User testing

One of the bigger threads through Console Wars is the competition between advertising agencies to get Sega’s business.

One of the agencies—Goodby, Berlin, & Silverstein—really got inside kids’ heads through on-site user research. They’d visit families and observe kids playing video games in their bedrooms. Their biggest takeaway was the universal knowledge that adults don’t know anything. That’s captured in this passage describing a kid’s reaction to one of the Sonic 2 commercials:

“That footage you showed wasn’t even from Sonic 2!” said one of the teens. “It was from the original Sonic, and it was from level two, which isn’t hard at all.” From another: “Those commercials look like they were written by adults.” And from a third: “The guys who made it weren’t even good enough to get to the difficult parts.”

Kids instantly recognize these things. Back then, I could tell you a screen is from Mortal Kombat I or Mortal Kombat II no problem. Less than a glance at most. Same with Mega Man X and X2.

Kids of the 90s: cut those moron adults some slack. They were competing for your attention against the latest technology of the era.


Fun note: GB&S, now GS&P, still does some work with Sonic and it’s way more tasteful.


Console Wars does a great job capturing Sega’s willingness to try new ideas. And a lot of the ideas involve celebrities.

It was interesting to read about them planning the Sega Star Kids Challenge and bringing celebrities to the Sonic 2sday event:

A practice session may seem trivial, but it was important to Sega that these young celebrities give the impression that they really did love videogames and weren’t just heartthrobs for hire.

Wouldn’t ever want to make them look foolish.


Blast Processing and tech specs

Again, the best parts of Console Wars are the behind-the-scenes looks at Sega’s marketing strategies. The Super Nintendo had Mode 7, which made games like Star Fox and Mario Kart possible. Now that I’m doing some image searches, I’m learning it was also used in other games for certain sequences, like every overworld map.

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I like imagining a .ppt from Nintendo with a slide titled “Guidelines: fitting races into stories” with 7 bullet points underneath.

Sega didn’t have an actual thing to strike back with, so they decided to strike back with not an actual thing:

While looking through the manual, Latham found something that kind of, sort of, maybe fit the bill: Burst Mode, which in theory allowed the Genesis to process code faster than Nintendo’s chip could. Although this sounded like exactly what the marketing team wanted, Latham explained that Burst Mode actually had very little to do with the graphics, velocity, and overall performance of Sega’s games. To say that Burst Mode was the reason that Sonic could move so fast would be like saying that cheetahs were faster than elephants were because of their spots.

Burst Mode turned into Blast Processing.

I remember always checking the “Graphics” rating first when reading EGM or GamePro. But I knew that high gameplay scores went further for how much I’d enjoy the game. (There’s something about UX in there.)

The book ends in the very early stages of the 32-bit era. When our family got a Playstation, one of the first giant-jeweled-case games we got was NBA Live 96.

I remember thinking my dad would think this purchase was totally worth it if he saw the graphics. So one day I told him close your eyes okay now open them.

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“Can you tell it’s not live TV?”

Protips and more

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Prior to reading Console Wars, I had some perspective on video games in Japan. Actually, it’s a little unusual. My dad was in the Navy and I grew up on military bases in Japan in the 90s. I played console demos in Japanese department stores and spent plenty of time in Japanese arcades basically run by Sega. But our family and all my friends had American consoles.

And we had english TV channels, but they had weird mixes of syndicated shows. The oddest part was that instead of commercials for products, there would be commercials about military life and American history. So most of the American marketing I experienced was through video game magazines.
They talk about the impact of a particular GamePro cover where Star Fox is on the front of it. From Console Wars:

“But why?” Arakawa asked Tilden, looking at the April 1993 issue of GamePro magazine. On the cover, right there in front of them, was artwork from Nintendo’s Star Fox. Not only had this artwork been intended for Nintendo Power, but White had specifically met with Arakawa, Tilden, and Harman to discuss sharing it with outside magazines and had explicitly been told not to do so.

As long as I remember, our parents let us subscribe to at least one video gamemagazine. And any time we went to the book store I’d first look at Goosebumps for the newest release then read the game magazines.
Game Players magazine had a newsletter that, looking back, seems like weird internet before the internet became what it is today.

Something I remember is one issue where a reader wrote inn asking how the magazine makes the stitched together maps. And they said it was software that costs hundred and hundreds of dollars.

I remember picturing some kind of mega-expensive super computer. Where like they’d make the brontosaurus in Jurassic Park and then in another window they’d have Link to the Past maps. Now I realize it was probably Photoshop.

Game Players turned to Ultra Game Players then disappeared altogether. Then we switched to an EGM subscription. GamePro (of PROTIP fame) skewed younger. We had some of those but they were usually one off purchases from the book store.

