Video game documentaries were rare a decade ago. One reason for that is the medium and its audience were relatively young. Stories were still unfolding and the outstanding news still hadn’t gotten the patina of history yet.
That has changed recently as filmmakers uncovered compelling narratives while peeking behind the industry curtains. The “High Score” Netflix series provided a multifaceted look at the origins of video games and several genres. “King of Kong” introduced viewers to the world of retro video game competitions. “Atari: Game Over” looked at the rise and fall of the pioneering company.
As these documentaries show, video game history is fascinating, and some of the best stories to emerge come from the 1990s. Author Blake J. Harris wrote about the defining conflict of many kids’ childhoods — Nintendo vs. Sega — in “Console Wars,” and with the help of Jonah Tulis, he produced a documentary based on his book.
The film, out Sept. 23 on CBS All Access, follows the general path of the written work. It’s an underdog story describing how Sega rose from obscurity to challenge the near monopoly Nintendo had on the industry. For hard-core Mario fans, the documentary has a specific slant as it follows the upstart’s ascendancy and decline.
Unlike the book, it doesn’t wade too deep into the nitty gritty of the technology. It bypasses the Electronic Arts’ effort to reverse engineer a Genesis and it glances over the technological misstep that Sega took with the Sega Saturn in the fifth console generation. That stuff would be hard to convey over film anyway. Instead, the documentary focuses on how Sega battled Nintendo by changing the culture of gaming.
That begins with then president and CEO of Sega, Tom Kalinske, who is the closest thing to a central character for the film. His work on Mattel properties such as Barbie and “Masters of the Universe” led him to take the helm at Sega, and his effort to transform the company into a savvy rival begins with zigging where Nintendo zagged.
Sega succeeded partly because of its head start with 16-bit technology, but it also made the most of that by transforming what was trendy in gaming. Back in the 1980s, Nintendo’s dominance made Mario more popular than Mickey Mouse, but that changed in the 1990s as Sega sought to win over a new generation of gamers with an edgy mascot in Sonic the Hedgehog. But the bigger change came in the way games were marketed.
The iconic “Sega” scream, “Welcome to the Next Level” slogan and the quick cuts and grungy-look of the commercials played well with an older audience. It set the standard for cool and that in turn set the tone for the decade. That aggressive marketing stance bled into other aspects of the business and created what “Console Wars” showed was a tense rivalry.
The film builds up to that tit-for-tat fighting, but like in reality, “Console Wars” doesn’t really have a resolution or point in which Sega comes out the winner over Nintendo in a specific year. The best that can be said is that Sega’s in-your-face messaging forced its rival to change.
As Sega found success, Nintendo chose to copy its rival with its own high-energy ads focused on the “Play it Loud” campaign. That should have been a climactic moral victory for Sega, but the company’s run of success of the 1990s couldn’t be sustained. As the decade progressed, Sony entered the market and Nintendo retained its technology edge with Nintendo 64.
“Console Wars” goes over that, but the story of Sega’s decline felt more rushed compared to the rest of the film. If people didn’t know about the background, they may have missed the devastating effect of Sony’s $299 PlayStation price point, compared to the Sega’s $399 Saturn. They could have focused more on the missed opportunities that Sega had to extend its life as a major console manufacturer. The film needed a little more context toward that final third focusing on the decline.
Despite that, “Console Wars” gets the important bits right while condensing a wealth of video game history into a 90-minute film. In themes, it mirrors the book, but it in execution it tells an intriguing story of the rise of Sega and how the video game company changed popular culture forever.
Adapted from the novel by Blake J. Harris
2½ stars out of 4
Directors: Jonah Tulis and Blake J. Harris
Running Time One hour, 32 minutes
When & Where: Available for streaming now on CBS All Access