Book Review: “Console Wars” by Blake J. Harris

We’re back in July with a new type of post! A book review! Wow! Due to my slovenly nature and general  disdain for sitting around and reading, I’ve never had the chance to share my thoughts and opinions on a relevant book here on the blog. THAT CHANGES TODAY, JACK!

Why am I doing this? Because I think my opinion matters? Nope. Because I am some sort of scholar? NOT BLOODY LIKELY. The reason I’m presenting this book review is because I think this type of historical narrative is interesting and worth reading for video game and sociology fans. Although Console Wars isn’t a straight historical account or, by any means, a history book, it tells the real life story of the momentous war between Sega and Nintendo. This company war was a pivotal moment in video game history that changed the industry quite a bit. Through understanding video game history perhaps we can better understand where we’re going.

TLDR: VIDEO GAME HISTORY IS IMPORTANT.

“Console Wars” is the latest book by acclaimed author Blake J. Harris, who is best know for the book and film “Moneyball”.  Here’s a small synopsis of the book for those who are unaware:

In 1990, Nintendo had a virtual monopoly on the video game industry. Sega, on the other hand, was just a faltering arcade company with big aspirations and even bigger personalities. But that would all change with the arrival of Tom Kalinske, a man who knew nothing about videogames and everything about fighting uphill battles. His unconventional tactics, combined with the blood, sweat and bold ideas of his renegade employees, transformed Sega and eventually led to a ruthless David-and-Goliath showdown with rival Nintendo.

 

My thoughts: . Essentially Harris is telling the story of two businesses competing for the video game market. Sounds boring, right? Fortunately, Harris has the exceptional ability of making the mundane palatable. By focusing on specific individuals (primarily Tom Kalinske) Harris makes the narrative less about the historic business tactics that occurred and more about the personal struggle to adjust to mounting demands of working in multinational companies and keeping ahead in a sky rocketing industry. In doing so, the history is broken down in such a way that it feels compelling and almost episodic; you feel for the characters in a way that a traditional historical account wouldn’t be able to convey. These are interesting characters to say the least; they’re trailblazers and huge figures in the video game history  whom many know little to nothing about. Like Moneyball, the book is more about the people than it is products. Likewise, the war between Sega and Nintendo is compelling enough to push the book forward

Half way through the book one would assume that Sega is the David of the story, going against the villain Nintendo. However, the book is never unfair to Nintendo or overly sympathetic to Sega. Obviously, Nintendo and Sega are no longer the same companies they were during the 90s, so it’s important to remember them for the companies they once were; Nintendo really did rule the industry with a power glove. Likewise, Sega is depicted as a company at war with itself, which in many led to its inevitable loss of power in the industry. These are interesting insights about these two companies that people may not know. By the end of the book, you may have a different perspective about these two companies.

Sociological Content wise it’s interesting, but shouldn’t be taken for more than a narrative. Console Wars is in no way a research worthy historical account, but it provides very interesting insight into the culture of the video game industry and the community. The story is an account of the 90s and it in many ways reflects the mindsets and beliefs held by the majority in those years. Video games were a different beast in those days and the book gives readers a unique look back that gamers today may have forgotten or not known about.. 

In all, I’d recommend the book to any gamer looking to learn a little more about the history of video games. I considered myself pretty knowledgeable, especially when it came to the console war between Sega and Nintendo, but the book really takes the reader behind the scenes of these two massive companies in a way that other account do not. It’s honestly a compelling book, even if you’re not directly interested in it for the video game knowledge. It is a lengthy read, but it’s quite worth the read.

“DA DUH DUN!”

Of course, you can also wait for the upcoming film adaptation produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. I’m sure it won’t completely translate to film, but if Moneyball is any indication of how Harris translates his books to film it should at least be worth the watch.  That’s it. Book review over. Please give me a passing grade, teach!  Maybe I’ll do more book reviews when I read more books.

Other resources!

Buy Console Wars on Amazon!

Back In My Play Podcast Interview with Blake J. Harris

 

Lessons From The Social World: Classic Sonic The Hedgehog

“Gotta Go Fast”

It’s time to once again dive into the murky waters of one of the most popular video game franchises of all time to search for their messages and outlooks on the social world. This time I’m delving into the franchise that without a doubt has the most bizarre following behind it. For over 20 years and counting, this franchise has been running through the minds and hearts of fans. I’m talking of course about…. Socket.

