If you ask a suburban kid what his favorite part of growing up was, there’s a decent chance he’ll say his friend Zach’s basement. This is because Zach’s (or Steve’s, or Brandon’s) basement was the only place where kids entirely set the tone; the only place where you could spend hours on end eating gushers, playing video games, and watching that Adam Sandler movie that you definitely wouldn’t’ve been able to watch if Matt hadn’t snuck it past Zach’s mom. Chuck E. Cheese may have officially been the place where “a kid could be a kid,” but Chuck E. Cheese had nothing on Zach’s basement.
Many of my most vivid childhood memories could be traced back to Zach’s basement; the premier destination for Legends of The Hidden Temple marathons, epic floor hockey battles, and sleepovers where people would talk about girls for the first time. It was the place where we’d frantically flip through hit radio stations in hopes that they’d be playing Eiffel 65’s I’m Blue. (One time Z100 played it right after WBLI, and it was pretty much the greatest moment of fourth grade.) It was also the only place where I could play that video game with that cool blue hedgehog. A game that, in addition to being incredibly addicting, came to embody the mantra that was #ZachsBasement. Sonic wasn’t so edgy that he was gonna make us all smoke cigarettes in the mall parking lot at age 9, but he had this certain allure* that seemed to imply that he didn’t believe in things like having a bedtime. Sonic simply didn’t do bedtimes.
*Now, I know this to be “swag.”
A few weeks ago, I spent about 5 days straight on my phone. While this is certainly standard behavior for someone who writes stuff on the internet and then gets slightly sad when his tweet about Chicken Pot Pie doesn’t get favorited, it was actually far from standard — I was reading a book called The Console Wars, a book written by NYC writer and filmmaker (and nacho extraordinaire) Blake J. Harris about the rise of Sega in the 1990s, and their ongoing battle with video game behemoth Nintendo. My roommates thought it was kind of weird that I was just sitting there on my phone nonstop, so each of them ended up asking me what I was doing. After #notifying them, they each made a point of spending an annoyingly long time on their childhood video game experience — going off about how much they loved Donkey Kong Country, how the Sega Saturn was a huge letdown, and how awesome they were at Mortal Kombat. I doubt any of them were as awesome at Mortal Kombat as they claimed to be (everyone is the best at every video game, are they not?), but each convo ended up arriving at the same thread; why did that era of video games feel so special? Obviously there was the nostalgia factor, but was it just the nostalgia? Or was there something greater at play?
While the The Console Wars tells the story of a greater movement, its protagonist is Tom Kalisnke — the former CEO of Mattel who was hired to run a small video game company called Sega, despite knowing next to nothing about the video game industry. The story is largely about Kalinske, his scrappy team, and their remarkable rise to video game prominence — going from having a next to nothing market share to (briefly) overtaking video game giant Nintendo, and having a ton of fun in the process. Drawing from hundreds of interviews with pretty much every major player in the video game industry, Harris tells a story that we’ve all been wanting to hear for quite sometime — a story that we’re now mature enough to fully appreciate. In many ways, it’s like watching an episode of your favorite childhood television show as an adult; only now, with all the adult references you never picked up on, there’s this entire new layer to the whole thing.
The book is a classic David vs. Goliath battle, one that treats both sides a lot more evenly than I’m doing now. Nintendo, who admirably stayed the course amidst Sonic Mania, is equally (if not more) fascinating to read about. And midway through the book, Sony appears in a way that suddenly turns the book from a two-sided battle into a no-holds barred, Game Of Thrones-esque battle for the Iron Throne that is video game market share.
I’m probably a little biased, but The Console Wars (which came out today, go buy it!) feels like one of the first books that brings Generation Y culture full circle — taking those who have forever been our cultural icons (Mario and Sonic), and talking about them in language that’s relevant to our more adult-minded experiences today. For instance, although governed by a giant Japanese corporation, the way early 90s Sega of America was portrayed very much feels like it was one of today’s disruptive startups — starting out and in a dingy office, stopping at nothing to make a splash, and happily defying traditional industry protocols in a way that was intrinsically “cool.” And as one of book’s most memorable chapters makes clear, Kalinske’s Sega of America didn’t necessarily believe in having a bedtime; and refreshingly, not so much in a soulless capitalism way as in a fourth grade sleepover sort of way.
That last sentence was supposed to be the big tie-in to that title. It most definitely didn’t do it justice, but I was trying to get to the point that Sonic, who largely embodied the spirit of Sega, became forever cemented as a cultural tour de force he is today because the people behind him were ruthlessly crafty. They worked hard, but they worked hard the way they wanted to work hard — in a way that was gonna bring them success on their terms. They were like a road team who had no business being this close in the fourth quarter, and is only so close because they’re playing the game in a way nobody has ever really even seen before. As Harris notes, the fact that perennial champion Nintendo did things this way was all the more reason for Sega to do things that way.
Point is, this book fuses the coolness and edge of the childhood basement with the realities and ambition of the adult world. The dream, increasingly, seems to be about merging these two things. So with that in mind, go read The Console Wars and get inspired in way you might haven’t been inspired before. And then go make your loud statement, in the spirit of that spiky blue hedgehog.