Sega gaga

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“Now is the time to save Sega with your own hands!” declares the back of Segagaga’s box, although in hindsight it seems a little mean to imply anyone still buying new Dreamcast games in 2001 wasn’t already doing their bit to support Sega’s floundering console – perhaps it was meant to be taken more as a final rallying cry for the faithful against the company’s well-publicised struggles, even if all anyone could hope to do was delay the inevitable. Whatever the case the remarkable thing here – and arguably the attitude that helped transform the company from a hardware war dropout into a modern international software publishing powerhouse – was the way Sega didn’t just turn to face the music when the time came… they picked up a guitar and joined in.

I am now supposed to take you on a whirlwind tour of Segagaga’s vast treasure trove of direct references, amusing homages, and respectful nods to various Sega IPs and the wider gaming world in general represented by a mixed media hodgepodge of wilfully clashing art styles, a bubbling pot of Sega creativity incorporating everything from pixel art to puppet shows – and I would, if Segagaga was supposed to be “Hey I Remember That Sega Thing: The Game”. There’s plenty to spot throughout the course of this sim/RPG hybrid (“R.P.G. is a registered trademark of Bandai”, as the game likes to say every time the term’s brought up) even for enthusiastically knowledgeable fans with opinions on Mark III FM music and Saturn floppy disc drives, but it’s not really a game made for the likes of us: The game’s script is written for the people who write scripts for games, and that’s why it begins with talk of game flags (the behind-the-scenes kind, not the regular arcade sort) and only snowballs from there into the realms of debugging, the C programming language, and designer/programmer tensions over who gets to use the lion’s share of a console’s technical resources.

So if Segagaga’s not all about images of briefly-remembered Sega classics then we’ve got to move on to discussion of the game’s general weirdness then, surely? Well… no. The weirdness isn’t the focal point either, and that’s still true even when you find yourself shouting at a green blob-man clutching energy drinks, sleeping on an improvised bed made of chairs to recover HP, or watching Alex Kidd go out for an evening drink (he does remind his drinking companion – and us – that he’d turned thirty-eight by the time Segagaga came out). It’s not even concerned with presenting a pleasantly idealised version of game design, a world where your grand concepts take physical form and you are rewarded with the beaming faces of appreciative players at the end of all your hard imagineering. Your goal is to try and save Sega by guiding our youthful lead Tarou (last name: Sega – yes, really) into turning the company’s fortunes around and also taming unruly members of staff while he’s at it, using them to create amazing new Sega games to claw back much-needed market share from Sony Dogma Corp. Segagaga’s true purpose is to shine a light on the grinding void where creativity and enthusiasm are thoroughly subsumed by tight budgets, optimal release windows, personal issues, and all the other things that can and do go wrong over the course of a development cycle – and this is why the staff are often portrayed as a variety of unkempt, dirty, weirdly antisocial, literally inhuman 2D shapes (or some unfortunate combination of the above), and so very, very, tired.

Oh and all the while Sega’s biggest fictional competitor is doing everything better than they do with more money, in less time, and with far fewer headaches (same as their real one).

Ah yes, Dogma. Evil, evil, Dogma Corp with their massive budgets, slick mainstream advertising, and their consoles bedecked with built-in DVD players – no wait that was… anyway. Dogma are undoubtedly the bad guys on a corporate as well as a personal level in Segagaga, and when Tarou asserts “The Dreamcast is Sega’s life!” to one of Dogma’s key members of staff while walking through an Akihabara thoroughly plastered in Dogma Corp advertising (this can change depending on Sega’s market share) fighting the urge to shout “Yeah you tell her, Tarou! Sega forever!” at the monitor when grasping a Dreamcast controller, its forever strange bottom cable neatly tucked into the little notch behind the VMU slot, becomes an almost impossible task. However this is not a game-long infantile tantrum, Sega thrashing around and screaming “It’s not fair!” at anyone in the vicinity, even if it would have been easy to contrast Dogma’s crushing dominance with poor hard done to perfect little Sega, unable to catch a break in an industry incapable of embracing their bold vision of the future backed up by ungrateful consumers who care nothing about innovative games – a tale mindlessly regurgitated across forum posts and social media for almost twenty years now, and a version of events it would have been very easy for Segagaga to play up to their most loyal fans. Segagaga – and Sega themselves – are better than that, and there’s an honesty in here that elevates the game into something truly remarkable: Yes Segagaga loves its publisher very much and uses every IP developer Hitmaker could get their hands on but it’s never a game about how cool or infallible Sega are or how grievously the company’s been wronged by its competitor. There’s an acute awareness of their dire situation at the time preserved forever on this GD-ROM, a Sega that knows exactly how it ended up in this situation and how little that has to do with So Dogma, a Sega still proud of its work even when its on its knees – and this peek behind the wizard’s curtain shows us all of that while never forgetting that Sega is not a faceless singular entity but a group of hard-working individual people.

This individuality – and all the benefits and pitfalls that come from it – is reflected very clearly in the “sim” part of the playable game: Staff are hired through a tense all-or-nothing negotiation game that randomly occurs after shouting them down in “battle”: You can see their stats and the role they’ll fill in your development team and then it’s up to you to decide if you’d like to hire them, and if you do you then have to drum up their interest enough to agree to work for you via a series of multiple choice questions – without having to promise them a budget-busting wage in the process. Sometimes compromises have to be made if you come across a bright talent you daren’t risk losing… or when you’re plain desperate to hire anyone to fill an empty space in a team, getting those R&D departments churning out whatever they can at any cost.

