From the Losing Side of the Console War: Confessions of a Sega Orphan

It’s about time I came clean with you all: I know next to nothing about Nintendo.

My first gaming console as a child was a Sega CD, and I say that specifically because it took 24 hours or so for my father to realize that he needed to go out and buy a Genesis for it to work. He’s been enamored with computers for as long as I can remember and was especially interested in CD technologies of that time period. He couldn’t really care less about games, but full motion video cutscenes, that excited him. Fortunately, it excited his four children as well.

I couldn’t tell you the specific rationale for it now (though it was probably monetary), but my family remained a single-brand household for a long time after that. We got a lot of use out of that Genesis. We even had a 32x! And though no American child can grow up completely without exposure to Nintendo products thanks to classmates and popular media, my siblings and I were all squarely and firmly in Sega camp, back when there indeed were such camps and a blue hedgehog led one of them.

I had a complex rationale built up for why Sonic was a vastly superior character to Mario. Who could adore some unassuming, fat, working class guy? Of course, in retrospect, my aversion to Mario would seem to have a great deal to do with image and economic issues that I’ve long struggled with. Coming from a working class background and a rather boring small town at that, I preferred the fantastic over the more directly relatable persona that Mario seemed to represent. That, and he was simply too mainstream.

Moreover, Sonic had an expanded mythology that even to this day makes Mario’s universe seem rather drab and one dimensional. Sonic was far more openly transmedic in an era when transmedia for games was, well, growing — but still rather superficial. Between the games, toys, comics, and cartoon shows (one of which possessed a dark and evolving storyline), a Sega player had a lot of resources for fan engagement even in the pre-Web period.

My siblings and I were hooked for a solid few years like this. Then, sadly, the fifth console generation happened. We convinced our father to buy us a first run Sega Saturn, and while to this day I consider NiGHTS into dreams (also by Sonic Team) my raison d’etre for getting into game studies, my older brother was not so impressed with a flying, pastel-shaded game full of flowers and coneheaded cherub creatures. The Saturn (and my copy of NiGHTS) got traded in at his insistence, and for the first time in my life, a Nintendo console took up permanent residence in my home.

I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but we had real arguments over this at the time. For one thing, I felt entitled to be able to play the games that I wanted as well. It’s sadly common that younger, especially female players will get their media access dictated to them by the older men in their family, but this was the first time to my recollection that I had an actual and sustained objection to my brother and father’s overriding gaming preferences. Resentment bred. I saved up allowance and grade money for two years and then bought my own Saturn and copy of NiGHTS — my first independent media purchase.

By the time that the Dreamcast was announced we had turned into a fully-fledged multi-console household, but I still did not identify as a Nintendo fan. I had gotten decently far in Mario 64 and was still moderately into Pokemon, but I had never played a Zelda, a Donkey Kong, or a Kirby, and I felt no particular inclination to change that. Sony was neutral territory — being the newcomer, it seemed more of a threat to Nintendo’s hegemony than my beloved underdog Sega, and besides, they had all the great JRPGs — but Nintendo itself remained this spectre in the far corner, with all its clunky, childlike graphics and preference for primary colors. The notion that I was in fact missing out on an entire pantheon of important characters wouldn’t become clear to me for years to come, during which time Sega would drop out of the console business for good, develop iteratively more shameful Sonic games and constantly peddle its former glory as Wiiware and iOS downloads. The day I decided, recently, to follow the official Sega feed on Twitter and found that they were holding daily raffle contests for $0.99 iPad versions of their ten-years-old games part of me died inside.

My professor asked about this recently, when the subject came up in a gaming biography assignment. “I suppose it’s not as much like being an orphan as watching one’s parents descend into ineffectiveness and drug addiction,” I said, echoing that one vile Penny Arcade strip as much as anything else. As a brand whose subsequent downfall seems to all too closely parallel contemporary economic downturns, moral-political upheavals, and –admittedly — the breakdown of my actual family that was going on at the time, losing Sega as my “console parent” came to embody my own coming of age disillusionment. The fact that I then had no alternative gaming histories to relate to only fed this feeling of isolation and abandonment in an increasingly diversifying (and yet also increasingly Nintendo-nostalgic) game market.

Not to sound overly melodramatic, of course. The seventh console generation restored my faith considerably for completely non-Freudian and entirely pragmatic reasons of being an intensely fun time to be a gamer. But somewhere in me still resides the bitter Sega orphan that, like a Firefly Browncoat or a Justin Bieber fan at the Grammys, wishes history had turned out differently. For the most part, however, it rarely affects my role as a critic.

Except for every now and then when I see how easily Nintendo can enrapture its fans with one or two appropriately placed nostalgic references that don’t hold the same affective property for me at all. At that moment, I get a little exasperated. And also envious.