It’s time to come to grips with a cold, hard truth, my fellow SEGA Nerds.
SEGA, the company that we all grew up loving, respecting and battling for schoolyard respect is dead. It’s no longer the company with gritty, in-your-face advertising slogans like “SEGA Does What Nintendon’t” or “Welcome to the Next Level.”
It’s far from the video game company that brought us games like Shenmue, Skies of Arcadia, Seaman or Jet Grind Radio, just to painfully name a few of SEGA’s classic franchises without meaningful sequels in the past decade or more.
SEGA is a shell of its former self that ambles about pretending to be that same well-respected company that fought tooth and nail to gain market share and beat back Nintendo’s stranglehold on the video game marketplace in the early ‘90s.
There are no more “Blue Skies.”
Gone are the quirky, colorful and full-of-personality games. In their place are soulless mobile versions that attempt to tide over us hardcore fans who so desperately wish for true sequels of our favorite franchises.
What remains is a core group of franchises SEGA has deemed profitable: Football Manager, Total War, Aliens, Sonic the Hedgehog. Every so often, SEGA throws a scrap of food of its table in digital video game form. It’s a tasty snack, for sure, but we need a four-course meal, not scraps of food.
Oh god … E3
This brings us to this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, where SEGA showcased all of four games: Alien: Isolation, Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal (3DS), Sonic Boom: Wrath of Lyric (Wii U) and Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F 2nd.
No Shenmue 3. No Phantasy Star Online 2. No Yakuza 5. No announcement of new intellectual properties. The only genuine “surprise” we got was the announcement of a Sonic the Hedgehog movie. I’ll wait until the applause quiets down. 😐
By all accounts, Alien: Isolation should be a big seller for SEGA when it releases later this year, and as the animated TV series and toy line-up suggest, SEGA expects big things from Sonic Boom, too. Who the hell knows how Project DIVA F 2nd will do when it releases on the PlayStation 3 and Vita, but it’s still considered very much a niche title in North America and Europe.
But if these games are expected to be big hits with gamers, ask yourself why Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony didn’t bother showing any of them in their E3 presentations. Both Sony and Microsoft showcased several multiplatform titles, like the new Battlefield, Call of Duty and Assassin Creed games, so it’s not like exclusivity was a deal breaker at this year’s event.
Nintendo, the one company that desperately needs third-party support more than any other, didn’t bother including either Sonic Boom game in their Nintendo Direct, despite coming to terms with SEGA on an exclusivity agreement that has already brought us Sonic: Lost World and Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Nintendo did show Bayonetta 2, but despite SEGA owning the intellectual property, it isn’t developing or publishing the title, so it’s hard to consider it much of a SEGA game at this point.
But even more perplexing than what SEGA showed at E3 was what they didn’t. As much as we’d love to see them, knowing the kind of company SEGA has become, we didn’t really expect any Shenmue, PSO 2 or Yakuza 5 announcements.
What we did expect, however, was at least an announcement of the next round of SEGA 3D Classics on the Nintendo 3DS, as many of the M2-developed/ported games have already been released in Japan. While no one knows exactly how well the first round of games sold, word of mouth on the Internet showed there was significant interest to suggest they sold well enough for SEGA to continue bringing them over stateside.
A bitter pill to swallow
As much as it pains the little kid inside me who still bleeds SEGA blue to admit, the closest thing to getting that classic SEGA feel in today’s video game space is through Nintendo.
Unlike SEGA, Nintendo still focuses on the vast array of franchises it’s built over the past several decades, franchises like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Kirby, Pokemon, Star Fox, Metroid and more. Nintendo announced new entries in most of these franchises at E3, while SEGA didn’t announce much of anything.
SEGA has lost the “blue skies” feel to the games it’s releasing today. Nintendo games, on the other hand, are chock full of the classic Nintendo style that many gamers love. Just give Mario Kart 8 a spin if you’re not convinced. It’s hard to suppress a smile when watching Luigi’s death stare as he stalks his prey on the track.
It’s my firm belief that for SEGA to recapture its former brilliance, it must take a page out of Nintendo’s book, and dare I say be more like … Nintendo?
Sonic the Hedgehog Maker?
Let’s travel back to this year’s E3 for a moment. The biggest example of a missed SEGA opportunity that Nintendo snapped up is Mario Maker, a Wii U title that lets players build their own Super Mario Bros. levels and share them with their friends online to play through.
As many people know, Sonic the Hedgehog has long had an active homebrew community that’s produced titles many consider far more enjoyable than Sonic 4. Why SEGA hasn’t made Sonic the Hedgehog Maker is beyond me. It would immediately give the still active Sonic modding community the credibility it deserves but would also open the idea up to a whole new generation of players.
Adding the ability to drop in character sprites from other Sonic games and even other SEGA franchises would essentially guarantee this be a big hit with hardcore SEGA fans and the kids who simply love Sonic the Hedgehog.
Pulling the wool over your eyes
While some people might focus on Nintendo announcements like the next The Legend of Zelda title, Super Smash Bros. and Splatoon, I think Yoshi’s Wooly World is a great example of a game that SEGA could learn from.
