We know how the 1990s Console Wars between Sega and Nintendo ended: Sega lost. But CBS All Access’ lively gaming documentary Console Wars has enough of an emotional payoff that it could still be spoiled. Without revealing exactly how it ends, it winds up the way you’d want it to if the film was about your favorite workplace, with your best friends talking about the great old days.
The youngest kids who played the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo are now in their 30s, and they’ve all probably had at least one job like that. That’s why Console Wars should resonate with so many people. You don’t have to have made, marketed, or even played a video game between 1990 and 1996 to find Console Wars and its gaming-industry luminaries affecting and supremely relatable. You just have to have worked a job where someone said at some point, “You know, this place would make a great TV show.”
Console Wars, which premieres on Sept. 23, is Blake J. Harris’ film adaptation of his 2014 book of the same title, about the 16-bit era of video gaming, when Sega took on Nintendo in a rapidly changing, competitive marketplace. It’s no surprise that Harris has also tried to get this story adapted into a series, because it’s a rollicking, real-life underdog comedy, like the slobs-vs.-snobs flicks that had their heyday when this marketing battle was at its peak.
As the story begins, Sega of America is trying to find some vector into an American video games market dominated by Nintendo. Sega’s band of kid-whisperers (Al Nilsen), back-office muscle (Paul Rioux, Bill White), and smooth-talking pitch artists (Ellen Beth van Buskirk, Jeff Goodby) is led by Tom Kalinske, who worked miracles in marketing Barbie and Hot Wheels. Kalinske ends up battling his own supervisor (the fulminating Hayao Nakayama, always off-camera) as much as his Nintendo counterpart (Howard Lincoln). His impossible mission: Roll the Sega Genesis to the top of a marketing mountain that’s 95 percent owned by Mario and company.
Lincoln’s squad includes Howard Phillips, Nintendo’s “Game Master” and counterpart to Nilsen; Randy Peretzman, who polices Nintendo’s relationships with retailers; and Peter Main, whose accountant-like appearance conceals bust-you-in-the-mouth business will. Though the story is primarily told through Sega’s eyes, Console Wars’ go-the-extra-mile success comes from portraying Nintendo as funny, likable rivals, rather than villains or robots. For example, there’s a sequence of cringe-inducing takes from Nintendo’s “Play It Loud” marketing counterattack to wiseass Sega. But Nintendo’s abortive efforts at getting hip is laughed with, more than at, like the acid-wash jeans, shoulder pads, bloused-out T-shirts, and other 1990s style regrets on display.
Fans who know the times and the players will find plenty of oh-yeahs and nod-along information as the story turns and Sega prevails in round one. But the expansive personal recollections make these events seem new, rather than overly familiar. Insiders and super enthusiasts might know that turncoat Bill White jumped from Nintendo to Sega. But hearing the wholesome Phillips say White became “Bad Bill” once he discovered smoking, fast cars, and other un-Nintendo things, makes it delightful.
So is Kalinske admitting that White, instead of Kalinske himself, testified at a landmark 1993 Congressional hearing on video game violence, because it would piss off Lincoln, who had to sit next to him. And it worked. Lincoln gets his dander up, which elicits a smarmy comparison to bad-seed Sega from Senator Joe Lieberman. Thus Nintendo comes out of the hearing as gaming’s with-it parent, and Sega is eff-the-man cooler than ever.
The documentary’s oral-history format serves the story much better than Harris’ novelization, a reconstructed narrative with scenes that didn’t give the sense of hearing the actual words of the people involved. The documentary elides some context in confining the story to Kalinske’s days helming Sega of America — it leaves out the late-1980s Sega Master System, and the turn-of-the-century Dreamcast, which flatten out Sega’s mid-1990s rise and fall. But the omissions come in the interest of delivering a tight, easy-to-follow story. The Nintendo 64 crushing the ill-fated Sega Saturn is the better stopping point, anyway, knowing that the PlayStation would demolish whoever emerged from that.
That allows the Sega of America faithful their head-held-high denouement, understanding that it took overwhelming forces — Nakayama’s fatal urgency with the Saturn; Sega of Japan’s inability to work with anyone; the long winter of PlayStation coming — to beat Sega. And Console Wars ends by doing justice to the idea that, yes, these folks were part of something special, and were the best at what they did, but they’re worth remembering for who they are.
It closes out with a wonderful coda, a sentimental farewell to Tom, Bad Bill, Ellen Beth, and Jeff, lingering on Shinobu Toyoda and the pride in Sega he still carries today. Nintendo says it’s in the business of putting smiles on everyone’s face. Twenty-five years later, its rival is, too.
Console Wars launches Sept. 23 on CBS All Access.