Inside Pulse 12

Book Review: Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works

Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works
Publisher: Read Only Memory
Cost: 30£ (Kickstarter Backers)/35£ (Everyone Else)
Page Count: 351
Release Date: November 2014
Get it Here: Read Only Memory’s Official Website

Like a lot of staffers here at Diehard GameFAN, I am an unabashed Sega fan. I strongly preferred the Sega Genesis to the Super Nintendo. At one point I owned over 100 Sega Saturn games and it remains my favorite system of all time. I still buy (and review) Sega Dreamcast games when they are released for the system like this year’s Pier Solar, Redux: Dark Matters and Neo XYX. I’m also a prolific Kickstarter backer, so it will surprise no one to learn that I was a backer for this book when Read Only Memory first created a crowdfunding effort for it last year. I happily threw my thirty quid at them and whiule I am usually content to sit back and be quiet as a project is funding, I was pretty vocal with this one, stating things I wanted to see in the finished project. Some of these, like the gatefold pages showing levels and schematics came to pass (I can certainly take credit for being the first one to suggest these) but others (like have a sound chip go “Say-Gah!” in the classic style when you open the front) cover did not. A little over 2,200 people backed this project and together they raised nearly 100,000 GBP to ensure that the Sega Genesis would given the mammoth in-depth tome we all long for. Well, the final product arrived at my door Saturday night and I proceeded to read through 200+ pages before putting it down. I can honestly say the book was almost everything I could have asked for in a Sega Genesis retrospective and it’s easily one of the five best projects I backed on Kickstarter. The book is so fantastic that any Sega (and especially Sega Genesis) fan will want to purchase the Collected Works for their own home library. As I poured over each page I remembered saving up my allowance for Phantasy Star IV which costs about 90-100 in 1990s money. I remember playing through Shining Force three times in a row without playing any other game – a feat I have never duplicated. I remembered how games like Shadowrun and Sword of Vermillion consumed me and how in this era of ultra-realistic sports games how much I miss Mutant League Football or Lakers Vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs. Enough about my childhood memories of the Sega Genesis though – it’s time to show you exactly what makes the <>Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works book so phenomenal and why every video game fan should own a copy.

Before the book really gets going we are given a Publisher’s Note and a Foreword by Dave Perry (of Earthworm Jim fame). The Publisher’s Note explains the format and naming conventions of the book since many games have different names in the states from what they had in Europe and/or Japan. Dave Perry’s introduction simply talks about his own personal history with the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive and the games he created for it. It’s two and a third pages long and it really sets the tone of nostalgia, admiration and love the creators in this book had (and still have) for Sega’s 16-bit console.

The meat of the book’s text comes in the first chapter, “Arcade Perfect: How Sega Took Gaming to the Next Level.” It’s fourty-three pages long, but it is huge text and filled with pictures so it’s about as long as a feature here at Diehard GameFAN. I was hoping for a lot more text and an in-depth look at aspects of the Genesis rarely covered by the professionals involved like the Eternal Champions/Virtua Fighter feud or about how Working Designs almost single-handedly kept the Sega CD alive in North America but these bits weren’t there. RPGs also got the short end of the stick with Shadowrun, Shining Force, Lunar, Dark Wizard and many others getting little to no mention in this section. There’s a reason for this though. Let’s be honest – it wasn’t until the 32-bit era where RPGs really became a huge market for developers and publishers. In the 16-bit era, they were a small niche that happened to age well and become more popular with time as people went back and saw what they missed. Sure there were a few gamers like myself who were almost exclusively playing RPGs on their 16-bit consoles, but we were by far the minority. I remember it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college I met anyone who adored the Shining series the way I do…and he happens to now be the current reigning, defending undisputed WWE World Heavyweight Champion. So while fans of these now classic Hall of Fame worthy series might be disappointed that games like Dynamite Heady and Ristar get more of a moment in the sun in “Arcade Perfect,” remember that it was a very different time in the 1990s. The genres that were popular then are not necessarily popular now and vice versa. Don’t worry though. Phantasy Star gets a lot of space devoted to it in the interview sections towards the tail end of the book.

