Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia #6

The Sega Genesis: A Look Back

 

 

 

Videogaming in the early 1990s was an incredibly exciting time. There was no internet, videogaming magazines were all the rage, even television gameshows and cartoons were based on them. Much of this, though, was Nintendo. Everybody knew who Mario was and nearly everyone had a Nintendo sitting under their TV. Then a new kid arrived on the block. He wore tattered jeans, sunglasses and a backwards hat and used new words like "awesome" and "radical." His name was Sega, and he was black.

Sega changed all preconceived notions people had about videogames. They dove deep into the culture of the people playing and made sure they appealed to the demographic they tapped into. Videogames were no longer simple little games kids went out to buy for their boxes, now they had attitude and style. Sega was able to reach out to a specific audience and grab them. Now videogames were "cool" and "trendy." That alteration was massive to gamers such as me. I was only around 10 or so when the Sega Genesis was first released, the pre-teen the perfect market for their new approach, and can remember a few years later first seeing Sonic the Hedgehog playing on demo at the neighborhood game store. I knew two things:

1) The graphics and sound were amazing.

2) I wanted one because the television told me I wanted one.

I think a lot of kids have a similar story. Either you saw it somewhere, were amazed by the commercials or played it at your friends house and couldn't pull yourself away. I was of all three. The Genesis offered things that the NES simply didn't (and, to an extent, the Super NES later wasn't able to). As a result, a separation occurred with gamers. Either you were a Genesis kid or Nintendude, simple as that. Rarely did a kid have both. If they did they were probably douchebags about it like Lucas from The Wizard. I didn't even get a Super NES until the Genesis library started to decline. 

Trying to convince my parents was no easy task. Like with the NES, I was stuck trying to explain to them the totally awesome sound and graphics the Genesis delivered. I took them to my friend's house even and played Sonic the Hedgehog in front of them. They caught on, but it was a deal this time (unlike the NES which was a gift). I pay half, then they pay half. I said "deal" without even thinking twice. I saved my money and soon was enjoying the speed-platforming of Sonic the Hedgehog a few months later.

I bought and stayed with the original model Genesis and its awkward headphone jack and volume control. It may not have been as sleek as the Model 2, but it was a durable little thing that survived many late-night sessions of controller throwing and console tossing of which my bedroom wall lost many battles. By the time I was knee deep in 16 bit goodness, Sega's Genesis had already become as popular as the NES. I noticed instead of kids saying "play Nintendo" they would say "play Genesis" or "play some Sega." The little system by the cocky company did exactly what they set out to do. Toys, TV shows, an appealing mascot, Sega was flying high back then. Despite their later failures (or which I was victim of, thank you) I think we can look back now and see just how amazing their achievement was, and how fantastic a little system the Genesis still is.

 


 

 A Brief History of the Sega Genesis

 

 -The successor to the Sega Master System (which had relative sucess in Europe and Japan, but overall was lukewarm due to the more popular Nintendo system), Sega released the Sega Mega Drive in Japan in 1988. It was renamed to Sega Genesis for the North Ameican release, which was August 14, 1989.

-Much like Microsoft today, Sega found more success outside of Japan. As a result, much of the gaming genres and market was catered towards a western audience. Sega of America (est. 1986) began to have a large hand in determining and licensing games for the Genesis, as well as influencing some of Sega of Japan's biggest titles, notably 'westernizing' Sonic the Hedgehog.

-The release of a new console was a gamble for Sega, but they based their success on their arcade ports and sports series early on. Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign emphasizing 'cool' and 'sleek,'an overpriced Turbographx 16 and oft-delayed Super Nintendo, Sega was able to gain marketshare quickly at launch.

-The release of the Super Nintendo in 1991 caused Sega to take drastic measures to retain their position. Again, revamping of advertising and direct shots at Nintendo helped, and thus the "console wars" began. Sega was by far the aggressor, however, notably the technical aspects of the Super NES's supposedly slower processing speed (rumored to be half of the Genesis). Sega dubbed their system's power as "blast processing." This idea would carry their marketing strategy for the next few years.

-In 1992, Sega's mascot emerged. Sonic the Hedgehog became a household name, rivaling that of Mario. Sonic would be the fact of the Genesis, and Sega itself, and continues to be to today. Sonic proved that the Genesis, although an older system to the Super Nintendo, had capabilities still untapped.

-By 1993 and 1994, the often delayed Super Nintendo games finally began seeing release and Sega released ill-advised add-ons (they still worried about market percentage). As a result, the consumer support of the Genesis began to dwindle. It would continue to dwindle each year through the 16-bit generation of gaming. instead of focusing on the Genesis, Sega went to develop the Sega CD and 32X add-ons, they would never recover from these failures, especially from the consumers who bought them.

