We continue our chat with Charles McGregor! This time we focus in on the development of HyperDot from the initial idea all the way to release and the game awards. Some ideas that started out as “what ifs” grew until they were core components of the game!
Come find out Charles’ reactions to his own game and the development process as well as what he dubs “The year of dreams.”
Becoming a game developer is no easy feat. Especially when you’re wearing all of the hats as an independent developer looking to create their own company. Charles McGregor joins Preston this week to tell us how he got into programming and how that interest at a young age grew to a successful career.
Even though his story is unique to him, there is plenty of great advice for those new to programming or anyone considering the field.
After the sloppy launch of the Sega Saturn in 1995, Sega was struggling. The second half of the 90’s would prove to be a challenge for the company, but there was one more shot at success: The Dreamcast. Would it be enough to save the company?
Journey back with us to second half of the 90’s to take a look at Sega’s internal struggles, the “most successful launch in entertainment history” with the Dreamcast, and what brought about the end of Sega in the console market. Greg dives into the details with the help of video game historians, Alexander Smith and Ken Horowitz.
Alexander Smith: Sega, as we said, was not doing well financially in this period.
A lot can happen over the course of a decade. 10 years doesn’t seem like a long time, but when you are a small business, especially one in technology, a decade or even 5 years can seem like an eternity! AMore than enough time to experience a boom of success, or just the opposite. and in some cases, as was the case with Sega, enough time for both of those things to happen. And that decade was the 90’s.
The year is now 1996. Sega of America had released the Sega Saturn with a surprise launch at E3 of 1995. A massive stumble out of the gate with an early launch that limited availability of the console and availability of games. Not only that, but their new competition, SONY, released their competing console, the PlayStation, a full $100 cheaper than Sega in America. So with the Sega Saturn not selling well, and many of the other problems we talked about in the previous episode, Sega was really struggling despite being the top video game company in America, just a few years prior.
Alexander Smith: I think Sega built up a lot of Goodwill in the first part of the decade and then spent the middle part of the decade really really squandering a lot of that Goodwill,
That’s Alexander Smith, the writer, podcaster and video game historian who was featured in Part 2. You’ll be hearing more from him throughout this episode.
So Sega Saturn had a VERY messy launch in America in an attempt to release 6 months before their competition.
And well, it didn’t exactly work. The PlayStation managed to meet the sales of the Saturn and completely outpace them in just a few months. This did not put Sega in a good position with retailers either. And of course, the 32X, well like we mentioned last episode..
Alexander Smith: Retailers ate the 32X up. Sega had been very good for them and the retailers thought that this was just going to be great because Sega’s great and they’ve been great. And so retail has ordered a lot of those things and, and then they sat on shelves. They were not bought. And I’m sure that also made retailers a little more leery about trusting a piece of technology, just because it had that Saga name on it….
Between the sloppy launch of the Saturn and the failure of the 32X, store owners, retailers, they weren’t happy to stock Sega things anymore.
At least this was the case in America, but over in Japan, the Saturn was actually selling decently well. It was being outpaced by the Sony PlayStation, but still selling pretty well. So that’s when Sega of Japan decided to make this next move.
Because the Saturn was doing well in Japan, and likely due to not having enough money to manufacture both, Sega of Japan decided to completely discontinue production of the Mega Drive / Genesis and end support for that and all of its accessories, including the 32X. And all this happened in 1996.
This was likely a good move for Sega in Japan, where the mega drive didn’t sell as well, but it was a bit devastating in America. There were a lot of Genesis’ in people’s homes and ending support for this console was likely premature. The 32X and the Sega Channel had just launched 18 months prior and the Sega Channel was still premiering through Time Warner. So ending production of the Genesis would hurt game and accessory sales, and it put the nail in the coffin for the 32X, which struggled in sales from day one. And not only was this not great, but soon Sega would have to worry about their old friend and rival.
That was a clip from the 1996 promotional VHS was sent out to Nintendo Power subscribers. Oh, the good old days where trailers were sent out over a video tape.
In the Fall of 1996, the Nintendo 64 released in America and it was a massive hit. Selling 500,000 units in America in the first four months and 3.6 million by the end of its first full year. Tripling the lifetimes sales of the Sega Saturn by that point.
Even though there weren’t many games at or near launch, Nintendo again found success with a focus on quality of their games. Seeing Mario in full 3D was a site to behold, and with a full open world to explore and fun gameplay, it was an experience that people were excited for. Even the news was running stories about the Nintendo 64.
And what is more crazy is the PlayStation continued to outsell them all and by a wide margin.
Between numerous diverse games available on the PlayStation, and the new experience Nintnedo was bringing to the table, these were not two competitors you wanted to be next to. Especially without their mascot, Sonic, to help with the appeal. there was no sonic launch game for the Sega Saturn. Even if the Sega Saturn didn’t have any of the hardware problems we discussed in the last episode and even if the launch was a smooth one, this was a tough market to be a part of.
Alexander Smith: Once Nintendo was there too, there just wasn’t any market share left. It was not a market that could support three consoles. The market today is able to support three consoles, but the market back then really could not. And, and Sega was the odd person out.
With the company losing money, the next few years would be a very tough road for Sega.
Alexander Smith: Even before Saturn was, was a flop, they were not doing well. 1993 was the high watermark. 1994. Their profits went down a little bit. Then 1995, their profits fell by half. And then in 96 they fell by half again. They’re starting to go into a free-fall in this period from a profit perspective for all the reasons we’ve already talked about.
Sega Management Turmoil
Whether as a result of these financial troubles or not, 1996 is what marked a large shift in management change for the company, and it wasn’t great.
Alexander Smith: So there’s a lot of contention and a lot of problems going on within Sega corporate at this time. As I kind of hinted that previously, this is a period when the company is growing and kind of maturing and trying to put a real management structure in place.
Even though the company had been operating for over 30 years. At this point, it was always being run like a startup company, and that was poised to change.
Alexander Smith: And this leads to a lot of infighting within factions within the parent company.
The changes and that fighting would start In 1996, when Tom Kalinski retired from Sega. The differences he had with Sega of Japan’s management was too much and Kalinski was ready to move on. He would move on to create the company known as Leap Frog, who to this day remains a leader in educational technology for children. And this started the domino effect of management changes.
When Tom Kalinski left Sega of America, the Executive Vice President of Sega of Japan, Soichiro Irimajiri, was made head of Sega of America.
Alexander Smith: Irimajiri was a legend in the automotive industry. He was called the prince of Honda because he was one of the major driving forces behind Honda’s international success. And one of the major forces behind the company’s transition from a pure motorcycle company to a full on automotive company.
A bit of an odd hire for Sega, but Irimajiri ended up leaving Honda due to health reasons. And when he got better, he was sought out by the CEO Nakayama. And at this point, he was put in charge of SEGA of America.
Alexander Smith: So Irimajiri is here and he is really trying to push to improve, once again, Sega’s performance overseas where they’ve had success before. This is why he takes on the mantle of, of president, of Sega of America when Kalinske leaves. And he commissions a team of IBM engineers to create a next generation console, a successor to the Saturn.
Dreamcast Design Decisions
Yes, now we will finally get into the creation of the Dreamcast. As it turns out, there was some contention with the design of that console.
Alexander Smith: Meanwhile, Hideki Sato, the head of R&D whom we’ve mentioned before ,is leading the Japanese R&D team in creating the next console. Now they knew about this. They knew that both of these things were happening. In fact, technically Sato was in charge of both of them because he was the head of R&D. So it’s not like this was a surprise where they just kind of sprang it on him, but there was a thought that it was okay to kind of let these two projects ride and kind of figure it out later, which is generally not a good idea and was not a good idea in this case.
Having two teams come up with separate designs for the console at the same time…
So on the two sides, you had Irimajiri’s team, who was planning for IBM and American based hardware, while Sato’s team wanted to go with Japanese, Hatach,i based hardware. You would think that since Sato didn’t make the best choices with the Sega Saturn, they would want to go in a different direction, but they went with Sato’s team for the design of the Dreamcast anyways.
This decision would eventually cause major supply problems when the Dreamcast released, but more on that in a minute.
So when it came to the design, Irimajiri did not get his way. And then things would change a little bit more. He was running Sega of America until a man by the name of Bernard Stolar came in to run Sega of America.
Alexander Smith: Bernie Stolar was a street fighter that that went way back. I mean, he was kind of this tough East Coast guy. He had come up in the arcade industry and he had worked for a Jack Trommel’s Atari briefly in the early nineties marketing the LINKS. And and then he had gone to Sony and was part of the launch team of the PlayStation. He was in charge of third-party relations.
With first hand experience in both the arcade industry as well as experience working with SEGA’s biggest competitor, Stolar was yet another strategic hire. And he was brought in for a specific reason.
Alexander Smith: So he wasn’t brought in to try to save the Saturn or, or push the Saturn. He was brought in to prepare Sega for the next battle.
Stolar quickly moved up the ranks at Sega of America, until eventually he was named President. And when it comes to SEGA’s history, Stolar is often cited as a major part of SEGA’s downfall, specifically with the “premature ending of the Saturn.”
You see, at E3 of 1997, Bernie Stolar directly said, “The Saturn is not our future.” Although he was likely trying to build excitement for SEGA’s next console, the Dreamcast, phrasing like that went a long way to upset fans and ensure game development for the Saturn all but ceased.
Just imagine being a Sega fan who spent a lot of money on a Sega Saturn just two years earlier, only to hear the president of Sega of America tell the public that there’s not going to be a focus on the Saturn in the future.
Now, although this moment is a memorable one, that is often mentioned when discussing SEGA’s history, it is certainly over emphasized when it comes to explaining why SEGA had a downfall. It was no secret the Saturn wasn’t selling well and a new console was inevitable for SEGA.
No, there are many many more, less public reasons SEGA was circling the drain. And of course, we will get into those reasons, after this short break.
So the reason the Sega was circling the drain came down to two main points. Financial troubles, which we’ve mentioned several times already, but not only that, executive management disagreement at the very top of the company.
And that disagreement came down to four people. Now stick with me here. These are all Japanese names, which makes it a little tough to remember who is who, but it’s important to understand the disagreements.
You had Hideke Sato, the head of R&D and was responsible for the design of every Sega console
You had Irimajiri, who was the Executive Vice President, helping to oversee SOA
There was the CEO of the entire company, Hayo Nakayama, who we spoke about last episode, who had his roots in the arcade industry and has always sought after leading edge, hardware
You had the man that Nakayama reported to, the Chairman of Sega and the head of the company CSK, that owned the majority shares of Sega, Isao Okawa.
Remember the companies financials are struggling, and Okawa understands that they need SEGA to seek out a merger. A deal nearly happened with fellow competition within the arcade business Bandai. The deal almost went through, but at the last minute, the deal fell apart.
Sega Management Turmoil Gets Worse
And this was a devastating blow for Sega and caused a lot of problems after the next thing happened. Because what had to happen was the CEO, Nakiyama, had to be forced out of the company in a “face saving: move as a direct result of this failed merger. And Irimajiri, the Honda guy, becomes the new CEO of Sega of Japan.
And so further disagreements arise regarding the design of the Dreamcast that we discussed earlier. And it only gets worse from there, because Irimajiri wants to push the Dreamcast hardware as hard as he could with as much marketing budget as possible. But Isao Okawa, he was really wary. He didn’t want to spend a lot of money and he wanted to focus more on software. Meanwhile, over in Sega of America, Bernard Stolar, who’s the president, he was actually fired as a direct result of all of the work that he had done in all of this infighting. So Okawa and Irimajiri have this huge power struggle. And Hideki Sato had his design with the Dreamcast. And of course, Irimajiri doesn’t like him, but Okawville really likes Sato.
And there’s this whole….
[Interrupted by a call]
OK look, at the end of the day, SEGA was not doing well financially and executive leadership was having major disagreements about how to run the company.
But despite all of the struggle and fighting, finally, in the November of 1998 in Japan, and in the fall of 1999 internationally, the Dreamcast launched. And they called it the “Dreamcast,” not the “Sega Dreamcast,” because after the 32X and the Sega Saturn, they didn’t want to put the Sega name next to the console.
But this time, they had a well thought-out launch planned. Doing well in Japan and even better in America. This time it would be released on a special day, September 9th, 1999 or 9/9/99. And with a lofty $100 million advertisement budget that Sega had for the Dreamcast, they sure as heck made sure that the Dreamcast was the talk of the town.
At the end of the day, this really was something new and innovative that Sega was doing. This was a video game console that was connecting to the internet and it was really the first device to connect to the internet that was not a computer. Sega was confident of the future of video games and the internet and the console space. And here’s a quick interview from the 1999 game spot promotional episode about the Dreamcast. And this is an interview with Peter Moore.
And in addition to this hardware innovation, Sega also made sure to have a big lineup of unique games for the Dreamcast when it launched. Games like Shenmu, an amazing 3D open world game that modern games like grand theft auto continue to draw inspiration from. Games like Hydro Thunder, a popular arcade boat racing game that remains one of my favorite racing games to this day, the amazing fighting game Soul Caliber and of course, this time around there would be a Sonic launch title. Much like the N64 gave the world Mario in full 3D for the first time, the Dreamcast brought back Sonic the Hedgehog in amazing looking full 3D and this time fully voice acted. With the same fast paced gameplay, Sonic Adventure was a showcase for the Dreamcast.
With all of these unique and amazing looking exclusive launch games, Sega proudly boasted that the launch of the Dreamcast was the best single day in entertainment history. Going beyond consumer electronics, comparing themselves to music and movie releases.
It had a bigger launch than anything ever, but, well, it might’ve been a little bit overblown. Here’s Alex Smith again.
Alexander Smith: I mean, they, they tout that they have the best single day in entertainment, history you know, in terms of dollar volume, but you know, a couple of caveats, first of all, you know, when, when your system costs hundreds of dollars of, of course, you’re going to have a bigger day than, than the movie blockbusters where, you know, tickets are not a hundred hundreds of dollars to get into the theater.
But also second of all, it, it was one of the first consoles where there was a real, huge emphasis on pre-ordering. So they kind of, they kind of manufactured it in a way to make sure that the first day sales would be impressive because they, they pushed pre-orders in a way that they just hadn’t been pushed on prior systems in the U S so, you know, of course they had a huge day. They, they kind of designed it that way. You know, the sales pretty quickly fell off after that.
Although this time around, they were better prepared for this console launch compared to the mess that was the launch of the Sega Saturn, history repeated itself for Sega.
Alexander Smith: Once again, Sega decided they had the launch first, they had to be to market and build market share before the bigger players got in because they’re hemorrhaging money at this point, they, they can’t even, they can afford to spend on marketing even the less than they could afford to spend on marketing.
Despite an excellent launch, Sega, have really struggled to keep the momentum of the Dreamcast going. And a lot of that came down to Sega’s financial struggles and their lack of a marketing budget. But honestly it might’ve been okay if they were only facing Nintendo head to head again. But, there was Sony.
