I'm no nostalgist when it comes to gaming. I believe that what we're playing now, and what we will be tomorrow, surpasses the reality behind any rosy memories of previous-generation mainstays.
Technology leads experience in this medium, and truly timeless software is vanishingly scarce when you consider how much is swept away with the years. Yet in the wake of this year's E3 I've found myself reminiscing about old-school console glories. It was Nintendo's rather modest Direct broadcast that made me wonder: 'what if?'
I don't mean, 'What if these games really can save the Wii U?' That's a question that, hopefully, we're all through with asking. The Wii U will probably be fine, within its modest ambitions; if not, Nintendo certainly will be. And in Splatoon, Yoshi's Woolly World, Smash Bros., Kirby and the rest, long-serving acolytes are assured some singular, suitably platform-exclusive entertainment. Rather, I thought of Sega, and how Nintendo's present problems pale in comparison to what that company went through after the millennium passed and the PlayStation 2 began a dominance that any peer was fortunate to survive.
Sega, of course, barely survived it, and emerged as a shadow of its former self, sent running from a console market that it had once ruled as a duopoly with Nintendo. But what if it hadn't? What if Sega's classic franchises had been up there with Nintendo's at E3 2014, rejuvenated for a new generation? What if they, too, had been allowed to evolve alongside Sega's hardware?
Back in time
When the first E3 took place in May 1995, in Los Angeles, Nintendo's showing was woeful. The then-named Ultra 64 system was still in the works, so instead Nintendo used the conference – attracting some 50,000 attendees – to showcase the Virtual Boy. Which went really well for all concerned, obviously. And yet despite having headline status going into E3, Sega still managed to screw itself into second place come the conference's close.
That first E3 marked the battleground that Sony and Microsoft would be fighting on years later, and in 1995 only one company came away with applause ringing in its spokesperson's ears. It wasn't Sega. Nintendo had faltered, absolutely, but Sega didn't foresee Sony's Western charge. The Sega Saturn would launch in America before the PlayStation – both consoles were already on sale in Japan – and would retail at $399. The PlayStation was expected to cost more on the US market. But when SCEA head Steve Race addressed those assembled, he had a surprise that marked the beginning of the end for Sega's console production. The PlayStation would sell for $299.
The PlayStation subsequently thrashed the Saturn, while Nintendo's N64, which was revealed properly alongside Super Mario 64 at 1996's E3, occupied second place in the console race by 1997. Sega could only retain 12 per cent of the available market, splitting its resources between the creaking 16-bit Mega Drive, which Sega attempted to revitalise in the mid-1990s with the woefully misjudged power-enhancing 32X peripheral (which bombed harder than Nintendo's awful licensed games for the Philips CD-i), and the Saturn. Over $300 million was lost on the Saturn before it was discontinued to make way for the Dreamcast.
Their 1998-born, 2001-buried Dreamcast was a wonderful machine, a future-facing console that set significant precedents: its modem was built in, something missing from Nintendo's same-gen platform, the GameCube. Yet while the aesthetically delightful GameCube sold 22 million units, and the astonishingly successful PS2 sold 150 million over its (much longer) lifetime, the Dreamcast barely shifted 11 million. The writing was on the wall for Sega's hardware line; after the dismal performance of the underpowered Saturn, perhaps this final roll of the dice should never have happened.
But happen it did, and just like the Saturn, Sega's swansong console welcomed a raft of splendid games. The popularity of Sega-branded hardware may have waned, fatally, but first-party titles showcased the company's impressive quality control. Crazy Taxi, Shenmue, Sonic Adventure, Daytona USA 2001, The Typing Of The Dead, Space Channel 5 – these were distinctly Sega by design, wonderful and weird and compelling and charming and deserving of the same praise that Nintendo's evolving franchises still enjoy. These were part of the Sega fan's identity, just as Panzer Dragoon, Virtua Fighter and NiGHTS Into Dreams had been in the Saturn's day.
Things could have been different
I can't help but wonder: 'What if the Saturn had achieved what Sega had needed it to, in order to avoid such a company-unsettling financial loss?' What if its best titles – the aforementioned trio, Treasure's Guardian Heroes, and the gorgeous platformer Astal, for instance, had found more than just a hardcore audience? Perhaps the Saturn, even as a 2D-optimised system in a 3D-centric scene, could have been a contender worthy of following the Mega Drive.
It's probably difficult for younger readers, whose first console might well have been the PS2, to appreciate just how massive the Mega Drive was. It was the dominant 16-bit console in Europe and North America, outselling the Super Nintendo – no mean feat given how the Nintendo Entertainment System had dominated before.
