The Sonic Second: “Console Wars” Review

This Sonic Second will be a little different than usual – it’ll be my informal review of Console Wars – Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris, a book that came out earlier this year but I just got around to reading last night. Despite the impartial sounding title, the book focuses heavily on Sega, mostly being told from the point of view of Tom Kalinske during his stint as president and CEO of Sega of America. Because of this, the development of the Sonic games, particularly the first and second, are crucial elements of the story and so I thought it relevant to what I usually cover here.

I’m actually in the habit of reading corporate “thrillers” of this kind, whether they cover fields in which I have some interest, like computers (e.g. Show Stopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft by G. Pascal Zachary or Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?: Leading a Great Enterprise through Dramatic Change by Louis V. Gerstner Jr.) or not (e.g. The Aspirin Wars: Money, Medicine, and 100 Years of Rampant Competition by Charles C. Mann). So I probably would have still enjoyed the book even if it didn’t cover a subject matter that’s important to me personally – but it’s a huge bonus that it does. It’s always been trivial to find documentary coverage of subjects like the Beatles, Walt Disney, or Star Wars, but those are all my parents’ (or my grandparents’) culture that I’ve inherited. To finally have the same thing for the stuff that defined my childhood, to get a behind-the-scenes look at my favourite years of video games, to read a narrative where Sonic and Tails are an important presence, is an especial pleasure. I suppose as my generation gets older, this kind of thing will become more and more common.

My favourite parts were reading about the origins of things like the “Welcome to the Next Level” ad campaign, the “Sonic Twosday” global launch, the “Are You Up 2 It?” tagline, and even the Nintendo Treehouse. These things are practically legendary, but each of them has real people behind them, and their stories are very interesting.

While the story the book tells is fascinating, it’s also frustrating – in many ways, it’s the story of Sega’s self-destruction, a senseless near-tragedy that in retrospective looks like it could have been easily avoided if the Japanese and American branches of the company had only communicated and collaborated better. As exciting as it is to read about the meteoric rise of the Genesis, it all ends on a bittersweet note with the botched launch of the Saturn, from which Sega – and their star Sonic – would never fully recover.

It’s also a little frustrating for another reason – it’s hard to hear about the heated rivalry between Nintendo and Sega. In its lightest moments, it was almost good-natured, but at other times it was brutal. For me, I grew up loving both companies and both consoles – heck, I was privileged enough to have a SNES, Genesis, Turbo-Grafx, and a 3DO – and all the fighting makes me cringe. Sales figures or market share may tell one story, but in the end both consoles brought invaluable experiences to millions, and I could never pick a favourite between them. One could argue that the competition brought out the best in them – after all, we might not have Sonic if not for the desire to outdo Mario – but I’m glad that we’ve finally seen the hatchet buried despite my misgivings about the recent direction of the Sonic series itself.

So what about the quality of the writing? I found it to be quite digestible and well-paced, with a few well turned phrases and mostly natural dialogue. I tore through the whole 500+ pages in one evening, so I guess you could say it was gripping. I have my complaints – characters seemed to have a habit of rolling their eyes, and the author found a few too many ways to unconventionally describe smiles – but they’re minor. More distracting were the handful of inaccuracies, like describing Myau from Phantasy Star as a “muskrat” instead of a “musk cat“, saying that the secret credits in Sonic 1 appeared at the end of the game, and a few misspelled Japanese words, but again these were minor and incidental. On the whole I found the journalism superior to what I’ve come to expect from mainstream coverage of the subject.

In conclusion, although there’s nothing new to get a Sonic trivia-hound’s nose really twitching, if you have an unshakable nostalgia for the days when the TV would scream “Sega!” then Console Wars comes highly recommended from me. I’m also really looking forward to the upcoming documentary and movie based on the book.


If you enjoy the book, here’s some further reading (and listening) I also recommend:

Interview with Tom Kalinske by Sega-16
SEGAbits Swingin’ Report Show #60: Console Wars with Al Nilsen, SEGA’s Director of Marketing (’89-’93)
SEGAbits Swingin’ Report Show #61: Console Wars Release Day Party with Author Blake J. Harris
SEGAbits Swingin’ Report Show #62: Console Wars with Tom Kalinske – SEGA of America’s President (’90-’96)

Also, the book Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children by David Sheff is a somewhat similar read about Nintendo that ends at about the era where Console Wars begins.