Alexander Smith: And then once again, just like with the PlayStation, Sony massively over promised what the PlayStation 2 could deliver now. I mean, what the PlayStation 2 delivered was impressive. Don’t get me wrong, but they were promising way more than that from, to hear them tell, this thing was basically a super computer in your living room. And everyone was so blown away by that, that they’re like Dreamcast, no, because PlayStation 2 is coming and it’s going to be so much cooler. So, you know, it never stood a chance.**
Despite launching well ahead of the Playstation 2, as soon as Sony got to market, SEGA was done for. There was no possible way they could compete on marketing. To highlight what I mean here, between the Playstation 2 and the Dreamcast and the marketing differences between these two companies, here is a quick story from Ken Horowitz, the author and video game researcher who is heavily featured on part one of Sega’s history. And here’s what he remembers about the launch of the PS2 and the Dreamcast.
Ken Horowitz: I mean, the Dreamcast was unfortunate, because I remember I was on vacation with my family and we went to a mall. And I always went to the Electronic Boutique or the GameStop to see, you know, what games they had and, see what Dreamcast games they had. And they had a sign outside. And in chalk it said, “Trade in your Dreamcast for a $100 credit towards a Playstation 2.” And this was like in July. Like months before the launch. And I’m like, you, you buy the Dreamcast for $200 and if you trade it in, we’ll give you half the value. The console wasn’t even out yet!
You wouldn’t really even see any games that you could say, “Oh man! I’m going to get a PS2 for those games!” at that time yet. They were already “Trade in your Dreamcast.” You know? it’s like the retailers having that kind of perspective, you know? it’s very difficult to compete when you don’t have the money to back up your product and tell retailers “no, no, no, no, no! Don’t do that because look at this and we have….!”
You know, it’s very difficult to compete and Sony just has deep, deep, deep pockets.
Sega’s relationship with retailers was apparent with this story and how they supported Sony instead.
The Dreamcasts hardware was somewhat comparable, but the fact stood that the Playstation 2 was a more powerful console. And not only that, but the Playstation 2 was also a DVD player and the DVD player was one of the biggest selling points.
Ken Horowitz: Yeah, I think that people underestimate, like, I think it was when the Playstation 2 came out, the number one product that was bought along with it, was the DVD of The Matrix.
Ken Horowitz: The fact that you’re getting a game console and DVD player, for lots of people, that was a perfect introductory level DVD player. Because, like, you’re going to spend $300. This is 2000, right? How much did a DVD player cost in 2000? And for about that price, you’re also getting a Playstation 2 that will also play your PSOne games.
So the Dreamcast never really stood a chance in this market, unfortunately.
And at the same time, the in-fighting continued between the executive leadership. The big disagreements specifically between the CEO, Irimajiri, and the Chairman, Okawa. And once the Dreamcast began to falter, that was all the reason Okawa needed to remove Irimajiri from the role of CEO. And Okawa began to take on the role of CEO himself. There was just one problem. Here’s where the story gets a little bit dark and tragic
Death of Okawa
Alexander Smith: At the same time, Okawa it is dying of cancer, and knows he’s dying of cancer. He knows he’s ill. And so he decides this is the time to start running the company while he’s also dying, which is not a great time generally to start running a company.
So, while dealing with a terminal illness, Okawa attempted to run the business, but in the face massive competition, and without the ability to spend a lot of excess money, there wasn’t a lot of hope for Sega by this point. Okawa tried to save a dying company, while also dying himself. And one thing ended up saving Sega’s name.
Alexander Smith: Sega actually, would’ve probably cease to exist except that when Okawa did die, and as I said, he knew he was dying, so he had time to set his affairs in order. He made a personal gift of his shares in Sega, back to the company. And this quite frankly probably saved Sega. That is not an exaggeration.
These shares of SEGA were worth nearly $700 million at the time.
Sega Bought Out
Alexander Smith: He just gave them back. It allowed Sega to pay down its debts. It allowed Sega to make the transition. It was still a rocky transition and they still ended up not being able to survive on their own.
Okawa passed away in 2001 and he was replaced as CEO of Sega of Japan by Hideki Sato, the former head of R&D. Ironically, Sega really wouldn’t be needing much in the way of hardware anymore when it came to consoles.
Sega Gets Out of the Console Market
So after just 2 years after the launch of the Dreamcast, in January of 2001, SOA’s president, Peter Moore announced to the public that Sega was leaving the console business and would focus on software, games, and their arcade business and that was it. And they would also continue to seek out a merger.
Alexander Smith: They had to merge with Sammy and they were, I mean, it was a merger, but they were bought. They were bought by Sammy. It wasn’t a meeting of equals.**
The company Sammy was a Japanese Pachinko company. A very different type of company than what Sega was. And when this merger happened with Sammy in 2003, there was a mass exodus of Sega staff. This point in time marks when SEGA changed for good.
Sega quickly shifted to a third party video game developer, partnering with none other than Nintendo. Releasing games like Sonic Adventure 2 on the Nintendo GameCube among many others. And to this day, Sega continues to develop video games, most recently the Yakuza series. And although this 3rd party developer is different in many ways from who they used to be as a company, it’s still the same company.
Alexander Smith: There is continuation, there is congruity between the Sega of today and the Sega back then, absolutely. It is the same company. I mean, it’s subsidiary, but I mean, that company still exists and it still has its, its proud history. It still has its franchises.
Sega still holds onto the popular IP’s they created decades ago and they still have great success from time to time as a third party developer today. Sega is still creating arcade games as well, but at the end of the day, they will likely never come close to the company they were back in the 90’s.
I’ve personally spent the last few months researching Sega and its history and it’s clear to me that there is still a HUGE fanbase of people with a deep love for all things Sega. Fans holding on to their old consoles, while looking forward to new releases. And video game historians, like Ken Horowitz and Alexander Smith, who are eager to tell an account of Sega’s history and preserve what Sega did over the course of several decades.
To me, I think the thing that is most clear about Sega is the profound influence the company has left on the industry.
Alexander Smith: Sega has been incredibly influential on the industry.
So when you look at the home console industry, Sega was able to become a direct competitor to Nintendo, who had a monopoly and stronghold on the industry. And they brought a new target demographic to the marketplace. Video games were not just toys for children, but something cool that can be consumed by everyone. You could zoom in and point to things like the Sega Channel with game streaming or being one of the first companies to bring online gaming to the home, which we didn’t really discuss, with things like Phantasy Star Online with the Sega Dreamcast.
But zooming out, Sega influenced video games as a whole from the arcade world. They reinvented the arcade industry multiple times over, influenced the culture of Japan as a whole, brought new types of games to different countries, and was the first company to bring 3D polygonal graphics into the video game space. And this whole thing has an ironic twist on how Sega influenced the industry as a whole.
Alexander Smith: I think a perfect way to encapsulate that and end that is, I told you that everyone thought at the time the Saturn was being developed that polygonal graphics, 3d graphics in the home were far, far away. And of course, Ken Kutaragi at Sony was trying to convince developers that the future was here and it’s called Playstation. And they were getting no kind of reception to that at all. All the companies they visited were like, “there’s no way you’ll actually be able to make this and it’ll do everything you say for a price to people buy it and, and polygons are years away and it never going to happen.” And then say, go released Virtua Fighter in the arcade.
And suddenly everybody believed Sony. So again, Virtual Fighter was a big part of what got buy-in on the Playstation. There it is again, Sega has that hardware legacy, but it doesn’t always benefit them when it happens.
So that about, does it on the history of Sega! Special, thanks to all of these esteemed video game researchers that helped make the episode possible. Alexander’s. And Ken Horwitz, thank you again so much for taking their time and talking with me and teaching me about the history of Sega. And, you and allowing me to use their voice for this episode.
By 1993, Sega was America’s leading video game company, but was everything as good as it seemed? This second part of our documentary-style series on the History of Sega explores the company’s focus during the mid 90’s and the series of missteps that led to its troubled times.
Journey back with us to the mid 90’s to take a look at Sega’s hardware from the MEGA CD and 32X, to the Sega Saturn and its launch at the very first Electronic Entertainment Expo. Greg dives into the details with the help of video game historian, Alexander Smith.
Sega! Few companies have had the profound amount of influence on the video game industry and few companies have experience the highs and lows that Sega experienced. Especially in the 90’s..
Ahhh yes. A time of some of the best sitcoms, fanny packs, boy bands, and most important to this episode, a decade of rapidly changing technology. Cell phones, personal computers, the internet, CD-Roms, DVDs and of course, video games! And Sega was the video game company that was on that forefront of that technological expressway that was the 90’s.
Sega’s Hardware Focus
You see, for Sega, hardware innovation had always been the most important thing behind the company since it’s early days. When you are a coin-op and arcade company, the newest toy or the most unique cabinet, that’s what gains attention and that’s what leads to success for the company.
Alex Smith: well I really think that comes down to Sega’s roots right? So Sega Started very much as a coin-op company, well before video games. And in coin-op, there is always a need to reach for something new.
That’s Alexander Smith. Writer, podcaster, researcher and all around video game historian. He’s been deep into the weeds of video game research for quite some time too.
Alex Smith: My name is Alexander Smith, and I have been researching the history of the video game industry for about 16 years. Now. I am a published author in the field. I’ve written a book called a “They Create Worlds, the Story of the People and Companies that Shaped the Video Game Industry.” I also podcast as they create worlds with my co-host Jeffrey Daum. We released podcasts like clockwork twice a month on the first and 15th going in depth on a subject in video game history.
See? In addition to all those things, he also works on other cool projects
Alex Smith: I also have been involved in an oral history project with the Smithsonian called the video game. Pioneers archive is the head researcher where we do really, really in-depth oral histories with some of the pioneers within the industry.
I told you! As an expert in the field and someone who’s has spent many many hours studying Sega’s history, you’ll be hearing a lot from him throughout this episode.
Anywho, back to Sega and the companies focus on hardware.
Alex Smith: Coin-op is a novelty field inviting someone to come up to your machine whether that be video game, pinball or jukebox, and put a coin in to put to experience some thing that they’ve never experienced before. That’s kind of the main crux of how coin-op works. The corollary of that is if someone has already put the quarter in and seen that thing they’re done with it and they go onto the next thing. And so, in coin-op there’s a constant need to change and improve. Sega was a true leader in coin op hardware.
A machine that’s new, that’s cutting edge, or any kind of arcade cabinet that stands out among a crowd of other games, that’s what sells.
And this philosophy, this mentality was Baked into Sega’s core. Staying on top of the latest technology and creating unique products.
And when Sega finally decided to get into the consumer home console market in the early 80’s, that mentality carried over, despite it being a very different business model than the location based arcade market.
It took a few years before they found success in the console market, and when they did find success, part of it was due to Sega releasing their 16-bit console a full 2 years before the competition. The Mega Drive (or the Genesis) came to the market exactly two year before the Super Famicom (known in the US as the Super Nintendo)
When they weren’t the first to the market with a new type of product, they were quick to respond with something even more technologically impressive. Nintendo released their black and white, handheld Gameboy in 1989, and just 18 months later, Sega released their handheld game console the Game Gear, only it was in full color, back lit, and a lot more powerful.
The Game gear released in 1990 in Japan and ‘91 in America and although it remained behind the runaway success of the Gameboy, it ended up being the only handheld device that could compete against Nintendo.
Sega was also one of the first companies to market with CD based console hardware. In the late 80s and early 90s, everyone knew that the CD-rom was the future. With the ability to store more information and manufacture more cheaply, everyone was pushing for this. From companies like Nintendo and even to Sony. Who was looking to get into the video game industry in some capacity.
And Sega came up with a very unique solution to introduce this technology. Rather than create a brand new console just 3 years after the release of the Genesis, they developed it as a separate add on to the console called the Mega CD or the SEGA CD in America.
The Sega CD not only added faster processing power and improved graphics, but it could also play CDs! Blasting the space Jam soundtrack through your TV speakers? It doesn’t get better than that!
In December of 1991, the Sega CD released in Japan, and a year later in the US. And although it was fairly expensive, it helped Sega to realize that leading edge hardware could be developed in conjunction with the Genesis. And develop add-on hardware, they did.
Sega of Japan’s focus vs Sega of America
Going back to Sega’s Coin-op roots, SEGA of Japan had a full R&D lab where they were dedicated to creating these leading edge products. And in the late 80’s and early 90’s. while the parent company, Sega of Japan, was busy creating the latest and greatest hardware, it’s subsidiary, Sega of America, was focused on another goal. The consumer video game space. Selling consoles and games, but more so, focused on building an attractive and recognizable brand that could compete against the juggernaut that was Nintendo
And as we covered in Part 1, SEGA of America was able to achieve that goal. In large part, thanks to Tom Kalinske.
By 1993, things seemed to be going very well for Sega of America. The scrappy underdog of a company was able to match their giant of a competitor in a short period of time and Sonic the Hedgehog and aggressive marketing had a lot to do with it.
Alex Smith: So the fact of the matter is that Tom Kalinske and Sega of America did a fantastic job of building market share in the United States in the period, most especially, between 1991 and 1993. They did this using a lot of techniques that I know you went through in your last episode and, and many of which are reported on accurately. By creating a cool image for Sega, by using edgy marketing commercials with lots of quick cuts and quirky images, very akin to MTV, that really captured a generation that was growing up on MTV. By being competitive on price by making sure that they had their best software and Sonic front and center with the console. All of that is true. The problem with that is it costs a lot of money, a lot, a lot of money.
In America, Tom Kaliske’s strategy worked to put SEGA on the map with aggressive marketing and branding worked. But the financial impact was felt.
And who’s money were they spending? Well, SEGA of Japan’s money. The company as a whole.
To really understand what happened to SEGA and why they stopped making consoles, you have to understand the company’s financials during this period of time.
Alex Smith: I mean, Kalinkse deserves all the credit in the world for, for making that Sega brand work in the United States, but at the same time, the exact same things he did to make that brand successful were in large part responsible for the downfall.
Alex Smith: By 1993, 1994 Sega of America, despite all of its success, despite finally ascending the mountain top and overthrowing the Nintendo juggernaut, even if just, barely in 1993, was breaking even. They weren’t losing money, but they weren’t really making money either.
The company was not making money during its most successful time. They managed to gain market share and displace Nintendo, but at the end of the day It didn’t matter how many SEGA Genesis’ were sold in America and it didn’t matter how popular SEGA had become as a brand. SEGA of America was simply not making profit.
But Tom Kalinske and Sega of America weren’t the only group spending money. By this time, Sega of Japan R&D department was toiling away on the next leading edge hardware to put SEGA ahead of the competition. .
Where SOA was able to claim nearly 55% of the 16-bit market by 1993, SOJ didn’t find that same success. They only managed to capture 25% of the market. Nintendo dominated this sector.
So if Sega couldn’t find success with their 16-bit console in Japan, then they would be first to the market with 32-bit video games! The problem was, while the team was well underway with the development of the next generation, 32 bit hardware, the full console, the SEGA Saturn, wouldn’t be ready in time to be first to market.
Not only that, but there was a fear about what the competition was releasing and when they would be releasing it. So SEGA had to act fast. They came up with a new device. One that wouldn’t be a new stand alone console, but an add-on to the Genesis. Yes ANOTHER add on for the Sega Genesis. But this one would plug into the cartridge slot of the Genesis to massively improve the processing power of the console. The device would be called the “32X.”
