Console Wars (2015)
SONIC VS. MARIO
One of Kalinske’s greatest assets at Mattel had been a list of industry contacts—a list so extensive that it rivaled the yellow pages. In those days, he didn’t just know the top executives at every company along the toy spectrum but also knew which marketing guys they trusted, which salesmen they didn’t, and which gabby receptionists didn’t realize their gossip revealed vital pieces of information. Simply put, Kalinske had a Rolodex that put other men’s to shame. He still had that same Rolodex, but with its majority of contacts being in the toy business, he was now trying to build up a similar resource for videogames.
To create such a network, Kalinske spent his mornings on the phone speaking with industry players, financial analysts, and friends from his past life who might have insight into trends. Normally, he wasn’t looking for much, just some game development news, rumors of a hot property, or even a golf date. Today, however, he was expecting to hear the first wave of feedback on Nintendo’s new system.
His initial calls went to retailers. They usually had good contacts overseas and, more important, had the most to gain or lose. If Nintendo had put out a great product, they were sure to make another fortune. But if it was lacking, then the retailers would be looking for a plan B, which Sega was more than happy to provide.
Because of the time difference, he started with guys on the East Coast. To his surprise, everybody he called spoke about the Super Famicom as if it were the second coming. Apparently the thing had taken Japan by storm, selling out in a matter of hours. This was an unexpected pie in Kalinske’s face, though he was glad to hear that many of the retailers were still secretly rooting for Sega. “Sooner or later, those jerks will get what’s coming to them,” Tasso Koken said in a huffy New Jersey accent. Koken was a buyer for the Wiz, a Northeast electronics chain that had recently gained traction by virtue of a catchy jingle (“Nobody beats the Wiz!”) and betting big on sponsorships with all the New York sports franchises. “Now, I hate to admit that it seems like it’ll be later rather than sooner, but trust me. It’s going to happen.”
“I appreciate the kind words,” Kalinske said.
“Not just words,” Koken said. “Actions, my friend.”
“I like the sound of that. Were you able to get us more shelf space?”
“No. But I got you better shelf space. End caps, front-facing. Everything eye level. Cream of the crop.”
“Every little bit helps,” Kalinske said with a chuckle. “Let me know if you hear anything else about Nintendo.”
“Will do. But so far it sounds like the real deal.”
Kalinske thanked Koken for the intel and hung up. As he sat at his desk wondering if he was seeing only what he wanted to see, Nilsen tapped on the door and poked his head into Kalinske’s office. “Have a second?”
“Only if you played through more of the game,” Kalinske said, waving him in.
“More? I played through all of the game,” Nilsen said with a grim expression on his face. “And so I come bearing bad news.”
“How bad?” Kalinske asked, bracing himself.
“Very bad,” Nilsen said, his frown morphing into a grin. “For Nintendo.”
“Yeah?” Kalinske said, raising an eyebrow.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Nilsen said. “It’s fun, it’s finely tuned, and it’s expertly leveled. It’s just so well crafted from a gameplay standpoint, which is what Nintendo does so well and exactly what I would expect from them.”
Kalinske smiled. “But?”
“But I spent the entire weekend playing it, and at no pointed did I feel wowed. Yeah, the graphics were a little better. There were some slight gameplay tweaks, which were nice, but nothing revolutionary.”
Kalinske clapped his hands together with excitement.
“Yup, I was doing a lot of that myself,” Nilsen said. “The whole time I just kept thinking over and over and over: this is 12-bit Mario. A step in the right direction, but definitely not a leap forward. Nintendo dropped the ball.”
“I knew it,” Kalinske said. “All morning the retailers have been telling me that they’ve heard it’s the best thing since sliced bread. I admit, I was a little surprised at first. But that’s got to be because they haven’t seen it firsthand.”
Nilsen nodded. “That sounds about right. In the famous words of our esteemed cliché makers, seeing is believing.”
“Yes, it is,” Kalinske said. “And you, sir, have seen.”
“I have. And I’m one hundred percent confident that we have a winner.”
Kalinske thought for a minute, letting the golden words echo in his head. Sega had the better product. It was no longer speculation or fantasy but a matter of fact. This was everything Kalinske had hoped for, and now Sega had no excuse not to beat Nintendo. “Okay, we have a winner,” he said, but that wasn’t enough. There needed to be something more, some way to make this distinction obvious and enticing just like in that Reebok bungee commercial. “I want you to prove it. To me, and to the world.”
“I don’t know yet. And neither do you,” Kalinske said. “But I’m confident that at some point you will and, when that happens, heads will roll.”
“All right,” Nilsen said, turning to leave. “I’ll start strategizing.”
“Wait,” Kalinske said. “Did you bring it back? The Super Famicom?”
“Yup. It’s in my car. You need it?”
“I think so,” Kalinske said. “It’s time I pay a visit to an old friend.”
