Review: ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie,’ starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key and Fred Armisen

April 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Toad (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt), Donkey Kong (voiced by Seth Rogen) and Princess Peach (voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy) in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (Image courtesy of Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures)

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie”

Directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, and in the fictional Mushroom Kingdom and the Dark Lands, the animated film “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (based on Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.” games) features a cast of characters that are humans and talking creatures.

Culture Clash: Bumbling brother plumbers Mario and Luigi are unexpectedly transported to a magical world, where Luigi is captured by an evil turtle, and Mario teams up with various allies (including a feisty princess) to try to rescue Luigi. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Super Mario Bros.” franchise fans, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching animated films that have simple and amusing plots.

Luigi (voiced by Charlie Day) and Bowser (voiced by Jack Black) in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (Image courtesy of Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures)

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is entirely predictable but still entertaining, thanks to its playful comedy, appealing visuals and talented voice cast. Jack Black is a scene stealer as turtle villain Bowser. You don’t have to know anything about Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.” games in order to enjoy this movie. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is the very definition of an undemanding crowd pleaser that can appeal to a variety of age groups.

Directed by Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (written by Matthew Fogel) is an origin story of what is obviously planned to be a series of movies. The beginning of the film shows a battle in a magical world where a king and his army defending the royal palace from an invader. Fans of the “Super Mario Bros.” games will know who these characters are already. The movie later shows these characters again in more detail.

Back on Earth, viewers see two brothers who are plumbers. Confident older brother Mario (voiced by Chris Pratt) and his neurotic younger brother Luigi (voice by Charlie Day) have recently launched a plumbing business together in their hometown of New York City, where they are based in the Brooklyn borough. The brothers have proudly filmed a TV commercial for their new business. They have spent their life savings on this commercial.

Not everyone is impressed with this commercial. At a local diner, a wrecking crew employee named Spike (voiced by Sebastian Maniscalco) makes fun of the commercial. Luigi says defensively, “It’s not a commercial. It’s cinema.” Spike also thinks it was foolish for Mario and Luigi to quit their day jobs to start this new business.

The brothers have a large family that includes their father (voiced by Charles Martinet), their mother (voiced by Jessica DiCicco), the brothers’ Uncle Tony (voiced by Rino Romano) and the brothers’ Uncle Arthur (voiced by John DiMaggio), and not all of these relatives are supportive of the brothers’ new business venture. (Martinet does the voices of Mario and Luigi in the “Super Mario Bros.” video games.) During a family meal at a dining table, Mario and Luigi have to endure some taunting, especially from their uncles, who think that the brothers’ plumbing business will fail. The brothers’ mother is supportive though.

“The Super Mario Brothers Movie” shows the brothers going on their first plumbing job since their new business opened. It’s a house call to fix a leaking bathroom sink faucet. And the job is a disaster, involving a major mishap with an unfriendly dog named Francis. By the time the brothers leave the home, the sink hasn’t been fixed and the home has a lot of damage to it.

Not long after this plumbing fiasco, the brothers see on the local TV news that parts of Brooklyn have been flooded because a major water main has broken. Mario and Luigi rush to the scene to see if they can help. The brothers end up in a giant underground tunnel and unexpectedly get whisked through a portal that transports the brothers to a magical world.

However, the brothers land in different places in this magical world. Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom, which s populated by inanimate giant mushrooms and small talking mushrooms, all with polka dots. The talking mushrooms are called Toads, Mushroom People or Mushrooms. Luigi lands in a desolate forest area called the Dark Lands, full of dead trees. Luigi is soon abducted by the movie’s chief villain: a spike-wearing giant turtle named Bowser (voiced by Black), who wants to take over the Mushroom Kingdom and marry Princess Peach (voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy), the human ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” includes Mario finding his way around the Mushroom Kingdom with the help of a friendly mushroom named Toad (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), who is Princess Peach’s loyal attendant. Some hijinks ensue when Mario is perceived as an untrustworthy intruder by certain people in the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario eventually meets the princess, who has her own story of how she ended up in the Mushroom Kingdom.