Alex Smith: But it does go back to that, that hardware mentality, again. At least according to some of the other people that were in the initial meetings. The Atari Jaguar was coming…
…and of course the Jaguar ended up being a disaster, but at that time, nobody knew yet that it was going to be a complete disaster. And Nakayama was, was afraid that the system that was coming out and advertising itself as a 64 bit, which it wasn’t, but it was being advertised that way, was coming so much sooner than they’d be able to get Saturn out. There was a fear, I think, that they were going to lose a technological edge and that they had to do something to show that they were still technologically relevant. I don’t think that that’s particularly rational way to approach the video game market, the consumer video game market.
The fear of losing the “technological edge” to their competition is what drove Sega to develop the 32X.
New games could plug into the top of the 32x add-on and older Genesis cartridges would also work. The device could even work in tandem with the Sega CD. You could put your Genesis on top of the Sega CD and then plug the 32X into the cartridge slot of the Genesis to create THE TOWER OF POWER!
Not only would the 32X allow for Sega to be first to market, it also would be a cheaper alternative to Sega’s next console, and get more use out of their Sega Genesis. The 32X was set to release in late 1994.
There was more though! More technical innovation that Sega has been working on that was slated to release that same year.
You see, in the early 90’s, Beside video games, the World Wide Web, or, ya know, the internet, was all the rage. And Sega was eager to incorporate this into video games, somehow. And they attempted this in Japan in 1990 with a Mega Drive accessory called the Meganet. but that didn’t pan out.
Refusing to give up on the idea, the Sega looked to America. Which was starting to expand into broadband cable TV. So Sega partnered with Time Warner Cable and created a device called the Sega Channel! Learning from their mistakes, the Sega of America team worked closely with Time Warner to create the hardware and ensure that the home cable network could stream games without interruption. The team worked carefully and developed a device that would plug into the cartridge slot of the Genesis connected with a coaxial cable to the device. They also worked with Time Warner to set up the infrastructure to allow for a million people across America to be able to use the Sega Channel at once without interruption.
It would cost only $25 for the device and an activation fee and the user would pay $15 a month and have access to up to 50 games, with games rotating monthly and sometimes even weekly!
Yes! This was Xbox Game Pass, but in the early 90’s. 27 years ago, you could stream a heap of games and it was the same price as Xbox Game Pass is today. The Sega Channel was set to release in late 1994.
All of these add ons were great, but don’t forget that Sega of Japan’s R&D team was also working hard on the next generation of Sega consoles, the 32 bit Sega Saturn!
More on the design and eventual sloppy launch of this console, after the break.
The Sega Saturn was going to be a BIG leap for Sega. Not only their first console to utilize only CD based games, but it would be a 32 bit powerhouse. And the focus would be on sprites! Here Alex explains it it better than me.
Alex Smith: So when Sega Saturn development began, there was no inkling amongst the powers that be within the video game industry ,that polygonal graphics, 3d graphics in the home, were anywhere close to happening. Polygons were still years away.
3D polygon graphics on a home console seemed impossible to make cheaply and effectively in the early 90’s. It was something only arcade hardware could pull off. And SEGA was doing that with games like Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing. So because this was likely far out, Sega focused on what was great about the Genesis and aimed to amplify what was great about that!
Alex Smith: So the Saturn was created to be the best sprite based machine that had ever been done. It was created to have more sprites and more colors and more particle effects and more layers of parallax scrolling and just be the most amazing Sprite pusher you’ve ever seen.
Similar 2D graphics of the Genesis, but more! Much more. More could be in screen at once, it could scroll faster, you thought Sonic 1, 2 and 3 were fast, you just wait!
So under the hood of the Saturn, they decided to utilize a dual core processor and a high end graphics chip. Everything was shaping up great and the design was nearly finished, until…. Sega learned about it’s competition!
Alex Smith: So they’re going along development is what it is. And then Sony announces the PlayStation and you know, the early demos, like the famous T-Rex demo start making the rounds.
And it looks like this thing is just, it’s bringing full 3D into the home, which is stunning. Now in truth, it didn’t bring full 3D into the home. Most of the, the big games, your, Resident Evils and your Final Fantasy 7’s and whatnot are three dimensional characters in pre-rendered two dimensional environments. You know, it’s, faking a lot of it, but when it was first announced, they were saying, it’s going to move 300,000 polygons a second. And, this T-Rex was wowing everybody. And it’s like, oh my God, it’s here! And Nakayama was not happy. Nobody was happy, but I mean, you know, the, the engineers weren’t happy either, but when Nakayama not happy, he screams. And apparently there was a lot of screaming going around Sega.
Sony threw everything off. With a demonstration video of the capabilities of the PlayStation, Sony showed off an amazing looking, polygonal 3D T-Rex animation. Not only would this be leading edge hardware, but Sony was able to do this cheaply and effectively on a home console. So SEGA had to do something.
Alex Smith: So it was clear that they were going to have to do something to make the Saturn do 3D, do geometric solids, better. And so they looked into increasing the speed of the SH2 processor. They had a meeting in late 1993 with the people at Hitachi where they were looking into that, well, “can we increase the speed?” And the answer was “well, not really without causing other problems.” However, it just so happens completely separate from the Saturn project because the SH2 was not made specifically the Saturn that they had created a way, to link two SH2 processors together and be as somewhat efficient dual processor system. So Hitachi said, “we can’t really make the SH2 chip faster, but we could give you two of them” and SEGA was like, “oh, well, that’s interesting.” And so they end up deciding and late 1993 to do a dual processor setup. Two SH2s.
This gets a little technical, but stay with me. It gets more complicated too Alex Smith: I don’t know if they also decided to add the second graphics chip at this time. But in addition to having two processors, the system also ends up having two graphics processing units. GPU’s. So we’re talking about balancing performance across a group of four primary chip.
With the added processor, the Saturn’s design was now a very complicated one. It had a dual core design AND two separate graphics chips. Without getting into to details, understand this was a unique design and one that game developers were not used to working with. They were likely going to have issues and this meant, there could be issues getting games on the system. All in all, it wasn’t great.
Alex Smith: It’s a series of missteps that are a combination of being so set in their ways that they couldn’t see the future in the same way an outsider, like Sony, could. And just being caught wrong-footed and doing relatively last minute adjustments to the way that the system was going to operate that created a real struggle for that system and for people that tried to make games on that system.
So the year is 1994 and SEGA was getting worried. Very worried. Particularly when it came to the emerging competition and what they were developing compared their upcoming new console, the Sega Saturn. SEGA might lose that leading technological edge that they were known for. The reality may just be that they might not be able to stack up against the competition.
It’s important to remember SEGA’s financials leading up to the launch of the Sega saturn.
Alex Smith: So Sega of America is breaking even, Sega of Europe is losing money. and I know I’m throwing a lot of economics at you, but it’s, it’s really important to understand why this failure happened and why it wasn’t just, oh, everyone’s fighting with each other on top of everything. The yen is in this period appreciating in value.
Sorry to get into the economics, but when your business relies on exports, your home currency’s value going up, means that you lose a lot of money in currency transitions. All this to say, by this point in time, right ahead of a new console launch, finances were not looking good.
Saturn Launch – Japan
On November 22nd, 1994, Sega released the Sega Saturn in Japan. And despite the concerns, the launch in Japan went fairly well! In large part due to one particular game that launched alongside the Saturn. The most popular arcade game in Japan at the time, Virtua Fighter. The appeal of 3D graphics on a home console was evident in Japan.
Outside of Japan, fans would have to wait a year for the international launch. While they waited though, l Sega would still be able to treat the public to new tech.
Other Hardware Releases During the wait for the Saturn, Sega of America released the 32X AND the Sega Channel for the Christmas season in 1994. It had to have been a tough call for Sega fans. Wait a year and save money, or buy these fun accessories for the Genesis to get more life out of that console. The 32x would be a much cheaper alternative, costing $160, and the Sega Channel was a great way to plan tons of Genesis games without having to buy them.
Donkey Kong Country
While these were fine options, Sega’s competition would throw a wrench in the gears. You see, Sega was happy because Nintendo announced a delay with their next generation console. It would not be available until 1996. So Sega assumed they were well ahead of this competitor and didn’t need to worry about them.
Problem was, on the same day, November 21st, 1994 Nintendo released a new game for the Super Nintendo. A game that looked and sounded better than any other 16 bit game up to that point. A game that VERY quickly became the fastest selling video game of all time. That game, was Donkey Kong Country. In the 1994 Christmas season alone, the game sold over 6 million copies and was met with critical and commercial acclaim. This game brought much needed attention back to the Super Nintendo and helped to revitalize the video game market as a whole, which was facing a bit of a recession in 1994.
With much of Sega’s focus on leading edge hardware and accessories, Nintendo was able to achieve success with a focus on “great and fun games.” Sure there were plenty of great games for Sega at the time, both in the arcade world with Virtua Fighter as well as the Genesis with Sonic the Hedgehog 3, which released earlier that year, but the success of Donkey Kong Country was astounding.
Alex Smith: But in the end, it just, it’s like, “well, it’s expensive and it’s not really a Saturn. And we know SEGA is working on another system. So why are we going to get that?” And, “oh, look, here’s Donkey Kong Country! Nintendo, didn’t have to release a fancy new add on to do that!” I think that captures some of the, the dichotomy. It’s a bit reductive to reduce it just to a battle of “32X versus DCK” I think 32X would have died a messy, horrible death if Rare had never come up with Donkey Kong Country.…
All this to say, the 32X, well it didn’t sell very well. Whether it was due to the success of Donkey Kong Country or not, or just the timing next the upcoming launch of the Saturn, people did not buy the 32X. SEGA spent a lot of money to develop and market this thing, and it was not money well spent. Not only that, but it hurt a lot of SEGA’s relationships too
Alex Smith: Retailers ate the 32X up. Sega had been very good for them and the retailers thought that this was just going to be great because Sega’s great and they’ve been great. And so retail has ordered a lot of those things and, and then they sat on shelves. They were not bought. And I’m sure that also made retailers a little more leery about trusting a piece of technology, just because it had that Sagan name on it.
E3 1995 – Saturn Launch
Nintendo had managed to garner attention in a big way, and this made Sega a little worried. But Nintendo was NOT Sega’s biggest fear by this point in time
Alex Smith: So the system launched in late 1994 in Japan and was going to launch in late 1995 in the United States.
But Sony had also launched in late 1994 in Japan, and was also going to launch in late 1995 in the United States. And there was still a fear of Sony. There was a fear of Sony because they were such a big company. They could afford to spend anything, do anything, risk, anything to break into the business. And they definitely seem to be serious about it. They were lining up companies like Namco that were very well-respected. They were hiring industry veterans to, to run their subsidiaries. They seemed very serious about this.
I think there was a sense in Japan that Sony’s coming and we’re not going to be able to beat him in a head to head fight. I mean, in Japan, they were able to get an initial leg up because they had the latest Virtua Fighter game, which everyone wanted to play and they had the name recognition amongst the arcade aficionados and they did okay relative to Sony in the beginning. Now Sony started outstrip them pretty quickly, but in the beginning they were doing okay. But I don’t think there was any confidence that they could win a head to head fight with Sony in the US market because they just wouldn’t be able to compete on spending and on titles, number of games available, and everything else.
So Sega needed to have a smash hit success story with the Sega Saturn’s worldwide launch. The launch was successful in Japan, but could that success be repeated?
Sega of America had a great launch planned for Fall of 1995, BUT there was just one issue. Competition. The Sony Playstation had already launched alongside the Sega Saturn in Japan, and the Saturn’s launch was more successful, but not by much.
The thing was, in America, Sony was slamming the world with a MASSIVE marketing campaign. Taking the strategy straight out of Sega’s playbook, Sony’s American division president, and former Sega marketing manager, Steve Race, was going to make the PlayStation the “coolest thing to have” and ensure the competition looked bad by comparison.
Faced with this competition, and in the midst of financial troubles, What did Sega decide to do?
Alex Smith: Nakayama comes up with the idea that they, they have to beat Sony to market it’s imperative and not by a day or a week. I mean, they have to beat Sony to market by a significant amount of time in order to have any chance at success. So he comes to Kalinske and basically orders Kalinske to launch early, launch in the spring. Well, Kalinske, he says he’s not happy. He’s a marketing guy and they were very carefully putting together a rollout for a “Saturnday” in in September. You know, just like “Sonic 2sday,” you know, another big marketing event there. They’re getting this whole thing together. Now he’s being told, “you can’t do that.”
So Kalinske made some new plans.
Alex Smith: So handed this mandate Kalinske decides that they need to make a splash. If we’re going to launch early, if we’re going to launch before we have inventory built up, if we’re going to launch before all of our development partners have their games ready, then we have to have a memorable launch.
The very first E3, which we have covered a few times at this point on previous Level Zero episodes. but at this massive event, this new expo, Tom Kalinske got up on stage and not only announced the the Sega Saturn, but the price and availability and… you know what, here just let me play that clip from Sega’s presentation at E3 1995.
As you can hear, the crowd was excited. And Kalinske was confident this surprise announcement would give Sega all the attention it needed.
Alex Smith: And he kinda think to himself, “we’ve done it. I mean, this, this launch is kind of awkward. There are still a lot of hurdles, but at least we got to make a splash!”… And then Sony’s turn comes.
And Sony would announce the PlayStation and show off the upcoming features and games on the system.
Alex Smith: And Olaf Olafson, who is the head of Sony electronic publishing and is kind of, sort of running this whole thing. (The, the reporting structures are complicated.) He comes up and he starts giving a presentation.
And then part way through his presentation, he says, “..and now I’d like to introduce the head of Sony Computer Entertainment America, President Steve Race to say some more about whatever.” And Steve race comes up. He puts his notes down on the podium, says “$299.”
Yes, the Sony PlayStation would not only be the leading piece of technology and have a wealth of great games available, but it would be $100 cheaper than the competition.
This was a devastating blow to Sega, but at least they were out first, right?
Alex Smith: Sega does not end up being the talk of E3. Instead ends up alienating retail that were not part of the initial rollout and ends up with only about 30,000 systems to go around and very few games because everyone was still working on their games, which weren’t supposed to be released until the holidays. So they, they don’t win anything with that. It’s, it’s just kind of a disaster. It’s a stumble right out of the gate.
Noone was happy. Supply for the system was low, so fans were mad. Retailers were caught off guard so they were mad, and game developers were mad because they did not have the time they needed to complete their games on time for the launch.
Sega of America had worked VERY hard over the last 5 years to develop excellent relationships with retailers and this one decision ruined a lot of that hard work. Retailers were furious, unable to scramble to make the shelf space and a lot of them outright refused to carry the Sega Saturn or any Sega Saturn games.
Obviously this was all very bad for Sega. And things really only got worse from there.
Alex Smith: They were losing a hundred dollars a system, you know, selling it at $399, they were losing a hundred dollars a system. And then they were forced to cut the price because they couldn’t match Sony’s prices, but they at least had to get closer to Sony’s prices to have a chance. And so then they had to cut the price from there. They were bleeding, they were hemorrhaging.
So there SEGA was in the Spring of 1995. Just a year and a half after being the leading video game company in America, they were suddenly on the bottom. This is a fast moving industry and at the end of the day, there’s not a lot of room for missteps. And SEGA had a couple of big missteps.
