Why has Sega abandoned some of its most popular older franchises? And what could they do to bring those classic series into the 2010s?
The Genesis and Dreamcast, icons representing some of Sega's greatest work.
One of my favorite games in recent memory has been Sonic Racing Transformed
. I think it's the best kart racer since the N64's Diddy Kong Racing, and Mario Kart 8
is going to have a hard time winning the crown back from Sumo's masterpiece. Part of what makes Transformed so great is that Sega is the only company other than Nintendo with such a massive backlog of brilliant game series to draw from in terms of designing stages. The game has plenty of Sonic-inspired levels, of course. But you'll also visit the worlds of Skies of Arcadia, Golden Axe, Nights, Shinobi, Billy Hatcher, Panzer Dragoon, and others. You even get to race as characters from a lot of Sega's old games, and Ristar waves the start flag at the beginning of every race! It's pretty great stuff, and gives the game a lot of variety and personality.
Two gorgeous tracks from Sonic Racing Transformed - inspired by two of Sega's otherwise abandoned game series.
Every time I play it, though, I feel sort of sad. Sure, it's great to see old friends like Shinobi again... but why have these characters become little more than fodder for Sonic's racing titles, or Sega's "classic" Genesis and Dreamcast re-releases? Many of these characters were the stars of major AAA titles in the past, and could be again. Yet in their single-minded focus on Sonic, Sega has left some of its best characters and game series to rot. Not only is this disappointing as a fan of Sega's classic franchises, it's just bad business to let major IPs go to waste. And as much as I love Sonic, the poor little guy needs a break sometimes!
Part of the problem may be that many of these old IPs were either arcade-focused, or designed around 2D, sprite-based technology. Yet you could say the same thing about Sonic the Hedgehog, which has evolved considerably over time. Looking back at these old IPs, I can see a few ways Sega might approach their rebirth:
1) Stick with the game's original formula and perspective
. With the popularity of download titles, simply cranking out an HD Street of Rage 4 as a $15 download title would probably go over really well. It could also serve to reintroduce an IP, setting the stage for a full retail reboot down the road.
Ristar would be a great candidate for an HD revamp.
2) Stick with the original perspective, but expand the gameplay
to reward repeated playthroughs. Sonic Racing Transformed is actually a good example of this. Your racers gain experience in the game as you use them, opening new "mods" that let you customize their kart's attributes. And going through the game's career mode – which features a "map" not unlike that of say Mario World – lets you unlock new tracks, racers, and kart mods. Taking the basics of a classic like Streets of Rage and adding these kinds of unlockables and extras could really help bring these games into the modern era. The point here is to take them beyond their arcade roots by introducing cumulative rewards for repeated play rather than having each playthrough be a straight up win or lose scenario. Maybe you lost this time, but you unlocked Blaze's new combo kick, so next time…
3) Take an IP's characters and world as a starting off point, but move them into a more modern genre
… while using the IP's unique elements to keep it fresh and original. Consider Mario and Sonic's move to 3D. Why couldn't Ristar make a similar move? Why wouldn't games like Shinobi or Altered Beast translate into great third-person action titles?
By mixing 2D and 3D gameplay with gorgeous graphics, Sonic has kept up-to-date with today's expectations. Why can't Sega do the same with their other classic IPs?
Don't Forget the Music
Regardless of the strategy taken in terms of gameplay, Sega shouldn't forget the tunes. One thing the Genesis excelled at was music. Yuzo Koshiro
is famous for his work in games like Revenge of Shinobi
and Streets of Rage
, and there was something about the Genesis' synths that made for incredible soundtracks – Thunderforce III
, for example, really blew me away. The return of "retro" titles has led to a renaissance in the art of the game soundtrack (eg They Bleed Pixels
), and many non-retro titles like Remember Me
have rediscovered the immersive power of background music.
Their amazing soundtracks were part of what made games like Shinobi and Streets of Rage popular and successful. Any reboot of these series should try to include similarly edgy electronic soundtracks to get players excited and pumped for the action. And it might pay to keep the gameplay actiony as well, in contrast to the sluggish chest-high-wall combat of many modern titles.
In Part 2
of this blog, available here
, I go through several of Sega's older IPs, considering how they might be "reimagined" as modern titles.
We tend to think of the Genesis (Mega Drive) and Dreamcast when it comes to Sega. But many of their major franchises started on the Master System and in arcades.