In addition to rescuing Luigi, the heroes of the story also have to fight off an invasion from Bowser and his army, which includes Kamek (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson), who is Bowser’s menacing and most dutiful henchman. Along the way, Princess Peach and Pario have to convince the powerful Kong army of primates from the Jungle Kingdom to help defeat Bowser. That’s how Mario meets the king Cranky Kong (voiced by Fred Armisen) and his immature son Donkey Kong (voiced by Seth Rogen), who is a powerful but goofy warrior.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has enough touches of dark comedy to keep it from being annoyingly overloaded with juvenile jokes. Making a cameo in the movie is the cyan Luma character named Lumalee (voiced by Juliet Jelenic), who has a star-shaped, flame-like physical appearance that makes her look like she’s a cute and upbeat character, but she spews a lot of pessimistic comments that unnerve those who are around her. Bowser has a secret desire to be a heavy metal rocker who can belt out power ballads, so there are a few hilarious scenes showing him privately singing corny love songs that he wrote for Princess Peach while playing the piano.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” leans heavily into nostalgia for the 1980s, because Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.” games were launched in that decade. Most of the movie’s prominently placed pop songs are from the 1980s. They include Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” a-ha’s “Take on Me” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.” Brian Tyler’s competent musical score for “The “Super Mario Bros. Movie” keeps things moving along at a zippy pace with some nods to 1980s-inspired synth music.

The movie’s visuals have all the characteristics of above-average animation using modern technology, but the designs and hues of the characters and locations are throwbacks to 1980s animation and the original Nintendo “Super Mario” games. All of it is proof that any movie version of the “Super Mario” video games is better as animation, rather than as a live-action movie. (The less said about 1993’s awful live-action “Super Mario Bros.” movie, the better.)

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has a well-cast ensemble, with everyone doing their parts to be engaging in their performances. As the chief villain Bowser, Black is the standout performer, because he gives this villain a larger-than-life personality that will make viewers anticipate what Bowser will say and do next. There’s also a part of the story where Bowser shows he’s not just a two-dimensional antagonist: He really is kind of lovelorn over Princess Peach.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” isn’t without flaws. The movie has a world where there are very few female characters. Princess Peach is the only female character in the movie with a prominent speaking role. There’s really no good excuse for why the filmmakers couldn’t create more than one female character to have significant roles in the adventure parts of the story. Some viewers might also dislike how brothers Mario and Luigi are not together for the vast majority of the movie.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” has a very formulaic story that is watchable because the characters have their share of charm. The movie has a mid-credits scene featuring Bowser and an end-credits scene that hints at what a sequel’s plot might be. There are no real surprises at all to “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” which does not reinvent anything from the Nintendo games, and it’s not a groundbreaking animated film. For fans who have been anticipating this movie, think of it as the cinematic equivalent of comfort food for “Super Mario Bros.” enthusiasts and people who want to see lightweight, escapist animation.

Universal Pictures will release “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” in U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2023.

Review: ‘8-Bit Christmas,’ starring Winslow Fegley, Neil Patrick Harris, Steve Zahn, June Diane Raphael, Bellaluna Resnick and Sophia Reid-Gantzert

December 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Winslow Fegley in “8-Bit Christmas” (Photo by Sabrina Lantos/New Line Cinema/HBO Max)

“8-Bit Christmas”

Directed by Michael Dowse

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Chicago area in the present day and in 1988, the comedy film “8-Bit Christmas” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A man in his mid-40s tells his 11-year-old daughter the story of his misadventures in 1988, when he was an 11-year-old boy who desperately wanted a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas, even though his parents forbade him from playing video games at the time.

Culture Audience: “8-Bit Christmas” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching lightweight Christmas holiday comedies that are steeped heavily in 1980s nostalgia.

