What If Sega Were Still Rivalling Nintendo?

What if Sega Were Still Rivalling Nintendo?

I'm no nostalgist when it comes to gaming. I believe that what we're playing now, and what we will be tomorrow, surpasses the reality behind any rosy memories of previous-generation mainstays.

Technology leads experience in this medium, and truly timeless software is vanishingly scarce when you consider how much is swept away with the years. Yet in the wake of this year's E3 I've found myself reminiscing about old-school console glories. It was Nintendo's rather modest Direct broadcast that made me wonder: 'what if?'

I don't mean, 'What if these games really can save the Wii U?' That's a question that, hopefully, we're all through with asking. The Wii U will probably be fine, within its modest ambitions; if not, Nintendo certainly will be. And in Splatoon, Yoshi's Woolly World, Smash Bros., Kirby and the rest, long-serving acolytes are assured some singular, suitably platform-exclusive entertainment. Rather, I thought of Sega, and how Nintendo's present problems pale in comparison to what that company went through after the millennium passed and the PlayStation 2 began a dominance that any peer was fortunate to survive.

Sega, of course, barely survived it, and emerged as a shadow of its former self, sent running from a console market that it had once ruled as a duopoly with Nintendo. But what if it hadn't? What if Sega's classic franchises had been up there with Nintendo's at E3 2014, rejuvenated for a new generation? What if they, too, had been allowed to evolve alongside Sega's hardware?

Back in time

When the first E3 took place in May 1995, in Los Angeles, Nintendo's showing was woeful. The then-named Ultra 64 system was still in the works, so instead Nintendo used the conference — attracting some 50,000 attendees — to showcase the Virtual Boy. Which went really well for all concerned, obviously. And yet despite having headline status going into E3, Sega still managed to screw itself into second place come the conference's close.

That first E3 marked the battleground that Sony and Microsoft would be fighting on years later, and in 1995 only one company came away with applause ringing in its spokesperson's ears. It wasn't Sega. Nintendo had faltered, absolutely, but Sega didn't foresee Sony's Western charge. The Sega Saturn would launch in America before the PlayStation — both consoles were already on sale in Japan — and would retail at $US399. The PlayStation was expected to cost more on the US market. But when SCEA head Steve Race addressed those assembled, he had a surprise that marked the beginning of the end for Sega's console production. The PlayStation would sell for $US299.

The PlayStation subsequently thrashed the Saturn, while Nintendo's N64, which was revealed properly alongside Super Mario 64 at 1996's E3, occupied second place in the console race by 1997. Sega could only retain 12 per cent of the available market, splitting its resources between the creaking 16-bit Mega Drive, which Sega attempted to revitalise in the mid-1990s with the woefully misjudged power-enhancing 32X peripheral (which bombed harder than Nintendo's awful licensed games for the Philips CD-i), and the Saturn. Over $US300 million was lost on the Saturn before it was discontinued to make way for the Dreamcast.

Their 1998-born, 2001-buried Dreamcast was a wonderful machine, a future-facing console that set significant precedents: its modem was built in, something missing from Nintendo's same-gen platform, the GameCube. Yet while the aesthetically delightful GameCube sold 22 million units, and the astonishingly successful PS2 sold 150 million over its (much longer) lifetime, the Dreamcast barely shifted 11 million. The writing was on the wall for Sega's hardware line; after the dismal performance of the underpowered Saturn, perhaps this final roll of the dice should never have happened.

But happen it did, and just like the Saturn, Sega's swansong console welcomed a raft of splendid games. The popularity of Sega-branded hardware may have waned, fatally, but first-party titles showcased the company's impressive quality control. Crazy Taxi, Shenmue, Sonic Adventure, Daytona USA 2001, The Typing Of The Dead, Space Channel 5 — these were distinctly Sega by design, wonderful and weird and compelling and charming and deserving of the same praise that Nintendo's evolving franchises still enjoy. These were part of the Sega fan's identity, just as Panzer Dragoon, Virtua Fighter and NiGHTS Into Dreams had been in the Saturn's day.

Things could have been different

I can't help but wonder: 'What if the Saturn had achieved what Sega had needed it to, in order to avoid such a company-unsettling financial loss?' What if its best titles — the aforementioned trio, Treasure's Guardian Heroes, and the gorgeous platformer Astal, for instance, had found more than just a hardcore audience? Perhaps the Saturn, even as a 2D-optimised system in a 3D-centric scene, could have been a contender worthy of following the Mega Drive.

