Console Wars (2015)





Nintendo of America’s employees felt such head-to-toe reverence for Minoru Arakawa that there was not a thing in the world they would not do for their beloved leader. Or so they thought. In the summer of 1992, however, it dawned on NOA’s employees that there was actually one small thing they were not willing to do: go swimming.

“But the water, it’s perfect,” Arakawa pleaded to a group of guests loitering beside the long pool in his backyard. They had come to his home in Medina for the barbecue that he and his wife hosted every year for Nintendo’s highest-ranking employees and their spouses. For people working in a speed-of-light industry, the annual summer celebration provided one day per year when Nintendo’s employees were encouraged to step back, relax, and smell the burgers being grilled to perfection.

If burgers didn’t do the trick, there was also a full-color spectrum of sushi rolls from one of the city’s finest Japanese restaurants, as well as slivers of succulent king salmon that Howard Lincoln had brought back from his recent trip to Alaska. Mountains of food crested everywhere, and drinks could be found wherever the food was not—wine, champagne, and umbrella-topped cocktails, as well as a wide variety of beers from both America and Japan. There were about a hundred guests in total, all happily eating, drinking, and swapping stories, but even so, none of them were willing to take a plunge into the pool. After failing to entice a different group of guests to let loose and go swimming, Arakawa returned to his post at the grill. Yet he remained patient and undeterred, confident that by the end of the day the pool would no longer be left unrippled.

“Is there anything I can help you with, Mr. A.?” Tony Harman asked, catching Arakawa supervising the grill. Although Harman possessed the physique of a football player and the chilly detachment of a baseball pitcher, his true athletic calling had been soccer, where he’d shined at the collegiate level. In 1988, after earning an undergraduate degree in engineering and a graduate degree in business, he walked into Nintendo’s Redmond office and coaxed his way into an interview. He was hired to localize the company’s games—basically, tweaking and translating Japanese titles so that they would be more palatable to Western audiences. Less than a year later, Harman’s relentlessness caught Arakawa’s eye and earned him a promotion.

“Tony!” Arakawa exclaimed with a nearly paternal elation. “Hungry?”

“No, no, I’m not here for that,” Harman replied. “I’m here to help. Just tell me what you need.”

Technically, Harman’s promotion made him Nintendo of America’s director of development and acquisitions, but in reality his job was to manage Arakawa’s office, coordinate his affairs, and just generally be his “guy.” Whether playing the role of caretaker, confidant, or creative strategist, Tony Harman was Arakawa’s first call when he needed something done.

“Your wife is here,” Arakawa said, shooing Harman away. “Go eat and enjoy.”

“I already ate.”

“Maybe a swim?”

“Please, I want to help.”

“No,” Arakawa said. “Not today.”

“Okay, fine.”

Harman reluctantly obeyed and joined his colleagues amidst the tables scattered throughout the backyard. From the grill, Arakawa watched with a grin.

Wholesome games and Disneyesque characters were what the world saw, played, and enjoyed, but the origin of this sensibility trickled down directly from the company itself. Family first—that was the Nintendo way. No matter how many games were sold or how much money was made, Nintendo rarely felt much larger than a family business. Part of that familial atmosphere stemmed from the fact that a Yamauchi had always run NCL and that Hiroshi Yamauchi’s son-in-law ran NOA, but a larger part was due to Nintendo’s unique corporate culture. Profitability was always the primary goal, but never at the expense of loyalty, integrity, and family values. That’s why most people who joined Nintendo tended to stay there for their entire careers.

Typically, these barbecues were Nintendo-only affairs, but this year’s event doubled as an opportunity to celebrate some long-overdue good news. After nearly six months stuck in the center of America’s anti-Japanese party, Nintendo’s days of being treated like a piñata had finally come to an end. On June 11, 1992, Major League Baseball’s owners voted 25-1 to approve the sale of the Mariners to the Baseball Club of Seattle (with the lone holdout being the owner of the Cleveland Indians, who cited a need for more time to review the proposal). Although this decision ended up being nearly unanimous, getting there had required months of concessions, secret meetings, and, ultimately, Nintendo’s Yamauchi agreeing to accept a minority voting stake. Although it would be hard to find a logical (i.e., not xenophobic, and not “just because we said so”) explanation for why someone putting up the majority of the money should receive a minority of the control, this was one thing on which Nintendo was willing to concede. That’s because buying the Mariners had never been about swimming in a stadiumful of money but had always been about demonstrating loyalty, integrity, and family values. And in honor of this recent news, Senator Slade Gorton and everyone in the ownership group had been invited to join Nintendo’s barbecue and get to know their extended family.

“It still feels surreal,” Chris Larson explained to Gail Tilden and her husband as they all lingered beside the yet-to-be-used pool. Larson was a former computer prodigy who had started working for Microsoft at age sixteen and now, at thirty-three, had just become a proud new owner of the Seattle Mariners. Of everyone in the investor group, Larson was likely the one who loved baseball the most, as evidenced by his extensive collection of memorabilia and his decision to ditch business casual in favor of a throwback Seattle Rainiers jersey for the barbecue. “I grew up collecting baseball cards,” he said, unable to suppress a childlike grin. “And now, well, I’ve got a whole team.”

