Blake J Harris Talks Moonwalker, ROB the Robot and Dishes on ‘Console Wars’
When I heard there was a book coming out based on the market battle between Sega and Nintendo, it seemed like a topic I’d like to read about. I grew up playing Atari and Coleco Vision, and the NES blew my mind putting an arcade in my bedroom, but I really remember the intrigue surrounding Sega Genesis. When I bought one, all my friends told me I was stupid and I should be buying the TurboGraphx 16. I was proven right when the Genesis won out, and never even delved into Super NES myself.
Due out this week, ‘Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation’ by Blake J. Harris traces the rise of the Sega Genesis from when Sega hired Tom Kalinske to run their American operations. Kalinske is responsible for bundling the Genesis with Sonic the Hedgehog and making Sonic the face of Sega, as well as creating Tuesday release dates with Sonic 2sday. Harris is also filming a documentary about the console wars and the Hollywood movie rights have been optioned by Sony with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg attached to write and direct.
Though I was already a retro gamer, I had no idea how much intrigue there would be in ‘Console Wars.’ I found myself burning through all 555 pages in just over a week, and connecting with Harris on social media as I looked up the Sega Star Kid Challenge on YouTube and Googling the Michael Jackson soundtrack to Sonic the Hedgehog 3. When presented with the opportunity, I interviewed Harris and went over all the console trivia I discovered through his book, hoping to learn even more about the original console battle.
Arcade Sushi: So just by Googling the early systems that disappeared, I ended up finding out Intellivision was in business until 1991? I never heard of them post-Atari.
Blake Harris: I guess that’s not surprising. These things kind of just stick around. Actually, I was at E3 last year. One of the guys, someone who had been one of the major creators of the games for Intellivision now owns all the rights to the Intellivision trademark and their properties. He had a little booth and he was trying to sell Intellivision stuff. His name’s Keith Robinson. Kalinske knew him and I was with Tom so ended up speaking with him for a little bit. I don’t know, these things never really die but yes, surprising I guess that it was really around until ’91.
Once Nintendo came out, what games were Intellivision making and who was buying them?
None that I know of which I suppose means I’m pretty ignorant or they weren’t very successful. I would imagine ports of existing properties from, say, the Atari 2600 they were just upgrading or trying to make seem upgraded.
I think we all remember the “Sega scream” commercials that ended with someone yelling “Sega!” I have to say, when you introduce Jimbo Mathison in the book, it’s very casual for someone so significant. Since he only wanted his SAG card out of the deal, did he get it from those commercials and where is he today?
I don’t know if Jimbo ever got his SAG card, but I do know where he is. He’s in Brooklyn, so he’s very close to me. He ended up spending a lot of his money, which was a lot of money, on forming a band that toured around Europe and Asia. I guess he didn’t recoup that money because he seemed to have spent it all by the time that we spoke.
He also, strangely, if you look him up on Amazon, he recently published a book that was about Japanese toys, I guess toys that he had picked up during his travels as a rock star. It’s just a coffee table book about Japanese toys, which I owned.
Why didn’t he write an autobiography?
He should. He’s a really interesting guy. He’s the kind of guy who would just start a blog, the Sega Screamer. He’s into putting his name out there.
Speaking of toys, I was shocked to read about the NES R.O.B. You’d think I’d remember if Nintendo released a robot, but even seeing the pictures in the book don’t ring a bell. It was obviously unsuccessful, but what was the NES R.O.B. supposed to do? I don’t remember that at all.
So the NES R.O.B. was the Robotic Operating Buddy, a little robot. That is a complete measure that the functionality was awful. It really, really was just a Trojan Horse so that they could have commercials with him in it and present themselves as an entertainment system as opposed to a console. But his big game was something called Gyromite. There were a couple games but he really didn’t work that well.
When I was talking to Randy Peretzman who was the guy with the 22-inch suitcase, he said that that robot never worked and they would always have to come up with excuses like. “Oh, the batteries don’t work,” and “We don’t have the right batteries to play this.” It was always about how to show him without showing any of the features he does or does badly.
