narratively speaking this is understandable, the plucky upstart a more appealing tale to tell than the monopolisation and eventual fall of an industry giant. The author achieves this by centering the story around Tom Kalinske, CEO of Sega of America. Hired by the Japanese parent to run the American division, Kalinske is charged with establishing a Sega foothold in the American marketplace. Over the span of his tenure, Sega move from a distant number two to the market leader.
Unfortunately as incredible a story as it is, it isn’t long before some issues begin to emerge. Harris touts that he had conducted numerous interviews with some of the key players but he seems to have become enamoured with his leading man. Kalinske here is presented as a demi-god, a leader of men, a man with rare talent and a vision to match. It is his vision that reshapes Sonic for the US market. It is his pricing strategy that sets up the Genesis for 16-bit success. It is to him that the head of Sega Japan turns to for advice, rather than his own board. Indeed his unrelenting march to glory is held back only by the stubborn incompetence of those in Japan who lack his foresight and courage, the subsequent demise of Sega’s market share always down to others, his methods never coming under serious scrutiny.
The fascination with Kalinske reveals a broader bias too. The story is in some ways less about the developmental battleground between two supremely talented gaming powerhouses and more a study of marketing techniques. Harris delights in walking us through Kalinske’s plans to tackle the US market, his battles with retail stores and his various speeches at trade shows and events. Certain games come to the fore of course; Sonic is the backbone behind the success of the Genesis, set against Mario and later Donkey Kong Country. But through Harris’ words, it seems that games are almost secondary to marketing, that in Kalinske’s hands, it mattered not the quality of the product being sold, paling into significance next to the man’s mighty marketing prowess. For a book about gaming there is a distinct under appreciation of the art. Most gamers of the era would likely acknowledge that Sega held the ‘cool’ factor over Nintendo, the Genesis a home for arcade ports and flashier titles. The SNES by comparison though arguably had a higher quality of game, with Mario proving timeless in both his platform guise and later in the kart. Street Fighter II meanwhile received an arcade perfect conversion to the SNES and was the undisputed king of 2D fighters. According to Harris though, Mortal Kombat was the more important of the two and whilst it was obviously more visceral, no serious gamer would argue its merits over the undoubted king of fighting games.
The book is almost entirely US-centric. As a UK gamer, this makes a lot of the detail difficult to relate to. These marketing campaigns did not feature in the UK and besides, the battle in Europe was between Sinclair and Commodore and then later Commodore versus Atari. Told through Harris’ eyes, it is as through only the US market mattered in deciding the victor of any console war. Japan gets something of a rough ride throughout, despite being responsible for the development and manufacture of all the hardware and most of the games.
To bring Kalinske and his contemporaries to life, Harris presents the book through a combination of historical fact and conversations between key personnel. Within the prologue Harris notes that parts of these conversations and scenes have been imagined or embellished, retaining the spirit and tone of the interviews he conducted. This could work in theory but in Harris’ hands, these conversations are the worst kind of stilted, unnatural dialogue. One gets the impression of a frustrated screenwriter, using the backdrop of the console wars to indulge his true passion. Conversations and exchanges are routinely cringe inducing. Real people simply do not speak like this and at times it makes the book hard to get through as well as undermining the historical credibility of the whole exercise. More than once I found myself physically wincing at another line of horrendously awkward dialogue to the point that on numerous occasions I simply had to walk away from it and come back to finish at another time.
This is exacerbated with the audiobook version. Narrator Fred Berman attempts to bring the characters to life, imbuing them with accents, mannerisms and personality. On the whole this is fine, although a couple of instances miss the mark, noticeable to me as a Brit when he takes a stab at voicing an exchange between Sony executives and the developers of Liverpool-based studio Psygnosis, the result a cor blimey guv’nor that Dick Van Dyke would be proud of. As creditable as Berman’s performance largely is though, hearing these awful conversations spoken aloud simply highlights how bad they are.
When Harris steers clear of auditioning for Hollywood, there is some excellent research on display and he has a flair for presenting it in an informative but easy to read manner. The book is undoubtedly at its best when delving into specific topics, such as a walk through the respective histories of Sega and Nintendo, or where Harris explores the context of each player in the market, providing context to the relevant positions of each.
It’s a shame then that you have to work so hard to sift out the wheat from the chaff of the US-centric nature of events, Sega bias and overly flattering focus on Tom Kalinske. Mostly though, Console Wars is crippled by its clunky, unrealistic dialogue and flaky chacterisations which ultimately leave this as less a comprehensive retelling of a golden age of gaming but rather a frustrating curiosity that is difficult to recommend.