Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Survival of the Daring

by C.T. Hutt

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 It wasn’t the archaic graphics or outdated control schemes that put me off these titles today; it was their total lack of innovation.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.


6 comments:

  1. One blatant error in need of correcting: There are four Sonic the Hedgehog titles in the collection, outside of spin-offs. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was the third installment, not Sonic & Knuckles, which was the fourth. (This collection is lacking the lock-on cartridge functionality S&K had originally and in the separate a la carte XBLA releases.)

    Ugh, but what a strange article in general. Had it been posted elsewhere with a more sensationalist headline I'd almost suspect it of being made with the express purpose of creating an angry backlash.

    Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros. evolved along similar paths, refining what their predecessors brought to the table with little exception. Mario added more power-ups and mini-games along the way, and Sonic did the same added more power-ups (three flavors of shield) and mini-games (bonus and special stages) along the way as well. Mention that both their third titles were "four years apart" is of little relevance would only matter in an argument about specifics, and they are quite stylistically different: one couldn't simply say Sonic has an advantage over Mario because Sonic came up with the spin dash "first", for example.

    The assertion that RPG classics like Phantasy Star and Shining Force do not warrant more than a moment's glance is particularly damning. I'd almost suspect that you didn't give more than a moment's glance to anything in the collection.

    No, Sega's downfall in the hardware market had much more to do with their inept business decisions in the latter half of the 1990s regarding their Genesis add-ons and the Saturn than with the quality of their software. Doubt among their retail partners following the Saturn and the strong showing of the PlayStation 2 led to the end of the Sega as a hardware maker, not a lack of innovation, which their final console *especially* did not lack.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well Angelo, color me dead wrong for not giving credit where credit is due with regard to the Phantasy Star series. Those games were indeed an impressive piece of innovation and pivotal in the foundation of the turn based RPG subgenre. I realize that Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles were in fact separate titles, but cut me a little slack will you? The cartridges fit together for god sake. Further, a difference of four years between releases is no small potatoes, particularly in the very first stages of the medium. We can never know for certain of course, but I think if Sega had branched out a little more in those formative years rather than doing the safe thing and making their signature title a side scrolling adventure game, they might still be in the hardware business.

    I’m not trying to say that Sega didn’t offer any innovation to the medium, they absolutely did, but I stand by my hypothesis that they didn’t offer nearly enough and that is what I ultimately killed them. The success of the PS2 that you mentioned was due to the fact that Sony was simply making better and more innovative games.

    The video game business is driven by innovation and software, not hardware. Just look at a match up on the specs between a PS3 and a Nintendo Wii, Sony is ahead by light years. However, compare their sales figures and it is obvious that Nintendo is ultimately the big bread winner. This is because Nintendo captured people’s attention with the innovation of the motion sensitive controller rather than just coming out with a more expensive version of their last console. The PS2 was a better system than both the Saturn and the Genesis, even with its many deformed peripheries, but it was still Sega’s fault for not coming up with games that challenged the status quo and that people actually wanted to play.

    ReplyDelete
  3. What a weird post. Fair play if you don't like SEGA games, or the Ultimate Genesis Collection, but you are making a strange point about SEGA as a company and their downfall.

    Like: "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."

    - What games are you talking about? I can't really think of ANY games on the Ultimate Genesis Collection that have been 'copied' from Nintendo titles. (Please correct me if I'm wrong).
    Sonic is possibly the closest - but Sonic and Mario games are really miles apart in terms of gameplay, level design, character design and even plot.

    Also: "The success of the PS2 that you mentioned was due to the fact that Sony was simply making better and more innovative games."

    -Say what?
    No, it was because Sony made technically better HARDWARE, had backing of many more developers and publishers and tons more money to throw at worldwide advertising of their system.

    There weren't many games actually made by Sony when the Dreamcast was still around - at least not many that really contributed to the PS2's initial success and popularity.
    It was companies like EA, Square Enix, Rockstar and Konami that made hugely popular games specifically for the PS2.

    And also: "but it was still Sega’s fault for not coming up with games that challenged the status quo and that people actually wanted to play."

    You kidding me?!
    During the Saturn and Dreamcast eras SEGA was pretty much THE only hardware company even trying to make games that "challenged the status quo"!

    Think of games like; NiGHTS, Chu Chu Rocket, REZ, Virtual On, Shenmue(!), Panzer Dragoon Saga, Samba De Amigo - Dude they have made so many more unique games than Nintendo.