Did the attempts at the Power Glove and U Force eventually lead Nintendo to get it right with the Wii?
I don’t think that those peripherals led directly to the Wii. There’s a chance that there are some ripples, but I think there was just different eras of gaming and different eras of what Nintendo was trying to accomplish. I think back in the ‘80s, their primary goal was just to chase the ghost of Atari and then with the Wii, which was about 20 years later, the goal was probably to chase Microsoft and Sony who were eating them for lunch, and to come up with a different way to market themselves. For them, it was to focus on gameplay as opposed to graphics or online communities and things technologically based.
I never realized Mario Bros. was just Joust from below until I read your book.
That’s pretty crazy, isn’t it? Howard Phillips mentioned that to me when we were interviewing him for the documentary. It took me half a second to actually think about it and I was like, “Oh my God, that makes a lot of sense.” Even so, the big innovation with Mario Bros. was Super Mario Bros. It’s not like they stole that from Joust.
The one photo everyone is probably going to want to see after reading Console Wars is the original design of Sonic the Hedgehog, which you described as scary until Kalinske softend him up. But there are no photos of scary Sonic in the book. Are there any photos available of scary Sonic, his girlfriend Madonna or the rock band he played in before Kalinske vetoed them?
There’s not any that I found with the fangs. There are a few that I found with [proposed Sonic love interest] Madonna and there are a few that I found with the rock band [Sonic was supposed to lead]. But I think the funny thing is, with scary Sonic and the more spiky not so cuddly ones, is kind of what Sonic has become today. As Japan has gained more and more control, if you look at that game Sonic Generations, you see the little Sonic that was the Sega of America heavily influenced one with the Sonic today and he’s taller, lankier, spikier. He’s not as cuddly or American I would say.
In Sonic Unleashed he turns into a werehog. I wonder if that was it.
That might be. I’d imagine Sega of Japan has some stuff in the archives but all the stuff that I’ve been able to get from subjects and what little I’ve gotten, I’ve never seen the really outrageous fanged version of Sonic.
All my friends said I should get a TurboGraphx 16 instead of the Genesis. That name alone makes an impression, but I had made the right choice. Why didn’t TurboGraphx work?
That’s a great question. I did at one point have a whole chapter on what I called the mini console war between the TurboGraphx and the Genesis. The Sega Genesis came out on Oct. 14, 1989 and the TurboGraphx came out on Oct. 15, so they both came out pretty much the same day, except the Genesis wanted to come out a day earlier just to say they were out before. Three or four months before that, Al Nilsen had told me that he was at a Sega event where they were playing golf with retailers, and the retailers were saying, “Thanks for having us play golf but you know that there’s no way you’re going to beat the TurboGraphx. By Christmas you’re going to be out of the stores.”
It was kind of a sobering moment for him but he thought that the reason they were able to beat TurboGraphx was because TurboGraphx initially tried to go head to head with Nintendo, and Sega was more interested in winning this war with TurboGraphx at first. It wasn’t even in my version of the chapter, but there had been a rumor going around that the TurboGraphx would heat up and catch on fire. It really worried retailers.
Was it true?
I don’t believe the rumor is true but I do think it’s true that somebody from Sega started this rumor. I’m pretty confident that it sounds like something that’s in the Sega spirit, what they would do.
And NEC never tried a next generation console?
They were always sort of in the mix but once Sega was on the map, it was really hard for any company to compete against them. Even the 3DO was technologically on par with those systems but it was so expensive. It was really hard until Sony came around.
Was Moonwalker an important game for Genesis?
I think that it was important that they signed Michael Jackson the same way it was important they were able to bring on Joe Montana, which Nintendo did also once and other celebrities like Tommy Lasorda and Arnold Palmer. It was not super important. In a lot of ways the launch of the Sonic bundled Genesis in 1991 was a restart and a relaunch for Sega, and I think that a lot of the stuff before that, the results show that it wasn’t very successful. Sega still had less than 5 percent of the market even with Moonwalker and even with Joe Montana Football and all these other games.
