Nintendo versus Sega.
A battle for the ages that made many kids’ blood boil during the 90s, no holds barred bout fought via scathing slogans and – who could forget – the war of the bits. Eight-bit, sixteen bits, Genesis does, Nintendon’t and so on. Even though Sega gave up the fight many years ago, in 1990 it did something that Nintendo seemingly wasn’t interested in: the first development studio directly managed by the American branch of the Japanese company.
Let’s take a look at their history, with the help of artist Craig Stitt, and some of their more significant, from a design perspective, titles.
Sega dares what Nintendon't
Sega Technical Institute, first based in San Jose then moved to Menlo Park and finally to Redwood, led by Marble Madness developer and former Electronic Arts prodigy Mark Cerny, was the first American studio founded by a Japanese videogame company. Their first title was one of the many licensed products that Sega was handling at the time, namely Dick Tracy, after the success of that tile, the team was given carte blanche. STI went on to produce three original titles and worked with other Sega divisions on notable titles like Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic Spinball and Die Hard Arcade.
One of their employees, Stieg Hedlund, recalls that the team was given a weekly meeting to present all their new ideas, in a flashy 90s montage video, the more stylish the better. Sega of Japan could give their take on the ideas presented but could never veto a game, hence all power rested on their American counterpart. In 1996 after the cancellation of several of titles in production – among others a Sonic game – STI was finally disbanded by its parent company. Out of the ashes of the development studio, Luxoflux (True Crime: Streets of LA, Vigilante 8) was founded by Adrian Stephens and Peter Morawiec, while the rest of the Sonic Team would return to San Francisco in 1999 to establish Sonic Team USA.
I’ve been talking with Craig Stitt, artist for Sega Technological Institute and, later, Insomniac games, who helped me with information and trivia about the games the studio worked on. The whole interview can be found here.
The platform with an identity crisis
Kid Chameleon is the first original title developed by STI, released in 1992. Designed by four different people on the team, it is the first title Craig has worked on since being hired by Mark Cerny himself. He recalls that, in designing it, Sega was apparently looking for a mascot and at one time, our kid (apparently named Casey, even though Craig insisted for Kevin) was considered, but quickly forgotten as soon as Sonic hit the scenes. Our titular kid must enter a virtual reality in one of the coin-ops, in order to save other boys that have been kidnapped by an unknown evil presence… ok, not really unknown, the villain is called Heady Metal. Yes, really. Is there anything more 90s than a game featuring virtual reality AND arcades?
The core of the game is that of a pretty much straightforward 2D platformer, where the resemblance with the Super Mario Bros style is pretty undeniable: jumping and breaking blocks is the core of the gameplay. But of course, STI would not (and could not) stop at copying Nintendo’s design, adding their own flair to the running and jumping. Chameleon is the keyword here: the main protagonist can pick up different costumes to change the style of gameplay accordingly. These give him the ability to shoot, turn into a tank, climb walls, destroy rocks with his head and so on. They also work as a kind of general power-up along with restoring health, adding various hit points to the basic character. Each costume also comes with its own specials, that can be activated once enough gems have been collected: some of them give a shield or a strong attack, others even extra lives.
The Super Mario block design is enhanced and augmented via a rather complex level design that, sometimes, requires careful planning since getting hit too much while wearing a costume, means going back to plain ol’ Chameleon. Of course, even clad in his black leather jacket, our hero retains some powers, like hanging on to ledges. As Craig himself remembers, the goal for STI was to make Kid Chameleon the longest platformer ever made on the Sega Genesis… and I am pretty sure they did succeed! 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 yet.
In what will become a staple of STI game design, Kid Chameleon features no save state or password system. This tendency to design the game as an unfair challenger for the player by purposely avoiding continues or extra lives will become almost a trademark for all three independent produced titles by STI. While it might be difficult to understand the reasoning behind such a choice, 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 hours or even days. In an hour and a half, I only managed to reach and beat the first boss so, expect at least a five/six hours romp. It is a long and hard trip, a real 90s action platformer to the core.
While Kid Chameleon is, most of the time, pretty fun to play, it is really too long and difficult for its own good. Naturally, playing it today with save states and the possibility to take a break whenever one feels like it, it is not a big deal, but if one is going “oldschool”, then it definitely becomes a challenge in more ways than one. The controls are a bit too slippery (along with some costumes making things worse) to actually carry out precise platforming jumps and movements, which end up causing a lot of cheap deaths and easily avoidable frustration. Some of the costumes are extremely nineties and really a joy to play with, like the Jason/Splatterhouse one that allows the player to attack with throwing axes or the great Juggernaut tank, designed by Craig himself.
That is why Kid is at its best when one is switching costumes around, killing enemies and running around the stages, along with the variety and the attractive graphical design of the overall package. It is a flavour of 2D action platformer that requires the player to attune to careful planning and gameplay, along with understanding how costumes and attacks work, but it sure helps that it features a rocking soundtrack! 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.
Yuck, what an ooze!
In 1994, after delivering a great sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog and the spinoff Sonic Spinball, the studio had actually been working on many different games but, Craig recounts, few actually saw a release. Many things were cut in post-production, much to the chagrin of artists and level designers that saw months of hard work disappearing at the last possible minute. The two titles that actually saw the light of day were very different from all the platformers the team had been working on, feeling definitely more “adult”. The Ooze ended up being released first, with concept/programming/design by Dave Sanner and design help by Stieg Hedlund (Diablo II) and Jason Kuo (producer for Shenmue and Yakuza). At one point, the game was slated by SEGA to be the launch title for the Nomad, a portable Sega Genesis pretty closely related to the Game Gear. It luckily managed to escape that fate, but – unfortunately – not 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 – and a superhero movie, a scientist discovers a nefarious virus developed by the corporation he’s working for. 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 slowly crawl around as a puddle of nuclear waste to get his revenge and, perhaps, also mutate back. To develop the movement of a mass of green particles, the team actually set out to render everything as realistically as possible. The developers spent a lot of time to make the concept work and, as far as the technology of the time could allow, I think it is fair to say they definitely succeeded.
