A few days ago, Sega announced that it is downsizing the company and moving away from console games, marking the end of an era for the once great hardware and software maker.
From the day I first held a chubby Genesis controller in my youthful hands – well, it was chubby compared to the flat, rectangular NES controller I was accustomed to – and button mashed my way through a couple of stages of Altered Beast, I was struck by the magic Sega was capable of bringing to my television screen. In the months to follow came other Sega classics such as Golden Axe and Tommy Lasorda Baseball. The gorgeous 16-bit graphics, as opposed to the inferior 8-bit graphics of the NES, had me truly believing that Genesis does what Nintendon’t.
What Sega did that Nintendo didn’t was make gaming a cool thing to do. While Nintendo focused on family entertainment, Sega went after the teen hanging out with his friends, instilling a certain edge in their games. Games such as Sonic The Hedgehog, featuring their iconic speedster racing through levels while Nintendo’s Mario was barely registering a jog. Games such as Streets Of Rage, Sega’s beat-‘em-up answer to Capcom’s popular arcade game Final Fight, offering an acclaimed soundtrack as well as a twist at the end that allowed one player in a cooperative game to turn against the other player. And of course there were a line of sports games Sega released under their Sega Sports banner.
Sega was riding high on a steady flow of great games, including smash-hit sequels like Sonic 2, and struck a chord with their humorous ads.
But as high as Sega climbed is how far they would fall, tripping over themselves again and again. The trouble began when they attempted to prolong the life of the Genesis by releasing a CD player attachment for it. Dubbed the Sega CD, the peripheral sat under the Genesis and played games from a CD format boasting much more room for data storage than a cartridge, meaning games could be bigger and better… in theory. In fact, the Sega CD became a dumping ground for shallow games that used the extra storage space for grainy full motion video that featured live actors but little in the way of interactivity. Other games for it were simply Genesis games with CD quality music.
With the Sega CD failing to take off, Sega moved on to 32-bit gaming with the Sega Saturn. However, rather than place their full efforts on the console that would be competing with Sony’s first entry into gaming, the PlayStation, Sega threw out another peripheral called the 32X, an add-on that plugged into the Genesis cartridge slot. It was supposed to be a cheaper alternative for Genesis owners who weren’t ready to spend $400 on the yet to be released Saturn, but gamers saw it exactly for what it was, cheap, and stayed away from it.
And Sega had another problem. The Saturn hardware was originally designed to run 3D games using two processors, but Sony built more powerful 3D-rendering hardware for the PlayStation. To compete, Sega haphazardly altered the design of the Saturn hardware, adding a video processor so they could offer greater 3D capability as well. The trouble is that because of its more complex design, the Saturn was a nightmare for game developers to work with and so game developers flocked to the PlayStation, helping Sony to become the new king on the block as gamers followed those developers and their games over to Sony’s console.
Coming off of consecutively releasing three bad pieces of hardware in the Sega CD, 32X, and Saturn, all within the short span of three years, Sega was hemorrhaging money and their next hardware release would likely be their last chance at remaining a player in the home console market. Fortunately for gamers, Sega proved they had learned their lessons well and came out swinging with their best console yet: the Sega Dreamcast.
Critics and gamers alike were impressed by the cutting edge graphics of the Dreamcast as Sega focused their efforts on 9/9/99, the day they released a slew of great launch titles such as Sonic Adventure, Crazy Taxi, and Virtua Fighter 3. And they hit the airwaves hard, returning to the cool and humorous type of ads that defined and sold the Genesis.
Although it first appeared that Sega was poised to make a tremendous comeback in the home console market, they made a single, critical error in the design of the Dreamcast that kept it from catapulting them to the level of success they needed. When Sony designed their second console, the PlayStation 2, they included a new disc format called DVD. But this new format was expensive, and so to save on costs, Sega went with a cheaper proprietary format they called GD-ROM. After the initial excitement of the Dreamcast’s launch quickly faded, it became clear that the trend amongst gamers was to hold off on buying a Dreamcast in favor of getting the soon to be released PS2, which would double as both a game console and a DVD movie player. The final nail in Sega’s coffin was when Sony priced the PS2 at $299, making it the most affordable DVD player on the market. Even though it was $100 more than the Dreamcast, consumers couldn’t resist Sony’s offer to play games and movies on the same hardware and Sega paid the ultimate price.
More than one year after launching the Dreamcast, Sega announced in early 2001 that they were discontinuing the console, crushing the hearts of longtime supporters of the company. Going forward, Sega would release its games on the home consoles of its now former rivals, Nintendo and Sony, as well as gaming’s newest console entrant, Microsoft.
But as the years went on and their software failed to sell in big numbers, Sega began to abandon the franchises their small yet loyal fanbase had come to love. Sega also eventually closed the Sega Sports brand, ceasing to release sports games entirely. Worse still, the quality of their games plummeted, most notably with their biggest franchise character, Sonic, who frequently became the star of mediocre or bad games. And even though Sega would end up publishing a few more good games such as Bayonetta and Alien: Isolation, it was clear that too many gamers had lost their faith in the Sega brand as even good games couldn’t generate enough profit to keep Sega in the increasingly expensive business of making console games.
Fourteen years after announcing they were exiting the home console market on the hardware side, Sega essentially announced an exit from home console software as well, saying their focus would now be on mobile and PC games.
It was a sad day for me when I heard this announcement and I’m still in disbelief as I write this. Sega meant so much to me and was an enormous part of my personal history. We grow up with the icons of our youth, and as they fade away a part of us fades with them. And as that occurs, we wish for them to make a comeback, to represent greatness even just one more time so that we can relive the youthful exuberance we felt seemingly so long ago.
So it is with a touch of sadness and much nostalgia that I play out the once great Sega I knew with the only song that I feel is a fitting parting tribute: the song that opened Sonic Adventure, the casting of a dream for Sega, a desired return to supremacy that, ultimately, simply wasn’t to be.