There was a brief period of time where Sega and Nintendo were the only real contenders for the gaming throne. If Mario was Tupac then Sonic was Biggie. Emotions surrounding the two brands ran so high that I almost got beat as a kid for suggesting Sonic Adventure was cooler than Super Mario 64. (I mean, it is.)
Console Wars, the first feature-length documentary produced by CBS All Access, follows former Sega executive Tom Kalinske and his team as they worked to position the Sega Genesis as a worthy rival to Nintendo’s then-upcoming Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The movie is based on the book of the same name by Blake J. Harris and Harris directed the documentary alongside Jonah Tulis. The film, like the book, shows how both companies rose to prominence in their own ways.
At the time of Kalinske’s arrival, Nintendo had a stranglehold on the video game market which was still reeling from the market bust of the early ‘80s. The movie does a great job giving a brief primer on how Nintendo rose to prominence and how some of its more questionable business practices (giving a limited supply of product to retailers, for instance) came to be. Nintendo is firmly established as a goliath that was feared and respected by retailers and competitors alike.
The movie uses fun 16-bit animatics along with vintage footage and pictures to recreate notable moments in Sega’s history and does a solid job of detailing Sega’s position in the market. As former Sega of America marketing executive Steve Race quips in the film “It wasn’t like they were second, it was like they were fourteenth.” This underdog positioning makes the company’s gradual rise in success all the more rewarding to follow.
The biggest strength of the documentary is how it highlights the notable contributions Sega made to the gaming industry. The company’s focus on teenage gamers helped pave the way for more mature games outside of Nintendo’s family-friendly milieu. The film also does a good job of showing how poor hardware upgrades, office politics, and failed deals derailed Sega would eventually lead to their retreat from the console market.
As a gamer, I found the film left me wanting more. It moves at a crisp 90 minutes and that run time can sometimes leave the movie feeling like a Cliff Notes version of the book. I really would’ve liked to follow how both Sega and Nintendo reacted when Sony and Microsoft entered the scene only a few years later.
Overall though, Console Wars is a fun look at the early days of the modern video game industry. It does a solid job of putting respect on Sega’s name and provides some interesting insight as to how Nintendo became the dominating force of the ‘90s. If you have any interest in gaming history, Console Wars is definitely worth a watch.
Console Wars is currently streaming on CBS All Access.