Review: Console Wars is a rousing look at the egos behind the Sega and Nintendo rivalry

As a child in the ‘90s, I was only vaguely aware of the war between Sega and Nintendo. My family had a SNES and a Sega Master System, but I wasn’t a huge fan of either company. The first console to really capture my imagination was the PlayStation -- I remember having to choose between Sony’s first system or the Nintendo 64 as a birthday present. After poring through my many gaming magazines at the time, I settled on PlayStation.

That’s why a documentary like CBS All Access’s Console Wars is so interesting to me. Based on and named after the popular book by author Blake J. Harris, Console Wars recounts the tumultuous 1990s rivalry between reigning market leader Nintendo and spunky up-and-comer Sega. Coincidentally, the broad strokes of this story were covered earlier this year in an episode of Netflix’s High Score docuseries. But Console Wars goes into more depth and also puts the spotlight on some lesser-known figures from that era.

Rather than rely on some kind of voice-over to weave the narrative together, the filmmakers were wise enough to let the interview subjects tell the story themselves. Each person brings something different to the table, and they all have fascinating anecdotes about this unique moment in gaming history.

While Console Wars covers Sega, Nintendo, and eventually, Sony, it’s mostly told from Sega’s perspective. And the main driving force behind that point of view is former Sega of America president Tom Kalinske.

Sega’s unsung heroes

Kalinske was one of the major reasons why Sega became a household name in the first place, so it makes sense to have him as the main character. Console Wars provides two versions of Kalinske. First, we see him as the charismatic and ambitious businessman who, after experiencing tremendous success at Mattel, relished the challenge of taking on a titan like Nintendo. The first half of the film sees him earning the trust of Sega of Japan CEO Hayao Nakayama, who gives Kalinske full control over marketing the Sega Genesis in the U.S.

It’s under his leadership that we got the famous “Sega scream” commercials, a lower price for the Genesis, Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega wanted a character that could stand toe-to-toe with Nintendo’s cherubic plumber), and much more. But as the story pivots to the later years of Kalinske’s tenure -- with tensions boiling over between Nakayama’s Sega of Japan and Kalinske’s Sega of America -- we see a different side of him. The company struggled to compete with PlayStation and Nintendo 64 at this time, and Kalinske found himself almost helpless as the Japan side took over.

The other former Sega employees interviewed for the film said Kalinske shielded them from much of Sega Japan’s criticisms. Former marketing executive Steve Race called him the team’s “sin eater,” and during that time, Kalinske even had some nervous breakdowns whenever he came back from Japan. It made me realize that while Kalinske reveled in Sega’s explosive success, he was also someone who truly cared about his team. Toward the end of Console Wars, we see old footage from an awards ceremony, where Kalinske tells the crowd that his “proudest” business accomplishment was working alongside his talented coworkers at Sega.

Some of those coworkers appear in Console Wars as well, and their stories are just as fascinating. This was the first time I heard of Al Nilsen, Sega’s former director of marketing. Interestingly, Nakayama left it to Nilsen to have the final say on what the Genesis’ mascot would look like. He was given two different character designs, with one being Sonic and the other a plump chicken known as Eggs. Nilsen of course chose the hedgehog and got rid of some of the more outlandish elements of Sonic’s original design (like a proposed rock band and a human girlfriend named Madonna).

Then there’s Paul Rioux, a Vietnam veteran and former executive VP who believes that business is a lot like combat, a mentality that obviously helped shape Sega’s aggressive marketing tactics. Former director of communications Ellen Beth Van Buskirk is a fun addition as well. She was one of the few female executives in the industry at that time, and she fondly recalls writing speeches for Kalinske and traveling around the country as part of a mall tour for the first Sonic game (which sometimes involved putting on a huge Sonic costume).

A vivid depiction of the rivalry

While Console Wars has separate interviews from people who worked at Nintendo and Sega, the documentary sometimes frames it as if both sides are having a direct conversation with each other. In one instance, Kalinske talks about how Nintendo stymied the competition by threatening to withhold NES approval from developers who created games for other consoles, referring to it as blackmail. Console Wars then cuts to Bill White, the former director of marketing at Nintendo, who just shakes his head in response to Kalinske’s claim, and says Nintendo was legally in the clear.

The documentary often cuts to the Nintendo interviewees for these reactions, and it’s amusing to hear their opinions on topics like Sonic’s debut or the countless Sega commercials that poked fun at their company. These clever bits of editing make Console Wars’ lively story even more electric. Sometimes, it appears there’s still tension between these presidents and marketing executives. It reminded me a lot of ESPN’s The Last Dance, where you could clearly see that the beef between Michael Jordan and some of his NBA rivals are still simmering today.

The personalities in Console Wars aren’t on the level of those superstar basketball players, but it’s nonetheless entertaining to watch both sides relive some of the most contentious moments of that era. The time period is brought to life through a ton of archival footage, which does a great job of showing what the industry was like back then (when b-roll isn’t available, Console Wars uses 2D pixel art to recreate key points in the story). I loved seeing what the convention floor looked like in the early days of CES and E3, as well as old news segments covering how powerful the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo would be.

What stuck out the most was the home video footage of kids opening up their Christmas presents and freaking out when they saw a shiny new console inside. This footage isn’t just there for nostalgia’s sake, however: Console Wars uses it as another smart storytelling technique.

At the beginning of the film, a group of kids excitedly find NES consoles under their tree; as the popularity of Sega rises, there’s a montage of families discovering the Genesis; and then as Sega’s fortunes wane, we see another shift when a stunned child opens up his first PlayStation. It’s a simple but effective method of illustrating the ebb and flow of the gaming industry -- of how companies and consoles rise and fall with the generations.

All these decades later, corporate rivalries and the console fanboys that closely follow them are still very much a part of this industry. Maybe it’s because of my own nostalgia, but the video game drama of the ‘90s looks quaint compared to what we have today (like online harassment, death threats to developers, etc.). Except for bruised egos and a fistfight that almost broke out between Kalinske and Nintendo SVP of marketing Peter Main, the “war” between the two companies seemed, in the end, mostly harmless.

Console Wars is a rollicking account of the highs and lows of that David and Goliath battle, and there’s so much going on that it feels like the 90-minute runtime isn’t nearly long enough to cover everything. But that’s where the book comes in, I suppose. It’s about time I dive in and read it.