Wait, sorry…That was a terrible rip-off. Of course I mean:

Sonic_Finger_Wag

Sonic The Hedgehog

I say that the franchise has a bizarre following with as much affection as possible, as the Sonic Franchise is the one franchise I have dedicated the most time in my life to. Years of message boards, Sonic Fan Art, and lack luster titles, I’ve been with the franchise through thick and thin. Thus, if there’s any franchise I know more about it’s the one with this spikey blue 90s product. However, it’s worth mentioning that the franchise is quite different today than it was in its early years. For the sake of not having a breakdown trying to decipher the hidden messages in titles like Sonic The Black Knight and Shadow The Hedgehog, we’ll be sticking with the classic games in this piece. There are social and cultural themes in a franchise about a blue, super fast, hedgehog fighting against a egg shaped maniac? Surprisingly yes!  Let’s go a little deeper.

Nature Vs. Industry

The first and probably most prominent theme in the franchise has and will always be nature rebelling against the evil of over industrialization. STC27-MiraclePlanetThat’s deep for a franchise that has a two tailed fox flying a plane. The original Sonic The Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis in 1991 had Sonic pitting off against Dr.Eggman, an evil genius who has been capturing animals for experimentation and transforming the once beautiful world into a industrial wasteland.  Throughout the game the player finds themselves freeing trapped animals and destroying machinery while pitting off against Eggman’s complex designs. This seems to convey the message that over industrialization is ruining our natural planet, which is a pretty big social critique for a colorful, kid aimed video game. In case you haven’t become an environmentalist from the original alone, subsequent games push this theme of anti-industrialization by making the stakes higher: Sonic 3, for example, features Eggman tricking native  inhabitant, Knuckles, into helping Eggman seizing his own homeland.  With all of these themes of colonization and anti-industrialization it’s easy to forget that you gotta go fast!

From a sociology stand-point, if the franchise is instilling themes of anti-industry and pro-environment, then it’s fair to say that the franchise is socializing fans and players towards a specific ideology. THANKS FOR THE INDOCTRINATION SEGA.

More Money, Less Problems

Unlike a franchise like Pokemon, which is without a doubt influenced by capitalism, it’s hard to say that Sonic is specifically about  gaining more wealth. However, it is fair to say the franchise pushes themes of accumulation for the sake of safety and betterment. In the games there are rings littered across the world; rings floating in the sky, in Tvs, and you can even gamble for rings in certain games (Hook em while they’re young!).  For those who haven’t played everyone’s favorite Needlemouse, players collect golden rings for life and security; A single hit and you’ll lose all of your rings and be vulnerable to death.  You might be saying “Wow, what a statement on the fickleness of wealth and security”, and you may be right.  Sonic, intentionally or non-intentionally, teaches us that you can go from rich to broke in a matter of seconds. You can be riding high, almost at that sweet 100 ring goal to get an additional life, when a stray crab takes it all away. What a lesson…

GET THEM RINGSSS
GET THEM RINGSSS

Of course the more rings you accumulate, the more chances you have to collect lost rings once hit. The rich  don’t fall harder than the poor. So the game actively pushes you to get more rings for the sake of security, as acquiring lots of rings  nets you additional lives and even gives you access to bonus levels. Money gets you places, kids.

These aren’t bad lessons. It’s smart and logical to teach kids about saving for security. Besides, you gotta counteract kids thinking that the Mushroom trade is the key to economic success. Thanks Mario.

MURICA

What? No…That can’t be right, can it? How could a Japanese developed game have anything to say about American values and beliefs? Oh, you skeptic. The franchise was originally developed to be a competitor to the once and still dominating video game icon Super Mario. With The United States being the emerging and most profitable gaming scene in the world, Sega wanted to focus their efforts on it. Thus, Sonic The Hedgehog was designed with America in mind. Everything from his red and blue colors to his snarky demeanor was intended to appeal to American audiences; in many ways the original Sonic design is a reflection of Japanese beliefs about American consumers.

One concept design for the franchise actually had an American flag wearing wolf!
One concept design for the franchise actually had an American flag wearing wolf!

