The video game industry is a world riddled with baseless overblown hype and severely selective memories. Step back from the hype train and you’ll find that there isn’t a developer or publisher around that hasn’t severely botched things up and fallen from grace more than a few times. Arguably the most famous and hardest of all these falls was Sega. In just a little over a decade Sega went from a household name whose mascot Sonic the Hedgehog was as well known to kids as Mickey Mouse, to being a bad punchline. With multiple and mostly useless Genesis/Megadrive add-ons, newer consoles that barely got off the ground due to very limited game libraries, and baffling marketing decisions pushing all of this as if nothing was wrong, Sega’s fall from grace was hard and largely of their own doing. Being an *ahem* “older” gamer, I was around for all of this and as a proud Genesis owner and Sonic the Hedgehog fan growing up, you weren’t going to find somebody who wanted to see Sega continue to succeed more than me. Mention Sega in any group of gamers today and there is a high chance that groans and eye-rolls will occur in short order, but the truth is that Sega has been doing great recently with multiple hits. However, Sega is still Sega and even all these years later they still excel at self-sabotage. So let’s look at the head-scratching case of a company pulling itself back from the edge of death while still finding time to shoot itself in the foot.
Atlus is one of the most respected game developers out there today with a deeply passionate fanbase that follows their every move. With their popular Shin Megami Tensei franchise with its spin-off series Persona having become a franchise in its own right; when Atlus moves, the industry pays attention. I sense some of you are confused, you thought this was supposed to be about Sega not Atlus, but I’m right on topic since Atlus has been a subsidiary of Sega since 2013! Scratch beneath the surface of the genre-defining RPG Persons 5 and one of the most loved titles of the last several years is at its core a Sega game. With Atlus’ rabid fanbase and history of trying new and quirky games, it is no wonder that Sega kept Atlus so independent but consequently, little of the goodwill for Atlus bleeds back into Sega proper. I’m not saying they need to make a big stink about things, but Sega deserves some of the credit here and it could only be to the benefit of the brand. Would slapping something like “In partnership with Sega” on Atlus games really hurt anything? I think not.
To make matters more frustrating, people can’t play any of the main Persona games other than 5 on a modern console. So many hungry new fans can’t experience the older games legally without already having the old systems or buying them only to play one or two games. It boggles the mind why Sega doesn’t have Atlus either port and/or update these games for modern gamers. It’s a move that’s doing gangbusters for the Yakuza franchise, why not do the same with Persona?
Speaking of the Yakuza games, I suppose it is time to address them. The Yakuza (Ryū ga Gotoku in Japan) series has been going on since 2005. Despite several of the games being released in the west, it only broke wide here with the release of Yakuza 0 in 2017. With this major uptick in fame fans in the west have been able to enjoy Yakuza 6, both Kiwami games, which were current gen remakes of the first two games, and the spin-off based off the classic manga series Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise. All this has been really great and it seemed like Sega really was on the ball, but it’s here where we fall back into frustration. Both Yakuza 3 and Yakuza 4 have recently had updated re-releases put out in Japan but there are no plans to release these games to the rest of the world at this time. I don’t have a business degree of any sort, but no part of this sounds like a good plan. The Yakuza series needs to promote itself widely as the next primary game won’t be about the previous games’ protagonist and fan favorite character, Kiryu. Even worse, the latest spin-off game Judgement, set to release in the west this summer, may face serious delays due to the drug scandal surrounding one of the actors used in the game. Sega runs the real risk of eroding its western audience; as the next release will make drastic changes to the base storyline and characters. Sega needs to wake up and get these updated versions to western players as soon as possible!
Finally, we need to look at the complete cock-up Sega has made of Sonic. I became a Sega fan because I’m a Sonic fan, falling in love with the franchise ever since getting to play a demo version of Sonic the Hedgehog in the basement of the local Woolworth (ask your parents, kids!). I probably never would have got a Genesis as a kid if not for my Sonic love which continues to this day despite Sega’s continual attempts to destroy it.
The issue isn’t that Sonic Team has no ideas; they have so many and slap whatever new gimmicks they can onto their games. That’s where we got nonsense like the talking magic sword and the “Werehog”. When they can’t come up with their own stuff, they ape other franchises, usually Mario. This distracts them from the main thing they should be doing which is making a good Sonic game. Even when they make good games these days, like Sonic Colors or Sonic Generations, they drown them out with a load of mediocre to awful titles chasing whatever is trending. They’ve repeatedly abandoned working game mechanics to chase the flavor of the day.
In contrast, the recent hit Sonic Mania was a game developed by creators that had created Sonic fangames and ROM hacks like developer Christian Whitehead. Sega tapped fans to make a game for the fans and what they made was a game that went back to the core gameplay of the franchise with a few new refinements and tweaks which was a smash hit. Around that same time, Sega’s Sonic Team gave us Sonic Forces, a game so forgettable that if it wasn’t often brought up how much of a letdown it was after Sonic Mania would have completely faded from the public consciousness. All people want right now is Sonic Mania 2 but so far Sega has expressed no interest in a follow-up which pushes well past the absurd and into the infuriating. If you need to copy Mario, why not build the Sonic version of Mario Maker and let the fans show you how it’s done. Track what people respond to and then try to integrate that into your own games. The Sonic Hacking Contest is a yearly fan event already, so why not tap even more directly into this passionate fanbase? It is such an easy and effective plan, but one Sega has no interest in doing making the whole thing all the more soul crushing.
If I can say one thing as a long time Sega fan, it is that the company has amazing consistency in its ability to confuse and infuriate its core audience; Sega should have been dead ten times over by now, but it is alive and thriving. The only thing stopping Sega from being bigger is Sega.
All Images © SEGA and/or © ATLUS