To a collector of classic video games, there's no sight sadder than a shattered Sega jewel case.
If you ever owned a Sega CD or a Sega Saturn, you know the packaging those totally '90s CD-ROM games came in: A double-tall, double-thick plastic jewel case, with ample room for a large manual and multiple discs.
They were beautiful. They also broke all the time, at the slightest impact. And since they were only ever produced during the 1990s, you couldn't buy replacement ones - until now.
It's taken decades for anyone to offer a solution. What's surprising is that now there are two. One is coming from the publisher Limited Run Games; the other is from a collector in Alaska.
After personally fretting for years about the lack of Sega CD game cases, both parties thought they'd corner the market on these obscure supplies. Then they found out that, against all odds, they had competition. Now there's a war over who gets to replace everyone's cracked Sonic CD cases.
The infamous fragility of the Sega jewel cases is a product of the evolution of video game packaging - and the way that we make collectibles out of things that were meant to be disposable. These cases weren't built for a decades-long lifespan, lined up on bookshelves, trading hands over and over.
These cases were all supposed to be in the trash by now. They weren't made for a collector's shelf. They were made to help sell copies of games that were released not on silicon chips in sturdy plastic cartridges, but on fragile compact discs.
As the 1980s came to a close, the advent of CD-ROM gaming meant that publishers had to rethink how their products were packaged. In Japan, the land of extreme miniaturisation, it was hardly even a question.
CD games for the PC Engine, Sega CD, and Sega Saturn were simply sold in standard jewel cases, the same as music CDs. Sony had an optional thicker case that could be used for games with larger manuals, but mostly just used standard-sized cases as well.
In the U.S., it was a different story. It was the era of the "big box" PC game, and publishers wanted their game packaging to be large and in charge. Japanese retail stores' narrow aisles and tiny footprints meant shoppers could get up close and personal with the small boxes and look at the minutely detailed art.
Outside Japan, games were often on a shelf behind a counter or locked in a case, so you had to be able to see them from far away, or so the thinking went.
Games for 1990's TurboGrafx-CD, the first CD-ROM system to be released in America, were placed into a standard jewel case that was then placed into a taller cardboard box. When it was released two years later, the Sega CD initially followed suit with the jewel-case-in-cardboard concept. But after its first year, it eliminated the wasteful box-in-a-box packaging and went with a unique design solution, a big plastic jewel case.
(L-R) PlayStation, Sega CD, and Sega Saturn games in the "longbox" jewel cases.Photo: Chris Kohler (Kotaku)
Even though the case design was only ever used to hold video games, the patent for it doesn't mention them at all. Instead, the patent filed on May 14, 1993 by the Digital Audio Disc Corporation simply describes a "storage case for accommodating a plurality of compact discs as well as a relatively thick printed booklet" that was "of relatively simple construction and assembly."
Since the Digital Audio Disc Corporation, the first U.S. manufacturer of CDs, was a subsidiary of Sony, that meant that Sega was buying its jewel cases from the company that would soon become its rival in the gaming space. (In fact, the earliest games for PlayStation also used these cases.)
The cases, and the resultant Sega CD packaging, were impressive things. The tall manuals (which thanks to the clear front of the case pulled double duty as the games' front cover art) could be used to display beautiful packaging art, especially when publishers like Working Designs added foil and embossed text to them. The thickness of the cases meant that the spines could be easily read, so those spines displayed the game's logos.
These games looked good when lined up on a shelf.
The only problem was, sometimes it seemed they'd break if you so much as looked at them. While every part of the cheap styrene cases were subject to cracking, there were two major pain points. The case was so tall that the front cover had little support if it was pressed on.
It was prone to splitting down the middle, leaving a big crack across the pretty cover art. More annoyingly, the hinges that allowed the front cover to swivel open were large and thin and would often shatter, meaning the two halves of the case would no longer stay together.
Over the decades that followed, as classic CD video games transitioned from disposable consumer product to highly valued collectible, the Sega CD cases, now generally referred to as "longboxes," started becoming the collector's bane.
