Sega Home Video Game Consoles

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Screenshot from "REZ", Sonic Team/Sega 2001.


Sega Enterprises, LTD released five standalone home video game systems between 1983 and 1999, all of which are currently discontinued. The aim of this dossier is not to provide an exhaustive analysis of all Sega's dead media platforms, but rather to provide an overview of the company's home console division which serves as a portal for further investigation of its specific products. This dossier is concerned in particular with tracing the causes of Sega home systems' death and its relation to the ongoing negotiation between video games' military and arcade oriented genealogy as they adapt to domestic settings.

In addition, this survey of Sega's large and obsolete body of products is an attempt to promote the archival and investigation of various obsolete video game technologies' historical importance to developing standards in the production, distribution, and experience of media technologies.


Origins

Service Games: a Military-Industrial Entertainment Business

The origins of Sega home video game consoles can be traced to David Rosen, a U.S. Air Force veteran who had been stationed in Japan. He began “a company in Japan named Rosen Enterprises that imported pinball machines as entertainment from the US” (De Peuter 91) after World War II. Rosen Enterprises merged with another American/Japanese amusement company in 1965 called Service Games.

After merging, Service Games's name was shortened to Sega. In 1967, the company began producing its own mechanical arcade games for placement in Sega brand arcade locations around Japan.

Arcade Gaming

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"Altered Beast" arcade screenshot. Sega, 1988.
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Promotional flier for "Space Harrier". Sega AM2, 1985.

Sega progenitor David Rosen recalls of early Sega arcade games: “The first game we built was Rifleman. Our first big hit was Periscope … From 1967 through 1979 we manufactured 140 different games” (DeMaria 233). Sega's earliest original productions played upon a number of militant and masculine tropes, including what media theorist Friedrich Kittler calls “structural correspondence between perspective and ballistics” (186).

Cinematized representations of gunplay and marksmanship, popularized and formalized in wartime film, create “intertextual representative experiences”-- in this case “predicated on the player having existing knowledge … of how this specific type of action/spy hero masculinity is 'supposed' to operate” (Burrill 1), which includes aiming and firing weapons, identifying enemies, and basic visual familiarity with military machinery.

Tapping into the culture of competition and masculinity inherited from the armed forces, Sega rooted its business model in facilitating “feats of strength and skill based on pain and violence” which produced and reproduced “male codes of power” (Burrill 6) in arcades. This militant approach to gaming was maintained throughout Sega's arcade and home offerings through the end of the 20th century.

Doug Glen, Sega's VP of Business Development and Strategic Planning in the 1990's, described their business model in the following terms:

“We look at it as a continuum of experience. You can leverage the asset from the highest end down to the mass market-- the home. We get into the leading edge and nurture the experience throughout the various manifestations” (De Peuter 137)

For Sega, arcades constituted the 'leading edge' or 'highest end', while home systems provided an extension of the arcade experience for home markets. This emphasis on arcades and the audiences of “semidelinquent technophile” (Burrill 7) they catered to prevented Sega from developing home consoles and software that could gain popularity with domestic audiences of varied gender and taste.

Sega SG-1000 & Sega Master System

Sega released its first home video game console, the SG-1000 in Japan on the same day in 1983 that Nintendo launched its FamiCom (short for “Family Computer”, marketed in the US as Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The SG-1000 was never released outside of Asia, where numerous third-party add-ons of dubious legality enabled it to play games for competing Colecovision and Atari 2600 systems (Kohler np).

The system architecture was cloned and re-released by multiple companies beside Sega. The SG-1000's software and marketing were primarily concerned with re-mediating prior games and consoles, and the revenue from hardware sales was split between Sega and multiple other manufacturers. This lack of quality control was not unique to Sega and is widely credited with causing a video game industry crash in 1984.

In 1985, Sega released the Sega Master System, an 8-bit system designed to compete more effectively with Nintendo's NES. David Rosen recalls:

  • “after the game market collapse [in 1984]… the industry was fairly well written off. We had a product in the pipeline, but we had put it on the shelf. We took it off the shelf when we saw what was happening with Nintendo. But we were a year behind Nintendo and that was a very difficult hurdle to overcome” (DeMaria 234).

