SEGA is a Japanese company, right? Of course they are…aren’t they? Well, you would be surprised to learn that when SEGA was started in 1940, they were actually from the other side of the pacific.
Born as “Standard Games” in Hawaii, the company would get its start the way a lot of companies did back in wartime America, by entertaining American servicemen. There was a lot of money to be made in that industry, and Standard Games wanted a piece of the pie. So much so in fact, that they changed their name to Service Games in effort to connect better with their new client base.
The coin operated electro mechanical games that they toted would become very popular to the boys in green, keeping “SE”rvice “GA”mes (or SEGA) in the black. SEGA would enter the video game market by producing games such as Frogger, Zaxxon. When the video game market crashed in the 80’s, it affected many companies including SEGA, and would lead to SEGA’s Tokyo assets being bought out by a Japanese conglomerate. Re-titled Sega Enterprises Ltd., the company would buckle down for the video game resurgence of the late 80’s and come out swinging. Sega wanted it all – Arcade as well as console dominance. Some goals would be achieved and others would prove disastrous.
The arcade was the place for new developers to shine, and SEGA built a name for itself over the years. Classics such as Altered Beast, Hang-On, OutRun, and Afterburner would lay a lot of the bricks that would become the foundation for the company’s own console launchers. Golden Axe was another popular entry at the time, and lead to the development of six subsequent games that fleshed out the series. The games were loud, colorful, and addictive – just what young audiences were looking for in their next electronic vice.
SEGA would have a few early pieces of hardware, but its first real entry into the console war was the Sega Master System. Released less than a year after Nintendo’s unbelievably successful Nintendo Entertainment System, the Master System had some tough competition. In order to combat this, Sega created the game Alex Kidd in Miracle World. The game was meant to compete with the great success Nintendo found with its Super Mario Brothers franchise. While the game’s presentation and gameplay were sound (good enough to lead to the creation of a sequel) it wasn’t until five years later, that SEGA would finally give birth to a character able to go toe-to-toe with the mushroom munching plumber.
Sonic the Hedgehog was first introduced in 1991 on both the Sega Genesis and Sega Master System. The games reinvention of the standard platform was evident at first view. Speed was your new best friend, rings were to be collected instead of coins, and loop-de-loops were commonplace. The spiky blue smart mouthed mammal would help SEGA become a major contender in the 16-bit era of gaming, and ended up replacing the tried and true arcade smash Altered Beast as the bundle game for future Genesis consoles.
Sonic would continue his ascension to the video game mascot hall of fame in a blue streaked blur, with TV shows and plush dolls to boot. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 would be released a year later, and prove to be faster and sleeker than its predecessor. A success that would result in it becoming the best selling 16-bit cart of all time. Other games of varying quality would follow, but Sonic’s earlier adventures stand out as his best (including the excellent Sonic the Hedgehog CD for the SEGA CD).
While success in the land of hardware hasn’t favored SEGA in recent years, the company does standout as a game developer. Originality is something that has thrived in SEGA titles. Nights into Dreams, a game that revolved around two 14-year olds entering the dream worlds of Nightopia and Nightmare to battle for both the real world and it’s sleep induced parallel universe, offered new and interesting gameplay mechanics, maintaining a very artistic approach, complemented by whimsical graphics, and sensational storytelling.
Another shinning example of originality was Shenmue, a Dreamcast title directed and produced by the talented Yu Suzuki. The game, told the first part of a layered storyline which followed the path of young martial artist named Ryo Hazuki as he vowed to avenge the murder of his father. As arguably one of the best titles the Dreamcast had to offer, it stood out with richly developed characters, brutal open ranged fistfights, and “quick time event” triggered mini-games. Sadly though, the conclusion to young Ryo’s story may never be known, as SEGA has yet to announce any continuation of the series, as it never became the huge seller the company had envisioned.
While SEGA has had a rocky history, they are a company that maintains their credibility and quality within the gaming community. They continue to churn out Arcade benchmarks in the form of the trigger yanking House of the Dead, and strategic button mashing Virtua Fighter series. Shenmue’s legacy has been maintained with the addition of new franchises, like the totally immersing bruiser, Yakuza. As a company that’s seen a World War, million dollar mergers, and staved off a possible bankruptcy, SEGA knows how to survive.
Armed with exceptional amount of industry knowledge, and a commitment to creating quality games, SEGA continues to stay the course, compass held firmly in hand.
Shenmue (DC), Sega Genesis Collection (PS2), Virtua Fighter 5 (Multi), Streets of Rage 2 (XBOX Live)
Sonic the Hedgehog (XBOX 360, PS3)