Following the success of The Accidental Billionaires and Moneyball comes Console Wars—a mesmerizing, behind-the-scenes business thriller that chronicles how Sega, a small, scrappy gaming company led by an unlikely visionary and a team of rebels, took on the juggernaut Nintendo and revolutionized the video game industry.
In 1990, Nintendo had a virtual monopoly on the video game industry. Sega, on the other hand, was just a faltering arcade company with big aspirations and even bigger personalities. But that would all change with the arrival of Tom Kalinske, a man who knew nothing about videogames and everything about fighting uphill battles. His unconventional tactics, combined with the blood, sweat and bold ideas of his renegade employees, transformed Sega and eventually led to a ruthless David-and-Goliath showdown with rival Nintendo.
The battle was vicious, relentless, and highly profitable, eventually sparking a global corporate war that would be fought on several fronts: from living rooms and schoolyards to boardrooms and Congress. It was a once-in-a-lifetime, no-holds-barred conflict that pitted brother against brother, kid against adult, Sonic against Mario, and the US against Japan.
Based on over two hundred interviews with former Sega and Nintendo employees, Console Wars is the underdog tale of how Kalinske miraculously turned an industry punchline into a market leader. It's the story of how a humble family man, with an extraordinary imagination and a gift for turning problems into competitive advantages, inspired a team of underdogs to slay a giant and, as a result, birth a $60 billion dollar industry.
This book was fucking awful. I would have stopped reading it midway, but I had to finish because I had agreed to interview the author, an author who had contacted me personally before I was even sent a review copy (he e-mailed me regarding a news article I wrote about a film adaptation of the book). There was no getting out of it, and I desperately wanted to get out of it.
I love behind-the-scenes stories, but Harris illuminates them horribly. In broad terms, it's about underdog Sega finding a way to level the playing field with Nintendo, but Harris writes characters so poorly. The manufactured dialogue is cringeworthy at times, and the bad writing extends to awful metaphors, confusing analogies, and segways that are laughable at best. When introducing Olaf Olaffson, Harris writes the "scene" as Olaffson looking back on his life as a way of conveying the man's background. Rather than just being straight with us, Harris feels the need to shoehorn it into a corny drama as if we're looking at a flashback.
But the larger sin is forgetting what makes the video games worthwhile. I never once felt like these people were passionate about gaming or gamers; they were passionate about consumers, and it adds up to a story where the real champion is marketing. Sega didn't build a better product; it built a better marketing campaign. And if that's the story, Harris could have easily made his book about any competing businesses. The appeal of the book is that it promises nostalgia combined with illumination, but it delivers neither.
I hate to be so negative about the book because I spoke with Harris, and he's a nice guy. He had intelligent answers to my questions, and I look forward to publishing the interview when I find the time (I have to transcribe a 25-minute interview). But reading Console Wars, I was constantly thinking about all of the other books I'd rather be reading.
When the folks at Nintendo released the 8-bit NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), the home console industry was on its last legs. Following a spectacular crash of the gaming market in 1983 (Atari’s E.T. fiasco), Nintendo had its work cut out for it if it believed it could take the medium off of life support. By limiting supply, taking a hard stance on game quality and working with some of the largest retailers in North America, the Japanese company single-handedly resurrected the industry and put gaming back into the popular culture.
While Nintendo was enjoying record profits and unparalleled success, a competitor was sitting on the sidelines, struggling to find a way to get into the game. Sega had released their own 8-bit console dubbed The Master System and while they sold a respectable number of units, they were nothing more than a blip on Nintendo’s radar. With their new 16-bit (double the power of the NES) next generation console, the Sega Genesis, they needed a true visionary to lead the company into battle.
Enter Tom Kalinske. While he’s not a name you may know at first glance, his work with toy giants Mattel and Matchbox could be considered legendary. Armed with a team of marketing mavens, Kalinske would revolutionize the gaming industry and take it to Nintendo like no one had before.
Being born in 1984, I was the target market for both Sega and Nintendo. However, I was lucky enough to own both consoles. Having lived through their fiercely competitive battle, I thought I knew a great deal about each company’s drive to control the gaming market. Turns out, I was wrong. I learned so much from this book and Harris’ choice to present this in a narrative style kept the pages turning and made putting the book down nearly impossible.
Tom Kalinske’s dream team of marketing experts did so much to revolutionize the industry. They beat Nintendo to the 16-bit market, they organized the first ever global video game launch with Sonic 2sday (the first “street date” established for a video game with their sequel to the mega-successful Sonic The Hedgehog) and even went so far as to blatantly attack their competition with their commercials and the "Welcome to the Next Level" campaign.
As with any business, competition forces creativity. Nintendo had a virtual stranglehold on console gaming and without Sega’s constant drive to be better, Nintendo may not have explored the true power of the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System). Games like Mario Kart, Star Fox and the groundbreaking Donkey Kong Country may never have been made if Sega had not forced Nintendo’s hand.
While Sega was never able to reach the dizzying heights they had with subsequent consoles (the Sega Saturn or the Sega Dreamcast), their hard work and brilliant ideas can still be felt throughout the industry today. Their signature character Sonic the Hedgehog continues to appear in countless games developed for the three leading video game companies - one of which being Nintendo itself!
To those unaware, this is up for best non-fiction book of the year in the Goodreads Best Books of 2014 awards. As I get closer and closer to the end of the year, this is the front runner for my most enjoyable read. I urge those who have yet to read it, give it a shot and those who have read it, vote for it in its category.