Being focused on leading edge hardware was only getting them so far. And when the hardware suddenly ends up not being the best and not easily accessible to consumers, well that’s not good. And when SEGA was in this position, and the company was not making money, well that’s when things would have to change.
And change, SEGA did. The changes within SEGA and their last ditch effort in the console market, on the next episode.
From slot machines and photo booths, to arcades, to America’s leading video game company, this documentary-style episode explores Sega’s history with the help of Ken Horowitz.
Journey back with us to discover how an early 1930’s father-son shop became a 1990’s video game juggernaut that seemed too big to fail.
SEGA. Even if you know very little about video games, there is a very good chance you know the brand. Going hand in hand with Sonic The Hedgehog, it’s one of the most recognizable names in all of video games. But how much do you know about the company and its origins?
Ken Horowitz: A lot of people when they think Sega, they think of Sega as a Japanese company, which it is today, but it didn’t start out that way, right?
That’s Ken Horowitz, a man who has dedicated a lot of time to… you know what? I’m just going to let him introduce himself.
Ken Horowitz: My name’s Ken Horowitz, I teach college research and English in Puerto Rico and I run the website Sega-16.com, which has been documenting Sega’s hardware history for 17 years. I also write and research about video game history. I’ve written three books so far. Over the last 17 years I’ve done over 500 articles for the website, including 120 interviews.
Ken Horowitz is not only a mega fan of all things Sega, but someone who has dedicated nearly two decades to researching Sega’s history, with a specific interest in game development. Writing, interviewing, and preserving the stories behind the company and the games.
Ken Horowitz: I Interviewed Joe Miller, who was Sega of America’s Vice President of Research and Development. He succeeded Ken Balthazar. I interviewed [Joe Miller] and as far as I know, that’s the only interview he did specifically about his time at Sega and a year later he died of stomach cancer. I interviewed Michael Knox, who’s the head of Park Place Productions who did the Genesis version of Joe Montana Football and he died of cancer shortly after that.
These people are gone, you won’t be able to speak to them again, and to have their own words, their own voice telling these stories is something that I think needs to be preserved. That’s why i want to eventually take all my interview raw recordings and donate them to the Strong Museum in New York.
Ken’s research has been huge for the world of video game history and video game research. And I think it’s fair to call an expert on all things Sega history. So with his help, let’s dive in!
**a lot of people, when they think of Sega, they think of it as a Japanese company, but it didn’t start out that way. It was founded by American former serviceman who operated in Japan.
Sega’s origins can be traced all the way back to the 1930’s.
Yes the Great Depression. Long before arcades and video games.
Irving Bromberg, an American immigrant, had a business where he would buy and sell Bally pinball machines and other coin-op machines across the United States. While he was still in high school, his son Martin would help sell machines as well. Once he graduated high school, Martin jumped feet first into the business with his father.
In 1940, Martin would expand the business by forming a partnership called Standard Games, which would operate out of Honolulu, Hawaii and sell and operate slot machines and other coin-op machines to American military bases, mainly the nearby Pearl Harbor.
Then in 1941…the war came. Martin was laser focused on becoming a successful businessman like his father and he managed to get himself placed on the “inactive duty list” through shipyard assignments in Pearl Harbor. This allowed Martin to continue working on his Standard Games business.
Martin would eventually change his last name from Bromberg to Bromley.
After the war, they sold off Standard Games and started a new company called Service Games. And THAT is a name to remember. Service Games. Still buying and selling coin-op machines, mainly slot machines, from now closing military bases.
Eventually Martin Bromley and Irving Bromberg would expand internationally and sell their coin-op machines to the American military instillation around the world. In 1951, they sent company salesman, Richard Stewart, along with coin-op mechanic, Rayman Lamaire, to Japan to set up shop for the international business. With the US occupation of Japan after WWII, Bromley and Bromberg saw opportunity for expansion, bringing coin-op machines into the country and selling them to the US military bases on the island.
Eventually, they would expand outside of military bases, and slowly the coin-op market began expanding into Japan itself. And Service Games was not the only game in town.
Another American veteran, David Rosen, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War, would also start up a coin operated business in Japan. During his time in the Air Force, Rosen found both an admiration for the country of Japan, along with a business opportunity. Since the war, Japan’s economy was struggling, but David Rosen saw a way to help. Every citizen in Japan at the time required a photo ID. So David Rosen came up with the idea of importing coin operated photo booths from the US, which allowed Japanese citizens to get a photo of themselves much faster and much cheaper than before. And eventually, competition for photo booths would set in, so Rosen began buying other coin-operated amusement machines from the US and selling them in Japan, to huge success. And just like that, his company, Rosen Enterprises, became one of the largest coin-operated companies in Japan.
So you had Martin Bromely, and Service Games and then you had David Rosen and Rosen Enterprises all operating in Japan selling coin-operated machines.
And these coin-operated machines varied from slot machines, to photobooths, to jukeboxes. Anything that you could put a coin in and it would do something, there’s a good chance that David Rosen and Martin Bromley were selling these with their businesses.
Despite a fair amount of success, David Rosen soon saw his position in the coin-op market slipping. So he sought a merger with Martin Bromley’s business to ensure the business’ future. Which finally brings us to Sega!
In 1965, Martin Bromely’s businesses, which formally was known as Service games and went through a couple of name changes, acquired Rosen Enterprises and they formed Sega Enterprises, Ltd. Sega, from the name “Service Games” taking the first two letters of “Service” and the first two letters of “Games,” and “Enterprises” from Rosen Enterprises. And David Rosen was named CEO of this new company, while Richard Stewart would lead as President, with Bromely would sit on the board.
And David Rosen was a very savvy businessman. He was never satisfied with more of the same, so he pushed innovation. And this would become the theme of Sega for many years to come, still to this day. They wouldn’t just import the same old machines from America and sell them in Japan. Instead Rosen wanted to put out machines that the public had never seen before. They created and licenced aptly named electromechanical games like “Basketball” and “Punching Bag “ in 1966 and ‘67, and a groundbreaking machine called Periscope. A massive cabinet featuring moving plastic ships on a fake ocean, with bright blinking lights and loud sound effects. Players would look through an actual periscope and fire torpedoes in an attempt to hit the ships. It was one of the very first coin-op machines to ever cost $0.25 and despite the very high cost and the fact that there were only moving blinking lights representing the shooting torpedoes, Periscope was a massive hit. Causing long lines and often bringing in upwards of $100 a day even when there wasn’t any kind of big event going on.
It was so successful that David Rosen decided to flip Sega’s business model on its head. They would create a smaller version of Periscope in Japan and ship it internationally.
Ken Horowitz: They had been working with other people’s machines and Rosen wanted Sega to make its own machines. But the thing was, like how do you do that without pissing off US distributers, because you don’t want to become competition for the very people whose machines you’re importing.
Soon Sega was churning out several brand new games per year in Japan and shipping them to the US. By the late 60’s and early 70’s, business was good for Sega, but it wouldn’t stagnante for long. You see, the 70’s would bring about a technological shift that would change Sega’s Business forever. Video games!
The change came in 1972, when a brand new company called Atari developed a video electronic game called Pong.
Ken Horowitz: By 1973 Pong changes everything. Now its video. You know, they have to get in on that and also Pong was an insanely popular game at the time.
It’s simplistic design and widely appealing gameplay loop led to be a breakout hit in the coin-op space. And Sega was quick to notice.They wanted to make a very similar type of machine. They wanted to try video games. So, how did they get started?
Ken Horowitz: They started with Pong Tron, which was basically a Pong clone. The same way a a lot of companies copied Pong. Nintendo copied pong, Sega copied pong, Taito copied pong. Back then, this is a new industry so the Copyright law is very fuzzy, if it’s there at all.
Sega was so quick to react to the games popularity, that it was actually able to create and release Pong Tron in Japan before Atari was able to formally release Pong in that country. And, although it was a clone of Pong, this would mark the first time that SEGA ever used a CRT TV in one of its coin-op machines. Making it stand out from the rest of SEGA’s products.
As with most Pong and Pong related clones, Pong Tron did incredibly well for Sega. So much so, that they explored this new video game trend more.
The next year, Sega would put out Pong Tron II and another follow up called Hockey TV.
Ken Horowitz: That only lasts for so long. Once people get tired of Pong, you gotta come up with something else. But that was enough for Sega to say, “this is big, this something that’s here to stay, so now we have to come up with more.
And that’s exactly what Sega did. They continued to explore this emerging market and would licence and distribute other companies games, as well as innovate with their own games
Sega continued developing and licensing arcade video games in Japan and distributing them overseas. But, just like with the electromechanical coin-op machines, all the international shipping proved to be a challenge. So it was time for Sega to develop and manufacture games in the US for the American market.
To get a jump on the American arcade market, Sega purchased the up and coming company, Gremlin. And this collaboration is what led Sega to become a leader in the arcade industry.
In 1979, The Gremlin/Sega American team developed a game called Head On. A two player game where players would drive through a maze collecting dots and avoiding collisions.
Ken Horowitz: The thing about Head On, which was developed in 1979, it’s influential because it was the first of what Sega called a multi-phased games. These were basically the type of games that adapted and becomes more difficult as players get better.
Head On was a major influence in the arcade world, which influenced games like Pac-Man.
Ken Horowitz: It was the first “eat the dots” type game. Pac-man was the most famous and I’d say the most influential because of the fame that Pac-man had and the phenomenon that it was.
More hit games would come from Sega’s American team. In 1981 Sega and Gremlin licensed and manufactured an arcade game from Konami called Frogger.
Sega’s arcade business was booming, but Sega saw another business opportunity. You see, in the late 70’s, Sega saw an opportunity to buy out one of its competitors, Atari. Allegedly, Sega was in close talks with Atari’s founder, Nolan Bushnel, to purchase the company. The deal was close to being finalized, but at the last minute, Bushnel received a phone call that explained that company engineers at Atari had come up with a single device that could play multiple arcade games. With this invention on hand, Bushnell decided to cancel the deal with Sega. And that device would later go on to become the Atari 2600. And just like that the video game console market was born.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, video games started moving from the arcade and started moving to the living room TV. Atari found massive success through the 70’s, and soon, many other companies jumped in on the new hot trend. Soon the market was flooded with consoles from different companies. From the Atari Video Computer System, to the Intellivision, to the Magnavox Odyssey, to the Colecovision. The home video game market gave consumers a wealth of options. Options were great, but he one downside though, a varying degree of quality in both games and consoles. And it was that disparity in quality, along with the over saturated marketplace that led to the video game crash of 1983.
The industry suddenly went from this 3 billion dollar industry in 1983 and dropped almost 97% to much lower 100 million by 1985. The American market is where things were hit the hardest. The whole crash is best depicted by Atari’s ET games, that was so bad, Atari took the entire inventory of the game and dumped it in a landfill.
A little late to the party, two successful arcade companies tested the consumer video game market, despite the recession. On the same day in July of 1983, Sega released the SG 1000 and Nintendo released the FamiCom. Both of these companies released these consoles and they were positioned well to bring their popular arcade games to the family room TV. But Nintendo had a leg up.
Ken Horowitz: Well Nintendo had already been releasing home game machines with its “Color TV-Game” which would play Pong clones and things like that. So it had already had a presence in the home video game market that there was at that time. And by 1983 they had already released the Game and Watch in ‘79 or ‘78. So the FamiCom was the latest in a series of consumer products that Nintendo was pushing. Nintendo was moving into that market before the FamiCom even came out.
Armed with the experience to effectively sell consumer electronics, Nintendo’s FamiCom was a huge success in Japan. Later coming to the rest of the world in 1985 as the Nintendo Entertainment System. And Nintnedo’s success could not have been better timed. The video game crash had wiped out the competition, leaving the goal wide open for Nintendo.
Sega on the other hand, failed to find success with the SG 1000 in Japan. And it wasn’t due to the quality of games. Sega was able to port many of its popular arcade titles to the system, as well as develop new, exciting titles. Sega simply just didn’t know how to market in the consumer electronic space and didn’t invest to money to push it further.
Ken Horowitz: They didn’t have the focus on becoming a consumer electronic company the way Nintendo did. You know Sega, Nakayama and others, these were hardware guys, these were coin-op guys, and Sega was primarily a coin-op company.
The SG1000 failed to make a splash, but Sega’s research team continued to explore this technology. After a few iterations, Sega released the 8-bit Master System in 1985 in Japan, and a year later internationally.
The Master System was a major improvement over its previous consoles, with better technology than the Famicom or NES. The problem was, they were a few years late in the market. Even more problematic, Sega had no branch in America at all, after previously pulling out of the country due to the crash. Sega faced numerous challenges, but if they were to find success with the home console market, it was imperative they have a presence in the US.
Starting from scratch in America wasn’t going to be easy. Fortunately, Sega’s president and CEO Hayao Nakayama, was a bulldog and one that was willing to do whatever it took to succeed. Although he was born and raised in Japan, Nakayama was not only fluent in English, but very comfortable speaking the language. He had done a good amount of business with American companies and, in a lot of ways, he strove to run Sega with a lot of the same practices as American companies.
Nakayama knew that the only way to get Sega’s console business going, was a strategic hire. He would target, not just a person familiar with the video game industry, he would hire straight from the competition. Nakayma went straight after Nintendo of America’s Vice President of Sales, Bruce Lowry.
Ken Horowitz: Bruce Lowry was kind of a risk taker. I think that’s the reason why the Master System ended up being what it was.
Before joining Sega of America, Lowry helped to launch the NES in America. He was there at the huge launch event in New York City, and he was one of the key people that help to organize that launch and ensured it was a success.
And when Nakayama came knocking on Lowry’s door with the offer to run Sega’s American business arm and launch their new product, he was conflicted. Bruce Lowry was happy at Nintendo of America. Still, Lowry enjoyed the challenge of launching a new console in America. He knew what it took and he was tempted to make that whole thing happen again.
So he did! Lowry took the job in 1986 and began building the business in America. First thing he did was come up with a name. Nintnedo of America worked really well, so he went with Sega of America. Once he had a name he had to get some employees, because there weren’t any at all. It was literally only Bruce Lowry. So Lowry built it from the ground up.
Ken Horowtiz: Lowry got the Master System into stores, just about all the major retailers. Had it launched with a good software library. Came with two controllers, came with a gun. The packaging and everything, that was all under Lowry’s watch.
As if that wasn’t hard enough, Sega of Japan had a lofty goal of selling one million units of the Master System in the US. To make it happen, Sega of Japan decided to partner with the toy company Tonka. Tonka had the resources to market and distribute the Master System. Problem was, Tonka had virtually no experience atll all with consumer electronics and didn’t know how market video games.
Bruce Lowry was frustrated with this decision, too. He had just hired over a dozen employees strategically and he was geared up to do all of this himself. Now Tonka would make all the marketing and distribution decisions, while he was reduced to managing incoming products from Japan.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, Sega only managed to sell half a million Master Systems across three years and could only grab 5% of the market share away from Nintendo. It wasn’t all Sega’s fault though, becasue Nintendo’s success was unprecedented. Not only was Nintnedo selling more than 5 million units every year, they managed to get an NES in 30% of every home in America by 1990. Was your home one of them? Convincing the public to buy a similar, less popular system, that could not play Mario or Zelda, wasn’t exactly an easy thing to do.
