Console Wars (2015)





Like a lifelong bachelor looking at photographs of his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, Tom Kalinske couldn’t fully believe that the marriage between Nintendo and Silicon Graphics had taken place . . . except for the fact that it made all the sense in the world.

“How could this happen?” Kalinske asked, but he didn’t expect a reply, nor did he receive one. Although there wasn’t really a suitable answer to the question, in this case the lack of response was due to the fact that Kalinske was speaking to his dog—a frisky Airedale named Chutney, who over the past few months had come to redefine the meaning and importance of the phrase “man’s best friend.” Long nights at the office and even more travel than usual had slowly distanced Kalinske from his family. They were still priority number one, and he continued to make the time for soccer matches and school plays, but as the constant hustle at work weighed on him more and more, he could feel the emotional connection eroding ever so slightly. Or maybe that was all in his head. Maybe the girls were just getting older and didn’t see their old man as the knight anymore, and maybe Karen was just exhausted from raising another child. Whatever the case, Chutney continued to be a source of stability in a house full of change. And these late-night walks were a great source of maintaining his sanity, giving him a chance to bask in unconditional affection and soliloquize without feeling self-conscious.

“The thing is,” Kalinske mused to his beautiful Airedale, “everyone is so happy, their spirits are flying so high; you should see the smiles around the office. But I can see what’s bubbling beneath the surface, and it’s no good, Chutney. No good at all.”

Although Sega was experiencing its best year ever, the company’s long-term prospects were looking rather bleak. Not just because of the failed partnerships with Sony and SGI, but more so because Kalinske felt that his ability to lead had been neutered, and for no good reason at all. At Mattel, like most companies, corporate politics was a big part of the job; but at least there, he felt like he knew what his political rivals wanted. He may not have agreed, but he knew where they stood and could even respect their point of view. But here? What was it that Sega of Japan was looking to accomplish? Did they simply want to cut off their nose to spite their face? And where did Nakayama stand in all of this? From everything Fischer had reported, it appeared that Nakayama supported Kalinske, so was this invisible coup so strong that not even the force of Nakayama-san could stop it?

Chutney suddenly started scratching at a patch of grass and then playfully rolling around on it. It was nice to see that uninhibited joy and feel like at least someone was capable of seizing the moment. Kalinske knew that was what he needed to do—seize the moment, that is, not roll around in the grass—and mentally prepared himself to accept everything that had already happened and focus on that which he could control.

Sega was having another great year, and there would be a lot of good things coming in the months ahead. Mortal Kombat in September. The Thanksgiving Day parade in November, at which the gigantic Sonic balloon would make its debut. And likely another Christmas of besting Nintendo. This time, however, they needed to do more than just outsell their competitor. Sega needed to build a big enough lead to create some kind of a cushion for the inevitable fall. And as Chutney rolled around the yard, occasionally silhouetted by the silvery moonlight, those famous words from Mortal Kombat echoed in Kalinske’s head: Finish him.

Like most nine-year-old boys alive in the fall of 1993, Chris Andresen couldn’t help but slowly lean forward on the couch whenever an ad for Mortal Kombat came on the television. It was a pretty normal commercial, no special effects or anything like that, but there was just something about it. Probably it was the shouting; there was a whole lot of that. The whole commercial, really, was just all these kids running really fast around New York City and shouting “Mortal Kombat.” On second thought, “shouting” wasn’t really the right word. “Chanting” was more like it—they were chanting it in their toughest tough-guy voice (like the one everyone uses when they’re sitting in the back of the bus), and they just kept saying it over and over as the kids took over the city.

And the coolest part about Mortal Kombat (besides the special moves, the crazy fatalities, and all of that stuff) was that the game would be coming out on Sega and Nintendo. Usually the games only came out for one system, or came out first on one of them, but Mortal Kombat was going to be on both Genesis and SNES. So depending on which version was better, it seemed like there would finally be an end to the shouting matches about Sega and Nintendo. Mortal Kombat was going to be the best game ever, so the best version of the best game ever would settle this once and for all. Finally.

That Mortal Kombat ad was usually enough to rev up someone’s afternoon, but today Chris Andresen was in for a double feature. Shortly after the one for MK, they also played one of Sega’s newest commercials. This one wasn’t for any particular game, but instead it was a comparison between Game Boy and Game Gear. But it wasn’t just like this-one-does-this and that-one-does-that; it really hammered home the point. It started off in black and white, with the camera going back and forth between both of the handhelds. And then, just when you started to notice the noise of a dog breathing loud, the announcer came in and said, “If you were color-blind and had an IQ less than 12, then you wouldn’t care which portable you had.” Right after that, the camera switched to color and they showed that the whole time it was actually a dog who was looking at the Game Boy and the Game Gear. And then when the dog was trying to tell the difference between the portable systems, the announcer came back to say, “Of course, you wouldn’t care if you drank from the toilet either.” Try hearing that for the first time and not falling over laughing.