I don't always agree with the negative reviews of a book, but in this instance, I feel like they all hit the mark. CONSOLE WARS basically seems to be 500 pages of hero worship written in honor of the President of Sega, Tom Kalinske. And this would be fine, if it weren't for the almost fictional style narrative that feels free to color its perspective as heavily as a toddler holding one of those thick, jumbo markers. Good journalism means a light touch, using fact to bring your readers to the conclusion you want instead of pummeling them over the head with nostalgic bathos.
I'll admit that part of this review stems from my own biases. I grew up with Nintendo and I never liked the Sega game systems, so it was irritating to see Nintendo being demonized as the evilest game company that ever eviled with Sega being portrayed as some kind of heroic underdog, particularly with the rather irritating passages making fun of Sega Japan, portraying them as being the goofy henchman who's threatening the divine plans.
While reading this, I kept being reminded of something-- and then it hit me: READY PLAYER ONE. This was basically an excuse to get on a soapbox, like READY PLAYER ONE, and proclaim to all who will listen why Sega was the best childhood toy and why. READY PLAYER ONE did that with Atari Games and John Hughes movies, and basically anything else that pertained to white, young, male, 80s geek culture, and there's nothing wrong with that, but between the hackneyed dialogue and the endless diatribes, I do feel like this comes across as a questionable journalistic effort at best.
For a better look at nostalgic toys, I'd recommend the documentary The Toys That Made Us. Harris would credit Kalinske single-handedly with the creation of He-Man, but there were at least two other major players in that effort (and even the Wikipedia article only mentions him once, towards the end), which leads me to think that Kalinske probably wasn't the Toy Superhero this book is making him out to be and that many of his other single-handed achievements were actually team efforts.
The book gets two stars because I grew up with the subject matter and so the story itself is fascinating to me. The book gets minus three stars because it's atrociously written, stretches the boundaries of the term "journalism", and has some of the worst dialogue I've ever read.
There's a forward at the beginning of the book that says that scenes and dialogue have often been made up...and it shows. A few prime examples:
"Hawkins didn't respond, but his eyes shone with the glimmer of a shooting star swiftly slashing through the sky-one about to crash down to earth and destroy everything in its path."
"'Fine, fine,' Fischer replied playfully. 'Let's have an honest discussion. Rid yourself of the weight of that golden crown and I'll set aside this pesky jester's hat. What is it, specifically, that you'd like to know?'"
Someone (Blake J. Harris, actually) actually wrote those lines down, took a second, read them over, said "yep, perfect" to themselves, and moved on. I can't decide if that's more damning to Harris or his editor.
I have fond memories of playing videogames on the Sega Genesis console with my daughter, years ago. We loved playing Sonic, Sonic Two, and Toejam and Earl. They were great games!
So, I thought it would be fun to read about the "console wars" between Sega and Nintendo. The subtitle of the book is "Sega, Nintendo, and that battle that defined a generation". Well, that subtitle does seem to be an exaggeration. "Defined a generation"? I'm not sure which generation these console wars defined--not my daughter's, and not mine, that's for sure.
This is a mostly non-fiction book, with lots of dialogs that were probably just made up to fit the story. It is a fun book; I learned all sorts of things: --Nintendo was established in the 1890's, and it manufactured playing cards --During the mid-20th century, Nintendo invested in a "1-hour" hotel --When Nintendo published its blockbuster game "Donkey Kong", it was sued by Universal Studios for trademark infringement. The movie studio believed that they owned the rights to "Kong" since it made the movie "King Kong". Universal Studios was later embarrassed to learn that they never registered the name as a trademark.
This is not a book about videogames. It is really a book about the business world, and how it works with these medium-sized companies in an industry where fast-paced upgrades in technology are required every year or two. It is primarily a book about Tom Kalinske, who was recruited in the early 1990's to be the president of Sega of America. At the time, Kalinske knew nothing about videogames; he was from the toy industry. But he was a genius at marketing, organization, and leadership.
Sega saw itself as an underdog, fighting an uphill battle against the king of the industry, Nintendo. Nintendo was the videogame equivalent of Disney; wholesome, high-quality, somewhat bland at times, and fully in control of all aspects of development, marketing and sales. Software developers hated Nintendo because of its restrictions on game development. So, Sega decided to take the opposite route, and impose very few restrictions. This allowed developers more freedom to bring more games to the Sega consoles.
In the end, though, his competitors (Nintendo and Sony) were not Kalinske's primary battle. His primary obstacle was the mother company, Sega of Japan. While Sega's sales in Japan were mediocre, the American subsidiary was spectacularly successful. So, the Japanese were probably jealous of the American subsidiary's success, and they seemed to sabotage it. I'm sure the Japanese have an entirely different viewpoint, but that viewpoint is not expressed in the book.
Likewise, Nintendo's management in Japan initially put their American division in handcuffs. It wasn't until Sega made big inroads, that their handcuffs were loosened.
Another factoid of interest: The character "Sonic the Hedgehog" was initially designed by Sega of Japan. The character looked "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." An employee at Sega of America looked at the character and remarked, "I think we'll be the first videogame company whose core demographic is goths". Needless to say, the American team re-invented the character, making it more appealing to the American psyche. But it was quite a battle to sell the changes to Sega of Japan.
The book is perhaps a bit too long, and could be edited down somewhat. However it is not only a book about business, but about personalities. Some of the personalities are larger than life, and this is what gives the book a fun feel.
This book does not deserve all of these positive reviews. It is not something I would recommend to people.
It's some sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nightmare whereby it alternates between an informative and interesting history of the era (e.g. discussion of Nintendo's rise, the relationship between Sony and Sega, the early history of the Playstation, and the ill-fated production of the Mario Brothers movie) and some absolutely awful screenplay writing and character studies into people I honestly cannot contemplate people being interested in. No, I do not care about how some middle-aged marketer that worked for Sega was proposed to by her husband; WHO WOULD? Where is the relevance? Who edited this thing?!