Now armed with complete confidence in his product and a mandate from Japan to make changes as he saw fit, Kalinske arranged for another meeting with Wal-Mart. This time he traveled down to Arkansas with Toyoda, hoping that a tag team effort would change the electronic merchant’s mind once and for all.
“Wipe that smirk off your face, Mr. Kalinske. It’s very unbecoming,” the man from Wal-Mart said, shaking his head and rolling his eyes as the two men from Sega entered. “I assume this is the esteemed Shinobu Toyoda?”
Toyoda nodded and quietly introduced himself as he and Kalinske took a seat.
“You ought to be taking notes and learning from your colleague,” the merchant said to Kalinske. “Guy walks in, doesn’t say much, and, most important, no smirk.”
“It’s not a smirk,” Kalinske said. “It’s a smile. That’s all.”
The merchant emitted a guttural sound of skepticism. “I’m dubious. But I invited you back, so I’m willing to play along. What’s this about?”
“I came to say that I’ve seen the future.”
“Oh, yeah? Is that right, Nostradamus?” the merchant asked, and then turned to Toyoda, who nodded vigorously in support of Kalinske. “And what exactly did you see?”
“I saw the American release of Nintendo’s new system. Sometime just before the Christmas season,” Kalinske said, and then donned a look of mock horror. “And people are furious. This new Nintendo costs an arm and a leg and doesn’t play any of the old games. That would all be well and good, except that the new system isn’t even that much better than the old one. It’s all a sham.” Kalinske swapped out the look of horror on his face with one of dread. “And Wal-Mart’s watching all of this happen. Wishing that there was something that could save their Christmas season. Lo and behold, there is: the Sega Genesis, the world’s most advanced videogame system.”
The man from Wal-Mart chuckled. “Nice prophecy, Mr. Kalinske. But there’s a slight hitch: Nintendo’s new system isn’t a sham. From what I hear, it’s pandemonium in Japan. They sold out in less than twenty-four hours. More than a quarter million units.”
“This is true,” Toyoda confirmed, leaning forward. “But it is all hype.”
“My nonsmirking friend here is correct,” Kalinske said. “A big opening weekend for a movie isn’t proof that it’s any good. It just means they had nice a poster.”
“Fair enough. But couldn’t we have had this tête-à-tête over the telephone?”
“But then I couldn’t have shown you this,” Kalinske said, reaching into his travel bag and pulling out the Super Famicom. “You can see for yourself. Is there a television somewhere where we can set this up?”
“Yes, but that’s not going to happen.”
“What do you mean?” Kalinske said, trying not to sound as surprised as he felt.
“There’s nothing you can possibly show me on there that will change the fact that Nintendo has made us a lot of money and will continue to do so. Maybe this 16-bit thing won’t be as good as it’s cracked up to be. And maybe parents will make a stink. But in the end, they’re going to buy it, so it doesn’t really matter.”
Kalinske and Toyoda didn’t believe that, but they realized there was nothing they could do or say to change this man’s mind. Seeing was believing, but Wal-Mart wasn’t even willing to see what was right in front of their face, let alone what was coming down the line. So they finished the meeting on cordial terms and got a cab for the airport.
Moments after getting in the cab, however, Toyoda saw something that caused a jolt from head to toe. “Stop here,” he told the driver, only a few blocks from Wal-Mart headquarters. Kalinske was confused, but Toyoda smirked and held up a finger, as if to say, I did not smirk before, but trust me, this will be worth the facial muscles. They paid the driver and got out of the cab.
With a travel bag over his shoulder, Toyoda led Kalinske toward a For Rent sign hanging from the awning of an unoccupied space in a busy strip mall. When they finally reached the storefront, Toyoda didn’t need to say a word. Kalinske immediately knew what he was supposed to be looking at, and the possibilities sent his mind into overdrive. The location was perfect: centrally located, close to Wal-Mart headquarters, and right next to a major highway. He stared at the empty store and imagined a barrage of various displays popping up: Sega hardware and software as far as the eye could see. But they wouldn’t even be selling these things. No, this would purely be to drum up interest and drive Wal-Mart crazy when potential buyers were unable to get Sega products from their stores. Kalinske and Toyoda stared at the empty store, their smiles widening as their mutual vision expanded in scope and size.
“They will come and play for free,” Toyoda said without turning his head.
“Every day of the week,” Kalinske added. “For as long as they would like.” As if making room for an imagined swarm of visitors, Kalinske backed up a few steps and glanced up. “Look,” he said, pointing to a restaurant billboard. Toyoda saw it right away, as Kalinske had before. Sega would cover every inch of the town in ads telling people where they could go to play videogames for free. Billboards, bus stops, park benches.
Kalinske and Toyoda were going to turn Bentonville, Arkansas, into Segaville. They had no idea if the plan would work, but it would certainly force Wal-Mart to take off their blinders and at least look at what Sega wanted them to see.