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How Scrappy Little Sega Nearly Dethroned Nintendo

The battle that defined a generation


For those of us who were stumbling into young adulthood in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the only war that truly mattered pitted not Reagan against the Libyans or Bush against Saddam Hussein but Sonic The Hedgehog against Mario. The latter was the hero of what is arguably the greatest video game franchise in history, a gaming juggernaut that had helped its parent company, Nintendo, dominate 90 percent of the market. His challenger was a nobody, a new character created by a company, Sega, known primarily for making arcade machines. Sega’s attempt to capture a piece of Nintendo’s tightly-held home console market was an audacious bid, like coming up with a search engine and throwing the glove at Google. And for a while there, to the delight of gamers everywhere, it almost worked.

This struggle for electronic entertainment supremacy is the premise of Blake J. Harris’s entertaining new book, Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation. This account, like the best in the behind-the-scenes-of-epic-business-enterprises genre—think Liar’s Poker or The Accidental Billionaires—is a celebration of big bucks, big risks, and big personalities.

The main protagonist of Harris’s book, Tom Kalinske, embodied all three. He was a former superstar at toy maker Mattel—largely credited for nursing Barbie back from the brink of death—when he was tapped by Sega’s boss, Hayao Nakayama, to come lead the company. And it was largely Kalinske who had the crucial insight of positioning Sega as edgy, adult, and everything else Nintendo, with its gargantuan market share and draconian business practices, could never be. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Liel Leibovitz: Why hasn’t this David versus Goliath story been told before? And how did you come to it?

Blake J. Harris: My journey back into this pixelated world was actually a complete surprise. It all started back in December 2010, when my brother gave me a Sega Genesis for my birthday. This was the console that we had as kids, the source of so many great memories (and childhood skirmishes). Picking up the controller after all that time, it reminded me how much a part of my life video games were back then; they were the social lubricant, a social network that connected people.

I went to my local bookstore to find something about the video game battle that had defined so much of my life growing up. And I found nothing. There was a film history section, a music history section, but not a video game history section. I asked the woman at the information desk, but she laughed and said that no such book existed. The only books about video games were walk-through guides. For an industry that is bigger than film and music, this was shocking to me. 

LL: Why do you think that was? 

BJH: Literary disdain, or the perception that it’s a low-brow subject matter—the same affliction that plagued comic books for a few decades before they became the stuff of museum exhibits and summer blockbusters. But what really bothered me was the belief that games just came out of thin air. So few had every shined a spotlight on the pioneers who willed this industry into existence.

LL: You’re talking about Tom Kalinske and his cohort? 

BJH: Everything crystalized for me after I tracked down Tom. There was also the good looking and daring American CEO and his wily Japanese corporate boss, the foul-mouthed marketing maven and the rotund and nerdy tech guy, a whole gallery of amusing and immediately relatable characters.

As I began writing the book, my fear was that I fantasized about working at Sega as being inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and that I would talk to these guys and they’d say that they were just corporate guys, punching the clock. But they had such a thrill being there. Everyone I spoke to, from the CEO to the assistants, all said that they considered this the greatest time of their life. 

LL: So, Mario or Sonic? 

BJH: I always felt that deep-down I preferred Mario and Nintendo, but when I was younger, I so wanted to be a Sega person. I wanted to be cool. I aspired to be the kind of person who’d like Sega products. I kind of felt that at the time, but wasn’t able to articulate it, nor would’ve I admitted it because I was an insecure kid. I guess the bottom line is that Sega’s marketing really did work! 

LL: Nintendo is legendarily controlling. How did you get around that? 

BJH: I wanted to tell Nintendo’s story as much as Sega’s, but Nintendo wasn’t very responsive. It was disappointing to me that this company that was responsible for so much joy in my childhood made it so difficult for me to shine a light on them. I tried hard not to let it cloud my memories of Mario, and finished the book still loving the plumber, but, unfortunately, I wasn't always able to tell the "other side" of the story. 

LL: Nintendo is now in very dire straits, having ended the previous fiscal year with $229 million in losses. Could it do today what it did back then to battle Sega?

BJH: The cost of sticking to your guns today is so much higher than what it was in 1993. I don’t know if they can weather the storm. Nintendo wants you to experience everything through them, but why not let Apple release the old Mario games? With all the money they made off those games, give them away for free to remind people how much they loved the old games, and get them to consider buying the new Mario Kart. 

LL: You write in your book about the fundamental difference between Japan and the United States. It seemed to me like you argued that the Japanese care mostly about creating a terrific game; while Americans care mostly about telling a terrific story.

BJH: Yeah, I think at the core there was a simmering war between product development and marketing. One of Sega's key moves was to brand the company as the loud, hyperactive alternative to the more kid-friendly Nintendo. It may be time for Nintendo to do the same, or at least reconsider the corporate narrative. 

Image via Shutterstock.