Harris fails to obtain any sources from Sega of Japan, expecting the reader to accept Sega of America's scapegoating of SOJ for failures such as the 32x and Saturn (notably, the Sega CD championed by Kalinske doesn't get noted in the book to have been the abject failure that it was). The only apparent explanation for this one-sided narrative is Harris's laziness in seeking out sources outside of his own backyard.
Another noteworthy aspect of this book is the abrupt ending. The rather interesting story behind Sega deserves a better chronicle that at the very least ends with the abandonment of the Dreamcast and the console business entirely. Instead Harris ends up ending the book as soon as his only apparent sources (Kalinske, Nilsen, and anyone else from Sega of America from 1991-1994) part ways with Sega. The same ought to be said for Nintendo, which gets even less coverage.
Suffice to say, the book does not provide a full chronicle of the console wars and the way that it does is in the most obnoxious, least interesting possible way.
I guess what I'm saying is "please do not buy this book" because so much of it is filler than can be scanned through while looking for actual interesting information. That information isn't particularly valuable, either, and there's probably about 60 pages of interesting information here. If you do choose to subject yourself to this.. well, happy hunting!
Console Wars is the story of Nintendo revitalizing the video game industry and Sega's challenges to their monopoly that changed the industry forever. It's a fascinating look into the business intentions behind these two companies, without whom the videogame industry wouldn't be the multi-billion dollar business it is today.
It is also one of the worst-written books I've read, and I've been saying that a lot lately.
The "war" between these two companies changed the world more than you might think. Sega accelerated the game industry's image evolution from child's toys to entertainment for all ages, ushering in more "mature" content and the advent of the video game rating system. I would have liked more information on that, both because of its impact on American culture, and because everything about that battle depicted in Console Wars I already knew.
One fact I didn't know was that Nintendo basically invented the Point of Sale systems used in retail to this day. Video games were huge business, and Nintendo had a crazy amount on influence on how major retails like Wal-Mart and Target did business. Frustrated with Target's return policy -- which allowed customers to return years-old NES systems for refunds to go toward a Super Nintendo -- Nintendo created a point-of-sale system to track sales and limit returns to a 90-day period. [http://www.innovativeretailtechnologi...]
And... that's about it for interesting facts here. There isn't enough content to justify this rambling 550+ page book. This book would be interesting if it stuck to the facts and condensed them into a slimmer volume. Instead, Blake J. Harris pads it with some of the most bafflingly, mind-bogglingly bad recreated dialog ever written. You could fill a whole book with this crap, and Blake J. Harris did exactly that. Here is one of the worst exchanges:
"Sega needs to own that mind-share. When it comes to tech, we ought to be as synonymous with the future as The Jetsons is." "So maybe we get 'his boy Elroy' to be a spokesman?" Silverstein joked. "Or dare I say," Sogard ventured," Jane, his wife?" Goodby cackled. "Cut to some neon-lit crack den of the future where Judy Jetson is now suddenly feeling left out?"
What the fuck is this?
That exchange illustrates my major problems with this book: constant attempts at "clever" humor that fall flat on their face, and misogyny. Sega is basically a never-ending sausage party of men whipping it out to prove they're bigger than Nintendo (More like MENtendo, amirite?), even though none of them seem to have any clue what to actually do with it.
You can't rewrite history. It's a fact that 99% of the employees and executives in these companies were male. But Harris reinforces the boys' club mentality by introducing every women with a reductive comment on her femininity. "Long story," [Van Buskirk] said with a familiar sigh. "But the short story version is that women are crazy. Myself included." This is followed by Van Buskirk setting up a sponsorship agreement between Sega and the LPGA. "Jeez," Kalinske said. "I sure hope a good excuse to skip that LPGA event crops up between now and then." There's also this: "Luckily, Adair fit right in and hit the ground running. She was a doe-eyed woman with a happy-go-lucky voice..."
I'm going to stop there.
In his acknowledgements, Harris doesn't thank a single woman who isn't his mother, his girlfriend (I don't know how she puts up with him either), or the small handful of women interviewed for the book. This is the age of Gamergate, and straight, white, cis-male gamers desperately trying to hang on to demographic glorified by this book. I'd like to see more game writing by people outside of this group, please and thank you.
Harris's shortcomings aren't limited to dialog. His chapter titles are terrible (the chapter on Target's point-of-sale system is called "Target Practice," which is almost as bad as Kelsey Grammer's memoir, Grammer Lessons.) And in a paragraph about Sonic 2sday (what it was actually called), Harris writes, "Nilsen took a step back and watched the impromptu collage come 2gether, 2 impressed 2 speak. He then got over himself and went back 2 work."
I just can't even with this shit.
This book reads like it was written by whom Sega thought they were targeting with their marketing campaign in the 90s: insecure young men trying desperately hard to be "cool." Sega had great games, but that fact is lost amidst the company's immature behavior. Harris's bungling of the non-fiction genre distracts from the importance of this story.
I skimmed the last two hundred pages, where Sega crumbles because it relies on style over substance. Its style is outdated, and people see through it, realizing there's nothing underneath.
As a kid, I loved video games. And the whole time, I was never aware of the intense corporate battle behind the lines at Nintendo and Sega. What a great story. I got to meet a lot of the people that were instrumental in the entertainment and media that shaped my teenage years. If you have enjoyed video games in any capacity, I can't recommend this book enough. Also, check out the Sega Nerds podcast, as they have interviewed many of the people written about in this book. I would wait until after you've finished the book as the podcast does reveal some spoilers.
