While Sega is best known for coming up with a number of cool innovations, unfortunately this terribly oversized six button belt buckle is not one of them!
Who are the true innovators in the video game industry? What companies believe in being ahead of the curve, instead of comfortably inside it? The crown of innovation these days is often presented to Nintendo, but they are hardly the reason why we have everything that we take for granted today. Sega, in 1989, actually responded to the claims that Nintendo ruled innovation and began the ad campaign that claimed, "Genesis does what Nintendon't." Nintendo and Sega have always followed different company goals: Nintendo is all about the home console market while Sega has delivered to both the home and the arcades. In the end, though, both companies have been most interested in money and securing their own future. To do this, they innovation is required. So is it true that Nintendo is the king of innovation? What has Sega done in their history to add to the industry? As with almost everything in history, it depends on whom you ask.
Sega released the Sega Master System in 1986 (aka the Mark III) in order to directly compete with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Even while the Famicom controlled 90% of the market in Japan, Sega decided
Sure it has the worst cover art ever, but when it came to the Sega Master System you always knew when you were getting a card-based game!
to go ahead and release the Master System to the U.S. and Europe. Not content to just use cartridges, the Master System was also designed to use small, plastic cards that stored less data but cost less money. Sega rarely used the cards, but the technology would later be expanded on by NEC for the TurboGrafx-16 console's HuCards.
Nintendo had the name recognition, the larger marketing budget, and its games with tight limitations for third-parties. Also, third party developers that created a game for Nintendo's 8-bitter could not release that game for a different console. Guaranteed exclusives are guaranteed cash, no matter if the games are good or not. Despite these advantages, though, Sega had a few cards up their sleeve, including innovation above and beyond the card-based data of the Master System.
If the 1950s have taught us anything it's that 3D glasses suck (and that giant radioactive animals are super scary)!
Being the underdog, Sega knew they had to take the industry by storm with their new, technologically superior system and get as many stores as possible to carry their product. Nintendo, on the other hand, had already crippled the Master System in Japan and was definitely not concerned about them in the States. For the 1987 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, Nintendo and Sega were next-door neighbors. Bruce Lowry, former president of Sega, claimed that Nintendo was showing off a knitting machine during the show. (As a side note, I've never personally seen evidence of this, but I'd love to.) While Nintendo was supposedly showing their knitting prowess and pot holders, Sega was showing off 3D glasses. These glasses,
Tom wasn't afraid of going against Nintendo when it really mattered! Then again, he wasn't afraid of wearing pleated pants, so perhaps his style was a bit iffy!
designed by Mark Cerny of Marble Madness fame, added 3D effects to images that were on the television screen rather than replacing the screen altogether. Were these glasses innovative? 1997, ten years later, saw the marketing of the same technology used to enhance computer games (the most notable of these were tied to nVidia for the graphics card technology). When you're ten years ahead of the curve, you're innovative.
In terms of marketing, Sega also innovated greatly. They were the company that publicly called out Nintendo and gave video games real attitude. The "SEGA scream" is something that any gamers from that time frame are familiar with. Sega's Genesis (aka Mega Drive), teamed up with the speed and attitude of Sonic the Hedgehog, brought them an entirely new audience of older gamers that had grown up with Atari. Their "Genesis Does What Nintendon't" campaign was actually so effective that Nintendo responded with, "Nintendo is What Genesisn't." Marketing went beyond the commercials, however, and brought in a price war. Sega new-comer Tom Kalinske, already known as the man behind the He-Man marketing push, quickly cut prices on the Genesis $40 and introduced the now-industry standard idea of losing money on the console
Sega's edgy (adult focused) advertising didn't stop at the 16-bit era, unfortunately it lost some subtlety when they simply decided to go with naked women!
and making up for it in the games and accessories. With these decisions, Nintendo lost a large part of their 92% market share, and a console war was born where Sega was a real contender.
When Nintendo came out with the Super Nintendo (aka Super Famicom) in 1991 the battle lines changed. No longer was the 16-bit Genesis competing against the 8-bit NES. The Super Nintendo had some challenges to face, since the Genesis was being sold cheaper, had been out longer, and featured a wider variety of games to choose from. Marketing had given Sega an older audience. Also, they released more first-party games per year, no censorship rules for the games they released, and Sega still had the thinking of an underdog. It was in the last aspect, however, that would do them in.