Its peak period, during the early 1990s, was a time of great playground divisions. Nobody rooted for both Sega and Nintendo. If you were lucky, maybe a sibling had the rival machine, so you could dip in only to decry its games as deeply inferior to the ones that you had in YOUR house. But battle lines were hardened; I genuinely had a 'Mario Sucks' button badge on my backpack as a kid, having been home-schooled on Sega hardware from the Master System onwards.
Look at Nintendo's E3 of 2014: Link, Mario, Kirby, Donkey Kong. These enduring mascots have been part of the company's roster for decades, and the Super Nintendo had several homes for them. Nowadays, Sonic is a part of the Nintendo family too. But his latest titles, Sonic Boom: Rise Of Lyric (Wii U) and Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal (3DS), are set to exist in the shadows of Nintendo-originated releases. That more column inches have been devoted to the introduction of a peculiar new character to the Sonic series, Sticks the jungle badger (whatever one of those is), than anything to do with how the game plays is indication enough of press enthusiasm for contemporary Sonic. Super Mario 3D World, it ain't.
Sega's biggest title at E3 2014 was one that the media was already very familiar with. Alien: Isolation is rightfully getting fans of the sci-fi film series very excited, as it hopes to capture the original 1979 movie's intense atmosphere in an interactive medium. Should it succeed, it'll rank as one of the very best Alien games ever made. Another came out for the Mega Drive: its Probe-developed port of Alien 3 was a thrilling action-platformer set against the clock – fail to find the embryo-impregnated inmates before the time was up and… pop!
I played that game to death (literally, as the cartridge just won't register anymore) alongside a raft of others comprising an astounding catalogue. Streets Of Rage and its evergreen sequel of 1992, perhaps the best side-scrolling beat 'em up of all time (yeah, Final Fight, whatever); Treasure's frenetic shooter (read: impossible for a 13-year-old) Gunstar Heroes; Codemasters' top-down racer Micro Machines and EA's Hang-On-with-weapons Road Rash; Virgin Interactive's incredibly colourful adaptation of Disney's Aladdin; and the arcade basketball brilliance of NBA Jam.
Not all of that was exclusive to Sega, of course. But the Mega Drive was the choice of platform to properly get the most from recommended third-party titles. Or, at least, that's how it was to those in the Sega camp. I mean, really: why play FIFA International Soccer on anything else but the Mega Drive's game-perfect three-button pad? Yes, the SNES had Street Fighter II first, but you were a lucky kid indeed to have parents who'd pay £65 to take it home from Woolworths. Suffice to say that most of the people doing several paper rounds in a week where I grew up were SNES owners.
What if Streets Of Rage was as in demand for a comeback as Metroid? Where does the series rest, today? And could it return? A demo version of Streets Of Rage for the Dreamcast is said to have existed, and as recently as 2013 Sega was approached by Backbone Entertainment to properly bring the franchise back (concept art is available here). Sega didn't bite.
To the company's credit, Sega's third E3 2014 highlight represents something of a risk, as they're taking rhythm-action title Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F 2nd to the West. "It's our turn to believe in you once more", says the official blurb behind the game's North American launch for PS3 and Vita. But just as Nintendo fans clamour for a new F-Zero, so the Sega audience of old is ever eager for its favourites: comments beneath Sega's own E3 blog entry ask after more Western Yakuza releases, Phantasy Star, and inevitably for a conclusion to Yo Suzuki's epic Shenmue. There's evidently an appetite for reviving these Sega classics. Sega might do well to believe in these faithful followers, too.
So here I am, in my dreams, fantasising about a new Streets Of Rage, a new NiGHTS, even the remote possibility of the next Shenmue. Where would they live among today's gaming heavyweights? Who can say. But if Nintendo can earn accolades aplenty for showing some frames of Link loosing a few arrows, imagine how nuts the Mario Sucks brigade would go if Axel Hunter and Blaze Fielding were shown beating down an errant street punk in glorious HD come E3 2015. Streets Of Rage 2 has long crystallised – but isn't it time to see how they work in the context of the present day?
What if Sega's tomorrow was even brighter than its heyday of 25 years ago? Or, at least, it showed a few more signs of life. There's no console on the line, so surely there's at least some scope for risk-taking. It doesn't need to be the revival of a retired series, it doesn't have to be a new Shenmue – but couldn't we have something more than another Sonic to reawaken the Sega fanatics that many of us once were?
Hell, a greying fanboy at heart can hope, right?