The battle for video game dominance is a promising topic for a book and indeed, Console Wars is a great retelling of this rivalry and author Blake J. Harris does an able job of getting the facts together in an entertaining fashion. I appreciated the way that Harris went out of his way not to paint either company as the bad guy in this showdown. Growing up in the 1990's, I was more than familiar with the console wars between Nintendo and Sega. Lines were drawn between the two companies so sharply that you were either a Nintendo kid or a Sega kid... and Harris captures this moment in video game history rather well.
Console Wars suffers from one, immense flaw that almost completely derails any enjoyment readers might get out of the book.
Harris has chosen to "recreate" details, scenes and dialogue of the major players and events on both sides of this conflict to give Console Wars a more dramatic, cinematic feel. While this is a perfectly acceptable choice and Harris has done a capable job in recreating the actual narrative, he has a tin ear for the way people communicate in real life.
Harris' dialogue is some of the worst, most tedious I've ever encountered in the 30-plus years that I've been a reader. I suppose it's possible people talked as corny and self-deludedly as the assembled players do here, but I suspect this is just Harris stretching his creative muscles in a cringe-worthy fashion. The quality of the material makes a reader wish that Harris went the "oral history" route with this story.
Console Wars is a book I would limitedly recommend to people because the core story is so interesting... but you'll have to grit your teeth through more than several conversations and bad jokes. Especially try not to throw the book across the room when you get to the "Trafficles" joke.
A must read for those who grew up with these consoles in the 90's. Despite being heavily favored towards Sega, the book does a nice job at covering the key events across both Nintendo and Sega which shaped the 90's home console gaming industry into what it is today.
I was a little hesitant to read a 600-page autobiography of Tom Kalinske, the marketing guru who reinvented Barbie and shepherded the SEGA Genesis through its release in America, but I dove in because the guy is a genius, right?
...wait. The author is listed as "Blake Harris." This isn't by Kalinske?
So, this book is a disaster. Why is it so long, you might ask? Unfortunately, the answer is not that this book gives the authoritative, comprehensive history of video games. Rather, this book is so long because the author includes thought narratives of all his favorite characters in practically every scene. These internal monologues became insufferable for me as the book wore on. Not only do they stall the story, they are, without fail, completely self-serving and self-congratulatory. To give just one example, Kalinske repeatedly insisted (via thought bubbles) that he was uncomfortable with the violent direction SEGA's video games were going. And yet, at every turn, Kalinske and SEGA embraced violence. Full-blood Mortal Kombat, Sewer Shark, and on and on. Kalinske approves them at every turn, even while wringing his hands mentally.
In line with allowing his interviewees to basically give a voice-over to their actions, the author casts every action by SEGA of America in the most positive possible light. Kalinske did not make a single mistake during his tenure there. His lieutenants were consistently brilliant, hard working, and loved their jobs.
And yet, SEGA flopped. After gaining market share in the early 90s (the period this book is focused on), SEGA flounders with the release of the Saturn and then the Dreamcast, losing first to the second wave of SNES games and then to the consistently superior Playstation, N64, and PS2 consoles. How could this possibly be, if Kalinske and his American compatriots are throwing perfect games? The answer: Japan.
SEGA of Japan is consistently cast in an incredibly negative light throughout this book. And yet, almost unbelievably, there is no evidence that the author was actually able to get an interview with ANY of the principals in Japan (notwithstanding the fact that SEGA, Nintendo, and Sony are all Japanese companies). In my opinion, it is terribly irresponsible to publish a book that purports to be about the battle between SEGA and Nintendo without interviewing any of the top brass at those companies. SEGA of Japan is a complete black box throughout this book. Their motives are impenetrable, and even critical figures (like the inventor of Sonic) are mentioned only in passing. Of course, these are all smart businessmen, and I am absolutely positive they had reasons for, e.g., pushing the Saturn onto the American market when they did. And yet, their point of view is given no airtime. Disgusting.
One last objection. The author is concerned almost entirely with the marketing side of the war between the companies. It should come as no surprise at this point that the author completely buys and recites as truth all of SEGA's marketing hype (much of it meaningless drivel and exaggeration). The worse part, in my opinion, is that the author largely ignores many other aspects of the battle between the companies. Chief among them are the games. One wonders if Blake Harris actually owned an SNES or a Genesis. He certainly doesn't demonstrate any of the loving nostalgia one would expect when discussing these topics. To give just one example, he mentions that Nintendo recently released "Metroid" for SNES. Of course, what he means is that Nintendo released Super Metroid, one of the most popular games of 1994, which went on to become one of the most acclaimed video games of all time, and which is still devotedly played by many thousands of people to this day. None of this historical awareness is present in his sterile accounting of the marketing strategies Kalinske was obviously obsessed with.
This book is about an amazingly interesting topic, but the author sheds practically no new light on the subject. Instead, he slavishly repeats marketing lines and puts forward an extremely biased viewpoint based on an incomplete set of interviews. A major disappointment.
Executive Summary: A good, but not great look at one of the key times in video game history.
Full Review I don't read a lot of non-fiction. Most of what I do read tends to be about computer stuff. However video games have been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember.
I still consider the 16-bit generation to be one of the best. The games hold up so much better than the 32/64 bit generation that followed as 3d was being introduced. The art style is a lot more timeless and some really great games were released. It probably helps that I was 10-13 or so during this time period.
I was a Nintendo kid. I own every console from NES through Game Cube, plus the original Game Boy. Nintendo lost me in college as they continue to focus on kids and decided to neglect those of us who belong to the "Nintendo Generation".
This is the first book I've read on this time period. From the title, I was expecting this to talk about both sides of the "Console Wars" and that was my first disappointment. If I had read the blurb, I would have realized that this was mostly Sega's story. In particular, Tom Kalinske's story. He was brought in to run Sega of America and take on Nintendo.
