'Console Wars' Review: A Fascinating, Fundamental Chronicle of the Innovative Battle Between SEGA and Nintendo
Though Atari was the first massively successful home video game system, a flood of terrible games, including the infamously awful E.T. video game, brought the industry crashing down in the early 1980s. But in 1985, the world of home video gaming was brought back from the dead thanks to innovation from Japan in the form of Nintendo.
What followed was a massive behemoth of a video game company who dominated the entire market. Nintendo was raking in the dough and made it so that no other game system could even come close to challenging them, not even the return of Atari. But just as the Nintendo Entertainment System and Mario rose out of Japan to reinvigorate home video gaming, so too would SEGA and Sonic the Hedgehog.
In 1989, SEGA was the new, cool kid on the video game block that mixed slick American marketing with traditional Japanese business, literally changing the game and sparking what pop culture would come to know as the Console Wars. It’s all chronicled in the new fascinating and sleek feature documentary of the same name, available today on CBS All Access.
Console Wars, based on the book of the same name by author Blake J. Harris, who produces and co-directs with Jonah Tulis, begins with a breezy but informative opening credits sequence that sets up the brief history of home video gaming. They move quickly from the rise and fall of Atari to Nintendo’s revival of home video games and their total domination of the market, something that the company was rather cocky about. But their complacency would be their downfall.
Disclosure: Console Wars author Blake J. Harris is a contributing writer to /Film.
Enter the origins of SEGA of America, the United States sector of the Japanese video game company. But at this time, SEGA was on shaky ground, so they brought in the American marketing mastermind who made kids loving taking vitamins with a little help from The Flintstones and breathed new life into Barbie by inspiring the fashion doll to become anything she wanted, from an astronaut to a doctor and anything in between. His name is Tom Kalinske, and he’s the man who would challenge Nintendo’s empire.
Through a series of in-depth and revealing interviews with key executives and personnel, the rise of SEGA is entertainingly detailed. Vintage commercials, archival footage, and news B-roll beef up the proceedings, cleverly spliced in-between the talking heads to help illustrate their memories and even interact with the recounting of video game history. You’ll even spot some familiar faces in these old commercials, such as Paul Rudd and Ethan Suplee. Anecdotes are also jazzed up by video game style dramatizations presented in the classic 8-bit and 16-bit pixelated imagery, turning executives into video game characters and adding pixelated effects to old photos and videos. And there’s also a rousing nostalgic soundtrack featuring the funky fresh jams of the late 1980s and early 1990s, not to mention an impressive array of home videos of kids opening up game systems and losing their minds. This may sound like an echo of Netflix’s High Score documentary series, which gave us an abridged chronicle of the Nintendo vs SEGA battle with similar stylish touches and is exceptional in its own right. But Console Wars is able to dig deeper and tell the full story, adding much more insight into familiar cornerstones.
All of this keeps the documentary from feeling mundane and formulaic, especially since what’s being chronicled here is purely business. Thankfully, it’s the business of entertainment, and people have been fascinated with it for decades now. So Console Wars has no problem being captivating, though the structure can initially be perplexing.
The first half of the documentary is all about SEGA, praising their innovative marketing strategy that was geared towards being the “cool” video game system for teens and directly challenged and even mocked Nintendo. They hyped the fast-paced nature of their games, including the newly created Sonic the Hedgehog, and their superior 16-bit technology. Hearing the marketing tricks and brilliant chess moves SEGA used to take on Nintendo is truly engrossing, including a commemoration of the famous “SEGA!” scream from their commercials (and Nintendo has their own strokes of genius too). No one is shy about taking shots at Nintendo’s desperate and shady attempts to stave off SEGA, easily turning them into a villain, even though both practiced ethically questionable tactics. At times, Nintendo is made to look especially foolish, such as when they try to lean into their family friendly image by removing the blood from their version of Mortal Kombat, a decision that actually blew up in their faces and allowed SEGA to outsell them 5-to-1. It’s a fun celebration of SEGA’s stone-throwing at the Goliath that was Nintendo. Then the documentary switches gears.
After reveling in the huge success of the SEGA Genesis, which was not only able to fend off the Super Nintendo, but was bolstered by the massive launch of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Console Wars flashes back to the beginning of Nintendo and the path they charted that made the rise of SEGA possible. At first, I was frustrated by this narrative decision. The documentary had a smooth flow and energy to spare, and then it suddenly screeched to a halt and threw it into reverse to focus on this sect of video game history that already seemed to be succinctly covered in the opening credits. But this segment serves a larger purpose in the overall film as the Console Wars continue.
Console Wars frames the battle between Nintendo and SEGA as a historic business battle. But no matter who came out on top in the end, their efforts to outdo each other are now merely stepping stones in the larger history of video games. Whatever success SEGA had, they owed a fair share of it to Nintendo. Their fight paved the way for PlayStation, which would then go on to battle with Microsoft’s Xbox. The two companies have gone head-to-head ever since, with another round coming up as the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S are poised to go on sale in November. And they owe a substantial amount of their success to SEGA.
Though SEGA is now gone as a player in the console game, Nintendo still innovates and holds on strong, giving us three video game giants competing for their share of the market, each forcing each other to take video games to the next level. Whenever there’s a documentary about the next generation of Console Wars, SEGA may be relegated to being an opening credits footnote like Atari is here. But in the first Console Wars, SEGA was victorious, and this commendable documentary is a tribute to the innovation and ambition that fueled their video game dreams.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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