Sega Never Abandoned The Hardcore Gamer

Has there ever been a more fascinating video game publisher than SEGA? Throughout their entire history, they’ve been ahead of the curve on revolutionary ideas like tailor made mascots, 16-bit hardware, CD based gaming, online consoles, and open-city sandboxes.

And yet, almost every gamble they’ve ever taken has ultimately not generated a sustainable return, leading the way for the competition to reap all the benefits once the technology caught up to SEGA’s genius. Nintendo would launch a more powerful 16-bit console and reclaim the majority of video game sales. Sony would work with CDs once they cost chump-change to create. Microsoft launched Xbox Live at a time when most Americans could afford broadband. Rockstar simply added guns to the open city design and called it Grand Theft Auto. All huge successes, all thanks to SEGA laying the groundwork.

Just recently, SEGA closed a large portion of its European and Australian branches, and changed it business model in yet another huge gamble, being the first major physical based publisher to focus a majority of its output into digital distribution and social gaming. Of course, EA has been screaming about doing this for years, so they’ll probably take all the credit once they do it. Just you remember who did it first, OK guys?

The HD consoles have not exactly been kind to SEGA. The shipment numbers for physical games have fallen rapidly over the last few years, and digital distribution seems to be the only viable solution to save the declining company. Already it’s difficult to turn on Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, or the iOS and not see a slew of SEGA’s usual suspects: Golden Axe, Gunstar Heroes, Shining Force, Ristar, Altered Beast, and of course Sonic. Skies of Arcadia‘s trademark was just renewed, priming the JRPG classic for a possible HD remake, and just recently at PAX, Sega showed off the HD remake of Jet Set Radio, Sonic Adventure 2, and NiGHTS Into Dreams… SEGA obvious has their eye on releasing every game they’ve made on just about every available channel.

Many have pointed to a large decline in the quality of SEGA’s releases, but I’m calling BS on that. Sure, not every game is perfect, but between repackaged Dreamcast compilations, horrible Marvel Studios games, and the latest string of disappointing Sonic games, SEGA has supported the hardcore gaming crowd a lot more than you might remember with some top of the line software. Focusing on HD is yet another gamble that ultimately never panned out and put the company in the position they are in today.

So gripe and cry all you want about SEGA making the jump to the casual market because they stood up for you to the bitter end!  Here’s a few examples of how:

Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria.ChroniclesNo game better represents SEGA’s willingness to take big risks than this gem. Not a lot of publishers would dare touch this one mainly because it’s the antithesis of everything video games have mutated into.

Where as something like Call of Duty or Battlefield ground their frantic firefights in the dark gritty realism of war, Valkyria Chronicles takes a much more whimsical approach.  The lighthearted anime storytelling perfectly compliments the easy colors and magnificent visuals, and the slow thought-provoking strategy gameplay flies in the face of the point-and-pray shooters of the world. It’s almost unreal how much this fairy tale representation of war could tell such a touching tale capable of resonating with the battle hardened gamers of today.

It remains one of the PlayStation 3’s most beloved exclusives and one of the generation’s most popular sleeper hits. Valkyria Chronicles only shipped 620,000 units, a respectable number for the PlayStation 3 which was struggling at the time, but hardly indicative of the game’s quality. The first of the PSP sequels generated quite a buzz amongst hardcore fans, but the game’s sales didn’t even reach 100,000 in America.

Platinum Games

vanquishWe all know the story of Platinum Games by this point. A band of disgruntled Capcom superstars were given the boot after their string of widely critical successes never translated into sales figures. Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikaki and Devil May Cry creator Hideki Kamiya founded Clover Studio intent on reinvigorating Japanese action games, and created fan favorites like Viewtiful Joe, Okami and God Hand, and their closure sent shock waves through the Capcom faithful.

Platinum Games continues on in the tradition of Clover Studios by delivering well received games that just can’t seem to rocket up the sales charts. Gamers want more, but not many are willing to take a chance on these risky developers. That is…everyone except SEGA. With the exception of Metal Gear Rising Revengeance, which is being developed for Konami, SEGA has published Platinum’s entire line-up on both sides of the ocean.

SEGA’s crowning achievement though this deal is also Platinum’s best game to date. Shinji Mikami’s Vanquish is a sleek and third-person shooter stolen straight from a 1980’s NES action game and given an astounding HD facelift. Everything about this linear masterpiece screams “classic!” from its metallic aesthetic to its deceptively deep mechanics and neck-breaking speed. Vanquish tapped an era of action games long since thought extinct and proved to the world that hey can indeed make them like they used to…just don’t expect them to sell well. It shipped only 340,000 units in America.

