Book Review: “Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation”

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It Was A Battle More Deadly Than Any Videogame Could Ever Be…A Real-Life Mortal Kombat Between Sega And Nintendo

The above sentence is found on the official website for the book “Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation” by Blake J. Harris, and having read through the book myself, it’s an accurate description. Upon reading “Console Wars”, I couldn’t help but feeling a bit bloodied and bruised, but proud to have chosen the side that I’m on as a fan. “Console Wars” is not a detached history lesson of the SEGA vs. Nintendo rivalry of the 90’s, it does not read as several wikipedia articles.

Instead, “Console Wars” is a very real and personal story largely told from the perspective of SEGA of America President and CEO Tom Kalinske during the first 6 years of the 90’s. Taking the journey along with Tom, readers also occasionally go behind-the-scenes with Nintendo and Sony, and receive a few extended history lessons on the histories of companies like SEGA, Nintendo, Sony, and others. This mix provides the reader with both factual and emotional reasons for why SEGA and Nintendo did what they did, and as such is the most honest and truest account I have ever read of this period of video game history.

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The accuracy in the story’s telling is thanks to more than two hundred interviews with former SEGA and Nintendo employees carried out by the author. Blake notes at the beginning of the book that despite going straight to the source, there will inevitably be inconsistencies between retellings thanks to the passage of time and varying allegiances, but despite this the book does a fantastic job presenting what is the next best thing to being there as it happened.

I mentioned Tom Kalinske, but another important figure I should mention is Al Nilsen, SEGA’s Director of Marketing from 1989 to 1993 [listen to our Al Nilsen interview]. Combined with Tom, the two are the heart and soul of the story, providing SEGA fans personifications of what we loved so much about the company in the early 90’s. Perhaps the greatest thing I took away from reading “Console Wars” was a stronger connection with SEGA as a fan, and having that SEGA passion reignited.

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“Console Wars” is a book that has been a long time coming, both in the process of assembling the narrative (which we’ll delve into next week as Blake J. Harris joins us for our Swingin’ Report Show podcast) and the fact that no book like it has not existed until now. It’s refreshing to hear the story from the SEGA perspective, not just because it is the side I root for, but because it is the far more interesting company. Nintendo fans shouldn’t fret, as heavyweights like Howard Lincoln and Peter Main are also featured and their side to the story is fairly portrayed. Nintendo is not painted out as the bad guy, but rather as the company that sticks to established rules and morals.

It’s no secret that during the NES and SNES era, Nintendo controlled many aspects of their company so as to maintain their standard of quality in what games release and how they’re released. SEGA, meanwhile, broke out in 1991 with an emphasis on freedom, choice, and innovation. While Nintendo played it safe, SEGA took chances. The conflict of freedom versus control is nothing new, just look to classic stories like Rocky and Star Wars, but it is the perfect way to exemplify what the story of “Console Wars” is at its core. “Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation” by Blake J. Harris receives our highest recommendation, and is a must read for any video game fan.

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Pre-order “Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation” by Blake J. Harris today at Amazon.com

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9 responses to “Book Review: “Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation”

  1. InTheSky says:

    I am VERY interested in this one. Thanks for the post!

  2. Centrale says:

    Looking forward to reading this.

  3. GuitarAnthony says:

    Got it pre-ordered and can’t wait to read it.

  4. Barry the Nomad says:

    Thanks guys! It truly is a great read. If you ever needed a reason to love SEGA more, this book is it!

  5. cube_b3 says:

    Only one question and I know you may have answered it when you said 6 years of Kalinske.

    But where does the book end?

    Does it follow Kalinske beyond Sega?
    Does it follow Sega beyond Kalinske?

    Does it provide rationale for the nonsensical launch for Saturn? Does it hold Kalinske accountable for it?

    Whoops, asked a lot more than one question.

  6. Kid Compile says:

    I should preface this with the fact that I am a huge Sega fan, but I have to be honest, I have quite a few issues with this book so far. The style in which the book is written is really starting to annoy me. I guess I don’t really care for the conversational style / dialogue between the characters – mainly because much of this has to be completely fabricated. There is no way anyone remembers such miniscule details from conversations or interactions they had 20 to 25 years ago. I am assuming that the author is simply working with a general framework based on interviews and coming up with the dialogue on his own. That doesn’t sit well with me and leaves a lot of room for error or contextual issues. I have quite a few other problems, would have liked a brief but more robust history of SOA and Sega in general, the omission of the PC Engine, etc, but I suppose this comment might not get much traffic on an older news post.

