Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Early Adopters: Sega's First Licensees Part 1

A week ago, one of the members of my favorite gaming forum, Talking Time, started a thread dedicated to the Sega Genesis.  You could imagine my excitement, as the Genesis was my preferred console by a wide margin in the early 1990s, and Talking Time hasn’t always shown it the love I feel it deserves.  (Yes, yes, I know about GameSpite's all-Sega book!  It only took Parish twelve volumes to make one!  But erm, I digress.)

It didn’t take long before the subject turned to the early days of the Genesis, when Nintendo still held the industry in a vice grip and most publishers were too frightened to make games for anyone else.  At first, Sega got by with its own stable of arcade conversions, as well as a handful of hot properties on loan from Capcom and Data East.  However, after the Genesis crushed the Turbografx-16 and Nintendo’s industry monopoly started to erode, it wasn’t as tough for Sega to convince outside developers to give their system a chance.

The discussion reminded me of an advertisement from a video game magazine, which crowed about the support Sega was getting from third parties.  I couldn’t remember what magazine it was specifically, so I dug through my collection until I found the ad hidden near the back of EGM’s 1991 Video Game Buyer’s Guide.  Here it is now in all its weather-worn, “I should have been keeping this in a Mylar bag instead of a dusty cardboard box in a dilapidated barn” glory…

Let’s ignore the massive Sega seal of quality for a second (oh my god, it’s coming right at us!) and concentrate on the list of licensees instead.  You’ll recognize some of these names right away, while others will be tougher- if not impossible- to place.  What the hell is Sage’s Creation?  Kyugo Trading who now?  Dreamworks… weren’t those the Shrek guys?

The dust settled on the 16-bit console wars a long time ago, but just for fun, let’s find out a little more about each of the companies on this list, and where they are now.  As an added bonus, I’ll review each of the games pictured in the advertisement.  It’s a lot to sift through, so we’ll split this up into three chapters, starting with…

Many of the companies in this advertisement went out of business, and Treco was no different.  Here’s the delicious twist, though… Treco was the short-lived video game division of Sammy, the maker of pachinko machines and other gambling devices.  After Sega’s misfortunes with the 32X, and the Saturn, and the Dreamcast, and one too many crummy Sonic games, the company was forced into a merger to stay solvent.  Now Sega is the video game division of Sammy!

But yes, back to Treco.  The company floundered about for a couple of years, publishing some of the most forgettable games on the Genesis, until Sammy realized that it could bloody well make its own software and put the label out of its misery.  The first major game credited to Sammy was Viewpoint, released for the Neo-Geo in 1992, so one has to assume that Treco was taken out to the backyard and shot the same year.  Speaking of Viewpoint, it’s worth mentioning that 1. Its developers went on to become Blazing Star creators Yumekobo, and 2. There was a Genesis version of Viewpoint published by Sammy a couple of years after its Neo-Geo debut.  It wasn’t a great port, but you gotta give ‘em credit for having the chutzpah to attempt it!

Man, I thought those things were extinct!

All right, all right… back to Treco again.  Their first game for the Genesis was Atomic Robo-Kid, a supremely quirky side-scrolling shooter starring a well-armed garbage can.  Originally designed by Universal Playland, ARK proudly flaunts the company’s exquisitely odd art style.  Everything’s chrome plated and absolutely nothing is aerodynamic; a galaxy apart from the dozens of other shooters on the Genesis.  There’s no forced scrolling either, letting you explore each stage at your leisure.  Well, until the swarms of space nautili and floating cannons close in on you, anyway.


Who, or what, was NuVision Entertainment?  It’s a mystery that has plagued absolutely nobody for over twenty years.  The company released a single game for the Sega Genesis, Bimini Run, and vanished into the night, never to be heard from again.  Genesis owners responded by shrugging their shoulders and moving on with their lives.

For just a second, let’s pretend someone cared.  What was NuVision Entertainment, and where did it go?  According to an interview on the Game Developers Research Institute, NuVision was founded by a couple of Parker Bros. employees who weren’t satisfied with the company’s timid approach to the video game industry.  NuVision hoped to establish itself as a hot new game publisher on the Sega Genesis, only to run out of investment capital before the company could find an audience.  Three more games were planned by NuVision, including Bean Ball Benny (described by developer Charlie Heath as Keystone Kapers for a new generation of gamers), Swamp Thing, and The Guardian Angels, based on the controversial (and frankly, kind of scary) neighborhood watch group.  Two of these titles are covered in more detail on Unseen64, that online museum of lost gaming treasures.

