Console Wars begins not in the early days of home video gaming, but in 1990, when Nintendo was king. Setting the stage for why 8-bit Mario was such a marvel is archival news reports from electronics conventions where a cassette tape-playing Walkman and a handheld VHS camcorder were heralded as remarkable innovations. Interviews with execs from Nintendo and Sega present the landscape, where the former had cornered the market so thoroughly it made it near impossible for competitors to actually compete.Detailing business deals and marketing strategies might sound dull. However, Console Wars is clever about its exploration of these topics. To tweak viewer interest, the filmmakers steadily tie in nostalgia touchstones ranging from Super Mario Bros, to Flintstone vitamins, the Reebok pump, and teen idols Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Joey Lawrence. More importantly, Harris and Tulis thoughtfully selected eccentric execs to bring verve to the oral history of this corporate showdown. They offer oddball anecdotes about swaggering appearances before Congress, a mall tour in a Sonic The Hedgehog costume, and the import of a particular Comfort Inn in San Francisco. Then, there’s the smirking suit, who explained his ethos by declaring, “My former wife told me I could never have a broken heart because I don’t have one.”
Through these interviews, Console Wars turns two major companies into characters, comparing their corporate cultures with a mix of bemusement and skepticism. By beginning when Nintendo is already at the top of their game, that company is presented as a bullying and unstoppable Goliath, while Sega is the scrappy underdog David. To make a stand, Sega of America (the U.S. branch of the Japanese company) defined their brand by rebelling against Nintendo’s family-friendly image. A zippy montage of the teen-targeted ad campaign is not only full of attitude but also may well give Generation Xers flashbacks.
Sonic the Hedgehog: A Visual History of SEGA’s Mascot
While charting Sega’s rise, tension is brewed by cutting back and forth between conflicting accounts of some of these corporate rivalries’ nastiest moments, like blow-ups at conventions and professional poaching. Yet things stay light, edging into comical, as Sonic balloons drowned at the bottom of a hotel pool don’t really compare to mob tactics like a decapitated horse head in a bed. Then, as Sega turns the tide with their superior bit-rates, speed, and the sheer spectacle of Sonic, Console Wars jumps back 12 years to when Nintendo was the scrappy underdog. By rejecting a linear chronology, the doc throws us for a loop. It’s almost like a prequel within the film that challenges the audience to re-evaluate what they think they know about a franchise antagonist.
Adding oomph to this history is a fitting form of re-enactment. Instead of calling in live-action lookalikes or cutting only to personal photos, Console Wars offers up video game-inspired animations of these events. Sega’s elaborate courting of an American ad-man is rendered in blocky pixels, from beaches to boardrooms. The verbal jab between warring execs is re-imagined in a Street Fighter scenario with the two sides squaring off in profile. Finally, a grimy New Jersey warehouse is rendered as a comically disgusting side-scrolling game, where Nintendo employees must dodge rampaging rats and pools of toxic waste to get out their first major launch.
All of this is riveting, but where Console Wars fumbles is when a new fighter enters the game: Sony PlayStation. In this section, the Sega of America team blames the company’s missteps on a Japanese higher-up, who is not interviewed. Instead of two different sides, the conversation turns to unquestioned finger-pointing. The film’s focus and snappy pace suffer for it. However, it could be argued this is not a glitch but a feature. Nintendo was not the first console to awe the American public. PlayStation will not be the last. The console wars rage on. One doc could not do its full scope justice. So perhaps that’s why this one doesn’t try. Perhaps that’s intentional to leave room for the in-development Console Wars series.[Editor’s note: Blake J. Harris has contributed documents and excerpts from his research and publications to IGN since 2014. In effort to put forward the most impartial review possible, our review is written by Kristy Puchko, who has never worked with Blake J. Harris in any capacity.]