It's hard to know if I was just too young for Sega at the time, or if I truly just like Nintendo better, but I never got the big deal. Give me Mario over Sonic anyday. Or really screw them both and give me a new Zelda game to play.
That said if not for Sega and Tom Kalinske, the video game industry would be that much poorer for it as Nintendo had a near monopoly before he showed up and turned things on their head.
Mr. Harris did extensive interviews to write this book, and I imagine he either got more time/better interviews from the Sega folks than the Nintendo side. You get glimpses of the inner workings of Nintendo, but most of the time you see the actions of Nintendo through the eyes of their competitors. If you were a Nintendo kid like I was, you may find yourself as disappointed with this as I was. If you're a Sega fan, you might come away differently.
The other big drawback of this book is the format. For some reason he decided to write the book as though he/we were present while events were happening and apparently made up a bunch of the dialogue and conversations in the book based on his interviews.
What this does in my opinion is bloat the book while rarely going deep on some of the key points. He could have either written a much shorter version of the same book, or given a lot more depth at the same length.
It does make the book very readable though. It's an easy read, and there is definitely a lot of interesting stuff in here that those of us who grew up during this time period or are simply fans of video games and their history should enjoy.
He touches on most of the major events: The introduction of Sonic the Hedgehog, The launch of the SNES, The Sega Scream and ad blitz, Mortal Kombat, the government hearings on violence in video games and the creation of the ESRB. Things end with the first E3, the launch of the Sega Saturn, and Sony's entry into the market with the Playstation.
I think if this book got more in depth and was more balanced with its inside looks at both Sega and Nintendo it would have been a much better book, but it's still a good one worth a look if you're a fan.
Interesting, gripping, and very readable - but also a tad shallow. Think "thriller novel that happens to be based on real-life" and you'll know if you're interested or not.
I heard the author speak, and he's a nice guy. The book says upfront that it's based on a bunch of interviews conducted by the author, and that it's the author's way of putting everything together in novel-esque form. He doesn't ever want to stop and give boring footnotes or explanatory passages. It certainly keeps the narrative flowing. It does so, however, at the cost of the assurance that what you're reading is actually *true*, which dulls some of the power of the book. Even simple footnotes like "yes, I am not making this part up" would be nice.
Here's a good example: at the talk of the author's I went to, I remember him expressing his surprise when he heard the Sony guys he chatted to talking about their time producing games for the NES as being like "slaves on the plantation." Whoa! You sure? That's pretty harsh! And in-person, he sold the gravity of the discontent, which is fine. But in the book, he has the Imagesoft guy deliver the "slaves on the planation" line to *Howard Lincoln*, the president of Nintendo of America... and Lincoln *ignores* the line and just casually moves on. I'm sorry, that doesn't ring true to me! If it is true, then a footnote saying "yes, Olaf Olaffson claimed to really say Nintendo was treating him like a slave to Lincoln's face, and Lincoln lamely responded with 'isn't that a bit drastic'" would have been nice. I can see a line like that years after the fact to a journalist, but to a valuable business connection's face? And to not get a response? This seems a case of interspersing a real quote with the wrong context.
Similarly, the book claims that after Sega of America couldn't get SoJ approval to work with SGI on a next-gen platform, SoA President Kalinske outright *told* the SGI types to check with Nintendo for what would become the N64. Really? That's a very interesting betrayal if so, but it reads to me like simple author foreshadowing that SGI would end up working with Nintendo, and not something Kalinske actually did.
Anyway, don't get me wrong, it's an interesting book. It is a book very much focused on the business & marketing side of the video game industry and talks very little about the actual quality of the games therein. This is probably okay if you're already familiar with it yourself, but might make for strange reading to someone truly unfamiliar - like a discussion of the Japanese car company invasion of the US market in the late 70s and 80s without any discussion of fuel efficiency or car quality. For me, it was fine, though. Consider it lightly recommended, with the provisos of people having totally implausible flashbacks in the middle of their conversations so as to not break the scene. ;-)
Absolutely incredible book. It's factual, fool to the brim with insider stuff (can't imagine how and where did the author get his hands on all the dialogues going inside Sega and Nintendo quarters), yet written as a thriller with elements of comedy.
There are hilarious moments that made me burst out in laughter.
I had a pleasure of listening to audiobook. Production is incredible. The narrator changes voices and pronunciation accordingly, depending on whether it's Japanese or American or nordic guy talking. The immersion is complete.
Those dissatisfied with what they got from the book should be aware that book delivers exactly what it promised. This book is not about your gaming pleasure, love for the games and other nocturnal ejaculation material. You have IGN forums to indulge in circlejerk like that.
It delivers exactly what it promised. Opportunity to travel back in time and be a fly on the wall of some of the biggest gaming BUSINESSES in history to learn how and why things went the way they did.
It's business side of stuff, not your Home Arcade monthly serving you the tips on dealing with calluses in your right hand and rapidly progressing myopia that prevents you from reading the book titles correctly.
I've reached a point in my life that I can no longer justify wasting my precious time forcing myself to finish something I'm so actively disliking. So that's it for Console Wars.
It doesn't surprise me to learn that the author considers himself a filmmaker, because the cheesy (and clearly fake) dialogue throughout this book feels like it was taken directly from a short-lived 90s sitcom. The author also has the frustrating tendency to interrupt his characters' inane witticisms with pages of tedious backstory, such that when you finally reach the response to that witticism, you've forgotten what the characters were even discussing.
The author insists on concentrating on the most tedious aspects of the titular "console war;" scene after scene involves businessmen making decisions about how to market and sell games, but we get no perspective from those who design or even play them. The book provides little insight or even interesting factoids about what should be a fascinating time in game culture.
I could go on to explain how unpleasant an experience it is reading this book, but I already wasted a month of my life trying to get through its uncalled-for 600 pages.