But Sega continued to do what they did best and that was innovate! The engineering team at Sega was ahead of the competition. By 1988, Sega was ready to debut their brand new 16 bit console.
In October of 1988, Sega released the Mega Drive in Japan. Unfortunately for Sega, when it came to the American market the name “Mega Drive” was already taken by a computer chip manufacturer. So they had to come up with a new name.
Ken Horowitz: There was like this competition to pick the name and there were different names, like Cyclone. But the name that won was Genesis. Some people say it was because of Star Trek 2, which had come out a few years earlier. The name makes sense, because it’s supposed to be a new start, a rebirth.
So whether it was named after a new beginning, or from that thing from Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan, but at any rate, In 1989, Sega released the Genesis in America. But unfortunately, ahead of the Genesis’ launch, Bruce Lowry decided to part ways with Sega. This was most likely due to Sega of Japan electing Tonka over Bruce Lowry’s decision to do it himself. And Sega elected a new leader of Sega of America, one that was really qualified, Michael Katz.
Ken Horowitz: Well Michael Katz is kind of a maverick. He had been in the computer and game industry for years and he had a really, really good understanding of the market.
With both experience at Atari, as well as a high level experience with toy company, Mattel, Katz was well suited for the job. He was tasked with ensuring the Genesis was a success in America. Fortunately for Katz, the Genesis was a much more powerful machine than the NES. Capable of 16-bit graphics. Sega could bring over many more of their popular arcade titles to the new console, including Golden Axe, Revenge of Shinobi, and it was bundled with the title Altered Beasts.
Using what Bruce Lowry built as a baseline, Katz was able to lead the team at Sega of America to establish a relationships with retailers, and more importantly, ensuring the Genesis had great games that would appeal to the American market. Getting third party developers to make games for the Genesis was key, especially in the American market, but it had been a major struggle up to that point due to Nintendo’s iron-clad grip on the industry.
You see back in the 80’s, after the crash, Nintendo had to make sure that there was a viable industry and the only way to do that was to control the entire video game market. Which meant ensuring quality in their own products, but also controlling third party developers and controlling retailers. if you were a company making video games and you wanted to make a game for Nintendo, Nintendo had a few rules for you.
Ken Horowitz: Your company makes game for the NES, it can only release a certain amount of games per year. If you want to release for competing consoles, you can, but there has to be a two year gap between when it was released for the NES and when it comes out for the other console. So technically you can do it, but the attitude was, “well you can go and release that game for the Sega Master System, but it would be a shame if the allotment of chips you had for the game you were going to be releasing for the holiday season went to this other company instead.” There was no way in ‘89, ‘90, and even ‘91 that a publisher could say “no” to Nintendo. Cause it was just too big and there was too much money on the table.
With Nintendo holding up the majority of third party developers, Michael Katz had to establish close partnerships with the few remaining developers. Michael Katz was able to create a solid partnership with EA to develop leading sports games for the Sega Genesis, as well as a few other smaller development teams.
Ken Horowitz: If Michael Katz hadn’t done that, you probably wouldn’t have seen Sega build its Sega Sports brand the way it did. At its height, it accounted for about 43% of Sega’s revenue. So in the United States, sports were incredibly important and he saw that. He was the first one to recognize that
So Sega had the more powerful console, with the Genesis compared to the NES, and had a stream of great exclusive games that was really the only place for sports video games. Now the trick was convincing the public.
To fix this, the first thing Michael Katz was go and licenced some of the biggest celebrities at the time. He somehow managed to have Michael Jackson’s likeness in a game called Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker with the excited support of the pop star, and also grabbed Joe Montanna for Joe Montanna football.
The next step was telling the public with TV ads and for this, Katz decided to go directly after the competition. This sort of practice was generally against Japanese culture, but Sega was left with little choice. And what they came up was an aggressive ad campaign that not only mentioned the competition, but touted their superiority.
Though a little “on the nose,” Sega was getting their point across in a way that could stick in your head. The Genesis was starting to garner attention and little by little, they were chipping away at Nintendo’s market share. But there was a major problem looming on the horizon. Nintendo’s 16-bit console, the Super Famicom, or Super Nintendo, was slated to release very soon. And with the ability to lean on popular IP’s like Mario and Zelda, Sega could soon be crushed despite their recent successes.
Anxious about the looming threat, Hayao Nakayama pushed to ensure Sega of America’s success. To do this, Nakayama called on the best in the business, Tom Kalinski. The man responsible for not only making Mattel the leading toy company, but creating and reinventing the most popular toy brands at the time.
In fact, you might not know the name, but Tom Kalinski had a major influence in 80’s pop culture at large and he probably influenced your life in some way. Among other things, he was responsible for creating a popular action figure for boys and he promoted it with a hit TV show.
That’s right, He-man was Tom Kalinski’s idea. He did a lot more too. He reinvented the Barbie line, making that super popular, he made Hot Wheels the big car toy brand, he revitalized Matchbox cars, and oddly enough, before getting into the toy industry, he came up with the idea for putting Flintstones characters on children’s vitamins.
Everything Kalinski touched seemed to turn to gold. Despite the current President of Sega of America, Michael Katz, doing a great job, Nakayama wanted more! He wanted gold. He wanted Tom Kalinski to run Sega of America.
So Nakayama tracked down Tom Kalinski and brought him on board. No really. He tracked him down. Kalinski was in retirement at the time and he was not returning his phone calls. So when Nakayama found out he was going on vacation with his family to Hawaii, he found out where Kalinski was staying, jumped on a plane, and approached him down on the beach.
With a short trip to Japan, and promises of running things how he wanted, Kalinski was very interested. He had never ever dealt with video games or consumer electronics in general. He was quick to admit his shortcomings, but also a bit excited about the challenge. At first Kalinski didn’t realize he would be running the show at Sega of America. He thought he was brought on as an advisor.
It turns out though, Michael Katz thrown out and Tom Kalinski was in. Kalinski had a lot to learn about the industry, in a very short period of time. But Kalinski was no dummy. He was a quick study, but he was even better when it came to people.
Ken Horowitz: Honestly, he’s the kinda guy you wanna have a beer with. He didn’t come across as arrogant. His answers, the way he talks, he’s just very, very humble and very down to earth. Very approachable.”
After a few short months, Kaliski was able to get to know the Sega of America team and get a solid understanding of the video game industry and Sega’s current place in it. With the benefit of an outsiders perspective, and a knack for creating well known brands, Kalinski knew what Sega was missing. A mascot! He didn’t need to understand video games to take one look at the competition and understand the value of Mario. Sega needed a Mario and they needed it desperately!
And Sega was aware of this too, so in the late 80’s, Sega held an internal competition to see who could come up with a mascot character for Sega. One that could particularly be focused on the American market. The runner up was….an egg and the winner of the competition was a Hedgehog called … Mr. Needlemouse. Recent rumors suggest that this “well known” piece of Sega’s history is a translation error and its original name was simply, “Mr. Hedgehog,” but regardless, he would later be known as Sonic the Hedgehog.
No one knew the importance of Sonic the Hedgehog more than Kalinski. But as soon as he heard about the soon to be mascot, he had a question. “What’s…uhh…what’s a hedgehog?” It wasn’t exactly a well known species in America.
According to the book Console Wars, Sega of Japan faxed over an early sketch of Sonic the Hedgehog and Kalinski and the Sega of America team weren’t exactly thrilled. Sonic had pointy fangs, a spiked collar, an electric guitar, and a human girlfriend. “Who’s the girl?” Kalinski was finally able to ask when he was prompted by Nakayama on what he thought of the sketch”
Nakayama simply said, “Oh thats Madana”
“Of course it is”
Needless to say, some things needed to change. The change would come later, first Kalinski had to fly to Japan and tell the board of directors his plan for Sega of America.
So Tom Kalinski jumped on an airplane, flew to Sega’s headquarters in Japan armed with a plan and a presentation.
[As Tom Kalinski]
Konnichiwa. I want to thank you all for your time. It is very nice to meet you all.
When Nakayama-san brought me on to the Sega of America team, he asked me to give a my full assessment of Sega of America and how it is doing in the video game market. He also asked that once I get a lay of the land, to give my best recommendation on how to make the Genesis a success in America.
Well after three months of observation, careful studying of the market, getting to know this great company, and learning the video game industry and Sega’s important place in it, I am happy to provide my best recommendations for success. No, not just success, domination! We can topple the big N and this is how to do it.
I know, I know I’m new to the industry, but I can assure you, after nearly two decades in the toy industry, I know exactly what it takes to make a premium product fly off of store shelves!
um, ok! Uh let’s get started. I’ll make this short and sweet.
Ok! Here’s what I propose we do in America. If we follow these steps, there will be no stopping Sega!
Step 1. We reduce the cost of the Genesis from $189 down to $150. We need to price it lower than the completion and, to me, $150 feels like a nice, round, affordable number.
Sure this cuts into the profit, but we have to get the console into the hands of the consumer so that they will buy games. Lots of games!
Step 2. Refocus the marketing. The current ads. “Sega does what Nintendon’t” are fine. Haha I thought it was very clever, but it needs it be sharper.
It’s simple. We want the Genesis to be the coolest thing to have.
It’s not just your run-of-the-mill, bland, gray video game console. It’s sleek, it’s cutting edge, it’s new, it’s the best of the best.
We have to make that clear in our marketing.
Step 3. We change the pack-in game from the hit arcade game, Altered Beasts, to a different game. Altered Beasts is a great game, no doubt, but that name. Altered Beasts. That name will never sell in a place like Kansas. It’s somewhat demonic tone is sure to be a turn off to nice Midwestern folks.
I say we put our best foot forward and bundle in the hottest new game with the console. Not just any game, but a game with an iconic character. A character you associate with the Sega brand and you can see on the box.’
I am suggesting that we make the pack-in game Sonic the Hedgehog. Let’s make the console as appealing as possible and get the gamer invested. This way, after the purchase, they will buy many more games!
And that’s it! We make the console more affordable, slap an iconic character on the box, pack-in the must have game Sonic the Hedgehog, and strategically market it!
The Genesis will fly off of store shelves if we do this!
And thats it! Pretty simple. Any questions?
After a few minutes of awkward silence, the room exploded in conversation. Of course it was all in Japanese, so Kalinsi didn’t know what was going on. But finally after a long while, Nakayama quieted everyone down, turned to Kalnksi and simply said, “Everyone here hates your ideas.”
You see, they knew that lowering the consoles price would severely cut into their margins. They had already spent a lot of money on marketing and why in the world would they give away their baby, Sonic the Hedgehog, which was shaping up to be the best game on the system, why would they give it away for free?!
Well Kalinski thought he was going to be fired there on the spot. So Kalinski tucked his tail between his legs, started walking out the door, but at the last minute, Nakayama gave him full permission to carry out his ideas the way he wanted to. He hired him to do a job, and you know what, he was going to let him do it.
And just like that, Sega of America was off to the races. Kalinski began to get to know his team and soon found that there were some very talented and dedicated folks on board.
Al Nilsen, Sega of America’s head of marketing, as well as Vice President, Shinobu Toyoda worked closely with Kalinski and helped to steer the ship in the right direction.
Ken Horowitz: He [Tom Kalinski] always emphasised that it was a team effort and it was a team of people.
If you look at it today, it’s difficult to think of Sega without also picturing Sonic the Hedgehog and the big reason for that is Tom Kalinski. He worked with the team at Sega of America to turn Sonic’s image into something a little less ”punk rock,” and a little more appealing to American audiences.
It was a concerted effort and Sega of Japan fought back at most of the suggested changes, but Kalinski and the team were able to make make small tweaks and compromises until they could get Sonic’s character design to the point where everyone was happy.
And when Sonic the Hedgehog released in June of 1991, it was an amazing sight to see, with incredibly fast movement, vibrant colors, and an attitude very different from any game before it. Sales for the Genesis skyrocketed. Folks that already bought a Genesis quickly bought the game and people unsure about the Genesis suddenly became interested with the price drop and inclusion of the game. Within a short period, Tom Kalinski’s plan was working.
And Kaliski and the team had no plans to sit back and soak in the success. They springboarded off the popularity of Sonic the Hedgehog.
This was excellent timing for Sega, because Nintendo’s 16-bit console, the Super Nintendo, was slated to release in September of that very year! It would be $199 and the pack in game would be Super Mario World.
Of course with the vast majority control of market share, Nintendo was not exactly worried about their competition. The Super Nintendo would be the hot new item and fans were excited for it.
And when Sega got its hands on the game, Sega happily pushed comparisons of Super Mario World to Sonic the Hedgehog, boasting the speed and innovation of Sonic. Running side by side comparisons at their E3 booth and even running direct TV ads comparing the two games.
Although Super Mario World stands tall as a great Mario game, at the time, Super Mario World was very similar to Super Mario 3, whereas Sonic the Hedgehog was flashy, edgy, and brand new. In fact, Sega did several anonymous surveys, quizzing various consumers on which of the two games they preferred after a brief demo, and the majority preferred Sonic.
The Super Nintendo released on September 9th of 1991 and, to noone’s surprise, it sold well. But the Sega of America team continued to hustle. The team pushed that the Sega Genesis was cheaper, had more innovative pack-in game, and it had also been out for almost 3 years, meaning that the available game library was much bigger on the Genesis. Not only that, but you could buy an adapter to allow people to play Master System games on the Genesis. Something you could not do in any way with the Super Nintendo.
Tom Kalinski and the team did their best to make all of these points clear to the public through their advertising campaigns. And they pushed and pushed to get brand new commercials. They even utilized the same advertising company that did the “Just Do It” commercials for Nike.
What they finally came up with for advertising Sega was wild!
Besides having a super chaotic, flashing, extremely fast commercial, it also had someone screaming, “SEGA,” at your face in a way that somehow was not annoying.
And all of this was all working. For the first time, Nintendo did not have the best selling consumer electronics of the holiday season. In 1991, the Sega Genesis outsold the Super Nintendo. The mighty Nintendo was starting to topple.
Thanks in large part to the work that Bruce Lowry and Michael Katz had done in securing American game developers, Sega of America was able to keep a steady flow of great exclusive games coming to the Genesis. Nintendo was starting to lose its iron grip and soon, third party game development opportunities started to come. Whereas before Nintendo would not allow developers to create games for Nintendo’s systems and other companies hardware, now they could. For example, Mortal Kombat came out for the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo on the same day and this had never been heard of before.
Likely in fear of being sued for monopolistic practices, Nintendo allowed for this to happen.
Ken Horowitz: They snap their fingers and say, “Hey you know what, if you want to make games for other consoles, go right ahead.” and Capcom and Konami and other companies flood the Genesis with titles and from them on is when you see that the Genesis becomes a contender and cracks that monopoly.
Now when a hit third party game was made, it could be released on both a Nintendo system and on a Sega system.
After the huge success of Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s no surprise that a sequel was in high demand. This time around, Yuji Naka, the creator of the original would make the sequel in America under a special team called the Sega Technical Institute, led none other than Mark Cerny, who you may know as the creator of the PS4 and the PS5. The Sega technology institute was responsible for researching and pushing new innovations in games.