-Producing of the Sega Genesis ended in 1997. The result? Over 29 million units sold worldwide. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was the system's most successful title, selling roughly six million units.


 

 Top Ten (sorry, Eleven) Sega Genesis Games

 The Sega Genesis had one of the most prolific and just fantastic library of titles in console history. I compare its variety to the original Nintendo. It had more variety than the Super Nintendo and Sega themselves seemed more willing to have their developers take chances. Numerous games had to be left off, even some personal favorites of mine (Ghostbusters, Splatterhouse 2, Shining Force, Vectorman) but I think most would agree the below titles are pitch-perfect examples of what the Genesis could offer.

Why 11 on this list? Read number 8 to find out.

 


11: Cool Spot

(Virgin Interactive, 1993)

A simple platformer featuring our favorite early 90s mascot: the...red dot from the 7up can? Well, whatever works, and surprisingly, thanks to sharp graphics and fantastic animation and solid controls, it does work. Cool Spot, though, was most renowned for its music, easily the best aspect, by Tommy Tallarico (guitarist, pianist, prolific game composer, cousin to Steven Tyler). It was a game that was able to transcend its original intention as a mere product-tie-in game and set itself apart as its own entity, resulting in one of the more beloved games on the Genesis. Virigin Interactive actually was one of the best supporters of the Sega Genesis and dished out some extremely good games. It makes you wonder why they simply called it quits. 

My Experience: I wasn't big into 7up or anything, but Cool Spot, which I played first at a friend's house, just grabbed with its aesthetic and overall fun gameplay. It's a solid little platformer that reminded me a little of Rescue Rangers on the NES in terms of the little guy jumping around real-world places and objects. 

 

 

 


10: Streets of Rage 2 

(Sega, 1992)

Gamers in the early 90s loved their beat-em-up games. It was just fun to move across the screen and beat the hell out of anything, using the background, using objects and weapons, and maybe using each other for special moves. These types of games dominated the arcades and the best home version of that style was no-dobut Streets of Rage (and the Ninja Turtles, can't forget the Turtles). Sure, Final Fight was popular too, but there weren't very good home versions of it. Streets of Rage just kicked ass and took names. Parts 2 and 3 had some nice graphical polish to them on top of a good soundtrack for all three. It's sad to see that this genre is all but dead now after it ran its course (and died alongside the arcades). It was worth it though.  

My Experience: All three games brought the same results: me and my buddy would stock up on soda and snacks and do all-night run-throughs of Streets of Rage. Truthfully, I can't distinguish one from the other other than graphics, I just put Streets of Rage 2 because I like even numbers, but really, all three are some of the best on the console.

 


9: Phantasy Star II

(Sega, 1990) 

An often overlooked and unappreciated role playing game series, Phantasy Star II was arguably a little ahead of its time, especially when put up against its more popular rival series, Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. Phantasy Star offered what many aspects of role playing games we now take for granted, and did many things first that players wouldn't see for years on more popular titles such as Final Fantasy III (VI) and Final Fantasy VII.  Evolving character arcs and development (and character deaths), an epic quest lasting for hours upon hours and cinematic cutscenes with dynamic presentation were all well ahead of the curve. PSII is a "Space Opera" that tells the story of Rolph, a government agent, who is investigating the Mother Brain, the controller of the world of Mota, to determine why it is malfunctioning. As is now standard, this is merely the beginning of the quest. It grows and expands, Rolph meets numerous others in his journey through the galaxy and we're left with one of the finest endings in videogame history. 

My Experience: Probably one of the last games I played on the Genesis, I simply wasn't into this genre until closer to the mid-1990s, Phantasy Star II is grand in ever sense of the word. While it hasn't aged particularly well, even in 1994 when I first played it, it still offers a huge amount of bang for your buck and I was completely satisfied with nearly every aspect when playing it.

 


8: Rocket Knight Adventures

(Konami, 1993)

From the lead designer of the Contra series, we're given...a possum with a jetpack. Unlike a lot of wannabe mascots, our hero, here named Sparkster, isn't about trying to be hip and cool, he's just a little possum in full armor with a sword and jetpack, not to mention a charming personality. With some of the best graphics on the system, intense and well-designed levels and one of the more unique gameplay aspects of any game (the jetpack), RKA was simply not marketed and it eventually fell to the wayside. Only now, in hindsight, and with the renewed interest in retro gaming, has Rocket Knight Adventures finally deserved its rightful place among the 16-bit greats.

