I mentioned the book Console Wars by Blake J. Harris recently as a source of information for my 25th anniversary retrospective of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s quite an excellent read and, at 556 pages, is long enough to keep one occupied while also being written in such a way as to be completely engrossing. I recommend it heartily.
Console Wars is the saga of Sega and Nintendo duking it out in the early to mid-90s. The protagonist is the scrappy, young contender, Tom Kalinske, a marketing whiz with a particular talent for selling toys. Harris tells the story primarily from Kalinske’s view, weaving the tale of his unlikely entrance into Sega at the designs of the slightly eccentric CEO, Hayao Nakayama, to meeting the ensemble cast at Sega of America in a ramshackle office space and their initial pratfalls as they swung and missed time and again. The Sega underdogs tilt at windmills as they set their sights on the seemingly invincible empire that Nintendo has forged, leading some to question if they are simply wasting their time. Kalinske rallies his troops, ever convinced that he has the best team he could possibly have assembled, and carries on despite every setback and adverse twist of fate.
Of course, the unlikely heroes need competitors to put them in relief, and Nintendo stands out at times as something of the Evil Empire. After detailing how the Yamauchi family founded a small corporation named “Leave Luck to Heaven,” (a translation of the kanji nin, ten and do) Harris rather charmingly tells the founding of Nintendo of America as a story told in eight bits, those bits being the key players that Hiroshi Yamauchi assembled for the cunning cornering of the video games industry in North America. However, the practices that Nintendo engage in throughout the 1980s understandably come off as ethically questionable at best and probably illegal at worst. Nintendo looks like an oppressive master, gouging developers and punishing rebels. Enter Sega, full of vim and vigor, out to liberate the little developers from Nintendo’s totalitarian regime. Of course, there are drags on Kalinske’s charge, such as the sneaking suspicion that Nakayama doesn’t trust him and has sent the quiet and enigmatic Shinobu Toyoda to spy on him or the initial reveal of Sonic the Hedgehog as a grotesque monster with a blonde lady for a girlfriend named Madonna. Tensions flare between Sega of America and Sega of Japan and a contest of wills ensues: should Yuji Naka be allowed to design the game that he wants without interference from the meddling Americans, or will the Yankees prevail in catering Sonic to the United States? And what of the enigmatic Olaf Olafsson from Sony, looking to bring his company into the console fight? Will the Nintendo PlayStation happen as planned? Will Sega be able to peel off defectors from Nintendo and crack the shell of the almighty Wal-Mart’s exclusive arrangement with Nintendo?
What is most gripping about this book is that Harris makes these otherwise insignificant moments in the past come alive. One can feel the frostiness between Kalinske and Nakayama the first time they trade ideas on what Sonic should look like over the phone. There is a sense of cramped discontent when the Sega of America team is introduced, befitting their tiny headquarters. The players also truly have personality, as if Harris is writing fiction rather than fact. The fast-talking, smart-mouthed Steve Race and the steady, methodical Ellen Beth Van Buskirk make great foils for each other. The inscrutable Nakayama hovers in the shadows and the affable Al Nilsen feels like that uncle of yours that laughs at everything during family reunions. Although there are as many characters in this book as A Song of Ice and Fire, they are all largely easy enough to track as a result of Harris’s masterful narrative capabilities. Also like A Song of Ice and Fire, backstabbing is frighteningly commonplace. “Friends today, enemies tomorrow,” is the order of the day among advertisers, producers, executives, and salesmen. Of course, if one has paid even the remotest attention to the development of the console wars since 1991, the tragedy of this book is that almost anyone could root for Sega but it’s like hoping that Winston Smith is going to defeat the Party at the end. Still, there’s no sense in spoiling just how this book ends; you really have to read it for yourself to see how it comes full circle.
Apparently a movie based on this book is in the works, produced by Seth Rogen (who also wrote the forward for the book). I don’t know how far it is into production but, as with A Song of Ice and Fire, I strongly recommend you read this before seeing it. There are many subtle nuances to situations that may be lost in the transfer of media and running times necessarily limit how much can be packed into a film. This is a book for anyone who enjoys history and video games or indeed anyone who thumbs his/her nose at the idea of how video games should be taken seriously. Impress your parents and ask them for a book: Console Wars.