Thoughts on the History of SEGA, Part 03

Thursday, we covered the first forays of SEGA into gaming at home.  Today, we’re going to see what helped make it the gaming giant.

At that time, SEGA knew they had to come out with a better product than they had yet produced, and so they looked at what had gone wrong with their previous systems.  When they realized that the answer was “nearly everything, from marketing to hardware”, they set about updating everything.

the end result was the SEGA Mark III, and it hit Japanese gamers the same time the Nintendo Entertainment System hit North America.  The reception from Japanese gamers was—terrible, and the N.E.S. continued to dominate—now on multiple continents.

One can only imagine the heads of SEGA rubbing their faces and wondering why Nintendo didn’t just burst into a ball of flames so someone else could get a piece of the pie.

That aside, what didn’t help the Mark III was that there weren’t really many titles at launch, and there weren’t exactly a slew over the coming year.  Still, there were some solid titles, and that helped keep the system from being a complete wash.  Using “Super Scaler” technology, the games were faux-three-dimensional that were also simply downright beautiful to look at.  It started with Hang-On and Space Harrier, and ended up with titles like Altered Beast.  The games were solid, the hardware was solid—but Nintendo was still becoming a giant, looming over SEGA.

While we can’t know for sure what went on in the board rooms, it seems likely that one thing was realized—they had to break out in other markets.  They couldn’t stick to Japan if they wanted to really try and compete with Nintendo.  So, in Nineteen Eighty-Six, SEGA Enterprises went public in Japan and SEGA of America was founded, a wholly owned subsidiary designed to bring SEGA to American gamers.

Meanwhile, they retooled the Mark III and in ‘Eighty-Seven, a year after the N.E.S. hit North America, the SEGA Master System hit shelves.

This—was another bad move.  The problem wasn’t with the release—breaking into another market, the American one, was the best possible thing they could have done.  The problem was how it was handled.  

The system was solid—the base system was launched with Hang-On and Astro Warrior, two decent titles.  For a bit more than the base price, gamers could get a bundle that shipped with a Light Phaser and Safari Hunt, loosely “inspired” by the N.E.S.’ Duck Hunt.

There were a lot of games for the Master System that helped start to make SEGA a competitor for Nintendo, games that are still considered classics to this day—titles like Outrun and Zaxxon, but it must have been obvious that they couldn’t rely on such things.  The N.E.S., after all, had original titles like Super Mario Bros., and so they released Alex Kidd in Miracle World.  It was a great game, and it is likely that it could have carved a big niche in Nintendo’s dominance—if it had been released with the system.  Super Mario Bros. was a great game, too, and it was released with its system.

So, we have bad marketing strategies and bad handling of game distribution.  The Master System wasn’t exactly a failure, but it failed to stand up to the N.E.S.  SEGA started turning to gimmicks—including things like glasses with L.C.D. shutters for a three-D effect, the ancestor to modern memory cards, and more.  Whether it was general disinterest or a sizeable price tag, gamers just didn’t dig the gimmicks.

As ‘Eighty-Seven drew to a close, Nintendo had dominated the American market.  In another imagining of what went on in the board rooms, we can imagine men in suits throwing up their hands and saying some equivalent of “To heck with this“.  SEGA pulled out of the American market, and the distribution and marketing rights were sold to Tonka Corporation—who had absolutely no idea how to handle a video game system.

That didn’t stop them, though.  In a weird twist of fate, a company with, again, no idea how to handle marketing a gaming console was apparently the best company to do just that.  They helped get games like Shinobi into the American consciousness, which helped stave off the Master System’s death.  It didn’t—couldn’t—prevent it, but it did help keep it at bay.

Now, it’s also not like developers were snubbing SEGA, either.  Mind, this was back before such a thing as “developer rights” or the like.  At that time, most North American developers (or other developers looking to get their games into the hands of gamers) had to go through Nintendo—they were the only game on the block.  Even if they wanted to develop for the Master System, Nintendo had threatened to bar them from ever making Nintendo games again.  This would have been suicide.

As badly as the system had fared in North America, in Japan it fared even worse.  Nintendo was just too powerful, too big—nearly omnipotent, it must have seemed.

But—SEGA wasn’t out just yet.  The one place the N.E.S. didn’t dominate was Europe.  It was there that the Master Drive was better-received, which gave SEGA the ability for one more attempt at pushing Nintendo from the top of the Japanese and American gaming mountains.

In Nineteen Eighty-Nine, SEGA hit Nintendo with everything it had, wrapped up in the not-so-little package of the Mega Drive—which we’ll get into Wednesday.  See you then, fellow gamers!


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