Throughout the eventful tapestry that is video game history, we’ve seen many game companies come and go. From the split of the original Atari Inc. in 1984 due to its role in the video game crash of 1983, to the closure of Hudson Software in 2012, only a select handful of video game companies from the Golden Age of gaming have stuck around, and remained relevant. Arguably, Sega could be claimed as one of the developers that have ‘died’, even though Sega’s offbeat, eclectic legacy is still loved by many. With an air of fond nostalgia surrounding the Sega Corporation, the once-titan developer is now a fondly-remembered pastime. In that sense, there’s almost poetic irony in the fact that the Dreamcast’s biting, dark, emotional and bittersweet JRPG Segagaga felt like it was predicting the rise and fall.
Segagaga is many things. It’s bewilderingly complex, as the player’s main goal is to gain 100% market share in three years. No, really. It’s squarely aimed with a Japanese audience in mind, as the Japanese eccentricity is on full display here, and the game is a Japan-only release. It’s also specifically designed to make Sega maniacs scream with glee, as the references and cameos are intended for people who are old enough to know who Sega’s original mascots were. Above all else though, Segagaga is sincere: as well as being an earnest love letter to Sega arcana, it also feels like a thank you – both us thanking Sega for the memories, and a thank you to loyalists who stuck by them during their dark times from 1994 to 2001.
If anything else, Segagaga is a brutally affectionate parody of the undeserved failure of the Dreamcast. And you should totally play it. Allow me to explain why.
If you can get past, or understand, the burdening Japanese text, you’ll find a game that shows an uncompromising side to Sega that they have since kept hidden. Surprisingly, and refreshingly, Segagaga has tremendous fun lampooning Sega, and indeed video game production, with a knowingly self-aware spirit.
Set in the year of 2025, the story depicts Sega with only a 3% share of the market. In Ota, Tokyo, the city in which Sega was first majorly established in 1951, the company forms ‘Project SEGAGAGA’: a plan to save Sega from its main competitor, DOGMA. As part of the project, Sega takes two teenagers named Taro Sega (get it, Phantasy Star fans?) and Yayoi Haneda, and employs them to guide Sega to the top of the market.
What almost sounds like a needlessly elaborate joke about Sega – the game was even misconstrued as a joke when it was first pitched by the game’s director, Tez Okamo – actually becomes an unexpectedly clever allegory about the trials and tribulations of video game development. For instance, DOGMA is an intentionally exaggerated, but also frighteningly accurate, depiction of domineering video game conglomerates, complete with an iron-fisted Japanese CEO hell-bent on market domination as the main villain. On the other hand is the dark, dingy and mysterious Sega Tower studio, showing the rough and rigorous nature of game development.
The word ‘satire’ gets thrown around a lot, but Segagaga is one of the few games that actually effectively satirises. This satire is particularly evident not only in the way Segagaga portrays the videogame industry, but in how it references various Sega characters. One such moment is the monologue from Alex Kidd, the original Sega mascot who was replaced by Sonic in 1991. Sitting with Taro, the protagonist, on a grassy field staring at the city riverbank, Alex recalls memories of being a mascot. After discussing about going head-to-head with Nintendo and Super Mario, Alex shares an unfortunate truth: “You see, I’m a video game character, so as long as there’s no one to control me, I can’t do anything about it but just stand here stopped. I’ve remained stopped, waiting for the next stage to come. Just waiting this whole time, until I was called back into the development studio.”
This small moment, emotional and melancholic, is effective, as Alex Kidd reminds us all that the videogame industry is still very much a series of trends. One popular idea can be soon rejected, and another will quickly come along to replace it. Often, when a franchise is abandoned, it is left to decline, unless by some small miracle it is given another shot. Yet, this sad monologue still ends on an optimistic note – whilst game characters and ideas can reach a standstill, game designers and programmers can keep moving forward. Alex tells Taro that he can keep creating the games he loves making, as long as you remember the happiness and passion a great game can evoke in players.
At its core, this is the primary message of Segagaga. Throughout his experience, Taro adjusts to the cutthroat nature of the video game industry, but learns that, no matter how much financial trouble Sega is in, or how much the company’s ethics and values change, it should not diminish a game designer’s love for the medium. Despite the hardships, Taro keeps programming. For all of its bizarreness, surrealism and darkness, Segagaga feels like a cautionary fable about the video game industry: that business should not take precedence over making games that can be loved by millions. In today’s bloated big-budget mess of triple-A game development, the perceptive message of Segagaga rings more loudly and clearly than ever.
Considering the fact that Segagaga has a fascination amongst gamers, and even despite the issue of untranslated Japanese text taken, it’s easy to recommend it to those well-versed in Sega history, and it’s a game that definitely belongs in the hands of industry veterans and Sega fanatics. Yet even though I love this game, and have replayed through it many times with a Japanese phrasebook on hand, it doesn’t really stand that well as a game on its own without its references, tone and satire. Its’ fairly unremarkable gameplay isn’t bad by any means, it just doesn’t do much that’s original in terms of the genres it features. Strangely enough though, the lack of compelling gameplay does little to actually diminish the overall appeal.
When standing back and looking at this game from afar, it is truly a one-of-a-kind piece of art, something that can only be said of few games, period. From the game’s ironic, but genius, futuristic, fictional stagnation in Sega’s output, to how the game takes full advantage of Sega’s presence in the industry to make a point about the video game industry, it is easily the oddest, but most unique game on the Dreamcast – a console synonymous with its wonderfully varied library. Not everything in Segagaga works: the business simulation portions of the game are a real test of the player’s patience, as they drag on and feel like a challenge for the player’s attention, rather than adding anything; as well as the underwhelming shooter segments, the game’s ambition can often outstrip its’ execution. For Sega fans though, the references are well-executed enough for both aficionados and casual observers to be immersed in the Sega simulator.
Even though Segagaga has a strong appeal as an entire industry inside joke, it’s a game that works on many more levels, rather than just a sentimental farewell and piece of fan-service. It’s clear that gamers recognise that: the Segagaga English translation project has been going for more than seven years, and its great seeing gamers trying to spread their passion of such a niche title to others. It’s obvious Sega will never bring this game to Western markets, and in the end it may just be too obscure for those who are only faintly interested in Sega. However, Segagaga is a true piece of video game history, one that we may never see again, and that’s why we should bid a farewell to Sega, as we look back on their long-standing presence in the history and culture of video games.