Speaking of Michael Jackson, you wrote that he was going to write music for Sonic 3 until his scandal broke. Where are the lost Michael Jackson recordings for Sonic 3?
Oh, it’s in the game. He’s just not credited for it. It’s definitely in the game. I imagine that there was probably a lot of unfinished stuff that he didn’t finish, that other people took over. I wouldn’t say the soundtrack to the game is 100 percent how Michael Jackson would’ve wanted his version of Michael Jackson stuff, but he was definitely on the game up until that point in the scandal and if you look online, there are a bunch of conspiracy theories about whether it’s his music or whether it’s not, and it is his music.
I remember the Neo Geo cost over $600, which maybe some people would bay for an advanced system. The kicker was the games. How did SNK think they could sell Neo Geo games for $199 each?
I don’t know, man. There’s a lot of crazy stuff that went on back then.
That’s the price of a system!
I know. I never really understood Neo Geo’s or SNK’s strategy in all of this. They had substantial content that was at least worthy of usage or some value to be had, but I always felt they were doing very wonky things. Maybe they really just catered to a Japanese demographic and were willing to sort of punt the fans in America. I don’t know.
Did the Sega Dreamcast improve on any of the mistakes of the Saturn?
From what I’ve heard, what I remember playing in my limited time playing it, is that it was a really great system at least from the consumer level. I don’t know if the third party developers found it to be an easy system to develop for but I never heard any specific complaints. I think it was a very good system. They just had business troubles that were hung over from the previous generation.
It did pretty well in the United States but once again it was struggling in Japan and they pulled the plug and focused solely software. It was well received by consumers especially because it sort of got back to their bread and butter of sports games. They had those great 2K games.
So specs for the Sega Pluto came out. Was there ever a Jupiter or Neptune system given their penchant for naming them after planets?
I’ve seen some online. I don’t know whether they really were those systems. I think there were a lot of prototypes for a lot of different things and I think that they had to probably get to a certain level of potentiality before they named them and before they became projects that people were focused on. I guess the short answer is I don’t know for sure whether those ever really did exist or not.
There are specs for more than just Pluto?
Yeah, there are and there’s a lot of different prototypes out there that people debate where this was on the evolution of Sega’s plan.
Was the Sega Channel a precursor for Video on Demand (VOD)?
Yeah, it was an idea that was available in 1993 to go on your television set and purchase these pieces of content that you could buy in a store but that were available directly into your home. I do think in many ways it was a precursor to VOD.
I imagine the decline of the Genesis killed the Sega Channel. Did it work for Saturn games?
I don’t believe it did. I’m not sure but I don’t believe it did. I do think that if the Genesis life cycle for a two or three years as Sega of America had hoped, I think there would have been a lot more success with the Sega Channel. I don’t know that it would’ve become the pervasive thing that buying games online today is, but I do think that if Sega really stuck with the Genesis in the same way that Nintendo stuck with Super Nintendo, they would’ve been able to find a lot more success with the Sega Channel. That was one of the factors that killed it.
It was never on my cable service or I would’ve had it.
I think it only made it to a few large markets. EBVB [Ellen Beth Van Buskirk] was saying how the cable systems didn’t get what this was and it was so hard because it was a really good product, but they just had a different mentality. They were interested in just doing paint by numbers product rollout where they do a test here, a test there. They didn’t really know what they had and they weren’t really committed to deploying it.
‘Console Wars’ is now available at bookstores and e-readers. You can read all about the above topics and many more details about Sega’s brief dominance over Nintendo, and how Nintendo swung things back in their favor. The story of corporate espionage could make a real time strategy game itself, or a side-scroller with the player controlling Kalinske jumping over R.O.B. and defeating the Walmart boss.