You didn't want your $US500 ($641) copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga displayed in a cracked jewel case, and it was impossible to buy replacements. You could, as many did, swap the case with a game of lesser value, but that still leaves you with a broken case on your shelf.
As collectors started buying and selling games on eBay, putting them into the careful, tender affections of the United States Postal Service, more and more cases broke. Ask any collector, and they will tell you a story of buying a mint case on eBay that was packaged in a bubble mailer and arrived in a hundred jagged shards.
Replacing a longbox case meant buying the cheapest game you could, like Madden 98 for the Sega Saturn, cannibalising it for its case, and then selling it inside the broken one you were replacing.
A common sight for game collectors: a plastic Sega CD jewel case that was shattered in the mail.Photo: Chris Kohler (Kotaku)
Soon, even the "cheap games" started to become expensive, and collectors started looking at what it would cost to produce a new run of cases. Since the original cases were the property of Sony and not available to order, that meant that new molds would have to be made before a single new case could be manufactured.
Up-front costs might run thousands of dollars. That was where almost everyone gave up. In 2013, two Ohio collectors who ran a video game repair company got as far as preparing a draft of a Kickstarter campaign in the hopes of raising $US150,000 ($192,238) to make new cases, and noted at the time that the molds would actually cost them $US170,000 ($217,870) to make.
But after a lukewarm reaction by collectors to the proposed price of $US10 ($13) per case, they never took the campaign live.
Chris, a collector living in Alaska who asked that we not use his last name, was another one of the would-be entrepreneurs who'd looked into doing a run of Sega cases.
"I started collecting probably eight years ago," he said. "Finished my Sega CD collection. I live in Alaska, so I had a bunch of broken hinges on my cases and obviously there was no way to replace them.
I looked into having some made in the U.S. after a couple of years when I had built up a little bit of money and the prices were just way too much to make it economical," he said. The U.S. suppliers were quoting him prices of five to eight dollars per case just for manufacturing.
About two years ago, Chris had a thought: What about China? The Internet was making it possible for even smaller manufacturers, or individuals such as himself, to make contact with Chinese suppliers. When he began to investigate potential vendors, the prices he was being quoted for the molds were vastly lower - about $US8,000 ($10,253) total, he said - and once the moulds were made, he saw that he could get cases made for only a dollar each, and another dollar each to have them shipped from China to the U.S.
That made a lot more sense, and he decided to go for it and invest the money he'd been saving up.
Periodically, Chris would Google search to see if anybody else had the same idea he did. He'd search for "replacement Sega CD cases," but he'd never find anything. So he felt comfortable sending his money to China in the middle of last year.
"They started the run," he recalled. "A couple weeks later, 'Hey, we're sending out samples, let us know what you think and we'll start the run.' OK, fantastic. Just as a habit, I Googled it one more time ... and found this YouTube video."
The video was of a retro gamer talking about how the publisher Limited Run Games had just announced that they'd be making new Sega jewel cases.
"All of a sudden, my stomach just drops."
Josh Fairhurst was also a Sega Saturn collector, and he, too, had been thinking about making some new cases for many years.
"I remember bringing a copy of Guardian Heroes over to a friend's house, and I actually had the case slip out of my hand," he said. The game, made by the acclaimed developer Treasure, was hard to find and worth about $US100 ($128) back in 2012, when he dropped it.
"It fell about one foot to the ground, and the hinge snapped. Just, boom, broke off. And it got me thinking whether there was an option for replacement Saturn cases."
Fairhurst, who was then working at the development studio he co-founded, Mighty Rabbit Studios, found out what all collectors did: There were no replacement cases. He started scooping up the cheapest games he could - NBA Action 98 was his go-to — and swapping out cases.
But as the years went on, even the cheap games started to become more expensive. And there was still no guarantee that they wouldn't get wrecked in the mail.
It's not surprising that Fairhurst co-founded Limited Run Games a few years later. The company is devoted to pressing small-batch physical copies of games that were previously download-only.