Sophia Reid-Gantzert and Neil Patrick Harris in “8-Bit Christmas” (Photo by Sabrina Lantos/New Line Cinema/HBO Max)

The formulaic family comedy “8-Bit Christmas” is elevated by a watchable and occasionally amusing performance by Winslow Fegley as an 11-year-old boy in 1988 who goes to great lengths to get a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. Directed by Michael Dowse, “8 Bit Christmas” is really just a series of slapstick scenarios that culminate in a sentimental “life lesson” that’s expected in a movie with a Christmas theme. Kevin Jakubowski adapted the “8-Bit Christmas” screenplay from his 2013 novel of the same name. The movie is best appreciated by viewers who have some fondness for 1980s nostalgia or who know how big of a deal a Nintendo Entertainment System was to many kids during this decade. (The movie’s title refers to the primitive 8-bit data resolution of 1980s video games.)

“8-Bit Christmas” begins with a man in his mid-40s named Jake Doyle (played by Neil Patrick Harris), who is traveling with his 11-year-old daughter Annie Doyle (played by Sophia Reid-Gantzert) to the home of Jake’s widowed mother for a Christmas holiday visit. Jake grew up in Batavia, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), where his mother still lives. Annie has been pestering Jake to get her a smartphone for Christmas.

Jake adamantly refuses because he thinks Annie is too young to have this type of phone. Annie has to use Jake’s phone, only when he’s with her. It’s embarrassing to Annie that she doesn’t have her own phone, but Jake won’t change his mind.

Instead, Jake tells Annie about the time in 1988, when he was Annie’s age and was obsessed with getting a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. Jake says to Annie, “When I was a kid, I wanted a Nintendo worse than you wanted a phone.” Annie replies, “That’s not possible.”

Jake is prompted into telling this story when he and Annie arrive at his mother’s house and they find his old Nintendo Entertainment System in the room that Jake had as a child. Annie knows that there was a time when Jake’s parents didn’t allow him to play video games, so she wants to know how he ended up with a Nintendo Entertainment Sysem . Most of the movie then switches to flashback mode when Jake tells his story in voiceover narration, with occasional scenes that go back to the present-day Jake and Annie.

In 1988, 11-year-old Jake (played by Winslow Fegley) considered himself to be an average boy in an average middle-class American family. His parents John Doyle (played by Steve Zahn) and Kathy Doyle (played by June Diane Raphael) are happily married. Jake has a precocious younger sister named Lizzy (played by Bellaluna Resnick), who is about 6 or 7 years old in 1988. Lizzy is a “goody-two-shoes” child who likes to snitch on Jake to their parents whenever Jake does something wrong.

The kids at Jake’s school are envious of a spoiled rich boy named Timmy Keane (played by Chandler Dean), who’s apparently the only kid for miles who has his own Nintendo Entertainment System. Therefore, small crowds of children gather in front of Timmy’s house on a regular basis because they want to get invited inside Timmy’s home to play Nintendo games with him. However, Timmy will only allow certain kids inside, based on whatever gifts or favors they can offer to him.

Needless to say, Timmy is an obnoxious brat who takes advantage of his social status to make some kids feel bad about themselves if they don’t get invited into his house. Timmy has an elaborate play area in his home that would rival any recreational arcade for children. The first time that Jake plays Nintendo, it’s at Timmy’s house. Jake instantly gets hooked and wants his own Nintendo Entertainment System.

It’s the same wish for many of Jake’s friends too. Jake hangs out with a small group of kids, who eventually make it their mission to get their own Nintendo system. The close-knit pals in Jake’s clique are:

  • Mikey Trotter (played by Che Tafari), whom Jake describes as being allowed to watch R-rated movies, and Mikey has an adult cursing vocabulary and mischievous nature to prove it.
  • Evan Olsen (played by Santino Barnard), who is nervous and neurotic.
  • Tammy Hodges (played by Brielle Rankins), who is smart and confident.
  • Teddy Hodges (played by Braelyn Rankins), who is Tammy’s fun-loving twin brother.

Other kids who are not part of this clique but who factor into the story are:

  • Josh Jagorski (played by Clay Arnold), the school’s large and violent bully, who looks like he’s a teenager, not a pre-teen like all the other students.
  • Jeff Farmer (played by Max Malas), whom Jake describes as a “pathological liar.”
  • Conor Stump (played by Jacob Laval), who is the school’s nerdy social outcast.
  • Katie Sorrentino (played by Sofie Michal Maiuri), a classmate who casually observes some of the shenanigans of Jake and his friends.

