Remember those old Charles Atlas comic book ads about the 98-lb. weakling who got sand kicked in his face by a bully, went home, bulked himself up, and came back a bully-kicking hero? Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but Sega’s home console story wouldn’t be too out of place in Charles Atlas Land. And what’s more, the former 98-lb. weakling is still enjoying the happy ending after more than 15 years in the home console business. Take that, beach bullies.
Formed in 1954, the Service Games Co. (SE-rvice GA-mes, get it?) originally imported American pinball games to U.S. military bases in Japan. The company moved into coin-op production in the mid-60′s, and by the mid-70′s they had jumped onto the emerging arcade video game bandwagon. Sega’s early ventures included games like Safari and Fonz, and the company entered the 80′s with a string of hits like Turbo and Zaxxon. Feeling a bit of Atari envy, Sega started looking into making its own home console, and by 1986, the Sega Master System was ready for its public.
Unfortunately, the public had already fallen in love with a certain Nintendo Entertainment System (the NES). The Sega Master System boasted arcade translations like Space Harrier, Out Run and Hang-On, and many gamers were intrigued by the system’s 3-D glasses peripheral, which gave a proto-virtual-reality look to a handful of games. Many reviewers even argued that Sega’s system was technically superior to the NES, but the fact remained that Nintendo had two things Sega didn’t: a huge game library (3rd-party developers for Nintendo were prohibited from making Sega cartridges) and a mascot named Mario. The Master System made little impact in America, but it redeemed itself somewhat with a very successful run in Europe.
Regardless of its European success, Sega’s U.S. reputation in the home market was still that of the Betamax. So what did the company do? Go home crying, shouting accusations of “Bully!” at the competition? Maybe for a bit, but they also bulked up for a comeback. Sega’s announcement of a 16-bit system (the NES and Master System were both 8-bit) was met with great anticipation everywhere except the Nintendo corporate offices. The Nintendoites were happy with their ongoing phenomenal success with the NES, and 16-bit seemed premature and/or unnecessary.
NEC’s TurboGrafx-16 actually beat Sega to the 16-bit punch by six months, but lack of a “killer app”-a must-have game title like Super Mario Bros.-prevented NEC from making any inroads into Nintendo’s domain. Sega, having been burned once already, knew better than to make that same mistake. The 16-bit Sega Genesis was launched with a pack-in title that was already an arcade favorite: Altered Beast. Other arcade greats were soon added to the lineup, from Strider to After Burner to Golden Axe, all programmed for an arcade-perfect look, sound and play. Suddenly, the NES didn’t look quite as earth-shattering as it did back in 1986.
The Sega Genesis was a runaway hit, and Nintendo scrambled for a 16-bit system of its own. The company tried to recover the TurboGrafx-16, but that project was soon scrapped in favor of the all-new Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES was still enjoying its record-setting success (1990′s Super Mario Bros. 3 proved what a good game could still do on an 8-bit system), but Nintendo hoped to regain its undisputed title as King of the Home Video Game with the Super Nintendo in 1991.
Nintendo struck quickly with the deservedly popular Super Mario World, but the newly-pumped-up Sega wasn’t going to back down from this fight. Some bright mind at Sega spotted and decided to expose the Super NES’ major drawback-its slower processing speed. Sega redesigned its marketing of the Genesis to emphasize speed, youth and attitude. Its mascot: a finger-wagging, spiky-haired, attitude-heavy hedgehog named Sonic.
The original Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis game was about simplicity and speed. There were no hidden worlds to explore-no time for that. Sonic ran rampant through his six 3-act zones, collecting power rings for a showdown with arch-nemesis Dr. Ivor Robotnik. The game was a smash, and Sega finally had a mascot to rival Mario. More Sonic games followed-Sonic 2, Sonic 3, Sonic and Knuckles, Sonic 3D Blast and more-and the Genesis also found success with sports titles like Joe Montana Sports Talk Football, NBA Jam and yearly John Madden Football installments. Strategy games like the Shining Force series were popular draws, and the Genesis scored another coup when its conversion of Mortal Kombat far outsold the Super Nintendo version (Sega kept the blood in).
Sega experimented with several new technologies during the Genesis years, from the Game Gear portable console (which eventually succumbed to the might of Nintendo’s Game Boy, despite being in color) to a Sega CD Genesis add-on, to the short-lived 32X expansion. But eventually, as always in the world of video games, it was time to move on. Sega unveiled the Saturn in 1995 as its next major console, and once more it looked like the company was going to end up back in sand-face territory. Sony’s PlayStation had come on the scene as the new home game leader, and Nintendo was readying its 64-bit Nintendo 64 (along with yet another hit Mario game). The Saturn was left without much third-party support, but Sega managed to home-brew such memorable titles as the platform/racing game NiGHTS: Into Dreams, a Sonic Jam compilation of Sonic the Hedgehog games, the strategy wargame Panzer Dragoon and successful arcade conversions of Bust-a-Move 2, Virtua Fighter, several Street Fighter games, Daytona USA and the zombie-shooting scarefest House of the Dead.
The Saturn may not have brought Sega back to the home game forefront, but the company’s next project did. Beating the rest of the next-generation game systems to the market in 1999, the Sega Dreamcast was a groundbreakingly fast 3-D graphical machine with Internet connectivity. The old rule still applied, however: it’s the games, stupid. Obeying that rule, Sega supplied its public with a new Sonic Adventure, sports games like NFL 2K and NBA 2K, and arcade conversions of Crazy Taxi and others.
Unfortunately, the Dreamcast was unable to compete in a world dominated by PlayStations and Nintendo 64′s. In early 2001, Sega announced it would halt production of the system, instead focusing exclusively on software. Still, rumors abound of a new system on the horizon. Whatever the company has up their sleeves, one thing is certain: the big boys would be wise to think twice before kicking sand in Sega’s face again.
If you logged your share of hours on any of the former Sega game systems, we welcome your thoughts in our comments section. Tell us which system was your favorite and what games you gravitated towards, as we tip our hats to this underdog of home consoles.