There are certain responses that my brain has to different stimuli that have become intrinsic to my body’s reactions to influence. There’s the specific way that I sharply inhale air and sip coffee so that I can cool it down before it burns my tongue. There’s the brace for impact that I do when I crouch near a bottom shelf in a store, after years of my girlfriend tipping me over. There’s the dragging of my hand slowly down my face to give my eyes a rest after I’ve been staring at something for too long. And of course, there’s the feeling of hair standing on my neck when I hear the sound of a SEGA game starting up.
It’s all learned response that I’m doing after prolonged exposure and repetition of behavior, and what association my brain creates between two stimuli. I get a sore tongue if I pour coffee into my mouth when it’s freshly brewed, so instead, I cool it with an inhale and I can enjoy a scar-free mouth. It’s something I do every day now without thinking about it but it began out of my brain’s constant exposure to this stimuli. The same can be said for the hours of joy and elation surrounding my smaller self playing games on Sega Genesis and hearing the choir of people sing, “Say-Guh.” Now, naturally as breathing or blinking, hearing that chant again produces the slightest little fuzziness along the back of my neck. I can feel my eyes widen a bit, and my mind begins racing through memories of 16-bit graphics and blast processing.
Yet with such powerful memories that have shaped me into the version of myself that I am, I wonder why I said, “Goodbye, Sega,” after such an integral part of development that left me forever different. At its height, my relationship with Sega was strong and that bond was real, but like a lot of ended relationships I’ve begun to wonder if it was me or them.
At some point in 1993, I’m four years old and the Genesis is in its prime, the 16-bit era of video games is huge and on either side of the war for the living room and consumer dollar are Nintendo and Sega. The underdog, Sega, introduced the Genesis, its third video game console in 1988 in Japan and 1989 in North America. It saw some success, but Nintendo and its Nintendo Entertainment System were still the dominant force in the market. Leaving Mattel, Tom Kalinske joined Sega of America, Inc. as the president and CEO. It was him in this new role that would carry the Genesis to the heights that landed it in my living room and his efforts that would make it so that Nintendo was not the clear winner of the console war.
Kalinske introduced a new four-part plan that would make the Genesis a relevant contender for the consumer dollar. First, a price cut. Second, refocusing efforts on America and finding new ways to reach an American audience. Third, take the already aggressive marketing as seen in the now famous “Sega Does What Nintendon’t” ad and expand on it and make it more aggressive. Finally, get rid of Altered Beast as the pack-in title and introduce the world to Sega’s new, blue mascot Sonic the Hedgehog.
This cleverly designed and executed plan led to the Genesis beating the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, the NES successor, during the holiday of 1991 and became the dominant force in the home console market by 1992. It carried its way forward and convinced my parents that it was the console for me. In later years, I’d be more aware of what was being marketed and had begun to understand more about the world of video games and that I had to go where the games were. Prior to that coming of age, it was a reliance on word of mouth, advertising, and price that convinced my parents to go one way or another.
Kalinske’s success was alive and well in 1993 when the second hardware revision reached the US. It was this version of the console that we procured and from my mother’s recollection it was all based on which games were packed in, what the price was, and what seemed to be the dominant platform to play on. That year, in search of the “big ticket item,” my parents grabbed the Genesis to join our NES at home. It was new and popular, and it had the right price point. It came packed in with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and my mom grabbed a copy of Columns. Suddenly, we were in the 16-bit era.
In my mind, I spent a decade with the Genesis. Reality tells a different story of maybe two years, but I feel like I had been glued to that console for half of my life. I suppose at four, half of my life would have been the reality of two years. It was my favorite thing, the Genesis. To me, the console represented the future. It was sleek and round, looking like something from a science-fiction movie. It had incredible sound that seemed to push the boundaries of what I thought possible in a video game. When compared to my NES, this had games that spoke to me in a different way. They were elevated differently and mature, despite the fact that I was just barely outside of infancy, I felt older and smarter for playing this stuff. I was a kid, but I was one of the big kids.
I remember going to my mom’s friend’s house and while she hung out and had coffee, or whatever parents did, I was in the basement with her friend’s son playing video games. He was significantly older than me, in his preteen age or so when I was around four. I remember him playing this game on his computer that was fast. Not only was it fast but it was bloody. It had graphics like I had never seen and everything about its attitude and sense of self called out to me. I remember giggling really hard at the name of the game. So much so that even today, it still feels like a silly name that makes me chuckle. I can still feel myself falling into the couch in that basement as I held my stomach and laughed the first time he said, “This is Wolfenstein.”
