Monday, January 3, 2011

Sega Scrutiny Begins: The History of Genesis

Even the logo was awesome.

Welcome to my new blog, Sega Scrutiny, a place where I can rant and rave about the Sega Genesis and its games. To those across the pond you know it as the Sega Mega Drive, but no matter what you call it this system is loaded with 16-bit action and is obviously one of my favorites or I wouldn't be writing this. As the runner up of the 16-bit console war a lot of younger gamers I've met seem to dislike the Genesis or go so far as to believe it outright sucks. I believe the Genesis has its own unique style that makes it appeal to me more than the SNES and I hope to change some people's opinions and preconceptions or at least introduce them to excellent games they may not have known about.

In the future this space will (hopefully) be filled with reviews and musings on Sega's most successful console and occasionally thoughts on the video game industry in general. What better way to start than talking about the Sega Genesis itself and the epic console war that set the standard for developer competition.

But to get to the Genesis we should start at the beginning with its chief competitor. It all began with Nintendo and its now legendary Famicom, or Nintendo Entertainment System for us westerners. Everyone knows the story by now. Atari had conquered its competition and subsequently drove the video game industry into the dirt with a deluge of absolutely terrible games. The honeymoon period was over for Atari, people grew tired of it and it seemed for a brief moment that the lasting appeal of video games was nothing more than a fleeting fad.

Nintendo and Sega had dabbled with rudimentary consoles as well, though they never saw the light of day outside of Japan. Nintendo would release its new console, the Family Computer, or Famicom, in Japan at the exact wrong time when the video game industry was in the process of taking a sharp nose dive. It made perfect sense they would try and market the system as a computer instead though the thing still looked sort of toy-like and nothing like the NES we would come to know.

Sure it was a waste of plastic but it looked cool and that's what truly matters.

The graphics were a step up from what people were used to on a home console and the invention of the directional pad supplanted the joy-stick as king. It offered a simple and ingenious solution to the awkward play control that most home video games suffered from up until this point.

Nintendo wanted this thing to be big and as such they went to Atari hoping to make a deal with them to manufacture their Famicom in the United States. Atari was near death at this point and waved the offer. This mistake would cause them to go under and to this day it's still amazing to wonder what might have been if Atari had teamed up with Nintendo. The decision seemed sound at the time. Video games were dead. Producing a new video game console seemed like a sure way to go out of business which adds to the irony here.

Nintendo was determined though. They knew they had something because the Famicom's popularity was simply electric in Japan and they decided to push ahead and produce the new console in the States by themselves. The market had crashed so they had nearly zero competition and a product superior to everyone else. In retrospect it was the perfect time to strike with a product like the Famicom.

But how? The toy-looking Famicom just looked like another Atari console clone and nobody was in the market for that. Smartly, Nintendo decided for a total redesign which is how we came to get the giant gray front-loading brick called the Nintendo Entertainment System. Though the front-loading mechanism turned out to be a bit of a curse when it came to actually getting games to work compared to the much simpler top-loading Famicom, the system's very VCR-like appearance and even the name "Entertainment System" set it apart from everyone else and was a brilliant marketing strategy.

Appearance was only a small part of their success story however, and Nintendo who had previously rocked the arcade scene with hits like Donkey Kong knew how important software would be to their success. They got their golden child, Shigeru Miyamoto to produce what would become the most successful game in the history of video games. That's right, Super Mario Bros.

The modern video game industry is born.

Showcasing the superior graphics and gameplay of the NES they went so far as to pack in this killer app with the NES itself for free and it became an instant sensation. You couldn't keep the NES on the shelves. Nintendo had both resurrected and dominated the video game industry and would continue to be an unstoppable juggernaut for many years to come. On top of this they aimed to avoid the same flood of terrible software that killed its competitors by issuing a "seal of approval" to all games released for its system. I'm not exactly sure what the standards were since a lot of terrible games received this seal but it's the thought that counts. The main idea was to restore consumer confidence.

Sometime next year Sega would reappear in the form of the Mark 3, also known as the Master System. It took aim at the NES with better graphics and the same gimmicks that made Nintendo's console such a smash hit. It gained some popularity in Europe and South America among other places but it never hit it off in the United States thanks to poor marketing and the lack of support from excellent third party game developers like Konami and Capcom that Nintendo forced to sign exclusive deals. In Japan it was just total Famicom domination. By this point Nintendo had already blossomed into a bit of an evil empire that would hold the video game industry in a stranglehold for as long as it could. They were number one and they intended to stay that way by any means necessary. Their rather poor treatment of third-part developers during this era would also come back to bite them in the ass in the future.

At least they love you in Brazil?