Jake knows that his parents are not inclined to want to give him a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. Therefore, he comes up with a scheme to trick them into saying yes to his request. With his mother, Jake waits until she’s distracted and asks her for this gift when she’s not really listening to him. She says yes.

With his father, whom an adult Jake describes in a voiceover as a “dyslexic Bob Vila” when it comes to carpentry hobbies, Jake waits until they have some father/son time doing some woodshopping in the garage. Jake compliments his father John on John’s hand strength. Jake says he would like a gift for Christmas that would let him build up his hand strength, so Jake suggests a Nintendo Entertainment System. John says yes to this request too.

But there would be no “8-Bit Christmas” movie if Jake got his wish so easily. Eventually, Jake’s parents (and some of his friends’ parents) become paranoid that video games are bad for children, so the parents are determined to not have anything related to video games in their homes. Undeterred, Jake and his male friends, who are members of the Ranger Scouts, find out about a Ranger Scouts contest where the person who sells the most Christmas wreaths will win the grand prize of a brand-new Nintendo Entertainment System.

A large part of “8-Bit Christmas” is about this race against time to sell the most Christmas wreaths, as friends turn into rivals to win this contest. There’s also some gross-out comedy, such as a scene of a child vomiting profusely and repeatedly, and a joke that goes on for too long about Jake having to clean up defecation from the family dog Ellwood. Not surprisingly, Jake wants avoid cleaning up after the dog as much as possible, so it leads to some minor conflicts with between Jake and his father John.

David Cross has a small role in “8-Bit Christmas” as an unnamed opportunist, who sells toys (probably stolen) out of the trunk of his car. His stash includes a Nintendo Entertainment System and Cabbage Patch dolls. Jake’s sister Lizzy wants a Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas, so Jake feels some sibling jealousy when John is more eager to get Lizzy’s most-wanted Christmas gift but is unwilling to get Jake’s most-wanted Christmas gift.

There’s a lot of mediocre slapstick scenarios in “8-Bit Christmas” that clog up the story. For example, a recurring “joke” in the movies is that Jake’s mother Kathy accidentally bought a pair of girls’ Esprit snow boots (purple with flower-print trimming) during a frenzied shopping sale. Kathy never bothered to get Jake any other boots, because apparently she didn’t want to go back to the store to exchange the Esprit boots for boots that Jake actually wants to wear.

Jake is embarrassed because his mother makes him wear these boots to school and other places when there’s snow outside. (Animotion’s 1984 hit “Obsession” plays on the movie’s soundtrack every time Jake puts on these boots.) And predictably, Jake gets harassed by bully Josh when Josh sees Jake wearing these feminine-looking shoes. It’s a not-very-well-written part of the story because this problem would’ve easily been solved by a merchandise exchange at the store.

Jake’s humiliation for wearing these boots (which is an over-used gag in “8-Bit Christmas”) plays into tired movie/TV stereotypes that anything “feminine” associated with a boy is supposed to automatically be a reason for the boy to be ridiculed and bullied. The movie makes a half-hearted attempt at explaining this sexist trope, by having the adult Jake explain to his daughter Annie that in the 1980s, people were less open-minded about gender equality and many other things. But if the filmmakers wanted a recurring joke about Jake being embarrassed about something that his mother makes him do, they could’ve picked a funnier scenario than Jake having to wear feminine-looking boots.

The good news is that “8-Bit Christmas” at least presents the girls in the movie as just as intelligent if not smarter than the boys. It certainly makes up for how this movie gives most of the screen time and the most adventurous parts of the story to the male characters. It’s pretty obvious that the movie’s main target audience is supposed to be anyone who has nostalgic memories of 1980s Nintendo video games, even though there isn’t one particular Nintendo game that gets spotlighted in the movie.

