By the early 2000s, Sega unceremoniously bowed out of the console wars. But how much of that can be attributed to the timeframe in which their products were released?
Growing up in the early 1990s, there were two types of kids you’d encounter (and one defining choice that cemented your place on the playground): you were either a Nintendo kid or a Sega kid. Sure, there were a few spoiled brats who had both a Super Nintendo and a Sega Genesis (like me), but even then, your allegiance still swayed one way or another. You either supported Mario and his merry band of buddies and frenemies (Bowser steals—literally, physically steals your girl and tries to kill you and your only known relative on the reg, and you suit up to play tennis with him whenever he calls?! Grow a pair, man), or you chose the mascot that so perfectly symbolized the kind of fast-paced 1990s eXXXtreme that mirrored your crippling and overmedicated battle with ADHD, the blue dude with ‘tude, Sonic the Hedgehog.
Fuck bitches, hold right and press A.
I, obviously, was one of those eight year old badasses. Not one of you lame-o Nintendnerds (despite also owning an SNES and playing the shit out of A Link to the Past.) The Genesis might very well be the greatest system of all time, its greatest achievement being getting me to buy into Sega’s insane bullshit for the next decade as they spiraled out of control before eventually going the way of Atari. I’m not here to defend crazy-ass decisions like the Sega 32X (which I still own), or releasing the Sega Saturn four months before its release date, but I think that Sega as a hardware developer gets a bad rap.
I mean, sure, the bottom line is all that matters and going by that, they are by definition a failure. They no longer make hardware because no one was buying their hardware. All I’m saying is that nobody bought their hardware because it was usually years ahead of its time, bottlenecked by other technologies. Sega’s cavalier, “anything we can conceive we can make” attitude is admirable, but there’s a reason it took Apple over a decade after the Newton to make an iPhone, ‘naw mean? The existing technology just didn’t support the ideas Sega was pumping out.
4. Game Gear: Beautiful Backlit Display, 90 Minutes of Battery Life
When the Sega Game Gear was released in the US in 1991, it wasn’t the first full-color, backlit handheld on the market—that distinction would go to the Atari Lynx, failed companion to the also failed Atari Jaguar. Game Gear definitely made more of a splash than its felid compatriot, though, as it was backed by arguably the hottest video game developer and hardware manufacturer at the time. It wasn’t really competing with the Lynx, as no one really knew that Lynx even existed. The Game Gear was more in direct response to Nintendo’s insanely popular Game Boy, which is the third best selling console of all time, behind only the PlayStation 2 and its own successor, the DS (if you count the Game Boy Advance as part of the same line, the Game Boy jumps up to #1), and despite having been released twenty-three goddamn years ago is still popular to this day.
The Game Gear followed the same mantra Sega generally adhered to in the 1990s: do what Nintendo does, only more IN-YOUR-FACE! And in-your-face it was: the screen was huge compared to the Game Boy’s, and it was capable of displaying 32 colors on-screen at once, which despite being laughable now, was a pretty big fucking deal in 1991, considering the Game Boy trucked along with, erm, one color: black. Compared to the Game Boy, the Game Gear was trippin’ balls with how much color it produced.
So throw a Sonic port on there, collect your millions, and you should have vanquished the Game Boy, right? Well, not so fast. The Game Gear had a host of its own problems. For one, the screen was backlit and full-color, yes, but LCD screens weren’t exactly as advanced back then as they are nowadays. A little problem called “viewable angle” was apparently something Sega never even considered when creating the Game Gear, because if you held the Game Gear in any position other than an absolutely straight, perfectly level to your eyes angle, the colors quickly washed out and became impossible to see. On the plus side, I guess no one on the train could ridicule you for playing Shaq-Fu, because they couldn’t see the damn thing.
The biggest issue, however, was battery life. Nintendo claimed that the Game Boy got 10 hours of battery life on four double As. Paltry by today’s standards, but certainly not terrible. The Game Gear, on the other hand, was quoted by Sega to get four hours, on six double A batteries! Six! Keep in mind also that this was the quoted battery life; meaning you might be able to achieve something relatively similar if you turned the backlight all the way down and stared at a pause screen for four hours. If you were, oh, I don’t know, playing your Game Gear, the battery life wilted down to something more like two hours at a maximum. This meant if you wanted to play your Game Gear on a road trip, you basically had to keep a backpack teeming with Duracells just to juice the thing.