It's probably difficult for younger readers, whose first console might well have been the PS2, to appreciate just how massive the Mega Drive was. It was the dominant 16-bit console in Europe and North America, outselling the Super Nintendo — no mean feat given how the Nintendo Entertainment System had dominated before.

Its peak period, during the early 1990s, was a time of great playground divisions. Nobody rooted for both Sega and Nintendo. If you were lucky, maybe a sibling had the rival machine, so you could dip in only to decry its games as deeply inferior to the ones that you had in YOUR house. But battle lines were hardened; I genuinely had a 'Mario Sucks' button badge on my backpack as a kid, having been home-schooled on Sega hardware from the Master System onwards.

What if Sega Were Still Rivalling Nintendo?

Look at Nintendo's E3 of 2014: Link, Mario, Kirby, Donkey Kong. These enduring mascots have been part of the company's roster for decades, and the Super Nintendo had several homes for them. Nowadays, Sonic is a part of the Nintendo family too. But his latest titles, Sonic Boom: Rise Of Lyric (Wii U) and Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal (3DS), are set to exist in the shadows of Nintendo-originated releases. That more column inches have been devoted to the introduction of a peculiar new character to the Sonic series, Sticks the jungle badger (whatever one of those is), than anything to do with how the game plays is indication enough of press enthusiasm for contemporary Sonic. Super Mario 3D World, it ain't.

Sega's biggest title at E3 2014 was one that the media was already very familiar with. Alien: Isolation is rightfully getting fans of the sci-fi film series very excited, as it hopes to capture the original 1979 movie's intense atmosphere in an interactive medium. Should it succeed, it will rank as one of the very best Alien games ever made. Another came out for the Mega Drive: its Probe-developed port of Alien 3 was a thrilling action-platformer set against the clock — fail to find the embryo-impregnated inmates before the time was up and… pop!

I played that game to death (literally, as the cartridge just won't register anymore) alongside a raft of others comprising an astounding catalogue. Streets Of Rage and its evergreen sequel of 1992, perhaps the best side-scrolling beat 'em up of all time (yeah, Final Fight, whatever); Treasure's frenetic shooter (read: impossible for a 13-year-old) Gunstar Heroes; Codemasters' top-down racer Micro Machines and EA's Hang-On-with-weapons Road Rash; Virgin Interactive's incredibly colourful adaptation of Disney's Aladdin; and the arcade basketball brilliance of NBA Jam.

Not all of that was exclusive to Sega, of course. But the Mega Drive was the choice of platform to properly get the most from recommended third-party titles. Or, at least, that's how it was to those in the Sega camp. I mean, really: why play FIFA International Soccer on anything else but the Mega Drive's game-perfect three-button pad? Yes, the SNES had Street Fighter II first, but you were a lucky kid indeed to have parents who'd pay £65 to take it home from Woolworths. Suffice to say that most of the people doing several paper rounds in a week where I grew up were SNES owners.

What if...?

What if Streets Of Rage was as in demand for a comeback as Metroid? Where does the series rest, today? And could it return? A demo version of Streets Of Rage for the Dreamcast is said to have existed, and as recently as 2013 Sega was approached by Backbone Entertainment to properly bring the franchise back (concept art is available here). Sega didn't bite.

To the company's credit, Sega's third E3 2014 highlight represents something of a risk, as they're taking rhythm-action title Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F 2nd to the West. "It's our turn to believe in you once more", says the official blurb behind the game's North American launch for PS3 and Vita. But just as Nintendo fans clamour for a new F-Zero, so the Sega audience of old is ever eager for its favourites: comments beneath Sega's own E3 blog entry ask after more Western Yakuza releases, Phantasy Star, and inevitably for a conclusion to Yo Suzuki's epic Shenmue. There's evidently an appetite for reviving these Sega classics. Sega might do well to believe in these faithful followers, too.

So here I am, in my dreams, fantasising about a new Streets Of Rage, a new NiGHTS, even the remote possibility of the next Shenmue. Where would they live among today's gaming heavyweights? Who can say. But if Nintendo can earn accolades aplenty for showing some frames of Link loosing a few arrows, imagine how nuts the Mario Sucks brigade would go if Axel Hunter and Blaze Fielding were shown beating down an errant street punk in glorious HD come E3 2015. Streets Of Rage 2 has long crystallised — but isn't it time to see how they work in the context of the present day?