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The Sonic Second: Sonic’s Mascot Days (Part 2)

Last time on The Sonic Second, I talked about Wakuwaku Sonic Patrol Car, an arcade game in which Sonic acts like a mascot, taking on the role of a police officer. Whenever that game is mentioned, it’s a safe bet that the very similar SegaSonic Cosmo Fighter is not far behind. And so here we are – SegaSonic Cosmo Fighter.

image from info.sonicretro.org
image from info.sonicretro.org

From a top-down perspective similar to Patrol CarCosmo Fighter sees Sonic piloting a spacecraft in pursuit of Dr. Eggman, who fights back with a series of weapons including a huge multi-sprite dragon mech. The following video shows the cabinet and the gameplay in surprisingly high quality, and I’m extremely grateful that we have it because Cosmo Fighter, also like Patrol Car, has never had its ROM dumped.

Despite the similarities between the two arcade games, Cosmo Fighter is from two years later, in 1993, though from the footage shown, no characters or elements from beyond Sonic 1 make an appearance.

The graphics in the game are absolutely gorgeous, with colour palettes and space backgrounds that remind me strongly of the original Phantasy Star games. The design of Sonic’s spacecraft is also totally rad – the PUNCH configuration is like something out of Outlaw Star! Between it, the Tornado, and his car from the Sonic Drift series, I think we can conclude that Sonic digs flashy red vehicles.

spaceship
image from the video above

All in all, Cosmo Fighter is one of the coolest looking Sonic spin-offs I’ve ever seen, and it’s a travesty that I can’t play it. 🙁

Though it will probably never happen, I would love to see Sega release this and Patrol Car again on mobile devices. Heck, throw in SegaSonic the Hedgehog while you’re at it – the touch screen would be able to emulate the trackball quite nicely. My Google wallet and I are both saying the same thing: “I’m waaaiting!”


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The Sonic Second: Sonic’s Mascot Days (Part 1)

It’s December, 1991, and Sonic the Hedgehog was introduced to millions of players around the world with his first game only a few short months ago. Many of the things that will come to define his career have yet to happen – he hasn’t met his best friends, Tails and Knuckles; he hasn’t battled his robotic rival, Metal Sonic; he hasn’t ridden the Tornado biplane or boarded the Death Egg; he hasn’t collected seven Chaos Emeralds and turned into Super Sonic. Heck, he hasn’t even learned to do the Spin Dash.

It’s at this point, before a single proper sequel was made and the series was still finding itself, that Sonic appeared in the Japan-only arcade game/kiddy ride Wakuwaku Sonic Patrol Car. In years to come there would be dozens of Sonic spin-off games, even in the classic era alone, but Patrol Car is one of only a very select few where Sonic acts much more like his original intended purpose – a mascot in the mold of Mario.

WakuWakuSonic
image from info.sonicretro.org

Whereas in his other spin-off games, be they pinball, fighting, or racing games, Sonic is always pretty much his same old self, in Patrol Car he takes on an actual role, donning a uniform and becoming a police officer. The tone reminds me of nothing so much as the Shogakukan Sonic manga by Kenji Terada and Sango Norimoto, skewing young with Sonic living in a cute little town and clashing with an Eggman hardly more threatening than the Peculiar Purple Pieman of Porcupine Peak.

The following videos demonstrate the cabinet and the gameplay:

Despite how short it is, there’s a number of really cool things about it. Eggman’s voice is spot-on, and hearing yet another conversion of the Green Hill Zone BGM on different hardware is interesting. The Green Hill police station with chequered grass and palm trees is just downright adorable. But what’s also pretty neat is the results screen:

results

The hastily drawn Sonic and the repeating SEGA background remind me of this image, supposedly from the 1990 Tokyo Toy Show:

S1concept-Madonna
image from info.sonicretro.org

Unfortunately, this game has never been dumped, meaning that there’s no way to play it unless you actually go to an arcade that still has it, and chances are that means leaving your country. Two separate attempts (that I’m aware of) to raise funds to buy the machine and preserve it both fizzled out before they even got started, and it’s a real shame. It would be terrible to lose this great piece of Sonic’s history to bit rot or a landfill.

