Could there be a more perfect example of Nintendo's philosophy than the NES Mini? To Nintendo, video games exist somewhere inside the relationship between hardware and software, so even if you're offering a bunch of emulated classics, you should make sure the box that they come is fit for purpose. Yes, Nintendo might have released a ROM for Super Mario that it nicked off the internet, but the Virtual Console has never felt like the company at its most thoughtful. The NES Mini, though: that shrunken grey brick, that gloriously boxy controller attached. 30 games, and that's it. No tinkering. No roster updates. This is how Nintendo curates its own history when it's really paying attention to it.
So it's fascinating to see Sega considering some of the same problems that Nintendo's been navigating. How to do your history justice? Or, as I suspect Sega might put it, how to make the most of one of the greatest back catalogues in all of gaming? A few days back, a cassette tape arrived for me at Eurogamer's office. Printing on the side to look like Biro, a highlighter pen swipe across the spine label that reads, SEGA FOREVER Vol 1. Space Harrier - Theme, Outrun - Magical Sound Shower. Aside from the hashtag at the bottom, it's a nice piece of work. I particularly liked the odd crossing-out on the tracklisting. All told, it's as good an authentic imitation sentiment as I've received in the post. But here's the point, of course: I can't play this cassette tape. I don't have a tape deck anymore. I don't even have a CD player these days. "Cassette tapes changed music forever," reads the accompanying note. "We're about to do the same with retro gaming on mobile."
That's a pretty grand ambition, and it's attached to a project that feels fairly grand when viewed in the right light. A few weeks back I went to London to hear about Sega Forever, an initiative that will see Sega releasing a load of its classic games onto mobile platforms - iOS and Android - over the course of a few years. These games will be free, and surprisingly lightly monetised. You can play them forever without paying, or you can spend a one-off fee of £1.99 to ditch the ads, which appear on the start screen, the save screen, and I think at launch, but will not interrupt play in anyway. The games are emulated or, in the case of Dreamcast titles, ported, and they'll have virtual buttons, but you can use a controller if you have one, and while each game is its own download, its own app, there are commonalities uniting them all: leaderboards, cloud saves - local saves if you pay that £1.99, although you can play the game offline for free - and, at some point after launch, multiplayer, initially over wi-fi but eventually over 3G and 4G if Sega's hopes pan out.
At the time of writing, the line-up has moved around a little bit, but the first five to be released with be: Altered Beast, Comix Zone, Kid Chameleon, Phantasy Star II, Sonic the Hedgehog. Hmm. What is the deal with Altered Beast? What power does Altered Beast have over the top people at Sega? Did it witness them pulling off a murder together? Anyway, After those five - four, if you don't count Altered Beast! - you'll get new games at the rate of one every two weeks, covering all of Sega's consoles from the SG-1000 through to the Dreamcast. My worry is that this is going to be like one of those magazine series where you get to build a model battleship. The first issue is a gun turret, and then the second issue never appears, so you're stuck holding a dinky plastic gun turret for the rest of your life. But Sega seems pretty serious about this. I don't get the impression Sega Forever's going to fall apart anytime soon, and Sega has three years' worth of titles approved, with the likes of Jet Set Radio and Revenge of Shinobi on the way fairly soon, hopefully. Maybe at some point Sega will do the right thing. You think I'm talking about Shenmue? Hardly. I'm talking about locking Altered Beast back in the vault again.
Will Sega Forever include games that never made it to the west first time? Apparently yes - the SG-1000 never made it, after all. One such title that is on its way is Girl's Garden, the first game from Yuji Naka. Saturn games are in the mix, although the team has acknowledged that it's a tricky machine, so the first releases for Saturn are probably at least a year away. Third-party stuff is also complicated, but Sega's offering revenue sharing if my notes are correct. Given Capcom's impact in this era - and given that the Mega Drive in particular saw such beautiful games from Disney - you'd hope the deals can be made.
The games themselves seem to handle themselves okay, although I am hardly an expert. I played a few over the course of a presentation, on both Android and iPhone, and although Comix Zone was a little framey, the ads didn't seem at all intrusive and the virtual controls were as good as virtual controls generally are. I can definitely see the appeal of using a controller, and Sega's also working on native apps for the likes of Apple TV and Android TV.
It's a nice deal, I think. It's not one for the serious collectors, who will have all these games as they are meant to be played anyway. But dabblers and newcomers get to see what Sega was once about, and Sega, presumably, gets a network set-up and access to this huge new audience. I spoke with a few of the people behind the initiative and heard a lot about user acquisition and a sort of living survey, with the games people download giving Sega a better sense of where to look when making future premium apps based on old IP, such as like Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire.
So yes, Sega's definitely getting something out of all of this. But if I get Bonanza Bros. on my iPhone, I guess I'm okay with that for the time being?
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