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Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined a Generation

By Blake J. Harris

It Books, 558 pages, $28.99

By Stephen T. Watson

News Book reviewer

Blake J. Harris wrote “Console Wars” for me. More to the point, he wrote this book for all the children of the late 1980s and early 1990s who shot flying ducks and battled giant apes on their Nintendo Entertainment System or delivered hip checks and fired touchdown passes on their Sega Genesis.

That period marked the revival of the home video-game console. It served as the bridge between the Paleozoic era of Pong and the Atari 2600 and today’s world of Candy Crush on smartphones, FarmVille on Facebook and Grand Theft Auto on the Xbox 360.

Sega and Nintendo waged a pitched battle for the hearts and minds of kids, teenagers and young adults around the world, as Harris writes with enthusiasm and – at 558 pages – volume.

“Console Wars” is equal parts pop-cultural history and business case study. At its heart, it’s a book about a David-versus-Goliath duel between the upstart Sega and Nintendo, the entrenched giant.

Harris takes us behind the scenes at both companies, inside board rooms and trade shows in Japan and the United States. He wisely focuses on Tom Kalinske, who takes over as Sega of America’s president in 1990 and immediately sets about upending the video-game industry.

Kalinske’s background is fascinating. He sang on “The Ed Sullivan Show” as a member of the Tucson Boys Chorus. He started a magazine named Wisconsin Man as a college student. He helped create both Flintstones Chewable Vitamins and the He-Man action figure and revived the flagging Barbie line for Mattel.

At the time Kalinske joined Sega, the company had little respect in its home country and less in the United States.

Nintendo had 90 percent of what was a $3 billion industry, after single-handedly revitalizing video games after Atari went belly-up in the 1980s. A 100-year-old company that started out making playing cards, Nintendo set high standards for the products it sold and held tough negotiations with retailers and game designers. Games such as “Donkey Kong” and “Super Mario Bros.” for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System were popular but safe and aimed at the traditional, kid demographic.

Harris writes that Kalinske saw an opening to market edgier games to teens and young adults for a 16-bit console, dubbed the Sega Genesis, which would offer better graphics and game play than the NES.

Sega just needed the right game, and Harris offers an engaging account of how Kalinske and his team brought to life Sonic the Hedgehog and sold the game and the character as a faster, hipper anti-Mario. Ads boasted “Welcome to the Next Level” and targeted Nintendo directly.

Nintendo was slow to respond, at first, and Sega ended up overtaking its rival in video-game sales by the mid-1990s, thanks in part to offering the more-violent version of games sold on both systems.

But fissures between Sega of Japan and its American division prevented the company from building on its Genesis success, despite Kalinske’s best efforts, and the executive left in frustration in 1996.

Harris ends the book there, leaving out an accounting of the years that followed when Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation took over the home console market and when much of gaming shifted to computers and smartphones.

Harris already is working on a documentary based on “Console Wars,” and Sony is making a feature film, so the book has struck a chord with its intended audience.

I can only hope that all of the 1990s-era, pop-culture celebrities who made appearances in the book end up in the movie. What other book has cameos from the actor who played Screech in “Saved by the Bell,” one-hit boxing wonder Buster Douglas and Michael Jackson?

Harris structures the book as a narrative, which makes “Console Wars” easier to read but raises the question of how the central characters can remember conversations from 20 years earlier that are quoted word for word.

Harris offers some compelling anecdotes, including a scene when a Sega of America employee turns the table on some Japanese colleagues by consuming the fugu – potentially poisonous puffer fish – they had dared him to eat in an attempt to embarrass him. And I was happy to learn, for example, that Mario was named after Nintendo of America’s mysterious landlord, Mario Segale, and Sonic the Hedgehog was designed as a blatant rip-off with Felix the Cat’s head on Mickey Mouse’s body.

But I would have reined in some of his phrase-making. Just try this one on for size: “Getting straight answers out of Nakayama was like catching a shadow and pulling its teeth with a needle from a haystack.” And the same sentence later in the book had “fighting wars on so many fronts,” “water under the bridge” and “carry the torch.”

Still, a lot of that is water under the bridge for me. If nothing else, I can thank Harris for taking me back to a time before mortgages and diaper changes when I spent hours in our basement, game controller in hand, and the only thing that mattered was getting to the next level.

Stephen T. Watson is a News business reporter.