Thursday, March 31, 2011


Sega really only ever marketed one video game console successfully; the Sega Genesis here in the states or The Mega Drive as it is known most everywhere else. Every other console they’ve launched has either lived in the shadow of a more successful machine or it has just flat tanked without really giving the competition much of a fight.

Sega's machines have been good, with really good games available. I don’t have much experience with the Master System or the Game Gear, but the Saturn and the Dreamcast have seen many MANY hours of play time in my house. Many games on Sega consoles were exclusives or were the best versions to own. But Sega made serious errors in marketing, timing, or the direction for their products.
I was definitely a Sega adherent at one point. Probably not up to the level of fanboy by today’s definition of the term, because while I definitely kept track of who had what advantage when Sega participated in the so-called console wars, I didn’t actually diss any other machines. I didn’t own a Super Nes or a TurboGrafx-16 during the Genesis era, and I didn’t own a PS1 during the Saturn era because I simply couldn’t afford multiple consoles and still buy as many games as I wanted to. But I thought the console-bashing was pointless since it was the games that mattered. My only negative feelings about any other system or fanbase was the little spurt of envy whenever a game I really wanted came out exclusively for a machine I didn’t own.

Since then I’ve picked up a PS1 and downloaded SNES and TG16 games on the Wii Virtual Console. Sega got out of the hardware business when they pulled the plug on the Dreamcast, but they are still a software powerhouse, releasing games for every system currently sold, which would, of course, include former rivals.

Amongst the parade of failures from Sega, sits one machine that seems particularly derided. The SegaCD (or Mega-CD as it is known in Europe and Japan). This console… console add-on really since you have to have a Genesis/Mega Drive to make it work… embodied everything that could be wrong with a video game console all in one shot. It was expensive. Its major marketing push was a new-ish gimmicky game tech (like Kinect, but in this case full-motion video or FMV). It promised hitherto unseen graphic and aural heights that weren’t actually new or were not frequently accessed by developers. Etc etc. You can read all about the system’s tragic history online, no need for me to reiterate that shit in detail. Ironically, with the SegaCD and the 32X (a plug-in for the Genesis) Sega essentially demonstrated that add-ons designed to boost your system specs really don’t work. Since this time, hardware companies don’t usually try to extend the life of dying consoles with upgrades, they simply come out with an all-new machine.

Looking past all the hype of the time, what the SegaCD offered was really an opportunity for bigger, more expansive Genesis games. The TurboGrafx-16 already had a CD-based edition, but not much was done with that beyond upgraded audio… real instrument based soundtracks instead of the bleepy-bloop music of rival consoles. So at the very least you’d get ‘bigger’ sound. The SuperNES had more colors on display than the Genesis (though it was slower to move the graphics) and hardware-based scaling, so Sega fans were expecting ‘bigger’ visuals to rival that console while maintaining the Genesis characteristic play speed. The storage capacity of a CD meant that you could have massive numbers of levels or huge casts of characters.

But in reality, this was rarely ever accomplished. The SegaCD WAS capable of many of the claims, but exploiting it was beyond the capabilities, desires, or budgets of many game companies. The idea of having an orchestral score in your game sounds all well and good but who is going to pay for that? Where’s the money coming from when formerly you were paying a small-time musician for some chiptunes? That's not to say there were no good games. There were quite a few. Some, like Sonic CD, delivered the goods in graphics, sounds, and size/variety. Others, like Android Assault, are great games, but could’ve just as easily been Genesis cartridge games apart from the soundtrack.

I actually own a number of the better SegaCD games, and really the whole point of this post is to draw some attention to a particularly good one that I’ve gotten back into. Recently I bought a Genesis with a hardware modification to allow it to output S-video and stereo sound. Hooking my old Genesis up to my current hi-definition TV setup was an exercise in disappointment and eyestrain. Every other old console had had cables upgraded to look good. Even Genesis Virtual Console games running from the Wii looked fine. Never mind trying to get my kids to understand why the Genesis was so great, when they couldn’t get past the fuzzy ghosting visuals. So the mod made a huge change and since the SegaCD outputs through the Genesis, its graphics carried right along in the same improvement.

This sudden leap up in fidelity caused something of a Genesis renaissance between my kids and myself. Suddenly Mickey Castle of Illusion and all the old Sonic games were wondrous displays of hand drawn animation goodness. And on the SegaCD, Earthworm Jim, Robo Aleste, and that kid and dog from Panic! live again. Totally badass. And the game I wanted most to get back to was Core Design’s Soul Star.