Sonic 2 was set to release in 1992, which gave the development team barely over one year to make the sequel to the best selling game of the previous year. Could they pull off another hit in that short period of time? It was a bit of a risk, but the Sega of America team decided to put all of their eggs in the Sonic 2 basket. The team was eager to keep the momentum going and were willing to try anything new to compete with the giant that was Nintendo.
So the Sega of America team came up with a new idea. A global launch event for a game release! What if Sonic 2 released on the same day at every store around the world?
While that sounds like a very normal thing by today’s standards, back in the early 90’s, video games didn’t have a release day. It’s more like they had a release “window.” The games, when they were finished, they would be packaged, then they went out for delivery on trucks, and whenever the retailers received them, that’s when the games went up onto store shelves.
But for Sonic 2, it would be a day to remember. It would be called “Sonic 2sday”. The Sega teams coordinated with every sega retailer and distributor around the globe to make sure they received copies of games in advance and would not sell them until Sonic 2sday!
Not only that, but they had a 10 million dollar marketing budget for Sonic 2 alone, which included not only commercials, but teen star celebrity endorsements from the likes of Jonathan Taylor Thomas of Home Improvement fame and Samuel Powers (Screech from Saved by the Bell).
This all sure would have been embarrassing if the game had turned out bad. Fortunately for Sega, the development team was able to take what was great about the first Sonic game and expand on it to create what many consider one of the very best platformers ever made. Spin dashes, the inclusion of Tales, brand new worlds, a two player mode. Sonic 2 had it all.
On “Sonic 2sday,” November 24th, 1992, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 released and broke every video game sales record there was! All 3.2 million copies of the game that were made for the initial releases were all sold-out in just 2 weeks and would go on to be second best selling genesis game, behind the first Sonic game.
Whether it was due to the huge marketing budget, the celebrity endorsements, or the unarguable quality of the game, the “video game release day” idea was proven on “Sonic 2sday”.
With the booming popularity of Sonic, along with a large library of diverse games, The Sega Genesis was in high demand. Within a few short years of Tom Kalinski joining Sega of America, the Mighty Nintendo lost its majority hold on the video game industry. Sega became the market leader, holding nearly 60% market share in the United States, alone. There were now two giants. It still lagged behind in other countries, but still, Sega allowed for real competition in the global gaming industry.
From the humble beginnings of a small American father and son business in the 1930s and 40s, who would buy simple coin operated machines and sell them to entertain American servicemen during World War II, to a post war company who would find Opportunity selling and maintaining various coin operated machines in Japan, to a leading Japanese electro mechanical and arcade game development company, to a struggling consumer electronic console business who was far, far behind the competition, to a scrappy underdog who did whatever it took to gain a foothold in the monopoly of a marketplace, to America’s leading video game company. Thanks to Tom Kalinski, the team at Sega of America, and Sonic the Hedgehog, by 1994 Sega was on top of the video game world!
From the Phillips CDi games, to the 1989 TV Series, to Link’s Crossbow Training, this episode explores the content from the Legend of Zelda series that has mostly been forgotten to time. This is the 4th and final part of The Legends Behind the Legend of Zelda series! This episode includes a detailed review of the entire Legend of Zelda TV series cartoon, covers the history and development of the three Philips CDi Zelda games (Zelda: Wand of Gamelon, Link: The Faces of Evil, AND Zelda’s Adventure), as well as the other offshoot Zelda Games. Hyrule Warriors! Age of Calamity! Weird TV commercials! It’s all here in this dive into Links somewhat troubled past.
What happens when Nintendo licensed out Zelda without any oversight? What happens when Link is given a voice? Listen and you will find out.
Hello and Welcome to Level Zero. This is the show that gives insight into the world of video games and answers your questions! I’m your host Greg Griffith and on this episode, all the extra Zelda stuff you wanted to hear about including the CDi games and the Zelda TV series!
….wait wait wait wait calm down intro music. Do I really have to talk about the Zelda cartoon from the 80’s?
Have you ever found yourself enjoying something really bad? Like a tv show or movie that is just so bad, that its kind of enjoyable. It’s so bad that its good!
But then you find other things that are just so bad, they are bad. And no enjoyment can be found in them.
What is it that separates these two things? Where is the line that separates something bad, from being ironically enjoyable and something bad from just being bad?
I don’t have the answer, but man has it been on my mind a lot lately.
Yes! Yet another episode on Zelda, but this one is covering some of the weirder Zelda related stuff. I spent the last three episodes of the podcast covering all 18 mainline Zelda games as a celebration of the 35th anniversary of the series. I covered a lot of information in those three episodes, But did I cover everything Zelda related? Certainly not! So for this episode, I asked listeners to write in with anything else about Zelda they wanted to hear about. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on the series, but I have spent the last few months researching the series in my free time. So I’m doing my best to answer it all! Any questions I couldn’t answer, I jumped into the scary realm of the Official R/Zelda subreddit and sought out the answers just for you!
This is a Mailbag episode of sorts, but some of the questions took me in some wild directions for research and are a bit more involved to answer. One question in particular may or may not have led me down a path that involved binging all 13 episodes of the legends of Zelda TV series. Oooof
Before we dive in, a couple of quick corrections from the previous episode.
Rob Hudack messaged me saying, “hey One quick note about BotW:
– It released March 3rd, 2017; you said, “November of 2017”.
Dang it. Yes. Breath of the Wild was a Switch release title and the switch released in March of 2017. March. not November.
Also @theedgeofmypete on Twitter said,
“… I supremely loathe being *that guy*, but the name is pronounced “Mid-na”. ✌️
Yah, what did I say?
Ok Midna, the companion from twilight Princess, got it.
Thank you so much for those corrections! Ok with those corrections out of the way, let’s dive right in!
The first question comes from Travis. Travis says, “why are people from Hyrule called Hylians and not Hyrulites, Hyrulians, or something along those lines? Washingtonians is a mouthful, but that’s still what I am!”
Ya! good question. It should be hyrulians, right? Hylians sounds better, but it’s like a shortcut? So i looked this up too. and it turns out, Hylians are a race, not specifically people from the land of Hyrule.
The official manual of the game, Link to the Past, gives the full explanation for the history of Hyrule and the triforce. And to be clear, this is actually from the original Japanese manuscript of the game. the localized English one leaves out a lot of details. In Japan, the game is called “Triforce of the Gods,” not “Link to the Past.” When it was localized to North America, a lot of the religious aspects seemed to be removed from the game.
But this original manual talks a lot about the gods of the triforce and a race of people close to the gods, “These records were left by the Hylia race, chosen people said to be able to hear the voices of the gods. For this reason, they possessed tall ears, excellent intuition, and made use of magic.”
So a Hylian is NOT a person from Hyrule, it is literally a specific race with pointy ears.
The manual also says, “There was once a race close to the gods known as the Hylians (which is also the origin of the word “Hyrule”), who left behind scriptures for their Hyrulean descendants.” So here it does say that word Hyrulean that you were asking about, Travis. Meaning, people from the land of Hyrule. And here it states that the name Hyrule just came from this word Hylia. So the name Hyrule, is kind of like the name “holy land” in this instance.
Later in the game Skyward Sword, it actually establishes that Hylia is the noble Goddess who watched over the Triforce in ancient times and is essentially just Zelda. So 20 years after this manual was written, they filled in the gaps and explained who Hylia was.
It’s all a little goofy, but at the end of the day, a Washintonian is a person a from Washington, usually good people judging from the people i know from there, but a Washintonian is absolutly not a race of people.
A Hyrulean is someone from Hyrule, by a Hylian are a race of people, like Link, with pointy ears.
I will go ahead a drop a link for a google doc that contains the fully translated Manual from Link to the Past. Check out the show notes and you can read that manual. its pretty cool.
Pete commented on a Level Zero Twitter post and said, “I would genuinely find it interesting to hear you talk about the spin off content. Link’s Crossbow Training and such – maybe even the concerts? Or maybe prominent fan projects?”
Ok, I’m super glad you asked about Wii Crossbow training, because this was actually a glaring omission from my previous episode. I left it out because I knew it was a small, throw away Zelda title to help sell Wii zapper accessories.
And that’s true, BUT the development of this game is really interesting and ties together with Zelda development story. I figured, because it was a short, throw away, offshoot Zelda game, that it was most likely developed by some small team at Nintendo or even a random third party. And after doing some research I came to learn that that wasn’t the case at all! in fact, Link’s Crossbow Training was developed by…..the main 3D Zelda team and overseen by … the dream team! Seriously, Miyamoto, Aonuma, and Tekashi Tezuka all directly produced and oversaw the development of this game. I’m serious. It turns out there is a “Iwata Asks” interview with Miyamoto that dives into the making of Link’s Crossbow Training. It’s interesting stuff! at least to me who has been researching Zelda games for the past few months at this point.
Ok, so what it is, if you’re not familiar.
Link’s Crossbow training is a “first person shooter” game of sorts that relied fully on the Wii’s infrared sensor. It was bundled with this thing called the Wii Zapper, which was this plastic assessor for the Wii that you could put the Wii-mote and nunchuck controller into, point it at the screen, and hold it like a gun.
A fun concept that was kind of silly and unnecessary, but it allowed you to experience the Wii in a new way. Just like the little steering wheel accessory you could use for Mario Kart on the Wii.
And in Link’s Crossbow Training, Link would make use of a crossbow and the gameplay was essentially a “point and shoot” arcade style of game where you pointed at targets or enemies to try and achieve a high score. Later levels allowed you to move link around at the same time you point and shoot.
Extremely different that any previous Zelda game and even very different than anything Miyamoto had made in a while. Most Nintendo games were trying to get away from “just trying to achieve a high score,” so it’s weird to see here.
Well it turns out, after the team wrapped up production on Twilight Princess, it was Miyamoto who was left a little unsatisfied with Twilight Princess. It was super well reviewed and received by critics and fans (like i said 100x on the previous episode) and sold incredibly well, BUT Miyamoto felt that something was missing. Twilight Princess has a vast world they created and he wanted to do more with it. Ideally, they could make another game like Majora’s Mask, with the same graphics engine and art assets. A side story to Twlight Princess, smaller in scale that could release just one year later, so folks didn’t have to wait as long between 3D Zelda games.
So Miyamoto said in this Iawata Asks interview, “I asked our Zelda staff to think about a new project with an extra story based around Twilight Princess.”
I’m sure this out Aonuma in a cold sweat with flashbacks to the same idea with the making of Majora’s Mask. But the team started coming up ideas. Big and exciting ideas! Epic ideas for a new Zelda game.
But this frustrated Miyamoto! He didn’t want an epic Zelda story. that would end up taking 3 to 5 years and Miyamoto wanted a new fun Zelda experience within a years time. He begged the team to…. dream….smaller. Miyamoto said, quote ” I do not believe that an epic tale alone can make a great game. I mean, depending on what kind of characteristics are added to a game, the fundamental enjoyment behind it can get lost among st all the gadgets.”
But the team struggled to dream smaller. They only had big ideas for a new Zelda game. So an exasperated Miyamoto made an executive decision. He told the team, “Let’s make a game based on the Twilight Princess that utilizes the Wii Zapper.”
And the team was kind of shocked with this decision. In one breath, Miyamoto killed all the ideas they had been working with. Some were even mad and begged Miyamoto to do not do this because they didn’t want to make it look like they were just cobbling something together to make a quick buck.
But Miyamoto was determined. He figured this would be the best way to get an offshot, quick and fun Zelda game made in a short time period and would allow Nintendo to sell a new fun piece of hardware. And fun fact, the Wii Zapper idea came from one of the Zelda Nintendo staff while making the Wii version of Twilight princess.
So to appease everyone and convince the team to move forward, Miyamoto suggested they make a working prototype to test player reactions. They will get some die hard Zelda fans to try out the project and if they don’t like it, we will scrap the idea.
And the team agreed. So built a first person shooter, target practiced based shooting game.
Miyamoto had actually wanted to make a first person game for a long while. In fact, he wanted Ocarina of Time to be in first person. and it almost was, but the story with child and adult Link forced the team to make it in the 3rd person perspective.
SO they started building this game, and play testers really enjoyed the experience. They got good feedback and kept pushing forward.
And despite the type of game they were making, the Zelda team kept pushing for bigger and grander stories. They were making long levels and even creative, engaging boss battles. But Miyamoto said, “no no no no no! These levels need to be short, so if someone fails, they aren’t discouraged to give up.” He also pushed to eliminate the bosses in the game. Miaytmoto said, “I really wanted them to put all their energy into making the journey fun rather than making these fabulous bosses.”
Fun gameplay. That was the goal. Eventually Miyamoto agreed to let them put the bosses in the game, but only after the gameplay was fun an engaging throughout.
Of course, there was a bit of a problem. Link can’t shoot guns! that doesn’t make sense for the time period or what Zelda games were. Miyamoto stated, quote, “we figured that Link was the logical choice. Then we argued that it would’ve been kind of strange for us to give Link a gun, so I proposed a sort of Terminator style story about a time warp from the future, but…Yeah, they vetoed that idea immediately (laughs).”
No serious, Miyamoto considered a “terminator style” jump to the future, giving link an assault rifle.
Can you imagine something like this?
“Come with me if you want to live!”
“Great! I’ll get my stuff!”
No idea what was going on with Miyamoto at this point in time to suggest something like this, but I find it hilarious. Anyway, the team pushed back on it hard so Miyamoto had another idea. There’s a place in the game Twilight Princess called Hidden Village that was designed to look like an old spaghetti western-like setting. And that is how they landed on connected a shooting gallery arcade experience with The Legend of Zelda. They finally decided to give Link a cross bow as an era appropriate weapon. But they did have the concern with using a “rapid fire” style shooting being unrealistic with a crossbow, but they ultimately decided, it’s really just for fun, so who cares?
The team built a short experience using the same graphics engine and art assets from Twilight Princess that was fun to play.
And they decided to give the game the name “Link’s Crossbow Training,” so that it conveyed to people that it was a fun, little experience. Miyamoto said, “if we had given it a name like “The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Crossbow”, it would have seemed like a grand-scaled sequel in the Zelda Series, and we didn’t want it to be misinterpreted as such. That’s why, in the end, we went with “training” for the title.”
And for the music, in this game, Koji Kondo was not involved in this game, but a man by the name of Kenta Nagata, who is the main composer for all the Mario Kart games (funnily enough) adapted Kondo’s melodies and made a unique soundtrack for this game.
Link’s Crossbow Training released for the Nintendo Wii in November of 2007 and definitely not as a full priced, stand alone game. As a pack in game for the Wii Zapper accessory. for $20, you would get the Wii zapper and a copy of Link’s Crossbow Training. Not unlike how Wii Sports was bundled in with the Wii.
And….of course as with all other Zelda games, it was really well reviewed and ….nope wait….no. It got really mixed reviewed. Reviewing on average of about 7/10. The main criticisms were that it was too short, you could beat the entirety of the game in just 45 minutes to an hour. Also, people said the Wii Zapper was not only unnecessary to play the game, but actually made the game less fun to play.
But it wasn’t a stand alone, full priced game, it came free with this accessory, so…what do people want?
