Console Wars: Book Review
I finally finished reading through Blake J. Harris’ Console Wars, (one week reading time) and I can confidently say that, outside of fantasy and poetry, it is the most enjoyable book I have ever read. Even during the week and with my duties (correcting papers, preparing lessons, etc) I often found myself sneaking time in to be able to follow the exploits of SEGA of America and its team of executives. As I mentioned in my First Impressions post, the book focuses on the only true console war that the video game industry has ever experienced – the 16 bit console war. The book chronicles the exploits of Tom Kalinske and his steam at SEGA of America as they grow the small company from one with a hold on a meager 5% of the video game market share to a gargantuan powerhouse that at its highest point dominated over 60% of the 16-bit market.
The book, written in accessible prose, is full of interesting (if remixed) conversations between Kalinske and his lieutenants at SEGA of America. Some of the most memorable figures in the story include Al Nilsen (the likable mastermind who marketed the Genesis and its 2 cool mascot), Race (a video game veteran who worked at Atari, Nintendo, SEGA, and Sony, and whose comments on Japanese culture made him come across as one of the least likable figures on Kalinske’s team), EBVB (Ellen Beth Van Buskirk Knapp, a brilliant executive whose efforts helped build the image of the Genesis as the “cool” gaming system), and Shinobu Toyoda (the liaison between SEGA of America and SEGA of Japan).
Although the book does go into historical events that changed the face of the gaming landscape and the industry as a whole, such as its exposition of the lawsuits between Universal and Nintendo over Donkey Kong and the clash between EA, who successfully reverse-engineered the Genesis, and SEGA, its focus is not to document historical events as much as it is to chronicle the story of a company and its CEO, and it does so brilliantly.
My favorite thing about the book is how it sheds light on the events and corporate philosophies and decisions going on behind the curtain – events that help shed on the disastrous turn of events that happened for SEGA during the end of its 16-bit days and that help explain, to some extent, the current condition of the Wii U.
One such event is the launch and follow-up of the SEGA Saturn.
I grew up as a SEGA Genesis brat (although I also had and loved my SNES), so when the Saturn came out, I was naturally hyped. I did wonder, however, why would SEGA bother with a thing like the 32X, why the Saturn was so expensive when compared to the PS-X, and why SEGA seemed to keep a lot of the cool Saturn games in Japan. The book explains that this sudden turn of events was due to Japan suddenly tightening its grip on, and restricting the freedom of, SEGA of America. SEGA of Japan decided that the 32X was to be distributed both in Japan and America, and there was nothing Kalinske could do or say to stop it. The book explains that Kalinske and Olafson (the then CEO of what would become Sony Computer Entertainment) were in negotiations to release a joint console after Nintendo and Sony’s negotiations for the Nintendo CD Add-On failed, but that SEGA of Japan did not wish to go forward. The book explains that afterwards Kalinske was looking for a partnership with Silicone Graphics for the SEGA Saturn, but – again – SEGA of Japan got in the way.
The book successfully positions Kalinske and his crew as “the good guys”, Nintendo’s Haward Lincoln and Minoru Arakawa as “the well respected rivals”, and by the end of the book the reader leaves with the impression that SEGA of Japan are somehow the “bad guys” in the story.
Although I found the book a delightful read, some might complain that the book is not fair or even-handed with its treatment of Nintendo or that it’s not factual enough. Both of these criticism are true. The book doesn’t present Nintendo in the best light. Then again, it does depict its policies accurately. Nintendo did have incredibly restrictive policies and were incredibly stubborn when it came to controlling its market (and, perhaps, still are), so in a way it could be said that – from the perspective of both publishers and retailers, Nintendo does a good job of painting itself as “the bad guy”. Further still, the story here told focuses on Kalinske’s tenure at SEGA during the 16-bit wars. Unlike David Sheff’s Game Over, the story of Console Wars is not that of Nintendo. It is the story of Kalinske and his team at SEGA of America within a very specific context in a very specific setting, and to argue that the book is “not good” because it doesn’t feature Nintendo prominently is nothing more than fanboyism.
The second piece of criticism – that the book is not an entirely historical account – is perhaps a more valid criticism. However, the book by no means intends to be such a manuscript. As if perhaps preempting this criticism, the author notes early in the book that the book “draws from the recollections of a multitude of sources” and that there were inconsistencies when “dealing with events that took place more than two decades ago”. The author clearly states that he has “recreated the scenes in this book using the information uncovered from interviews, facts gathered from supporting documents, and my best judgment as to what version most closely fits the documentary record” and that in a few cases “details of settings and descriptions may have been altered, reconstructed, or imagined”.
My only real complaint with the book is that in a few cases when introducing new figures or giving background information it tends to be overly expository and gives too much information. One such example that comes to mind was the long discussion of the BetaMax. It may be because I am already familiar with Sony and the BetaMax, but I could have done without that particularly long exposition. Still, cases like this are few and far between.
Overall, Console Wars is an excellent read, and one that is sure to be of interest to students of game studies, marketing, media history, and technology, and certainly to anyone who is interested in video games in general or who lived through that greatest of console wars.