It's a concept that could only have been conceived by die-hard game collectors, those for whom a massive shelf full of plastic cases is an accomplishment, not an albatross. As Limited Run found great success with its business model, it accumulated some extra cash that Fairhurst wanted to use to pursue his passion project.
Details from the jewel case patent.
At first, he hoped he wouldn't even have to make his own molds. Once he dug up the patent for the cases and realised that they were originally created by Sony - at the same Terre Haute, Indiana production plant where Sony pressed all of the games that Limited Run sold - he got in touch and asked if they'd just be able to make more cases.
"I couldn't order them," he said. "Sony Interactive Entertainment America actually calls the shots on what those cases are utilised for… they kind of said no. And my dreams of getting the original cases were dashed, at that point."
Fairhurst's failure to work out a deal with Sony didn't kill his dream. The original patent was by then expired, so Limited Run was in the legal clear to copy the design. Fairhurst envisioned making more cases and selling them to collectors, but beyond that, using them for the more expensive collector's edition games that Limited Run's customers loved.
"We actually have a lot of games coming out that are Sega CD-inspired or games that like Night Trap are actually Sega CD games being remastered," he said.
"I wanted to be able to have the longbox cases to package with those collectors' editions. I thought that would be really cool, a nice additional item to include for collectors and enthusiasts. So it gave me an excuse, a business excuse, to pursue this and put that kind of money into it."
He put in a lot of money. Fairhurst says it cost Limited Run $US150,000 ($192,238) to have the molds made, because the company ultimately decided they needed to be manufactured in the U.S., not in China. It was less a question of quality, Fairhurst said, and more about his concerns that China's lax protection of intellectual property would lead to knockoff Sega Saturn cases being produced behind his back.
"If you get something manufactured in China, they might take your mould and use it to supply an Alibaba or Aliexpress [vendor], and then we'd see that overnight, our mould expenses were supplying other people doing this," he said.
"I didn't want to spend that kind of money if I was going to be having those cases sold on the aftermarket and it wasn't coming through me, because then I'd have no way of recouping that expense."
So Limited Run bit the bullet, contracting with a New York-based company called Clear-Vu to produce new molds, painstakingly recreating the Sega cases down to the millimetre, sending samples back and forth.
Fairhurst wanted to do more than just recreate the original cases, since the new versions, made from the same styrene, would still be as fragile as the originals. So he also worked with Clear-Vu to produce cases using acrylic. They'd be about twice as expensive as the lower-end versions, around $US10 ($13) each.
But they'd be much stronger and scratch less easily.
Everything was going swimmingly. Fairhurst talked publicly on Twitter about releasing the cases. Then, late last year, Fairhurst got a Twitter DM from a stranger named Chris, who told him he was also just about to release a batch of replacement Sega CD jewel cases.
From what he was saying, it seemed like Chris was poised to beat Limited Run to market with his cases.
"Josh, when I talked to him, was very emotional, very unhappy," Chris recalled of the exchange.
After learning of Chris' plans, Fairhurst posted some gloomy reactions on Twitter. "I now know what it feels like to have made a terrible and expensive investment.
When people say there is no such thing as a unique idea, they are absolutely right," he wrote on November 29. "I just currently have a hole in the pit of my stomach because I feel so stupid for taking a risk," he wrote in subsequent tweets.
"I need a time machine to go back and stop myself. I feel like I just lit my money on fire."
Chris' replacement cases went live on Amazon, under the business name VGC Online, on March 15, at $US40 ($51) for a set of 10 with free Prime shipping.
Eager collectors (including me) bought a set or two and awaited the results - hoping, at least, that they wouldn't be smashed in transit. They arrived in good shape, individually packaged in bubble sleeves, wrapped up in a large bubble mailer, inside a standard Amazon box. They certainly looked identical to the originals. But as fans started messing around with the cases, some imperfections started to become apparent.
The cases didn't stay shut, for example — there was no "click" that held the front cover in place when it was closed. If you tried to insert the piece of protective foam that originally came inside a Sega CD or a Saturn case, plus a manual and a disc, all those contents wouldn't quite fit inside the case without the front bulging out. The problem that everyone seemed to bring up was that the black inner tray that held the discs sat loosely in the clear outer tray, and if you turned the case over, the tray would likely fall out.
