The newest rage in the world of video games seems to be miniaturized classic consoles with a grand selection of their greatest games downloaded into them. After the success of the NES Classic and the subsequent follow-up with the Super NES Classic, you had to know Sega would hop on the mini train at some point. Unfortunately, Sega’s way of getting in on this trend was to hand a blessing to AtGames, which gave the world the Sega Genesis Flashback. And at first glance, the Flashback looks like a delivery from the silicon heavens; it has a whopping 85 games packed into it! That’s four times as good as that lame Super NES Classic and the mere 21 games programmed into it, right?
(Sucking air through teeth…) Well… Yeah, you know how Sega managed to keep shooting itself in the foot and doesn’t produce consoles anymore because of its famously stupid release strategies? Some bad habits are just that hard to snap. That list of “85 Classic Games” is an insult to Sega, the Genesis, and anyone who knows anything about the classic games of the 16-bit Golden Era. The game list includes a list of 28 unofficial, unlicensed games like Air Hockey, Chess, Hangman, Snake, and Wall-Breaking. That means 28 games on the Sega Genesis Flashback are smartphone games you play in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. What’s more forgivable is the inclusion of a handful of difficult-to-find games from the Master System and Game Gear; the Master System selection includes three Alex Kidd games (Alex Kidd held Sega’s official mascot spot until Yuji Naka churned out Sonic the Hedgehog) and the first Phantasy Star game, while the Game Gear selection includes Sonic Chaos and Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble. But when you get to the crux of the Flashback – AKA the Genesis classics, AKA The Entire Damn Reason You’re Buying the Thing – the collection is sorely lacking. Yes, it has a few offbeat choices like Sword of Vermilion, The Ooze, and Chakan: The Forever Man. Yes, it has the Mortal Kombat games. But the whole collection of games that are classics on the Genesis doesn’t give you anything that hasn’t already been made available on any other large-scale collection of classic Genesis games. Hell, you can go out and buy Sonic’s Ultimate Sega Genesis Collection for the Playstation or Xbox for a selection of games that’s better than this. What’s really notable are some of the games that aren’t here: Where the hell is Ecco the Dolphin? What about the notable action RPGs: Landstalker, Light Crusader, and especially Beyond Oasis? In the early, pre-Sonic days of the Genesis, Sega built its 16-bit brand on the strength of its sports game lineup. So where are all of them? Where are the third party exclusives?
Yes, we all give Sega their proper disrespects for nuking their own hardware division. But we overlook all the little mistakes Sega kept making which caused interested gamers to support Nintendo over Sega. We can complain about Nintendo’s family-friendly reputation or the way they keep leaning on their established franchises, but come on! In Nintendo’s case, those are nothing complaints. Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid are at the forefront of Nintendo’s game collections because they’re incredible franchises which have earned premier spots in the hearts of gamers everywhere. It kills gamers that Sega was close to being the juggernaut that Nintendo is. Sega had everything Nintendo did, they stole Nintendo’s market share for a little while, and industry dominance was within their grasp. When you fall from grace as hard as Sega has, though, bad hardware releases are only part of a much bigger problem. Here are some of my own educated ideas about why Sega, with the entire video game world almost theirs, blew it all to hell.
The Genesis Controller
Okay, the Genesis controller looked like Sega was preparing for a leap in game design back when the console was released; it had three action buttons and a concave d-pad, which proved to be forward thinking when games started getting more complex. But Nintendo eventually followed that by including a controller with six action buttons with the Super NES. Now, I hate the Super NES controller with a flaming vengeance, but that’s only because the action button placements – which introduced shoulder buttons – made the thing so uncomfortable for me to hold with my deformed hand. (Sony rescued my ability to play games one console generation later when it introduced the pistol grip.) Nintendo may have been late to the game, but the influence of the Super NES controller can’t be denied. Shoulder buttons are everywhere because Nintendo had an early vision of gaming with six buttons, and the Super NES caught fire just when fighting games started coming into vogue. Most fighting games require more than three buttons – the reigning king of the genre, Street Fighter, needs six, and its close peer Mortal Kombat started out needing five. So mainstream gamers who liked fighting games latched on to Nintendo. While Sega quickly got to work producing a six-button version of its primary controller, they never got around to packing it in with the Genesis. That means if you liked fighting games, you either fought with the clunky three-button layout or plonked down an extra $30 for a single six-button controller. The Genesis versions of Street Fighter II and the original Mortal Kombat may have been superior, but that meant little when they were barely playable with the pack-in controller.
