Blue Sky Thinking: Why Everybody Still Loves Sega

Blue Sky Thinking: Why Everybody Still Loves Sega

Read-Only Memory, from Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works

The generation of developers who grew up with Sega has come of age, and the company's indelible DNA is all over their work

The generation of developers who grew up with Sega has come of age, and the company's indelible DNA is all over their work

Most gamers of a certain age have an image in their heads of what Sega embodies. It may be a red Ferrari Testarossa cruising along a bitmap highway; it may be mohawked punks strutting through neon-soaked backstreets; it may be the words "Welcome to the Fantasy Zone" echoing out as a red-jacketed dude blasts over a surreal landscape. Even younger players, who didn't skulk around dingy 1980s arcades, pockets weighed down with quarters, recall something of these scenes. They exist in the collective memory of game design.

Last month, Sega announced its Sega Forever program, a series of classic titles converted for mobile phones, with a bunch of new features. There was huge excitement and anticipation; the debut titles (including Sonic, Phantasy Star II, Comix Zone and Altered Beast) were discussed, wishlists were swapped on Twitter. The nostalgia flowed.

But why? What is it about the Sega games of the late Eighties and early Nineties that made them so beloved? Why do we remember them so fondly, even now, years after Sega's peak? And why are so many developers, especially in the indie sector, drawing direct inspiration from those formative racers, brawlers and shooters? What is it that Sega did that Nintendidn't?

We asked a lot of developers for their stories. We wanted to create a sort of oral history of Sega's legacy and influence. The developers answered in their droves.

In November 2005, the British Sega fansite UK Resistance started a memorable campaign. Under the banner "Blue Sky in Games," site founder Gary Cutlack called on modern developers to abandon the gritty grey/brown palettes favored in the era and rediscover the aesthetic of the classic Sega titles – the azure blue skies, the fluffy white clouds, the nuclear orange sunsets. It was a joke, a satirical swipe at an emerging generation of grim gangster adventures, but there was also a genuine heartfelt nostalgia at its core. Look at Outrun, Sonic, Afterburner or Space Harrier, and you see it: no one did skies like Sega.

With the Genesis games, this was partially down to the limitations of the hardware. The machine could only handle 61 colours on screen at any time, which made the use of contrast and brightness much more important. This didn't just lead to those blank slate skies – it also gave us backdrops and character models that were stark, punchy and highly defined. There was a brutal economy to the design that tipped toward the iconic.

"I think aesthetic is the most unique part of Sega's classic titles," says game designer Lucy Blundell, who released the award-winning One Night Stand last year. "Toejam and Earl, Streets of Rage, Sonic, Super Hang On – they all have a very similar feel about them. Generally, the Mega Drive's colors are bright, neon-like with high-contrast, and the sprites are surprisingly detailed. Compared to the SNES, the Mega Drive feels less washed out and blurry; it's like every pixel was placed perfectly."

But there was something else going on in the choice of colors and the use of blue skies and blinding suns. "Sega's golden years epitomized the design aesthetics and ideals of the surrounding cultural moment," says graphic designer and indie game maker Ethan Redd, creator of forthcoming low-poly titles Blazing Legion: Ignition and Kombatcha. "The late Eighties and early Nineties were exuberant boom-economy times, on the cusp of a new millennium; from the contrast-heavy, sun-soaked color palettes to the bass and percussion-heavy backing music, leaning heavily on the new-jack swing genre, Sega's titles embodied this. There are few other brands that encapsulated the optimism of the era – the life and energy of the 'blue skies' ethos is timeless and unmistakable."

The way that many veteran gamers feel about OutRun is, then, tied to how they feel about the era in general – Sega games captured and reflected the sheen of the mid-1980s, the Tom Cruise flicks, the Duran Duran videos, Miami Vice on TV. At the same time, when you talk to game developers and players in their thirties and forties, a lot of them discovered Sega in beachside arcades, on family holidays, and all those memories have become inextricably linked. One of the key reasons we still love these games is because the Sega aesthetic works in exactly the same way as nostalgia – it purifies every scene.

"Visually, everything is the most perfect version of any given situation," says Steve Lycett, executive producer at Sumo Digital, who worked on the developer's acclaimed OutRun titles. "Bluer than blue skies, greener than green grass and the most iridescent oceans. You can see that throughout almost every game made during the early period. The whole premise we worked towards on OutRun 2 was to make it 'the best fantasy road trip ever'; it starts on the sunniest of days and concludes on a glorious sandy beach. That was always important to Sega. After all, could you picture the iconic Ferrari in the rain?"