"I've received some very negative feedback because of that issue," said Chris when I spoke to him. Half of the dozen reviews on Amazon were either two- or one-star, although many buyers also left five-star feedback.
"That is something that will be fixed in the next run," Chris says of the inner-tray looseness. "I knew about it when I received the cases originally, the samples. I was fine with that. The only time that's going to be an issue is if you open up the case and hold it upside-down in the air. So who's doing that with their cases, is what I'm wondering… I saw it as a minor issue that I didn't think would affect most people."
One silver lining to Chris' VGC Online cases is that, if you have an original black tray, you can snap that into the replacement case and it locks in very well. Since it's usually the outer, clear trays that get broken or cracked, and not the inner trays, that means that most collectors could Frankenstein a more stable case from a mix of original and replacement parts.
I received my set of cases just before last month's Game Developers Conference, where I met with Josh Fairhurst to discuss Limited Run's cases and get my hands on its latest samples. Limited Run still doesn't have a release date for its cases, since it's tweaking the final design, adjusting the thickness of the case walls by millimetres. The sample cases didn't seem to have any major issues, though; everything clicked shut and stayed shut just like an original case.
I handed Fairhurst one of the cases I'd bought on Amazon, which he immediately inverted in his hand. Not only did the tray fall out, it dragged the front cover off with it. Both pieces clattered to the concrete floor.
"It's a little satisfying, honestly, watching it flop out," he said.
Fairhurst says that his concern over Chris' cases had little to do with the fact that Chris was now competing with him, but that he created the cases in China, which Fairhurst believed could potentially hurt both of their efforts.
"My concern was that they'd just opened Pandora's box," he said. "I feel like the decision to get the mould made in China kind of shot us both in the foot in terms of recouping investment."
Chris isn't as concerned. "His American suppliers basically fed him this story that 'China's gonna rip you off,' and I don't think it's true," he said when I brought up Fairhurst's comments. "I own the molds. We have a contract in place. They can't do anything crazy like that."
He allowed that, actually, it could happen, and he could see other firms in China make bootlegs. "If they choose to do something like that, and they manage to bring a product to Aliexpress for less than what I can sell it for, that's fine. That's fine with me. I'm not trying to get rich off this, I was trying to solve a problem."
Chris' perspective is that more Sega CD cases, no matter where they come from, are a boon to collectors. "If, at the end of the day, the community has access to replacement Sega CD cases for three dollars or two-fifty a case, then that's ok," he said. "If that does happen, I liquidate my inventory, and I move on with my life."
One of VGC Online's newly-manufactured Sega cases.Photo: Chris Kohler (Kotaku)
Chris would rather that not happen, of course. He's hoping to find wholesalers to whom he can start selling his cases, so he can make more money than going directly through Amazon.
When I spoke to Chris, he said it costs him $US2 ($3) per case to get the games into Amazon's warehouse, and then Amazon takes a $US14 ($18) cut off each $US40 ($51) set. Add in miscellaneous overhead expenses, and that means Chris is barely breaking even on his cases.
He has reduced the price to $US30 ($38) per set on Amazon, in hopes of selling through his first run of 10,000 cases and moving on to the next, which he said will fix the tray issue - and cut down on the volume of negative reviews.
Sega collectors can finally rest easy, knowing that they will now be able to get replacements for their shattered cases from multiple sources — whether that's Limited Run, or VGC Online, or from hypothetical bootleggers in China. It still remains to be seen whether the demand for these replacement parts can sustain multiple businesses.
"It's just one guy, and he took the risk before knowing that I was doing it," Fairhurst said of Chris. "He put the same amount of risk forward that I did. Except for me, it's less life or death. For him it might actually be a big deal to make all that back because it's a guy putting his personal savings on the line."
"I thought I'd be coming into this community bringing a solution that people needed and people would be happy for," said Chris.
"Instead, my product came to market and I immediately had enemies."