Plot: CONSOLE WARS takes viewers back to 1990 when Sega, a fledgling arcade company, assembled a team of underdogs to take on the greatest video game company in the world, Nintendo. It was a once-in-a-lifetime, no-holds-barred conflict that pit brother against brother, kids against grownups, Sonic against Mario, and America’s unique brand of capitalism against centuries-old Japanese tradition. For the first time ever, the men and women who fought on the front lines for Sega and Nintendo discuss this battle that defined a generation.
Review: A few weeks ago, I reviewed Netflix’s six-episode history of video games, High Score. With narration by the voice of Mario and a hyperkinetic mix of 8-bit animated cut-scenes and a fun electronic soundtrack, Netflix’s series brought me right back to my childhood growing up with video games in my life. While that series looked at everything from early consoles to RPGs to fighting games and beyond, it was more of a high-level retrospective history of gaming. The third episode of that series was wholly dedicated to the competition between Sega and Nintendo. Now, a feature-length documentary, Console Wars, is here to dedicate it’s entire run time to the rivalry between the two biggest game system if the 1980s. Running just 30 minutes longer than the episode of High Score, this documentary treads similar ground while diving a little deeper into the Sega side of things.
Based on the 2014 book by Blake J. Harris, Console Wars was produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, two guys we know were shaped by experience as teens playing video games. This documentary was scheduled to premiere at SXSW before COVID-19 hit and now is potentially getting a wider audience than it would have had theatrically. But, coming weeks after Netflix unveiled High Score, Console Wars feels a little late to the game. Much of what is discussed in Console Wars feels a bit outdated, including interviews with the top brass at both Nintendo and Sega whom all look like their interviews were filmed a few years ago.
Console Wars is told out of chronological order with much of the first half dedicated to Sega’s rise to prominence. Nintendo often feels like old news as the documentary seems to position the Genesis as the underdog and everyone who worked there fighting against the behemoth that is Nintendo. As a life-long member of Team Nintendo, I was definitely fascinated by seeing how Sega built their console in the shadow of the NES. But, when Console Wars flashes back to give us the origin of Nintendo, it comes across as rushed and superficial.
Filmmaking team Blake J. Harris and Jonah Tulis have a lot of archival footage at their disposal and quite a few interviews that provide more than enough material to fill the 90 minute run time here. Free of any narration, this story moves along thanks to the insight and recollections of those who worked at Sega and Nintendo. Going from Japan to America, arcades to Capitol Hill (for the infamous hearings led by Senator Joe Lieberman), Console Wars begins to heat up when Segas guerilla marketing tactics force Nintendo to fight back using similar approaches.
While I learned a lot I didn’t know about the competition between these two corporations, the story becomes sad when we see the missed opportunities both sides made leading up to the eventual debut of Sony’s Playstation console. The film wraps up showing us where each of the companies stand today with Sega’s fall all the more bittersweet considering how high they climbed in the 1990s. There is a lot of knowledge here if you are someone interested in the evolution of consoles from 8 to 16-bit and beyond, but I have a feeling a lot more people have access to Netflix than CBS All Access. That means Console Wars is already somewhat redundant weeks after High Score began streaming. Like the conflict between Nintendo and Sega, this documentary feels a little behind the times and pales a bit compared to the other options out there. It is still an enjoyable watch but doesn’t dive nearly as deep as it could have.
CONSOLE WARS premieres September 23rd on CBS All Access.