Sega is in an unexpectedly good place right now. The company was never on top of the industry; it’s been beaten by Nintendo, by Sony, by the decline of the arcade. It spent years nursing the wounds from its fall from grace in the ’90s, and through the ’00s and early ’10s could seemingly do little right.
Even in its darkest years, though, Sega made some good calls. Intelligent mid-2000s acquisitions like Creative Assembly (Total War) and Sports Interactive (Football Manager) were joined in the ’10s by Relic Entertainment (Warhammer 40,000) and Amplitude Studios (Endless Space) to form a strong division in “Sega West.” This policy seems to be continuing: Sega recently acquired Two Point, the team behind Two Point Hospital.
Sega has, of course, seen success beyond these acquisitions. Subsidiary Atlus has surged in popularity: its Shin Megami Tensei spin-off series Persona is now arguably Sega’s strongest non-hedgehog property. RGG division’s Yakuza also goes from strength to strength, with the seventh entry in the series due to be announced next week.
This resurgence, though, has been driven almost entirely by new projects, new divisions and new subsidiaries. Sonic Team, once the crown jewel of Sega, has produced many middling-to-poor Sonic games and not a great deal else. AM2, the company’s most-storied division, has moved from defining genres with games like OutRun, Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop, Sega Rally and Shenmue to mostly pushing out (admittedly excellent) Project Diva rhythm games and Japan-only free-to-play titles. The successes of today are disconnected from those of its past.
Recently, there are clear attempts to change that.
The decision to allow Christian Whitehead, a prominent member of the Sonic community, to create an official game in Sonic Mania proved astute. The title was released in 2017, within a few months of Sonic Team’s Forces, and surpassed the in-house game both critically and, according to unofficial figures, commercially. Mania represented an embrace of the old way — Whitehead’s Retro Engine was built to recreate the feel of the original Genesis games.
The success of Sonic Mania clearly woke someone up at Sega. Its current slate contains the expected entrants in ongoing series like Yakuza, Puyo Puyo, Total War, Football Manager and Mario & Sonic at the Olympics. But we’ve also seen some “old Sega” working its way back into the fold. Take Streets of Rage 4, a faithful continuation of Sega’s Genesis series that’s being developed and published by a third-party. As with Sonic Mania, this new Streets of Rage game is underpinned by an engine essentially built to evoke the originals.
Sega’s history clearly doesn’t begin and end with the Genesis. Panzer Dragoon: Remake, a return for a Sega Saturn classic, is being handled by Polish company Forever Entertainment. Even the Dreamcast is getting some love: Space Channel 5 VR: Kinda Funky News Flash! is not only the best-named game of the year, it’s a virtual-reality return for a game that represents Sega at the peak of its late-’90s weirdness. (Okay, perhaps Seaman is the peak, but SC5 is not far off.)
Then there’s Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD. The original Super Monkey Ball was made for NAOMI, the Dreamcast-derived arcade platform. Due to the death of Sega’s console, it ended up as a GameCube launch title, becoming Sega’s first ever game on a Nintendo machine. Much like Sonic, though, the series has since meandered. The direct sequel was solid, but Adventure, Banana Blitz, Step & Roll and Banana Splitz — there have been a lot of Super Monkey Ball games — not so much.
Banana Blitz HD is an attempt to bring the series back. The remaster is being developed in-house at Sega, and does away with the main issue with the original — the Wii’s motion controls. Along with updated graphics, the HD version has a bunch of modern-day features like online leaderboards and quick restarts for speedrunners, along with a separate multiplayer-focused section for party games.
Perhaps the best example of Sega’s renewed interest in its past is the upcoming Genesis Mini. After years of licensing terrible third-party hardware running bad emulators, Sega is producing its own microconsole, and it’s doing it properly. The Mini is being brought to life by members of the original hardware team, and the game selection is varied, including many cult titles like Dynamite Headdy alongside the expected big hitters. Sega has called on long-time partner M2 to handle the game ports, and even brought in composer Yuzo Koshiro, who scored Streets of Rage, to create new music for the system’s menu.
Taking all of these things as a whole, it’s clear something has shifted within Sega. The company spent two decades just surviving. Between reviving its own IPs and recognizing when other companies can do better, it’s now seemingly found the formula to exist while rediscovering its roots.