I grew up playing video games as far back as Colecovision, and when Nintendo came out with NES it blew my mind that games like Super Mario Bros. and Kid Niki – Radical Ninja (remember that?) that I played in the arcade would look exactly the same at home. Then when Sega Genesis came out with Altered Beast, I used my birthday money to buy a Genesis even when all my friends said I should be getting TurboGrafx 16. Who’s laughing now? Um, I guess both are.
I still played N64 (Goldeneye of course), Sega Dreamcast (Crazy Taxi!) and advanced Playstations and Xboxes (Rock Band, Guitar Hero) but Sega Genesis was the last time I was really into gaming. So the new book Console Wars, by Blake J. Harris, was totally my jam. In 555 pages, Harris chronicles Sega’s brief domination of Nintendo in the early ’90s, and how Nintendo came back in the end. Maybe that’s a spoiler, but we all know Sega doesn’t make consoles anymore. The star of the book is Tom Kalinske, the Sega of America CEO hired to make the Genesis number one, and he did.
The entirety of Console Wars is full of trivia that led me down Google rabbit holes looking up things that were only tangentially mentioned in the book. As it is, this brief preview won’t spoil the wealth of gaming minutiae Harris uncovered. And the most famous geeks in the world agree: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are turning Console Wars into a movie for Sony Pictures, and Harris is working on following up the book with a documentary. Here are 10 things that totally surprised me reading Console Wars, and I assure you there are hundreds more.
10. Playstation Was Supposed to Be a Nintendo Attachment.
Sony developer Olaf Olafson (yes, that’s his real name) entered a partnership between Nintendo. At the 1991 summer Consumer Electronics show, Olafson announced that Sony was releasing the Nintendo Playstation, an attachment for the Super NES that would play CD-rom games. The following day, however, Nintendo snubbed them by announcing a partnership with Philips.
This eventually led Sony to develop their own console, the now ubiquitous Playstation, but it wasn’t an immediate revenge. Olafson first tried to partner with Sega and got very far developing a new console with Sega of America. Kalinske wanted to partner wtih Sony, but it was Sega of Japan who nixed it to Kalinske’s chagrin. Left to their own devices, Sony developed their own Playstation, but that’s not even part of the book. And whatever became of that Nintendo Philips CD? Yeah, that’s what we thought.
9. Mario Bros. Is Just Joust From Below.
This one blew my mind when I read it. By now you may only know Mario from the Super Mario games, whether the classic NES side scroller or the fancier 3D open world games on N64 or Wii. Even if you remember Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong, his first solo game seems to have fallen under the radar.
Mario Bros. featured Mario and Luigi running around a sewer infested by Koopa turtles. To defeat them, the player would jump from below and bounce the turtles on their back, then hop up to the level and kick them away. Now, if you recall the classic arcade game Joust, you fly around the exact same layout as Mario Bros., only you drop onto your enemies from below, causing them to lay an egg which you had to collect before it hatched. IT’S THE SAME GAME!!! Of course, Mario has come leaps and bounds from Mario Bros. and there’s been no Super Joust Bros. Hmm, maybe it’s time for Williams to get on that. If, you know, they still existed.
8. Jimbo Mathison Was the Voice of the Sega Scream.
If you didn’t grow up with Sega Genesis, you’re probably too young to remember the television commercials for Sega Genesis. Hey, you may even be too young to remember TV commercials at all, if you’ve only lived with DVR and never watched a live commercial. The Genesis commercials were pretty distinct. At the end of each ad, for any game, the Sega logo would come up and a disembodied voice would scream, “SEGA!”
That voice belonged to Jimbo Mathison, a non-SAG actor working commercials. He was actually violently ill the day the commercial production company Colossal Pictures called him, “puke[ing]his guts out” according to the book. Mathison screamed “Sega” for about an hour in every different way you could imagine. Harris doesn’t even know if Mathison ever got his SAG card, but his voice went down in history.
7. Sega Gave It Away for Free to Beat Wal-Mart.
J. Stephen Conn
Kalinske thought the key to making the Sega Genesis a household name was to get it in Wal-Mart. Back in the 1991, Wal-Mart was a Nintendo -nly store. Kalinske made two trips to Walmart headquarters, as documented in Console Wars, but both were met with stubborn refusal. So, Kalinske came up with a plan to give Sega away for free until Walmart agreed to sell it.
Sega rented a space in Bentonville, AR, the same town as the Wal-Mart headquarters and set up a Sega Genesis Arcade. They put up billboards all around town directing people to their free hangout. They basically turned Bentonville in to Segaville, and it worked. Eventually, Sega distracted so many customers from Wal-Mart and got so much attention, that Wal-Mart agreed to stock the Genesis, if only they would please shut down that free arcade. Man, what it would’ve been like to live in Bentonville back in 1991.
6. Saved by the Bell Stars Shilled for Sonic.
In 1991, Nintendo was spending $25 million to market the upcoming Super NES. The same year, Sega was releasing Sonic the Hedgehog as their marquee character, but they didn’t have the budget to compete with Nintendo’s ad dollars. So Kalinske came up with a series of strategic publicity for Sega and Sonic in the summer of 1991. The most bizarre, in retrospect, had to be the Sega Star Kid Challenge.
