Earlier this year, Blake J. Harris released Console Wars, a history of the battle between Sega and Nintendo that dominated the early 1990s. The book functions as somewhat of a spiritual sequel to Game Over, which recounted the rise of Nintendo in the 1980s. Console Wars picks up where that left off, centering largely on Sega's early struggles against Nintendo's iron grip on the US market, and on former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske. It's through the eyes of Kalinske that we learn how Sega went from underdog to industry titan and back again in the span of one console generation.
Follow along as we highlight some of the biggest moments of the now-famous fight between Sega and Nintendo.
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) launched in the US in 1985, revitalizing the American video game industry after the crash of 1983 and restoring the industry’s reputation in the process. According to Harris, part of its success in the US was that it came bundled with R.O.B. the robot, "a Trojan horse" that helped get the console into homes.
Sega, meanwhile, had launched the technically superior Master System to lukewarm reception in the US and Japan. One of the biggest problems the company faced at the time was building a library of quality third-party games. Many publishers had signed notoriously strict exclusivity deals with Nintendo, making it difficult for Sega to attract much attention for its console. Nintendo's infamous obsession with control also trickled down to Harris' experience documenting Console Wars. “Writing the book, I had a lot of difficulty dealing with Nintendo,” he said, “so there was a little thing in my head that they were the villain and that their control was a little bit malevolent.”
Sega’s former President Hayao Nakayama decided to hire a disgruntled Mattel executive, Tom Kalinske, to transform Sega’s image and fortunes in the US. Kalinske is, ostensibly, the hero of the piece, but that's mostly because Harris had a lot of difficulty finding people from Nintendo who'd go on record. “I was hearing all of this story from the Sega side, or from the retailers or third parties, but [not from] people who weren’t part of the cult of Nintendo.” Under Kalinske’s leadership, however, Sega went from a tiny player to controlling about 50 percent of the console market.
Kalinske’s first mission was to launch the Genesis in the US. Unlike Nintendo, which was seen as a family-friendly brand, Sega of America positioned itself as edgy, targeting teenagers and, to a lesser extent, adults. “Tom’s marketing did transform video games into something that was played by adults and mainstream culture," Harris said. "I remember the first time I had the Nintendo and my brother and I would play Mario all the time. My father would walk by and we’d try to get him to play it. But the way he looked at it, it was basically the boy version of having a tea party.” Sega’s all-black design for the Genesis also didn't hurt. Harris believes the console's mature look “made it much more acceptable for adults to play games.”
The Super Nintendo may have debuted nearly two years after the Genesis, but that late start didn't hamper its success. At the time, Nintendo remained a market leader and, according to Harris, its quarterly marketing budget enabled it to spend more than Sega could in an entire year.
Before E3 existed, video games were a larger part of the annual Consumer Electronics Show. This clip from the 1992 Summer CES offers a glimpse of just how games consoles were marketed back when it was a show filled with suited toy executives.
Because it didn't have the same sort of financial resources as Nintendo, Sega went on the attack, constantly lampooning its biggest rival with a series of marketing stunts and commercials that made the (newer) SNES appear dated and toy-like by comparison. “In the end, marketing was the synonym for context, and Sega created the context for what video games were and who would play them,” Harris said. Even today, it’s still a problem Harris thinks Nintendo has yet to solve. “Nintendo misses out on a lot because they don’t focus on marketing. It’s a romantic notion that they’re so focused on product development and saying ‘Don’t worry about the marketing; so long as the game’s great, we’ll be fine.’”
One of Sega's biggest marketing stunts would set the scene for the rest of the video games industry: global launch dates. Save for its early launch in Japan, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was released globally on November 24th, 1992. Here, Home Improvement star Jonathan Taylor Thomas poses with the character Tails at the game's Toys R Us launch.
With the advent of the Sega CD peripheral, it was possible for the first time to create games with full-motion video. One of the first titles Sega published was Night Trap, which had originally been created for a failed Hasbro console called the NEMO. The game, which had players attempting to capture vampires intent on attacking a slumber party, courted heavy controversy. The ensuing moral panic led to a disinformation campaign that had the general public believing Night Trap was about “an effort to trap and kill women.” This prompted former Sens. Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl to invite both Sega and Nintendo to talk about the role of violent games in front of Congress.
Unlike Nintendo, Sega's decision to not censor the blood and gore of Mortal Kombat helped vilify the company in the eyes of Congress. As a way of avoiding hefty regulation, Sega proposed an independent ratings standards board, an idea that evolved into the ESRB, which would impose an age certificate on all games. Nintendo would eventually sign on as a member, but not before this memorable moment when Sega's Bill White, annoyed by Nintendo's angelic posturing in front of Congress, pulls out the Super Scope, a "gun" peripheral for the SNES.
Kalinske wasn’t a fan of either the Sega Saturn (the company’s 32-bit console developed by Sega of Japan) or the 32X, an add-on for the Genesis that enabled users to play 32-bit games. Both were grudgingly launched by Sega of America under orders from its Japanese parent, which in turn “created a lot of baggage” that would go on to “hurt the Dreamcast.” In stark contrast, when Nintendo launched its 32-bit Virtual Boy, the company’s insiders told Harris that “part of the reason that it failed was that [Nintendo of America] did not want... to spend their money on it.”
Kalinske made two attempts to prevent Sega from launching the Saturn and 32X, both of which he believed weren’t good enough to follow the Genesis. The first of these failed partnerships was with Olaf Olafsson, Sony’s head of digital publishing. After Sony's deal with Nintendo to create and market a CD add-on for the SNES went sour, Olafsson sought out Kalinske. It was the pair’s intention that Sony and Sega would team up to produce a CD-based, next-generation console. It was, according to Harris, a no-lose scenario until Sega’s Japanese board shut the project down. The ensuing fallout would force Sony to go it alone in the gaming market with the PlayStation -- and all in the name of revenge.
Kalinske’s other attempt was to set up a deal with Silicon Graphics (SGI). SGI worked on 3D-capable hardware and chips, and Kalinske had been impressed with its prowess. That’s why he was intent to broker a deal to create a new system under Sega of America's direction. However, Sega of Japan, embittered by SOA's success, shelved the SGI deal in favor of its Saturn project. As a favor to SGI, which was left without a partner, Kalinske suggested the company contact Howard Lincoln at Nintendo -- that partnership gave birth to the Nintendo 64. In essence, Sega managed to create not one, but two of its immediate and more successful console rivals.
Sega of Japan’s rash decisions toward its American arm would, ultimately, lead to the collapse of the company as a console maker. The company’s representatives in Japan don’t seem to disagree, either. When Harris sent preview copies to Sega of Japan, no one contacted him with any corrections.
In fact, Harris witnessed SOJ’s obstructive nature first-hand while filming behind-the-scenes documentaries for the Dreamcast games Crazy Taxi and Sonic Adventure. “I know it’s been 20 years, but the way that Sega of Japan reacts to Sega of America was exactly the way that I’d been told for several years,” Harris said. He'd initially been skeptical of those reports, but then found the company's actions intentionally malevolent. “[SOA] had asked for a certain type of room [for us] to film in, and they gave us the exact opposite type of room," Harris explained. "And then they made us switch rooms between every interview, which was an hour-long process, and the first room wasn’t even used.”
Console Wars is currently being turned into a documentary by Harris, and the rights to a movie version have been bought by Scott Rudin (who produced The Social Network), Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. “Getting Seth and Evan and Scott Rudin involved all sort of pushes the conversation forward in a way that I couldn’t have done on my own,” Harris said. The comedy duo also wrote the introduction for the book, which is available to buy right now from Amazon.