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‘Console Wars’— a Thrilling Look at a Chapter of Video Game History

Console Wars Documentary Review

Console Wars, a new documentary debuting this week on CBS All Access — the first-ever original doc in its history — is one of those nonfiction films that’s going to appeal equally to those who know every beat of the story, and those are complete newcomers. For both, it’s an irresistible trip back to the early ’90s, and an in-depth look at a very important episode in the history of American video gaming. 

Based on a book of the same name that was written by Blake Harris and published in 2004, Console Wars covers the multiyear battle between Nintendo and Sega that was fought for several years in the 1990s. Both were Japanese companies, but the movie follows the often bitter fight between their American proxies, with former toy executive Tom Kalinske taking the fight to then-dominant player Nintendo upon taking over Sega’s U.S. operation in 1990.

The film, which spends the majority of its time covering the Sega side of the fight and interviewing many of its top executives, shows how the young upstart went after incumbent Nintendo by implying that Nintendo game was for kids and that Sega’s offerings were edgier.

It’s the very mid-’90s idea that everything has to have “attitude” and be “extreme,” although Sega also brought forward Sonic the Hedgehog, a new company mascot to rival that of Nintendo. Sega also produced some masterful, of-the-moment advertising, most of it featuring the “Sega scream.” 

The two companies went toe-to-toe for a large portion of the ’90s, with Sega even pulling ahead of Nintendo during the era of competition between the Sega Genesis and Super NES. The documentary demonstrates the cultural ubiquity of Sega, even including the “I’m gonna make Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed” scene from the 1996 movie Swingers. 

Nintendo and Sega even battled in Washington, when the increasing edginess (and violence) of the video game business drew the attention of sanctimonious lawmakers such as then-Senator Joseph Lieberman. We even see footage of a 1993 Senate hearing where Nintendo’s Howard Lincoln and Sega’s Bill White are sniping at one another, in a way that never happens these days when, say, Amazon and Google executives are testifying together. 

Console Wars follows the battle through its endgame, when Nintendo announced the N64 — featuring technology Sega couldn’t hope to match — and then Sony backed off plans to collaborate with Sega on a new console, in a sign of the further distance between Sega’s operations in the two countries. 

Before long, Sony went ahead with the PlayStation- with Sega veteran and documentary participant Steve Race running the U.S. operation – and a few years later, Microsoft had also joined the fray, and Sega was out of the console business altogether. What followed was a whole other phase of console wars, which could easily form their own documentary. 

The documentary isn’t even CBS All Access’ only planned adaptation of that book. The streaming service has announced a limited series, based on the same story, with Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg as producers; both are also listed as producers of the documentary.

At any rate, it’s a smart move for CBS All Access to jump into original documentaries, and that’s hopefully something they’ll continue to do more of once the service transitions into its new brand as Paramount+. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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