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Revisiting the Old Video Game Console Wars Ahead of the New Ones

A CBS All Access documentary revisiting the battle between Sega and Nintendo shows just how much things have changed—even if they’re the same in some ways

Nintendo/Sega/Ringer illustration

Earlier this month, both Microsoft and Sony announced the prices and release dates for their upcoming consoles, the Xbox Series X/S (not to be confused with the Xbox One X/S) and the PlayStation 5. The two enormous hunks of hardware will soon go head-to-head, with the tricked-out and budget Xbox models debuting on November 10 and the PS5 premiering on November 12. Now that the stage for the latest console confrontation is finally set, the stakes and the rhetoric are ramping up.

After last week’s surprise PS5 preorder process spiraled into chaos, Microsoft’s Xbox Twitter account seemed to subtweet Sony, saying, “don’t worry—we’ll let you know the exact time pre-orders start for you soon.” This week, Microsoft made much bigger news by purchasing ZeniMax Media for $7.5 billion in cash. ZeniMax, the parent company of several big-name video game developers and publishers, owns games made by Bethesda, id, and Arkane, among others. The acquisition will give Microsoft control of high-profile franchises such as The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Prey, Dishonored, and Doom. As it happens, Bethesda is publishing two 2021 timed exclusives for PS5, Arkane’s Deathloop and Tango Gameworks’ Ghostwire: Tokyo, which made Microsoft’s strike look like an attempt to strengthen its stable of games at Sony’s expense. If Microsoft had revealed the Series S’s relatively low $299 price point with a one-word address, like Sony’s Steve Race pronouncing “299” as the list price for PlayStation at E3 1995, one might almost believe we were back in the 1990s heyday of battles between console manufacturers.

On Wednesday, CBS All Access will take its subscribers back to that time via Console Wars, a documentary based on Blake J. Harris’s 2014 book by the same name. The 92-minute adaptation, coproduced and codirected by Harris and Jonah Tulis, tells the story of the early-’90s clash between the dominant but complacent Nintendo and the scrappy, swashbuckling Sega, in which the underdog turned the tables on a behemoth with a 94 percent market share and briefly took the lead in North America. It’s a saga studded with strong personalities, innovative technology, and clever, adversarial marketing, which makes the narrative riveting even for viewers who know how it turns out. The story of Sega’s surge is also the story of gaming’s maturation as a medium and graduation from the toy aisle to the cultural mainstream, and the boardroom drama, sensational successes, and setbacks give the tussle a cinematic sweep. The book was first optioned by Seth Rogen and Evan Roberts as a feature film, and it remains in development as a scripted series that will also appear on All Access.

One widely cited weakness of the book was its distracting fictionalized dialogue, which wasn’t ported over to the documentary: This time, the principals speak for themselves, and Harris and Tulis don’t attempt to reconstruct decades-old conversations. Although some depth and details are lost in translation from the nearly 600-page book, this is still an exciting and comprehensive account of a momentous corporate clash, told through a rich assortment of interviews, archival footage, and original animation.

The documentary suffers from a few shortcomings, the first of which has less to do with Console Wars than with its competition. In August, Netflix released a four-part video game docuseries called High Score, which covers some of the same nostalgia-inspiring ground: the Atari-fueled video game crash of 1983; the ascendance of Nintendo; the 1993 congressional hearings about video game violence; and the Sega-Nintendo 16-bit battle, which serves as the centerpiece of one of High Score’s episodes. In the video game documentary wars, then, Console Wars is playing the part of Sega and going up against a rival with a head start and a larger platform.

Unlike Sega, Console Wars can’t boast better graphics: Both documentaries employ similar visual styles inspired by retro games, but High Score’s are more dynamic and colorful. (Even if American malls weren’t emptier than ever, CBS All Access wouldn’t want to pit these visuals against High Score’s in a Sega-inspired mall tour.) High Score’s chiptune soundtrack also evokes the era more effectively than Console War’s generic background beats. And while High Score captured its interview subjects amid kinetic acts of creation, Console Wars relies on standard, static talking heads.