Nintendo’s side project was publishing a magazine with more than a million subscribers. As far as I remember, the book store didn’t have Nintendo Power. So the only kids that had copies had subscriptions.

I remember the Star Fox cover but really had no idea it was a big deal. I was probably in 2nd grade or 3rd grade so I didn’t understand that anything was a big deal. I really had no idea that Nintendo Power was a giant monthly advertisement.

(Then one day you find out Saturday-morning cartoons were toy advertisements and the world falls apart. That’s the adult version of finding out Santa Clause isn’t real. In between those discoveries is finding out wrestling isn’t real.)

No mention of RPGs

Okay I exaggerated, Console Wars mentions RPGs exactly once:

Oshima partnered up with Yuji Naka, a brilliant hothead in the programming department who was responsible for one of Sega’s most popular series: Phantasy Star, a sci-fi role-playing game (RPG) about a resilient young female warrior bent on galactic revenge with the help of a muskrat named Myau and a wizard named Noah.

Side note: I thought Zelda was generally considered an RPG. According to my research (clicking a few links on a Google search), most people don’t consider it an RPG. And get pretty passionate about it not being an RPG. Anyway, I guess that further helps the case that Console Wars has one single mention of an RPG.

Searching the book for “Final Fantasy” returns nothing. In America, RPGs might not have had as much an impact on the 16-bit console war as, say, Mortal Kombat. But Final Fantasy III should get at least one mention. (The book ends before Chrono Trigger’s release, so there’s at least some explanation.)

RPGs make up 6 of the top 20 best selling SNES games.

Anyway, if RPGs were mentioned I would’ve had a better excuse for writing about a top–3 life achievement of mine…

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I grew up in Japan on a U.S. Navy base. Which means it’s not really like growing up in Japan and not really like growing up in America, either. Families would go off-base at night or on weekends. And you’d also live off-base while you were on a waiting list for on-base housing.

On these weekend trips out, my and I would wander around the videogame section of a department store (Daikuma or Da’e) while our parents got groceries. On one of these trips, we noticed people gathered around a spinning wheel and walked over.

After watching a few times, it looked like you paid 2000 yen, spun the wheel, and got to pick from either 1, 2, or 3-game packages. Anyway, our mom let us spin and we got the 2-game choice. We picked the package with Super Smash TV and… some game with a bird on the cover. My brother had heard of the game but we were mostly in it for Smash TV.

The other game was Final Fantasy V. I was extremely bored any time I watched my brother play it. Then one day I tried it out and it didn’t make sense at all. Literally. It was in Japanese, after all.

I started out wandering aimlessly. Then I continued wandering around aimlessly. For dozens of hours. And just memorized the menu location for some useful potions (mostly just elixir and HP recoveries).

A main character blinks away, teleporting somewhere. Some girl joins the party for unknown reasons. Then I realize the guy teleported to heaven because guess what actually he died.

Dozens of hours turned to dozens and dozens of hours. Memorizing the +100HP potion became memorizing the +1000HP potion. Then I beat it.

I still have basically no idea what the story is about.

So, you know, don’t make your UX like that.

Trying to make it to (For a better UX article based on Final Fantasy, check out Final Fantasy’s Guide to Onboarding.)

Mortal Kombat II behind the glass case

“Let me show you something.”

I stepped aside and an older kid—picture young John Connor—took the joystick. A few moments later Sub-Zero ripped someone’s head off with their spine attached. Awesome.

This was my first time seeing a fatality in Mortal Kombat. Apparently some parents didn’t think this was great, so the first Mortal Kombat had sweat instead of blood. Except for the kids with a Genesis.

“Some sort of blood code,” Garske explained to Kalinske. “So when you buy the game, it comes without any of that over-the-top gore and violence. But then all you have to do in order to get the game to look just like it does in the arcades is enter a code. A combination of buttons and then boom—blood everywhere.”

So on the SNES when I’d try to rip a spine out, instead I’d see this:


“As long as the shattered body parts aren’t red ice, we’re Gucci.”

I made the last quote up. My point was going to be that the SNES had watered down fatalities. But… this seems pretty brutal too. But these seemed much tamer as a kid.

I remember being really aware of how the first game had sweat. Nobody was buying the SNES version and most of my friends were Nintendo kids. And that it was a big deal that the sequel would have blood without a code.

I have cloudy memories of going to an AAFES store with my brother and our parents to get Mortal Kombat II. And it was behind this glass case with a rating on it. (Though it wasn’t one of the ESRB ratings that would eventually come out.)

Anyway we got it and then played it. A lot. I remember seeing MKII the first time at an arcade in an airport. And someone (again, an older kid) had what looked like a strategy guide but it was just a bunch of printouts.

And these printouts had all the moves and fatalities. That might have been my first exposure to anything related to the internet.

Console Wars talks about the different approaches toward violence that SEGA and Nintendo took.