So there you go. That’s the story of how one of the most talented in-house teams at Nintendo, with full guidance of the Dream Team, made a weird arcade shooting Zelda game that most people forget exists.
Let’s see, you also asked about the concerts. What Pete is referring to here is a pretty cool thing. For the 25th anniversary, Nintendo decided to celebrate with a live symphony orchestra concert.
We talked on the previous episode about how the game Skyward Sword used a live orchestra, and the release of that game was part of a big celebration that Nintendo put on for the 25th anniversary of the game.
Also as part of this celebration, Nintendo had a big show in July or 2011 at E3. They hired composers to create a four minute overture to highlight all the great Zelda music over the past 25 years. and a hired a live orchestra to perform at E3.
Nintendo was very proud of this and the music in Skyward Sword, so they announced there would be a full 2 disc orchestral CD of Zelda music that would release along side Skyward Sword.
Nintendo then had the idea to have a live concert of Zelda music in Tokyo, but decided to also have performances in London and Los Angels as well.
Nintendo then decided to continue the series and have a traveling concert series called, “The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses” which toured the US and Canada from 2012 until 2018.
Chris Babbino commented on Twitter saying, ” Lol we pronounce on average two to three things wrong per episode. Greg can you answer definitively if Fi is pronounced “Fee” or “Fye”? And also release the episode before the next time we record a Hello Hyrule? That’d help a ton!”
Oooo this is a good question. Chris is referencing to the “intelligent humanoid spirit who resides in the Goddess Sword in the game Skyward Sword.” She is essentially your companion during the game that guides you on your quest.
Now I didn’t know the correct pronunciation either, so took to the official r/zelda subreddit to ask the question and got 36 comments. About half said it’s pronounced Fee, and the other half said fye. One commenter named “fools_baby” said “Fee Fye Foe Fum”…which is just not helpful.
But one person in the bunch named, megamachopop” had the definitive answer.
In Japanese, it’s (the English letters FAI), which is pounced like fye, so i say fye as well. Thank you Megamachopop!
Also on the official Hyrule Warriors Direct video from Nintendo, they say this!
So there ya go! not fee, it’s fye…foe fum.
Speaking of Hyrule Warriors, these are two quick offshoot Zelda games I should mention.
So in 2010 or 2011 some folks from the video game company Team Ninja (makers of the Ninja Gaiden series) and some folks from the video game Company Koei Tecmo (Makes of the Dynasty Warriors franchise) got together and came up with a possible collaboration on a spin-off Dynasty Warriors game under a new license, specifically with Nintendo. They were all fans of the Zelda series and they pitched the idea to Eiji Aonuma and Nintendo. And Aonuma was on board with the idea as he was always looking for new ways to break away from traditions, like we talked about in the last episode.
So Koei Techmo and Nintendo worked together to create a Dynasty Warriors / Zelda crossover. If you’re not familiar with the Dynasty warriors series, its a Hack and slash type of game that involves mowing down a screen full of enemies in an effort to take over land. And Hyrule Warriors would be just like a Dynasty warriors game, but with tons of playable Zelda characters. Aonuma helped to supervise the project and in September of 2014 Hyrule Warriors was released for the Wii U.
And it did decently well. scoring mostly 7 or 8’s out of 10 for the most part. It struggled a little because…i don’t think anyone bought a Wii U. Luckily it later came to the 3DS and Switch. Most folks said it was fun, but infidelity not a normal Zelda game.
But it did get a sequel. It was actually Fujibashi, the director on breath of the wild and skyward sword, who thought of the idea to make a sequel to Hyrule Warriors, but have it tie into the lore of Breath of the Wild! So they did just that! Koei Tecmo once again teamed up with Nintendo to make a sequel, but this time with the art style and lore of Breath of the Wild.
It would be called Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, and it would take place 100 years before the events of Breath of the Wild during the “Calamity” that was partially shown in Breath of the Wild. This helped provide much needed back story to the world of Breath of the Wild, while not having to take any resources away from Nintendo, other than some supervision by Aonuma. Nintendo is still hard at work on a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild, but no info on that has been shared just yet.
Anywho Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity released in November of 2020 and did pretty well! Receiving mostly 8 out of 10’s by most reviewing sites and being received pretty well by fans.
Let’s see. OK more questions!
What would be your ideal 3 game anniversary package? – Preston Willke
Ooo I think ideally Ocarina of Time, Majoras Mask, and Wind Waker HD. If that was $60? Ooo ya, I’ll take it in a heartbeat.
Here’s a good one, that comes from Ryan Allison. Ryan says, “hey Greg, been enjoying the Zelda content. I was curious how Zelda became so popular in the US so quickly. I understand the first game was groundbreaking or what have you, but still i find it kind of surprising. Did and does Nintendo push Zelda to The United States or does it happen on its own?
I think it’s both honestly. I think it did have a lot to do with the quality of uniqueness of the original game itself when it came to the NES in the United States back in 1987. But it certainly had a marketing budget to help push it along. And some of these commercials. Oooof
Here’s a clip from a classic commercial from 1987.
Haha. “Your parents will help you hook it up.”
I mean, I guess this kind of ad worked. It was funny how different commercials for Zelda were too between Japan and America
Let’s take a break realll quick. When we come back,
“wellll exuuuuseee Me princess.”
“Great I’ll get my stuff!”
Why it’s better when link is silent….
There are some more Zelda games that I’m going to talk about, that Nintendo much rather you forget exists, but before these cursed games released, something truly unique and totally bizarre broadcasted to the living rooms of millions of Americans.
Grizzled Gaming on Twitter, said “ooooooh, we need more info on that Legend of Zelda cartoon”
….and because Grizzled is a friend and big fan of the show, and cause he’s an all around good guy, I’m going to share more info than you ever wanted to hear!
Believe it or not, The Legend of Zelda had a TV series! in the form of a cartoon. 13 episodes were made and aired in 1989. Think along the lines of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. In fact, same writers.
This show is most well known thanks to Meme culture, with the “exuuuussseee me” gif reminding everyone of this strange iteration of Link. That’s where I knew it from. I knew it existed, but until now, I had never really looked into it before. Why would I? If it were any good, people would probably talk about it fondly rather than laugh at it with bad gifs, right?
The show aired on broadcast cable TV in 1989 as part of the Super Mario Brothers super Show! Yah, Mario had a tv show too! It was part live action, part animated show that was aimed at kids and created with the intention of growing brand recognition in the United States. At least from Nintendo’s perspective. The company that made the cartoon, DIC Entertainment, just wanted to make popular shows, and they had a lot of past success with shows like inspector gadget and a number of other shows. DIC went up to Nintendo and suggested the idea of a cartoon based on their most popular IP.
Nintendo turned down the idea more than once, but finally gave in after a year of negotiating, Nintendo decided it would be a good idea to boost brand recognition in the states.
So the super Mario brothers super show aired weekdays and it had a mix of live action and animated Mario segments, but on Friday’s instead of playing the regular Mario animated segment, it would play a different show, the Legend of Zelda TV series! And it was a big event.
I asked around the internet a bit, and several folks said they remember running home from school as fast as they could on Fridays just to catch the Zelda show.
Friday’s was the more popular day for the show. But only 13 episodes of the Legend of Zelda were ever made. The super Mario bros super show only ran for a single season and that’s all the Zelda tv that came along with it.
So 13 episodes and me personally, Before researching and writing this episode of the podcast, I had never seen any of this cartoon.
I’m a big fan of cartoons. I loved them as a kid and I still enjoy them!
I looked it up, and sure enough, the entire series is readily available on YouTube.
So for you, the listeners of this show, I did it. I binged the entire series. Here are my thoughts!
Now I did my best to go in with the right mindset and an open mind. This cartoon was made in the 80’s, a time when animated shows for kids kicked into gear. From transformers, teenage mutant ninja turtles, Thundercats, GI Joe, to the Smurf’s and the Care Bears. If you were a kid in the 80’s, it was a full on gourmet buffet of great options.
Video games though, they were just getting started. So, it’s 1989 when the Legend of Zelda show was put together. And at time, it’s important to remember the source material. there had only been two Zelda games made. This was before the Super Nintendo, so just the very first two 8-bit games were all they had to work with.
From what I understand, Nintendo had a complete hands-off approach, letting DIC make what they wanted. And it was a man by the name of Bob Forward that brought Link from an 8-bit pixilated character with a green outfit and hat, as inspired by Peter Pan, like we discussed in the first episode, and with a sword in shield, to a full fledged cartoon.
Bob Forward was one of the writers at DIC entertainment and had previously worked on He-man and She-ra and Bob and his Sister Eve were in charge of adapting this increasing popular Japanese video game series to life. But adopting these games with very little back story beyond the game manual and the contents of the games themselves couldn’t have been easy.
Still they managed take The Legend of Zelda and make it look and sound just like any other cartoon from that time period.
Ok cool enough backstory; what did I think of it!?
Well first thing that struck me was the music and sounds that you hear right off the bat in the quick 30 second intro that plays every episode! There’s pretty excellent music in this show that is pulled straight from the games. Which is interesting considering the source music was the Chip tunes from the NES. This was the very first time people heard Zelda music from an orchestra.
Sound effects from the original game are also used A LOT in this show and I think that works very well.
It’s abundantly clear who the target demographic is when you first start watching the show. Certainly kiddos younger than 10. The show is almost embarrassingly simplistic. Gannon, in all his pig-like glory, possesses the triforce of power and all he wants is the other piece of the triforce, wisdom which is in Zelda possession.
*clip from intro*
Yah there are only two pieces of the triforce in the show. The three pieces of the triforce wasn’t established until Link to the Past.
But Link lives in Zelda’s castle with the whole goal of protecting the triforce of wisdom. Every episode Gannon comes up with a new way to try and get the triforce of wisdom and every episode Link (or Zelda) stops him. All Zelda wants is to keep the Triforce of Wisdom out of the clutches of Gannon and all Link wants
is to kiss Zelda. No really thats ALL he wants..
Enemies AND even bosses from the original game are prevalent in the show! It’s actually somewhat impressive the amount of enemy types in the show and how much they correspond with the game.
After finishing the very first episode, I was left somewhat surprised. Overall, it was better than i thought it would be with just the outside gif impressions i had. I should keep going. Maybe i should watch this whole show.
Just within the first few minutes of the second episode, you start to see how repetitive this show will be, but its not all bad. Scooby Doo is one of the worlds most repetitive cartoons, but that doesn’t mean its bad. There can be a certain level of comfort in seeing the same tropes in cartoons, from unmasking the real villain in Scooby Doo, to seeing Michelangelo enjoying a somewhat gross looking pizza, to hearing Dr. Claw say “I’ll get you next time, Gadget! Next time!” at the end of every single episode. You know just what to expect in the show, just like you know what to expect with that next bite of cinnamon toast crunch with your saturday morning cartoon experience. Delicious, but starting to get more soggy than you like.
Still, with this show, its clear that some of the voice acting was going to get annoying. BUT I will say, the action is pretty great. It’s fun to see Link shoot beams from his sword with pinpoint accuracy, its fun to see different items common in the Zelda series, like bows and arrows and boomerangs being used, and its fun to see that Zelda is by no means a “damsel in distress.” She jumps right into the action, skillfully using items and doing her best to defend the triforce of wisdom.
A few episodes under my belt, and it wasn’t pulling teeth to get me to pull up the next episode. What plan will Gannon hatch next? Will Link finally get that kiss? i’ll keep watching.
I started noticing a few things that the show was doing to line up with the game! When Link zaps enemies with his sword, they disappear, just like it does in the original game. With the game, its mostly due to graphical limitation for why the enemies would disappear upon their death. To keep game play interesting, enemies will reappear on the battle field after a little while when you return to that same area. And the show takes the time to explain why this would happen. In the show, the enemies disappear and are essentially teleported into Gannon’s giant magic glass bottle. The enemies return to Gannon’s possession, can explain to Gannon what happened, and then Gannon is able to send those same enemies right back out.
This works on a lot of levels. Being kid friendly, they can avoid death as a topic, it adds a sense of comedy, AND it explain whats happening in the game.
Another thing, the show takes some care to explain how Link can carry so many items. With magic, these items shrink and he can put the miniature item easily in his satchel. Enemies will drop items and rupees when they get zapped as well.
*Clip – “hey loot!”*
In episode 7, Gannon’s minions zap the Triforce of Wisdom into three pieces and Link has to use one of the pieces of the triforce of wisdom to find the other two missing pieces. This is both a reference to the game where you’re finding individual pieces of a single triforce, and almost accidently foreshadows what happens in future Zelda games.
By the end of the 7th episode, I was surprisingly into the show. I wanted to see what happened next and i wanted to see if this annoying version of Link would ever get that kiss from Zelda. Ya he is an annoying, overly confident, brash teenager, but he does continue the day. Maybe he deserves a kiss from Zelda. He’s totally asking for consent too, so good on him.
end this sho….
Greg: Whats this? I’m getting a call, but its not showing me from who. i Swear if this is captain Jack again. Hello?
FG: *somewhat garbled* GRE…. *effect* greeeeg
G: hello? who is this?
FG: you have to listen to me
G: What? can you hear me?
FG: yes. listen. just listen to me. I don’t have much time! You can’t endorse that stu … *garble*
G: What? who is this?
G: Yah you’re coming in clearer now. Who is this?
FG: I’m you! IM YOU FROM THE FUTURE
G: Ummm what?
FG: i don’t have time to explain, just listen! You cannot endorse or recommend that people watch the Legends of Zelda cartoon series on your podcast.
G: How…how are you…this is me from the future? What is going on
FG: YES! you’re not listening! You can’t tell people to go watch this bad incarnation of Zelda.
G: Why not? its just a harmless 80’s cartoon aimed at kids. It’s harmle…
FG: DUDE! Greg no. If you tell people to go listen to this…
G: What? What happens? It sets off some kind of chain reaction that sends the world into anarchy?
FG: What? no…you just lose your entire listener audience.
G: Oh….that doesn’t seem like…
FG: NO ITS IMPORTANT! The Legends of Zelda TV Show ruined Level Zero. We have nothing now.
G: Is that why your mic sounds kind of ….bad?
FG: YES its all gone. I endorsed this dumb show and it sent my life, our life, into shambles.
FG: just.. listen…you know this show is not that good. please it’s annoying. tell people its annoying.
G: OK OK OK you’re right. im right. i know. it’s not a good show.
FG: Good. yes.
G: So you…I …. found a way to contact my past self just to say this?
FG: I have to go…you know what to do…
FG: 10 seconds and we will disconnect forever. what?
G: If you’re form the future, i gotta know. Did Nintendo every acknowledge the 35th anniversary of the series and finally release Majora’s Mask for the Switch?
FG: Yah. of course. it’s great. just as a good and I, as we remember. so glad i can play it on the switch. OK goodbye!
G: dangit….i probably should have asked about stock prices or my kids or something. shoot. missed opportunities there. oh well
Anyway, so yah I didn’t want to get negative, but since I insist. this show starts to get a little bad about halfway through. And there’s a BIG reason why. …. this
That was not just said one time and forever immortalized I’m meme form. It’s the shows catch phrase
Yes this show was in the late 80’s and like every single sitcom in this era …. a show has to have a go-to catch phrase to ensure every listener has a good laugh each episode.
