Console Wars opens with an author’s note that explains, “In certain situations, details of settings and description have been altered, reconstructed, or imagined,” and goes on to reveal that “most of the dialogue in this book has been re-created.” These are the first warning signs of what proves to be a good story poorly told. The global market battle waged by Nintendo and Sega in the ’80s and ’90s is an ideal subject for a pop history book. It’s an era when the home video-game industry was still taking shape, and two Japanese companies saw a new cultural frontier up for grabs. Blake J. Harris’ retelling pits the prim control freaks of Nintendo against the disruptive upstarts of Sega as they compete not just for market supremacy but also for an elusive coolness factor that could expand their audience beyond kids and hobbyists.
This is the David-and-Goliath premise: Nintendo’s first-mover advantage gave the NES a 90 percent share of the home video-game market at one point in the late ’80s—a daunting environment for Sega’s 16-bit Genesis console. Yet Harris commendably avoids turning either company into a villain, and when the author restricts himself to recounting the facts, Console Wars is decent. Sure, many of the characters are indistinct, and the story tends to advance in a straight line—punctuated by convenient, dramatic epiphanies that Harris “reconstructs” in the minds of company executives—but the innovation and corporate skulduggery of the Sega-Nintendo clash is so entertaining that Harris’ functional prose still tells a lively tale.
Alas, Console Wars goes beyond the facts, and many chapters are built around scenes of conversation that Harris made up. The book follows the lead of quasi-historical accounts like The Devil In The White City, which similarly augments historical research with imagined details. It’s odd and regrettable that Harris would choose an approach that involves so much fabrication when most of the people involved in his story are still alive—and spoke with him for this book.
This self-serving choice is exacerbated by the fact that Harris doesn’t even fabricate well. After all, while Devil played fast and loose with history, at least it made for an entertaining read. Conversely, Harris’ acts of embroidery drag Console Wars down. In nearly every chapter, the illusion of reality is broken by tin-eared dialogue that the author crams into the mouths of his characters. There’s the haughty toy-company executive who proclaims, “You don’t get to where I am without becoming fluent in the language of smiles.” Or the Sega marketing flack who observes that “in this business, it could look like a duck and talk like a duck, but in the end nobody cares if it’s a duck, or a neon-green wolverine, as long as it makes for a fun gaming experience.” Aside from the stilted, halting rendition of English assigned to practically every Japanese character, most people speak the same way: in joylessly wrought sentences that nudge the plot forward.
Console Wars is already slated for development as a feature film, and it feels like Harris decided to assemble a backdoor first draft of the screenplay while he was writing this book. Fair enough. The Sega-Nintendo war has the potential to be a great movie (although the producers should set money aside now for a punch-up specialist who can fix the dialogue). The trouble is, Console Wars had the potential to be a great book, too, and that promise is often hard to discern amid a mess of smiles and neon-green wolverines.