The X Button - Sega Visions

by Todd Ciolek,

We're talking about Sega this week. To get down to it, we're talking about Sega's legacy: the triumphs, the failures, and the fan devotion that endures in ways precious and disconcerting. If you want a good example of that mixture of appreciation and nostalgia, look to the latest off-shoot of Sega pop culture: Hi sCoool! SeHa Girl.

Hi sCoool! SeHa Girl is an anime show that sprang from Sega Hard Girls, a big multimedia deal that envisions Sega game systems as anime heroines. The animated series stars Dreamcast, Sega Saturn, and Mega Drive, and it has all the usual meandering, in-jokey comedy of today's cute-girl showcases. It's less surreal than director's Sota Sugahara's earlier gdgd Fairies shorts, as much of the humor comes from references to Sega games and general pop-culture nonsense.

It's not really my thing, perhaps because the jokes so far deal with popular Sega matters like Virtua Fighter and Puyo Puyo instead of further afield subjects like Panzer Dragoon or Burning Rangers. Yet I remain fascinated by its mere existence. I can't see any other game company inspiring something like this. Nintendo and Sony and Capcom seem too big to dabble in primitively rendered anime-girl humor, and game developers that specialize in such things aren't popular enough to get an entire series wrapped around their old catalog. What puts Sega in this unique position?

I'll try to answer that! But first: the news! Or rather, my opinion of the news.

NEWS

HIT MAKER SLIDES INTO BANKRUPTCY, MOURNERS ARE FEW
I like to put together rambling eulogies when a game developer shuts down. I did it for Neverland Company and I did it for Westone Bit Entertainment, but I don't think I'll do it for Hit Maker. Not to be confused with Sega's internal Hitmaker studio, Hit Maker arose in 1998 and spent much of their collective career in search of a breakout RPG. The developer started off helping out on established series: Metal Gear Solid 2, the GameCube revamp of Resident Evil, and even a Cyber Formula title based on the Sunrise racing anime that no one really talks about today.

Hit Maker's biggest behind-the-scenes work came with Capcom's Dino Crisis 3, but their hearts seemed to lie in RPGs. In 2006, Hit Maker launched Blade Dancer: Lineage of Light for the PSP. While it was among the earliest original 3-D RPGs for the system, it seemed a fairly routine outing, and a worldwide release failed to catch on anywhere. That reputation for blandness dogged later Hit Maker games; Dragoneer's Aria for the PSP, A Witch's Tale for the DS, and even a Steambot Chronicles spin-off.

Yet it's Last Rebellion that defines Hit Maker's unflattering catalog. The game had decent enough artwork and a remarkable theme song, and some hoped that it would provide a good RPG for the PlayStation 3. Yet Last Rebellion left no one impressed: not critics, not players, and not even the game's North American publisher, NIS America. During a Siliconera interview not long after the game's release, NISA President Haru Akenaga stated “I feel really sorry for our customers because we released that title” and mentioned that the publisher had deliberately avoided pushing the game. It marked one of the few times a game company publicly badmouthed a title.

Last Rebellion's disastrous fate drove Hit Maker from consoles. The developer occupied themselves with turning Dragoneer's Aria and A Witch's Tale into mobile titles, and no one much noticed until news of their bankruptcy filing emerged last week. It's a sad end for a developer that never really found its forte.

CHERRY TREE HIGH LAUGHS AGAIN, MINUS SMILEYS AND BONBONS
I enjoyed Cherry Tree High Comedy Club a lot. It was all about a schoolgirl comic's quest to recruit classmates to her cause, and it was brightly charming throughout. The gameplay grew no more complex than deciding who to talk to and what to do in your free time, but I didn't mind so much. And I certainly don't mind that there's a sequel called Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls!

I! My! Girls! Is a shorter and more linear visual novel compared to the original Cherry Tree High Comedy Club, though it uses the same graphics basework. It adds three new characters to the ongoing club war between Mairu (a.k.a. Miley Verisse) and her rivals, and the fresh faces are overly dramatic teacher Utena Katakura, disguised pop star Ai Fujino, and traditional comic Imari Kobayashi. Reflecting the game's briefer duration, it'll be only $3.99 when it lands on Steam this Thursday.

Another interesting detail: Nyu Media gave the first Cherry Tree High game an Americanized translation in the style of Phoenix Wright: Japanese characters got names like May Bonbon and Sara Croft and Cindy Smith. Well, that's no more. The sequel keeps all of the Japanese names, and Nyu will release a new version of the first Cherry Tree High with the original names intact. Why the change?

“It was player feedback,” stated Nyu Media founder Seon King. “We were happy with the westernization—after all, it was good enough for Ace Attorney and we worked with the same translator to prepare the localization, but some people provided feedback that they'd strongly prefer a Japanese setting. It might have been the case of a 'vocal minority,' but when the opportunity came up to do the sequel we saw it as a chance to provide a localization that would please those players, and take the localization in a more mainstream direction moving forward.”