Games weren’t like Wolfenstein 3D. Not on my NES at least. This was like the stuff I’d see in the arcade or those arcade machines at Pizza Hut. That is, until the Genesis came home one day. Sonic wasn’t bloody like Wolfenstein, but he had an attitude that Mario didn’t . He had a spirit about him that just seemed cool, and I felt cool because I played Sonic. He was my character; he was my mascot. He was my Wolfenstein. I played Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES when I was in preschool. Now, as I approached kindergarten, Mario was for babies. I was a big kid and Sonic was a big kid’s game.
I think the marketing was skewed a little older than my demographic. Sega wanted those kids who were maybe my age when the NES had first launched and were now leaving the console generation in favor of PCs. For some reason, it helped propel a young me forward half a decade in attitude when I had only earned another year on my age-counting belt. Sonic would be joined in the home by the likes of Streets of Rage, Boogerman, Mortal Kombat, and a bunch of realistic-looking sports games. I’d play things like Shinobi at my grandparent’s house although I never owned the game, and Ecco the Dolphin at a friend’s house. This ecosystem of Genesis games began to create a narrative that stuck with me in this era.
Part of the zeitgeist of early to mid-1990s culture was often synonymous with the word “gross.” We had Nickelodeon airing crudely drawn cartoons like Rocko’s Modern Life and Rugrats, two cartoons that were challenging the clean look and style of Disney films. They were right next to Ren and Stimpy, which not only had dismissed the Disney style in its animation, but was filled with farts and butts and imagery that was evocative. We also had grunge music in the air as bands like Nirvana and its influences rooting themselves in a new movement. People were unkempt, unshaven, and overall grimy- but it was the way to be. The 1990s in America quickly became the shadow of 1980s’ neon lights, and our art was a clear reflection of that muddiness.
Permeating everything, we began to see the idea that we needed to upset the establishment. What we had known and accepted was no longer what we wanted and now, through the way we dressed to the things we watched and the songs we listened to- we had a way to fight it.
While I wasn’t actually one of the big kids, the ones covered in flannel and with different colored hair who said bad words, the culture left a mark on me. It wasn’t long before I found myself watching Beavis and Butt-Head alongside Rugrats and Doug. I never owned a cassette tape that had Nirvana printed on it, but the radio and MTV were always pushing the weird sounds of Seattle at my ears. This whole notion of becoming something that I was never expected to be was suddenly and unconsciously my life’s goal. Whatever it was that I had assumed would be “me,” was no longer interesting. I wanted to grow up. I wanted to be cool. And it seemed, so did Sega.
By the beginning of 1995, I was pretty excited about school. I was learning new things and proud of the work I was accomplishing. I was always excited to share something new I had learned with my parents when I got home. I also had become used to the bus ride, where I first felt that sense of independence creep in. It was the first time that my parents weren’t attached to me. There was always playing in the neighborhood, but the neighborhood felt like a big bubble. Even if I was out of sight, it still felt like my or someone else’s parents knew where we were and what we were up to. The bus was the first feeling of leaving that bubble on my own and discovering the world as I saw it. It was where I first experienced so many parts of childhood, but it’s also where I first found community in video games.
The school bus was where we’d talk about video games. It was where we’d hear all of the stories about secrets in games and about which games are already out in Japan that we were excited to play. It was also where we started sharing video game magazines and where those stories that kids were making up suddenly became real with images and release dates. It was where I started to develop my own sense on consumer interest and where advertising got its hooks in me.
As Sega spent a great few years with me, letting me feel like one of the older kids, it was the images of 1995 that began to tug at that same part of my desires. The Sega Saturn was on the market, and it had been. I remember a kid from school had one and invited me over to play it. I loved my Sega Genesis, but this thing was supposed to be the next big thing. I didn’t even know that there was a new Sega system. This was sure to be something magical.
I went over to play it and I remember feeling immediately disappointed. Despite that yearning I had created to grow up faster than I was able to, I still wanted to see the things I loved. Marketing for the Sega Saturn went way too old. While I wasn’t aware of it then, I now know that it was taking out ads in Playboy. Sega certainly didn’t want me, the six year-old with the dream of being thirteen. It was apparent too, when playing the Saturn for the first time left me with only one question for the poor kid who got stuck with the console: “Where’s Sonic?”
It was the first time I felt myself unsure. Up until now, these types of decisions were made for me. Now, the boy in me had cried for the wolf of independence too many times to walk away from the choice. I was older, I was smarter, and I was aware of what I liked and didn’t like. It was pretty clear once I began playing the Saturn, that I didn’t like what I saw. It was time that I start to look somewhere else for a while.