In terms of the “8-Bit Christmas” cast members, Fegley as the young Jake absolutely carries this movie to any level of charm that it might have to audiences. And that helps a lot, because the young Jake gets the vast majority of the screen time in this movie. Fegley has good comedic timing, and his character is relatable to most people who’ve been an 11-year-old child, regardless of gender. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles, with some of the actors continuing to be typecast as characters they’ve played in many other movies. (Zahn as a goofball; Cross as a sarcastic wiseass.)

“8-Bit Christmas,” which clocks in at a breezy 97 minutes, isn’t the type of movie that’s going to be considered a Christmas holiday classic, but it’s an agreeable way for viewers to pass some time if they want to see an entertaining Christmas holiday film for people in various age groups. The last 20 minutes of “8-Bit Christmas,” which are the best parts of the film, make up for much of the silliness that lowers the quality of the rest of the movie. “8-Bit Christmas” is ultimately a film that’s enjoyable without demanding too much intelligence or emotional investment from viewers.

HBO Max premiered “8-Bit Christmas” on November 24, 2021.

Review: ‘Console Wars,’ starring Tom Kalinske, Howard Lincoln, Shinobu Toyoda, Steve Race, Ellen Beth Van Buskirk, Al Nilsen and Paul Rioux

October 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sega Genesis controller in “Console Wars” (Photo by Best Possible Screen Grab CBS/CBS Interactive)

“Console Wars”

Directed by Jonah Tulis and Blake J. Harris 

Culture Representation: The documentary “Console Wars” features an almost all-white group of people (with one Asian), who are current or former high-ranking executives at videogame companies, talking about the 1980s and 1990s rivalry between Nintendo and Sega.

Culture Clash:  Nintendo was the dominant market leader for video games played on consoles until the rise of Sega Genesis and later Sony PlayStation.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of people who like playing video games, “Console Wars” will also appeal to people interested in 1980s/1990s pop-culture nostalgia or how the videogame industry operated during this era.

Nintendo Entertainment System controller in “Console Wars” (Photo courtesy of Best Possible Screen Grab CBS/CBS Interactive)

Long before the Internet existed, people’s options to play video games were limited to public arcades, computer discs or by using consoles that could be hooked up to televisions. The thoroughly entertaining documentary “Console Wars” takes a revealing behind-the-scenes look at the extremely competitive business rivalry between the U.S. operations of Nintendo and Sega in the 1980s and 1990s. You don’t have to be interested in video games to enjoy this film because it’s really an underdog story about how an upstart business took on a giant corporation that most people thought at the time could not lose its dominant hold on the marketplace.

Almost all of the people interviewed in the documentary are business executives who used to work for Nintendo and Sega during the 1980s and 1990s, but that doesn’t mean that “Console Wars” is dull. Far from it. It’s a movie that’s intriguing because it shows how individual leaders and their visions (and the power to carry out those visions) make a big difference in whether or not a team fails or succeeds. The lessons that can be learned in this documentary can apply to any business.

“Console Wars” isn’t perfect, but it’s a fascinating look into how these leading videogame companies, which have their headquarters in Japan, operated the U.S. branches of their companies. The Japanese approach and the American approach to business is often very different. “Console Wars” gives some explanation of how those cultural differences might have affected how these companies conceived and marketed their products and delegated responsibilities to employees.

Directed by Jonah Tulis and Blake J. Harris, “Console Wars” begins with an overview of the history of Sega, the “underdog” of the story. (Harris wrote the 2014 book “Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined a Generation,” which is the basis of this documentary.) Sega of America, which is the U.S. operation of Sega, had very humble beginnings when it was launched in 1986 as the American counterpart to Sega’s operational division Sega of Japan. Sega of America didn’t even have a corporate office at first, but instead did business out of a Comfort Suites hotel in the San Francisco area.

Shinoba Toyoda was a former Mitsubishi employee who joined Sega of America as executive vice president in 1989. In “Console Wars,” Toyoda says that one of the main reasons why he joined this start-up operation was because he wanted to work in California. And so, he checked into Sega’s Comfort Suites headquarters to live and work. Although Sega of America has since relocated further south to the California city of Irvine, Toyoda still lives part-time in the same Comfort Suites.