Besides those two small nitpicks that some might have, this section is pretty great. You get a nice history of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, along with its peripherals, the Sega-CD, the Sega 32-X and the holy grail of collectors – the Sega Neptune. The chapter starts by talking about how Nintendo controlled 94% of the 8-bit market and how Sega of America pretty much turned things around for the company that would ultimately be consumed by Sammy. The Mega Drive actually bombed at first in Japan and it took some really creative thinking and outside the box marketing in America (and later Europe) to turn the Sega Genesis into a full-fledged success. It’s a fascinating look at how the system was developed and I was especially enthralled by the commentary on the advertising put out by both Sega UK and Sega of America. These ads still are talked about frequently by older gamers and people from my generation still quote the taglines (or even watch the commercials on Youtube!) and do the Sega Scream. History buffs and Sega fans alike with just pour over this chapter, learning all sorts of interesting information about the history of the Sega Genesis. I was shocked about the history of Joe Montana football (one of my favorite old school sports games) – no mention of Buster Douglas Championship Boxing or Pat Reilly Basketball in the book though.

The book is chock-full of great tidbits about Sega’s early working relationship with the devila young Electronic Arts and how they helped saved their biggest rival to the Madden franchise – the aforementioned Joe Montana football. Truly great stuff here. Of course, there is also a lot of space devoted to the origins of Sonic the Hedgehog – the current mascot of Sega who definitely had his best days in the 16-Bit Era. It’s interesting to see how skeptical Sega of America was towards Sonic and how it ended up being a smashing success – almost the exact role reversal SoA and SoJ had regarding how to properly market/sell the Mega Drive.

IMG_1579 “Arcade Perfect” is a wonderful essay devoted to nearly every aspect of the Sega Genesis and after reading it, it’s no wonder the 16-bit war ended with Sega having 55-60% of the market (the exact number varies based on sources), effectively winning the 16-bit war (remember there was also the Turbo-Grafx 16, Phillips CD-I and Neo*Geo during this time frame), really only losing in Japan where the PC Engine (TG-16) and SNES utterly destroyed it. I was really happy to see the Sega-CD and 32-X spoken of in respectful tones instead of being treated like the redheaded stepchildren they are looked as today. I LOVED my Sega CD and still have a ton of games for it. From Willy Beamish to Eternal Champions, it is truly one of the most underrated systems ever. Hell, I still use it to play Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Snatcher. You get a well-rounded look at everything that came out for Sega’s 16-bit system – even the Menacer and the god-awful Activator. I could keep going on for several more pages about how much incredible information is in this chapter but I’ll move on to the rest of the book now and let you read “Arcade Perfect” yourself. I don’t want to be like the kid in the old Encyclopedia Britannica commercials.

From now until the Interviews section at the very end of the book, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works becomes primarily a pictorial history of the system. Like a lot of coffee table books, you’ll see pictures of different system models, illustrations, maps of various levels and artwork from game boxes. So and so forth. They are often accompanied with a very tiny amount of descriptive or explanatory text, but from the bulk of the book (pages 48-267) the book is a visual, rather than a verbal piece.

The first of these sections is entitled “Hardware Development Documents” These are schematics and blueprints for the Sega Genesis and the Mega-Drive so you can see how the system evolved not only over time, but by region. There are four different gatefold pages so you can really see the technical side of the system(s). If you’ve ever had to read or write a technical manual, these drawings will look really familiar. Even if you haven’t done either of the above, these fold-out pages will be a lot of fun to just look at. Much of the writing on these diagrams are in Japanese so if you know the language, you’ll get a little something extra out of this. You’ll also get to see mock ups of four different controller ideas (all roughly similar), concepts for an IR pad, a VR helmet and of course, the 32X and Sega-CD. Everything here is really interesting

“Hardware Showcase” is somewhat similar except that it shows pictures of the actual finished products. All three versions of the Genesis/Mega Drive are here along with all the different accessories or peripherals that you could purchase during the console’s lifespan. Never seen the Master System Converter or the Sega Neptune? Now you have the chance! Were you unaware of the Mega Modem for the Genesis or the Mega-CD Karaoke? They’re in here!