My Experience: I played it for ten minutes when I rented it in 1993. Then moved on to something else. In fact, I didn't even play Rocket Knight Adventures until about five years ago on the computer. It was so impressive to me, that it's now one of my favorite games (which is why Cool Spot was later added to this list). Even though I didn't grow up playing it like Cool Spot, it's just too good to leave off. If you want to get to know Sparkster a little more, you should check out the Happy Video Game Nerd's video of him. It covers all you need to know.

 


 7: Aladdin

 (Sega/Virgin Interactive, 1993)

Some of the best games across all the consoles are the Disney titles. The NES enjoyed the likes of Ducktales and Rescue Rangers, the Super Nintendo, too, had a nice share. The Genesis, though, seemed to have the Disney genre cornered (especially with Micky and Donald). One game not starring those two is the cartoon-quality Aladdin from Virgin and Sega, which had the involvement of Disney animators to give it its distinct look using hand-drawn animation (the Virgin team would later give us the Earthworm Jim games under the company "Shiny"). It simply looked amazing and even superior to the Super NES "Aladdin" title by Capcom and I thought played better as well, plus the Genesis version had a sword, so there. It literally gave you the impression you were in the cartoon. Luckily, it has some fantastic gameplay as well.

My Experience: I was in a K-B Toy Store at the local mall and this little gem was playing. It had a large crowd around them, as though someone just unveiled the arc of the covenant. Not until Donkey Kong Country will I see people in awe of simply watching a mindless demo. If a game shows that much polish visually, it has to play equally as good, right? (actually, that philosophy will come to burn many people in the next few generations of gaming)

 


6: Gunstar Heroes

(Treasure, 1993) 

A frantic side-scrolling shooting game offering up a ton of weapon combos, two-player cooperative play and crazy bosses. Ok, that maybe doesn't sound too original, but Gunstar Heroes proves it's not about the premise as much as it is about the execution. It is simply a nicely polished piece of software (even winning best action game in 1993) that offers great balance and a solid learning curve for new players to simply pick up and play. The game more or less put the developer, Treasure, on the map.  They would go on to give us some of the best games for the next decade such as Guardian Heroes, Mischief Makers and the underrated Alien Soldier. Blowing stuff up is rarely this fun, too bad it has horrible box art, which was often the stable for videogames until the 32-bit era. Man, look at that, that's just awful. 

My Experience: Around 1993 I was getting a little depressed. I was a huge contra fan from my days with the original Nintendo and didn't yet have a Super Nintendo for Contra 3. I needed satisfaction of lots of shooting and explosions, and someone turned me to Gunstar Heroes as a result. It wasn't quite as hard as the Contra games, but a little more forgiving, thankfully. Although it's quick to beat, there's a lot of replay value. I finally got Contra 3 a few months later and sadly had to put Gunstar Heroes to rest. 

 


5: Earthworm Jim

(Shiny Entertainment, 1994)

Even though it came out later for other consoles, for some reason, when I think of the Genesis, I think of Earthworm Jim (after Sonic, of course). He seemed to embody everything that Sega and its sleek black console was or wanted to be.  Most notably the humor, which consisted of cow launching (seen below), taking on a killer masochistic goldfish and bungee jumping with large strands of mucus. Also, we can't overlook the name of the villain, which I had to look up to get fully right: evil Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed, Slug-for-a-Butt. 

My Experience: Oh, Jim. How I miss you. You had some good games, I even bought your Sega CD version, but maybe the world just wasn't ready for you then and is too politically correct to accept you now. We do appreciate you, though, and the wacky worlds you took us to and enemies you killed with your insane red gun.

 

 

 


4: Strider

(Capcom, 1990) 

The winner of 1990s Game of the Year (EGM), Strider is one of the best arcade games to ever be made and one of the best games on the Sega Genesis. Not surprisingly made by Capcom, Strider is one of the greatest games to ever exist. To the naked eye, it's just another sidescroller with some guy and a large sword that extends; possibly when he's excited but that's up for debate. Anyway, it was best known for its boss fights and its, let's just say, unique take on Russians. I'm sure the Russian parliament always turns into a giant dragon, so at least we know that part is historically accurate.

My Experience: Simply put, Strider is one of the games that sold me a Sega Genesis. It was already one of my favorite titles in the arcades, and here is a near-perfect port of it. Actually I played it mainlly at the corner Circle K I rode my bike to. To find out it was coming on the Genesis was like having my own arcade machine and was any 90s kid wet-dream. There aren't too many games that get you to feel so satisfied as you destroy everything in your path. If you see it, kill it.

 

 

 


3: Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master

(Sega, 1993) 

One of the most fluid, intuitive and frantic side-scrollers of the 16-bit era. Everything about Shinobi 3 exudes "smoothness." Easy to pick up and play, and difficult to master, Shinobi 3 is one of those games you feel as though you've played before. It was great to look at on top of that, giving us some of the best graphics the Genesis could dish out with impressive effects and detailed animations. Shinobi 3 played more like a faster Ninja Gaiden game than it did a Shinobi game. It was a perfect match.

