Thoughts on the History of SEGA, part 10

Welcome back, friends, to our ongoing look at the history of SEGA.  We just finished talking about the hand-helds SEGA had produced, after discussing the end of Tom Kalinske’s career at SEGA and what led up to the Saturn’s release.  Today, we’ll take a look at that release.

Late November, ‘Ninety-Four saw the release of the Saturn to Japanese gamers—who couldn’t snap it up fast enough.  It was rushed out the door to beat Sony’s PlayStation, which meant there weren’t many games available at launch for it—but that didn’t seem to matter to the gamers.

First-generation Japanese SEGA Saturn.

Now, up until this point, SEGA had relied on being the name when it came to arcade machines.  They had clawed their way to be the king of the arcade hill in the mid-‘Eighties, and held onto that title with a vise-like grip, always staying one step ahead of competitors.  The leap to three dimensions was just another in a long line of concepts the company had leapt onto before anyone else.

While the Saturn wasn’t as powerful a machine as its arcade brethren, primarily due to the, ah, “interesting” design contained in that plastic case, it was the home for ports of SEGA’s arcade hits—starting with Virtua Fighter.  Available at launch, it perhaps proved that the Japanese heads of the company perhaps knew what they were doing when they disagreed with Kalinske’s stance that arcade ports wouldn’t be enough.  In Japan at least, it was the best decision they could have made.

Ever since the announcement at the first E3 that the console would be released early, gamers were wondering if that was a good idea—even back then, we understood the business side enough to know that releasing a console so much earlier than expected meant fewer launch titles.

In Japan, the machine became an instant hit, selling almost two hundred thousand units the first day, propelling SEGA into the number-one spot for home console sales in its home country, the first time in history.  Everywhere else, though—that’s a different story.

At the time, a worthy rival of Nintendo Power.

Around the world, it was released ahead of schedule to beat Sony to the shelves and the gamers.  In Europe, Sony had kept the marketing machine going, grabbing gamers’ interests.  Nintendo had suffered delays, so that combined with the popular SEGA Saturn Magazine helped keep the Saturn from being overwhelmed by Sony.  Interestingly, where—even today—many consoles require physically altering the hardware inside the case to play games from other regions, the European version of the Saturn required only the Action Replay, making importing titles incredibly easier.

In North America, the console had problems from the get-go.  For one thing, and a problem shared with Europe, being released so early (six months early, in this case) meant fewer launch titles.  A problem specific to the North American release was that SEGA had decided to only ship the Saturn to specific retailers, annoying the retailers left out as well as the gamers who gave those retailers their business.

Ultimately, one of the biggest contributing factors to the failure in the North American market was SEGA itself.  The 32X add-on for the Genesis was released not too long before the Saturn, and the Genesis as a whole lost SEGA’s support rather quickly thereafter.  This on top of the PlayStation being a full hundred dollars cheaper when it debuted only quickened the Saturn’s demise.  Worse, while SEGA mascot Sonic hadn’t been given a true game of his own.  Yes, he’d been in Sonic 3D Blast, but that was more of a retooled port of the Mega Drive/Genesis version.  He was also seen in Sonic R, but that was a racing title.  Then there was Sonic Jam, but that was just a compilation of his 2D games.

The one thing that would have helped—perhaps, given the strength of the character at that time, even propelled SEGA back into the top spot in Europe and North America—would have been Sonic X-treme—but it wasn’t to be.  The history of the game-that-almost-was is long and, put nicely, “complicated”, but the short version is that an insanely large number of people tried working on it, only to leave for varying reasons soon afterward, and what we have to show for that cluster-frank is—next to nothing.  A few screenshots that don’t really show much of interest and an attempt at a fan-made game that was originally a retooled X-treme, but then wasn’t, but was eventually canceled anyway.  Not exactly a great legacy, but then again, even when all this was new we could see SEGA starting to falter.

A goofy grin hides pure steel.

In ‘Ninety-Six, when Kalinske left the company, then-Vice President of Sony Computer Entertainment America Bernard Stolar was brought in as President of Sega of America to replace him.  Unlike his predecessor, Stolar was actually a fan of Hayao Nakayama, since the two shared a view that software was the most important factor of making video games and gaming consoles.

Now, Stolar had earned a reputation at S.C.E.A. as being an iron-fisted ruler, and that didn’t change one bit when he moved over to Sega of America.  As we remember from our discussion on the Dreamcast, he was far more concerned with doing what he thought was right than what anyone thought of him.  This was proved beyond doubt in ‘Ninety-Seven’s E3, when he made the controversial announcement that the “Saturn is not our future”, and stopped support of that console—just two years after its rocky debut—in favor of what he believed would save the company—the Dreamcast.

Wouldn't you want to avoid this guy punishing you?

Ironically, this came not long after SEGA’s interesting marketing campaign for the Saturn.  Perhaps proving that they didn’t dismiss everything Kalinske had been telling them over the years out of hand, in ‘Ninety-Seven they engaged in an intense marketing campaign for the Saturn, the most famous commercials being the ones featuring Segata Sanshiro, who would roam around punishing people for not playing the Saturn.  These commercials ran for two years, never really letting up all the while.

With Stolar’s famous “no R.P.G.s” stance and a desire to make the best darn console the world had ever seen, it seemed clear that SEGA, at least in North America, would start to climb back to the top of the heap once more—but it wasn’t to be.  We’ll get into the why of it next time.

Until then, happy gaming!


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