At the time that Sega of America launched in 1986, Nintendo was the Goliath of the videogame industry, with a near stranglehold on the marketplace. According to several former Sega employees interviewed in the documentary, Nintendo was such a dominant force in the videogame industry that the company would pressure retailers not to carry products from Nintendo’s competitors, or else Nintendo would threaten to boycott the retailers. Nintendo was also accused of using similar tactics on software companies to deter these software companies from working with Nintendo competitors.

It’s an accusation denied by former Nintendo of America director of marketing Bill White in the documentary. However, former Nintendo of America vice president of sales Randy Peretzman admits, “Retailers did not like us … but we were respected.”

Nintendo had anti-trust problems with the U.S. government that eventually led to class-action payouts. However, Nintendo used these payouts to the company’s advantage, by distributing the payouts as coupons to buy Nintendo products. Nintendo’s legal issues over its business practices and the way that Nintendo “bullied” retailers were indications that the company was making enemies and could be vulnerable to a new rival swooping in to compete on the same level as Nintendo.

Sega of America took on the challenge of launching its own console system and games to rival what Nintendo of America was doing. Sega’s first attempt to launch a console was in the early 1980s, but it had middling success. In 1988, Sega launched a new console called Sega Genesis (which was called Mega Drive outside of North America), which would change the way that the videogame industry operated.

Paul Rioux, who was executive vice president of Sega of America during this time, says in the documentary: “It was hard to launch an organization from scratch and launch a major videogame system in the United States, There are so many hurdles to get into with all the retailers. They just won’t buy from anybody. You have to prove yourself.”

At the time, Nintendo’s most popular game franchise was Super Mario. For the launch of Sega Genesis, the initial marketing strategy was for Sega of America to have games that relied heavily on licensing already-established brands from celebrity names. Early videogames for Sega Genesis included Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and Joe Montana Football.

According to Toyoda, Sega of America’s goal was to sell 1 million units of Sega Genesis in that first year. The company fell short of that goal, by selling only 500,000 units, according to Sega. It was time to take a fresh new approach to the business.

And that’s when Sega Corp. CEO Hayao Nakayama decided to personally recruit an American marketing whiz named Tom Kalinske, an executive who previously worked for the mega-successful advertising agency J. Walter Thompson and for market-leading toy company Mattel. Kalinske is given credit for reviving the popularity of Mattel’s Barbie dolls in the 1980s, after Barbie dolls got a feminist backlash in the 1970s.

How much did Nakayama want Kalinske to work for Sega of America? According to a story that Kalinske tells in “Console Wars,” Kalinske was lying on the beach in Hawaii during a vacation one day, when Nakayama (whom he’d never met before) approached him and asked Kalinske to be the leader of Sega of America. Kalinske says he didn’t know how Nakayama found him on this beach, but Kalinske took the job on the condition that he run Sega of America the way that Kalinske thought was best for American business, with little to no interference from the Sega executives headquartered in Japan. Nakayama agreed to those terms.

In “Console Wars,” Kalinske describes coming up with a strategy for Sega Genesis consoles and games that was considered risky and radical at the time. The strategy had three main components: (1) Have more licensing from movies and TV shows; (2) Lower the price of Sega Genesis; (3) Make the best original character game in the Sega Genesis catalogue included for free with Sega Genesis.

It was that last idea that was considered the riskiest, since no other videogame company had ever included its most popular game for free with the purchase of a console. In “Console Wars,” Kalinske said that when he presented all of these ideas in a meeting with Nakayama and other Sega executives in Japan, the Japanese executives hated the ideas, but Nakayama kept his word and let Kalinske run Sega of America in the way that Kalinske thought was the best way.

As for the original Sega Genesis character that would be the hook to get people to buy the console, that’s when Sonic the Hedgehog was born. Al Nilsen, who was Sega of America director of marketing at the time, says that he came up with the name of the character, which was created by Ian Flynn.

