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