It’s a classic style 2D platformer based around a well-known IP that has a new and original visual style that carries over into gameplay. And it’s actually not the first time Nintendo has done this, as it already released Kirby’s Epic Yarn on the Nintendo Wii.
Now, I’m not saying SEGA should outright copy this style and make a Tails’ Wooly Tales or anything like that, although the name sounds kinda awesome. But SEGA should consider Nintendo’s outside-the-box thinking of re-imagining its classic franchises, and I’m not talking about simply “uprezzing” the graphics like in Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse.
Oh, that’s classic SEGA, right there
Outside of E3, Nintendo has long been consistently adding retro games to its Virtual Console lineup.
While Nintendo fans have been clamoring for some Gamecube titles, they have received several excellent Nintendo 64 games and dozens of Super Nintendo, NES, Gameboy and even some Gameboy Advance games. Aside from the aforementioned SEGA 3D Classics and a few other releases on the 3DS eShop, SEGA hasn’t touched its back category of games at all this generation.
Of the games SEGA released digitally last generation, the majority were 8- and 16-bit games, with the exception of the Dreamcast Collection, Sonic Adventure 1 and 2, Crazy Taxi, NiGHTS and Jet Grind Radio. Those are some great games for sure, but any SEGA Nerd worth his or her salt knows there are a lot more amazing Saturn and Dreamcast still out there. SEGA is missing a huge opportunity by simply letting these classic games sit on the sidelines.
This needs to change. M2 has proven itself more than capable of porting Genesis titles to other consoles. SEGA should give them a challenge by tasking them to port some beloved Saturn and Dreamcast games to next-gen platforms, complete with all the bells and whistles it included in the 3D Classics.
What about that SEGA Alliance?
There’s one significant area that Nintendo hasn’t delved into where SEGA could succeed: indie publishing.
During this year’s EGX Rezzed, SEGA hosted the Leftfield Arcade, which played home to a number of indie titles that enabled its developers to showcase to event goers. This was important because booth space is expensive, and without the Leftfield Arcade, these developers probably wouldn’t have been able to purchase a booth of their own and display their games.
This was a superb display of good will on SEGA’s part, and we applaud them for it.
Going back a few years, SEGA created the SEGA Alliance, which focused on “publishing mobile games made by independent developers, and will provide participating developers with comprehensive marketing and production support as well as creative consultation,” according to an announcement on the SEGA Blog.
This initiative brought us Jack Lumber on iOS, which ended up being a financial failure for its developer Owlchemy Labs. Heroki is supposedly still in development, and while we saw it at last year’s Pax Prime, it was a noticeable no-show at this year’s E3. The last update on Picomy’s website was to show off some new gameplay screens, but that was in September 2013.
We’re not entirely sure if the SEGA Alliance is still an active initiative, but instead of looking outside its community, SEGA should look within.
For example, there are several notable developers still creating games for the Dreamcast. Games like Pier Solar HD, Elysian Shadows, Dux, Sturmwind, Dynamite Dreams, Last Hope, Hypertension and Leona’s Tricky Adventure, to name a few.
Instead of just focusing on the mobile space with SEGA Alliance, SEGA needs to reach out to these talented indie developers with the idea of publishing their games on multiple platforms.
A key component of what the SEGA Alliance promises its partners is “comprehensive marketing and production support,” which is just the thing many indie developers need. Additionally, SEGA could share Dreamcast development tools with these developers, making it far easier to create Dreamcast versions.
SEGA has shown interest in the indie scene and mobile space. Helping indie developers who are still creating games for its past consoles while also porting these games to many other platforms could be a perfect match for the SEGA Alliance.
Bring back the Blue Skies
It’s painfully obvious that SEGA has been in a bit of an identity crisis for a number of years, seemingly throwing ideas at a wall and seeing what sticks.
When you listen to SEGA executives, they talk about the importance of the PC space. So they purchased companies like Relic, The Creative Assembly and Sports Interactive, which all have several successful IPs, albeit in rather niche genres.
Then, in June 2012, SEGA Europe COO Jurgen Post announced the closure of five SEGA European offices and the focus on SEGA’s four core franchises. “At the moment, for us, those are the four IPs we are talking about, they are our AAA IP,” he said. “At the moment, we are looking into options of course, but it’s not like we are already developing some other titles in addition to that, no.”
But then, a little more than a year later, in September 2013, SEGA acquired Atlus for $140 million. Atlus isn’t known for its PC games.
While I think the addition of Atlus could be good for SEGA, it’s puzzling as there doesn’t seem to be strong executive direction for the company. Perhaps SEGA of Japan’s new president Hideki Okamura can provide that much needed leadership.
But when it all comes down to it, SEGA needs to get its identity back. It needs to return to its “Blue Skies” roots, where many of its games have a consistent thematic feel to them, much like they did in the Genesis, Saturn and Dreamcast eras. Much like what Nintendo is doing today.
It’s really sad to admit, but “Nintendoes What SEGAdon’t.”
[Update: SEGAbits’ George Perez correctly pointed out that SEGA did release a Sonic the Hedgehog level editor on PlaySega.com in 2009. However, it was tied behind a $6 per month PlaySega VIP account and not widely used.]