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Welcome To The Next Level in ‘Console Wars’ – Review

Console Wars is the latest gaming documentary streaming on CBS All Access (insert Zelda “chest” jingle here). It is a look back at the battle between 90’s console giants Nintendo and Sega. Console Wars shows the genesis of a scrappy upstart company that not only changed the game but did so while taking on an industry titan.   

Back in the late 80’s Nintendo was cementing its dominance of the home console market. To enter their space and to take on Nintendo was a fool’s errand. Enter Sega: a company with a faster machine boasting better graphics with no fan base. Console Wars is really Sega’s story. The film chronicles their unlikely rise and sudden fall.

(Courtesy of CBS)

Sega of Japan, as it’s known today, knew that it needed to capture the hearts and minds of the United States if it wanted any chance at competing in this industry. The doc’s greatest hero (or villain depending on your position) bursts onto the scene to become the Sega’ savior. A former toy man turned gaming guru and without question, this film’s Player 1 is Sega of America’s Tom Kalinske. He is not only the most interesting character in this story but he’s also the most disruptive. Kalinske pushed boundaries and led the charge as Sega became the “cool” console. Their marketing blitz turned the masses into fans and left “a Nintendo” as something for kids. 

The bulk of Console Wars’ runtime shows the luck and strategy that elevated the House of (Ouch) Mouse to blockbuster levels. Sega’s weirdo tactics, brash advertisements, lack of fear, and a commitment to gorilla marketing impressed at every turn, and it paid off. To think that this once great company started as a patched together with duct tape and bubblegum operation is mind-blowing. Not to go into spoilers here but there’s a Walmart story that’s worth the watch on its own. 

Console Wars - Review
(Courtesy of CBS)

Nintendo is the antagonist for much of the story, they are the big bad that deterred anyone ready to enter their arena. For as wholesome and family-friendly as Nintendo seems, there was a killer behind that loveable plumber. Threatening to turn off the faucet of “new games” if retailers carried the competitor’s software. This is the kind of scumbaggery not usually associated with Big N, but very common in their heyday. Clearly the Nintendo of 2020 is a wildly different company but it is important to note that when they were the kings of the castle that they ruled not benevolently but with an Iron Boot (worked a second Zelda reference in…aw yeah *self five). Nintendo pops in from time to time in the documentary to add context and illustrate just how old fashioned Nintendo of America was for the MTV generations.

In film, two projects with the same premise are often in development. For example, Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down in 2013, Antz and A Bug’s Life in 1998, No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits in 2011 and on and on and on. Unfortunately for CBS and Console Wars, their streaming competition Netflix has an entire episode of their gaming series High Score dedicated to covering the same ground. It even goes as far as to feature some of the same people telling the exact same stories but in a quicker and more concise fashion.  

(Courtesy of CBS)

The strength of the CBS film is the time it takes to expand the wacky cast of Sega employees making viewers root for them as events unfold. The largest criticism I will lay at the creator’s feet is the lack of focus on the Nintendo side of things. Almost all of Nintendo’s screen time is reactionary to what Sega was doing. To properly tell the story of this specific war, the other side of the story needs to be expanded on. The motivations of Mario’s makers are lost by the end of the doc and with a Netflix competitor series already streaming, the structure, pacing, and revelations of Console Wars are a bit underwhelming. None of this to say it’s not enjoyable, but it feels like an expanded footnote to something I’ve already seen somewhere else.

A documentary about the console wars is more relevant than ever. This review was written on the eve of the Xbox Series X/S pre-orders dropping and as Microsoft acquired Bethesda. Even in 2020, we’re gearing up for another system on system battle between two tech companies. We have two behemoths playing nice in public while fighting for the mind share of the vast ever-growing gamer nation here in the U.S. and abroad.

Though the higher-ups might not see it as clearly, Console Wars is a cautionary tale. Sony was birthed from the jealousy and failure of the two factions within one company. The far and away leader in video games might have never existed if only Sega had made different decisions. The “Console War” isn’t only a battle between Nintendo and Sega but also fought in their own halls between Sega of America and Sega of Japan. Unfortunately, just like their iconic mascot, your time at the top can go fast.

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