x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 November 2017

Console Wars book review: Inside story of the battle between Sega and Nintendo

An entertaining chronicle of how a pair of companies invented the games industry as we know it today.

Dust jacket for Console Wars Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris. Courtesy Haper Collins
Dust jacket for Console Wars Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris. Courtesy Haper Collins

Back in the late 1980s – before Sony’s PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation – came Sega’s Mega Drive and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Console Wars by Blake Harris tells the story of how Sega rose from upstart to market leader, and in the process invented many features of the modern games industry, including the annual E3 conference, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, single day product launches, and loss-leading console pricing.

Mr Needlemouse – later renamed Sonic the Hedgehog – proved that consoles need exclusive launch-title releases to compete with their rivals. So Sega bundled it for free with a cut price Mega Drive – and bested the competition. Years later, Microsoft replicated the trick with Halo and the Master Chief.

Earlier in the decade, Nintendo was the gatekeeper to the video games industry. Nothing got published on its consoles without meeting its approval, developers were beholden to strict quality control standards and retailers could only lodge orders with their supplier in the hope that they would receive at least a quarter of what they wanted.

In short, it was an industry ripe for entry, and Tom Kalinske, who became chief executive of Sega, realised that a cool upstart could eat into Nintendo’s monopoly and make a more competitive environment for its friends in the supply chain.

Console Wars is not perfect. It offers a rose-tinted view of its protagonists, presumably in exchange for the access to interview them. This means that Harris repeatedly lauds midlevel marketing hires as visionary, and doesn’t give us a very balanced account of the causes of Sega’s later decline from hardware monolith to financial basket case.

It is also the case that the strategic milestones in this corporate battle are not the stuff of legend: vice presidential hires, advertising campaigns and meetings with retailers are not the most exhilarating features of American capitalism.

But the book is readable, frequently entertaining, and chronicles the story of how a pair of companies invented the games industry as we know it today.

For those who want to skip the prose, Seth Rogen is working on the film adaptation.

abouyamourn@thenational.ae

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