In the infamous history of the years long battle of Nintendo versus Sega, the usual narrative depicts two Japanese companies pitted against each other. Personally, I also see a little of “Japan vs USA”. Indeed, both companies saw unexpected success in the ol’ United States during the late 80s and 90s, while trying to appeal to the Western demographic as much as possible. While remembering that history, it is necessary to talk about one experience in particular: Sega Technical Institute – the history & the games
In a clear case of Sega does what Nintendon’t, in the early 90s the Tokyo company went as far as founding its first development studio in the West, directly managed by the American branch of the Japanese company. In the article, I shall take a look at their history and some of the more significant, at least from a design perspective, titles. I’ve been talking with Craig Stitt, artist for Sega Technological Institute and, later, Insomniac games, who contributed to the article with information and trivia about the games the studio worked on. The whole interview can be found here.
Sega dares what Nintendon't
Sega Technical Institute, first based in San Jose then moved to Menlo Park (Palo Alto) and, finally, to Redwood, was originally founded by Marble Madness developer and former Electronic Arts prodigy Mark Cerny. After the release of Sonic the Hedgehog, the team, led by Yuji Naka, had disbanded because of economic disputes with Sega. It was Cerny himself who not only convinced Naka to join him in California, but managed to get approval from Sega of Japan to work in the US with a mixed Japanese and American Team. Indeed, Sega Technical Institute was the first American studio founded by a Japanese videogame company.
Careers for the 21st century: Sega Technical Institute
Their first foray into the industry was one of the many licensed products that Sega was handling at the time, namely a 16 bit version of Dick Tracy. After the success of that title, Cerny and Naka got approval from marketing to work on a sequel to Sonic, even though marketing wasn’t sure, at first, that a sequel would be a good idea. The original idea for STI wouldn’t last long though: after Sonic 2 had been finished Yuji Naka, tired of the cultural and language barriers slowing them down, said he would work on Sonic III only with a Japanese team. Thus, the team was split between Japanese and American developers, with Cerny leaving in 1992. The American team was, then, given relative freedom in deciding what to work on, developing, after Sonic 2, three original titles, along with working with other Sega divisions and teams.
There were no office hours nor dress codes of any kind; one of the employees, Stieg Hedlund, recalls that STI would meet weekly with Sega’s management to present all their new ideas, through a flashy 90s montage video: the more stylish the better. Sega of Japan could, indeed, give their opinion on the ideas presented but could not veto a game, hence all power to greenlight projects rested on their American counterpart. Several titles were pitched by the staff but, apparently, never greenlighted, some of them can be seen in Craig Stitt’s video resume from 1995, among them Dark Empires by Bill Dunn and Astropede.
A platformer with an identity crisis
Kid Chameleon, released in 1992, is the first original title developed by STI. Designed by four different people on the team, Hoyt Ng, Broderick Macaraeg, William G. Dunn, Graeme Bayless, it is also the first title artist Craig Stitt contributed to, since being hired by Mark Cerny in 1990. He recalls that, while working on the game, Sega was apparently trying to come up with a mascot to follow Alex Kidd and, at one time, the kid himself (Casey, even though Craig insisted for Kevin) was considered. In the end, he was quickly put aside, since Sonic the Hedegehog was enjoying much more attention by the media and gaming public.
The story goes that Casey, who appears to not only be an arcade regular but a serious gamer, must enter a virtual reality, “Wild Side”, from one of the coin-ops, in order to save other boys kidnapped by an unknown evil presence. Ok, he is not really unknown: the villain is called Heady Metal. Yes, really. One would guess that it can’t get any more 90s than a platformer starring both virtual reality and entering a coin-op.
The core of the gameplay is that of a straightforward 2D platformer, where the adherence with the ground rules laid down by Super Mario Bros is undeniable: jumping and breaking blocks are indeed two essential gameplay features. But of course, STI would (and could) not stop at simply aping Nintendo’s design, thus, except for running and jumping, they decided to bring to the table a pretty new idea. A feature which, ironically enough, Nintendo would rely on in the following years for its own Mario titles. Chameleon is the keyword here: the main protagonist can pick up different costumes to acquire new powers, changing the player’s approach in the process.