WOW! If you have any interest in video games, or, if like me, you sat on the sidelines as your brothers played for countless uninterrupted hours, then you'll thoroughly enjoy this book. I was most fascinated by the technological advancements and innovative marketing tactics that came about as result of this industry. For example, did you know video games initially didn't have a set release date? Crazy, right?
I could go on and on about this book and all the fascinating things I learned, but that would just spoil it for you. Enjoy!
A very interesting book, but I can see why the reviews are somewhat mixed here. I imagine that most readers attracted to a book like this are interested in video games, and it's only maybe 10% about video games; it's really about the executives at the various game companies in the early '90s and all of their various power struggles. For most of the people chronicled here, video games are a means to an end; we hear very little from the game developers themselves.
It's kind of like a Game-of-Thrones power struggle, only instead of beheading each other, the principle players come up with evil marketing campaigns and yell at each other at conferences a lot. That said, I did enjoy this book quite a bit for illuminating just what was behind the whole Sega/Nintendo grudge match from my childhood. At its most basic, it was two companies competing for market share, but it was also a clash of philosophies that manifested on several different levels. There's surprising depth here; at least, it surprised me.
Still, even though I like the concept, there are some significant flaws. The recreated/reimagined dialogue is a little too pat and snappy (like Harris has watched a few too many Joss Whedon shows), and I find it difficult to believe the principle players really spoke like that all the time. Plus, this tome could use some editing; while the insight into the lives of all the major players is nice, some extraneous information could definitely be trimmed. I think Harris had great respect for all the people he interviewed for the book and wanted to do them all justice, but not everyone's story is all that relevant to what's going on.
All that said, if you're interested in video games, you should read this book. A lot of what went on between Sega and Nintendo (and Sony, lurking in the background of this book like a smirking Cheshire Cat) during this time period is crucial to understanding the business of games as it exists today.
The fact that I finished this book is the only reason it gets more than one star. The subject matter should be fascinating - the rise and fall of Sega in 1990s America - yet Blake Harris manages to turn it into an endless parade of dull imaginary conversations about sales and marketing, with naught but a brief look at the actual games that made the struggle between Nintendo and Sega so defining a part of popular culture of that era. It also doesn't help that Harris' prose style is workmanlike at best, and for most of the book reads like a rushed essay produced by a less-than-talented journalism student. The book shows no love for the subject matter, and barely any research into what makes a gaming experience memorable or compelling. There is simply the bare assertion that the revolutionary "speed" of Sonic the Hedgehog was all it took to trump the evolutionary gameplay of Super Mario World. Having been part of the target demographic at the time, I can assure the author that I not only had no inclination to purchase Sonic (or a MegaDrive) based on the gameplay, which was limited and linear, but having re-played both Sonic and SMB4 beginning to end in the past year, it is the Nintendo title that remains a fresh and exuberant experience to this day. And then there are the factual errors, or at least the misunderstanding of the technology. At one point Harris refers to a 16-bit machine being *twice* as powerful as an 8-bit machine. Additionally, there is a reference to a 24-megabyte cartridge - no MegaDrive or SNES cartridges were ever that capacity. What Harris is referring to is mega*bits*, which are of course eight times smaller. Also, Harris refers to the impact of the 1983 videogame crash on the UK market. There was no videogame crash in the UK, as the electronic gaming market was dominated by home computers. There was a hardware crash in 1984, but that simply had the effect of removing the least successful brands from the market, leaving the BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 to continue to benefit from thousands of software titles being published (there were fewer barriers to entry into the UK game market, as distribution of software was on cassettes as opposed to more expensive floppy disks or ROM cartridges, as well as a profusion of small or even one-man software development studios, the so called "bedroom coders"). Not only does Harris get the impact of this event wrong, he also lists successful home computer brands as "Apple, Amiga and Commodore", which would be like referring to successful games consoles as "Nintendo, Genesis and Sega". Other reviewers have pointed out the insipidly sexist descriptions of women - do we really need to know if a new employee is a brunette, or if another is doe-eyed? Also, there is one early scene where Harris has his allegedly "smart" marketing team asking "Who the hell knows what a hedgehog is?". I mean, come on! That would be like a European adult not knowing what a raccoon is - no functional member of society is that ignorant. Anyway, Harris' focusing on the marketing as opposed to the substance of the games just lends weight to the opinion that Sega's rise and fall was due to the fact that is was able to ride the '90s *extreme* marketing style to trick consumers into buying their console. This is perhaps unfair, as the MegaDrive/Genesis did have some quality titles, despite its crass and juvenile advertising.
Anyway, things that rankled me were: 1) The fictionalised conversations 2) No footnotes or endnotes 3) No references 4) No hardware comparisons 5) No tabulated sales data, for readers to compare the performance of the systems 6) Not a single chart or graph 7) Factual errors
I guess I prefer my non-fiction books to be less fictional and to wear their research on their sleeves.
Considering this is a book about business more than video games themselves, this is an impressively entertaining read. Lightly fictionalized, this tells the story of Tom Kalinske's years at Sega, which roughly parallel the Genesis era, when Sega actually took leadership in the console wars. Told mostly from Kalinske's perspective, it's predictably pro-Sega, although it does take a moderate view of Nintendo's perspective at the time. Harris does a good job of couching everyone's stories with perspective and relevant detail without getting too bogged down. The biggest problem is the end - it just sort of peters out with the release of the Saturn, resorting to telling rather than showing the decline. With something this recent and that is still ongoing in some ways, it is understandably hard to find a good end point, but it really kind of feels chopped off. But otherwise, the fact that a book that is predominantly about management and marketing, albeit in the video game industry, manages to be as entertaining and engrossing is a testament to Harris' ability to really push a narrative through, supporting it and highlighting central causes while also giving notice to related factors without getting too sidetracked. It's a long book, but worth the read.