Sega got the stars of the hottest teen shows – Saved by the Bell (Mark Paul Gosselaar, Mario Lopez, Tiffany Amber Thiessen, Dustin Diamond and Lark Voorhees), Blossom (Mayim Bialik, Jenna Von Oy, Joey “Whoah” Lawrence), Who’s the Boss (Danny Pintaro), Growing Pains (Jeremy Miller) and a bunch of shows no one remembers anymore – to compete in obstacle course events for charity. One of the events was simply playing Sonic the Hedgehog, to show all the folks at home the amazing super speed gameplay. They even had a dude dressed as Sonic bouncing around behind the scenes. Personally, I think Takeshi’s Castle ripped of Sega Star Kid Challenge, although I guess Double Dare was already first.
5. Sonic Had Fangs.
It’s hard to imagine as the blue little furball we’ve known and loved for 20-some years, but the original design of Sonic was way different. As conceived by Naoto Oshima, the original Sonic had sharp fangs and a spiked collar, which made him look more like a boss Sonic would have to defeat than the hero himself. They also gave the “scary Sonic” a busty human girlfriend named Madonna and he was an electric guitar strumming leader of a rock band.
Okay, in retrospect, that does sound awesome in its own way. What I wouldn’t give to have a chance to play Sonic the Hedgehog as that guy, but even Harris said he never saw a picture of the Sonic with fangs. He did see some shots of Madonna and the Sonic rock band, but the Oshima “Scary Sonic” lives on only in legend.
4. Sega Created Modern Release Dates.
Remember when you used to rush to the store on Tuesdays to buy the latest video games? That was before you could preorder them on Amazon to have them arrive at your house on Tuesday. Well, Sega is the reason release dates are on Tuesday at all, and it all comes down to a clever pun.
Sega needed the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 to top the original and anything Nintendo had in the works for the holiday season. For Sonic 1, Sega rolled out a mall tour letting fans try out Sonic early to build word of mouth. For Sonic 2, they created a worldwide day and date release date. They picked Tuesday so they could name it Sonic 2sday. Get it? Tuesday, twos-day?
3. Michael Jackson Wrote the Soundtrack for Sonic The Hedgehog 3.
Sega had already partnered with Michael Jackson for their game Moonwalker, which I was surprised to learn wasn’t a massive success. I remember it well and actually discovered a lot of Michael Jackson songs through the game. “Smooth Criminal” didn’t get much radio play where I was from but hearing the 16-bit version got me jamming.
So Jackson writing the soundtrack to a Sonic the Hedgehog game would have been huge, except that his child molestation scandal, sadly only the first for MJ, broke before the release of Sonic 3. There are lots of unconfirmed reports about this. Harris believes Jackson’s music is still in the game, though perhaps finished by other artists. Others believe Jackson repurposed the Sonic 3 music as later songs like “Stranger in Moscow.” All I know is I need to find a copy of Sonic 3 now, stat!
2. Donkey Kong Country Saved Nintendo.
We could argue about the technical power of the systems. Maybe Super NES had better graphics. They did have a whole extra year to work on them after Genesis came out. But, it really came down to games. Nintendo may have had Mario and Zelda, but for this brief time, Sega landed the titles that made more people buy Genesis.
Exclusive titles like Sonic the Hedgehog and Ecco the Dolphin were innovative for their time. Now, they both look like old side scrollers, but the speed of Sonic and the underwater physics of Ecco are still things of beauty. Sega also nailed the sports games like Joe Montana Football, then the Madden football series and College Football games. Guys in my college dorm had both Madden and College Football, which were the exact same game just with different players, and accurate to that year’s roster.
The game that swung things back in Nintendo’s favor was an update of their landmark character. It was the first home console game to feature pre-rendered 3D graphics; a side-scroller that turned Donkey Kong into a hero, trying to recover his lost bananas. It also introduced the character of Donkey’s nephew Diddy Kong, who would star in the sequel. According to Console Wars, the story goes that Nintendo would spend $3 million per commercial and just blast their products across all media. One developer, Tony Harman, asked if he could have $3 million to create the greatest game, and all it would mean was one less commercial on the air. Nintendo agreed and the result was Donkey Kong Country. So that’s what $3 million looks like.
1. Sega Saturn Lost The War.
Spoiler alert for actual history in which the Sega corporation gave up on consoles altogether after the Dreamcast. The book concludes with the failure of the Sega Saturn, and Kalinske did everything he could to prevent it. Kalinske was pushing to continue the life of the Genesis, as Nintendo wasn’t giving up on Super NES any time soon. He pushed for the Sony partnership so Sega could have the best technology available.
Ultimately, the rift between Sega of America and Sega of Japan could not be bridged. Sega wanted to keep the technology in house and they were ready to jump into the next generation, and it was too soon. There wasn’t enough support from game developers to give the Saturn a library worth collecting, and focusing on the Saturn ended the Genesis before it was done being a phenomenon.
To be quite honest, I don’t even remember the Sega Saturn. When I learn that their big game was Virtua Fighter, I vaguely remember that blocky 3D fighting game in arcades, but had no desire to bring it home like Mortal Kombat. I did think the Dreamcast was a redemption and I would have happily continued buying Dreamcast games. I literally consider Crazy Taxi the best game ever. It’s brilliant. You pick up passengers, take them to their destination, and then pick up more passengers! All I wanted was more cities to drive crazy taxis through, but all the sequels did was add unnecessary features like jumps. Taxis don’t jump. Come on! Anyway, Sega Saturn sucked, Playstation and N64 came out, I sold my Dreamcast and now I’m a Sony guy because it plays Blu-rays.
Previously By Fred Topel