The costumes give Casey all different kinds of abilities: shooting, transforming into a tank, climbing walls, destroying rocks with his head and so on. They all also double as a restoring health item, along with adding hit points to the character’s starting health, so that, mant times, collecting them is required just to survive. Beyond the abilities, each costume also comes with its own special powers, that can be activated once enough gems have been collected: a shield or a stronger attack, others even grant extra lives.Getting hit too much while wearing a costume, means going back to plain ol’ Casey: despite only sporting a plain black leather jacket, our hero will still retain some powers, like hanging on to ledges.
The classic Super Mario hit-a-block-get-an-item mechanic is juxtaposed with a rather complex level design that, often, requires the players to careful plan their way around the levels. Craig mentions that STI’s goal in developing Kid Chameleon was producing the longest platformer on the Sega Genesis. Well, they did try and probably suceed: the game features more than one hundred different stages, not counting the hidden ones, along with many different paths through the levels. Indeed, one of the longest platform games that had been published on the Sega Genesis up until 1992. But the team wouldn’t just stop at making a long platformer.
In what will become a staple of STI game design, Kid Chameleon features no save states or password system. This tendency to design their games as unfair challenges for players, by purposely not allowing them to continue or granting extra lives, will become almost a trademark of STI-produced titles. While today it is easy to argue that said choices will put off many players, in the early 90s a game was often judged by how long it would last for the player, since they didn’t really come cheap. So, while it did make sense to design it as the longest platformer ever, I still think a password system would not have made the game easier, just more approachable for a kid who couldn’t keep their console turned on for days on end. In an hour and a half, I only managed to reach and beat the first boss, despite going through more than ten different stages. For the time, Kid Chameleon was an incredibly long game, still today it can easily be quite more than a five/six hours romp.
While Kid Chameleon manages to be, most of the time, decently entertaining, it ends up quite too difficult for its own good. Naturally, it is possible to play today with save states, but, despite that, its way of challenging the player definitely went beyond the simple lack of a password system. The controls are too slippery to carry out precise platforming jumps and movements, which end up causing a lot of cheap deaths and easily avoidable frustration, with some of the costumes actually making things worse. Its 2D action platformer design requires the player to attune to being extremely careful with the controls, along with understanding how costumes and attacks work. It can indeed happen to be trapped in a level because of having incorrectly used a costume’ special ability.
It is a shame, because some of the costumes, beyond being extremely nineties, are really a joy to play with, like the Jason/Splatterhouse one that allows the player to attack with throwing axes or the fantastic Juggernaut tank, designed by Craig himself. Kid operates at its best when switching between the various abilities, killing enemies and running around the stages, along with enjoying the variety and overall attractive graphical design. When too much platforming is thrown into the mix, playing becomes more of a chore than anything. It sure helps that it features a rocking soundtrack but, unfortunately, frustrating level design and slippery controls hold it back from being a classic Genesis platformer that can be recommended outside of the limited circle of “serious” players and Sega nostalgics.
A new superhero for the 90s
In 1994, after the smash-hit sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog and the stop-gap Christmas 1993 release Sonic Spinball, the studio appeared to be working on several different games but, as Craig recounts, few would end up actually being released. To make matters worse, even in titles that would actually saw a release, many features and levels would be cut in post-production, much to the chagrin of artists and designers that saw months of hard work disappearing at the very last minute.
The only two titles that would actually see the light of day were very different from the platformers the team had been known up until that point, both definitely more “adult”. The Ooze was released in September of 1995 in North America and in Europe around the same period, with concept/programming/design by Dave Sanner, plus the help of Stieg Hedlund (Diablo II) and Jason Kuo (producer for Shenmue and Yakuza). At one point, the game was apparently slated to be the launch title for the Nomad, a portable Sega Genesis pretty closely related to the Game Gear. While luckily escaping that fate, unfortunately it failed in escaping obscurity. As opposed to Comix Zone, The Ooze, among lukewarm reviews by magazines, was relatively ignored by the public at large and its only re-release, at the time of writing, is on the Sonic Mega Collection Plus as a hidden unlockable title.
In a story that mixes horror – The Toxic Avenger definitely comes to mind for the “nuclear waste” idea – with a classic superhero origin story, a scientist discovers that the corporation he’s working for, has developed a deadly virus that is going to be unleashed on the unsuspecting public. He has no time to sound the alarm though: after being discovered by the evil director, he’s turned into a mass of green goo. Our hero must, then, slowly crawl around as a puddle of nuclear waste to try and get his revenge while, perhaps, also find a way to turn back into human form. To design the movement of a mass of green particles, the team actually set out to render everything as realistically as possible, spending quite some time to make the concept work, which led to delays in a release that was originally planned for early 1995. As far as the technology of the time could allow, it is fair to say the simulation of moving a liquid around is definitely realistic.