Sonic the Hedgehog games distinguished themselves from Super Mario games by being more colorful, with higher pixel resolution and with faster action. Sonic the Hedgehog also had a sarcastic, slightly rebellious personality that appealed to older kids (teenagers), whereas Super Mario was considered a much safer character. Instead of trying to copy Nintendo videogames, Sega decided to market its videogames as edgier and “cooler” than Nintendo’s games.

And to get around the problem that major retailers such as Wal-Mart wouldn’t carry Sega Genesis products, Sega of America launched a tour of shopping malls for Sega Genesis and rented out pop-up retail spaces to showcase Sega Genesis in a retail environment on Sega’s own terms. Many of these pop-up retail locations were in close proximity to giant retailers that carried only Nintendo products. One of those locations was right next to Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Sega also did strategic advertising (including billboards) of the pop-locations to reach the people most likely to buy videogame products.

It was all a great marketing strategy that caught Nintendo off-guard. The gamble paid off because Sega Genesis became a hit, due in large part to its lower price and its image as the more technologically advanced and “cooler” alternative to Nintendo. And by 1994, Sega was the market leader in the videogame industry.

Just like Super Mario was the flagship character that turned Nintendo into a videogame powerhouse, so too was Sonic the Hedgehog for Sega. Ellen Beth Van Buskirk, who was was Sega of America’s director communications at the time, says that in the early days of promoting Sonic the Hedgehog, she often had to dress up as the character at different Sega events. And she noticed a major difference in Sega’s target audience and Nintendo’s target audience.

In “Console Wars,” Van Buskirk remembers that Sonic the Hedgehog was immediately a big hit with teenage boys, compared to younger kids. When she was dressed up as the character, the teenage boys saw Sonic the Hedgehog as a character they could relate to and would want to give a lot of “high fives.” By contrast, younger kids would see Sonic the Hedgehog as cuddly character, like Super Mario, and would be more inclined to want to hug the character. Van Buskirk comments on why Sonic the Hedgehog appealed mostly to teenagers: “They wanted something different. They wanted attitude. They wanted sass. They didn’t want hugs.”

Mortal Kombat, which was Sega’s next big hit videogame franchise, was popular with teens (usually teenage boys) for the way that it portrayed blood on screen. Whereas Nintendo’s version of Mortal Kombat had green blood, the blood in Sega’s version of Mortal Kombat was a realistic red color. In hindsight, former Nintendo of America senior vice president Howard Lincoln says in “Console Wars” that it was a mistake for Nintendo to tone down the realistic blood color for Mortal Kombat. He says that Nintendo surprisingly got more complaints from the parents than the kids about Nintendo’s Mortal Kombat being too tame.

However, there have been other parents who don’t like violent video games at all. Mortal Kombat, for better or worse, ushered in a trend for people to want more realistic-looking fight scenes in video games. The videogame industry would soon come under intense scrutiny and criticism for its violent content, including U.S. Congressional hearings.

The controversy over videogame violence continues today. Steve Race, who was a marketing executive for Sega during the early 1990s, had this to say about the government scrutiny on videogame violence: “It was total nonsense … It’s business and politics meeting in the worst way possible.”

Sega’s popular commercials are also mentioned in the documentary. Jeff Goodby of advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein and Partners talks about his company creating the “Welcome to the Next Level” slogan for Sega Genesis, as well as the famous short-but-frantic one-word “Sega” line that’s blurted out at the end of the commercials. This one-word “Sega” utterance gave the Sega products an image of being slightly madcap, and there was an urgent tone to buy the products. Goodby also says that the term “blast processing,” which touted that Sega’s consoles were faster than Nintendo’s consoles, was an advertising fabrication.

“Console Wars” isn’t told in chronological order, because about halfway through the film, the movie goes into the history of how Nintendo rose to power. This section on Nintendo isn’t as interesting as the section about the rise of Sega, mainly because Nintendo didn’t have any real competition after Atari (the videogame company best known for the Pac-Man game) crashed, burned and never fully recovered in 1983. Atari’s flop sales for the E.T. game (based on the hit movie) was one of the main reasons why Atari’s business suffered in the early 1980s.