What if Sega's tomorrow was even brighter than its heyday of 25 years ago? Or, at least, it showed a few more signs of life. There's no console on the line, so surely there's at least some scope for risk-taking. It doesn't need to be the revival of a retired series, it doesn't have to be a new Shenmue — but couldn't we have something more than another Sonic to reawaken the Sega fanatics that many of us once were?

Hell, a greying fanboy at heart can hope, right?


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This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.


Comments

    We may see more games and better effort from Nintendo, if they had that is.

    I recently read Console Wars, and while it seems to be based on Tom Kalinske's recollections which sometimes didn't agree with the official history, it seems that the main thing that killed Sega was pride.

    Sega of Japan didn't want to work with Sony (Sega of America tried to work together with Sony after Nintendo screwed them at CES) or Silicon Graphics (Sega of America approached SGI before the Nintendo 64), Sega of Japan was jealous of the success of Sega of America (Genesis was selling better than the SNES in the US, while the opposite was true in Japan), and individuals like Yuji Naka (the creator of Sonic) just didn't play well with others.

    Would really be interesting if Sega had worked together with a partner to come up with an awesome hardware platform at the time of the Saturn, would have totally changed gaming in the late 90s.. and it might have been Nintendo leaving the console business rather than Sega.

    Its peak period, during the early 1990s, was a time of great playground divisions
    Damn straight, I remember the days arguing with my friends in a MegaDrive vs SNES battle. The only reason I bought the Megadrive was that it came with Mortal Kombat that had blood in it. The SNES version used water or sweat instead, that splurted each time a character was hit instead of blood. The fatailities werent in the SNES version. Otherwise I would have gone SNES for the sake of Mario. Plus I felt the 6 button Megadrive controller was better for Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat as I was more into fighting games than anything else. Those were the days I tell you. I still pray for a day that Sega get back into the hardware game and come out with a new console. Loved Virtua fighter and virtua racing from back in the day as well.

    I disagree with your assertion that Mario Sucks, YOU SUCK :-P

    As a kid I used to draw pictures of Sonic beating up Mario because I was a Sega boy with my Master System and my Mega Drive.

    Then I got a Super Nintendo and realised how good Mario games were too and gave up on my Sonic vs Mario hobby.

    So now I should draw Sonic crying and begging to die as he is strung up like a puppet and forced to participate in yet another half arsed game while Mario is stressed to his eyeballs from appearing in too many genres, he just wants a day off, a little break to rest his moustache.

      "...he just wants a day off, a little break to rest his moustache."

      He even tried that in Sunshine and look how that turned out...

    Great read. Took me right down Nostalgia Lane.

    I may have been Sega, but I never said Nintendo sucked. I wasn't that naive I experienced Nintendo first and loved the Sega Arcade experience.

    I would love Sega to make a new E-Swat, and Streets of Rage. Heck I would love a new Golden Axe. I'd settle for HD versions of these games if they just don't screw them up. For some reason the Turtles Arcade a long time favourite of mine got slowed down in it's HD remake which for me killed it.

    Also yes I'd like a new Road Rash (EA didn't always suck) game too. In fact a game like the RPG-like Wonderboy in Monster Land (The Mega Drive version) would be great. Heck 2D Sonics in the vein of the 2D Mario games would be awesome. The worst thing about the new Sonic Games is not playing Sonic for most of the game. I'm thinking the Wii U would be the console of choice as you'd need to go split screen for the high speed bits and the Wii U has a screen in the Controller.

    NiGHTs re-released would be great, heck Virtua On and Fighting Vipers from the Saturn are still great games. Shame I've never quite found a Control scheme as good as the Saturns. I didn't learn twin stick so it's hard for me to adapt. Shenmue re-released and finished would please a lot of fans.

    The problem is Sega can't really afford to take the risks for these games as retail copies, I know people would buy and re-play Shenmue to finish it, but you probably only want a Digital release to prevent it sitting around on shelves.

      Road Rash is being redone for the HD crowd I do believe. Not sure but it might've been on kickstarter a while ago?

