Console Wars was a hit book, and now it’s documentary. It tells the story of Sega and Nintendo’s fight for gaming dominance in the ’90s, which is really more a tale of marketing than anything else. And it’s a fascinating one.
The Console Wars documentary is available through the CBS All Access subscription service, and I got an advance copy. At just over 90 minutes, this film doesn’t have the depth of the book. It’s more concerned with entertaining than educating, and it’s content to let the story unfold through the words of the people that were part of the story (you won’t get any Ken Burns-style narration here). But the documentary does have a significant advantage over its source material — visual context.
This comes in a few forms. First off, it’s nice to see the faces of the story’s key players, like former Sega of America president Tom Kalinske. The documentary also has some cute vignettes using pixel animations to re-create key moments, such as Kalinske’s proposal in front of Sega of Japan to bundle Sonic the Hedgehog with the Genesis at no additional cost.
On the show floor
Seeing those old tech shows, however, is my favorite part of this version of Console Wars. The documentary gives you show floor video from those old Consumer Electronic Shows where much of the public got their first look at Sonic the Hedgehog.
You also get to see snippets from the first Electronic Entertainment Expo (otherwise known as E3, which would go on to become one of the most important trade shows in the game industry). This includes Sony’s famous keynote for the then upcoming PlayStation, with SCEA president Steve Race only saying “$299” before walking off the stage, stunning the crowd with a price that would be $100 cheaper than the Sega Saturn. I’ve heard about this moment before, but I’ve never actually seen it until I watched this documentary.
The film also shows off some other interesting footage, including an advertising agency’s pitch to make Genesis commercials and film from the 1993 congressional hearings on video game violence. As great a job as the book does detailing these events, you immediately get a sense of the energy and tension from these moments when you actually see them.
From the front line
That’s why the documentary is worth watching, even if you’ve read through the book and think you already know the story. I mean, yes, you do. But that story feels more real when you’re able to see some of its scenes as they happened.
You’re going to miss some events from the book. PlayStation’s rise doesn’t get as much coverage in this documentary. I was also sad to see some stories missing, like the one about Sega’s doomed education console, Pico.
But Console Wars is a fast-paced, entertaining way to experience gaming’s most famous rivalry that most gaming fans will enjoy watching.