I really wanted to learn the story of rivalry between Sega and Nintendo, and yet I couldn't get past how glorifying this book was of quite outdated capitalism values and "CEO good, everything else bad" work culture. Pure, CONSTANT eye roll.
I thought I'd manage to get past it, but it just slathers sugar on everything these guys do, even when it's something bad and actually pretty lame. Cringe and yuck.
I'm not sure if it's me or if it's just behind the times now. I think it would fit perfectly well in the collective culture of the 90s or the 00s, but now we're all sick and tired of pandering to that taste. Or at least I hope so. (Am I wrong..?)
This book was surprisingly excellent. It's about the battle between Nintendo and Sega for video game dominance. Nintendo controlled 90% of the video game market, but Sega had a better product. So through brilliant marketing and crazy off he cuff ideas Sega took 50% of the marketing share.
I thought it would be a rather dull dry book about facts and figures, boy was I wrong.
If you like stories about people succeeding through pure brilliance, this is for you. If you like videogames and their history this is for you. If like to read about marketing and business activities, this is for you.
I enjoyed it despite the, at times, bad writing and the fact that the author seemed to be Tom Kalinske's #1 fan. It isn't a subjective account of the Sega vs. Nintendo console war by any means, but it still has enough to keep you going if this subject interests you.
This book is very badly written, with made up dialog and generally poor structure. The history itself is interesting so it has that. I wouldn't recommend this unless you really really like the subject matter.
A delightful history of not only Nintendo and Sega but also Playstation (for a hot minute, definitely their origin story). This was more the story of Tom Kalinske and his saga at raising Sega from the ashes. Because when he quit Sega, they didn't even bother touching the Dream Cast and only did the briefest mention of Saturn. So while this is a nonfiction book, it's written like a novel which makes it easy to read and get through. I ended up listening to the audiobook for TBR pile reasons, and the narrator did a great job of differentiating each of the different people in this history. I felt like this definitely favored Sega (or at least SOA) which made it an underdog story, or a Cinderella story without the Happily Ever After.
Anyway, I recommend this! The audiobook too because it was just delightful (if long at 20 hours...)
The problem most people seem to be having is that Harris takes what are certainly some liberties with the story, at least with the scenery and exact dialog.
Think of it like this. It's the story of Sega, but the dramatized version. Not necessarily with made up, added-in stuff. But with elements that, though they might be difficult to remember, clear up the story or make it into less a catalog of events, more a coherent narrative. Maybe Kalinsky didn't look out the window when he thought about leaving Sega. Maybe someone from Nintendo wasn't wearing that exact shirt as described in the book.
Frankly, I appreciate it. So many non-fiction books, especially ones like this that cover a long-ish period in history with a lot of people and moving parts, engage in the mortaring of narrative bricks without being forthcoming about it. They cobble together lots of interviews and data, but then they are certainly filling in a lot of other stuff, or at best, filling it in with what the people profiled remember of everything.
I didn't feel like it was a device used to heighten the drama or manipulate the reader. I felt like it was a new way to tell this kind of story, and I'm cool with the acknowledgement that history will only ever be as good as a collection of human memories, which is a pretty sorry machine when you get down to it. This will change in the future, I'm sure. I can look back at email, Twitter, Goodreads, all kinds of shit, and backfill my diary if I want to with exact words and dates and even times and locations. But the time period of this book just doesn't allow for that.
The rating I gave this book is because it seems like I can't get a book about video games without hearing the same handful of stories about Nintendo's origins. They're great stories. But I got it.
I just wish that every book about this stuff had a little footnote that said "the following is the story about Donkey Kong/Radar Scope. If you know what that means, skip to the asterisk on page X"
That said, lots of Sega history. Lots of it is focused on the marketing, and I would say that's because Sega rose to power because of its great marketing and business strategy, and it fell when all of that fell apart. Fun fact, if it weren't for the inability of the companies, and some individuals at the companies, to get along, Sony would have made a new console in conjunction with Sega instead of making the Playstation. Which ended up being one of Sega's downfalls.
A cool book that explores a different niche of video game history.
And now I'm going to engage in something I abhor, complaining about the product of this book as opposed to the narrative.
I paid for the audiobook. Motherfucker is $40. Digital, no physical media $40. On Audible it's motherfucking $46.95! Is it just me, or is that kind of an outrageous price for an audiobook? Tom Bissel's Extra Lives is $20. It's shorter, but c'mon. Console Wars is $8.99 on Kindle and $20 in hardcover. What's going on with this goddamn thing?
I really wouldn't complain, that averages out to like $2 an hour or even less, but it just seems out of line with what other audios cost.
But. Fred Berman fucking kills it. That guy was great. Big load to handle in this book, and I thought his voices were really good, differentiated enough, and he really knocked it out of the park.
Nearly a decade ago, I read the exhaustive and completely unofficial history of SEGA by Sam "The Scribe" Pettus. Assembled as a series of long reads up for anyone to read on the internet, Sam guided us through the histories of SEGA and Nintendo up through their high-friction war for the console market in the early nineties. It told a story of former Mattel Tom Kalinske, a man who turned an ailing Barbie brand into a girl power super toy in the 80s and was recruited by SEGA CEO Hayao Nakayama to turn their Genesis console into a success as well. The story goes that Kalinske built a marketing team for the ages and managed to erode Nintendo's 90% market share as they brought Sonic and the infamous "Sega Scream" to the world. Then, his reign would end when his Japanese benefactors decided to relieve Sega of America of their success, ultimately dooming the company with botched releases, like the 32X and the Saturn, that failed to impress against stiffer-than-ever competition from a revitalized Nintendo and newcomer Sony.