Nintendo rose to prominence, thanks to games like Super Mario and Donkey Kong. (Videogame designer Shigero Miyamoto is credited with creating both games.) The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) launched as a test product in New York City in 1985, and created instant huge demand. NES then became the console that dominated the marketplace for most of the 1980s.

Former Nintendo executive Lincoln comments: “If the NES had not been successfully launched in New York, I think it’s fair to say that there would not have been a home videogame business.” Other former Nintendo executives who are interviewed in “Console Wars” include Howard Phillips (former Nintendo of America spokesperson), Gail Tilden (former Nintendo marketing executive/former editor-in-chief of Nintendo Power) and Peter Main (former Nintendo of America senior vice president of marketing).

As with any competitive industry, companies recruit employees from rival companies. One of the major shakeups in the executive structure in the war between Nintendo and Sega was when marketing executive White defected from Nintendo to work for Sega. And then Sega marketing executive Race jumped ship to work for Sony, which was gearing up to launch its own videogame console: Sony PlayStation, which launched in Japan in 1994, and in North America and Europe in 1995.

Sega, which was the market leader at the time, was under pressure to compete with old rival Nintendo and new rival Sony. Sega of America’s Kalinske also says that Sega was experiencing internal problems. According to Kalinske, the Sega of Japan team was becoming increasingly jealous of the Sega of America team’s success. Sega Corp. CEO Nakayama also became less supportive of Kalinske’s ideas, according to Kalinske, who says that Nakayama squashed a proposed partnership between Sega and Sony.

In “Console Wars,” several people cite the 1995 Electronic Entertainment Expo (also known as E3) as the turning point for Nintendo, Sega and Sony. According to Kalinske, Sega of Japan CEO Nakayama wanted to rush the production of the Sega Saturn console so that it would be ready to be introduced at E3 in 1995. However, the product wasn’t quite ready and had some technical complications that Sega executives knew would be problematic.

At E3 in 1995, things got nasty and juvenile when Sonic the Hedgehog balloons were found popped and deflated all over the convention site. Sony executive Race (a former Sega employee) and his team were suspected of this vandalism. And in his “Console Wars” documentary interview, Race smirks and doesn’t deny that he and team were responsible for popping the balloons when it’s brought up in the interview. The Sega/Sony rivalry took an intense turn at the E3 convention when Sony surprised many attendees by announcing that it was pricing PlayStation at a suggested retail price of $299, compared to the Sega Saturn’s $399 suggested retail price.

And there were more changes in alliances. Silicon Graphics, which worked with Sega to take Sega’s videogame graphics to the next level, ended up partnering with Nintendo for the 64-bit central processing unit that was the basis of the Nintendo 64 console, which launched in Japan and North America in 1996 and in Europe and Australia in 1997. 

In the end, according to the documentary, Sega Saturn sold 10 million units, Nintendo 64 sold 30 million units, and Sony PlayStation sold 100 million units. Kalinske resigned from Sega in 1996, Nakayama left Sega in 1999, and Sega got out of the hardware console business in 2001.

“Console Wars” has plenty of great archival footage that will satisfy people looking for some videogame nostalgia. But the video games in the story were really just pawns used in a “chess match” of a corporate competition that could get ruthless. Because the documentary focuses on the U.S. operations of Nintendo and Sega, it has a very American point of view overall.

However, it would’ve benefited the documentary to include more perspectives of the Japanese creators and Japanese business executives who played crucial roles in making these games and consoles possible. There’s no mention in the documentary if any attempt was made to interview Nakayama, who was Kalinske’s boss at Sega and who is the Japanese executive who’s mentioned the most in the documentary. In other words, “Console Wars,” although it has a lot of great anecdotes, appears to be very one-sided in favor of the American perspective.

Although the documentary could have used more perspectives of Japanese creators and Japanese business executives, “Console Wars” does a very good job at presenting an overall cautionary tale about how companies that are market leaders shouldn’t get too comfortable or arrogant. There are always hungrier companies that want to rise to the top. And sometimes, if the timing and ideas are right, these upstart companies can exceed expectations and topple larger companies from their proverbial thrones.

CBS All Access premiered “Console Wars” on September 23, 2020.

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