Service Games – The Rise and Fall of Sega


Back in the 1990s a series of articles covering the history of Sega were written and put up on a website called Eidolon’s Inn as its Segabase. This covered the early days of Sega up until midway through the Sega Dreamcast’s lifespan. Those articles have now been reedited and bound into book form and extended up until the death of the Dreamcast and the company’s refocussing as a multiplatform publisher and developer. As such the book covers a lot of Sega’s history, from its foundation by an American expat in Japan through its arcade and Genesis/MegaDrive glory days and its final hurrah with the Dreamcast and everything in between.

[ This is a guest post from Levi from the Pandora boards ]

The first chapter deals with the founding of the company and the SG-1000. Second covers the MkIII and Master System. Next is a monstrous chapter detailing the Mega Drive/Genesis, some 72 pages long. Then separate chapters for the MegaCD/Sega CD and 32X. Two chapters cover the Saturn, and three finish off the main story with the Dreamcast. Finally, a chapter handles the same history from a European perspective.

No prizes for guessing where this ad was run...
No prizes for guessing where this ad was run…

As a historical artefact, I’d expect the book to take a chronological approach to the story, but unfortunately as it was written as a series of articles, this often isn’t the case. Chapters cover an era or technology running from the build-up to that technology through to its ultimate demise, which works well for a standalone article which needs an introduction, a middle and an end, but less well as a chapter in a story where you expect the story to continue on.

This has impacts on its ability to convey the entire history of Sega in an easy to follow way. It’s particularly noticeable in the first MegaDrive chapter, which runs from the design of the machine to the failed addons of the MegaCD and 32X, while the next chapters reiterate and expand on those ventures. The Saturn started shipping in the US a mere 6 months after the 32X, but since the 32X was first mentioned in the initial MegaDrive chapter the following two chapters make it seem a little like old hat by the time the Saturn is introduced.

Even within a chapter the chronology jumps about a bit presumably in an attempt to explain the scope and outcome of particular ideas, but in practice the historical hopscotch can make the story a little harder to follow than it ideally should be. Or perhaps it’s just because it’s hard to tie down the exact timing of events so far after the fact, and thus the correct chronology.

Thankfully, that piecemeal approach to the history largely fixes itself once we’re into the Saturn era, largely because I suspect that was when the majority of the book was actually written, as the history was unfolding. As I understand it the parts of the Dreamcast era chapters were written up from notes that had been written at the time but not actually made up into articles, but these chapters also don’t suffer from the same problems as the Genesis chapters, having not been assembled strictly looking back.

Sticking to the story as it unfolded gives it a more convincing feel, helping reassure you that nothing’s been missed out without resorting to taking your own notes. It also helps you to understand the motivation behind some of the decisions. The realisation that there was nothing they could realistically do would stop the coming PS2 towards the end is well spelled out.

I’m perhaps making too much of this patchwork storytelling of the earlier chapters, as it doesn’t really affect the majority of the book. There’s an impressive amount of research that has gone into these pieces, with a lot of quotes from industry figures. As such it’s a very different beastie from the Sensible Software book which was a series of recollections written after the event. It doesn’t have that personal touch, but it’s probably more valuable as a historical artefact for being based on quotes from the time.

It’s also not as much a celebration of the games, which are simply mentioned as they illustrate a market movement or other important event within the company. It’s a mature lookback at the failures and success of Sega as a company, not really Sega as a cultural icon, although since it traded on that reputation, at least some of that is covered, including the famous advertising campaigns through the ages in the US at least.

The book also omits the sources section at then end of all the articles on Segabase, which I suppose limits its use for historical research, but for the time being at least those are still available on the Segabase for the majority of the chapters.

The face of the enemy. Who knew? :)
The face of the enemy. Who knew?

I can’t opine on the historical accuracy of much of this work, not having lived in the US or Japan during the period covered, but it tells a compelling tale, especially the story of Sega’s overconfidence after the Mega Drive leading to a devaluing of its name and it being wrong footed time and again up, and the realisation and attempt to recover the company’s reputation with the Dreamcast. The european chapter tallies with my memories, but that chapter is a little more matter of fact, mainly covering who was selling what in which countries when, and sales figures.

It’s perhaps dismissive of the Japanese company leadership, portraying it as operating via a series of squabbles within itself and between them and the US office, and I don’t know how fair that is, but it does at least explain the actions of the company releasing the Mega CD and 32X and the Saturn shortly afterwards in a believable narrative. That’s a worthwhile achievement and it’s the best reason to get this book if you’re interested in the history of one of the major players in the history of video games so far. And I didn’t know of how Isao Okawa bailed the company out of its financial troubles allowing it to finish off the Dreamcast with a flourish and be in some position to continue on afterwards.

What it decisively isn’t is a sugar-coated trip down memory lane, revisiting the games of your youth. I have to respect it for that, even though it’s not really what I was expecting when I ordered the book, and despite the sometimes confusing narrative sequence of the early chapters.

The layout looks a little like the sort of thing you’d make on a DTP program in the 1990s, and the images, especially in the first few chapters are all things you would expect to find easily using an image search on the internet, but it’s clearly laid out, and in a few years all books look a little old fashioned anyway. I’d guess all the images on the original website have all been well-indexed over the years, which might explain their familiarity.

Seeing some of Virgin and Sega Europe’s UK adverts brought a nostalgic tear to my eye personally, and there are other graphical oddities like artwork of Sonic done for Wired magazine or early level design sketches done for the first Sonic game. Even if they’re sometimes a few pages from the text discussing them, they’re still worth seeing.

The Desktop Publishing revolution in action!
The Desktop Publishing revolution in action!

There is currently a Kickstarter campaign to enable them to print more hardback copies of the book, like I have. It’s a nice thing to have in your collection if you’re as much of a (lapsed) Sega fan as I. There’s currently over a week to go on the campaign, and you can still get the book in paperback or Kindle format through Amazon. To get a more open e-book format you’ll need to contribute to the Kickstarter campaign though. And you can still see much of the content (with extra spelling mistakes) on the Segabase.

I would recommend getting at least an e-book copy though as the editing has only left a couple of minor typos that I spotted, and apparently fixed a few mistakes and also finishes off the work nicely. It’s not without its flaws, though none are critical or detract from any of the tales documented in this book, and the result is an interesting and comprehensive history of Sega up till its exit from the hardware business.

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