Thoughts on the History of SEGA, Part 06


Welcome back, friends, to our look at the history of SEGA.  Last time, we discussed the two men who were arguably the most influential in SEGA becoming a success in North America.  Today, we’ll start on the path that eventually led to SEGA’s downfall.

Now, to be quite fair, it’s easy to say this was a great idea and that was a dumb one.  We can look back after decades of watching how innovation happened, where it happened, how it was received, and so on.  We can almost plot a line graph with peaks for the good ideas and valleys for the bad ones.

Back then, though—it was like a new frontier.  This was the beginning of the ‘Nineties, and there was still a good bit of a “will this actually work?” mentality when it came to playing video games at home.  Things wouldn’t get settled enough for the “just seeing what’s possible” mentality I’ve spoken of often on this site for a few years.

You can, however, see the beginnings of that mentality—as well as the roots of SEGA’s downfall—in that same beginning of the decade, specifically the SEGA Mega C.D., usually just known as the SEGA C.D.

This is how Nintendo and SEGA should have done it: Executive Kombat!

Now, the Genesis was at the top of its game in North America and Europe.  The Genesis had successfully usurped Nintendo’s King of the Hill crown by overtaking Nintendo’s share of the market.  The Mega Drive, the Japanese “cousin” to the Genesis, had—not fared quite so well.  The heads of the “home” division of SEGA had disagreed with pretty much anything Katz/Kalinske (depending on who is doing the retelling) had suggested, perhaps disregarding the Genesis’ rather meteoric rise in popularity—and, thus, profitability.

Now, then, while SEGA and Nintendo were duking it out, it’s important to remember that they weren’t the only ones on the block trying to get video games into kids’ hands.  N.E.C. Corporation, the group behind the TurboGrafx-16, weren’t idle.  They came out with a C.D. attachment for the console, appropriately if unimaginatively calling it the TurboGrafx-16 C.D.  It was the first console to have such a thing, and the first time the format was used to store information for video games.

Not being idiots, SEGA—both divisions—realized this was the start of something big.  Tom Kalinske recalls that SEGA of America had teamed up with Sony in what amounted to an “experiment”.  It was a truly collaborative experience—people and ideas alike traded back and forth, ideas mentioned and pondered, some approved and some dismissed.  Eventually they came up with a plainly written document that could be easily understood even by those who didn’t fiddle with microchips for a living.  It not only outlined the specs of a potential prototype, but as a matter of course showed how the two companies would work together.

One of the main draws of the joint venture was that it was projected they’d initially lose money on the hardware (to be recouped later in software sales), so if both companies split the losses, it wouldn’t hurt either company overmuch.  Further, they could combine marketing strategies and—more importantly—finances, all but ensuring the console would be in every home that had a member of the target demographic.  Each company would be responsible for the software sales, but it was still a win/win proposition.

Sony’s heads gave it a thumbs-up, while SEGA’s—didn’t.

Two years later, both companies regretted turning Sony down

The rationale makes a sort of sense—SEGA fought tooth and claw to end Nintendo’s stranglehold on the market, and while the company wasn’t as huge a success in Japan as it was in North America and Europe, the home division wasn’t exactly in real financial danger, either.  They fought to be King of the Hill, so why should they share the position?  No, they said, SEGA would develop the next console on its own.

Humorously, around this time, Sony brought their ideas for a C.D.-R.O.M.-based console to Nintendo, who turned them down as well.  One must imagine that Sony’s executives all said something to the effect of, “If these jerks don’t want us, we’ll make our own console and show them all!”  I, personally, like to imagine mad cackling filling the board room as well.

Anyway, back on-point.  Around this time, Nintendo was starting to really understand that SEGA was more than a Johnny-come-lately who could be quashed.  While it’s a trite cliché these days, back then, SEGA (at least, the American division) really did things differently.  While Nintendo was still trying—and, thankfully, by this time failing—to grab third-party developers by their happy places, SEGA developed a better rapport with them.  This, surely, only fueled the exponentially-growing animosity felt by Nintendo.

Sega Mega-CD console sitting underneath a Sega...

SEGA Mega C.D. underneath a Mega Drive

What didn’t help was the SEGA C.D.  Interestingly, while it was still in development, the engineers were kept as much in-the-dark as possible, so they were never quite sure just what it was they were working on.  While the hardware was being finished, SEGA looked around for some good software to package with it.  The key seemed to be full-motion video.  So, they had what seemed like good hardware, what seemed like good software, and it was only a matter of releasing it.

Come Autumn of ‘Ninety-Two, the SEGA-C.D. hit the market.  One of its launch titles is important—Night Trap.  The plot is pretty basic—six girls go to a lakeside cabin and mysteriously disappear.  Six others go to the cabin and it’s up to the player to keep them alive.  It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but it did have the dubious honor of being not only the first F.M.V. video game, but—and here’s the dubiousness in the honor—it also started a snowball which would run over everyone, from the developers and publishers, to the gamers.

If the first round of heated battle between the companies was through advertising, the second round was over ratings—and instead of being fought with television commercials, it was fought with testimony at Senate hearings.  To get to the Senate floor, let’s backtrack a little bit.

Senator Lieberman, A.K.A. Pre-Thompson

One of the men primarily responsible for the hearings was a man named Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Senator, who had a Chief of Staff named Bill Anderson.  His young son wanted Mortal Kombat, and Anderson didn’t know anything about it beyond hearing it was violent.  He and Lieberman checked it out and—were flabbergasted.  (To be fair, it’s Mortal Kombat; if it weren’t for the shock value, it might not have been a viable competitor for Street Fighter, and we all know it had shock value in spades.)

Meanwhile, Night Trap was causing plenty of controversy of its own.  Though it featured no nudity or overt gore (and was clearly labeled as not being for children), it did feature girls in nightgowns with the ever-present threat of death looming over them.  That was enough.

Now, both Nintendo and SEGA did their own versions of deciding what was and wasn’t suitable content to publish, and had for a while.  Nintendo is notorious for its ham-fisted, near-tyrannical censorship, but SEGA wasn’t exactly throwing lewd parties, themselves.  They were more “relaxed” about the whole affair, letting software developers mostly censor themselves, though they weren’t above slapping stickers on game boxes when they felt a game might not be great for the younger set (and, admittedly, when they felt like it).

It soon became apparent to SEGA that ratings were more important than just “this is gory”.  They were part of a team that sought to figure out a good, solid ratings systems for games and how it would be applied, when, all that jazz.  Interestingly, when Nintendo was asked to partake in these talks, they declined, perhaps feeling their internal censorship was more than adequate (and considering how strict their policies were, that’s not exactly a far-fetched idea, nor is it really inaccurate).

Cover art for Night Trap

Now—add Mortal Kombat shocking Lieberman, the potential gore-that’s-threatened-but-never-realized in Night Trap, and a group of people trying to figure out a ratings system for a hobby that was, and we’re being generous, still in its infancy (and thus hadn’t developed enough history to judge from) and you get a cluster-frank that got swept up and turned into Senate hearings.

Now, Lieberman the primary exception, people on all sides of the issue actually had good points.  Remember, this was before the days of the Jack Thompson Wacky Shenanigans Jamboree, when “trying to protect the children” actually meant trying to protect the children (Lieberman seemed to be under the impression [later espoused by Thompson, interestingly enough] that kids were murderous, psychotic hormone-bags just waiting to explode, so violence in a video game—especially one with any kind of light gun peripheral—inherently “gives them the wrong idea”).

The backlash for this was—pretty much what one would expect.  We’ll get into that Wednesday, however.  Until then, enjoy tomorrow’s Tuesday Top Ten!

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