Remembering to Forget to Remember Sega

The original sin that man is responsible to

Part of being a jerk on the internet is having unnecessarily heated arguments about irrelevant things with strangers. One of my go-to topics, mostly borne out of authentic emotion, is Sega and their current state. Unlike sane people who see the branding on a box of some Total War game, notice Yakuza doing well, or wonder why there are so many Sonic games and intuit Sega is a moderately successful company, I think they died almost twenty years ago. 

What’s the problem?

I am haunted by nightmares every night

There was a distinct Sega-ness that was removed from life support the day they were acquired by pachinko manufacturer Sammy in 2004. The end of the Dreamcast foreshadowed the demise of the company’s soul. Still, in the twilight period after they left the hardware business in 2001 and before the acquisition, the internal Sega development teams continued working on what I would deem Sega-y games: Billy Hatcher, GunValkyrie, Panzer Dragoon Orta, Jet Set Radio Future, and Shinobi. Risky, often niche games, the kind that elevated and killed the Dreamcast. The games they no longer make because though the brand name lives on, the heart of the company is long gone.

Sight Of Night, I Cheer To Embrace A Magic

The memory of this bolder Sega is slowly disappearing. Like how I know and care little about Atari, younger people are moving in on my turf of apathy and stupid poetic justice is at work. Sega’s memory problem has at least as many tails as Tails. I already mentioned that old jokester Time and the age of people playing games, but there is also the inaccessibility of arcades. Even a 20-something loser who likes antique games is unlikely to spend much time with MAME emulating arcade games. And a significant chunk of Sega’s history is rooted in coin-ops. (Since the first draft of this piece, Sega sold all of their Japanese arcades. This makes my super rare photo of the Akihabara Sega arcade front very valuable indeed.)

The village was on the back of a giant turtle

The final nail in the memory coffin is the oft repeated yet accurate cliche that history is written by the victors, or in this case the victor’s fans. Aging gamers still bothering people with their opinions are likely to have been raised with Nintendo consoles, at least in North America and Japan. Finding people to bond with over Black Belt was always a challenge but now it’s almost as impossible as that boss who counters all your moves.

I have never beaten this boss.

Is this the end?

I hear you clamoring for some hard, solid evidence-proof of the world forgetting the old, good Sega. Objection. Case dismissed. The Retronauts podcast is a good example of geriatric gaming media that could keep the old man version of Sega fresh in the heads of the old men who listen to hear about old games ad nauseam. Instead, the hosts focus on what they played as children and young adults and having covered all of those games 17,000 episodes ago, now would rather dive into bizarre minutia, like the episode about The Noid, than have to play and devise something to say about a game new to them (eg. nearly all Sega games). They didn’t have Master Systems, Saturns, Dreamcasts, Picos, Power Base Converters, Sega Jets, Megadrives, Neptunes, Nomads, Vagabonds, 32Xs, Mark IIIs, Game Gears, Giga Drives, or Sega CDs and it is apparent. (Credit and thanks to Jeremy Parish for his Sega video series, however. Named using the Japanese term for side-story, appropriately enough.)

I want to see you standing there

So that’s exhibit A. There are other prominent podcasts with hosts who wouldn’t know a Burning Ranger from a Clockwork Knight if they were on fire and the only way to extinguish it was to follow voice commands. IGN’s Gamescoop is a surprisingly pleasant listen, but the show’s resident guy with encyclopedic knowledge of games knows close to nothing about anything Sega made. He also enjoys insulting the company; suffice to say we would have already fought to the death if I didn’t find murdering people on the behalf of corporations to be slightly unseemly. Especially if they aren’t paying you. 

Fire, consume my enemies!

Speaking of unseemly, I mean IGN, they recently updated their top 100 game list. A Japanese TV show of top or best or most popular, depending on where you read or hear about it and your ability to read, also came out recently, as discussed on the 8-4 Play podcast. The number of Sega games in these lists is a punch to my swollen-because-I’ve-been-crying-about-Sega face. Zero first party or console exclusives on the IGN list. And then there’s the Japanese list… which also has zero Sega games on it. No historic Suzuki arcade games? No 16 bit-era gems? Some shitty 3D Sonic couldn’t even crack either list?

This is neither a Burning Ranger nor a Clockwork Knight. Also, it probably doesn’t count as a Sega game.

The results are insignificant and what really counts is competing

The solution to this perceived problem is to learn to cope with some version of a past corporation not being fondly remembered sufficiently. Or I keep writing about Sega games and how the company is heading down the Konami path of one or two big franchises and then nothing at all, and how it will barely even matter because they’re a zombie anyway, a mere shadow of what they were, and everything good in this world happened in the past and if I spend enough money I can somehow be 8 again. Overruled.

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2 years ago

I feel this post so much.

First off, love the Retronauts shade. The podcast has seen better days for sure, which is weird considering how (as you point out) Parish is still doing good work on his Youtube channel. Clearly he still has the spark and the passion, but for some reason it no longer manifests in his podcast.