    • Blake has stated that he ran such conversations past those involved, so as to receive their approval of the conversations. Of course they’re not word for word, but the attitudes and opinions of the people involved
      are factual. The conversations in Console Wars are far more accurate than, say, a historical narrative set in the Civil War, thanks to all the key players of Console Wars being alive and willing to work with Blake.

      Here’s my take on the fabricated conversations:

      While yes, there is no way that the conversations could be recalled in such detail and are fabrications in that sense, Blake assured us that through his research and interviews the gist of the conversations were accurate. If, say, Al entered Tom’s office with an idea, pitched it, and Tom liked the idea, and an ad campaign was the result of the conversation, then Blake gave a recreation of how such a conversation went down.

      The catalysts for ideas, attitudes and results are accurate – the rest is for entertainment. I’ve read far too much of SEGA’s history in the textbook/history book format, so it is refreshing to have these same facts told in a narrative. Rather than “On Tuesday, July 6th, Al Nilsen approached Tom with an idea for a new campaign. Tom gladly approved of the idea and signed off on it.” we get a dramatization of such events with the people involved consulting on the dialogue, and I think that’s pretty damn impressive and as close as we’ll get outside of recorded conversations (which don’t exist).

      As for the robust history of SEGA of America and SEGA in general, that just isn’t this book. Such books exist, like the so-so “Service Games” which reads like a wiki and is very hit-or-miss when it comes to accuracy, and I do believe that such a historical book should be produced, but I don’t think it’s fair to knock Console Wars for being something that it is not. As far as the omission of PC engine, it’s unfortunate but understandable that they couldn’t cover everything. 6+ years of SEGA history is a LOT to cover, and I think Blake did a good job on hitting several key moments.

    • Kid Compile says:

      Maybe ‘robust’ was a poor choice of words. All I am looking for is an encapsulated history of Sega of America and SoJ, and yes it would add to the book as much as the brief history of Nintendo did (even though I was well aware of 99.9% of those details from other readings, it still added to the experience and it did include a very succinct history of Nintendo of Japan). This in conjunction with the omission of Hudson, NEC, and the PC Engine is critical in setting /establishing up as to why the U.S. market was so valuable to Sega since Sega’s new 16-bit hardware was getting obliterated yet again in their home market (I believe for a brief window the PC Engine was even outselling the Famicom and was starting to worry Nintendo). I’m not asking for 50 plus pages, just a short chapter would have been nice (there are quite a few 2-5 page chapters in this book, one or two more shouldn’t have been an issue).

      My masters is in history. I guess for better or for worse that, and also due to my adviser’s direction, has shaped my tastes when it comes to writing history. I just don’t care for Blake’s method. While he might have captured the “attitude” of the situation, this can still lead to misunderstanding – I’m not sure a good percentage of this book’s readers will necessarily understand how Blake ‘reconstructed’ these exchanges or what liberties were taken (I’m basing this off of Amazon reviews and feedback elsewhere). At times it reads more like a screenplay than anything else. Of course Tom would sign off on much of this – I’m liking the book, but it does have a definitive slant. 😉 And yes, it is possible to write a very informative and captivating book without employing such methods. However, I know you aren’t necessarily arguing against this. I couldn’t put Sheff’s Game Over down when I first read it back in late ’95. He was able to relay interesting events and characters, portray feelings of the time, and reconstruct crucial or pivotal situations – all this with limited dialogue or just using a few quotes. I guess to me that book felt like it had more journalist credibility with how he presented information yet it wasn’t presented in a purely textbook manner. Console Wars just seems a bit cheesy at times, well, real cheesy to be honest. Again, I guess it simply boils down to what style you prefer, but I do understand what you are saying when you stated that you are tired of reading Sega history presented in a purely text way. I agree, but would like a more reined in approach limited to known quotes and not reliant on Blake’s conversational / screenplay like method.

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