But the sense of fantasy and precise iconic presentation did not mean that Sega game's weren't interested in realism. In the mid-1980s Yu Suzuki and his team developed the "super scaler" technology which allowed titles like Afterburner, Super Hang-On and Thunder Blade to feature slick sprite scaling and rotation, providing a thrilling, pseudo-3D experience. Meanwhile, artists like Naohiro Warama (Revenge of Shinobi) and Naoto Ohshima (Sonic, Phantasy Star) were super precise with scenic detail, featuring just the right props to make worlds feel authentic and alive.

"When Sega put its resources into something, you knew it would be special," says developer Brandon Sheffield, whose driving game, Oh Deer, was influenced by OutRun. "Sega's games feel like they take place in a real world, and that's more important to me than any raw or rough edges the games may have. For me, the games that endure are those that give you a sense of place: Sonic's dancing flowers; the bats flying by in the cave level of Astal; petting your dragon in Panzer Dragoon Saga; opening every stupid drawer in Shenmue. Even the dancing flagman in Outrun 2. You felt as though you were in a real place that would go on living even if you weren't there.

"To me, that makes Sega games special."

Working beneath the hyper-sunny visuals, the classic Sega titles also had a particular feel, a way of working that dragged us in and kept us playing. Until the launch of the Genesis, the company was predominantly an arcade manufacturer, so its games obeyed the conventions and philosophies of that market. Coin-op machines were designed to look instantly seductive, and via catchy attract modes, the screens conveyed their pleasures in a passing glance. Once you were hooked, the gameplay was constructed around short, slick compulsion loops to ensure those quarters kept pumping in.

"As a developer, the clever thing I see in all of the classic Sega games is the accessibility in their design," says Nic Makin, developer of indie brawler Raging Justice, a homage to Streets of Rage and Golden Axe. "There is very little required knowledge before you can play a game; no assumptions that you have experienced Game X or Y before. You learn by playing: press a few buttons and you've got all the information you need."

When you dissect the classic arcade titles, you find discrete waves of action, demanding specific, highly repeatable tactics. Shoot, dodge, brake, turn, jump, duck – Sega's gaming language was constructed entirely from one syllable verbs. The actions, from zig-zagging across lanes in OutRun, to clobbering enemies in Altered Beast, slipped straight into the muscle memory. The use of successive, very clear cut zones silently communicated your progress.

"During its halcyon days, the various development teams at Sega seemed to have an understanding – a clarity of vision – that by focusing on a few core mechanics and keeping them simple you could achieve excellence," says Ben Andac, an ex-PlayStation producer, now a designer and business director. "Being efficient and economical with design choices is something that all the classic Sega games shared".

Sam Barlow, designer of the award-winning thriller Her Story, concurs. "The classic Sega titles that I return to are those focused on providing a very specific feeling that everything in them works towards – e.g. Space Harrier, OutRun, Shinobi, Galaxy Force. All these classics are such one-note, euphoric experiences. They're more like music videos than movies. They have a coherence of visuals, sound and gameplay that sing together. Sega games were interested in that one sexy moment – taking a split second piece of action and trying to fully execute it."

But while they were accessible, Sega's great games of the era were also rife with hidden depths. Mastering combos, exploiting score multipliers, memorising enemies attack patterns, perfecting car handling – all of these required time and experimentation, and were never fully explained so fan communities grew up around key titles to swap and share tips. Designers like Hirokazu Yasuhara and Takashi Yuda were also incredibly playful, mixing things up and testing player expectations.

"I played the first level of Sonic 3 so much because it had a state change in it," says developer Catherine Woolley, who would spend hours working through titles like Alien Storm and Dynamite Heddy with her twin sister. "Playing through the lush Angel Island Zone only to see it torched by a Flame Craft – which was accompanied by a short portion of music that I loved and would replay so I could hear it – and then play through the rest of the level on fire, it was amazing and felt ground-breaking for me; it made me see that games were advancing."

"I love Sonic 3, but it's full of beginner traps," says Gareth Robinson, a coder who has designed a series of Twitter bots inspired by classic Sega titles. "It conditions you to do certain things and then punishes you for it later. There's a place where you roll through a wall and hit a big spike ball on the other side. Later in the level, you come across the same setup, so you jump to dodge the spike ball. For about two seconds, you feel really good about having learned – then you realise they've placed a spike trap at the exact point where you're about to land.

"It is genius in its cruelty. It's a little reminder to the player that they need to be thinking at all times."