Or you could get creative.
The Game Gear ended up being a more expensive gaming habit than just living at an arcade and shoving quarters into the machines all day. Every time you felt like gaming, you had to feed the Game Gear 6 bucks worth of batteries.
3. Sega CD, Now With More Non-Interactive Videos
A year after the Game Gear was released in the United States, we were greeted with the Sega CD. Compact discs as a medium for music was really only beginning to come into its own, and CD-ROMs were still a long ways off from becoming standard to a computer setup. So naturally, the Sega CD was an enticing premise. A console that played games off of CD?! We’re really living in the future now!
Visions of gigantically long games, impossible through the accepted means of the time, and fully immersive 3D gaming danced in everyone’s heads, like sugar plums on Christmas Eve. It was an exciting time to be a gamer, and everyone was expecting something like this:
Well, the problem is we instead ended up with this:
But let me back up for a second. Instead of an actual console successor to the Genesis, the Sega CD was a cumbersome add-on to it. Sega’s obsession with add-on gadgetry “lock-on technology” was so unwavering it could be seen as downright Freudian.
Stick it in, mom! ..I..I mean, man!
If you were fully drinking the Sega Kool-aid, you had a Sega Genesis with a 32X shoved on top, with a Sega CD interconnected to the right, and enough wires to make the most seasoned electrician blush. The Power Rangers would look down at this amalgamation for being too convoluted and impractical, chortling from atop their Megazord. If you wanted to cheat with Game Genie while playing Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles (not a cumbersome name at all), you’d have six interlocking peripherals stacking on top of one another just to play one video game, and that’s not even counting the controllers.
But back to the actual games on the system, and not just the monstrous, galumphing atrocity used to play them. After all, these egregious design errors could have been made in any era; it’s not what made the Sega CD ahead of its time. What made it ahead of its time was that no one knew how the hell to utilize CD technology for video games at the time.
Instead of the masterpieces Sony’s PlayStation seemed to pump out with regularity a mere five years later, the Sega CD was plagued by quick, poorly compressed videos that had you press buttons every couple of minutes or so; games that could be described as “rail shooters” only if you were in the most generous of moods. They could more aptly be described as “light brain exercises for infants.” Or, based on the bizarrely sexual nature of a lot of them, “fap material for fifth graders.”
Aside from the outstanding Sonic CD, which is still praised as one of the best platforming games of all time, the Sega CD just wasn’t worth its own tedium, because the “games” were barely games at all—they were .MOV files with loading screens.
2. Sega Saturn: Impressive 3D Graphics at a Laughably High Price
The Sega Saturn was the first true successor to the Genesis, and despite the platefuls of shit we were fed and told to like it with the 32X and the Sega CD, the general public was very, very excited for its launch. This was pre-PlayStation and pre-Nintendo 64, so the Saturn was going to be the first entrant in the 32 bit era, ushering in a proper new generation of gaming.
Well, this time we actually got what was promised, or at least something resembling what we were promised. We got a 32 bit, disc spinning, polygon pushing behemoth of a system, along with the uber-impressive launch title Virtua Fighter. The Sega Saturn was hotly anticipated in the United States, after the Genesis captured so many hearts stateside. We were willing to just pretend the 32X and the Sega CD never existed; we were too smitten by the notion of controlling our favorite mascots in immersive 3D environments, their avatars rendered in such luscious detail it was hard not to get aroused. We circled the date on our calendars: September 9th, 1995. 9/9/95. Every kid knew this date and could recite it like a calming psalm. Everything would be fine on 9/9/95.
…Then, for absolutely no reason, Sega pulled the most bizarre “LOL JK” moment in the history of gaming when they announced at E3 in May of that year that 9/9/95 was a made-up release date and the Saturn was actually coming out right the fuck now. Which was exciting at the time, but looking back, Sega surely could have better advertised their entry into the next generation of gaming by actually telling people the correct date it was coming out. It gave them a head start in the market, sure, but if no one knows your console is even out, it’s kind of hard to get them to buy it. Keep in mind this is before everyone got every piece of news ever published pushed directly to a supercomputer kept in their pocket; people waited for strange, arcane physical-realm publications called “magazines” for their video game news. Everything was on a 30 day delay, including the knowledge that a major gaming console was released to the public a full six months before the expected release date.