"It's Knight Boat... the CRIME SOLVING boat!"
The only NuVision title to see the light of day, Bimini Run, was a mission-based action game with a Miami Vice flavor.  As the fabulous and mostly naked Kenji Ohara, you’ll race your speedboat to the lair of Dr. Orca, blasting the black helicopters that ominously loom overhead and taking out the not-so-good doctor’s radar dishes along the way.  Bimini Run is more complex than the lion’s share of Genesis games available at the time, and the 3D that’s usually a sticking point for the Genesis is unexpectedly pleasant here, with shimmering waves lapping against your boat.  On the other hand, Dr. Orca’s men have an uncanny aim, and one hit is all it takes to sink your ship.  You’ll also quickly grow to hate the police chief, who constantly interrupts the action with his cries of “Kenji, come in!”  Bitch, do you know what I did to Otis?


Renovation was one of the most active publishers on the Sega Genesis during the system’s first shaky years.  If Sega’s selection of arcade megahits wasn’t enough to convince disillusioned NES owners to buy a Genesis, Renovation’s equally eye-popping but more console-friendly software was that extra nudge that made them take the plunge.  Renovation also brought welcome diversity to the Genesis library, giving gamers everything from lengthy role-playing titles (Arcus Odyssey, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys) to viciously tough shooters (Gaiares, Sol-Deace) to games that defy easy classification (Granada, a search and destroy mission inside a futuristic tank).

Renovation lasted long enough to make a handful of games for the Sega CD, and even spread the love to the Super NES with a couple of titles.  Sega wasn’t thrilled with one of its most valuable allies migrating to the competition, and put an end to the threat by purchasing the company outright.  Later Renovation games planned for the Super NES, like a conversion of Arcus Odyssey and the disturbing Dream Probe, were denied a passport to the United States, and the brand name was retired.  Strangely, Renovation’s parent company, Telenet Japan, remained independent until 2007.  After its passing, the rights to its games were sold to Sunsoft.  (Yes, it still exists.  No, I can’t believe it either.)  Wolf Team, the development house that made most of Renovation’s games, went on to create the Tales of… series, and is currently festering in the bowels of Namco Bandai.

Whip it!  Whip it... adequately.
Well, that was fun!  Now let’s take a look at the game pictured in the advertisement.  Whip Rush, alas, isn’t one of Renovation’s better titles… it’s a side-scrolling shooter that gives you the distinct impression that it fell from the backside of a factory assembly line.  Your bulbous ship has access to three different weapons, as well as two sidecars which can be rotated into place or spastically bounced at enemies.  Get hit while you’re carrying a weapon and you’ll lose it; get hit without one and your tiny craft blows up.  This happens disconcertingly often when you’re underwater and the ship slows to a crawl.  Whip Rush was probably impressive in 1990 (have you seen what passes for a shooter on the NES?), but it was instantly outclassed by later Genesis titles like Gaiares, Sagaia, and the way creepy, way underappreciated Bio-Hazard Battle.


Oh man, where do I even begin with this one?  Kyugo Trading Co., Ltd. is a cryptid among Sega Genesis licensees.  There have been plenty of sightings- usually in the previews section of old EGM issues- but little proof of its existence.  After releasing just one game in the United States, Kyugo Trading slipped back into the forest to become the stuff of legends.  To this day, people still speak of the mysterious Kyugo while huddled around the campfire, after they’ve run out of more interesting tales to tell.

I honestly believed that Cross Fire hadn’t even been released in the United States, until I looked for the game on eBay.  It’s definitely there, albeit in limited quantities, proving once and for all that Kyugo had lived up to its promise to deliver at least one Sega Genesis game to America.  I also did a little hunting on GameFAQs and discovered that Kyugo published exactly six games worldwide, including the Japanese version of the charmingly hapless Wrath of the Black Manta and Airwolf for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  Kyugo was last seen lurking in Japanese arcades, leaving behind high-tech photo booths with enticing names like Love Love Simulation.

