Sega Forever
Posted at 21:48 on 1st October 2017 - permalink

A few months ago, Sega formally launched their “Amazing Sega” initiative in Japan, a company-wide effort to make better use of their massive back catalogue and heritage.

Sega of America’s contribution to this has been “Sega Forever”, a plan to bring Sega’s back catalogue re-releases under one unified brand, encompassing games made for any of Sega’s platforms, to be presented with a consistent feature set across all target platforms (although they’re limiting releases to iOS and Android for now, other digital stores are expected to fall under this banner in time).

Sega have previously done justice to segments of their back catalogue (the Sega Ages series on PS2, the 3D Classics series on 3DS, and Christian Whitehead’s ongoing work on 2D Sonic games culminating in the recent smash success of Sonic Mania), but the scope of these efforts has always been limited and local.

In theory Sega Forever is a really great idea. It gives Sega a way to make lots of their old games available legally, and to market them as something relevant to new audiences as well as people who remember them fondly from the last four decades. So it’s frustrating to see that, so far at least, they seem to be fumbling the execution quite badly.

The core problem with Sega Forever is a lack of conviction. It’s long been assumed that their old games have little value or relevance today beyond brand recognition, so any proposal that would have involved more than doing the bare minimum to exploit this brand value would have been a tough sell.

There seems to be a company dogma at Sega of America that the reason for their success in the 1990s was down to their marketing genius alone, with the quality or otherwise of the games being of little consequence. Any reference they make to their old games is accompanied by ‘ironic’ callbacks to their awful tone-deaf 1990s advertising. They’re gaming’s Peter Kaye. This trend reached its nadir with the meme-obsessed Sonic The Hedgehog Twitter account, which (one assumes) might refrain from pissing all over Yuji Naka’s legacy for a bit now that Sonic Mania has turned out to be actually good.

These misplaced priorities have affected Sega Forever in two major ways:

1. Their Mega Drive emulator is junk. The details of why have been covered at length elsewhere, but in a nutshell, they cheaped out because they believed that enough people would pay on the strength of nostalgia even if the product was substandard.

Contrary to recent press coverage, subsequent updates haven’t made the emulator “good enough”. All but the least technically demanding games run at sludgy framerates with inaccurate audio. Sega have tried to dodge the issue by blaming “device fragmentation“, which is nonsense. The emulator runs poorly on Apple and Samsung’s flagship devices that millions of people own. In fact it performs worse than the emulator they offered years ago when they first they started re-released Mega Drive games on iOS, when the hardware was orders of magnitude less powerful than today.

I think their best course of action would be to bite the bullet and license a decent emulator before it creates too much of a negative perception for the brand.

2. Their selection of titles is either being massively constrained by external factors or is just plain lazy. They keep teasing arcade games which then turn out to be the Mega Drive ports (because again, brand recognition is all that matters). If that wasn’t cheesy enough, they’ve also repackaged pre-existing iOS games (new, mobile-centric games using old IP, e.g. Virtua Tennis) which is a bit like subbing in the Tim Burton Wonka film for the Gene Wilder one in a retrospective of the latter’s work and hoping nobody notices.

Compare this to how Nintendo manage their re-releases. While the question “which of our game titles do people still remember?” was obviously asked, that wasn’t the end of the conversation. Nintendo have worked out deals with third parties, tidied up contemporary bugs and wonky translations, and even released games for the first time outside of specific territories (or in the case of StarFox 2, for the first time anywhere) to maximise the value of what they’re offering. Some games that are still well known seem to have been quietly retired by Nintendo because they’ve aged too badly.

Sega have just gone straight to the list of games that they know they own outright (e.g. Kid Chameleon, Comix Zone, Altered Beast) and market-tested brand names (Sonic, Golden Axe, Space Harrier, Phantasy Star, and again, crappy old Altered Beast) and chucked in the first things they found.

I understand that there are probably people involved in this project who are as frustrated about all this as I am. They’ve probably not set out to do a bad job, but have had to contend with a perception that this kind of project has limited commercial prospects and has been resourced accordingly. All I can urge them to do is to argue their case harder!

Sega Forever has a ton of potential to go beyond just milking a few pennies out of a handful of old Mega Drive ROMs.

Sega’s back catalogue is an Aladdin’s cave of treasures spread over a plethora of platforms, genres and target audiences. It may not be easy to untangle, but it would absolutely be worth the effort.

Starting with the most obvious thing they could be offering: direct coin-op ports. Letting mobile players watch video ads for credits seems like a no brainer, and using motion controls (or other non-standard methods) to replicate the controls of their custom arcade cabinets could work well.

They could be finding a way to offer the really strong second-party games from the Mega Drive era, the real meat of that platform’s library: Treasure, Sonic, Tecnosoft, Compile, WestOne, Novotrade, etc. A lot of these games made it to Virtual Console and other re-release compilations, so figuring out licensing must be at least possible.

They could be exploring specific periods of their history: the weird licensed games from the early days of the Mega Drive, the evolution of 3D arcade hardware, the Saturn/Dreamcast franchises that didn’t make the jump to subsequent generations. Coin-ops and home consoles aside, there are hundreds of Sega games for handhelds (from the Game Gear through to the 3DS) that have only ever been released on their original platforms.

And why not offer complete collections of platform-spanning franchises (Wonder Boy, Fantasy Zone, Shining Force, OutRun, Sakura Wars, Phantasy Star, Alex Kidd, Shinobi, etc. etc.)?

They could go down the multimedia route, and make video documentaries explaining the context of how some of their key games came about and the influence they had on later creators. Most of the key people are still around and (you’d hope) still have enough good will toward Sega to agree to get involved.

In terms of infrastructure, if they can make something that works for their own back catalogue, they could probably license it to other publishers/rights holders sitting on piles of old third party console games.

These are just some of the most obvious things that Sega could be doing to make better use of their IP hoard. I hope they’ll continue to expand and improve upon Sega Forever, but in the meantime there’s no shortage of indie studios stepping in to cater for the underserved demand with games like Racing Apex, Raging Justice and Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap.

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