    Yes SEGA has fallen off the wagon in recent years. But it's Nintendo that is playing it safe as far as games go.
    Nintendo have had massive success with a few genres of gaming, namely Platforming (Mario) and Adventure (Zelda) games - with a little bit of racing (Mario Kart). Yes there are some others, but not many that have been consistent.

    It's SEGA that did manage to find continuing success in many different genres throughout the years - Platforming, RPGs, Racing, Fighting, Lightguns, On-Rail Shooters, Puzzle games and more.

    Yes, again, SEGA hasn't been on the ball much in these areas of late. But they did hold many strong franchises in the above genres - where Nintendo found pockets of success.
    I can't think of any Nintendo games that fall under the Fighting, Light Gun, On-Rail Shooters or Racing (I mean more realistic racing - not Mario Kart) genres.
    And the only RPG I can think of from Nintendo that has seen huge success is the Pokemon franchise - and that was only really big due to the popularity of the tv show.
    - I'd like to see how long the franchise would have survived if the tv show never existed.

    Current times Nintendo has relied heavily on Mario, Mario Kart and gimmicks. Fair play - it's totally worked out for them.
    But as for creating really innovative gaming software - they are far off the mark.

    "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."

    - Except that's not the case in modern times. Take a look at the biggest sellers around. Gamers (well the majority) all seem to want the same games over and over again.
    Mario, Call of Duty, Battlefield, God of War, Halo, Gears of War...
    It's solid games with decent gameplay, but also games that are easy to understand and are familiar, that are selling. Not innovation.

    ReplyDelete
  4. God, I love Rez. What an awesome game. Also, I think you're definitely right in terms of innovation not being the primary motivator in sales at the moment, GForce. Or, if it is innovation, it is only innovation of the steady, rather than dramatic kind, like the current fascination with motion controls. An exciting idea, sure, but that doesn't mean every game needs them.

    That being said, I hope the future proves that those dramatically innovative games Chris mentioned work their ideas into more popular titles and improve the medium for everyone. All it takes is for intelligent gamers to support those exciting new developers with our money, voices, and time! Let's make it happen.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Sorry C. Hutt but you're way, WAY off in your "hypothesis". You can't base Sega's failure from playing the Sega Genesis Ultimate collection, actually that disc reaffirms that Sega was in fact at the forefront of innovation and pushing the envelope, because those games were some of their BEST titles! (And there's plenty more on the Genesis that didn't make the cut). It was thought that the Sega Genesis couldn't pull off what Nintendo did, but through some software manipulation and "innovation" of their own they could do "some things" not everything. Plus the Genesis was actually faster in terms of speed, games played smoother on the genesis than games on the SNES.

    What about CD-based gaming? Though Turbo Graphix had the first CD-based titles, it was the Sega CD that put it in the spotlight (forget 3DO, that expensive garbage). and I will agree Sony put CD-based gaming on the map. But Sony cheapened because for every hmm.... I'll say 20 games, you might have one in that 20 that was good. What about online play? wasn't Sega Dreamcast the first home console to have it? What does Sony have that's innovative? The Eye Toy? Nintendo? Wii-motion control, which only put motion control in the spotlight but motion control goes back to the power glove... which was failure if I'm not mistaken. If we're talkin software innovation, I think the titles mentioned by GForce is more than enough, but ultimately Sega had/has the most unique titles in the gaming industry.

    What ultimately killed Sega was lack of faith and marketing power. Too many people felt burned by the Sega after the Sega CD, Sega 32X, and the Sega Saturn that when the Dreamcast came out, no one really cared. Also Sony marketed the hell out of their system(s), even though tons of their titles really were rushed garbage.

    But Gforce nailed it and really that's all that needs to be said. Hutt, you need to go beyond the Genesis collection before you say innovation killed Sega, because without a doubt Sega supported their hardware strongly with THE BEST first party titles out there.

    There needs to be another collections disc.

    ReplyDelete
  6. a particular memory of innovation in Sega games came up while reading this... I remember the Road Rash series being one of the first racing games with realistic (relative to other games) use of gravity and the physics of going up hills, tilting while turning, etc. Also, it had traffic and other more realistic obstacles. Finally, I remember one of the later Road Rash titles (3?) being one of the first titles to include licensed rock music in it (I really liked the Soundgarden song, in particular).

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.