New Book Chronicles the Sega-Nintendo Rivalry
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a conflict was played out on schoolyards across America. The question raged: Which was better, Sega or Nintendo? But unbeknownst to most school children, the Sega-Nintendo rivalry was just as intense within the two companies’ boardrooms.
This is the story that Blake J. Harris tells in his new book, Console Wars.
For years, console games had been almost an afterthought. Atari, the undisputed king of console gaming in the early 1980s, had practically gone belly-up following the crash of the video gaming industry in 1983. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, based on Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster film, was supposed to be the giant’s rebirth. Instead, massive overconfidence and legendarily bad game design made it the final nail in Atari’s coffin. The company ordered all copies destroyed, and a few weeks ago, a documentary film crew unearthed several thousand copies of the infamous game from a landfill in the New Mexico desert.
And so console gaming died.
A few years later, though, a new king arose from the ashes with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System.
If you were a school kid in the late 1980s, you had an NES or you went to your friends’ houses to play with theirs. A string of megahits beginning with Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers rolled out for the 8-bit machine, and the NES reigned supreme over the console game world for a few years.
It’s here that Harris’s story begins.
The book chronicles the rise and fall of Sega of America. Sega rose to prominence as a challenger to Nintendo in the early 1990s with the introduction of its 16-bit console, the Sega Genesis.
Genesis was a monster hit, eventually allowing Sega to overtake Nintendo as kings of the console gaming hill. Harris chronicles the days of the early 1990s in his book, detailing the how and why of Sega’s rise to power.
Harris’s book is interesting, although hardcore gamers may be disappointed. The book is focused on the business end of the Sega-Nintendo relationship, and the games themselves play a background role.
For example, there’s far more discussion of infighting between Sega’s American and Japanese divisions over the appearance and personality of the company’s flagship character, Sonic the Hedgehog, than there is discussion of what it’s like to actually play Sonic.
Additionally, it’s obvious from the book’s outset that Sega and particularly Sega of America CEO, Tom Kalinske, are the heroes. Sega is portrayed as the scrappy David to Nintendo’s Goliath. While there’s certainly substance to this opinion, Harris’s repeated reminders that Sega was cool and Nintendo was not can get a little onerous after more than 600 pages.
As a biography of the Sega company, the book is solid, and Harris has done his research, interviewing many of the principal players for both companies and offers a compelling insiders’ view of the goings-on at both Nintendo and Sega. Harris also suggests that had a few small things gone slightly differently, Sony’s PlayStation, which ultimately doomed Sega, might have been its savior. His tale of the Sega-Nintendo rivalry and the intense passion of those on both sides is interesting and well-documented. As a tale of corporate intrigue, it’s first rate, and a film adaptation by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who wrote the foreword to the book, is already in the works.
If you’re interested in the business of console games, this is a great read. If you’re interested in the games themselves, you might want to look elsewhere.