Well, there you have it. I'll miss playing a heroine named “Miley Verisse,” but purists won't have much cause to complain.

RODEA THE SKY SOLDIER SPOTLIGHTS SPACIOUS SCREENSHOTS
I mentioned the resurrection of Yuji Naka's Rodea the Sky Soldier last week, but Kadokawa Games went further and released some brand new screenshots of the Wii U version. They also elaborated on the story: Rodea, the titular and vaguely bestial hero, is one of those ancient weapons left hibernating for a millennium. An explorer named Ion revives him, and the two take on the Naga Empire over a mysterious energy source. It sounds like a Sonic game crossed with all the clichés of Skies of Arcadia, but don't be too quick to ignore Rodea just for that. The game's appeal lies in its huge expanses of sky, which see Rodea jumping past airships, ruins, and towering bosses. Quick, reflexive fun was Naka's specialty from Sonic to NiGHTS to Burning Rangers, and his latest seems built around that. And there's a 3DS edition coming, too.

And remember the Wii version of Rodea the Sky Soldier? Kadokawa let it sit in a drawer somewhere for over a year, but those who pick up first-print copies of the Wii U game also get this finished, unreleased Wii version of Rodea. If only all canceled games turned into bonuses.

THE SEGA SECTOR

It's an interesting time for Sega. The new Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric is a glitch-plagued monstrosity that apparently drove its developer's staff to leave before the game even debuted. The PC version of Valkyria Chronicles, a strategy-RPG from 2008, tops the Steam sales charts. And we're coming up on the 20th anniversary of the Sega Saturn, a good little system that saw Sega well and truly start to destroy itself. It's all another chapter in one of the strangest underdog stories in video games. Few companies climbed as high and fell as far as Sega did, and no other game-industry leader attracted the same mixed-up fan base.

Sega fans are a varied bunch, ranging from people who liked Pengo thirty years ago to the Sonic the Hedgehog addicts who make YouTube cartoons about Amy Rose eating Pikachu. Sega followers adored the company in many forms: the Sega Genesis, the Dreamcast, Virtua Fighter, Daytona USA, Shenmue, Streets of Rage, Panzer Dragoon, and those Sonic games that were actually good. Most of them know where Sega went wrong, and most of them accept that Sega never again shall rule any notable chunk of the game industry. But they liked things when it did.

Many of today's young adults recall a childhood dominated by Sega games, but the company struggled going up as well as coming down. Sega's first major foray into consoles was troubled: the SG-1000 and its Mark II successor flopped in Japan, and their replacement, the Mark III, was exported as the Sega Master System in 1986. It was no match for Nintendo's NES, which reigned over America's home-console market like no system ever would again, and the Master System rapidly became the province of rich kids who could afford a second game console besides the NES, oddball kids who had a thing for Phantasy Star or Alex Kidd, or unlucky kids whose parents couldn't or didn't care to tell Sega and Nintendo apart. Yet the Master System did well enough in Brazil and Europe, and it wasn't long before Sega extended that success elsewhere.

It's the Genesis that tints most happy Sega memories. The Master System's successor, it boasted games that looked darned close to arcade quality, and Sega played that up in with a “Genesis Does What Nintendon't” ad campaign. Sega of America president and CEO Tom Kalinske took the fight to Nintendo, and Sega rolled out an aggressive new mascot called Sonic the Hedgehog. Even when Nintendo introduced the Super NES, Sega stayed competitive.

This is the Sega that many recall fondly: the Sega that made Sonic, the Sega that had all the best sports games, the Sega that convinced half a generation of American kids (and more in England) that the Genesis was a slick sports car compared to the boxy little subcompact NES and Super NES. Sega didn't quite win the war—the Super NES pulled ahead in the mid-1990s—but it was a major gain for a company that had been a distant second just one generation prior.

Even within the heights of the Sega Genesis, there were problems. The Sega CD was a promising add-on that granted games video footage and superior music, but much of its library was filled with grainy-looking titles that promised playable movies and delivered only cornball video clips. Worse off was the Sega 32X, a cartridge peripheral that plugged straight into the Genesis and barely lasted a year on the market. And as a sign of growing discord in the company, Sega's American branch released the 32X in late 1994, just when Sega of Japan delivered a new full-fledged console with the Sega Saturn.

Pity the Sega Saturn. It was too complex for many programmers, it saw a bungled “surprise” launch, and it never had a real Sonic the Hedgehog game. Sony's PlayStation had better marketing and prettier games, while the Nintendo 64 had Mario, Zelda, and other familiar sights. The Saturn enjoyed moderate success in Japan, but in America it languished in third place. Sega needed a comeback, and they threw themselves behind the Dreamcast; more powerful than either rival, it boasted an Internet connection with online play, and it could deliver arcade-perfect versions of Sega games. Yet the damage was done. Sega's financial backers in Japan wanted out of the console business, Yu Suzuki's ambitious Shenmue proved horribly expensive, and the Dreamcast had only a year or two to establish itself before Sony's PlayStation 2 shoved it from the spotlight. Beleaguered yet again, Sega stopped making game consoles.

