Not to bum you out and make you feel old, but anyone born in the mid-1990s or later probably doesn't remember when Sega was a genuine gaming giant. For them, it's been Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo making consoles, an arrangement that will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Sega is just a company that occasionally makes games for those other companies' platforms now.
That's depressing because, at one point in time, Sega was just about the coolest thing in gaming. Sega's best work was bold and stylish, unlike the family-friendly visage of Nintendo or Sony's slick, too-cool-for-school attitude. Franchises like Sonic (in the good old days) and Jet Set Radio showcased that in a way that holds up beautifully even now. Unfortunately, despite all the great memories Sega gave us over the years, there were also plenty of huge blunders, some of which ultimately proved fatal for the company's hardware business.
Luckily, it seems like things are on the upswing right now. Sonic Mania just came out and it's a fantastic (and much needed) return to form for the company's mascot. Still, it's worth remembering how bad things have been so we don't repeat our mistakes, right? Here are some of the biggest mistakes in Sega's history.
In 1994, the gaming landscape was rapidly changing. With the addition of a third dimension to play with, games were becoming bigger and more complicated. By year's end, the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn established themselves as competitors in the first real 3D console generation with their Japanese launches. It would be another year before they came to the States, and another two years before the Nintendo 64 threw its hat in the ring. The Atari Jaguar was there, too, if you want to count that (I don't).
Since Sega had a shiny new console that could render games in 3D, the obvious strategy is to support it as intensely as possible. However, the Saturn wouldn't be ready to launch in the West by the end of 1994, so Sega of America decided to make something of an alternative. The Sega 32X promised 32-bit gaming (it's like 16-bit but better) for a discounted price because it wasn't a brand new console. Rather, it was something you'd bolt on to the Genesis you already owned, offering additional power to bring the future of gaming to a console of the past.
The idea was you could get a taste of 32-bit gaming using a Genesis while you waited for its true successor. Why Sega thought developers would leap at the opportunity to develop games for something that was a less powerful stopgap for something that was already out in Japan is beyond me. The system got a paltry 40 games over its short lifespan, with little in the way of original, exclusive system sellers. Its catalog is defined by arcade ports like Virtua Fighter, Star Wars Arcade and Space Harrier. In total fairness to the 32X, Knuckles Chaotix is a pretty neat Sonic spin-off game and that version of Doom wasn't bad compared to other console ports at the time.
Still, the 32X failed to find a place in a market that wanted whole new consoles, not add-ons. Sega never made a compelling case for it against the PlayStation or even its own Saturn console. By 1996, after just two years on the market, the 32X ended production. That said, Sega of America wasn't done doing bizarre, ruinous things after the 32X.
It's May 1995 and the gaming press is huddled in the Los Angeles Convention Center at the very first Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. The biggest annual trade show in the video game industry is generally where bombshell announcements are made, but it's possible that Sega started the show with a show stopper, an announcement so bonkers in retrospect that arguably no E3 reveal since then beats it. Sega of America Tom Kalinske walked onto a stage and told the attendees that the Saturn, Sega's PlayStation competitor, was out that day. As in, you could go buy one right then and there for $400.
Keith Stuart wrote a fascinating account of the Saturn's US launch for The Guardian, but here's a quick summary: Both the Saturn and PlayStation were already out in Japan (Nintendo took its sweet time with the N64), and though Sega's machine was doing well, it was losing the marketing war to Sony. Sega of Japan president Hayao Nakayama wanted to make a splash and get people talking about the Saturn before the PlayStation could win hearts and minds in the US. Thus, Kalinske walked onto that stage and made that fateful announcement.
Unfortunately for Sega, retailers weren't quite ready for the launch and getting one wasn't easy initially. With a steep price and a launch lineup headlined by the excellent Panzer Dragoon, the lackluster Clockwork Knight and a version of Virtua Fighter that needed to be fixed and re-released later that year, the Saturn didn't make the best first impression in America. To rub salt in the wound, Sony's E3 press conference that year included head of development Steve Race to the stage, where all he said was "$299" before walking off.