Core Design, famous for inventing Tomb Raider, seemed to be one of the few companies willing and able to realize the potential in the Sega CD. Battlecorps, Thunderstrike, and Soul Star are all fast-scrolling 3D showcases for the console. I like all of them, but Soul Star is a particular favorite, and in all the years I’ve owned it, I never completed the damn thing.

Consider THAT particular goal accomplished. Now that I have played it several times, and finished it on all difficulty settings I’m appreciating this game all over again. Soul Star is a third person 3D shooter. You move your ship up, down, left and right in the foreground while firing at targets coming at you or moving across the background. How your ship moves and controls varies with the stages, but you generally have the same powerups; several different types of weapons including a screen-clearing 'bomb' and replenishments for your shield.

Core Design was an English developer, and with most of their games a British aesthetic is very apparent. Soul Star is different. It is a speedy sprite scaling game that looks, at times like Sega’s old coin-op Space Harrier or the lesser-known Taito game Night Striker. But look closer and you’ll see that far from the ground stages having simple checkerboard or roadway patterns for terrain, many locations have sophisticated ‘skins’… like a texture map laid down on the flat surface. From that terrain artwork various sprite obstacles, rocks, buildings, or turrets, stand up appropriately from the surface. It is really quite impressive to see it in action. Check a Youtube video. Also many of the enemies have a decidedly 80s anime, that is to say Japanese, look to them… particularly referencing artists like Masamune Shiro of Appleseed fame. Almost every level has some glistening humanoid mech as a mid-sized enemy to comes skating along the ground towards your ship firing the whole time. The use of color also goes quite a bit beyond the ‘gritty’ colors schemes that try to be grounded in reality in western games. Much of the game has an almost painterly approach to the skies and starfield backgrounds.

In fact, there are tons of little aesthetic touches that seem commonplace now, but were just awesome to me back in the day. The huge tractor beam animated in the sky of the water planet. Debris falling from the ceiling of a hovercraft level as a self-destruct timer counts down. Flying over the surface of the sand planet, after you’ve passed through the initial wave of popcorn enemies and ground installations, a giant carrier appears in the sky and starts dropping shit. First these mechanical ground worms that try to collide with you, then mines, then shooty robots. Periodically the carrier itself has a big lens iris open on its hull to shoot little needle bursts of light at you from a mile away. Then it takes off and you enter another field of turrets and rocks. All the levels have distinct ‘sections’ like this that flow from one to the other. In the space levels you might have to pass through an asteroid field, and then a large orbital construct, before eventually descending to a planet… and it all comes at you in one contiguous action with small almost unnoticeable blips of load time from the disc.

And then there’s the soundtrack. Almost any mention of this game is going to include the awesome soundtrack. The sound effects are okay… but the music is outstanding, really setting the mood. In any other game, music this fine might push an okay game up to the realm of good, but this game doesn’t even need the help, it is just the icing on an already delicious cake.

If there’s anything to actually complain about (for me) in the game it is probably that the system gets overwhelmed by all the shit going on, very common complaint about 3D games that can be heard even today about recent releases. It doesn’t make the game unplayable but the stuttering frame rate can cause a bit of confusion when it comes to dodging enemy bullets. Also your ‘hit box’ is big. Really big. In fact you can be hit by stuff that just comes really close, not always seeming to need to hit your sprite. Your ship is fairly speedy so it isn’t too hard to put extra margin for error when you move out of the way… but in some levels where you are slower—as a hovercraft or walker—this can get pretty annoying. When piloting the slow free-roaming levels I frequently adopted a strategy of clearing out most or all of the enemies from long distance before moving in to accomplish the level’s goal. Some reveiwers have complained about the controls, particularly for the hovercraft form, but I didn't have a problem. Once I got use to them I found myself making pretty intricate maneuvers in the thing.

It may just be me that thinks this game is the cat’s ass. It seems to get pretty good reviews, frequently classed as equal or better than Starfox. But it also seems, most of the time, if I get hyped up on a game, it’s gonna be really expensive to acquire… owing to lots of other people thinking it’s the cat’s ass too. But from what I can tell Soul Star can be had pretty cheaply.

It’d probably take more than one good game to make tracking down and buying a SegaCD really worth it, but Soul Star is really good first choice. Maybe so good it is almost misleading. As I said, most games didn’t come close to pushing the hardware or taking advantage of its capabilities. This game is so spectacular it might make most everything else you’d buy something of a let-down.

(pic stolen from Sega-16)

1 comment:

  1. Well that sounds pretty cool. I don't have a Sega CD, but if I ever get one I'll keep this game in mind