Sega games have always had another important quality, something Nintendo games haven't: attitude. You see it in Sonic wagging his finger at the camera, you see it in the brash character designs of Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding.

This was partly down to the company's origins as coin-op manufacturer – it had to make games for the teenagers and twentysomethings hanging out in arcades, rather than for the kids or families playing at home. Sega had to think about "cool," and street cred, it had to think about what films and music these kids were into. But then, Sega was also just a company full of mavericks; Yu Suzuki refused to work in at the corporate headquarters, moving his AM2 team out to their own office so they could keep their own hours; the young Yuji Naka was a firebrand, clashing with his bosses and storming off to the US after the success of Sonic; Tetsuya Mizuguchi was obsessed with the dance music scene. All of this fed into the work.

As a result Sega had a cultural awareness that was almost unique. While a lot of Japanese developers at the time created arcane, self-contained and self-reflexive fantasy realms, Sega's games often lived in the real world. They reached out and drew in influences. Christa Lee is a musician and composer heavily inspired by classic Sega soundtracks. "I was captivated by how alive it all sounded, and how in tune it felt with real, living culture," she says of the company's soundtracks. "A lot of aesthetic choices in games of the time either leaned towards pastiche or abstraction. Things like Castlevania's Bach-inspired prog-rock point more towards a cultural ideal of Dracula than a living musical style. Sega games were emphatically made and in conversation with contemporary musical movements, from Streets of Rage's house and techno to OutRun's Japanese City Pop.

"These games gave me a peek into a vibrant music culture. Takenobu Mitsuyoshi and Tomoko Sasaki were huge inspirations for my album Welcome to the Fantasy Zone, the way they're both able to mix complex melodicism and jazz inflection with a pop sensibility is something that touches on my education as a jazz pianist while engaging with more mainstream sounds directly."

Throughout its history, Sega has also always drawn as much from Western culture as it has from Japan – and this has given its games a distinctive and memorable vibe. Formed, of course, by American businessman David Rosen, Sega maintained strong links with the US. While Nintendo of America was largely a marketing and distribution arm, Sega of America housed technical teams led by genius engineers like Marty Franz, Joe Miller and Scot Bayless, who were instrumental in the design of the company's consoles through the late-1980s and 1990s. The company also formed its highly experimental studio, the Sega Technical Institute in San Francisco in 1992. "It was established as an R&D facility to allow the Japanese Sonic team to get more in touch with western pop-culture values, to help them make games with broader global appeal," says Peter Morawiec, co-creator of Genesis favorite Comix Zone. "But there was also much prototyping going on and it was a great environment in which anyone could pitch an original idea". It ended up pulling in local talent, often from the movie and music worlds, who explored innovative new concepts, like Comix Zone and the weird slime-based action adventure, The Ooze.

So there was a rich cross-pollination of styles and influences ­going on and it wasn't just happening in California. Sega Japan's games perfectly combined domestic arcade design sensibilities with American pop culture. Yu Suzuki was inspired by The Cannonball Run to make OutRun; Streets of Rage drew its gang warfare concept from The Warriors; indeed the great Sega brawlers of the era – Golden Axe, Shinobi, Altered Beast – all drew ideas, weapons and settings from the works of Stallone, Norris and Schwarzenegger. They understood the trashy, semi-ironic appeal of those hyper-masculine action movies – and it's an appeal that still resonates.

While Nintendo sought to reproduce the innocence and curiosity of childhood, Sega was all about the attitude and restlessness of adolescence. For the people who encountered those games during their own teenage years (which a lot of current game developers did), they have become as potently nostalgic as the music, TV shows and films of the era.

Sega made games that slotted into the player's life, that spoke to them. A factor the company got absolutely right, and one that has ensured many gamers have fond and vivid memories, were the multiplayer modes. Linked cabinets led to eight-player Daytona sessions that draw people into arcades to this day, while the great Genesis brawlers were often built around thrilling co-op gameplay. Sega understood the power of shared gaming experiences.

"I was about 10 years old when I played Sega games with my best friend," says Lucy Blundell. "I'd always hang around at her house playing Mega Drive games after school. We'd play Super Hang On and we loved taking turns on the quick-start arcade mode. Being able to select your favorite music at the beginning really personalized it."\

Tim Atkins, audio designer at Ubisoft Toronto, found that Toejam and Earl helped him forge a stronger relationship with his older sisters. "It was the only game they loved as much as I did," he says. "We even started our own 'tips and tricks' journal, complete with crude map drawings of the fixed world levels and techniques on evading all the whacky earthling enemies. We used to sneak up on each other around the family home, crying out the Boogieman's classic 'BOOGIEBOOGIEBOOGIE' attack sound."

