There seems to be a trend of video game documentaries that are coming out recently and most of them are pretty good. I already talked about Netflix’s one High Score (which you can read here) but now the documentary I’ve been waiting arrived late September. Console Wars has come out and is currently only streaming on CBS All Access, based on the book with the same name by Blake J. Harris (who also co-directed the film) and has Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg as executive producers. I’ve read the book a few years ago and I loved it, the early 90’s are one of my favorite eras of video game history partially because I lived through it, and because I don’t remember a whole lot of it. I was born in November of 1990 so even though I was alive when most of this was going down, I was too young to experience or remember it. I sided with SEGA in the waning days of the console war only because Sonic was (and still is) my favorite video game character.
Being an avid fan of comparing movies to books I will try not to do that with this one since documentaries are a totally different type of film than fictional or biopic films. However, just like the book, SEGA takes more of a center stage than Nintendo, however both companies have their shining moments. The story is driven by the people who worked there, no narration from a third party at all. Unlike the most recent doc I’ve watched this is an hour and a half film compared to a 6 episode series and it crams quite a bit into a 90 minute run time. Granted omissions are to be expected as you can’t put everything into the movie but there is one big one that I was surprised that they left out. The Nintendo PlayStation was never mentioned at all in the film. In the book the supposed deal with Nintendo and Sony was a huge chunk of the story and Nintendo’s eventual partnership with Phillips brining a shock to the business world. Now the film does mention how SEGA and Sony were close to making a deal after Nintendo shut the door on them which is accurate. However the Nintendo PlayStation I feel is a bigger deal since there is a prototype of the console and Toys R Us put an ad in their catalog for it. But nothing, no mention of the would be console but there is the famous Sony speech at E3 when they announced the price of the PlayStation and got everyone excited for it. One other minor gripe is that at the end of the film it’s stated that the PlayStation is the best selling console of all time. Technically the PlayStation 2 is the best selling one but really that’s just me being technical.
Really the only major problem I had with the film came when there was no mention of the Nintendo PlayStation and that’s not until the latter half of the film. The whole time it was nice seeing people who worked at both SEGA and Nintendo recall their experiences working for these companies. All the big names are here, Tom Kalinske, Howard Lincoln, Al Nilsen, Shinobu Toyoda, Peter Main, Howard Phillips, and of course Ellen Beth Van Buskirk. Hearing their stories and other’s accounts about how SEGA and Nintendo went back and forth and all the things they did to get an edge is fun to watch and listen to. It was also fun to hear all the former SEGA employees do the trade mark ‘SEGA!’ shout near the end of the film. Even though both companies hated each other, you could tell there is a massive amount of respect that they have for each other, even if they wanted to see the other side burn at one point in time. Like the book most of the film is taken from a marketing perspective. That isn’t a bad thing but if you wanted to know more about how the games were made this isn’t the film for you. The games do take center stage, especially Sonic 2 with the Sonic 2’sday launch, and the Mortal Kombat Congressional hearings.
One thing that surprised me is how the film makes villains of certain entities. Right off the bat Nintendo is made to be some sort of villain in the way how Nintendo had such strict third party licensing rules and how they controlled over 90% of the market in the late 80’s. The crash is mentioned and Nintendo uses that to justify a part of their hold on the market. The other villain (in a sense) is SEGA President Hayao Nakayama. In the book there are times where he is fiercely on Kalinske’s side and wants to help him but here in the film, the picture that’s painted is a little more menacing. Of course the rift between SEGA of Japan and SEGA of America is brought up and Nakayama was one of the reasons why this rift existed, but it feels like the film solely points the finger at Nakayama for a lot of SEGA’s problems.
As a whole I can tell this film is great for people who want to know more about what happened in the early 90’s while those of us who are knowledgeable in video game history may be taking a few notes. Just like High Score there are these great 16-bit cutscenes to help tell the story where there is no archive footage. The first meeting Kalinske had with the SEGA execs is a fun one to see that I really enjoyed. Seeing home video footage of kids opening up the consoles on Christmas is a nice touch as well as the old commercials SEGA and Nintendo ran to get people to buy their consoles. All in all this is a great documentary and even though some details aren’t mentioned as much or some are thrown out the wayside, it’s still a great way to get the gist of what happened. I would definitely recommend this for people who want to get into video game history and for those who already know the story but could use a refresher. It’s fun to watch and had me wanting to play my old games again.