Harris's book was a flashback to those days, reading about the rise and fall of Kalinske's American branch, but in ways better and worse. Unlike Pettus's controversial "unofficial" tale, Harris had access to all the big players at Sega and Nintendo. This is a very thoroughly researched and pieced together work. At times, it seems a bit overwhelming as Harris spends chapters explaining things for the layman, or, later on, barely editing transcripts from Nintendo's first online chat or Kalinske's rah-rah-rah speech in advance of Sonic 2sday, the world's first (nearly) global release for a video game.
This bloat also carries over to the exposition, which Harris immediately identifies as largely recreated. The accuracy of the improvised story-telling doesn't seem at fault, it's the prose itself: spongy, dad-like exec-talk that seems ready for a cheap made-for-TV movie. This book serves as a complement to a documentary of the same title featuring those same movers and shakers, but will also serve as a backbone for Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's film of the same name. To that end, the book also feels irregularly paced - like the compressed latter half of Sega of America's empire - and scripted - like when Kalinske and Nintendo of America's Howard Lincoln are about to get into a fist-fight in a descending elevator. All the while, the story of the decision makers back at Sega of Japan, the ones ultimately sewing the demise of their own company, is left largely untouched as Kalinske receives his orders at a distance through intolerant masters.
The book leaves a lukewarm first impression in Rogen and Goldberg's foreward, a "humorous" 2500-word ramble about random gaming memories of the past two decades. The trailing end isn't much better as Harris spends most of his Acknowledgements section chatting about how great the documentary and movie are going to be and how much Hollywood help he had. It serves to me as an acknowledgement that while this thing has some solid bones, they're just not in the right places.
Are you between the ages of 26 and 40? Are you male? Did you play video games as a kid? Then you will likely love this book, all 576 pages. The subtitle of the book would be more accurate as "The Rise and Fall of Sega" because I would argue that the protagonist is either Tom Kalinske, President of Sega of America during the 90s, or Sonic The Hedgehog.
Blake Harris treats Sega like the underdog they were at the start of the 90s. The Master System was successful in Japan but had made few waves stateside. Under Kalinske's leadership, Sega came close to toppling Nintendo over the next three years thanks to his innovative mindset and brilliant team of marketers, strategists and idea-men. Harris also talks about Nintendo but in more historical terms, leaving the human element to their competitors.
I became a Nintendo kid the day I received an NES for Christmas. I didn't know what it was, but my parents bought it presumably on a hunch or advice from their peers. My cousin Pin was visiting us for the season and he freaked out when I opened the box. From that day forward, I've had every single home console the Big N has released and have never flirted with Sega.
That said, I still loved this book. Every commercial this book painstakingly details, every new tagline, every blockbuster game release, I remember fondly. I lived through the console wars, had many friends who were diehard Sega owners, clenched my jaw when Nintendo censored Mortal Kombat on the Super Nintendo and then dropped it when I saw the visuals from Donkey Kong Country.
Along the way, Harris details Sony's slow and shadowy rise to prominence, the conflicts of culture between Sega's offices in America and Japan and Nintendo's humble origins as a clandestine playing card company. With the video game industry growing every year and the top two players virtually nonexistent in the 90s, this book was a great trip down memory lane and a loving ode to the halcyon 16-bit era.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, whoever they are, provided the worst foreword in the history of literature for Console Wars, and I actually considered not reading the rest of the book because of those two idiots. Luckily I persevered, and quite enjoyed this examination of Tom Kalinske's time heading up Sega of America. Yes, I would have liked more attention to have been paid to non-Kalinske topics, especially the period when Sega's Master System was going head to head with the Nintendo Entertainment System, which got short shrift, and Sega's eventual exodus from the video game console business after the Dreamcast, a system that wasn't mentioned at all. Yes, I would have liked this to have been more even-handed, rather than a love letter to Sega of America at the expense of the apparently out-of-touch Nintendo and the ostensibly villainous Sega of Japan. Yes, there were a shocking number of typos for a book released by a major publisher.
Yet this book does a very good job of getting inside the mindset of the people working for Sega of America between 1990 and 1996, with more than five-hundred and fifty pages devoted to that period providing an unusual amount of detail. Having been on the other side of the marketing efforts described in Console Wars as an adolescent and teen, it was interesting all these years later to discover how the sausage was actually made. I don't know that anybody who didn't have the Sega scream burned into their brain will find the corporate politicking of Sega employees as interesting as I did, but if your formative years were spent playing Super Mario Bros. and/or Sonic the Hedgehog you're probably the exact, and only, intended audience for this book.
This book has problems. Pitched as a book about Sega and Nintendo, it's predominantly told from the perspective of Sega executives. And by "predominantly", I mean "90%", and by "Sega executives", I mean a guy hired from Mattel to run Sega of America. This can be excused to a degree -- I'm assuming author Blake Harris got most of his information from Tom Kalinske, so it makes sense that the book would be mostly about his experience there.
But there are two things that kill CONSOLE WARS for me: 1) dramatized narratives, and 2) no focus on what makes games fun. The story is told in a way that aims to bring the characters to life, and let history leap off the page. The problem is that these (very real) people are given really cliche and trite things to say. Conservations are fabricated, and with many, many eye-rolling punchlines and stock phrases. Additionally, with the exception of a few people working for Nintendo (who we spend almost no time with), absolutely none of these characters care at all about games. They care about image. They care about business. These folks are businesspeople, so I don't expect them to behave like little kids, but they care almost not at all about the games themselves. For example, the Sega executives trying to appear "edgy" and "cool" feels like a lot of middle-aged dads yearning for relevance. But I guess that's exactly what it was, so...