Video Game Book Reviews
In the late 80s, Sega was barely a blip in the video game console landscape. The Sega Master System had owned a sad fraction of the marketshare dominated by Nintendo. Its successor, the Genesis, was doing okay, but not great. The book Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation tells the story of how Sega of America turned the company's fortunes around and gave Nintendo a solid thrashing, at least for a few years.
The story is focused primarily on Tom Kalinske, the former Mattel executive who managed to reform Barbie's image. Stalked on a family vacation by Sega of Japan CEO Hayao Nakayama, he was chosen as a replacement for Michael Katz, whose performance kept the company afloat but didn't seem too effective in improving its fortunes. The book primarily focuses on Kalinske and his friend and associate Al Nilsen, Director of Marketing, along with assorted other Sega executives, including Shinobu Toyoda, the liaison between the Japanese and American branches. It also occasionally branches off to explain Nintendo's point of view, such as their reaction to the Super Mario Bros. movie and the creation of Donkey Kong Country.
Anyone who's read around or checked out the excellent interviews on Sega-16 probably knows the keypoints of this story: the brilliant bundling of Sonic the Hedgehog with the system, the worldwide unveiling of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the extremely effective "Welcome to the Next Level" ad campaign, and the indictment of Night Trap and Mortal Kombat in front of a US Senate hearing. The focus is primarily among marketing, including the vetting procedure to find the best ad agency to work on their products, as well as numerous meetings with retailers to loosen the iron grip that Nintendo had on video game distribution. It's a great underdog story, especially if you grew up during the era.
Amidst these major points are some fascinating details: Sega of Japan, for example, really wanted to produce a video game based on the Z grade movie Sgt. Kabukiman, which Sega of America thought was a terrible idea. Part of the reasoning behind the Sonic 2sday release date was to give Yuji Naka a solid, unmovable deadline for the completion of the game, given his tendency for delays. And it reveals that Nintendo executive Bill White was dismissed for providing promotional assets to the magazine GamePro, a grave offense given Nintendo's sparse association with the press.
There are two antagonists through the story. Nintendo is presented as an arrogant, conservative company who firmly believes they are winning the war of substance over style, and that they fully deserve the overwhelming power they wield over retailers and other publishers. Their major flaw is that they consider Sega's approach to be tasteless and therefore not worth addressing, until they find their financials suffering. Seeing them knocked down a peg is quite satisfying.
More shadowy is the competition with Sega's parent company in Japan. Kalinske was, for the most part, given complete autonomy of the American branch and drove it to success. In the meantime, the system floundered in its home territory, provoking resentment amongst the Japanese branch. At first it involved conflicts involving Sonic the Hedgehog - originally pitched as having a guitar with a busty human girlfriend - but eventually Japan became more and more standoffish, especially when it came to hardware. The 32X was forced on the American team, despite believing it would be a failure, and they commanded the early surprise launch of the Saturn, which was believed by Kalinske to be (correctly) a terrible idea. The tight lipped nature of Japanese corporate culture ensures that no one will probably ever know the true reason behind Sega of Japan's defiance, which is a little disappointing from a historical perspective. These moves ultimately doomed the Saturn, and caused Kalinske to quit, which is where the book ends.
Topping in at 576 pages in the hardcover edition, there's quite a lot of material covered, focusing primarily on 1991-1993, where the big battles were fought and Sega saw its biggest gains. However, almost all of it is focused on the marketing perspective, with very little time devoted to game development. The pitching and success of Ecco the Dolphin is mentioned briefly, as is the production of the Sonic the Hedgehog titles, but little else is brought up. Additionally, the Sega CD is mentioned during its conceptual phase, but little is revealed about its marketing, other than the existence of Night Trap and eventually noting the platform was not successful. Same thing with the Saturn - other than mentioning that there was some problems with its production in Japan, and its resulting failure, little is discussed about it, other than revealing that they had a very hard time (understandably) marketing NiGHTs...into Dreams.
The book is also presented as a third person narrative, complete with overtly embellished dialogue. It reads like an adaptation of a screenplay of a history book that doesn't actually exist. It makes for compelling reading, but it also makes some parts feel inauthentic. For example, it recalls an anecdote of Al Nilsen being dared to eat some of the potentially dangerous fugu pufferfish while on a trip to Japan. He decides to go for it, exemplifying this risk taking as the reason why the American branch was succeeding while the Japanese was not. Maybe this happened exactly as illustrated, but the metaphor feels a little too convenient to be believable. (Incidentally, Nilsen confirmed over Twitter that this incident was entirely accurate.)
Part of these seems to be because it's likely to adapted in a movie (as well as a documentary), due to the involvement of actors/screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. It will be interesting to see Hollywood's involvement in this story, and it's great to see it promoted, but the childishly casual conversation between the two, appearing as an introduction, is painfully embarrassing to read.
That's really the only low point of Console Wars, which is still an essential read for anyone into video game history, or even just those who want a glimpse of the marketing world during the early 90s.