Sega realized what they had with the Master System wasn't bad, but they hit a wall against an enemy equipped with better marketing and a massive and faithful user base. This is where the Mega Drive finally comes in. In 1988 Sega would unfurl upon Japan a powerful 16-bit system with an at-the-time lightning fast processor that technologically blew the NES out of the water. They didn't wait around for Nintendo to up the ante, instead taking the initiative to do it themselves and move forward to a new generation of games. The NES was falling more and more behind what was possible in the arcades at the time while the Mega Drive promised to deliver the arcade experience at home.

Now we're cooking with gas. The sexiest looking console ever.

Despite all of this, the Mega Drive performed poorly in sales. Nintendo's venerable little Famicom was just that powerful and ubiquitous. The Mega Drive games looked better and sounded better but were they really that much better? At around two-hundred bucks people weren't really flocking to the new and untried console just yet no matter how impressive it looked. Sega sought help from the CEO of their American branch, Michael Katz, to try and move some systems for them. This would result in one of the most aggressive and most successful marketing campaigns of all time. As a side note, the system had to be renamed Genesis in North America due to Mega Drive already being trademarked by another company. It was a fitting title signifying a new beginning for the company.

"Genesis does what Nintendon't" was the battle cry of of Sega ads across the country. Meaningless phrases like "blast processing" cropped up to emphasize the new console's power and commercials outright mocked the age and obsolescence of the NES. The main target was a teenage audience, the kids who had grown since playing the NES. They tried to make the old system look like a toy in comparison. The Genesis could probably be credited with the birth of "gamers." It was tailored to the emerging demographic of people who took video games more seriously and wanted a "hardcore" experience. Games were already moving from a distraction to a real hobby and Sega was itching to cater to that crowd. It went after people who appreciated a more arcade-accurate experience. The system even looked cool, powerful and more mature with it's circular design and black and red color-scheme. If you wanted to be cool in the video game scene in the early 90's you had to jump on the Genesis bandwagon.

Adding to that games with celebrity likenesses were released to draw in fresh blood. Games like Michael Jackson's Moonwalker and Joe Montana Football to name a few.

It still wasn't enough even though Sega was gaining ground and their new 16-bit powerhouse was at least doing better in the US than it was back in its home country of Japan where it would continue to languish against the Famicom's insurmountable popularity.

As thanks for all his hard work Michael Katz was given the boot by Sega who disliked his marketing tactics (which goes to show you why the Mega Drive did so poorly in Japan) and they replaced him with Tom Kalinske. I imagine they were probably annoyed that their flashy new hardware was still losing to Nintendo's archaic system as well. Luckily Kalinske was equally if not even more savvy than Katz and knew what to do to finally dethrone Nintendo. He knew very little about video games but everything about business which put him at the right perspective to get Sega on track in the west.

Nintendo's Mario having evolved into a real phenomenon had not gone unnoticed by Sega but their attempts to create a mascot with games like Alex Kidd had failed in the past. This time Sega put all of their best creative minds together to produce Sonic the Hedgehog, a platformer that showcased all of the system's strengths. Sonic took advantage of its graphics, its sound and especially its incredible speed that aimed to make Mario look like he was standing still. The game's main character, the titular Sonic, was a well designed and memorable spiky blue guy with a rebellious attitude designed to appeal to Sega's teen demographic and personify the company's cool-guy image. The graphics were amazing and set the standard for what the Genesis could do and most important of all it was incredibly fun.

Move over fat-boy.

This game was designed to be Sega's killer app and the jaws of the Japanese executives all hit the floor when Kalinske suggested they pack the new game they had worked so hard on in with the Genesis for free. The current pack-in, Altered Beast, was a not-so-good arcade port of a not-so-great arcade game and Kalinske understood that what Nintendo did with Mario before Sega had to do with Sonic now. The mascot would sell the system by being a memorable brand icon and leave an excellent first impression with those who just bought a brand new Genesis.

On top of that Kalinske asked for a price drop on the system in order to get it in the hands of consumers who they could make money on with software sales later. He planned on continuing the aggressive advertising style practiced by Katz and also set up a US based Sega development team in order to create games more suited for American audiences.

Sega's board of directors wanted to hang this crazy American but CEO Hayao Nakayama wisely approved his plans and the rest is history.

Almost overnight Sonic the Hedgehog became a sensation and was every-bit the household name and pop-culture icon that Nintendo's chubby plumber was. Nintendo was beaten back and their vice grip on the industry and its developers began to weaken. Sega's gamble had paid off. They gained 55% of the home console market and were now number one. Nintendo had seemed omnipresent and unbeatable but now that their NES had overstayed its welcome and their old competitor had usurped the empire. Times were changing.