That difference in looks is partly a reflection of a difference in focus: High Score trained its spotlight on video game creators, while Console Wars hands the microphone mostly to marketers, advertisers, and other executives. As I wrote last month, High Score makes the case for video games as art, but Console Wars concentrates on commerce; in Console Wars, games such as Super Mario World, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Donkey Kong Country serve as system sellers more than creative accomplishments. Console War’s emphasis on marketing games, rather than making them, suits its subject matter, and it does distinguish the documentary from High Score, which took a less capitalistic and less complete look at this pivotal point in gaming history.

Console Wars is strangely structured in parts. After briefly establishing Nintendo’s standing as the undisputed industry leader of the late ’80s, the documentary stresses Sega’s status as a long shot and then dives into the conflict between the two companies. By the time the 16-bit Sega Genesis launched in North America in the summer of 1989, the 8-bit NES was deeply entrenched, Mario was a ubiquitous mascot, and Nintendo was as synonymous with video games as Xerox with copiers or Kleenex with tissues. But Sega had a two-year window to gain ground before Nintendo introduced the Super NES in North America, and it made the most of that time, overtaking Nintendo in console sales thanks in part to Sonic’s appeal. “The game may finally be over for Nintendo,” The New York Times noted in April 1993, citing the concerns of industry analysts who had soured on the company’s long-term prospects.

For most of its first hour, the documentary moves along in chronological order, recounting events from Sega’s perspective and portraying Nintendo of America—not inaccurately—as arrogant, monopolistic bullies who fixed prices and put pressure on retailers not to stock their competitors’ products. At the 52-minute mark, though, the documentary warps back to 1981 for a roughly 10-minute-long recap of the advent of video games and Nintendo’s role in revitalizing the industry after the Atari crash. Like a spike that impales a speeding Sonic and makes him hemorrhage rings, the flashback temporarily saps the documentary of much of its momentum. The attempt to humanize Nintendo comes a little too late, the scene-setting exposition seems either long overdue or dispensable, and it’s a tad tiresome to hear Nintendo personnel belatedly offer their own takes on events that the Sega contingent touched on long before.

Like the book, the documentary is well-sourced, but only on one side of the Pacific. The hero here is Tom Kalinske, president and CEO of Sega from 1990-96. After developing Flintstones vitamins, reviving the brands of Barbie and Hot Wheels, and launching Masters of the Universe, Kalinske accepted a position at Sega and set out to take down Nintendo. His four-part plan called for licensing American IP, lowering the Genesis’s price to undercut competing systems, developing a mascot that could match Mario’s popularity (and packaging that mascot’s game with the Genesis hardware), and attacking Nintendo directly via advertising. The “Genesis Does” and “Welcome to the Next Level” campaigns, the latter of which was punctuated by the iconic “Sega” scream, pitched Sega as the edgier alternative to family-friendly Nintendo and gave the company an older audience and an enviable cultural cachet.

As in the book, Kalinske and his colleagues portray Sega of Japan as obdurate and resentful, perpetually opposing (or at least disapproving) of Sega of America’s effective tactics. But to the documentary’s detriment, no one from Sega of Japan appears in Console Wars. According to Harris, that omission wasn’t his choice: No one from Sega of Japan agreed to speak on camera, including the SoJ personnel he talked to for the book. But considering that Kalinske and his colleagues were marketing masters, it would have helped to have one of their Sega scapegoats confirm or refute their account.

Thanks to the price and programming complexity of Genesis’s successor, the Saturn, and missed opportunities to partner with both Silicon Graphics (which went on to supply the CPU for Nintendo 64) and Sony (which created its own console, the PlayStation, instead of teaming up with Sega), Sega’s meteoric rise was followed by a fall just as swift. It only slightly spoils the story of Sega’s moment in the sun that the SNES easily outsold the Genesis worldwide and also ultimately edged it out in the U.S. alone, or that Nintendo—which soon co-opted Sega’s PR approach—is still selling consoles and racking up record profits in 2020 whereas Sega has been out of the console-manufacturing business for decades. Sega couldn’t stay on the mountain top, but it still seems almost miraculous that it ever climbed above base camp.