The next fifty-four pages are devoted to “Game Packaging and Production Illustrations.” In other words ART, ART, ART. Curious what the difference between the US and Japanese Phantasy Star box art was? Want to see the early concept illustrations for ToeJam and Earl? Curious about Sonic’s original human girlfriend Madonna looked like? This part of the book covers all those things and more! You’ll also find gatefold pages here for the original Altered Beast, Alien Storm, Space Harrier II and Super Shinobi II artwork. This was a wonderful trip down memory lane and even if you are too young (or old?) to have been part of the Genesis Generation, you’ll enjoy just looking at the art in this section.

“Game Design Documents” comes next and its character sketches, original ideas for level design and other art. Gunstar Heroes has eight pages devoted to it. Ten are for Streets of Rage and two pages showcase seven different background designs for Eternal Champions. Finally you get four pages of design documents for Sonic the Hedgehog. A short but very informative chapter. This is followed by “Game Character Illustrations.” Now this chapter is not about character models but illustrations, so it’s more hand drawn art. I have to admit my personal preferences came into play with this chapter as it started off with two pages of Shining Force drawings. Seeing Balbaroy and Guntz pretty much made my day. Other games highlighted in this section are Golden Axe both Eternal Champions, Phantasy Star III a few Monster World games and Alex Kidd and the Enchanted Castle. Again, this is just some more art to look at, which makes sense as Collected Works is essentially a coffee table book.

The second to last chapter spans almost sixty pages. “Game Pixel Artwork” is exactly what the title suggests. Here’s where you’ll find the sprites and original character models for countless classic Genesis games. No Shadowrun though. I was hoping we’d see the rare Batman/Spider-Man/Godzilla spites from a particular Shinobi game, but alas, they didn’t make it into the book. I was really hoping the book would cover the many changes inflicted on Revenge of Shinobi as that is a gold mine of fascinating stories, but it was not to be. There are literally thousands of different characters to be found here. I loved seeing Shining in the Darkness get a page all to itself. That game really deserves a lot more love than it gets. Besides character art, there are also full levels showcased in this section. Landstalker, Bonanza Bros., Comic Zone, the first town in Phantasy Star II and so many other games can be seen here. There are also a few section stills from other games that can be viewed here.

The final section of the book is “Interviews” and it is here where many of the people who made the Sega Genesis a smash hit get to wax philosophically and nostalgically about the system. Their own Mega Drive memories section, if you will. Here you’ll find Q&A with people like Makoto Uchida, Noriyoshi Ohba, Tohru Yoshida, Ken Naito, Akira Nishino, Yu Suzuki, Kotoro Hayashida, Yuji Naka, Ryotaro Nonaka and many others. This section was incredibly informative as well as a lot of fun. I also loved seeing references to some of my favorite Saturn games like Dragon Force and Sakura Taisen. You’ll really walk away from these interviews with some new insights and an appreciation for the blood, sweat and tears these designers put into their games and the success of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive.

In all honesty Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works is arguably the best video game retrospective/coffee table book I’ve ever gotten my hands on. It’s certainly the best book to focus on the history of the Sega Genesis and it is well worth the cover price (and then some). Are there a few things I wish they would have covered? Certainly, but the book is already 351 pages so something had to go. Plus what interests me might not have interested the creators or more importantly, other readers. Again, I am absolutely in love with this book. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever crowdfunded and it’s one of the video game related highlights of 2014. Now if only we could get the same team to do a similar book for the Sega Saturn and/or Dreamcast, that would be pretty sweet. Start asking for this for your winter holiday of choice people because you really should own it.

SEGA!