Long before Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were scrapping it out on retail shelves, a small but nimble competitor very nearly unseated Nintendo. Welcome to the Console Wars.
This history of the battle for video game market supremacy between Sega’s Genesis gaming system and Nintendo’s SNES console is the source material for not only an upcoming documentary co-directed by the author, but also a Scott Rudin–produced Hollywood film being written and produced by geek icons Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (This Is the End), who contribute a funny introduction here. The good news is that despite being a bit lopsided in its portrayal of the players involved, the book is a highly entertaining behind-the-scenes thriller in which price fixing, psychotically aggressive marketing schemes and, occasionally, genuine innovation all come into play. Harris posits the fight between the two companies as a David-vs.-Goliath battle between Nintendo, which dominated the video game industry in the post-Atari era, and Sega, which valued audacious ideas, aggressive branding and more mature games. The nominal hero of the book is Tom Kalinske, a former Matchbox marketing executive sought out by Hayao Nakayama to run Sega’s American division, which had just 50 employees. Kalinske fought a competitive campaign starting with the “Sixteen Weeks of Summer” in 1991, during which Sega carried out an inspired insurgency to diminish the launch of the SNES. The edginess of the company’s advertising and products—think of the speed and scale of Sonic the Hedgehog versus the trusty familiarity of Mario and Link—shook the market like no upstart had before. Meanwhile, Harris also tracks a quirky Icelandic physics student named Olaf Olafsson, who was quietly helping Sony build a giant-killer of their own.
It’s hard to say whether the book is better than the movie(s), but whether readers are gamers or just enjoyed The Social Network, they’ll be spoiled for choice here.