To be fair, the Genesis had a number of wonderful ideas and inventions applied to it. Take, for example, Sonic and Knuckles. On the heels of Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Sega could easily have put out a game where Sonic has to read a newspaper while on
If it wasn't for Sega add-ons like the Sega CD and Sega 32x what would Defunct Games even talk about?
the toilet and created a hit game. (Now that I think about it, I suspect that's the theory behind all of the modern Sonic games, actually.) Instead, they did something that had never been done before and released a backward-compatible game. By using the pass-through built into the cartridge, you could play as Knuckles in both Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, along with playing the entirely new game included. There were also mini-games that could be played when you used the pass-through with other Genesis games. At the time, it was unheard of and could easily be argued to be the first console expansion pack for a game.
Additionally, Sega wasn't yet done innovating with their hardware, and they never got past the idea that their console was technologically inferior to the Super Nintendo. They decided to add-on to their system, releasing both the Sega CD and the Sega 32X in short order. With high prices, the requirement of a Genesis for the add-ons to work, an already announced new console called Saturn, and a serious lack of quality games, both of these innovative ideas failed almost before being introduced. It's certainly worth noting, however, that
Segata is perhaps the best thing to come out of the 32-bit Saturn era!
every console released after the Genesis's Sega CD, with the exception of the Nintendo 64, used optical discs for their medium of choice. Designers at the time of the Sega CD simply had no idea what to do with them.
Both of the consoles that followed in the wake of the Genesis also featured innovations. The Sega Saturn was a very difficult machine to program for, mainly because it was designed around multiple processors in order to increase performance. Modern consoles consider this to be standard practice, although the Saturn's was poorly executed and drowning in technological bottlenecks. It was also one of the first consoles to have useable online functionality (the Genesis and Super Nintendo both experimented with online options, but had very slow modems and limited usability) and featured a dial-up 28.8kbps modem and Sega's NetLink service.
Sega's Dreamcast would continue the online tradition, featuring a built-in 33.6kbps modem (later upgraded to 56.6kbps) and Sega's SegaNet
Sure it didn't get used for anything cool, but the idea of the VMU was still light years beyond any other memory card of the time!
system, allowing for easy multiplayer gaming. Additionally, the Dreamcast featured the Virtual Memory Unit, a unique take on memory cards. In addition to storing your saved game data, the VMU would allow you to interact more with the game world, in ways such as revealing hidden treasures or allowing you to download mini-games to play with away from the Dreamcast. The idea would actually be revisited by Nintendo by linking the Game Boy Advance with the GameCube, allowing for interaction that couldn't be possible with a single television screen. Sega also pushed the limits of the games available for the Dreamcast, including such games as "Samba de Amigo" and "Space Channel 5," quirky games that still have a strong cult following.
Even in the world of system compatibility, Sega tried to be as innovative as possible. Their Game Gear could play Master System games using the Master Gear, although the increased color palette of the Game Gear
Sega's innovations don't just end with the stuff that came out; Sega is full of innovative ideas that never saw the light of day ... like this crazy (and ill-conceived) virtual reality helmet!
prevented its games from playing on the Master System (Sega also released a TV Tuner for the Game Gear, increasing its functionality). The original model of the Genesis featured a card slot to allow for Master System games to play. They Sega Nomad was released that played Genesis games on its backlit LCD screen, and the 32X, of course, made sure to accept Genesis games as well. Until the advent of the CD-based systems, Sega tried hard to take care of the customers that came before, something Nintendo only did with their Game Boy line.
Sega is pretty much out of the hardware business these days and their games simply aren't what they used to be, and that is a shame. In reality, they're nothing but a pale shadow of what they once were. The upstart couldn't beat out Nintendo in the end, but they gave us many innovations that help make gaming what it is today. It's no wonder that every time a website or magazine prints a "new Sega console" rumor the net goes nuts. Let's face it; Nintendo did a lot more innovation when they had Sega in the other corner, staring them down. I'm not ashamed to admit that I miss those days. There are probably plenty of Sega innovations that someone out there loves that I didn't cover, and I admit that, but I think the picture is pretty clear. Without Sega and their competition with Nintendo, the video game industry would be vastly different than what it is.
Bibliography: Ultimate History of Video Games, Stephen L. Kent
The Internet in general. Thanks, Internet!