The platform wars of the late eighties and early nineties divided a generation. We’ve had; The Stones or The Beatles, Coke or Pepsi now it was Sega or Nintendo, Sonic or Mario.
It was Nintendo, they dominated their rivals again and again. They had the must have games; Zelda, Mario, Donkey Kong and Duck Hunt. Sega’s original figurehead, a small boy chomping on a hamburger didn’t really cut the mustard. However the bigwigs at S H.Q had something their competitors didn’t – speed and in Sonic a mascot to go head to head with the mustachioed plumber. The blue hedgehog was the shot in the arm they needed, a much called for injection of kinetic energy.
Sonic and Sega where synonymous with excitement, a slapdash approach to gaming. Fun, frantic and furious. Unfortunately not everyone wanted short sharp moments of madness: The Nintendo Entertainment System trounced The Master System in the battle for supremacy, despite a pause button on the console it wasn’t enough. Nintendo won a paltry 13 million to a jaw dropping 62.
They went toe toe, mirroring each other at every turn. The Game Boy went up against the Game Gear and once again Sega took a beating. A respectable eleven million units shifted looked good on paper but put up against Nintendo’s 100 + it looked less so, Sega’s machine was more powerful, featuring better graphics and sound quality however to factors stood against it. One the battery life was abysmal and two: The Game Boy had Tetris… Even the genius accessory of a TV tuner, allowing the owner to watch television on the handheld, was not enough to save it from a hammering.
Round one was lost, however the war raged on. The counter offensive was on and The Mega Drive went toe to toe with the Super Nintendo.
Sega had their schooling in arcade machines and it showed as classic after classic was transported to the 16 bit wonder. Side scrolling beat em up such as Golden Axe and Streets of Rage became instant hits with their pick up and play value, the added excitement of the ability for a second human controlled character added extra joy to the proceedings. Conversions kept on coming; After Burner got a sequel and Outrun got a remake, new ideas where needed and in 1990 Sega AM1, 2 and 3 where founded. Short for Amusement Research the three divisions turned out some hits like; Virtua Racing, Sword of Vermilion and Super Hang On, with their arcade pedigree they would be at the fore front of the Saturn’s and Dreamcast’s production team.
Even with all the new departments Nintendo decimated the competition, it was closer this time but Mario and Co outsold Sonic and his buddies by about 20 million. The gap had been closed, it was all about the next generation, could Sega draw level? Overtake their arch nemesis perhaps? The next stage was crucial the battle lines had been drawn in the sand.
Nintendo opted to take a step back, instead of developing a 32 bit machine like the Saturn or the Playstation they missed a generation and went straight for 64bit with the unimaginatively tilted Nintendo64. Sega went down the opposite route, releasing add-ons for the Mega Drive in the shape of the 32X and the Mega CD. While these where interesting devices they clearly drew focus and development away from the next stand alone console, a few classics like Virtua Fighter were available but these devices where for the hardcore fans only.
Some money earned but personal and time taken away from the Saturn, this was to be key as Sony wiped the floor with Sega’s machine: 100 million to 10. Failure after failure caused widespread ignominy; Releasing the console before the main competitor was a fine idea, failing to tell anyone and only having a few titles available was, to put it mildly, stupid. Costing about £100 more than Sony’s machine did not help, likewise lack of adverts, promotions and any marketing strategy cost more than one job.
That is not to say the Saturn was an inferior, a whole host of incredible games where available on Sega’s flagship device. Exclusives like the Panzer Dragoon series, Steep Slope Sliders, Athlete Kings, Die Hard Arcade, Virtua Cop, Sega Rally, Virtual On, Burning Rangers, Shining Force 3 and of course Nights could only be found on Sega’s bundle of fun. Unfortunately the mass hysteria of Sony’s advertising campaign meant very few even noticed.
The Saturn was at it’s best when producing 2D environments, bright colors and dazzling effects, however no one wanted only two dimensions in this brave new world. Games like Guardian Heroes, Metal Slug and the like looked phenomenal,they were however not what the masses wanted. They wanted the next stage in evolution and when it came to 3D there was graphically not much to choose from between the two systems.
Both Resident Evil and Tomb Raider where available on both pieces of hardware yet once again this was known only to the select few.
However the demise of Sega is a strange affair, the Saturn was not a bad piece of kit and had many outstanding games however Sony’s mass marketing worked wonders and the casual gamer was born. Content to buy every years version of Fiffa, Call Of Duty and the ilk the actual gems like Panzer Dragon Saga where sadly overlooked.
This would happen again in the next generation despite several groundbreaking moments from Sega, step forward the Dreamcast. Released at the tail end of 1998 in Japan and 1999 in Europe this console was to be Sega’s swansong. The classics kept on coming; Shenmue, Skies of Arcadia, Crazy Taxi, Virtua Tennis, Jet Set Radio, Metropolis Street Racer, House of the Dead 2, Samba De Amigo and Phantasy Star Online all deserve immense praise yet most are lost to the mists of time.
The Dreamcast had online capabilities, you could browse the web or pit wits against your friends in games like Quake- this was new to the home consoles and had previously been a PC only extravaganza. Another first was the memory card, not just a device to store your saved files but a console all to itself. A small screen would let you play mini games, show a world map or let you inspect your item list. Fishing rods instead of controllers, maracas to play rhythm games with. Again and again the boffins at Sega HQ came up with gadgets and gizmos galore and again and again they were overlooked by a generation of gamers.
Up against the original Playstation, The Nintendo64 and lateral the sensibly named Playstaion2 the new piece of kit floundered in the market. New strategies were tried as football clubs; Arsenal, Sampdoria, Deportivo and Saint Eienne played the beautiful game with Dreamcast emblazoned across their shirts. This failed to help as once again a measly 10 million units where shifted. Compered to the Playstation twos 150 this was laughable.
Sega were now finished, their audience had moved on, arcade games were a thing of the past. Story and longevity the buzz words for a new era, however maybe all is not lost as a lot of thirty to forty year olds will be waking up looking for a quick burst of fast and frantic action before it is time to put the kids on the school bus.
Sega for a renaissance? Why the hell not?