“I’m glad it all worked out in the end,” Tilden said, quickly thinking back on all the undue drama of these past few months. “I can’t wait to go to one of the games.”

“Especially a playoff game,” her husband joked.

All three laughed before switching gears to talk about Tilden’s experience at Nintendo. “So tell me, what do you do over there?” Larson asked.

“Oh, you know, all sorts of things,” she replied. Her eyes lit up in a subtle but special way anytime she talked about working at Nintendo. “But typically I spend most of my days running the Nintendo Power magazine.”

“That’s fantastic!”

“It really is,” she said, momentarily appreciating how nice it was to have a fun, challenging, and satisfying job. With a background in marketing, Tilden had never expected to find herself running a magazine, let alone a kids’ magazine, but the unexpected nature of the journey was part of what made it fun. There were always fires of assorted sizes to hose down along the way, particularly over the past year. Now that Nintendo had three different systems (NES, SNES, and Game Boy), juggling coverage without alienating readers had become something of an art. While Tilden was gymnastically coordinating this balancing act, there was also the departure of Howard Phillips to figure out. In addition to serving as Nintendo’s Game Master, Phillips also had starred in the magazine’s comic strip, “Howard & Nester,” and reviewed games along with Don James and Tony Harman. In order to avoid another situation in which a single Nintendo employee was elevated to celebrity status, Nintendo didn’t appoint a second Game Master, Howard was written out of the comic strip, and Tony Harman assumed a greater role when it came to games. In fact, Harman’s role grew into what Phillips had always wished his job had entailed: not just evaluating games but developing them as well. “Every now and again there are some bumps in the road,” Tilden said about running the magazine, “but it looks to be smooth sailing ahead.”

Tilden’s words reflected the renewed excitement in the air. After a shaky start to 1992, the pendulum appeared to be swinging back in Nintendo’s favor. Sega may have been the first to put out a 16-bit system, but Nintendo’s aggressive price drop (matching Sega at $99.95) at CES allowed the Big N to reclaim any market share they might have lost to their new foe. In addition to the pricing, there were several factors responsible for the recovery, including Perrin Kaplan’s PR savvy and John Sakaley’s incredible in-store displays, but above all, the resurgence could be attributed to what had always defined the Nintendo experience: good games. Sega still had a larger library, but Nintendo’s roster was growing quickly, and unlike their competitor’s games, which they viewed as a mixed bag of awful, acceptable, and above average, Nintendo’s games were all above a certain threshold of quality. At its core, this distinction personified the difference between Sega and Nintendo. Sega was okay with the fact that some games were subpar, some were weird, some were violent, and some were racy; philosophically, Sega believed in the power of choice and wanted the consumer to ultimately decide what worked and what did not. Nintendo, however, opposed this laissez-faire attitude and took it upon themselves to exert greater control over the process. From their stringent development cycle to their game-centric marketing focus, Nintendo sought to control the creative process the same way they controlled retail sales, operations, and distribution. Although it’s difficult to use the word “control” so often and not inspire a sudden appearance by Big Brother, it’s important to note that there was nothing sinister behind Nintendo’s motivations. Rather, they were more like a lowercase big brother, looking out for a younger sibling and wanting to ensure that when he spent the money saved from birthdays, tooth fairy visits, and couch-cushion expeditions, that little brother received a certain type of gaming experience. Maybe this goal of slowly but surely building trust wouldn’t matter to someone craving Sonic The Hedgehog today, but Nintendo believed that after the Sega owners got burned by a few duds, their perspective would change.

That was the long-term strategy, at least, but it was actually a pair of runaway hits that pushed Nintendo forward in the short term. If Mario was Nintendo’s Mickey Mouse, then the Zelda series was something like their Donald Duck: offbeat, unexpected, and a little more complex than his cutesy Disney mates. The darker and more sophisticated tone to the Zelda series immediately resonated with American audiences following the 1987 release of the first game. The same, however, could not be said in Japan, although this reaction had less to do with demeanor and more to do with distribution. The original Zelda, along with the first Metroid game, had been the launch titles for Nintendo’s ill-fated Disk System, which was essentially a hulking computer drive that connected to the Famicom and played tiny, rewritable diskettes instead of the standard cartridges. The logic was that when someone had beaten a game or just simply got bored with it, they would bring the reusable diskette to a Disk Writer at their local toy store and pay a small fee to erase the old game and get a new one. Although Nintendo appeared to be walking on water throughout much of the eighties, this was one example where they’d ended up getting soaked. The Disk System was poorly received, to the point that NOA chose not to release it in the United States. And because not many Japanese players ever owned it, they lost the chance to fall in love with Zelda in the same way as their American counterparts, who could buy it as a regular game cartridge.