Some noteworthy beliefs about America Sega made with Sonic (Rightfully in most cases):

  • America likes Santa and Disney: An odd combination, but Sonic’s character design was heavily influenced by Mickey Mouse and Santa.
  • Americans hate to wait and have attitude:15ez2fm Sonic was designed to be what Mario was not – filled with attitude, inpatient, quick, and cool. Original concept art had Sonic saving a hot-to-trot girlfriend named “Madonna” and Sonic even had his own band! PRETTY RADICAL.
  • America is home to the Thriller: Sonic’s shoe design was directly inspired by one of the biggest icons of the time, Michael Jackson.  The king of pop himself even worked with Sega to create the soundtrack for Sonic 3. Although Jackson’s team pulled out of the project before completion, certain Sonic 3 and Knuckles tracks are distinctively similar to Michael Jackson songs.
  • Sometimes our Villains look like out leaders: Dr.Eggman’s original design was heavily inspired by American President Theodore Roosevelt. What this says about American presidents is up for debate, especially considering Eggman’s design was borrowed from a concept for the hero of the franchise.

Jokes aside, the Sonic franchise stands as an interesting survey on what Japanese game developers believed to be appealing to American audiences. For better or worse, Sonic The Hedgehog is a cultural mirror of American pop culture in the 90s. That’s bizarre to think.

Make it What You Want

Up top I said that the Sonic franchise has the most bizarre following, and that’s true, but I forgot to mention that the franchise also has one of the most passionate and dedicated fanbase in the video game community.

This is an actual piece of fanart that I drew nearly a decade ago. I was VERY nerdy.
This is an actual piece of fanart that I drew nearly a decade ago. I was VERY nerdy.

Unlike any other franchise, the Sonic franchise has spawned more fanart, fan fiction, and fan response than any other franchise out there. Countless fan characters, fanfiction stories, and sprite comics have been made to convey fan’s passion for the franchise. There’s also a strange dark side to this passion that includes far too much cartoon pornography and slash fiction, but for the most part the passion leads to harmless things…I try and forget that stuff exists. Despite this, the Sonic franchises shows that fans can embrace a franchise and make it whatever they want it to be. It’s a testament to their passion and the distinct impact that the series has had. More interestingly, it shows that a product can become something much more than a character on screen; it can become a social and cultural character that effects and instills passion and love in countless people, bringing them together in interesting ways. Sonic’s a social catalyst!

Again, we try and forget all of the strange stuff.

Competition

This theme is one that may be lost on those coming to the series now-and-days, but Sonic was born with the theme of competition ingrained in every aspect of the original game.

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For those who weren’t there, in 1991 Sonic The Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis was the title to compete with Nintendo’s powerhouse franchise Super Mario Bros.  Prior to its release of the Sega Megedrive/Genesis Nintendo dominated the home gaming console market with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Sonic The Hedgehog and The Sega Genesis gave Nintendo a run for their money and provided for the greatest console war of all time.  What was spectacular about the Sega/Nintendo console war was the level of quality games it spawned both companies to create. Some of the greatest games of all time were created in this rivalry, including Super Mario World, Sonic 2,  Altered Beast, and A Link To The Past. It was a healthy competition that grew the video game market and made the statement that it was possible for two consoles to co-exist and compete. Regardless of which side you were on, or if you had both consoles, the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo was both beneficial to each company, gamers, and the industry. It was great time to be a gamer that resulted in the creation of many gaming icons and staples. While Nintendo has their hands a little more full these days, Sega and Sonic have stood the test of time as being mainstays in the video game industry. The story of Sonic and Sega is one that is worth telling, and teaches us all that something great can come from a little competition.

Other Quick Social Lessons Classic Sonic Has To Teach

  •  Blast Processing is what you need and what doesn’t actually exist.images
  • Mutant foxes make the best companions
  • Being a jewel collector grants invincibility
  • Check your pinball machines for small rodents.
  • Foxes and rodents are the greatest enemy to scientists.
  • Smashing TVs give you special powers, especially if you see your own face on TV.
  • Never look up your name + Hedgehog on the internet.
  • If you’re drowning, just grab a bubble.

Alright, we’re at the end of the zone, let’s slow down. The Classic Sonic titles are a great set of games; Some of the spin-off games and handheld games are pretty terrible, but the original Genesis titles and Sonic CD are some of the greatest games of all time. If you haven’t already played these titles they’re available on every platform known to man, (They’ve even been ported to consoles with lesser graphics!) so there’s no reason not to play these beloved classics. The Sonic franchise may not be the most sociologically relevant one, but it certainly has some messages to say. Perhaps one day I’ll delve into the messages modern Sonic has to put forth, as there’s some ridiculous messages about rodent Gun Control and why experimenting on animals will lead to psychic abilities (The franchise has gone to strange places…) but for now we’ll put  lid on this speedy forest creature.

Please let me know if these type of articles are worthwhile. I know their scarce on the actual sociology, but I hope they’re at least a little entertaining.

For more Lessons from Classic Franchises, check out these two: