If you were born after the year 2001, it’s likely that you have a very different memory of Sega than I do. You might like the company.
You might be a Sonic or Yakuza fan. You might have gone back into the Dreamcast or Genesis catalogs and gained an appreciation for their highlights. But you’ll never know the gravity of what this company did to save and progress the world’s most profitable and cutting-edge industry for art and entertainment. For that, you had to be there.
If you’re reading this, you likely know the history. Following the crash landing of Atari and its E.T., the video game industry faded as quickly as any other fad toy. That is, until Nintendo, Mario, and the famous Official Nintendo Seal of Quality built back the trust of parents and geeks around the world, jump by pixelated jump.
In 2020, with Switch sales booming and Nintendo second only to Disney in its constant reverence for its own accomplishments, it’s easy to appreciate Nintendo’s legacy. Mario’s shining, happy face is digestible. Mario is nice. Mario will be your friend from cradle to the grave. Mario rarely fails — and when he does there’s always an extra life in his pocket ready to get his fireball-wielding, Japanese-Italian plumber self back on his feet.
It’s harder to love Sega.
While Nintendo was happily collecting coins in a fairytale world of Princesses and magic, Sega went and complicated things. Sega’s content guidelines weren’t as strict, which led to graphic violence and sexual situations finding their way into the hands of children. Sega’s mascot wasn’t nice or friendly; he was sarcastic and ironic and aggressive and bored with you, behavior modeled by fans around the world, much to the chagrin of '90s parents.
Sega's games and hardware were cutting-edge, experimental, and, consequently, didn't always work. Sega didn’t ask you to love it; it just demanded that you pay attention. Loving Sega requires an appreciation for art and technology that people find distasteful or, in some instances, think should be illegal altogether. Sega does what Nintendon’t.
But Sega’s legacy today isn’t a collection of hits released in the '90s. It isn’t the Genesis or the Game Gear or Sonic the Hedgehog or the 32X or Space Channel 5. Sega’s legacy is every PlayStation game with blood and gore and adult storytelling. It’s every Xbox Live membership and bizarre, nonsensical piece of fan art. By breaking the arbitrary rules Nintendo used to ease video games back into our homes, Sega broke down the barriers that kept critics like Roger Ebert from calling video games “art.” Sega prevented Nintendo from establishing a monopoly that could have crippled gaming as a medium for decades. Sega was the hotshot kid who copied other people’s homework, flipped off the teacher, and, for better or worse, never really adapted to its own success.
Am I writing an obituary for a corporation that hasn’t seen its former glory for nearly 20 years? Yes and no. The company itself was a function of the capitalist system from which it sprang, but Sega — the soul that was Sega — was an idea; a rallying cry for technologists. A call to bring humanity, in all its messy, weird, unlikable truth, into the digital world so that when we looked into our screens we saw a little more truth there. Sega was first to 3D, online gaming, motion controls, virtual reality, portable console gaming, and much, much more. Shenmue is not simply a craven attempt by executives to appeal to consumers. It’s an artistic statement by adults and for adults. Seaman is absurdist interactive theater of the highest order.
At the risk of becoming a meme or a “________ taught me to be weird” guy, I want to acknowledge the artists and engineers who built this company and broke down these barriers. Being a Sega kid meant being pushed out of your comfort zone. It meant working a little harder. It meant risk but it also meant reward. Sega was a corporation trying to squeeze money out of parents and kids, yes, but if that was all it was, it would probably still be in the console business. Instead, it zigged when it ought to have zagged, right until it lost all its rings. As a company, Sega always bit off more than it could chew — and it choked to death. May we all have such ambition.
Over the following week, in the lead up to Sega’s 60th anniversary, we’ll be sharing guides, essays, and stories about all things Sega. Welcome to the next level.