Rounding out Platinum’s games published by SEGA are Hideki Kamiya’s hyper-sexualized hack ‘n slash Bayonetta (850,000 units), the deeply customizable DS space-opera RPG Infinite Space (50,000 units), and the bloody violent black-and-white Wii beat ’em up MadWorld (400,000 units), all of which were critically acclaimed, and none of which cracked a million units shipped in America. Platinum’s online brawler, Anarchy Reigns, was delayed until 2013, and it might not only be SEGA’s last collaboration with Platinum but maybe even their last hardcore physical release.

Resonance of Fate

Resonance of FateIf streamlined and lightning fast battle systems like the one’s found in The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles are the future of JRPGs, then where does that leave a game like Resonance of Fate?

The designers behind this beast are of the mindset that there is no middle ground in the future of JRPGs. Either you simplify classic mechanics and make a nice easy game for everyone to enjoy, or you take it to the exact opposite extreme, to be as ludicrously difficult as humanly possible. This game’s learning curve brings even the most experienced JRPG fan to his knees, whining in defeat. Those willing to take the plunge and invest the extra time needed to master this ambitious vision will be rewarded with one of the most rewarding battle systems ever created.

This is one for those who like strong mechanics in their JRPGs and not much else. The story, characters and setting all seem to serve as a just a backdrop to the real backbone of this video game, the battle system. Man, those Hong Kong diving and firing flips are totally awesome though.

It’s impenetrability isn’t the only excuse SEGA has for its poor sales figures of roughly 250,000. Countless have tried, but many have yet to learn, when your JRPG tries to go toe-to-toe with Final Fantasy, you’re going to lose miserably. Strangely, Final Fantasy XIII is another game criticized for focusing too much on complicated battle mechanics and not much else. Time will only tell which will be remembered as the better game.

The Yakuza Series

Yakuza-3-PS3They say the main draw of this series is not the gameplay or the storytelling, but rather its the picture perfect recreation of modern day Japan that drives so many Japanophiles to the Yakuza series. It provides all the excitement of walking through the streets of Dotonbori or Shinjuku, all from the comfort of your IKEA sofa, and you don’t even need to cough up the price of a plane ticket. If this is the main draw, then it goes without saying why I’m not as into this series as others, but I’ve never actually had someone tap me on the shoulder just to start a brawl either.

Still, there is a certain charm to SEGA keeping the genre they pretty much created on their home turf, keeping the Shenmue formula alive with a slightly more palatable storyline. The Yakuza series might not have the grand scope of Grand Theft Auto, but it focuses slightly more on the realism of their cities, the everyday activities rather than the freedom most sandboxes allow.

Most of Yakuza‘s mini-games and side stories are actual things Japanese people do in the cities. They take candy colored photos of themselves in specially designed booths, and they play crane games, classic arcades, traditional board games like go, shogi and mahjong. They take trips to driving ranges and practice their swing from the roofs of skyscrapers, fish off the piers of their city’s harbor, hand out tissue advertisements, or the most…swaggering of them recruit girls to become hostesses and deck them out in nice clothes.

It’s this attention to detail which is uncommon in a lot of games. I feel much more in touch with a game knowing I’m playing in a real place I’ve walked before rather than a city just made up to resemble a real city. I’ve only played Yakuza 2, and the game’s main setting, the Dotonbori bridges, are a 30 minute train ride from my house. I was just there recently for a birthday, and I can just pick up a video game and play there as well. That’s the everyday life feeling even the biggest of the sandbox publishers out there haven’t tackled yet.

Naturally, the Yakuza game are much bigger in Japan. Overly long cutscenes seem to be a distinctly Japanese trend, not to mention most are localized only with English text under the Japanese dialogue. Subtitles and huge breaks in gameplay are not the way to the heart of American gamers, but SEGA seems to have no problem publishing for those who demand them. Yakuza 3 is the best selling game in the series on American shores, and it only shipped a mere 180,000 units.

Alpha Protocol

alphaprotocolcovernew580Bear with me on this one for a second please. I won’t go so far as to label this one “good,” but rather, this is the prime example of Obsidian Entertainment clearly showing their true colors as better storytellers than game designers.