Not so coincidentally, Sony swooped in with its PlayStation at a more affordable price point than the Saturn. It shipped almost thirty games before its first Christmas on the market and had a really familiar feeling about it. It was a feeling that I had when I started to defend my Genesis against those who would say otherwise. It was that feeling of something new and something cool, and again- I wanted to feel cool.
It wasn’t long before I had a PlayStation and realigned with my old friends at Nintendo for the Nintendo 64. I now owned two of Sega’s competitors and I didn’t bat an eye. I still kept my Genesis around, because there were new games coming and I always loved going back to my old favorites. To that, I still had my original NES and I was eager to play that every once in a while as well. Yet unbeknownst to me, as I dove deeper into the libraries of both PlayStation and N64, Sega was losing marketshare and fast.
It was of course coupled with the weird release of the 32X, an add-on for the Sega Genesis that would allow consumers to enter the 32-bit era of games at a lower cost than an entirely brand new console. The 32X predated the Saturn by a year, but I don’t remember anyone talking about it. I never saw anything that made me suddenly need the device, and it just felt like someone telling me what I should want, rather than letting me enjoy that newfound independence that I had grown to love. The narrative that the company had began to tell with the 32X and eventual release of the Saturn was muddied. There were, in retrospect, a lot of really great ideas, many of which we’re still seeing today. The likes of the 32X and the Sega CD are in many ways today’s PS4 Pro and Xbox One X.
Sega was trying to supply the market with everything that it wanted. There were low-cost entries into video games for the budget-conscious family. There were high-end console technologies being released to those who wanted the newest and greatest. The library of games swept the spectrum from kid-friendly mascots and commercial tie-ins to fast and violent arcade ports and games that made it all the way to the Supreme Court for pushing mature content. Somewhere in the middle of the 1990s though, when Sega tried to answer every knocking door it ran out of hands. The story being told was no longer about what was cool and what was new, but about how to keep a company alive when the market stopped caring.
The decline in public interest decreased as Nintendo introduced the world to Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. PlayStation brought Crash Bandicoot to life and with Square it showed the West something entirely brand new in Final Fantasy VII. While third-party partners were revolutionizing these two consoles, Sega began to launch another.
The Dreamcast was, like the 32X and Sega CD, and like the Nomad, ahead of its time. The Sega Nomad allowed players to take their console cartridges and play them in their hands, something we wanted with the Game Boy but wouldn’t fully realize until the Nintendo Switch. The Dreamcast introduced a lot of ideas that we still use in games today. It was the first to build in a modem and support online play. It featured hardware that could easily handle ports of Sega’s arcade offerings. It introduced innovative new games like Shenmue and Crazy Taxi. Yet, the market didn’t move. While Sega was showing us the sixth generation, two years earlier than we’d adopt it, we were fine playing Metal Gear Solid and carrying monsters in our pockets.
For me, the Dreamcast was another weird thing to see at somebody else’s house. It never broke through to the point that the Genesis had for me and it wasn’t doing anything, for my experience at the time, that I found myself interested in. I was loving my two consoles and spending my non-gaming time at Blockbuster, renting new games to bring home and play. I remember one trip to the store revealed an opportunity to rent the Dreamcast. We had pondered the idea just to give it a fair shot, but Blockbuster’s requirements were heavy and not worth the trouble it would take to have it in the home for a weekend. We were fine with what we had and as I grew nearer to that golden age I was pushing myself toward for the last decade, it was the next sixth generation hardware that would grab me most.
Sony’s PlayStation 2 was the first time that I not only was of an age to truly make a decision in what I wanted, but I had the chance to directly influence the purchase. It was so desirable at the time that I started doing chores to make money. I started selling things at flea markets to make money. I did anything I could think of to try to get closer to the acquisition of a PS2. I never had the same fervor for the Dreamcast as I had for Sony’s next black box, and my opinion was shared with the majority. It wasn’t long before it became the dominant force in the market and with Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft joining the console war with its Xbox, Sega just didn’t fit.
The Sega journey didn’t end with the Dreamcast, thankfully. In fact, the company is in many ways reaching its way back into my life like it did more than twenty years ago. I’ve been able to enjoy my favorites in many ways throughout the years. From the rerelease of many games through various collections on PlayStation 2 and 3, to the Virtual Console releases of games, I’ve been able to explore a lot of Sega’s catalogue that I hadn’t before. Now, the recent debut of Sega Forever is bringing those games to mobile platforms in a new way and with any luck to consoles as well. The legacy of the company has a future, more now than ever, and it’s nice to hear the call of “Say-guh” again.