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Console Wars: Business and Backstabbing in the World of Video Games

Console Wars: Business and Backstabbing in the World of Video Games post image

Title: Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation
Author: Blake J. Harris
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Year: 2014
Publisher: It Books
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★½

Review: I’m not much of a gamer, but I have a soft spot for books about video games (see: Extra Lives by Tom Bissell), especially books that help explain gamer culture or the business behind how the video game industry actually works. When Console Wars — a chunkster of a book about the rise of video games in the early 1990s — arrived on my doorstep, I started reading it immediately.

As the subtitle indicates, the book traces the “battle” between Nintendo, the undisputed king of video games, and Sega, the quirky underdog trying to make it in America, during Tom Kalinske’s tenure as Sega of America CEO. Kalinske was hired by Hayao Nakayama, president of Sega Enterprises, in 1990 specifically to make SOA competitive with Nintendo which, at that time, had nearly all of the market in the video game industry.

Over the six years of his tenure as head of SOA, Kalinske used a series of aggressive marketing and business tactics to challenge Nintendo. Kalinske and his team were also  instrumental in developing Sonic the Hedgehog as we know him today. One of my favorite details in the book is that the original Japanese version was “villainous and crude, complete with sharp fangs, a spiked collar, an electric guitar and a human girlfriend whose cleavage made Barbie’s chest look flat.” Hilarious!

Author Blake J. Harris tells a great story, full of conflict and characters with strong opinions. Because the book relies on a strong narrative and these characters, Harris pushes against the limits of what I’m usually comfortable with in nonfiction. In his author’s note he mentions altering, reconstructing or imagining details of settings and descriptions and re-creating dialogue based on how sources recounted it. Those fudges with fact make an absorbing, entertaining read, but do make the edges of the book feel a little bit blurry, like those Dateline crime scene reconstructions feel — they’re not necessarily untrue, but they’re not entirely accurate either.

That all said, I’m spending longer commenting on this than I spent feeling weird about it while I read. Harris put together a great story and I feel confident that the interesting facts — how SOA developed Sonic or how the two companies reacted to the violence in Mortal Combat — are true enough to bear repeating. And I think if Harris hadn’t taken some liberties to reconstruct parts of this story, the book would have been too much of a business book for an average reader to enjoy. Reading the book with the boyfriend, who remembered his first video game systems and some of the marketing tactics mentioned in the book, was also really fun — I’m so curious what people who grew up with video games will think about this story.

If you curious about the history of video games, then Console Wars is worth getting your hands on. But if you don’t think you have the time for 576 pages on the early ’90s world of Sega and Nintendo, you can probably wait for the documentary or feature film.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading May 13, 2014, 7:16 am

    I feel like this is one that both my husband and I could get into (if I can convince him to read a chunkster), so it’s at least going on my library list!

    • Kim May 13, 2014, 8:22 pm

      The first 400 or so pages really flew by for me. It got a little slow near the end, but for the most part I didn’t feel like I was reading an incredibly long book.

  • Athira May 13, 2014, 7:26 am

    I think this book will be a great gift for my husband. He loves everything to do with gaming, so this will be perfect.

    • Kim May 13, 2014, 8:23 pm

      I would love to hear about this book from gamers. I bet they’d have an interesting perspective.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) May 13, 2014, 7:57 am

    I need to get this for Vance!

    • Kim May 13, 2014, 8:23 pm

      I hope he likes it!

  • Trisha May 13, 2014, 9:52 am

    Gaming history and culture is a fascinating topic. This sounds like a good way in to the conversation.

    • Kim May 13, 2014, 8:24 pm

      Definitely! It’s pretty focused on Sega/Nintendo, but still has enough detail to give an entry point into the development of video games as an industry.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End May 13, 2014, 3:51 pm

    Ooooo. This sounds interesting, and I’ve had my eye on it for a while, but yeah, what you’re describing is something that makes me very very uncomfortable in nonfiction. I get hung up on worrying about what’s real and not. Maybe I shall stick with the Tom Bissell?

    • Kim May 13, 2014, 8:26 pm

      The Bissell book is more of a literary/artistic criticism of video games and a look at how games get made, while this one is more of a business book. It depends what you’re looking for, I think, although I will say that the areas in which Harris suggests some fuzziness are more on the character side of the story than on the facts. I wasn’t as troubled by it as I thought I might have been, but if you are concerned maybe it’s a library book to try?

  • Sandy May 14, 2014, 5:35 am

    OMG that is a long book! I was really into video games in high school, but I don’t think I had much to do with Sega. On the other hand, when you talked about this book a couple of Sundays ago, I mentioned it to my 14 year old son and of course he knew everything about this battle between the two companies. Even though some of these games are vintage, he’s played them. I worry about the blurred lines, but if that would get me through all those pages, I guess it would be worth it.

    • Kim May 18, 2014, 9:59 am

      The boyfriend, who is not really a gamer at all, knew a ton of stuff about Sega/Nintendo when we were talking about this book. It must be more common knowledge than I even knew.

      I really do think the blurring makes the book more readable than it would have otherwise been. And I think he blurs on things that don’t affect the hard facts of this story in a substantial way, so I’m more willing to let it pass than I might have been otherwise.

  • Swapna May 14, 2014, 5:17 pm

    I too am not a huge gamer but am interested in gamer culture. I’ll definitely be picking this up based on your review.

    • Kim May 18, 2014, 10:00 am

      Just as an FYI, it’s less about gamer culture than it is about the culture of the video game industry, which may or may not be a small distinction.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey May 14, 2014, 7:32 pm

    This sounds so good! I am a bit of a gamer so I’m always intrigued when you post reviews of books about gaming. I’m not sure how I feel about the liberties the author has taken with the facts, but it sounds like it might have been necessary to avoid writing something too dry to be enjoyable.

    • Kim May 18, 2014, 10:01 am

      As I thought about it that’s the conclusion I came to as well. Without bumping up the narrative a little bit, the book would have been really dry.