    Even though my first console (not counting my Spectrum) was a Mega Drive I always felt Sega were always pushing their 'mascots' too hard and they never reached the heights of Nintendo's equivalent. Although they're completely different games that shouldn't be compared, Sonic will always play second fiddle to Mario. Ecco the Dolphin was for some reason the greatest thing in computer games for a year but I never understood the appeal and it's been lost in video game history. When it came to their main mascot, the games weren't overly new or exciting like Mario 64 was, hell, the best Sonic game since Sonic 3 was Sonic 4.

    As it is, Sega simply fell down because they failed to recognise that the industry changes and didn't take Sony seriously. You could level the same at Nintendo with the Wii U, in some ways the Wii U is similar to the Dreamcast: low take up, the people who own one swear by it but the mainstream simply isn't buying it. Granted, Nintendo have the financial clout that Sega didn't so they won't have to drastically change their company, but the warning signs are there: stick with your guns and remain convinced that things will turn around or turn around, have a look at what the consumer base is wanting and asking for and adapt.

    All said and done, I still have a blast playing my Megadrive games. Streets Of Rage, Gauntlet 4, Micro Machines (how I wish I had 4 controllers and 3 friends willing to come round and play it when I was a kid), Shinobi, Road Rash..pure gameplay. Unfortunately (in some ways) the gaming industry moved on from those days and Sega didn't

      I prefer Sonic to Mario, provided we compare Sonic 1, 2, 3 & Knuckles to Mario 1, 2, 3, All Stars and Super Mario World. That being said those Mario games where still awesome.

      Like you I never understood Echo the Dolphin as this great game.

      Also I'd like a Ranger X sequel or HD Re-release that game was just awesome, I played it so very much.

    we need a Guardian Heroes re-release and a power stone re-release. PLEASE!!!!!!!!!

      Don't forget about Virtual On!

      If and when they get their asses in gear a release of phantasy star online 2 outside of japan would be nice :)

    I was a Nintendo fan when I was a kid....The only games on Master System and Mega Drive I would play at my friends house was

    Alex Kidd in Miracle World on the Master System
    Olympic Gold, Road Rash Series, Mortal Kombat and Skitchin' on the Mega Drive

    Other than that...NES and SNES I think had a better line up of games....I can remember on a friday afternoon after school - My dad would take me to the local shops, get fish and chips and I would go to the local video games shop and borrow a SNES game for the night or the weekend...I would get home, call my friend (who was a Sega fan) tell him I have a new game...and he would be at my front door before I could hang up the phone

    I don’t know how many unsold WiiU’s are floating around that can be sold off at a loss, but I’m betting it takes more bargain bin sales and the new Zelda game in 2015 before the WiiU gets near the Dreamcast’s 10.6m sales. It’s still a LONG way behind.

    I loved Sega growing up, but instead of rose coloured glasses looking back I get the idea that they were more style over substance. Sony really stole their thunder as the “cool” platform in the back half of the 90’s and Sega never recovered.
    Sega’s bread-and-butter was the short, shallow but tremendously fun arcade titles. While they did make some great epics (Shenmue!) I think the death of the arcade hurt them as much as anything. Once arcade’s were no longer the pinnacle of gaming and Sega couldn’t sell their consoles as ‘an arcade in your home’ they really lost all momentum.

    I still have a lot of great memories of their titles though.

      The interesting thing is Sega was prepared to salvage what they could of the company and develop for other platforms rather than letting it all go down the toilet. Plenty of companies have only prolonged their death by continuing on where Sega is one of the few to make a sensible decision.

      How long can Nintendo hold out? They keep on regurgitating the same IP back when the SNES was big and to me it's just not enough to keep them in the console race.

      Should they abandon consoles, stick to handhelds, and put out games for PC (Steam), XBLA, and PSN? Innovation might suffer but then again the Playstation has been around a long time and the number one peripheral in the humble controller/gamepad just hasn't gone through much in the way of evolution, and yet I don't hear anyone complaining.

      I reckon the WiiU will hit 10m before the end of the year - the bigger problem for them though is that second 10m - without 3rd party support I just don't know where it's coming from

    To a lot of the people above calling for certain games to get re - releases, a lot of them have. Virtua On, Daytona USA, Fighting Vipers, Guardian Heroes, NiGHTS and more have all seen digital HD releases on XBLA/PSN.

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