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Thursday, October 01, 2020

Console Wars


The new documentary, Console Wars, covers a pivotal time for anyone who was in Elementary or Middle School during the time frame of the late 80s to about the mid 90s.  Namely, the war between Nintendo and Sega to capture the attention of children with their high-end 16-Bit gaming consoles, the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.  Based on the 2014 book of the same name by Blake J. Harris (who is credited as a co-director of the film), the movie reveals just how cutthroat the corporate battle really was, told from the point of view of people from both sides.

This film has been in production almost as soon as the book was published, as initially Seth Rogen and his filmmaking partner Evan Goldberg were set to direct a film adapted from it. (They serve as Executive Producers here.) Over time, the project morphed into a documentary, a TV series at one point, and finally the film that is currently available to watch on CBS All Access.  As someone who not only lived through this time of gaming history (I was lucky enough to own both consoles back in my youth.), but still collects and plays games from that era to this day, I have been anticipating this for a while.  However, I can't help but feel that Console Wars might be the victim of bad timing, as Netflix recently launched a docu series about the video game industry called High Score just weeks ago, and one of the episodes covers the very topic that this film is focused on.  So, I don't know how much of an audience this will get, or if fans will learn much new here.

The core of the film belongs to Tom Kalinske, who back in the 80s helped revive the Mattel Toy Company by bringing Barbie back to the top of the doll world after slowing sales, and even helped launch the Masters of the Universe toy line.  While vacationing with his family in Hawaii in 1990, he was personally tracked down by Hayao Nakayama, the President of Sega of Japan at the time.  Nakayama had a 16-Bit video game console called the Sega Genesis that despite being more powerful than the Nintendo Entertainment System, was hardly able to make a dent in the market.  Nintendo was basically an unstoppable juggernaut at the time, and despite some flashy gimmicks from Sega to draw attention, such as celebrity endorsements with Michael Jackson and Joe Montana, they were still losing to hardware that was almost 10-years-old at the time.  Even worse, Nintendo was just about to launch their own 16-Bit console, and the company's dominance seemed destined to continue.

Nakayama wanted Kalinske to turn Sega's fortunes around the same way he had been doing for Mattel.  After much personal deliberation, Kalinske agreed, and became the new CEO of Sega of America.  He developed a four stage plan to bring the Genesis into more homes.  These stages included such things as going aggressively after Nintendo in their advertising, making deals with big entertainment licenses that would appeal to American game players like Disney and Marvel Comics, and going after the older audience of teens and young adults that Nintendo usually ignored in their advertising.  But the biggest and most bold decision  Kalinske made was that they should include their newest and hottest game, Sonic the Hedgehog, free with the system.  Sonic had the potential to be the biggest thing Sega had ever published, and some felt could even rival Mario in terms of video game mascots.  To help get the word out, Sega of America staged a massive multi-State mall tour where they let kids play both Sonic the Hedgehog and the newest Mario game at the time, Super Mario World, and let kids decide which one they preferred.  

Tom's gamble paid off.  Not only did Sonic become a household name in the video game industry, but the sales of the Genesis increased so dramatically that for a short while, they were able to dethrone Nintendo of America from the top of the video game pack.  However, as time went by, the relationship between Kalinske and Nakayama soured.  There was a lot of tension between the Japanese and American divisions of Sega, and neither could see eye-to-eye on where they should go next, or what the next console Sega should focus on when the time came for them to move on from the Genesis.  This is the main weak point I have with Console Wars.  The film is at its best when it's talking about Tom's early years as the head of Sega of America, and how his ideas paid off big.  But after that, the movie starts skimming over or just plain leaving out a lot of key details to the story.

For example, while the film does talk about the console release of the original Mortal Kombat, and the key role it played for both Sega and Nintendo at the time, it doesn't go nearly in depth enough with the outcome that happened when Sega had a version with a code that could unlock all the violence and gore of the arcade game, while the Super Nintendo rendition was heavily censored and watered down.  It also oddly downplays the aftermath of the game's release, and how both companies found themselves being grilled by politicians about the increased violence in video games being sold to kids.  Like I said, it's touched upon, but given what a humongous impact it had (it led to all games needing a rating system), it seems kind of truncated.  I was also a bit disappointed that we don't get to hear as much from Nintendo's side as I had hoped.  We never get to hear about any of their strategies they employed to combat Sega's come from behind victory.  The release of Street Fighter II for the Super Nintendo (another pivotal moment) is never even brought up, and we only get a brief mention of 1994's Donkey Kong Country, which was a definite game-changer at the time, and helped turn the tide back to Nintendo's favor when the 16-Bit wars were done.

The biggest disappointment is that we never actually get to hear from Nakayama, or anyone from Sega of Japan.  The film is told entirely from the American division's point of view, while Nakayama and others from Japan are only seen as broad caricatures in cartoons done in a video game graphic style that are played throughout.  Maybe the filmmakers just couldn't get anyone who worked at Sega of Japan at the time to agree to appear in the film.  Whatever the case, it constantly feels like we're only getting half the story here.  I looked up Nakayama, and learned that even at age 88, he is still involved in the world of business today.  There is some talk in the film that Sega of Japan was jealous of the success the American division was having, as the console (known as the Mega Drive over there) was never as popular as it was in the U.S.  I would have liked the film to go more in depth with this.


Speaking as someone who has a lot of interest in this particular subject and point in time in gaming history, I felt Console Wars did not quite dig deep enough.  Once it's through covering Tom Kalinske's early success, the movie kind of loses its vision.  However, if you don't know a lot about the story, it might grab your attention to look deeper into the story.  Even if this isn't the film it could have been, it still is entertaining enough, and a reminder of a great time in recent pop culture.

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