Less certain, all these years later, is what gamers got out of allowing themselves to be swayed into signing up as Nintendo or Sega partisans. “If my years of research into the Sega vs. Nintendo console wars taught me anything, it’s that the rivalry between those two companies genuinely forced each to do better—to develop better (and more original) games; create more exciting peripherals; and to offer these things, as well as their hardware, at lower and lower prices,” Harris says. “That’s why I always say that the true ‘winner’ of that Sega/Nintendo battle was us, the consumers.”

There’s truth to that, but in retrospect, rooting for brands—and tying one’s identity to them—seems a little silly. The Nintendo-Sega console war now looks a little like the current legal faceoff between Apple and Epic Games: Neither company makes for an especially sympathetic protagonist, and whichever one possesses the more virtuous case is more interested in making money than in upholding any lofty principles.

“Sega represented the antiestablishment team,” advertising exec Jeff Goodby says in Console Wars. “Nintendo was the Soviet Union, and Sega were the guys that were throwing Molotov cocktails.” A minute later, though, Goodby chuckles about the gullible consumers who bought into Sega’s all-hype, no-substance “blast processing,” which he admits was a “total fabrication of the advertising people” (much like the Reebok Pump, which Steve Race enlisted in Reebok’s war with Nike before Race joined Sega and later defected to Sony). The battle between Nintendo and Sega, both of which made good games and consoles, wasn’t truly about anything more meaningful than which one could put more pressure on parents to spend and which one could make more kids scream while unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning.

Even so, it’s hard not to miss some aspects of the struggle that Console Wars brings back to life. Subtweets notwithstanding, today’s console wars are totally tame. For one thing, the major players mostly get along, in contrast to their predecessors: In Console Wars, former Sega of America executive VP (and Vietnam veteran) Paul Rioux likens the fight for profits to combat. It’s clear from other on-camera comments that there’s still bad blood between former opponents a quarter-century later; Nintendo veterans neg Sonic the Hedgehog’s design, Kalinske reminisces about hearing that his head was on a dartboard at Nintendo HQ, and execs speak with scorn about former colleagues who switched sides. These days, Microsoft and Sony executives exchange wholesome niceties on Twitter.

Unlike early-’90s Nintendo and Sega, Microsoft and Sony are both massive, diversified companies that aren’t really fighting for their financial lives. (Nintendo is now an institution, too.) Nor is there any doubt that video games are a viable business; the pie is large and lucrative enough for a few companies to carve up without making the others go hungry. While Sony still sells the most consoles, winning the war as defined in the ’90s, the titans of today are, to some extent, pursuing separate strategies and owning their own niches, which leads to less friction. The amounts of money being made may also encourage a conservatism in design. “The R&D costs of both hardware and software is nearly 10 times what it used to be,” Harris says, and thus “the desire to differentiate and one-up your competitors is much riskier.” As graphics have gotten better, the visual leaps between console generations, and the differences between companies’ platforms, have grown a lot less clear than they were when we still obsessed over numbers of bits.

Beyond that, trends in technology—mobile gaming, cloud gaming, cross-platform play—are making consoles seem increasingly archaic. Other obituaries for the concept of consoles have been published prematurely, but services such as Google’s Stadia, Microsoft’s xCloud, and Sony’s Playstation Now are already making it possible to play console-style games without the boxy hardware at home. Microsoft’s splurge on ZeniMax probably has less to do with stockpiling future exclusives than with bolstering the back catalog of Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription service. “We have a ton of respect for them,” Microsoft gaming head honcho Phil Spencer said of Sony and Nintendo in February, “but we see Amazon and Google as the main competitors going forward.”

Harris knows that Nintendo and its current rivals are past the point of fighting for floor space at Toys R Us. But he foresees future conflicts that could yield additional documentaries. “In my opinion, things are about to (and are already starting to) get really interesting again,” he says. “Because as high-end technology continues to become more commoditized, the battle is really shifting from hardware systems to software ecosystems; leading, ultimately, to a platform battle akin to the ‘streaming wars’ (in film, music, etc.).”

In other words, the wars aren’t over. But the consoles are about to be.