Five of the best: Weird Sega
Welcome to another week of Five of the Best, a series where we celebrate the overlooked parts of video games, like hands! And potions! And dinosaurs! And shops! They're the kinds of things etched unwittingly into memory, like an essential ingredient of a favourite dish you could never put a finger on. And I want to spark discussion, so please share memories as they flash into your mind. Today, another five. The topic...
It being Sega week, of course the topic would be Sega - and what better part of the company's history to delve into than the strange and fantastical things that have borne the Sega name over the years. Weirdness is baked into the company's DNA, and it's what's helped the company stand out - from the outlandish arcade games of the 80s through to the multi-million dollar folly of the original Shenmue. Join us, then, for a run through our own personal pick of five of the best weird Sega moments.
Sega's always had a reputation for pioneering - the Mega Drive was able to hook up to the internet well before the Dreamcast popularised online console gaming, and it even foresaw the likes of Game Pass with the subscription-based Sega Channel - but sometimes being a pioneer isn't necessarily a good thing. Long before Kinect was a twinkle in Kudo Tsunoda's sunglasses, Sega released the Activator for the Mega Drive - a curious octagonal device that promised to interpret player's actions into the game. The end result paints a familiar picture; unreliable and unsupported, its time on the market was limited.
"Any sufficiently advanced technology," Arthur C Clarke once famously wrote, "is indistinguishable from magic." Time Traveler, originally released back in 1991, still feels like magic to me - an arcade game developed by Virtual Image Productions and released by Sega, its use of 'holographic' technology made it stand out from its peers. It wasn't true holography - there's all sorts of trickery with a curved screen involved - but the future shock when stumbling across one on Hastings seafront still rumbles through me today. Okay, it was a pretty poor video game too, but let's not hold that against it.
I'm including this one here through my own bitter experience. Back in the early 90s I was taken to the local video game shop and offered a choice when it came to Christmas presents - either get a SNES, or a couple of Sega's newly-released Lock-On guns. Being a Sega fanboy - as well as a regular down the local Quasar - I went for the latter option, a decision I regret to this day. These things were appalling, made with cheap blue plastic and with hit detection so wayward you could shoot up in the sky and still hit the player directly in front of you. Still, its LED heads-up display was pretty cool.
There are weird games, and then there's Seaman. To this day, I'm still not sure whether my time with it was a fever dream. Depressed and alone in student halls during my first year at university, I used to stay up late at night in conversation with my man-faced fish - all narrated by Leonard Nimoy of course - until eventually he made it perfectly clear he was bored of me. When I went to check in on him the next morning it became clear exactly how boring I was, as he'd decided to breathe his last. Strange, melancholy and unnerving, there's been nothing like Seaman before or since. I think that might be a good thing, mind.
Yes, there are plenty of better games out there than Segagaga - and given the price it commands on eBay, plenty of cheaper ones too - but this Dreamcast RPG will always have a place in my heart. The final days of Sega's final console had a fatalistic air to them, and Segaga punctured all that with brilliant self-awareness. We've screwed up at this video game business, it said as it handed over the reins of Sega to the player, your character running through Sega development offices and screaming the workforce into action. Why don't you just go and have a crack at it yourself? Segagaga started as an internal joke that somehow got made into a full-fledged game. It's a joke that, twisted as it is, still makes me chuckle to this very day.