Great proof of this statement is the fact that controlling a mass of green goo is exactly as difficult as it might sound, thus the controls definitely require some getting used to. Even though many reviewers at the time noted that they were the worst part of the game, I never found them to be a real problem. The main issue is that movement and attacks are difficult to carry out with perfect precision, which might be fun to experiment with, but the player is constantly hindered by the level design, which features plentiful of hard to see traps and small enemies.
The normal attack is, ironically enough, the most difficult to control: the Ooze spreads his mass along a trajectory that can be influenced by the player during travel. It is used both to attack enemies and activating buttons and levers, thus solving puzzles. Problem is, our gooish hero is vulnerable while its mass is spread around and this might mean getting some of it cut off or lost in the sewers. The secondary ranged attack, the “nuclear loogie”, is effective but each shot costs a bit of health. So, in a design decision also mirrored in Comix Zone, the main character’s health basically also doubes as as stamina and almost everything has the potential to hurt him.
A well thought-out bit of design is how restoring health entails collecting molecules of green mass, but in doing that, the Ooze’s body becomes bigger and, consequently, harder to manoeuver around the nooks and crannies of the nuclear plant or laboratory. The player must, then, try to strike a balance between health points and maneuverability. Along with health, there are several pickups that can make the Ooze faster or deadlier to the touch. The team decided to do away with the idea of having any kind of interface, hence the only way to tell how much energy is left is by looking at how large the Ooze is. The levels are designed to be long and hard mazes; a map would have been a much welcome addition since remembering which lever has been activated or button pressed soon becomes a bit of a pain in the neck.
While not readily apparent after the first stage, The Ooze is definitely one merciless game: as soon as the first boss is defeated, the difficulty is quickly ramped up to eleven. If dealing with small enemies in tight spaces wasn’t enough, fifty pieces of DNA must be collected to get the good ending, which are spread throughout the levels, even hidden in secret rooms. The ending presents a problem: in the final cutscene, the director (I think) of the evil corporation is shown holding a jar with inside… the Ooze? So, despite winning, he didn’t win? There is an extra sequence if all DNA pieces were collected, showing the Ooze going back to being human, while in the “normal” ending, he just remains a putrid pile of good and, eventually, eventually dies. The manual is really vague about what is going on in the ending, only saying that “the DNA pieces are part of the doctor’s revenge plan”.
The Ooze is a clear case of design over substance, an intriguing concept translated into a game that marries the idea of controlling a liquid with rather merciless level design that makes even attacking without taking damage quite difficult. Indeed, one of these two had to be slightly tweaked to make The Ooze more palatable. Compared to other action games of the time, there are few actual reasons to recommend it, unless one is curious about quirky “hidden gems” released by the end of the Genesis’ lifespan. Craig told me he was a bit surprised that out of all the canceled projects this was the one that managed to get greenlighted and released. At the time, he was getting ready to leave Sega and, on this and Comix Zone, did pretty little work.
Grungey comic book adventures
Comix Zone is the more well-known among all the non-licensed games developed by STI, finishing their career with a bang. Naturally, its notoriety was helped by several re-releases in the following years on basically every platform known to man, from mobile to Playstation 3. Released in September 1995 in Norther American, designed and directed by Peter Morawiec, Comix Zone tells the story of artist Sketch Turner, transported into his comic book by uber-villain Mortus (STI definitely had quite a penchant for coming up with names for villains), who is planning to take over the world. While the idea and the concept are both quite unique, the gameplay is pretty standard: a straightforward 2D scrolling beat em up. Sketch will bring the fight to the pages of his comic book, punching and kicking from frame to frame, ripping the pages and jumping perilous ravines.
The fighting mechanics, while not as buttery smooth as a Capcom classic or even Streets of Rage, feature many special moves that can be easily performed, along with puzzles to break up the monotony of punching and kicking. Most of all, Comix Zone takes the comic book concept and runs away with it, using it to great effect: it is possible to throw an enemy through different frames ripping the paper that divided them. I also love how the characters will exchange dialogue or threats, without ever pausing their fight or how, when the enemies lose health, they will bleed paper (a Paper Mario precursor?).