Either way, between the two commercials, it was enough to make any boy wonder: would Santa Claus be unemployed if it weren’t for Sega and Nintendo?

“Dogs slurping water out of the toilet? It’s a terrible stereotype, don’t you think?” Peter Main asked, but like Tom Kalinske earlier, he didn’t receive a reply, nor did he expect one. It was a chilly autumn morning, somewhere between six and seven o’clock, and Main was on his morning walk with Kasi, a striking, 100-plus-pound black Labrador that he had purchased back at a Boys and Girls Club auction in 1991.

This was how he began each day, and it was also what helped get him through the hard ones. Without these walks, without these forty-five minutes to pal around with Kasi through the neighborhood’s topsy-turvy hills, he’d have been a different type of man entirely. Angrier, crankier, and unable to let go of the things that made him want to punch the wall. He needed these forty-five minutes to regroup, rejuvenate, and remember what this game of life was all about. It was about winning, winning some more, and making sure to have a ball, but it took these morning walks to remind him that accomplishing that often required taking the long view. That meant no shortcuts, no impulsive responses, and no trading away tomorrows for todays.

“How about another lap?” Main asked, leading his beloved canine up the verdant incline. He wasn’t a patient man by nature, but he had become that way through discipline, and these walks served as his daily reminder about the importance of this virtue. And they had become particularly invaluable as Sega continued to test Peter Main’s patience. Whether it was pricing, advertising, or those curious numbers that Tom Kalinske pulled out of his ass, it was always something with those guys. For the most part, this was a good thing. It upped the ante and kept Main and his colleagues on their toes. When Nintendo had 90 percent of the market, that had been a damn fine time and very much deserved, but there’s a reason that kids fantasize about coming up to bat with two strikes in the bottom of the ninth. A hero needs his moment, and Sega had set the stage for Nintendo. But keeping with the baseball analogy (Canadians may prefer hockey metaphors, but by now Main had taught himself to look, walk, and talk like an American), Sega had started throwing spitballs. The Mario vs. Sonic stuff? Fine, that was kind of clever. So were those first few Next Level ads; they didn’t make much sense, but they were cool and that was the point. But this latest nonsense about drinking out of the toilet . . . that just crossed the line. Sega wanted to come after Nintendo? Fine. Compare products, compare prices, even compare the two companies’ images. But don’t just lob grenades and run away giggling.

Perhaps if Main had known that the commercial in question was actually titled “Tom’s Dog,” and that his rival at Sega adored an Airedale named Chutney as much as he loved his Labrador Kasi, he might have realized that the two men had more in common than not. Under different circumstances, perhaps they could have been friends, but as it turned out, that was not in the cards. They were destined to stand on opposite sides of the aisle, each gradually defining himself by what the other was not, and each likely gaining more from the other in opposition then they ever would have in friendship.

“You all right, girl?” Main asked after Kasi flinched away from the patch of flowers she had been investigating. “Kasi?” She briefly looked back at him and then returned to snooping through the flowers. As she did, Main saw what he imagined was the reason for her reaction: a bee loitering over her shoulder. It must have buzzed past her ears, stirred her a bit. Main thought about shooing the little noisemaker away, but Kasi seemed fine now, and that was good enough for him.

It was almost time to head back home, anyhow. The morning was about patience and playing the long-term game. It was about dropping yesterday’s baggage and heading into the office with open arms. Yesterday, when he’d seen that stupid ad with the dog, he’d been tempted to respond with fire and fury. But as much as he’d wanted to do so, he’d known that the time wasn’t right. Getting involved in a pissing match would end up weakening Nintendo as much as it did Sega. It would cost a lot of money and, more important, cause Nintendo to lose focus on the consumer. The better play was to stand back and let Sega tire themselves out; the ads would surely only get more outrageous, and their tech-obsessed mind-set would inevitably lead them to introduce more products than they could possibly support. And then, when Kalinske was busy juggling fifty mediocre things at once and Nintendo had its next top-grade product ready to launch, the world would see that there’s no amount of B’s, C’s, and D’s that can ever add up to an A+. In other words, the bee can buzz all it wants, but if it ain’t carrying any honey, then that sucker is best left ignored.

“Time to head home,” Main said to Kasi. “But don’t you worry, girl. We’ve got a standing date set for tomorrow.”