The history of the company called Sega is relatively well-known. It was founded in Hawaii in 1940 as a company providing amusement machines to military bases there. Later, it moved to Japan, went through a series of mergers and acquisitions, lean times and successes and emerged as a giant in the industry of videogame manufacturing.
Sega has been, alternately, an American company, a Japanese company, an arcade game manufacturer, a console manufacturer, a hardware company and a software company. It survived a World War, two market crashes, 9/11 and the dismantling of its hardware empire. It survived multiple generations of bad Sonic the Hedgehog games. It survived going head-to-head against Nintendo.
Where so many other companies have failed, Sega has survived, and at times even thrived. In the late 1980s, the company developed a gargantuan cult following which persists to this day. Its console machines have persistently achieved technological – if not commercial – superiority. Its games have routinely been considered among the best ever made. Its core network architecture provided the backbone for Xbox Live.
Yet all of this is relatively well known.
What often gets passed over in these capsule histories is the fact that Sega, the company, has always made games. It was born as a videogame company, thrived as a videogame company, suffered as a videogame company and was reborn, again, as a videogame company. Of the major names in videogame making, only Sega can say this. Nintendo’s history as a company founded to make playing cards is also well known, but playing cards are not videogames and neither Sony nor Microsoft can say they were founded to make games of any kind. Sony’s first products were tape recorders, and Microsoft’s is well known (but it wasn’t a videogame).
It would seem to make sense, then, that Sega, a company with videogames woven into the very fabric of its existence, would make great games. It makes sense that many of the most well-known arcade cabinets (After Burner, Altered Beast, Crazy Taxi, Golden Axe, Hang On, House of the Dead, Monaco GP, Out Run, Shinobi, Virtua Fighter and Zaxxon) are emblazoned with the Sega name. It would make sense that Sega’s most well-known console machines (Sega Master System, Genesis, Saturn and Dreamcast) are considered the most advanced of their generation. It would make sense that the star of its preeminent videogame creation (Sonic the Hedgehog) is one of the most recognizable icons in the world.
Given that Sega is a company that was created to make videogames, it would make sense, with videogame industry revenues rapidly approaching one hundred billion dollars per year, that Sega survives. What does not make sense is that Sega, so successful, so innovative, so well-loved, has the reputation of being a perpetual “also-ran.” That in spite of its successes, it has always been considered a second-place finisher. That for all who love it, there are many more who do not.
This week we turn the eye of The Escpaist toward Sega, the company of contradictions, in an attempt to understand what it is that makes Sega so unique and so troubled. Brendan Main pokes at the technological curiosity that was the 2000 Dreamcast game Seaman, Lisa Gay examines the massively popular cult RPG Shining Force, our own Steve Butts examines the strange attraction of the seminal console RTS Herzog Zwei and for my contribution I will attempt to put the arrival of the 16-bit console, Sega’s “Genesis” into cultural perspective. Enjoy.