My Experience: The last game I played for my little Genesis, and what a way to go out. It was about 1995 and the new consoles were around the corner. Do I regret getting rid of my system? Sure, of course, especially now that people are so into playing old games again (When people come to my house, the first thing they ask is if my NES works, then they ask if I have Contra). 

 

 

 


2: Toe Jam and Earl 

(Johnson Voorsanger Productions, 1991) 

Playing as either Toe Jam or Earl (or both if you're in two-player mode), this game is one of the most imaginative and unique titles to be developed. There was nothing to compare it to before or really sense, and as a result it's a little difficult to describe. You play through randomly generated alien levels in search of pieces of your missing ship. Along the way you collect "gifts" which are random power ups when you open them. They can help (or hinder) your ability to get past the various enemies, which included devil dwarfs, giant hamsters in wheels and hula girls (the enemy variety is the funniest thing about the whole game). On top of that, you had one of the most memorable and funky soundtracks to help get you through. It's purely based on early 1990s rap and hip hop culture combined with 70s funk that would make the Beastie Boys and Bootsy Collins proud. It's a game that has no genre, other than "fun." 

My Experience: Unique, quirk and fun, Toe Jam and Earl was one of the reasons I bought a Sega Genesis. There was nothing like it and really nothing quite like it sense. It was 'jammin' and funny and had some of the most bizarre gameplay I'd ever seen. That was something the Genesis games seemed to always do: deliver something a little unique and different you wont' find anywhere else (see Splatterhouse, The Haunting and Moonwalker). I never got that far, you could never plan because the levels were randomly generated, but it was just fun, even more fun with co-op and a friend to play with.

 


1: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

(Sega, 1992) 

Truth is, every Sonic game on the Genesis (and the single Sega CD incarnation) are all masterpieces of platform design, ingenuity and quality. I would have no problem putting all three here, but I won't. So to choose one, Sonic 2, I need to give a good reason. Simply put, the jump from Sonic 1 to Sonic 2 was far larger than the jump from Sonic 2 to Sonic 3. Sonic 2 was bigger, brighter, and simply designed better than its predecessor. It offered more moves, bigger bosses and just looked fantastic. The Sonic games were one-of-a-kind. There was nothing quite like them and their emphasis on speed. It's made like a platformer, having you go from left to right, but no game captures the sense of "get out of my way" or the corresponding "shit, there's spikes there" that would soon follow.

My Experience: By this time, gaming magazines began to emerge and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was on the cover of many of them. Not only that, the early reviews were showing it be one of the best game ever. Sonic 2 is one of the few times I recall being excited about the release of a videogame, and it didn't disappointt. Much like Mario Bros. 3 a few years prior, there was a huge amount of hype and anticipation, and much like that it lived up to everything we could have wanted.

 


 

There's no denying that much of Sega's success is often determined by the failures or slow starts of others. Sega spent less time acting and more time reacting to what others were doing. As a result, their public opinion dwindled with the reaction from Sega that unleashed the Sega CD and 32X to the masses put the nail in the proverbial coffin. These were abysmal failures that Sega would never recover from. Despite the quality of the Saturn and Dreamcast, the public simply never looked at Sega the same way (and were justified in doing so). As a result, Sega ceased all console production to focus entirely on software. 

Unfortunately people leave, companies restructure, and the Sega many of us knew and developers there we loved simply are a faded reflection of their height in the early 1990s. It's hard to describe the amazing awe that Sega gave us to those that may not have been there. We had little to compare the Genesis to, it was unique, new and vivacious. Graphically (and yes, graphics were a deciding factor to gamers back then too) we could only compare it to the arcade. It also had more violent and graphic games too, such as the Splatterhouse series and an uncensored Mortal Kombat. All this, combined with Sonic's "cool attitude" made people view the Genesis as the "cool" system. Even a focus group at the time showed that gamers were more inclined to admit they owned a Sega Genesis than they were to admit they owned an NES or Super Nintendo.

There's one thing people won't deny when it comes to Sega: they had a major pair of balls back then. To take on Nintendo the way they did defined their entire company. It's unfortunate that approach and sense of entitlement didn't sustain them. It lives on, though, through other companies today, but even they aren't as direct. Now it's too PR and nobody would dare take on the mighty Nintendo,who is just as popular today as they were 20 years ago. Sega though will never reclaim their glory and are becoming as ancient a relic as the Genesis itself...if they aren't already.

Simply put, the Genesis defined its generation as much as Nintendo itself. Isn't that right, early 90s kid?

Yeah...you're totally awesome.

 

 

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