The Sonic Second: “Console Wars” Review

This Sonic Second will be a little different than usual – it’ll be my informal review of Console Wars – Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris, a book that came out earlier this year but I just got around to reading last night. Despite the impartial sounding title, the book focuses heavily on Sega, mostly being told from the point of view of Tom Kalinske during his stint as president and CEO of Sega of America. Because of this, the development of the Sonic games, particularly the first and second, are crucial elements of the story and so I thought it relevant to what I usually cover here.

I’m actually in the habit of reading corporate “thrillers” of this kind, whether they cover fields in which I have some interest, like computers (e.g. Show Stopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft by G. Pascal Zachary or Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?: Leading a Great Enterprise through Dramatic Change by Louis V. Gerstner Jr.) or not (e.g. The Aspirin Wars: Money, Medicine, and 100 Years of Rampant Competition by Charles C. Mann). So I probably would have still enjoyed the book even if it didn’t cover a subject matter that’s important to me personally – but it’s a huge bonus that it does. It’s always been trivial to find documentary coverage of subjects like the Beatles, Walt Disney, or Star Wars, but those are all my parents’ (or my grandparents’) culture that I’ve inherited. To finally have the same thing for the stuff that defined my childhood, to get a behind-the-scenes look at my favourite years of video games, to read a narrative where Sonic and Tails are an important presence, is an especial pleasure. I suppose as my generation gets older, this kind of thing will become more and more common.

My favourite parts were reading about the origins of things like the “Welcome to the Next Level” ad campaign, the “Sonic Twosday” global launch, the “Are You Up 2 It?” tagline, and even the Nintendo Treehouse. These things are practically legendary, but each of them has real people behind them, and their stories are very interesting.

While the story the book tells is fascinating, it’s also frustrating – in many ways, it’s the story of Sega’s self-destruction, a senseless near-tragedy that in retrospective looks like it could have been easily avoided if the Japanese and American branches of the company had only communicated and collaborated better. As exciting as it is to read about the meteoric rise of the Genesis, it all ends on a bittersweet note with the botched launch of the Saturn, from which Sega – and their star Sonic – would never fully recover.

It’s also a little frustrating for another reason – it’s hard to hear about the heated rivalry between Nintendo and Sega. In its lightest moments, it was almost good-natured, but at other times it was brutal. For me, I grew up loving both companies and both consoles – heck, I was privileged enough to have a SNES, Genesis, Turbo-Grafx, and a 3DO – and all the fighting makes me cringe. Sales figures or market share may tell one story, but in the end both consoles brought invaluable experiences to millions, and I could never pick a favourite between them. One could argue that the competition brought out the best in them – after all, we might not have Sonic if not for the desire to outdo Mario – but I’m glad that we’ve finally seen the hatchet buried despite my misgivings about the recent direction of the Sonic series itself.

So what about the quality of the writing? I found it to be quite digestible and well-paced, with a few well turned phrases and mostly natural dialogue. I tore through the whole 500+ pages in one evening, so I guess you could say it was gripping. I have my complaints – characters seemed to have a habit of rolling their eyes, and the author found a few too many ways to unconventionally describe smiles – but they’re minor. More distracting were the handful of inaccuracies, like describing Myau from Phantasy Star as a “muskrat” instead of a “musk cat“, saying that the secret credits in Sonic 1 appeared at the end of the game, and a few misspelled Japanese words, but again these were minor and incidental. On the whole I found the journalism superior to what I’ve come to expect from mainstream coverage of the subject.

In conclusion, although there’s nothing new to get a Sonic trivia-hound’s nose really twitching, if you have an unshakable nostalgia for the days when the TV would scream “Sega!” then Console Wars comes highly recommended from me. I’m also really looking forward to the upcoming documentary and movie based on the book.

If you enjoy the book, here’s some further reading (and listening) I also recommend:

Interview with Tom Kalinske by Sega-16
SEGAbits Swingin’ Report Show #60: Console Wars with Al Nilsen, SEGA’s Director of Marketing (’89-’93)
SEGAbits Swingin’ Report Show #61: Console Wars Release Day Party with Author Blake J. Harris
SEGAbits Swingin’ Report Show #62: Console Wars with Tom Kalinske – SEGA of America’s President (’90-’96)

Also, the book Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children by David Sheff is a somewhat similar read about Nintendo that ends at about the era where Console Wars begins.

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