Potential Franchise Abandonment
Real old school Genesis fans might remember Toejam and Earl. The two funky dudes from Funkotron starred in one of the key Genesis exclusives from the early days of the console – it came out just a few months after the first Sonic game. The game was quirky, fun as hell, and came with some of the console generation’s best character design. It was also very unique, and we haven’t seen anything quite like it since. And the characters themselves had designs and attitudes all of their own – they were strong characters. Even making exemption for Sonic’s recent appearance, there was no reason for Sega to avoid pressing ToeJam and Earl as representative characters to their brand; the duo even got a sequel in 1993. And then that was it! Although the two of them were a true 90’s duo – they sported sunglasses and backwards baseball hats – Sega avoided making anything new until launching them on the Xbox in 2002, and there’s been a fourth game in the rumor mill ever since. Much of the same story happened with Vectorman. Vectorman got two action games which are considered among the era’s best. Sega even timed the games to match up with Nintendo’s revival and subsequent reboot of Donkey Kong as a good guy. Like Nintendo, Sega used Vectorman to introduce a new graphic technique. But Donkey Kong got a ton of exposure on his way to becoming an indispensible part of Nintendo’s canon while Sega kept both its awesome new character and beautifully fluid new graphic technique under wraps, and Vectorman was never heard from again unless you count a cancelled Playstation 2 reboot which destroyed everything gamers loved about the originals. RiStar was a star-shaped, long-limbed character developed by Sonic Team who got one of the best platformers of the era before disappearing until showing up in the nostalgia packs. If ANY character was screaming for a mascot role, it was him. Even some of Sega’s tried-and-true characters got shafted. Anyone want to tell me why Shinobi didn’t show up on the Dreamcast after a popular arcade game and three brilliant and beloved Genesis carts? Holy shit, Sega.
Where the Cool Third Parties at?
One of Nintendo’s most infamous and public fuckups with the Nintendo 64 could have been avoided had they only paid more attention to Sega: The failure to secure any good third party exclusives early on. I’m not saying the Genesis didn’t have any amazing third party exclusives, but the ones that could have come in and created a buzz for Sega – like Castlevania Bloodlines and Contra: Hard Corps – didn’t come in until later in the console’s lifespan. By then, it was getting to the point where everyone who had to go with one console or the other had made up their minds, and the ones partial to both owned both. And Sega wasn’t exactly partial to highlighting the third party games that would have helped their cause. Gunstar Heroes may be a beloved classic now, but almost everyone missed it because no one knew it was there. And you have to look at some of these exclusives: F-22 Interceptor? That was a flight sim where you flew a VERY preliminary version of the jet fighter that eventually became the F-22 Raptor. Toughman Contest was a first-person boxing game in the mold of Punch-Out. Some of these third party games were truly excellent, of course; they helped make the Sega Genesis into the SEGA GENESIS. But they didn’t stand by anything that would have created any franchise recognition.
I Want My RPG
Okay, so when Sega started creating RPGs, they had the deck stacked against them already – Nintendo had Enix and Squaresoft signed as second party developers, and they had delivered Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy on the NES. The Super NES gave fans two more Final Fantasy games and Chrono Trigger, widely considered the greatest RPG ever made. But Sega didn’t exactly start off the RPG standoff from a great deficit; after all, they created Phantasy Star, and for three games, Phantasy Star was able to fight blow for blow with Final Fantasy for 16-bit RPG supremacy. (With hindsight, this looks pretty silly because Phantasy Star – while it acquits itself rather nicely in the bigger picture – hasn’t aged nearly as well as Final Fantasy.) Sega also created the Shining series, a very good series of strategic RPGs which became beloved by its fans. Then Sega took things to the next level… By creating the Sega CD and shoving almost every piece of RPG-related software onto it! I guess Sega figured they were going to get some extra Sega CD sales by placing a genre with hardcore cult fans onto it, but hardcore doesn’t mean stupid. If anyone was stupid, it was Sega for thinking anyone was going to pay the $300 for the Sega CD – more than the Genesis itself – to play a single genre of games. So the Genesis didn’t attract any RPG players, even though Lunar: Eternal Blue, Popful Mail, Vay, and other games were on it because Sega went out of their way to price gamers out. Speaking of the Sega CD…
That Damn CD Player
It cost $300. Was it worth it? Well, RPG players didn’t exactly take to it, even though their favorite genre’s output from Sega was almost exclusively there. The selection of other games on the Sega CD were FMV games which were barely interactive and a list of games ported from having been on the Genesis already, in some cases for months or even years in advance. Yes, the Sega CD had Sonic CD, which is frequently considered Sonic the Hedgehog’s best game (and that’s NOT an opinion I concur with). It had better ports of games that were already classics on the Genesis, like Eternal Champions, Ecco the Dolphin, and Earthworm Jim. But Sonic CD wasn’t worth a $300 add-on and anyone who wanted those classics was already happy playing them on the Genesis. So no, it wasn’t fucking worth it. Not even close.