And then, there were the launch titles. I mentioned Virtua Fighter was fantastic. Panzer Dragoon was critically acclaimed. And then there was… well, actually that was about it. Conspicuously missing: Sonic the Hedgehog. You know, the reason the Genesis sold so many copies and the reason “blast processing” was ever considered actually a thing. In fact, Sonic would never get a proper release on the Saturn, unless you count rehashed collections and a Mario Kart ripoff as “proper releases” (hint: don’t.)
Botched release? A paltry, meager sum of quality launch titles? Nothing you enjoyed on Sega’s previous console? It can all be yours for the low, low price of $399! Which, adjusted to 2010 dollars, is $565.16. Asking almost $600 today-dollars for a technically inferior console to the PlayStation, which was releasing for $100 less with almost double the launch titles, with no familiar franchises of your own to hook your most inveterate user base, was a bold move.
A bold move that failed miserably, and put Sega in “kill or be killed” mode.
1. Dreamcast Pioneers Online Gaming at Blazing 56K Speeds (Not Available at Launch)
Quick: What’s the most enticing, most used, most talked about feature of the world’s most popular console, the Xbox 360? If you said Xbox Live, congratulations, you aren’t completely brain-dead. Online gaming is the killer app for consoles nowadays, and without a strong online strategy, you’re gonna get left behind (you hear that, Nintendo?) Sega saw that coming long before anyone else did, and in an era where external modems wouldn’t come out for years and would be clunky at best, Sega built a modem straight into their goddamned system. SegaNet was the first console gaming network, predating Xbox Live by three years, and PlayStation Network by seven. It was initially pay-to-play (until the Dreamcast’s demise), and considering the technology at the time, it was very serviceable.
It also served the first mainstream console MMORPG ever, Phantasy Star Online, and while it didn’t reach Azerothian levels of soul-crushing, it did claim its fair share of social lives.
While SegaNet was technically limited, there was really nothing they could do at the time besides forcing everyone to get cable or DSL, or straight up inventing FiOS. The major issue with SegaNet was that it was too little, too late. SegaNet should have been included at launch, and it wasn’t. This was strike one for a lot of cautious gamers, and given Sega’s track record, they were kind of on a one-strike system. Because of past failures, Sega was drowning in their own debt, and anything less than a colossal smash-hit was going to leave Sega bankrupt. Sega had no choice but to put all their eggs in the “Dreamcast has to set the world on fire” basket.
Other than flubbing the SegaNet launch, I’m a firm believer that Sega technically did nothing wrong with the Dreamcast; the reason it failed was because it was put out by Sega. Take a look at the other three bullet points on the list, and it’s easy to see why once loyal customers felt like scorned lovers by 1999. If the Dreamcast was going to be absolutely anything like the Saturn, the Sega CD, and the 32X, who would want any part in that? It wasn’t; in fact, the Dreamcast had processing power superior to the PlayStation 2, but at this point it didn’t matter.
Sega’s customers weren’t the only ones feeling apprehensive about diving into the Dreamcast. Electronic Arts, still one of the largest video game publishers and developers in the world, shunned the system, refusing to develop for it because of processor concerns (The PlayStation 2, notoriously one of the most difficult consoles ever to develop for, was just fine apparently.)
It’s a shame, because the Dreamcast was an amazing console with some damn-near perfect games. Soulcalibur is possibly one of the best launch titles ever, and to this day one of the finest fighters ever made. Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 finally brought Sonic to 3D and encapsulated Sonic’s speed, the game’s selling point, perfectly (the sequel was plagued by usual Sonic problems, such as stuffing the game with meaningless side characters and building out-of-place, mandatory side quests when all we want to do is go OMG fast, but alas.)
The 90s were a time of taking chances, and lots of them didn’t pay off. Almost none of Sega’s did post-Genesis. No one wanted to remain loyal to a company that had burned them so many times in the past, mishandling everything from launches to prices to technology.
And because of you asshole non-believers, the video game industry is now run by conglomerate supercorporations whose main sources of income have nothing to do with video games. Thanks, jerks!