In truth, NOA likely would have preferred to have a Zelda title closer to the SNES launch, but because of the different cultural appetites for the franchise it was a bit of a lower development priority in Japan. Not only that, but the new Zelda game was incredibly complex and wound up taking nearly sixty thousand hours to program. When it was finished, however, and finally came to America in May 1992, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past became an instant classic and presented a compelling reason for consumers to buy a Super Nintendo and not a Zelda-free Sega Genesis. If this was not reason enough, then Nintendo hoped that another exclusive title released in June 1992 would put the SNES over the top: Street Fighter II.

Although the 1990s had not been kind to the arcade industry, Capcom’s Street Fighter II bucked that trend with a hot release in early 1991. If the allure of videogames is the opportunity to act out repressed fantasies in a virtual world, then this game’s scorching popularity demonstrated that a lot of kids dream about kicking the crap out of each other. Although this wasn’t the first so-called fighting game, where two virtual combatants slug it out, Street Fighter II’s innovations turned this type of game into its own genre. With distinctive characters (like Blanka, a green-skinned beast-like Brazilian man who had been raised in the jungle), Street Fighter II introduced signature moves for each character (Blanka, for example, can wound opponents with his electrical blasts). The game also pioneered the concept of a “combo move,” where players could cleverly combine several attacks in a single sequence that would harm opponents more than if each had been inflicted individually. Ultimately, by virtue of these innovations, Street Fighter II was the first fighting game that was actually based on skill and not luck. That’s what made it really click. Well, that plus the fact that it was so goddamn cool to control fighters who possessed the same kind of depth, backstory, and superpowers as iconic comic book characters.

Given the arcade game’s runaway success, Nintendo naturally wanted to license a home version for the Super Nintendo. Also naturally, Sega wanted to do the same. But those desires fell short when the close personal and professional relationship between NCL and Capcom in Japan enabled Nintendo to obtain exclusive rights to the game. As a result, in the summer of 1992 Nintendo had two must-have games that weren’t available for the Sega Genesis, and there was a third on the way: Super Mario Kart, a fun-for-all-ages go-kart racing game scheduled for August. Part of the beauty was that, for the first time ever, it brought together all the key members from the Mario universe. With the option to play as both heroes and villains, from Mario and Luigi to Bowser and Donkey Kong, it had the strangely wonderful effect of giving players the feeling that this is what life was really like in the Mushroom Kingdom—as if when these characters weren’t busy trying to save the world, they all just hung out and raced each other for fun. Sure, they threw banana peels at each other and fired off the occasional heat-seeking red turtle shell, but that didn’t change the fact that they seemed to have a special friendship.

Beyond the frivolous fun, there was a technical aspect to Super Mario Kart that had everyone at Nintendo convinced they’d be riding through Victory Lane. It would be the first game for the Super Nintendo to effectively take advantage of the system’s Mode 7 capability, which was a graphics mode that enabled background layers to be rotated and scaled in such a way that a three-dimensional graphic could be achieved. Nintendo was well aware that this esoteric feature was not reason enough for someone to buy a game, but if the marketing team could somehow show consumers that technology made a good game great, and in the course of doing so make it clear that Super Nintendo had this Mode 7 and Sega most certainly did not, then that just might be enough to take over the 16-bit market once and for all. The future looked bright, and whether retailers loved or hated Nintendo, the great software available, the greater software to come, and the well-priced hardware were now too much for anybody to resist. Not even Target.

“So I get a call from the buyer at Target,” Peter Main explained to a small group of colleagues and spouses huddled around him at the barbecue, “and he says that they’d like to start doing business with us again. Now, I have nothing but the utmost respect for these Target guys, a real classy bunch, so I feel comfortable needling him a little bit. I said, ‘That’s very interesting to hear, but what about all these philosophical differences that I’ve been hearing about?’ He laughed, a real nice and sincere one, and he says to me that there really are philosophical differences but he realized that between the two, he preferred Nintendo’s philosophy.”

Everyone chuckled, refilled their drinks, picked at the food, and continued to decline Arakawa’s invitations to go swimming. This joyous cycle continued for hours, until the sun began to set and guests took this as their cue to go home. But even as the celebration thinned out, many of Nintendo’s longer-tenured employees still remained: Main, Lincoln, White, Harman, and pretty much anyone who could positively identify R.O.B. the robot. These were the people who, no matter what, would forever be bonded by an incredible experience. They hadn’t chosen each other, but they had all chosen Nintendo, and that meant that despite their differing personalities they all shared a unified philosophy. For better or worse, they were part of the same family, and thank God these past few months had been veering toward the better.

By the time it happened, nobody remembered whose idea it was, but the men of Nintendo found themselves swimming in the pool. Because of the drinks, the laughter, and the intrinsic nature of barbecues, the last few hours had become a blur. But like the moonlight shimmying through the water, it was a nice blur to be a part of. They weren’t quite sure what tomorrow would bring, but they were confident that everything would work out okay as long as they continued to do things the Nintendo way. It wasn’t always flashy and it wasn’t always popular, but it was a slow journey into what was possible, and they couldn’t wait for Arakawa to lead them there.