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'Console Wars' Book Review: When Nintendo and Sega Were Kings

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This book recaps a defining era in video game history and is a must-read for tech enthusiasts.

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The Nintendo (OTCMKTS:NTDOY) of 2014 is facing hard times, falling behind Sony (NYSE:SNE) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), in the battle for video game dominance.

But in the 1980s, Nintendo was everything.

Its groundbreaking Nintendo Entertainment System held 90% market share. It broke new creative ground with innovative franchises like Super Mario, Zelda, and Metroid. And it had an ironclad grip on the industry ecosystem, exerting enormous control over third-party game publishers. Nintendo even accounted for 10% of Wal-Mart's (NYSE:WMT) profits at one point.

But with great success came great complacency, creating an opportunity for a hungry, scrappy rival.

Enter Sega

Console Wars, by Blake Harris, is a fun, fast-paced retelling of the late 1980s to early 1990s 16-bit video game war.

Sega upended the Nintendo profit machine through aggressive marketing and strategic moves that were uncannily ripe for the time.

MTV had just defined a new, fast-paced visual culture, providing the blueprint for Sega's innovative, teen-oriented commercials, as well as new game franchises like its flagship Sonic the Hedgehog, a warp-speed competitor to Super Mario Brothers.

Sega pushed its groundbreaking Genesis console as a technological powerhouse, but it didn't stop there. It also painted Nintendo as a tired, uncool brand best suited for little kids.

Perspective

The story is told primarily from the point of view of Sega of America's then-CEO Tom Kalinske, and feels very much like a David-and-Goliath tale.

We learn step-by-step what it took to push Nintendo from the number-one spot, including marketing stunts (the company held gaming events that were similar to the classic Pepsi (NYSE:PEP) Challenge, for example), high-stakes negotiations with the very wily Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA), and going to extreme measures to get Wal-Mart to carry the Genesis. (Note: in the 1990s, you could annoy Wal-Mart into carrying a gaming console.)

And along the way, there's no shortage of fun trivia and anecdotes, like stories about the ridiculous early incarnations of Sonic the Hedgehog, the production of the disastrous Super Mario Brothers movie, and the back story of Nintendo's 'Gamemaster' Howard Phillips.

Transition

In the underdog role, Nintendo got hungry again with aggressive marketing and a round of incredible games for its SNES.

Meanwhile, Sega transitioned from David to Goliath, and with all the attendant pressures of extreme growth, corporate politics started to get in the way of innovation. I won't spoil all the details, but according to Console Wars' version of the events, Sega of Japan killed partnerships that could have given Sega access to technology that ended up in the forthcoming Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation.

If Console Wars has a flaw, it's the tossing of Sega of Japan under the bus for so many of the company's problems without an in-depth explanation. Tom Kalinske is clearly the hero in this book, and it's fascinating that one of his biggest obstacles is actually the leadership in his own company. It's something I'd like to learn more about.

Conclusion

I give Console Wars two very enthusiastic thumbs up, and not just as a book for video game fans. Anyone with an interest in technology, marketing, and good-old corporate warfare should find a lot to like here.

We're used to modern tech titans like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Samsung (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) bickering publicly, but we don't really get to see how today's battles are fought from the inside, aside from the occasional anecdote.

And that's the real strength of Console Wars  -- we get the view straight from the battlefield.


Twitter: @MichaelComeau

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