REVIEW: Coming in hot on the heels of Netflix’s excellent history of gaming series High Score was always going to be difficult, but Console Wars’ ( TVNZ OnDemand) very different approach makes it a companion piece fans of 1980s and ‘90s popular culture should check out.
Blake J. Harris and Jonah Tulis’ feature-length tale (based on Harris’ 2014 book of the same name) focuses on the rivalry between the American arms of Nintendo and Sega during the first half of the 1990s.
Prior to that time, Nintendo had controlled around 95 per cent of the US gaming market, its Italian plumber mascot Mario and his stablemates a staple in homes across the country. However, in 1990, Sega decided to take on the vast, seeming monopoly, hiring Mattel executive Tom Kalinske to revolutionise the company.
His strategy? Lower the price, obtain the licences to make games from well-known US TV shows and movies, make fun of Nintendo in their advertising and find a character to rival Mario.
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After losing his initial rock band member status and girlfriend called Madonna, the result was Sonic the Hedgehog, whose debut game showcased Sega’s superior speed and more lurid colour palette.
Coupled with a highly successful Welcome to the Next Level campaign (which included the company catch-cry – the Sega “scream”) and other creative advertising (they claimed their console Genesis had “blast processing”, something that simply didn’t exist), Sega suddenly became hip, cool and top of the sales charts.
Through entertaining and enlightening interviews, Harris and Tulis detail just some of the crazy lengths the two companies went to in order to sell more video games than their rivals. Political concerns over rising violence in them are also briefly touched on, including the duelling versions of fight-fest Mortal Kombat, both of which caused consternation for very different reasons.
Likewise, the rise of Sony and the fear of becoming another Atari are also explored. As one TV reporter wag puts it, “they are locked in Mortal Kombat and one of them will be Doomed”.
However, despite eliciting engaging and surprisingly frank responses from some of the subjects, Console Wars never really settles, hampered by a whiplash editing style, an over-caffeinated soundtrack, a slightly skewed David vs Goliath narrative and a bizarre decision to suddenly revisit the history of consoles in the middle of the movie.
Song Exploder is now streaming on Netflix
More measured and even more compelling are the “how we made” tales of hit songs of Netflix’s Song Exploder.
Based on Hrishikesh Hirway’s hit podcast, which has been running since 2014, it sees the US composer interviewing bands about some of their most iconic songs.
Among the first batch of four, 30-minute episodes is one about REM’s 1991 anthem Losing My Religion. A five-minute song with no chorus and a mandolin as the lead instrument, it somewhat surprisingly transformed the decade-year-old Georgia band from niche to household name, earning them two Grammys and the MTV Video of the Year Award.
In a fascinating and engrossing series of chats, guitarist Peter Buck reveals how the mandolin riff was inspired by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score to the David Bowie movie Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. Singer Michael Stipe says he wanted to make a song akin to The Police’s Every Breath You Take.
As for the title, Stipe says it’s a southern phrase that means “to lose one’s temper or civility”, although he’s well aware it took on a very different meaning in countries like Ireland.
Other instalments of this excellent series look at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Wait for It (from his hit musical Hamilton), Alicia Keys’ 3 Hour Drive and Ty Dolla $ign’s LA, while another quartet, expected next month, promises to include tunes by Nine Inch Nails, Dua Lipa, The Killers and Natalia Lafourcade.