Good lord Higgins, it looks like you've
been hit with the ugly FOREST.
You’ll recall that Air Wolf was mentioned earlier.  This is important, because Cross Fire is actually the sequel to that game with the license stripped out.  It’s a shame too, because the theme song from the television show sounds pretty snazzy on the Genesis!  With or without the license, you get a (barely) passable shooter with three styles of gameplay.  The first is a standard vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up that gives you three bombs and a special “turbo” ability that lets you crash into all the enemy jets you want for a few seconds.  The second offers a zoomed in view of your helicopter as it lays waste to helpless soldiers and ground targets.  The third has the pilot stepping out of the chopper for a little run ‘n gun combat in the style of Commando, except you can hang in mid-air briefly to fire at cannons you couldn’t otherwise reach.  It all feels a little off, which is why I’d recommend you scratch that itch for military combat with Fire Shark and MERCS instead.


If the name sounds familiar, it should!  Intv Corporation was founded by the brains behind the Intellivision game system.  They split from Mattel after the crash of 1983, purchased the rights to the console for a song, and revived it to compete with the red hot NES in the late 1980s.  However, the very dated Intellivision with its very blocky graphics couldn’t take the company into the 1990s, so Intv signed up as a licensee for the considerably more advanced Sega Genesis.

Intv Corporation’s first Genesis release would have been Curse, but alas, Intv was forced into bankruptcy before the game could reach store shelves.  However, there’s a happy ending to this story!  The masterminds behind the Intellivision are still in the video game business, operating as Realtime Associates and Intellivision Productions.  Realtime produced a Genesis game for Electronic Arts, Normy’s Beach Babe-O-Rama, bringing a weird sense of closure to the planned partnership between two of gaming history’s most famous second bananas.

Curse... where half the challenge is finding
your ship in the background!
In retrospect, maybe it was for the best that Intv Corporation went out of business before Curse was released.  The game would have been a stain on its legacy; an ugly, jumbled mess that betrays the developers’ total lack of experience with the Genesis hardware.  If it tells you anything, Curse was programmed by Micronet, another early Genesis licensee, and even they wanted nothing to do with it, bringing Junction and Heavy Nova to the United States instead.  JUNCTION.  And HEAVY NOVA.  You know a game is cack when Heavy Nova sounds like the better option in a comparison.  To put it another way, pick any Genesis shooter.  That shooter is better than Curse.  So are the next ten you were going to mention.  Hell, Mike Ditka’s Power Football is a better shooter than Curse.


Kaneko’s one of those lesser known Japanese developers that seemed to come from nowhere, but has actually been around a lot longer than you’d think.  Like BioWare, it was originally in the medical business, but segued into video games in the early 1980s, creating arcade titles for Taito.  Few of those games reached the United States, and barely any were ported to a home console… Red Clash for the dreadful Emerson Arcadia 2001 is the only one that comes to mind.

However, Kaneko’s fortunes changed (briefly) in the 1990s, starting with DJ Boy.  This game was a novel take on the beat ‘em ups that were popular at the time, putting all the characters on roller skates and featuring color commentary by famous radio deejay Wolfman Jack.  (See what they did there?)  Soon after, Kaneko pinned its hopes and dreams on merchandising, publishing two games starring cheese puff spokesfeline Chester Cheetah and planning another with Bill Clinton’s cat.  This… did not work out too well for them.  Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill was too closely tied to the volatile political climate of the 1990s for either Sega or Nintendo to risk releasing it, and the game was ultimately shelved.  After that, Kaneko went on a steady diet of Gal’s Panic games until it choked on a lawsuit in 2006.

"Quick, make the unflattering racial stereotype
purple! There, now no one will ever know..."
Let’s get back to DJ Boy, as it holds a special place in my heart as the first game I bought for the Sega Genesis.  I wouldn’t have called it the crown jewel in my video game collection, but at ten dollars, it was awfully hard to resist, and it did offer a break from the unrelenting monotony of the pack-in Altered Beast.  There was a lot of give and take in this conversion… the stages are redesigned, the second player has been relegated to a cameo as a boss, and you won’t hear a peep out of Wolfman Jack.  At the same time, the designers did add a touch of River City Ransom by letting you buy power-ups between stages.  It was probably shelved the moment I bought Streets of Rage, but until then, DJ Boy served its purpose as a Double Dragon stand-in.


No comments:

Post a Comment