Last book review of 2015! Blake J. Harris’ Console Wars
Many, many years ago, when I was a kid, I got a Super Nintendo for Christmas.
The SNES was my first console, and therefore a Big Deal. Hell, I once wrote an essay for school talking about how that Christmas day was the best day of my life. It’s worth noting that this isn’t out of any sense of Nintendo-fanaticism (well, only a slight sense of Nintendo-fanaticism), but rather because, back then, I thought to myself “I’m 10 years old. How the heck am I supposed to have enough experience to know what the happiest day of my life is? Screw it, I’m going to write about Nintendo.” I might not have articulated it that way exactly, but you get the idea.
I was a self aware kid.
Anyway, all these years later, instead of a Super Nintendo, I got a book about the Super Nintendo. Only instead of a standardized essay, I’m going to write a blog post about it. History repeats itself, kind of.
I’ve been meaning to read Blake J. Harris’ Console Wars for awhile, and now here we are. I’ve got no idea what the demographics of my loyal readers on this blog are, but in case you didn’t grow up in the 90’s, here’s the deal. Back then, you either had a Super Nintendo, or a Sega Genesis. Fortunately, my best friend had a Sega, so I was able to play on the ‘other side’ from time to time, but the SNES was by far the superior console. Still, it planted the seeds of the current schism between variations of the X-box and Playstation today- it’s just that in the 16 bit era, games were actually different depending on the console. ZING.
Console Wars follows the Sega side of the equation more than the Nintendo one. There’s a bit of info on the goings on at Nintendo, sure- but the focus of the book is on the career of one Tom Kalinske. Based on his experience at Mattel, where he had helmed big brands like Barbie and He-Man, Sega put him in charge of Sega of America. Under Kalinske’s leadership, Sega of America went from an unknown name to having a hold on over half of the American video game market. A lot of their success came from ballsy marketing and targeting an older demographic than Nintendo’s target market. Really, Sega advertising is pretty indicative of the ‘X-TREEEEM’ trend of the 1990’s.
There are a lot of fun details peppered throughout Console Wars, like how ridiculous Sonic the Hedgehog’s original concept art was. Originally, Sonic had fangs and a leather collar and an electric guitar and a busty blonde human girlfriend- which makes all that weirdo fanart on deviantart kind of fitting, I guess?
We also get a few more peeks into the development of games like Ecco the Dolphin or Donkey Kong Country, even if Harris doesn’t dwell on them for too long. The book also covers the earliest days of Sony’s video game projects, the foundations of the video game juggernaut they are today. It’s also really interesting to see the evolution into ‘video games as a fancy toy’ to ‘video games as movie-esque pop culture releases’ that took place in the 90’s and is prevalent today. There’s also some less interesting stuff about business and marketing and such in there too- Console Wars treats video games ultimately as a product, rather than … well, games.
The underdog rise (and eventual fall) of Sega is a great story … it’s just that Harris isn’t very good at telling it. Right at the front of the book, Harris writes in a little disclaimer about how he straight up fabricated dialogue for his book. See, instead of just writing a standard non fiction book, Harris tries to make it into more of a narrative, complete with characters and snappy dialogue and stuff. Well, I say ‘snappy’ because that was Harris’ intent, but it doesn’t come through. Feel free to look up other reviews of the book (on, say, Kotaku, or The AV Club) for some choice awkward quotes.
Given the amount of first hand research Harris put into the book, it would’ve been a lot stronger if Harris had just included quotations from all the people he interviewed, whether or not they contradicted each other. Let the reader decide how things played out, rather than present a possibly contrived or fabricated story. Then again, I guess it all boils down to what kind of book you’re looking for; quick, entertaining story, or an actual pseudo-academic text. Harris is definitely shooting for the former, given the lack of an index or a proper bibliography. Personally, I was hoping for something a little closer to Of Dice and Men, but I’m just a nerd like that. Really, Harris’ ‘style over substance’ approach has a lot of similarities to Sega’s marketing in the 90’s, but I don’t think Harris did that on purpose.
The back cover of Console Wars plays up how the book has already been optioned for a documentary and a feature film. I get the feeling Harris focused a lot on the narrative aspect of the book, so as to make it more movie-able. Though on a side note, the forward by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg is awful; it’s just a bunch of hackneyed jokes about the power glove, and about how Sonic and Tails totally have a weird Seduction of the Innocent thing going. They’re cheap gags that were made on playgrounds across the country 20 years ago; here’s to hoping that whatever movie/documentary they wind up producing has something more interesting to say.