Console wars have a bad name. We're not condoning the craziness that occurs on social media and message boards from time to time, but there's a competitive edge to any industry that can be entertaining when viewed from the inside – and video games are no different. Console Wars, a fly-on-the-wall insight into the skirmish for 16-bit domination, makes the heated discourse on NeoGAF look like a playground disagreement, as it takes you inside the SEGA of America boardroom throughout the early-to-mid '90s.
The book's a couple of years old now – with a movie adaptation apparently on the way – so there's a good chance that some of you will have read it, but for those who haven't, it delivers a novelisation of toy tycoon Tom Kalinske's baptism of fire in the growing video game market. Tasked with transforming the floundering Genesis into a genuine contender against the dominant Nintendo Entertainment System, the book outlines SEGA's guerrilla marketing tactics, the creation of Sonic the Hedgehog, and the company's unexpected rise to power.
It's the kind of insight that this PR coordinated, NDA obstructed industry rarely provides, and while it certainly shines a rosy light on SEGA of America, it's absolutely fascinating learning about the company from the inside. Whether it's the coining of Blast Processing or the company's deliberate attempt to make the Super Nintendo look inferior, many of the accounts here are eye-opening – and add whole new meaning to the term 'fanboy'. But this isn't a one-sided account, as it also offers ample insight into the origins of PlayStation.
Console Wars makes the heated discourse on forums like NeoGAF look like a playground disagreement
And it's these segments that will perhaps resonate hardest with readers of this website. The book recounts in intricate detail the events leading up to Nintendo's infamous double-cross – a day after Sony announced that it was working with the House of Mario on the PlayStation – and even outlines just how close the Japanese giant came to partnering with SEGA. It's the kind of story that history seems to have brushed aside, but all of the threads line up perfectly here – and it actually makes for some great drama, too.
That said, the book is a little over-written in places, with dialogue being a particular offender. Because it's a novelisation, some of the major players are embellished with a little too much wit, and conversations play out in an unnaturally clever kind of way. That said, the story does capture the personality of each executive; from the hot-headed temper of Steve Race – who would famously announce the price of the PSone at the very first E3 – to the gregarious nature of SEGA marketing supremo Al Nielsen, it injects some humanity into what are ostensibly faceless organisations.
But beneath the personal stories and corporate accounts, Console Wars is quite simply stuffed to the gills with fascinating facts and anecdotes. Whether it's the internal war that led to Yuki Naka and his team ditching Sonic the Hedgehog's well-endowed other-half, or the string of disasters that caused the Super Mario Bros. movie to be such a commercial flop, there's content in this novel that any self-professed video game fan will be fascinated by. Ever wondered how Sony got Electronic Arts to support the PSone? You may be surprised.
It's a great read, then, and pretty much essential if you grew up during the 16-bit era – or perhaps want to learn a little more about the origins of the industry as we know it today. There's an intentional SEGA slant to the entire yarn, but PlayStation fans will find themselves rather well serviced, as Sony's story is strongly interwoven into that of Kalinske's. And while the dialogue can be a bit dicey and the strong North American focus a little irritating from an international perspective, it's hard to fault this fascinating account of the greatest ever console war.