And with The Legend of Zelda TV series…this is what they decided to go with. Link says “Excuse me, Princess!” 29 times over 13 episodes, and in every single. Some episodes have it 3 or 4 times each and it gets to be nails on a chalkboard. When it first showed up in the first episode, it made sense. It was somewhat comedic. Link fights off a bunch of mobins to save the triforce in his bedroom, and since enemies disappear when they get zapped, there is never evidence of them being there. So when Zelda comes into Link’s room and comments on the mess, its makes sense that Link would be offended and annoyed at the ungrateful Zelda. “hey excuse me princess” Hahaha classic!
But…man that’s maybe the only instance of it being well timed. After that, its a catch phrase for the sake of a catch phrase. And it’s bad.
Why is this even the catch phrase for this show? Links personality is honestly the worst part of the show. He’s an arrogant teenager, and this catch phrase just shines a spotlight on this.
There’s one instance where its funny where Link says it while falling off a waterfall, but that’s the only good time.
Most often it’s annoying and sometimes it doesn’t even fit at all. at the end of episode 8, its the perfect example. they wrap up the episode as always after Link saves the day and doesn’t get much credit because … well because he’s annoying about it. There’s a decent exchange between Link and Zelda and the episode should just end, but instead, they throw in “excuse me princess” at the end and it doesn’t even make sense. Here
*clip from 108 end*
Like…why? Why do this?
After this, I honestly was much more hesitant to keep watching this show. Like…don’t the show creators know how this is coming off? I get its for kids, but man… you can do better.
But I was committed by this point. Already watched half the episodes, why stop now?
It was abundantly clear why this show is so forgotten. There just isn’t anything memorable that happens. It’s repetitive and there really isn’t any character growth at all. Nothing really happens in any episode that effect the next. Just more of the same.
I will say though that episode 12 titled, “the moblins are revolting” is the best. a couple of Gannon’s minions have finally had enough of Gannon’s failed plans and decide to create an uprising. A real mutiny involving trapping Gannon inside his own impenetrable bubble and dropping him down a bottomless pit. Now with Gannon and his dumb plans out of the way, these moblins and other enemies can finally get revenge on Link! And then it’s Link who ends up… you know what, i don’t want to spoil this one. If you’re going to check out this show, make sure to check out episode twel…
G: oh snap! Hello?
FG: NO GREG! gah im such an idiot
G: wait wait! should i buy shares of gamestop? What happens with our son? Hello? Dangit
ALRIGHT FINE. Link ends up accidentally rescuing Gannon out of that bubble. it was mildly entertaining.
One more episode, the finally and did anything happen that makes you want to watch more? Does Link finally get that kiss he’s been asking for?
No….and no… You really don’t need to watch this show. I watched it so I could tell you about it and now you don’t have to.
For 13 episodes Gannon tries to get that triforce piece and Link tries to get a kiss from Zelda. That’s it. That’s the whole show. Maybe it’s too much to ask for a compelling narrative arc in a show or some semblance of character growth in a cartoon for kids from the 80’s, but I mean…other Transformers, ninja turtles, honestly other shows had these things and they were good and memorable because of these things. The legend of Zelda tv series on the other hand. Nothing to remember but…
“Excuse me, princess”
Phew sorry that was the last one, I promise.
The show was never renewed or remade. For 32 years, we’ve never seen another incarnation of Link in show form ever again. And im not sure we ever will. A very short lived, one off thing that probably only existed because of the time period and the popularity of children’s cartoons.
Hmmm this was kind of fun. Maybe I need to make a podcast about reviewing children’s cartoons….
anyway… Although there was never another cartoon, this wasn’t the last time people would see Link animated with annoying voice acting.
I recently threw up a poll on Twitter (make sure you follow @levelzeropod on Twitter to take part (Link in the show notes)) asking, “Would you like to hear about the weird CDi Zelda games?” and 88% enthusiastically answered, “yes! tell me all” with only one person replying “no! please no! gross.”
Well I’m sorry to that one individual, but i must explain why Nintendo will never again haphazardly license out their major properties without a close level of oversight and supervision. It was not because of some long forgotten, short run of an 80’s cartoon. It was much….much worse.
To understand what happened and get the full story, I gotta jump back into Nintendo’s history a little bit. You may need to go back and listen to the previous episode of Level Zero, that i most often reference, the History of the PlayStation and its unexpected origin. It’s one of the earlier episodes in this podcast’s feed and I’m proud of how that episode turned out. The origin of the PlayStation is an interesting story and its interesting because of Nintendo’s history and how it accidentally created it’s biggest rival in the video game industry, Sony. After this episode is over, i recommend checking that one out if you haven’t. But essentially, Nintendo knew that CD’s and disc based technology was the future, so they tried to get in with the help of a partnership, more than one! And ….man neither one went well.
After a failed partnership with Sony, that i get into in that episode i mentioned, Nintendo partnered with the European based company Phillips. Phillips was one of the leading companies when it came to CD based technology. The plan was that Philips would help Nintendo create an attachment for the Super Nintendo that would allow people to play CD based games on their Super Nintendo. And this time around, Nintendo would still get all the profit from CD based games, unlike their last deal with Sony. The thing was, Nintendo’s biggest rival, Sega, was ahead of them in this endeavor, with their creation of the Sega CD. I won’t get too into it here, but it was essentially exactly what Nintendo wanted to do. The Sega CD was an attachment for the Sega Genesis that snapped onto the console and allowed people to run games off of CD’s.
And Nintendo noticed….this wasn’t going well for Sega. Not that many people were buying the attachment and it caused a split in who was buying CD based games and who was buying cartridges for the Sega Genesis, so it was a mess that Nintendo didn’t want get too involved in. I think Nintendo also realized that Philips didn’t really have much experience, if at all, when it came to video games.
So the partnership between Nintendo and Philips ended as quickly as it started and there never was a CD attachment for the Super Nintendo. BUT Philips did get something out of the deal. They were allowed to make their own console AND even create games based on Nintendo’s property. In exchange for allowing Nintendo to have profits for the failed CD attachment, Philips essentially got free licensing right to Nintendo’s property. Apparently Nintendo let Philips choose amongst their IP too. So naturally Philips grabbed up Mario and Zelda. I mean…i think anyone would given the options, even now, 25 some odd years later.
SO Philips decided to create some games for their interactive CD based hardware, the Philips CDi. I should do a whole episode on the Philips CDi and how it gets a really unfair and bad wrap thanks to these Zelda games I am about to discuss.
So Philips knew that CD’s and the emerging DVD technology, allowed for some interesting things and with the CDi, Philips allowed for people to interact with CD’s in a new way. Not just listening to music or playing a movie, but interacting. Philips created the CDi to allow people to directly interact.
Now its probably best to explain the CDi like this. like a Smart VCR. or a DVD player before those became common.
You know how DVD’s often come with a “BONUS DVD” that has dumb quizzes and bad games that you have to awkwardly control using the DVD player remote? You click over, or next page, and it takes a minute and then loads in? Or its a throw away, “guess what character this is” as it slowly emerges on screen? Or a quick multiple choice quiz you have to select the answer and the character from the movie tells you if you are right or wrong?
Do you know what I’m talking about?
THAT is the Philips CDi! It was like a giant VCR/CD player combo. And it was pretty popular. In addition to playing movies, Philips developed over 600 pieces of software, the majority being basic interactive educational content.
Philips was doing decently well selling CDi’s, but the personal computer was coming along in the early 90’s and threated this space that Philips, and a lot of the video game companies were going for, being the center of your living room. Sales for the CDi starting dropping and Philips had to pivot.
With this partnership with Nintendo, they decided to go in a new direction and market the Philips CDi as something new. As a video game system.
They even released multiple versions of the CDi that came with a controller, even one that looked a whole like like any other video game console at the time.
The thing was, man did Philips know nothing about video games. This wasn’t their space. But with this failed deal form Nintendo, they could create exclusive software with popular characters! Maybe this would save Philips and the CDi!
So Philips hired an independent studio to create, not 1, not 2, but THREE Zelda games exclusive to the CDi. Philips contracted a company called Animation Magic to make 2 of these games. Philips didn’t know very much about making games, but they wanted a few things. They wanted these games utilize all aspects of the CD-i’s capabilities, including FMV, high-resolution graphics, and CD-quality music. That’s all. they didn’t’ care about the quality of the game. They just needed recognizable, exclusive software that highlighted the capabilities of the “console.” Animation Magic was a small Russian and American based company that specialized in software development. And “animation” was right there in the name! Perfect to make what they were looking for. The thing was, Animation Magic hadn’t really made video games before AND they didn’t actually have any animators on the team. They had artists that were good and creating still images, but yes a company called “animation magic” didn’t actually have any animators. Something Philips should have found out, but they contracted to them to make these games, none the less. So Animation Magic were given …. a tiny budget and short time frame to create two Zelda games, and not in succession, but in parallel. They had to make these two games at the same time with minimal resources or experience. They worked on the gameplay itself and subcontracted outside help to create the cut-scenes to make the “FULL MOTION VIDEO” aspect of the game. And…they didn’t have a budget, so they just hired external help from Russia that composed of six random guys of Russia that they didn’t have to pay much. And they flew in these guys to create the animated cut scenes.
Nintendo had no involvement beyond some initial requests regarding the characters designs, and…never again. so Animation Magic got free roam to do what they needed.
So Animated was left to their own devices and created two games in parallel. The games were called Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon. No “Legend of” in these games, and rightly so. both would use the same graphics engine and would be very similar, but each would feature unique cut scenes. To make the two games different, one would have you play as Link and the other would have you play as Zelda, hence the names of these games.
They were side scrolling games, somewhat similar to Zelda II: The adventure of Link, but i mean…not really like that. The games featured unique music, and unique cut scenese, and the backgrounds of the game looks pretty good.
Look, these games were bad. really bad. and not so bad they were good and charming, but just plain bad. Turns out, hiring non experienced software developers to make games with no previous game development history, while also not paying them enough or giving them enough time, was a bad idea? who knew?
Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon released in November of 1993. So this was two years after Link to the Past released and the same year as Link’s Awakening for context. And these two games were well reviewed and well received by critics at the time. HA no not really.. well actually kinda According to Wikipedia, when these games came out, they ended getting some good reception. Cut scenes, voice acting and CD quality music was not at all common in video games. A lot of folks were impressed by the way the game looked. But reception was mixed. Other outlets gave it a worse score, but it seemed to review around 7/10, one calling them “reasonably good games” which is pretty baffling. Criticisms had a lot more to do with an incoherent story and very rough controls.
A third game was also made called, Zelda’s Adventure, and Philips hired a different company called, Viridis Corporation, to create that game. And instead of animated cut scenes, this one involved live action! With a full performance from an actor. This game was from a top down perspective and utilize new technology for the time involving real photographs of landscapes from Hawaii. This game would also star Zelda as the lead protagonist and….and… yah game this was also terrible. even worse actually.
Development of this game was very strange and actually hard to research and validate. There were huge ambitious ideas, it was supposed to push the CDi to it’s max and be this massive game with tons of NPCs. But the NPC’s and folks featured in the game were just the office staff? There was a huge budget apparently, but then also no budget at all? The history and development of this game is all over the place.
But at any rate, Zelda’s Adventure released in June of 1995, two years after the other two games i mentioned and noone liked this game. even at the time. Apparently the final game wasn’t able to play music and sound effects and the same time and the game was even called the game “practically unplayable,” due to bad controls and frame rates and long load times.
Just bad, bad stuff from Philips.
But at the end of the day, very few people ever checked these games out. It really wasn’t a big deal at all. Three games with Zelda in the title for a system that wasn’t really designed for video games. Despite Philips pivoting to call it a “video game console,” it still really wasn’t. Everyone knew the super Nintendo and the Sega genesis were video game consoles. the CDi? That was a big VCR/CD player that happened to play games.
Seems like most folks never bought these games and Nintendo certainly didn’t promote it! Even Philips didn’t end up pushing them hard. . And the CDi was on the way out anyways. So these games ultimately went under the radar and no one really noticed or payed attention.
That is until YouTube came along in the mid 2000’s and a youtuber called Angry Video Game Nerd put these three games in the spotlight. and then it went into Meme culture and…that’s where they stay.
There’s not really a way to play them, so I didn’t try, but I did watch ALL of the cut scenes for these games on YouTube and ….man….I don’t recommend doing this. I will not link the cutscenes in the show notes. I don’t even need my future self to ensure I don’t.
These games should be forgotten, but there IS one redeemable quality about these games! Two out of the three games feature Zelda as the protagonist! In a game called Zelda! It makes so much sense, it was very progressive to feature a woman protagonist in the mid 90’s, and it’s a cool new take on the franchise. Have Zelda rescue Link for once! We still haven’t seen this from Nintendo even 35 years later. I do hope that one day Nintendo will give us a mainline Zelda game with a playable Zelda. Hyrule Warriors is the closest we have come to this and i think its a great way to shake up the franchise. Aonuma? You listening? we could shake up the franchise by having Zelda be the protagonist in a Zelda game!
Anywho, have I talked about The Legend of Zelda series enough? there’s still plenty of different Zelda stuff i didn’t mention like Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland, Zelda Monopoly, and different Zelda Mangas…but i think we are good. let’s stop here.
If you have listened to ALL four of these episodes, thank you so much for going on this journey with me! It has been super interesting researching the development of these games and I hope you enjoyed hearing about it.
Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed this, maybe leave a review on Apple Podcast. You don’t even have to write anything, you can just tap the number of stars you want to give it right there on apple podcast! The number of reviews are HUGE in allowing people to find the show, so please give some starts. it doesn’t have to be 5’s across the board, just whatever number you feel is appropriate. If you want to give it one star, please remember this show is called Draft Punks!
Haha no, but for real, if you enjoyed this and want to hear more from your’s turly in an unscripted, off the cuff format, you can hear me in the latest episode of Draft Punks, a show dedicated to Drafting different pop culture topics in a fantasy sports style draft. On this most recent episode, we drafted One-Hit-Wonders and it was a whole lot of fun! I’ll put the link to that also in the show notes. You can just click that and listen to me guesting on one of my most favorite podcasts! They are the reason i dove into this Zelda series in the first place as they spent an entire month drafting different Zelda related things including Zelda games, music, items and more!
If there is another video game series or topic you would like to hear about, maybe in another series format like this, please write in and suggest it! My DM’s are open AND you can always email me. That email address is once again Questions@LevelZeroPodcast.com. That’s firstname.lastname@example.org or @LevelZeroPod on Twitter and Facebook. As always those links are in the show notes. I want to do the kind of episodes that YOU, the listener, wants to hear about!
“Hey, excuse me princess” …dude Link, the episode was over. I had the ending already…why?
On this episode, Greg explains how buying video games now is just like buying music back in the early 2000’s. You have options, but what is best? This episode explains the difference between physical and digital games and weighs the pros and cons. Convenience verses resale. A digital library verses sharing. Which is best? What is a digital licence and what on earth is DRM?
Greg also answers questions about used games and discusses whether kid’s should get into video games with retro games or modern games.