EDIT: The game has since been dumped and emulated.


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The Sonic Second: Sonic PC Freebies

On the internet of the 1996, when the atmosphere was thicker and Dimetrodon roamed, believe it or not there were Sonic Team websites, both English and Japanese. Digging around there, you can find all manner of silly PC freebies like animated cursors and icons or 10 second video clips in glorious 160×120 resolution. It was a different time, indeed.

If that’s not flashy enough for you, on the Japanese website, you can find three obscure wallpapers. Once you grapple with the LHA compression, you get to see these:

BSONICL
“BUBBLEsonic”
RSONICL
“ROOMsonic”
TSONICL
TVsonic

Ain’t they just adorable? If you still have an 800×600 device laying around somewhere, they’d be just perfect!

There’s also a cute little desktop clock, although the link doesn’t function anymore. Fortunately, you can still get it here. Thanks to woun at Sonic Retro, its background image was extracted and you can see it in its full glory:

clock
Sonic Clock Background Image

That hill in the background is very… round. Are Sonic and Tails visiting the Mushroom Kingdom, or something?


Websites aren’t the only place Sonic Team distributed little nuggets of classic Sonic goodness. If you put the Sonic Jam disc in your computer, you’re treated to four wallpapers:

SONIC_0
“SONIC_0”
SONIC_1
“SONIC_1”
SONIC_2
“SONIC_2”
SONIC_3
“SONIC_3”

The characters look great here, if a little off. I wonder who the artist was?


Finally, of course, the biggest PC time waster of them all – a screensaver. Sonic the Screensaver was deemed valuable enough to be a standalone release in Japan, but was only bonus content on the PC Sonic & Knuckles Collection in the West.

SonicScreensaver-box-jap
image from info.sonicretro.org

There’s so much content in this one, though, I’m going to save it for a future Sonic Second post after I somehow manage to get it running on my Windows 7 system.


Have fun digging around the site archives – here are the links again for the English and Japanese sites. See you next time!

h/t Sonic Retro

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The Sonic Second: Sonic CD vs Sonic 1

Sonic 1 was groundbreaking, critically acclaimed, and a bestseller. Crafting a direct sequel to follow such a title is a pretty tall order, but Sega actually did it twice, simultaneously – Sonic 2 and Sonic CD‘s development overlapped, with each game handled by a separate team, working on opposite sides of the ocean. Sonic 2 was headed up by two of Sonic’s three co-creators, programmer Yuji Naka and game planner Hirokazu Yasuhara, working with the Sega Technical Institute in America. Sonic’s designer, Naoto Ohshima, remained in Japan and oversaw the creation of Sonic CD.

According to Ohshima, although the teams did communicate with each other, discussing game design and the aims of their projects, the games were intentionally two very different beasts.

Sonic CD was made in Japan, while Sonic 2 was made by (Yuji) Naka’s team over in the U.S. We exchanged information, of course, talking about the sort of game design each of us was aiming for. But Sonic CD wasn’t Sonic 2; it was really meant to be more of a CD version of the original Sonic. I can’t help but wonder, therefore, if we had more fun making CD than they did making Sonic 2 [because we didn’t have the pressure of making a “numbered sequel”].

– Naoto Ohshima (Gamasutra, 2009)

Because of this, we can see two distinct takes on the task of succeeding Sonic 1. While Sonic 2 took Sonic to a new island and expanded the capabilities of the Chaos Emeralds, Sonic CD sent Sonic to another planet, and replaced the Chaos Emeralds with another set of powerful gems, the Time Stones. Where Sonic 2 was brighter and more cartoony, Sonic CD went for an edgier, anime style. Sonic 2 gave Sonic a young admirer who became his sidekick – his “Luigi” – but Sonic CD gave Sonic a young admirer in need of rescue – his “Princess Peach”. Sonic 2 introduced 2-player gameplay, allowing Sonic and Tails to cooperate or go head-to-head, but Sonic CD introduced Time Attack, allowing players to compete by taking turns, trying to shave a few centiseconds off the timer and immortalise their name – or at least three letters of it – in the Sega CD BRAM.