That being said, for anyone who hasn’t listened to retronauts, check out their archive. There are some episodes that go over the history of Sega’s arcade business through the 80’s, and it’s a pretty good historical overview, covering each game in sequence, discussing their innovations, who the inspired, etc. Just don’t expect that quality from newer eps.

I’m not super surprised that the TV Asahi poll you linked to lacks Sega games, but I am surprised that it doesn’t at least have something like Outrun or Hang On there. If any Sega games might appear on that list, I’d expect those two.

As for Sega’s “success”, it is true that they seem to be doing fine financially. And I appreciate that they’re a rare Japanese publisher that is aggressively pushing to get as many of their games on PC as possible.

But it’s definitely not the same vibe as their glory days, when they had multiple studios with their own logos, brands, identities, etc. I’m thinking Smilebit, Sonic Team, AM2, Amusement Vision …. that was when Sega had personality, as opposed to today, where they largely feel like a holding company.

I think you are correct that more people are nostalgic for Nintendo than Sega, but I don’t think it is just because of what people grew up with. At the very least the worldwide sales numbers for the Genesis suggest that more people should have nostalgia for Sega’s 16 bit console games.

So why don’t they? One possibility (and I state this as a possibility, not my own opinion) is that some of those games haven’t aged well. The Genesis’ early sales lead was arguably due in part to Sega’s push to release impressive-for-the-time arcade ports, sports games, and celebrity tie ins. That worked well at the time, but does that hold up today?

The other possibility (which I do hold as a personal opinion) is that Sega has done a worse job compared to Nintendo of managing their brand. Nintendo is stingy about giving access to their back catalog (and when they do, they don’t always put in a good effort), and that seems to lead to a “Disney Vault” phenomenon where even questionable games like F-Zero are treated as treasured classics.

Sega, on the other hand, has a long history of shoving games into crappy disc-based compilations, plug and play devices, etc. I think this has lead a lot of people to view them as shovelware, whereas to Nintendo’s old games have a premium veneer.

One last thing – perhaps it’s less accurate to say “people are nostalgic for what they grew up with” than it is to say “games journalists are nostalgic for what they played”. For example, it seems that an outsized number of game journos played Square’s Super Nintendo jRPGs back in the day, and talk about them as if everyone else did. This, I think, has shaped the online discourse, because now everyone else talks about those games as if they were always popular (when in truth, Chrono Trigger apparently sold under 300,000 copies in the West, on a console that moved 22 million units in North America alone).

My advice to anyone reading this is to find a copy of some Sega arcade game that uses Super Scaler technology.

Last edited 2 years ago by Christian
2 years ago

it really is a shame to see sega reduced to rereleases of old games, sonic, and yakuza. and that is coming from a pretty big yakuza fan. i arrived at the saturn a little late, but there are some great games on the console. and the dreamcast is home to some of my favorite all time gaming experiences. just ask jay how many hours we have put into zombie revenge and then recognize that is a pretty mediocre game compared to some of the classics on the DC.

sega obviously has its own specific challenges, but i wonder a bit how much of this is just emblematic of the broader decline in the range of games available from japanese developers. i am not able to quantify this, but my impression is several of the japanese developers that were making really interesting, creative stuff in the 90s and through the mid 2000s either aren’t in business or are recycling some formula that works for them.

2 years ago

Its great to get an inside peak at a heartfelt pining for Sega-ness, and it certainly makes me realize how little I actually have in imprint for who they were as a company (I guess I can join all the rest of the unwashed masses) ;)

I DO have them held in high esteem, though in my case I experienced them almost completely post-console diaspora, and mostly on Xbox of all places. Would it be accurate that the heart, wonder, quirk, and craftmanship on display in Panzer Dragoon Orta, Outrun 2, Shenmue 2, GunValkyrie and (a little later) Valkyria Chronicles is a distillation of real Sega from y’all’s perspective? And what specifically MAKES a Sega game feel like the real deal?

And why doesn’t Yakuza (I’ve only played Yakuza 0) make the cut?

Last edited 2 years ago by TrueTallus
2 years ago

on yakuza specifically, i should say that i have really grown to like the series despite the somewhat lukewarm review linked in this piece. since writing that i have played 2-5 and zero, and might get to 6 this year. like jay said, i think yakuza probably does count on its own, as would valkyria chronicles. to me the problem is the lack of variety and overall output. maybe they are improving in some ways since the yakuza team made a turn based RPG and then two judgment games in the past few years but it seems unlikely we will see stuff like seaman or 3 scenarios of shining force III again.

2 years ago

I would caution at using the phrase “real Sega”. Sega’s 80’s arcade output is not as weird as offbeat as their Dreamcast output, but I’d argue those games are as emblematic of their real roots as anything. You don’t get Outrun 2 or Afterburner Climax without the 80s originals

2 years ago

i’m right there with you, man. i never beat that boss in black belt, either

also thanks for reminding me about segaiden, jeremy is a peach for that effort