Ouch. Not only did Sony frankly have the more compelling product, it was a whole Benjamin Franklin cheaper. To be clear, the Saturn was still able to carve out a niche for itself and be the home to several beloved games, like Panzer Dragoon Saga and NiGHTS Into Dreams. If you wanted mindblowingly accurate arcade ports, the Saturn was happy to provide. It isn't a bad console in any sense, but it shot itself in the foot at the starting line in the US and it never fully recovered.
However, there's one thing the Saturn notably didn't have.
When the Saturn launched in 1994, you could still feel good about Sega's mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was still fresh (hell, it is even now) from its release earlier that year and it would be a few years before he entered the realm of broken 3D platformers with weirdly serious storylines. Sonic did grace the Saturn a couple of times with Sonic Jam, a compilation of the Genesis games and Sonic R, a mediocre racing game with an incredible soundtrack. However, he never got his Super Mario 64, a Saturn game to bring him into the bold 3D future.
That wasn't for lack of trying. Sega announced at E3 1996 that Sonic X-Treme, a fully 3D Sonic the Hedgehog game, would come to the Saturn by the end of that year.
Lost Levels wrote the definitive history of Sonic X-Treme's development, but in short, internal politics and deadline pressure killed the game. Sonic X-Treme was mostly a Sega of America project made by a small team of just a few artists and programmers. It was to be a truly 3D platformer where the levels were made of polygons, but Sonic and enemies were made of sprites. It was made up of zones divided into acts like classic Sonic, without any of the overworld stuff that would come in the later 3D games.
Numerous engine changes meant the game wouldn't be ready for holiday '96 without intense crunch time. This resulted in designer Chris Senn accumulating so much stress that he lost 25 pounds and was told he had six months to live. He's fine now, but all you need to know is that Sonic X-Treme almost killed someone.
Ultimately, the Saturn never got a core Sonic game. That probably wouldn't have saved the console alone, but it's interesting to wonder how things would have gone if Sonic X-Treme had come out on time.
The Sega Dreamcast is one of the most remarkable consoles ever made. In just a couple years on the market, it managed to be home to an incredibly diverse and wondrous lineup of games. Jet Set Radio, Shenmue, Soul Calibur and Skies of Arcadia are all beloved and regarded as classics by many. There's also Sonic Adventure and its sequel, if that's what you're into. Honestly, that list doesn't even scratch the surface of its incredible library.
So why did it unceremoniously die and take Sega's hardware division with it in 2001? On a number of levels, it just couldn't compete with the PlayStation 2. Sega stalwart Tadashi Takezaki explained to Polygon back in 2015 that Sega was at a cost disadvantage compared to Sony, plain and simple. Sony owned the DVD format that PS2 games used, which meant the PS2 could also play DVD movies, a feature that sold the console on its own. Sega had to buy parts from external companies, on the other hand, meaning production was more expensive and the console never sold well enough to offset the cost.
The lack of a second analog stick on the controller also limited developers compared to the PS2, while EA pulling support from the console entirely meant extremely popular games like Madden would never come to the Dreamcast. It's a real shame because could have easily rivaled the PS2's excellent library had it gotten a full console lifetime. Unfortunately, it just didn't hit the right notes at the right time and Sega had to exit the console business because of it.
Sonic the Hedgehog (henceforth called Sonic 2006) is garbage. Among fully priced console games with major brands attached to them, it's probably the worst video game I've ever played. This isn't an unpopular opinion, as its awfulness has become something of a meme over the years. Just take a look:
There are scores of great videos that explore this game's many faults in detail, but here's the basic rundown:
How did this happen? It was rushed to launch in the same holiday season as the PlayStation 3 and suffered from typical development hurdles that come with developing games for new consoles. Its development was a mess but the game probably wouldn't have been good with an extra year of development time. It's rotten to the core and never should have been released. Not even on the 32X.
Alex Perry is a games writer based in Brooklyn. You can find him on Twitter.