But like a phoenix rising from the ashes Nintendo would strike back with their own 16-bit offering, the Super Famicom or Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Having more time to work on it the SNES had even better graphics and sound (not that some Genesis titles still wouldn't have better music) than the Genesis but arguably not as much speed which is what kept action gamers glued to their Sega systems.

Seriously guys, what was wrong with the original design?

Unlike Sega they didn't go for the hardcore gamer demographic and continued doing what they did best. Mario of course had his hit outings and all of Nintendo's hit franchises would make brilliant 16-bit comebacks while new franchises were invented. They had quite an advantage with their ability to build off of an already established and well loved history, something they continue to take advantage of today. The did suffer a few initial miss-steps like an awkward western redesign of the already attractive Super Famicom and couldn't topple Sega's continued dominance among the teenage demographic because the Genesis continued to be perceived as the cooler of the two systems thanks to Sega's brilliant marketing.

Though Sega would keep the number one seat for a fair amount of time Nintendo eventually chipped away at their dominance partially thanks to superior versions of multi-console games and sequels to beloved NES titles. Nintendo continued pounding out classic titles that could only be found on its system and despite the superior speed of the Genesis people began to praise the technical prowess of the SNES instead. Sega tried to stay ahead with technical leaps like the Mega-CD/Sega-CD, an add on that played compact disc format games which allowed for much better audio and storage space. It was certainly ahead of its time but never quite caught on.

Another way Sega posed itself as the more mature system was by putting more gory, violent and controversial games on its console. Nintendo shied away from this in attempt to maintain a family oriented image. This furthered the perception that the Genesis was for older and more mature gamers.

This difference was typified with the release of Mortal Kombat, an extremely popular arcade fighting game with copious amounts of blood and violent finishing moves where you killed opponents in horrifying ways. Nintendo censored this by making the blood into sweat and replacing some of the more brutal fatality finishers. This eliminated the reason the game was popular in the first place and players ran to the Genesis version which was uncensored through the use of a "blood code".

Sure it's not a great game but it proved Nintendo was for wussies.

Unfortunately the violence depicted in this game caused a public outcry that even managed to reach the congress of the United States in a fit of paranoia and overreaction. As a concession Sega created the Videogame Rating Council, or VRC for short, which functioned like movie ratings do to let consumers and especially parents know what the content of the game includes. This is historically significant as it's the first example of a video game rating system and the precursor to today's ESRB and other rating systems.

As the twilight of the two consoles was nearing Nintendo had succeeded in recapturing its crown though the Genesis was not going anywhere and was still extremely popular in the United States among other regions where it generated more revenue than the SNES. It was especially popular in Brazil where the Master System had also enjoyed a high degree of popularity and held 75% of that nation's market share. The SNES would eventually overtake the Genesis in sales after the release of its graphics intensive Donkey Kong Country and Genesis production being discontinued two-years before the SNES in favor of the Saturn.

Coming full circle, it was brilliant marketing that had given the Genesis life and in the end it would be terrible marketing that would kill it. Constant bickering between Sega of America and the home office in Japan and failed gimmicks to extend the console's life-span like the 32X add-on as well as a glut of other mediocre peripherals caused all sorts of chaos and consumer confusion that ultimately hurt their next generation offering, the Sega Saturn. Sony stepped in with their Playstation expecting to compete with Sega but ended taking its place when everything fell apart. Except for a brief flicker of hope during the era of the Dreamcast, Sega would never again be a driving force in the console market.

The Frankenstein's monster that killed Sega. What were they thinking?

The 16-bit console wars also included contenders like NEC's PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 but for the most part everyone remembers the slug fest between Sega and Nintendo. While the SNES ultimately probably holds claim to more titles with a "classic" status and overall ended up being the victor of a long and wild war the Genesis always stuck in there and put up a good fight for a reason. It's a fantastic system with some of the best action games of all time. Many amazing titles on the Genesis continue to go overlooked and deserve to be given the same reverence as some SNES counterparts. Other than the Genesis remaining one of my favorite consoles of all time this is part of the reason I created this blog. You can expect to see some bias but don't get me wrong, I love the SNES as well.

So there you have it. I hope you'll enjoy taking this ride with me through one of the video game industry's most important generations and the golden age of Sega.

1 comment:

  1. I only got to play the Mega Drive when we were visiting a friend, and although I absolutely loved Sonic, I'm afraid it's the SNES for me all the way. We actually had three SNES systems in my house and my sister even made the mistake of buying the awful N64 (though I have to admit we both enjoyed many wasted hours playing Banjo-Kazooie). I also loved the Gamecube, became slightly disenchanted when it broke, and have yet to fully engage with the Wii. I think I'll always prefer classic consoles to the new generations.