In the fantastic new book Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle That Defined a Generation, author Blake J. Harris has chronicled the real life struggle for dominance in the video game industry. The non-fiction equivalent of The King of Kong, the book is an enthralling insider’s guide to the people and moves that shaped the games we played…and continued to play. Taking a time out from his prepping of the Console Wars documentary (a dramatized account is also in the works with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, both of whom provide a hilarious intro here, attached as producers), Harris discussed everything from classic gaming to his future projects with us. Game over? Nope, we’re just getting started!
What do you feel is the enduring appeal of the games from the NES/SNES/Genesis era?
I’m tempted to say nostalgia or familiarity, but I think the truth is that there were just a lot of great games. It’s partially the same reason that movies like Star Wars and Ghostbusters still hold up, despite the special effects paling in comparison to what can be done today.
So that classic nature is one part of the equation, but another big one is the shared cultural experience. We’re talking about games from the ’80s and ’90s and, for better or worse, the entertainment options were more limited — no mainstream internet, much fewer TV channels, etc. — meaning a lot of people were not only playing these games, but playing them at the same time as one another. So looking back, it’s almost like we were all at the same party at the same time and that realization (plus the fun of the party itself) makes these games perpetually appealing.
What are your personal favorite games from this timeframe?
I was always into sports games, which made Sega and I a good match in the early ’90s. I loved Joe Montana Football, NBA Jam, and, most of all, NHL ’94, which I still like to boot up from time to time because playing it feels like some kind of 16-bit poetry.
Is it even fair to compare these games to current offerings? How do you feel the industry has progressed and devolved since the early 1990s? Are these changes something you are comfortable with
Well, I think it’s rarely fair to compare any two things (except probably apples, oranges and other similarly-sized fruits) but especially when comparing older games to today’s offering you’re really just asking for trouble. Mostly because today’s games are increasingly realistic, whereas those of yesteryear were overtly not. It’d be like comparing live-action films with cartoons; you can debate he merits all you want, but in the end isn’t it just kind of a matter of taste?
Perhaps a more interesting and fairer comparison would be to look at Nintendo today (who still primarily makes cartoon-like games) and Sony/Microsoft (which primarily do not). Personally, I prefer the Nintendo experience, which is why I own a Wii U, but based on the current numbers I seem to be in the minority.
What were some of the most interesting discoveries about gaming you made while researching and writing this book?
It took me over three years to research and write Console Wars, and it’s no exaggeration when I say that I learned something new and cool every day. The book is filled with all sorts of these easter eggs, but the one that always blows me away is how close Sega and Sony came to jointly developing hardware together (essentially launching the Sega PlayStation).
How did Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg get involved with the project?
My literary manager, Julian Rosenberg, who packaged every aspect of this project (book, documentary and film) is the one who made it happen. After getting an early overview of the project to Seth, Evan and James Weaver (the other principal producer at Point Grey Pictures), myself and Jonah Tulis (who is co-directing the documentary) flew out to LA in January 2012 and we spent a couple of hours talking about this incredible story played a role in all of our childhoods. Needless to say, we hit it off.
What are some of the challenges you face while transforming the book into a documentary?
The best part of the documentary for me as a filmmaker is also the worst part for me as a writer: the story is told entirely in the words of our subjects (as well as archival material). So, in a nutshell, it’s the lack of storytelling control, but that’s also what makes the documentary special and, in my opinion, necessary. There’s just nothing quite as special as sitting back and listening to the story told from the people who were actually there. That was my favorite part about doing the book (all the interviews, meetings and e-mail conversations), so in a way the documentary affords the opportunity to share that experience with viewers.
Was there any material that you wanted to include in Console Wars but couldn’t due to space or other constraints? If so, what?
When it comes to space and length, my publisher was amazingly supportive. So there were a few chapters and historical overviews that were removed, but that was always because although interesting, those sections disrupted the narrative and factual flow of the story.
A real constraint, however, was finding some of these people and getting them to speak openly with me. By the end of it all, I was able to speak with everyone I had on my wish list (and many of them, several times), except for Minoru Arakawa. As a result, I think his presence is lacking in the story and readers aren’t given the opportunity to fully appreciate his masterful leadership.
What are some projects you will be working on next?
Finishing the documentary certainly keeps me very pleasantly busy for now, but in the near future I’d like to begin writing articles about some of the stories, characters and seminal moments that I found to be incredibly compelling but, as mentioned above, were left out of the book because they weren’t integral to the narrative. So that’s something I’m beginning to organize and already has my eyes lighting up whenever I scribble down ideas.
And in addition to further adventures in the retro videogame world, I also co-wrote a musical about the splendors of Wikipedia that will debut this July at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The show, Wikimusical, is sort of like a digital-age Alice in Wonderland story, telling the tale of two estranged brothers who, quite literally, get trapped inside the internet. For more information on that, please visit: www.wikithemusical.com
A huge thanks to Blake J. Harris for talking with us!