Taking the Sonic Out of Sonic Team
It’s pointless to prattle on about how Sonic the Hedgehog’s transition to three dimensions ruined him – every other game writer of my generation has covered that at length. I’m going to point out that Sonic’s fall started right out on the Genesis, and that it should have been obvious right from the start. Sonic’s final outing on the Genesis was Sonic 3D Blast, which was primarily done by Traveller’s Tales. Now, we have to note a couple of things about Sonic 3D Blast: First, the game is a technical marvel, and Traveller’s Tales made an obvious herculean effort to get it right. Second, they understood the true appeal of Sonic’s core games: Exploration. Speed was a big part of it, but the real fun was in launching Sonic in a random direction and seeing where he would end up. The trouble happened because exploring was an option in the core games, and if you hated a level, you could always run Sonic out of it as fast as possible. Sonic 3D Blast didn’t have that option. It not only required exploration – a bad enough sin as it was – but it also turned the best part of Sonic into a combination fetch quest/escort mission. Can you think of a worse combination of genres to put together? And to top it off, they threw it all into an isometric view which rendered a lot of Sonic’s signature abilities useless. There’s a safe argument to be made that every sin committed by the 3D titles was some sort of effort to right the wrongs started in Sonic 3D Blast. There’s another safe argument to be made that everything Sonic did wrong since started here.
The Selections on those Classics Collections
You would think that, somewhere along the line, Sega would have learned a few useful lessons. Well, you have to give them credit for a couple of things, anyway: They DID learn lessons. But they didn’t seem to learn the RIGHT lessons. Even now, having made the switch to third party development, they don’t seem to understand much of their own appeal. Look at the numerous collections of Genesis classics they’ve been offering since the Dreamcast days: Toejam and Earl and Sub-Terrania haven’t shown up on any of them! Yet Sega is intent on shoving Golden Axe and Altered Beast down our throats at every turn. Golden Axe is fairly forgivable because of the mix of beat-’em-up gameplay and a strict fantasy setting. But Altered Beast? Look, I know it was a hit and people liked it at the time, but if any popular video game was like pop music, Altered Beast is it. It’s a guilty pleasure that people hate themselves for once loving. It’s more of a gimmick than a game, and not a particularly unique one these days. No one cares about it. On their newest collections, instead of rectifying this situation, Sega threw Alien Storm at us. NOBODY GIVES A FUCK ABOUT ALIEN STORM! We barely give a shit about Golden Axe, and Alien Storm is just a slightly deeper version of Golden Axe with a sci-fi slant! Meanwhile, Beyond Oasis has shown up once, Dynamite Headdy has shown up once, Toejam and Earl and Landstalker and Light Crusader have all been absent, Shining in the Darkness has shown up once, RiStar has shown up twice, and where the fuck is MUSHA?! Iconic third party games are gone. Furthermore, every game they release was available for the Genesis. A few games from the Sega CD would be nice inclusions. Sonic CD, as mentioned, is still widely considered the best Sonic game ever made. The FMV games – especially Night Trap, which was mentioned in congressional hearings – should be included for posterity’s sake. And, again, they’re not placing any third party games on these things, so iconic titles like Aladdin and Castlevania Bloodlines still aren’t available to 16-bit fans who never owned them. Yeah, Sega seems hell-bent on applying its shitty console release strategies to its classic collections.
Where are the 32-Bit Classics?
I guess Sega’s 32-bit failures have given them the impression that no one cares about their offerings from that doomed era, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Chaotix, Clockwork Knight, the Virtua Fighter games, Daytona USA, Panzer Dragoon, Nights, Shinobi Legions, and a grab bag of other games are not only remembered, but loved. So where have they been hiding?
The Coolest Part of Sonic and Knuckles
Sega had a dream when it released the first Sonic the Hedgehog game: Being able to hook it up to a cartridge of a future game in the series. And by the time Sonic the Hedgehog 2 rolled around, it wasn’t a dream anymore; Sega was well aware of the fact that they could do it. And they designed a few areas of Sonic 2 with that whole concept in mind. Sonic 3 came in and went, and Sega did the same thing. Then came the fourth game in the series, Sonic and Knuckles, and the concept came to fruition. You could physically hook Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 up to Sonic and Knuckles to play through both of those games as Knuckles and open up new areas. The concept was taken to a new length in Sonic 3, where Knuckles had access to places which felt like an entirely different game, and which also offered the option of playing through Sonic and Knuckles as Tails. Then the nostalgia packs came out with every Sonic game on them, and this whole concept was entirely absent. That’s leaving chunks of all three of those games closed off to exploratory players. (And it also begs the question: Why did Sega use that technology only that one time?)