Among all the hottest trends that have sprung up over this past generation, none has been touted as much by developers as the idea of “choice.” How many games have you played that were hyped to have huge game altering consequences based on the decisions you’ve made? Just about every free-roaming action game and RPG out there, right? How many of them actually delivered on those consequences? Yeah, not to many.

This crappy little spy shooter is one of the few that truly does deliver on that promise. In Alpha Protocol, when you’re not cracking skulls using the Looney Tunes stealth mechanic, you’re making huge decisions on which faction to sponsor, which authority figure to take out, and which woman to bone. These decisions lead to huge changes in the gameplay from the armaments of enemies should you sponsor the wrong weapons dealer or the difficulty of a boss who finds his heroine laced with poison should you become buddies with the right drug dealer.

On paper is sounds great, but this is Obsidian we’re talking about here. They’re patented bugs pollute just about every RPG they’ve ever made, so who really knew how they would fare with an action game, let alone an entirely new IP. I don’t especially blame publishers for turning this one down, but who was there to give them a chance? SEGA…that’s right. Sadly, Alpha Protocol‘s poor reception lead to only 350,000 shipped units, but if more had given it a try, they’d definitely find a good experience buried in this one somewhere.

Ghost Squad/House of the Dead Overkill

Ghost SquadIn 2007, Wii-mania was in full swing. Nintendo was wining back the majority market share of the industry, and slowly alienating many fans by trying to keep a squeaky clean image with their new found casual audience. Nintendo’s first-party games can only push a system so far, and Wii owners were watching their buddies cut down Locusts with chainsaw machine-guns, wanting a piece of that action. A market existed for violence on the Wii, but naturally Nintendo wouldn’t publish anything of the sort. Who better to ruin the angelic image of their pearly white console than Nintendo’s old rival, SEGA.

These two light gun games might not be the AAA shooters fans were calling for Nintendo to bring to the platform, but they are a different breed of games in their own right. Unapologetic exploitation is a better way to describe these games. Ghost Squad is a pretty standard rail shooter on the surface, ported straight from the arcade, but before you know it, you’ll be dressing up your elite squad in bunny ears or any number of looney or inappropriate decals.

House of the Dead: Overkill falls more in line with the polar opposite of what Nintendo was looking to do. Vulgar, violent, low budgeted zombie massacres. It’s the stuff of grind house theaters filled with foul language, guts, film scratches and terrible graphics.

Together, these arcade rail-shooters attract the opposite crowd Nintendo was searching for with the Wii. However, fans bought them up needing that violent streak. Its a shame we live in a world where these monstrosities can outsell pure gaming gold like Vanquish, but Ghost Squad sold 390,000 copies and House of the Dead: Overkill sold 420,000. All thanks to SEGA tapping a needed niche market too.

Chromehounds/Armored Core 4

chromeSEGA had FromSoftware’s back long before they became critical darlings with the Souls series. This B-team gaming company is often responsible for a lot of low quality knock-off action games, but one thing they’ve never had a problem with is mech-combat.

Mech-combat is not for everyone. It requires hours of patient maintenance, saving money for that elusive armor piece needed to complete a dream design; only to take it into battle to find it’s clunky to steer, and the REAL hardcore crowd has the ability to fry you in a heartbeat. The world of mech-combat is not for the faint of heart, and has a ridiculously high learning curve on top of the hours of preparation put into your perfect robot.

It’s a selling point most publishers wouldn’t have a problem with, but pfft…not to SEGA. Armored Core 4 might not have been a hard sell since the series was already established as a leader of the mech-genre. However, the game only sold 270,000 units across two platforms in the US.

Chromehounds on the other hand was an original IP that received polarizing scores from those who enjoyed the remedial task of maintaining a mech and taking it into a lengthy strategic battle as opposed to those who just wanted fast action. Only 230,000 gamers bought the Xbox 360 exclusive, so it was not exactly a hit. However, SEGA went the extra mile for this miniscule group of hardcore fans and kept the online servers open for four years after its release. That’s love right there…

There you have it, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of this generation alone. Plenty of hidden SEGA gems pepper the previous generation once SEGA made the jump to third party as well. It seems that no matter what label SEGA gets slapped on it, they always turn out plenty of niche titles for the hardcore  gamer to chew on for a while. Don’t count them out just yet while they take this new path into the digital distribution and casual social gaming markets because they never counted you out.