The Sega Master System did not achieve notable success in Sega's primary markets (Japan and North America). It did, however, become popular in secondary markets, most notably Brazil and Europe, where consumers were less exposed to competing products. The possibility of marketing to underserved populations was thus revealed, and Sega repeated this approach, in certain ways, with its next console.

The 1990's

Genesis/Megadrive

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Fig. 2. A 2nd generation Sega Mega Drive with Mega CD and 32x attachments.
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US packaging art for "Sonic the Hedgehog"


“...initial NES players had gotten older and entered their teens. Their systems ended up in closets. They discovered girls. So we positioned Genesis as the product you graduated to. Once you put away your toys, you got Sega. And we gave them arcade games and sports” – Al Nilson, Sega of America Director of Marketing on launching the Genesis/Megadrive. (DeMaria 244)

Between 1988 and 1989 Sega rolled out a 16-bit system in North America, Japan, and Europe. It was marketed as Sega Genesis in North America and Sega Mega Drive elsewhere. The system launched with ports of popular Sega arcade games like Golden Axe and Altered Beast, despite the fact that it “Looked like devil worship in the midwest” (DeMaria 247), according to Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske.

The competitive games ported from Sega's arcade machines effectively provided “a sphere for bodily action as well as one in which the subject [could] fight off the looming threat of absent technologies” (Burrill 6), including home video games and computers, which recontextualized video gaming's arcade and military origins through “concealment, intimacy, [and] internalization” (Burril 3) in a mass-market domestic product. The Genesis is an example of domesticated technology providing a way for users to perform feats of power with military origins in the home, enabled by mass-market home television sets.

With the Genesis, Sega helped usher in an era of 'console wars' against Nintendo. In order to compete with Nintendo's entrenched dominance in the home market, Sega produced home software that would expand upon the “Platform” genre of games defined by Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers. These “cutesy jump 'n run games”, contain “a wide mix of gameplay elements” and include “identifiable characters and heroes”, thus deflecting some of the “controversy associated with more violent and disturbing game genres” (De Peuter 117) popular in arcades.

Sega's character-driven platform game Sonic the Hedgehog, launched with the Genesis, featured a cartoon protagonist reminiscent of Bart Simpson and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, already popular with children and families on television. Simultaneously, Sonic the Hedgehog enabled players to navigate levels at a much higher speed than prior platform games, expanding the possibility for arcade-style displays of reflexes and prowess in home software.

This two-tiered approach to software combined appeals to both military-industrial and domesticated video game tastes, though it leaned heavily on Sega's past in the military entertainment business. The Genesis hardware and marketing thereof was also thoroughly steeped in the culture of aggression that characterized Sega's entrepreneurial, arcade, and military origins.

Because of the Nintendo NES's position of dominance in the home console marketplace of 1988, the company was “reluctant to innovate and vulnerable to being technologically leapfrogged” (De Peuter 129). Sega “followed the logic of the perpetual innovation economy” (ibid), engineering a console which could more faithfully reproduce the graphics of both arcade games and cartoon heroes than its competitors.

Reliance on this type of blitzkrieg development toward new technological standards, a holdover from Sega's origins within the military-industrial economy, was a significant and recurring theme throughout the life cycle of their home hardware endeavors, contributing to their difficulty adapting to a rapidly domesticating home game market.

Sega CD and 32x

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US Box art for Night Trap. Digital Pictures/Sega 1992.

The first suggestions that Sega was too aggressively masculine to continue its success in the home market arrived in the form of add-on hardware for the Genesis. The Sega CD (Mega CD in Europe and Japan), released in different markets between 1991 and 1993, was the second compact disc based home system commercially available. Most of its software relied heavily on digitized video of live actors, enabled by the CD's superior storage capabilities in comparison to the dominant medium of cartridges.

“Standards determine how media reach our senses” (Kittler 36).