Sega still made games, much as they had before. Panzer Dragoon Orta and Jet Set Radio Future and the latest Sonics all went to the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube. Sega was just another fairly prominent Japan-based game company, like Capcom and Konami and Square. Fans have accepted this for the most part; they'll still argue about how the Dreamcast should've done better and joke about how Sega will one day rule the world with the long-awaited Phantasy Star V, and it's usually all in good fun. A few deluded souls await Sega's return to making game consoles, but most of the faithful know that Sega's ship sank with the Dreamcast

It's not hard to understand the following. Sega's always had an arcade appeal. The company started off importing jukeboxes and slot machines into Japan, and that attention-grabbing quick fix endures in a lot of Sega games. And those games often came to Sega's home consoles, be it the early Genesis versions of Altered Beast and Golden Axe or the Dreamcast's perfect renditions of Capcom and Namco arcade fare. Even Sonic the Hedgehog and Streets of Rage, games made for the home, have that instant hook to their gameplay.

Sega has been just another game company for some time, with any given company's franchises, multimedia branches, and failures. In 2012, Sega cut staff and announced a narrowed focus on major properties like Sonic, Total War, Alien, and Football Manager. And the fans did what they usually do when Sega stumbles: they laughed, they shrugged, and they made fun of the latest Sonic game that came along. Like any company, Sega has its good and bad, and fans can enjoy their Hatsune Miku Project Diva Fs or Valkyria Chronicles reissues while YouTube kids find new ways to humiliate Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric.

But Sega isn't just another company. It has a long history, a vast catalog, and a wealth of accessibly fun games. Atop all of that, Sega has a faded grandeur. There's a sense that Sega should be better off than it's been for a long while, and that lingering fondness inspires stalwart fans, self-mockery, merchandise, and the referential comedy of Sega Hard Girls and Hi-sCool! Seha Girls. Nothing in the game industry blends endearing successes with persistent failures quite like Sega, a company that's stayed a plucky dark horse despite being known the world over. And it's hard not to find at least some passing fondness for Sega in one way or another, even if it's just that afternoon you spent playing Outrun or Daytona USA at a movie theater. There's nothing wrong with liking Sega.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my Saturn needs a new save battery before I start my annual playthroughs of Mr. Bones, Last Bronx, and Panzer Dragoon Zwei.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

PERSONA Q: SHADOW OF THE LABYRINTH
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: November 25
Best Girl: Elisabet Vogler
MSRP: $49.99/$79.99 (special edition)

As Persona 5 lurks in tantalizing previews and fan speculation, Atlus labors hard to keep us interested in the double-stack sandwich of Persona 3 and 4. The two games are united as one in crossover matrimony, birthing the Persona 4 Arena fighting games and a little dungeon crawler known as Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth.

Crossovers seldom need to justify themselves, but Persona Q is reportedly canonical in gathering up characters from the two most popular Persona titles. Each game's lineup of meddling teenagers is trapped in a labyrinth beneath Persona 4's Yasogami High School, and the two group work together to navigate the clouded, demon-strewn maze. Crossovers also need Original Characters, and Persona Q gets the gluttonous Rei and the overprotective Zen, both of them amnesiacs seeking their pilfered memories. That's all well and good, but I suspect players will be just as interested in seeing Persona 3 and 4's characters bounce off each other once again—and this time they're stylized, nose-free muppets. Persona fans are here to see Kanji teaching Ken how to knit, to see Mitsuru threatening the adorable bear Teddie, to see Persona 4 Golden's new character Marie…well, being a brat. I still think it's an injustice that she's here and Labrys from Persona 4 Arena isn't, but perhaps there's a reason for that.

Just as Persona 4 Arena had Guilty Gear blood in its veins, Persona Q is a lot like Etrian Odyssey, that most esteemed of modern dungeon hacks. So Persona Q has devious mazes, puzzling traps, an option for mapping the dungeons on the lower 3DS screen, and pesky F.O.E. encounters with creatures likely to wipe out your entire party. Battles integrate pieces of the Persona games, however: characters can equip one main Persona spirit and several subordinate ones, and players can knock down enemies or have those goofy dustcloud brawls from previous Persona encounters.

It's not an actual Persona 5, but it's the biggest Persona RPG we'll get this year. And it's packaged like one, too! The special edition includes a 3DS carrying case, an artbook, a soundtrack CD, and the second half of a tarot card set. You had to get the first half with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, or else you'll never know your fortune.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
The visual novel If My Heart Had Wings emerged as a general PC release last year, and MoeNovel brings it to Steam next week. As the title suggests, it's a high-school romance set amid flight clubs, so you'll see plenty of gliders and wind turbines and big, open skies. You won't see any of the adults-only material from the game's original Japanese release, but aren't visual novel fans supposed to play for the story?


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you want.


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