Items found in the levels, like bombs, knives and health restoring iced tea, have to be picked up and Sketch will save them in his inventory. Turner will not be alone, though, Roadkill the rat will be at his side. The nice little rodent will find hidden items when let loose in the levels, he can also attack enemies but, unfortunately, can also be hurt and die, thus disappearing from the level for good. This forces the player to make it a point to remember each single place in which Roadkill might be useful: not letting it loose means losing health pickups and necessary bombs.
Comix Zone is that one Genesis title that everyone has heard of and tried at least once: it is slick, it is “rad”, it has a great soundtrack and art design. Its original release even featured a soundtrack CD with musician Howard Drossing doing his best to pretend the Yamaha FM chip was a four-piece grungy band. The commitment to the comic book style and the overall design are among the main reasons for its current status as a minor cult classic. STI had their hands on a great concept but, once again, seemed to butcher it with an unfairly challenging gameplay. The player gets one life and then it’s game over, there are no extra lives to be found. To be fair, each time a level is completed, the player does get a single chance to continue, but of course, it still means having to replay the whole level from the start.
"Into the Zone" by Howard Drossin
Naturally, even though hard games are a bit of my pet peeve, it is not my intention to say that they can’t be engaging or don’t deserve their fans. In this case, though, I can’t bring myself to state that Comix Zone is memorable because of its difficulty. It can be easily argued that it is the art style and graphics that catch people’s attention, the gameplay not so much. It would have been really simple to make it more accessible: infinite continues, three lives or, at the very least, a difficulty level selection. Instead, STI went for a classic “Nintendo hard” design: a short but legendary punishing title. The basic design problem (see above) is that STI designed the health to double as stamina, which again, would be okay, if health pickups weren’t limited to maybe two per level. And also hidden, because of course they are.
Even after hours of practice, it is impossible to avoid losing health since everything the player tries to do, ends up hurting Sketch. Even something as harmless as punching a crate will cause health to drop, while a metal grate can quickly eat up almost half of the life bar. There is no such thing as a perfect run in poor Turner’s world. Ironically, Comix Zone punishes the player even harder than the average arcade beat em up, a genre infamous for mainly being an excuse to get people to spend their coins. Those titles, at least, left the player some breathing room, before going all out with elevators full of enemies and cheap bosses with guns. Instead, STI’s beat em up is merciless right from the very first level, not ever letting up the pressure.
Reviewers were easily swayed by how good the game looked and the novel concept, some even going as far as calling it the best Sega Genesis game released in 1995. Few reviewers actually noted that the overall gameplay seemed to had little to offer despite pretty vanilla beat em up gameplay and a difficulty so high that it ends up ruining the experience. Indeed, another case of style over substance for Sega Technical Institute.
Sega Technical Institute’s history ends in 1996, when it was disbanded by its parent company. Out of the ashes of the development studio, Luxoflux (True Crime: Streets of LA, Vigilante 8) would emerge, founded by Adrian Stephens and Peter Morawiec, while the rest of the former Sonic 2 Team would return to San Francisco in 1999 to establish Sonic Team USA. Craig mentions how he believes that the first sign of things going downhill was when Mark Cerny left, while Steve Woita mentions how Hector had a different management style than Cerny, being more a manager than a developer. Many of the on-going projects at STI, after 1993, ended up being cancelled; over the next three years, developers would either get fed up and leave or be redirected to Sonic Team USA.
Still, their legacy of “weird original concepts” lives on strong, with people like Stieglund and Morawiec going on to greater things. While their game design could sometimes be amendable, the concepts were always interesting, enriched by stunning art design and memorable soundtracks. Despite my problems with the games, as infuriating as they sometimes may be, they still rank among those I always remember with a smile, even though I am always aware of what punishment is awaiting me should I decide to fire them up. We may never get to see much more than a bunch of screenshots or a blurry video of all the very interesting canceled projects that were, at one time, in development at STI, but the few that were released still manage to show brilliant ideas and a talented bunch of artists and developers at work.
For more information on STI I recommend to check out the full interview with Craig Stitt.
Sources & References
Profile of Sega Technical Institute on Retrogamer n.36.
Thank you to Sega Retro and Craig Stitt for the valuable information provided.
All non-game-related screenshots are images property of Craig Stitt, used with permission.