CD-enabled full motion video game software on the Sega CD presented a shift from Sega's arcade roots, requiring that players spent much of their game-time watching video clips and not directly influencing on-screen actions. The Sega CD complicated Sega's already precarious balance between home and arcade game standards by adding an additional conflict between the emerging standards of computer cd-rom gaming and home theatre applications of CD storage technology.

Without strong standards in place, the new format of CD FMV (full-motion video) games brought grainy video onto the television, heavily letterboxed and thus drawing attention to the “peep show character” (Kittler 223) of its small field of vision.

The next add-on to hit markets dead-on-arrival was the 32x, a cartridge-based peripheral which piggybacked extra processors with the Genesis' original hardware. Released just months before its well-publicized standalone 32-bit CD-based system, the Saturn, however, little attention was paid to 32x by gamers or software developers. Again, lack of adherence to emerging standards concerning the lifecycle of home game consoles produced hardware that did not fit onto the “continuum of experiences” so crucial to Sega's earlier success.

Saturn

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Advertisement for World Series Baseball '98.

Over 1994 and 1995, Sega released its standalone 32-bit system, the Sega Saturn. Launched with numerous arcade ports and rushed to market in attempt to repeat the Genesis' success at pre-empting competitors, Sega “miscalculated how quickly it [Saturn] would erode demand” for the Genesis. Within a year of Saturn's launch, “Sega of America took huge losses worldwide on warehouses full of unsold 16-bit games” (De Peuter 141).

Saturn, though more popular than 32x or Sega CD, was still commercially unsuccessful. The system did not launch with a family-friendly franchise title like Sonic the Hedgehog, an affront to increasingly gender- and age- diverse home console audiences.

However, much as certain filmmakers, reacting against “primacy of women cinemagoers” (Kittler 178) in determining a film's commercial success, originated the “masculine auteur film” (ibid), Sega's in-house software developers produced critically successful games such as NiGHTs into Dreams, a re-imagination of the two-dimensional platform genre in what came to be known as “2.5D” style. Gameplay takes place two axes much like a two-dimensional game, but is presented with from a viewpoint that moves through environments on all three axes.

By 1998, however, Sega's market share against competitors Nintendo and Sony had dwindled to nine percent (De Peuter 141), as its aggressively masculine products failed to integrate with the changing home console market. Sega ignored the “very empirical” (Kittler 176) evidence of an age- and gender- diverse audience developing around the intersection of television and computer gaming, thus neglecting the era's emergent hybridity with cinematic content and audiences in increasingly general-purpose home theaters.

The Dreamcast

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Ad for Sonic Adventure. Sega, Sonic Team, 1999. Note the accusation that readers possess 'lame-ass reflexes'.

In 1999, Sega launched its final home console, the Sega Dreamcast. Sega's first console to be designed in white rather than black plastic, it appeared initially as though the system could feminize Sega's product line, thus expanding its marketability to family audiences.

Supporting this first impression, the Dreamcast launched with a family-friendly Sonic franchise game called Sonic Adventure. Sonic Adventure also used the Dreamcast's removable storage/display unit, the “VMU” to distribute a virtual pet minigame, playable on-the-go and similar to a Tamagotchi.

These apparent concessions to a television-watching living-room market did not carry across most of Dreamcast's other software or promotional materials, however. The system was promoted primarily to “14- to 24-year old dudes” (EGM Sept99 p174) at rock concerts and in inner cities, ostensibly targeting the demographic of “semidelinquent technophile” originally present both in arcades and “at the very origin of gaming's Pentagon-sponsored inception” (De Peuter 91).

Just before the Dreamcast launched in 1999, Sega of America President Bernie Stolar described his business plan in the following terms:

“...the next two Christmases for us are to show everyone that Sega is a leading company, and that Sega has the best software in the marketplace” (EGM 174)

What did not factor into that plan was synergy with home theater hardware-- Sony's PlayStation2, launched in 2000, doubled as a DVD movie player, thus moving closer to what Friedrich Kittler might call a “general medium” (224), and certainly closer to a standard living-room appliance.

