Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: Console Wars

I remember visiting my cousins when I was little. I was fascinated by the colorful images bleeping and blooping across their television screen in crystal clear 16-bit glory. There was a blue, spiked ball that was whirling to and fro, ricocheting off of walls, and raining down pain on the backs of his enemies. When that blue ball finally stopped moving, an edgy new mascot stood their impatiently waiting for the player to get him moving again.

Book Review:  "Console Wars"

It was somewhere around 1992 and the character on my cousins' screen was Sonic The Hedgehog. I was somewhat familiar with the Hedgehog from the TV commercials and the cartoon, but seeing it come alive in person was a totally different animal. I had an old, classic Nintendo at home. I had a copy of the amazing Super Mario Brothers 3 that I loved; I think I had purchased it myself with newspaper route money. However, this Hedgehog was far more lively than any dumb plumber. It was built from the ground up, designed to be a hip alternative to Mario.  At that time, I knew of the battle between Nintendo and Sega. It seemed a lot like the Cola Wars between Coke and Pepsi. It was a taste test.  I knew those commercials were telling me what was cooler and more fun.  As a kid, I had no idea the level of machinations that were going on behind the curtain. 

However, Tom Kalinski was intimately aware of all of the strategies and tactics that were being employed in the war between Sega and Nintendo.  You see, Tom Kalinski was the CEO of Sega during this most influential period in the second great wave of gaming consoles.  The book, “Console Wars”, follows Tom in his quest to pull a second-rate video gaming company best known for Altered Beast and Alex Kidd, into a top tier gaming titan.

The book is written in a narrative form, telling the story as it unfolds.  The writer, Blake Harris, has a writing style that is deceptively casual, allowing you to become engrossed in the victories of the Sega team while still being able to take away lessons in business leadership, communications, technology, and workflow. It had tons of great ideas about marketing and teamwork.

The book is separated roughly into thirds.  The first part of the book follows the retirement of the Sega Master System, the rise of the Genesis console, and the challenges of getting the first Sonic the Hedgehog Game done.  The next part deals with the overwhelming success of the Genesis over the Super Nintendo, the creation and release of Sonic 2, and the maturation of Sega team.  The last third of the book deals with the internal conflicts that allowed Nintendo to triumph, and planting the seeds of the eventual collapse of Sega consoles.

The version of the book that I read was on Amazon Kindle, of which I was grateful.  I imagine that a fictional book would try to streamline the number of characters, but this is non-fiction.  The book takes pains to include all of the real people that actually worked in the industry. It was sometimes easy to lose track of who was who. Fortunately, the Kindle has search functionality that made it easy to go back and refresh my memory when needed.  I appreciated that level of detail, even if it meant I had to work a little harder at reading it.

I would highly recommend this book. There is a lot to the book “Console Wars”; plenty of content.  It was a fun read, and if you paid attention, you might learn a thing or two. 

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