When speaking to developers who grew up on Sega, the company also produced experiences that resonated with their sense of identity. We all know about the legendary playground wars between Sega and Nintendo fans, which Sega fed brilliantly through its aggressive TV advertising, introducing memes like "Sega does what Nintendon't," "Eelcome to the next level" and "SEGAAAAAAA" (which had to be yelled at top volume). But for some, it also went deeper. "Sega was for the proletariat, and at least anecdotally, it was the Nintendo for low income and Black people," says Redd. "Most black people that I've talked to about it are as fond of Sega as I am, and look back on classic Sonic the way the mainstream looks back on Mario." For Christa Lee, Sega games resonated in a different way. "NiGHTS into Dreams was definitely a game that meant a lot to me on a personal level," she says. "I consider the androgyny and gender dynamics in that game to be my first exposure to queer concepts of identity and personal investigation."

Sega infiltrated the lives of its fans in a totally new way, becoming a lifestyle brand in the process. In 1990, when advertising firm Goodby, Berlin, & Silverstein pitched to make the TV commercials for the Genesis, it sent senior creative Irina Lapin and a videographer around the country, meeting kids in their homes, making notes of the posters they had up, the music they listened to, the TV they watched. What they learned was how much teenagers already identified with Sega's characters, with its aesthetics. "We'd sit on the floor with them and have them show us how they played the games; how they felt while they were playing," explains Lapin. They discovered a sense of ownership and identification that bordered on euphoria. "When some of the kids started horsing around, pushing each other, they'd start shouting 'Sega, Sega!' In the excitement of the moment, they'd just randomly shout it. We picked up on that and put it in the adverts."

Nowadays, everyone thinks Sony invented the concept of the games console as lifestyle accessory, as a signifier of taste, of identity. Sega got there five years earlier.

Sega is not making the games it used to make. During the Dreamcast era, the company spun out most of its internal development teams, breaking up the Amusement Machine divisions and forming new studios, most of which would close within five years. The old mavericks left, Sonic stumbled from one mediocre reboot to the next.

Now, a new generation of game makers is emerging, designers and artists who grew up with those Genesis and arcade titles and who have taken inspiration from them. There are astonishingly faithful projects, like Tanglewood, a new Mega Drive cartridge game, designed by young coder Matt Phillips; there is a remastered edition of Wonderboy 3, developed by Lizardcube, founded by Omar Cornut, who spent several years building Genesis emulators and tracking down obscure Sega games and prototypes from all around the world.

Other studios have borrowed the dynamics of the old games and taken them in new directions. "Streets of Rage had the home-console style nailed," says Makin. "It had two player cooperative play with all the banter that friendly fire caused, multiple difficulty levels, gritty cool looks, and an excellent soundtrack. We wanted to take these things and make a game bridging the sensibilities of the Nineties brawler with the look and feel of a modern high-def game."

Redd is the same. "I like to joke that my work is from the alternate universe where the Sega Saturn won," he says. "Most of my games use bespoke palettes from vintage Sega consoles, and when they don't, I'm sure my color choices are inspired by the tonality of the classic games that inspired me. My signature low poly style was born of my early exposure to Saturn and Dreamcast/NAOMI games and their quad-centric, hard-shaded maxi-minimalism. Even my tenderest offering to date, NE_01, a game I made about a lost robot and abandonment to get over a bad breakup, was drenched in Master System EGA hues to contrast the somber mood of the game."

At Ubisoft, Tim Atkins is still influenced by the old audio effects he loved. "The 'ring collect' sound from Sonic continues to inspire me whenever I am designing collect/reward sounds, it's sort of a gold standard for giving the player a feeling of accomplishment," he says. "Thinking back to some of the sound effects I created for Tom Clancy's The Division, I'd like to think some of them could fit neatly into the Streets of Rage soundscape, it's likely subconscious but the influence of those games echoes throughout my work today."

Ultimately, what still resonates 20 years later, is a profound truth: Sega games weren't really made to provide fun, they were made to provide an experience. "The thing that most draws me to Sega's output is how effectively it communicates sensation," says Lee. "The way it so often feels like a certain act like driving a car or walking around a city without necessarily attempting to simulate that act."

A red Ferrari Testarossa cruising along a bitmap highway; mohawked punks strutting through neon-soaked backstreets. The art, the music, the controls, the attitude – Sega created accessible games that spoke to players on multiple levels. They said welcome to the fantasy zone – get ready. And we were ready, and we still are.