Probably the most obvious and overriding stylistic difference between the two games is how they approach the level tropes. Sonic 2 has a new take on the classic Green Hill Zone, and a couple of spiritual successors – for example, Metropolis Zone’s nods to Scrap Brain Zone – but largely covers new territory, inspiration for the environments fueled by Sonic Team’s travels in America. Sonic CD‘s zones, however, despite taking place on a literal alien world, are noticeably rooted in the tropes of the original Sonic, opting to refine and polish familiar ground.

Astute players of Sonic CD can notice similarities between its zones and Sonic 1‘s that run far deeper than just the visuals. With Ohshima’s words above, “[Sonic CD] was really meant to be more of a CD version of the original Sonic“, it’s tempting to speculate that this is evidence that the game began as a literal “Special Edition” of Sonic’s debut outing. Whether that’s the case or not, Sonic CD‘s conservatism in level tropes winds up being appropriate – with Sonic’s ability to time travel and see multiple variations on each level’s theme, the use of familiar themes helps anchor the “Present” versions of the levels. The game can go as wild as it wants with atavistic pasts and dystopic futures, but each one remains recognisable, as though the traditional zones of the original Sonic itself are being reinterpreted.

I’ll now, with a liberal smattering of screenshots, list the similarities. I’ll hardly be exhaustive, because there’s so many I’ve probably missed some, but this will be an illustrative sample.

Green Hill Zone / Palmtree Panic

Emerald Hill Zone from Sonic 2 is also clearly harking back to Green Hill Zone, but Palmtree Panic revisits quite a few more elements. The rocks, the crumbling walls and ledges, the swinging platforms, the twisting chutes, and the mountainous background with waterfalls.

Spring Yard Zone / Collision Chaos

Collision Chaos is quite a bit brighter than Spring Yard Zone, but its “Present” version shares the latter’s purple, brown, and green colour scheme (complete with cyan metal lattices), as well as the star bumpers, floating neon signs, and lower interior paths with rotating sets of spiked balls. Most interesting is the presence of two signs and exits in the second zone, a distinction it shares only with Spring Yard Act 2. It’s hard to chalk this up to coincidence.

Note also that Collision Chaos was originally going to be the third round before the infamous “Round 2” was cut, which would put it at the same position as Spring Yard Zone in the level order.

(Find the full maps at Zone: 0)

Labyrinth Zone / Tidal Tempest

Tidal Tempest’s pink corals strongly recall the crystal clusters from Labyrinth Zone, and the type of blocks in both the background and foreground are incredibly similar in style. They also share many of the same gimmicks and hazards, and their bosses both involve chasing Robotnik through vertical watery shafts (although only one of them culminates in a fight). Furthermore, they both wrap vertically, allowing Sonic to fall down endless waterfalls.

Of course, these are also the water levels in their respective games.

The original idea for Labyrinth Zone’s background, with rocks and crystals, could have been recycled for this cool introductory background for Tidal Tempest’s first zone.

Wacky Workbench and Quartz Quadrant have no direct analogs in Sonic 1, but the final two levels match up quite well.

Star Light Zone / Stardust Speedway

In addition to sharing starry skies (and names), these levels are both made of twisting, looping metal roads suspended over a beautiful city at night. They both make use of the cool effect of having tall structures pass intermittently in front of the scene, although in Stardust Speedway’s case the effect is limited to the third zone instead of all throughout the level.

Scrap Brain Zone / Metallic Madness

Unique amongst the levels of their respective games, these both have unique backgrounds for each of their three stages. There are also many gimmicks and hazards in common.

Special Stage

Finally, Sonic CD originally had a bonus stage (perhaps an early form of its special stage), that looked very similar to Sonic 1‘s. Note the “R” block, and the “U” block, which might have been the same as the “Up” blocks from the original.


Yes, most Sonic games have similarities, but I think that in this case of Sonic CD and Sonic 1, the sheer number of them, their odd specificity, and especially the order in which they appear, are definitely compelling. I don’t think they make a conclusive case for anything in particular, but they are interesting to consider from the perspective of Sonic CD as glimpse of where the franchise might have gone if Sonic 2 had never existed.


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