Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Times are tough; money is scarce. Even devoted gamers are forced to watch every penny they spend on their beloved pastime. So when a little blue hedgehog told me about a deal where I could get 48 classic Sega games for fifteen bucks I forked over the gold rings and bought a copy of Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection. I was raised in a Nintendo household, but I thought this might be a good opportunity study the fossil records of some classic games. After some contemplation, I’ve realized why Sega lost the console war of the late eighties. It wasn’t the archaic graphics or outdated control schemes that put me off these titles today; it was their total lack of innovation.
While Nintendo may be infamous for its reluctance to deal with adult themes or offer original plots and storylines, there is no denying that their innovations have shaped a great deal of the medium today. Sega, despite their superior graphics and sleeker spokes-character, was keen to refine and duplicate Nintendo’s ideas, but offered few of their own to the primordial stew of early video games.
I realize that the titles contained in Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection are not all highlights on Sega’s curriculum vitae, but it does include some of the most popular games from the platform: the Streets of Rage series, the Golden Axe series, Ecco the Dolphin, and of course the first three Sonic the Hedgehog games. The collection also includes a number of RPGs and innumerable side-scrolling brawlers that do not warrant more than a moment’s glance. These games illustrate Sega’s policy of borrowing from Nintendo and frequent iteration.
In art and entertainment it’s bad enough to see old ideas recycled into irrelevance (see most summer movies), but to have developers mimic their own creations without adding substantive elements is tedious and uninteresting. Such inbreeding leads to genetic depression, as evidenced by a comparison of Nintendo’s and Sega’s signature titles. The first three Mario games were virtually identical in terms of plot, but varied greatly in visual style and game play. In the first there were two power-ups, the fire flower and the invincibility star. By the third game there were more than seven power ups plus a variety of new puzzles and mini-games. The Sonic the Hedgehog series offered a few new elements by its third installment, Sonic and Knuckles, but it was released four years after Super Mario Brothers Three. As Sega continued to work on perfecting its fins and tail, Nintendo was taking its first steps on dry land.
Our place in history gives us the benefit of knowing how this evolutionary tale ends. By the turn of the millennium, Sega’s early failings in innovation caught up with it and the world’s speediest azure erinaceidae was run down by the steady march of time. As a game, Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection serves less as a source of nostalgia and entertainment and more of a cautionary tale to developers who content themselves to re-hash old ideas rather than come up with new ones.
But the story is far from over. As gaming’s ace predators Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony content themselves with the profits from each reiteration and hasty reboot, a quiet revolution is taking place. Independent developers and home brew game designers are beginning to make themselves seen in the public eye. Though rough in form and small in scale, games like Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death, ThatGameCompany’s Flower, and Jonathan Blow’s Braid are taking the medium in bold new directions. If history gives us any indication of what the future will hold, the top place on the food chain belongs to those who dare to tread on new ground.