Console Wars reveals the importance of video game competition, then and now
Not as deep as the book, but CBS Access delivers a nostalgic look into the original console war.
You only need to look at your own struggles to pre-order the new Xbox or PlayStation to understand Console Wars. With the dawn of gaming's next generation around the corner, the CBS All Access documentary Console Wars, streaming now, is a breezy overview of the fabled 1990s rivalry between Sega and Nintendo, a clash of the capitalist titans that set the stage for Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo in 2020.
While the documentary lacks the grit and gossip of the original 2014 book by Blake J. Harris (Harris is a director on the film with Jonah Tulis), Console Wars is an engaging work that drips with millennial nostalgia that's more relevant than ever today. The battles chronicled in Console Wars are still fought, in new ways, nearly 30 years later.
So much of today's landscape is shaped by the fallout of Nintendo and Sega, and Console Wars is the SparkNotes version of that conflict. It has the potential to turn anyone into a casual scholar of gaming history, but it comes at the cost of getting to know the humans who fought the war itself.
Based on the book Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation, the documentary retells the same story of Sega's brief dominance over Nintendo with new animation and plentiful archival material. Brace yourself as old ads reawaken lost memories. Console Wars also dregdes up moments of infamy, like Sony's bold "299" announcement at 1995's E3 that set in place expectations of shock and pizzazz for years to come.
Obviously there is more story told in a 400-page nonfiction book than a 90-minute documentary. (One memorable chapter the book details but the film omits: The chaotic making of the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie.) But Console Wars is a fan-pleasing time machine to a definitive moment, an era when American executives with Japanese bosses got away with aggressive strategies that pushed the industry forward.
Console Wars is history told by the winners and losers. Like the book, former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske remains one of the "main characters" whose journey into the industry is the primary point of view. (Several other talking heads from both camps, including Nintendo's Howard Lincoln, weigh in.) A former Mattel executive, Kalinske was on vacation in 1990 when Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama, whose comb-over is said to have a life of its own, approached him on a Hawaiian beach to lead the new American division. Thus began a long, colorful six years when Sega ate Nintendo's lunch, pissed off Walmart, and pushed video game advertising to be rebellious.
Nintendo is introduced as a giant with restrictive retail practices and even stricter philosophies. Console Wars presents us with stodgy, square villains against Sega's cool blue underdog heroes. (It should be said everyone in the story are rich executives, all interviewed in polished homes that imply wealth the wars gave them. "Underdog" is a relative term.) It is a bold choice by Console Wars to chronicle the era through Sega's rise and fall, and you get the strong sense Sega could have survived into the 2010s as a chief player. Kalinske and company knew what the future held — online gaming, high-fidelity graphics, even a streaming service — but didn't have the support to see it through. A utility pole that deflated Sonic the Hedgehog at the 1993 Macy's Parade becomes a portent of Sega's downfall. (Sega still exists today as a software publisher, and there are rampant yet unfounded rumors of an acquisition by Microsoft.)
But Console Wars is more than loading audiences up on trivia. In its story of plucky Sega gaining ground against Nintendo (the all-ages giant analogous to Disney) Console Wars is a crash-course on capitalism. Every strategy Sega used to edge out Nintendo reveals how a Japanese company seceded to American aggression, with eye-watering results. From the brash "SEGA!" branding to hyping vaporware to targeting a "cooler" audience of teens and college kids, Sega did what Nintendidn't and became a $4 billion company by 1994 in the process.
The party obviously didn't last long for Sega. Watch as the PlayStation (at different times meant to be both a Sega and Nintendo collaboration) thunders into people's homes, foretelling doom for the House of Sonic. But Sega, Nintendo, and its conflict mapped out all gaming is today. Debates and deep-dives into hardware specs and must-have software all originate from the mudslinging Nintendo and Sega waged for years. You don't get arguments over ray-tracing and teraflops without the wild branding of blast processing.
But a war isn't fought with machines. It's fought by people, and Console Wars sacrifices the humanity of its belligerents. You get glimpses into some of them — Paul Rioux, Executive VP of Sega of America, is perhaps the most fleshed-out as a Vietnam vet who treats business like a battlefield — but rarely does Console Wars allow the human-level stakes to take hold. When sides are switched and allegiances change, the weight of those betrayals barely register.
Console Wars ends with a playful "Continue?" that gestures to how wars never end, they just start again. While nostalgia documentaries are plentiful now, Console Wars stands apart as a hyper-focused case study of one of the most important and influential span of several years in gaming history. It is also the most consequential, as glimpses of gaming's present appear like visions of the future. Though it is empty of the raw and tender humanity showcased in High Score, it is more necessary viewing as yet another console war begins again.
Console Wars is streaming now on CBS All Access.