Sega continued to offer primarily arcade ports and auteur games until the Dreamcast was discontinued in 2001.

Postmortem

Competition, Arcades, and the Internet

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Ad for the Sega Channel, 1995

Sega's home console division displayed considerable reliance upon competitive arcade games and masculine auteur software with obvious military-industrial origins. These offerings came into marketplace conflict with various more effective “public dissimulations” in the business of “mystifying or denying” (De Peuter 181) such origins.

Despite any qualitative 'gameplay value' present in Sega home products, their competitors' products possessed the symbolic value of rendering video gaming appropriate to a home theater environment, achieved intertextually through synergy between hardware design, software curation, marketing, and various other actions of “cultural intermediaries” (De Peuter 82). Rather than replacing “the mass consumers in the cinema hall with a single, lonely cybernaut” (Kittler 227) as had been done in their successful arcade and auteur games, Sega's competitors cinematized gaming for a mass audience. Game systems like Microsoft's X-Box and Sony's PlayStation2 added a new dimension of value to their products by providing DVD movie functionality in their machines, further dissimulating their military origins.

In contrast, Sega undertook a number of costly experiments with online gaming during the lifespan of their home hardware division, attempting to capitalize upon “digital connectivity between many players (usually in their homes) who remain physically separated and isolated” (Burrill 62), enabling a type of dehumanized competitive sociality in a “clear extension of the arcade” (ibid).

The experiments included Sega Channel, a cable-tv add-on subscription service which provided about 50 Genesis games a month on a premium-channel pay format, and SegaNet, a 56k multiplayer network created in conjunction with AT&T for the Dreamcast. Both were unsuccessful, possibly because they relied on non-standard uses of technology. Sega Channel required extra hardware and a re-purposing of cable TV infrastructure, while SegaNet, despite Sega of America marketing director Charles Bellfield's claims that “There will be no problems on latency issues” (EGM 193), relied upon a 56k modem to connect players over phone lines despite the emerging standards of broadband internet among online gamers.

The Dreamcast hardware, however, lives on in the form of Sega's NAOMI arcade architecture, one of the most long-living arcade systems in history. Sega continues to produce both arcade and home software despite the defunctness of its home hardware division.

Emulation

Because Sega's home hardware systems have all been discontinued, very little software remains in print to accompany them. This presents numerous difficulties to enthusiasts, researchers and historians hoping to play them. The majority of activity concerning discontinued software and hardware for Sega's home systems happens through unofficial homebrew releases and emulators.

By creating unlicensed software and emulators themselves, enthusiast “antiheros” demonstrate the skills and tools necessary to be “productive of [themselves]” (Burrill 124), becoming “the code, the coder and the decoder” (ibid)-- re-creating the hardware environments which created their identities through play in the past, re-articulating a new set of values in each new context of time or operating environment that the games are able to enter through emulation.

In 2006, Sega began offering official emulations of certain 'classic' games through the online Wii Virtual Console (Parish np)-- completing a circuit between arcades, Sega home consoles, masculine enthusiast-tinkerers and the “General Medium” of a broadband-enabled home console.

Works Cited

Burrill, Derek A. "Die Tryin': Video Games, Masculinity, Culture", 2008. Peter Lang, New York.

DeMaria, Rusel and Johnny L. Wilson. "High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games", 2002. McGraw Hill/Osborne, Berkeley CA.

De Peuter, Greig, Stephen Kline and Nick Dyer-Witheford. "Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing", 2003. McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal QC.

"It's Here, But Should You Buy One?" Electronic Gaming Monthly, September 1999. p168-175.

Kittler, Friedrich. "Optical Media", 2010. Polity Press, Malden MA.

Kohler, Chris. "Playing the SG-1000, Sega's First Game Machine". http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2009/10/sega-sg-1000/. Accessed November 13, 2010.

Parish, Jeremy. "The Best Virtual Console Wii Games". http://www.1up.com/do/feature?cId=3154803. Accessed November 13, 2010.