Blake J. Harris’s “Console Wars”

Who needs Barbie or Matchbox when you can have Sonic?

Console Wars is a chronicle of the fourth generation of games and serves as an examination and semi-biography of one of the key figures in gaming of the time, Sega’s Tom Kalinske. The book focuses primarily on Kalinske’s rise in power as the CEO of Sega, and his involvement in the titular “Console Wars” between Sega’s Genesis and Nintendo’s Super Nintendo systems.

Rather than taking a scientific perspective, such as Pettus did in Service Games: The Rise and Fall of Sega, Harris retells and examines Sega’s legacy through split perspectives between Sega’s Tom Kalinske and Nintendo’s Arakawa Minoru. By keeping his eye set on the human element, Harris establishes a narrative about the people behind the consoles and games that make up the “gamer’s canon”.

Throughout the text are interesting tidbits about the creation of Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic is from Arkansas, if you weren’t aware), NiGHTS into DREAMS, and Vectorman, among other games of that generation. Harris makes a specific point to use games as context rather than content; the writing never loses focus on the people even as it chronicles the games they were involved with.

As a novel, Console Wars provides an engaging narrative about greed and ego whilst simultaneously maintaining its semi-biographical nature. While Harris does focus primarily on Kalinske, he goes to great lengths never to villianize or attack Kalinske’s “enemies” in the console war. People like Arakawa are treated with respect, and Kalinske’s coworkers provide a distinct backdrop of interesting people to offset Kalinske’s powerful persona. The novel reads like a war memoir, with its cast of varied characters placed into a situation they, fundamentally, have no experience in despite their backgrounds in the toys industry. Harris plays a neat trick on the audience through this narrative structure; the question becomes less “who won the console wars?” as it transitions to “was this a war worth fighting to begin with?”.

As the novel nears its close, Harris provides a glimpse into the inner workings of a company slowly losing ground. As a consumer of media, this was incredibly engaging. Readers are so used to success stories that the stories of catastrophic failure are rarely told. The end of the novel provides thematic closure in Kalinske’s exodus from Sega, surprising given the fact that the story is fundamentally nonfiction that has already happened.

As a piece of History, Console Wars is a rare insight into the people who make games, and their incredible difficulty in understanding the very market they are attempting to tap. Harris creates a powerful narrative about what drives people and how they approach success and failure in one of the most important entertainment industries today, and how their legacies define what has succeeded them.

For anyone interested in Business and Games, or those looking for an unconventional war novel, I cannot suggest Console Wars any more highly.

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