And sometimes personal pride and industry-changing passion projects do have to get put aside for the sake of getting anything out the door: Dogma are constantly creating games people want to buy, eating into Sega’s already comically small (on a first run through) market share: You are given warnings about what Dogma’s going to release and when, but as their releases can happen at any time – even while you’re in the middle of developing a game to counteract the effects of their upcoming market-grabbing hit – it’s possible with some inexperience and bad luck to find Sega’s slice of the gaming pie falling to 0%, causing an instant irrecoverable game over that forces you to retreat to an earlier save should you have one or if not restarting the whole game. It’s deeply demoralising when that happens hours in and you have to replay scenes you’ve already cleared (I should mention that on a replay powering through the RPG-like “dungeons” and mashing through conversations you’ve already read flies by much faster, but I do wish I hadn’t found that out the hard way), but in a meta sort of way that’s just another way of hammering home Segagaga’s point about hard work and company rivals – it doesn’t matter how well the current project’s going, how incredible the results may turn out to be, or how close to completion the project is – if you’re not getting the numbers to justify your existence, or if the top staff stop believing in you, then it doesn’t matter – the project’s over. It’s another facet of gaming reality shown through Segagaga’s unusual lens of truth: On any given day there are teams out there – large and small – working damned hard, doing their best… and getting shut down with little to no notice regardless of the love and effort they’ve put in.

Even when everything’s all going to plan the simulation part hums with a barely-contained chaotic energy and there are plenty of issues completely outside of your control that can pop up without warning and effect the quality of the finished game: Staff may hit a slump and leave for a while, or perhaps they’ll form strong friendships with coworkers, fight amongst themselves, or have to deal with destructive bugs and viruses… Segagaga’s always very open about how abstract the sentiment “Making a good game people will like” is when compared to the reality of time/budget constraints, disagreements within development teams over priorities, and orders from on high that must be obeyed even to the detriment of the final product – and how even a team of talented and motivated individuals capable of releasing high quality work in spite of all the above will still finish the project worn out and in desperate need of a break.

Of course when glancing over screenshots or examining each element of the game individually it all looks just as funny and weird as the internet has repeatedly said about Segagaga before, but as a whole and in context it’s the crystallisation of the struggles of professional team-based game development created by those who’ve dedicated years of their lives to the process. Segagaga’s a fairground mirror held up to reality’s face – a brand new oddball look, but one that can only show what’s been put in front of it. The hindsight we now have only makes the turmoil and uncertainty of this period, captured so expertly by the game, all the more fascinating: They really were staring into the abyss back then and nobody knew what Sega without their own hardware – what a gaming industry without Sega hardware – would look like. Now look at Segagaga again and see how Tarou and all the staff around him repeatedly insist good creative games full of fresh ideas are the key to their success – those aren’t just empty words, that’s the Dreamcast in a text box. Sega’s canonical stance in the game’s eyes was simply repeating reality: They always believed that maybe, just maybe, with enough hard work and that burning Sega soul lighting the way they could still turn it all around.

The happy ending Segagaga was gunning for – a world full of Dreamcasts and Sega as the dominant force in the industry – may not have been the one we ended up with but the game always sails close enough to reality for it to feel like Tarou would have seen Phantasy Star Online 2, Yakuza, or Valkyria Chronicles, and smiled. And that’s because Segagaga isn’t just about Sega, it is Sega. Every last bit of it: The extensive history, the proud arcade classics, and a whole stable of iconic home hits. But it’s also the unvarnished Sega as recorded by people who treasured the company enough to want it to be better: The exhausted programmers, the last-ditch attempts to show a disinterested world what the Dreamcast could do, and the frequent unproductive clashes between the Japanese and US divisions of the company (it’s not by accident the sudden destructive shake-up in the Segagaga Project – so severe Tarou is temporarily forced out of the company – comes from America). I wouldn’t wish to pretend the game wasn’t silly or funny – how anyone could fail to smile when faced with a prerendered lobster covered in guns is beyond me – but this lighthearted veneer is a deliberate cover that allows a certain amount of truth to sneak out under the radar, something that wouldn’t have been possible if Segagaga was playing it straight. The game’s a celebration and a sorrow rolled into one, a sincere warts ‘n’ all pride in Sega from the people who adored it the most – and a very respectful, and very “Sega”, farewell to a much-loved console.

[This post wouldn’t be here if kind souls hadn’t supported me via Ko-fi! Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to write this.]

5 thoughts on “Sega gaga

  1. This is such an interesting game, since it could really only have come out of the “maybe uniqueness will set us apart” Dreamcast era coupled with the “writing on the wall” climate of 2001 when it got discontinued. It is fascinating that Sega didn’t just go out into the good night or anything but made a whole game that’s basically them coming to terms with reality. There is something to be said for the more traditional sappier goodbye-approach of a game like Sakura Wars 4 went for, but also something almost freeing about Segagaga’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! It really mattered to me that I listened to what the game was actually saying so I’m glad that came through in the text 😀

      Like

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