Book Thoughts: Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined a Generation

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation was a 2014 documentary book by Blake J. Harris. As the name states, the book was about the intense competition between Sega and Nintendo in the early days of video games. The book was 556 pages split up into five parts. I always like to go behind the scenes to see the story behind the games, so Console Wars was very entertaining.

Since Nintendo is still in business as a video game console maker and Sega is not, I pretty much knew how the story ended, but it was still fun to learn the details. While I was born a few years before this period, I was very young and just barely getting started playing video games. I never had an interest in Sega consoles or games before it mostly disappeared from the game industry. Because Nintendo is still an active company, I got the feeling they weren’t interested in talking much about internal discussions and plans they had at the time. This meant the Blake J. Harris had to rely on a mostly one-sided account from former Sega employees. Therefore, the story was mainly about the rise and fall of Sega of America, the American division of Sega, rather than a complete picture of the Sega-Nintendo battle. The title of the book could have been chosen better to reflect the larger focus on Sega, but it didn’t bother me much.

With the focus on Sega, the story was pretty much necessarily biased against Nintendo. The primary source was Tom Kalinske, the former president of Sega of America. Everything else was weaved around Tom’s time at Sega. There were small tidbits about Nintendo and other industry figures to help with backstory and give context, but this book was about Sega. I would normally be critical of this, but I had very little knowledge about Sega due to my young age at the time, so I really enjoyed reading the story of a company that almost beat Nintendo. It was a good David and Goliath story. I gained an appreciation for all the hard work the employees did behind the scenes. Some of the stuff they pulled off was amazing. Many of their ideas were way ahead of their time, but this was also part of their downfall.

Sega attempted so many ideas trying to find success, they just diluted the market for Sega products. They released new hardware add-ons and consoles too often. People couldn’t buy new consoles that fast, meaning most of the releases didn’t sell well enough to attract a large following, giving players a bad taste and reducing the chance of them buying future Sega products.

The book was also biased against Sega of Japan, the main branch of the company. The story recounted several disagreements between the two divisions of the company, which became so bad that the American division crippled, unable to do what they needed to succeed. In many cases, it seemed like what was good for the Japanese market was bad for the American market, yet the Japanese side of the company always required a unified vision and marketing strategy. This just couldn’t work with two very different cultures. On the other hand, Nintendo of America was run by the son-in-law of the Nintendo of Japan president. Being married into the family, the son-in-law was trusted to make good decisions. Nintendo of America was mostly autonomous, almost always free to do what they thought was best for the American market.

Console Wars also lacked much about what went on at Sega of Japan. I doubt Blake J. Harris was able to talk to anyone that worked there, so all the information he got was from the Americans, who always felt like they were held back by the Japanese board’s decisions. It’s really impossible to tell if this is true without interviews from those executives in Japan. Maybe their demands were reasonable, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were too strict. Japanese companies place a huge emphasis on loyalty and seniority. It’s easy to see how the established branch of the company in Japan would clash with the young upstart in America.

Console Wars is technically a documentary book, but there was actually a lot of fiction in the book. Much like how the authors of ancient biographies filled in the empty spaces of a person’s life with fiction in line their character and personality, Blake J. Harris filled in the details as needed to create a cohesive story. There was even a disclaimer at the beginning that said almost all dialog in the book was fabricated while still keeping in line with what each person probably would have said. There was room for debate though. Several times the dialog was just too perfect and clean in my eyes to be realistic. The author’s bio on the back of the book explained how a documentary film was in production based on the work started with the book. A motion picture was also in the works. I think most likely the author wanted to make a movie based on this story but knew he didn’t have the clout or funding to make it happen, so he decided to write a book as a stepping stone to that goal. With all the dialog in the book, it would be pretty easy to turn into a script. The only problem would be the length.

Console Wars was quite a bit longer than I expected. A typical book would be around 300 pages, so this was almost double the size. Since I like video game history, I didn’t mind all the little extra things, but there were a few times I felt the author was wandering too much. For example, he mentioned how several employees met their spouse and got married. If both people were important video game figures this might have been good, but in many cases the spouse had nothing to do with games. There was no need to put those paragraphs in the book. I’m also not convinced that so many words had to be used. The same meaning can be usually be expressed with fewer words. I didn’t analyze this that closely, but the book could probably have used some more refining. Overall, Console Wars kept me entertained the whole time. Despite its length, I read the whole book in only four days. It was a good read.

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