Controlling a liquid is exactly as difficult as it sounds, 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, personally I never found them to be imprecise or abysmal. The main issue is that movement and attacks are difficult to carry out with perfect precision, while the level design tends to feature plentiful traps and small enemies.
This becomes especially true for the normal attack, which makes the Ooze spread his mass along a trajectory that can be influenced by the player even during travel. It is used both to attack enemies and solve 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 also effective but each shot costs a bit of health. So, as we will also see with Comix Zone, the main character’s health doubles as stamina and almost everything has the potential to hurt him.
A precious little bit of design is how restoring health entails collecting molecules to get stronger, but in doing that, the Ooze becomes a bigger target and, consequently, harder to manoeuver in the nooks and crannies of the nuclear plant or laboratory. There are also many different pickups that 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 is a bit of a pain in the neck.
While not readily apparent, after the first three levels The Ooze ends up being slyly difficult: as soon as the first boss is defeated, the difficulty is quickly ramped up to eleven. If that wasn’t enough, 50 pieces of DNA must be collected to get the good ending, throughout the levels and hidden in secret rooms. The ending itself feels a bit weird: in the final sequence, the director (I think) of the evil corporation is shown being held in a jar by an unknown person. There is an extra sequence if all DNA pieces were collected, showing the Ooze going back to being a human, otherwise, in the “normal” ending he just stays that way and eventually dies. The manual is really vague about the whole good/bad ending design, noting 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 that was translated into a game that is fun to play only if one finds the idea of controlling a liquid enticing and doesn’t mind the cruel level design. Compared to other action games of the time, there are few real reasons to recommend it, unless one is really curious about quirky little “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 that ended up on the shelf, it was the Ooze that managed to be greenlighted and released. At the time, he was getting ready to leave Sega and, on Comix Zone, he did pretty little work.
A Sketchy game at best
Comix Zone is probably the more widely known of the STI titles, finishing their run on Sega’s 16bit console with a bang. Naturally, it also helps that it was re-released several times in the following years on basically every platform known to man, from mobile to Playstation 3. Designed and directed by Peter Morawiec, Comix Zone tells the story of artist Sketch Turner, transported into his own comic book by uber-villain Mortus (STI was pretty good with names) as part of his nefarious plan to take over the world. While the idea and the concept are both great, the gameplay is pretty standard: a straightforward 2D scrolling beat em up. Craig recalls that it was the last game he worked with before leaving the company and that everyone in the team was really excited about how it was turning out.
Sketch will have to bring the fight to the pages of his own comic book, punching and kicking from frame to frame, ripping the pages and jumping perilous ravines. Once again, STI had their hands on a great concept but couldn’t follow it up with an engaging and smooth design. The main flaw that anyone who has played the game for more than one minute will remember: Comix Zone is really too hard for its own good. The player gets one life and then it’s game over. No continues, no extra lives, nothing. To be fair, each time a level is completed, the player gains a chance to continue, but of course, it still means having to replay the whole level from the start.
Naturally, even though I’ve ranted about hard games before, 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 really bring myself to write that Comix Zone’s gameplay is enhanced because of its cheap difficulty. It would have been really simple to make it more palatable: a continue or three lives or, at the very least, a difficulty level selection. Instead, they went for a classic “Nintendo hard” design: a short but really punishing title. The basic design problem (see above) is that STI designed the health to double as stamina, which again, would be a fine concept, if health pickups – ice tea, apparently – weren’t limited to maybe two per level. And also hidden, because of course, they are.
Thus, even if one really “gits gud”, it is basically IMPOSSIBLE to avoid losing health since everything the player tries to do, ends up hurting Sketch. Even something as harmless as punching a crate make him lose health, punching a metal grate ends up wasting 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 that was infamous for being developed 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 game is merciless right from the start, not ever letting up the pressure.
What is even more infuriating is that, except for the difficulty, the design actually does a lot of things right. The fighting, while not as buttery smooth as a Capcom classic, features many special moves that can be easily carried out and puzzles to break up the monotony of punching and kicking. Most of all, Comix Zone takes the comic book concept and runs with it, using it to great effect: its commitment to the idea and the graphical style and effects are the main reasons why it is widely recognized as a small cult classic. For example, 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?).
Another great idea is Sketch’s companion, Roadkill the rat, that finds hidden items when let loose in the levels. He will also attack the enemies but can also get attacked and die, thus disappearing. This entails the player making a point of remembering EVERY SINGLE place in which the rat is useful, otherwise, that means losing health pickups and also pretty necessary bombs. Even with all its faults, 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. Really, I only wish it was less punishing for the player.
As I mentioned, Sega Technical Institute story concludes in 1996: Mark Cerny, by then, had been replaced by Roger Hector (which Craig thinks was the first sign of things going downhill). Many titles ended up being cancelled and everyone either got fed up and left or was redirected to the Sonic Team USA. Still, their legacy of “weird concepts” lives on strong, much stronger than the whole ludicrous debate “Nintendo vs Sega”. While their game design could very well be perfectible, the art design was always really unique and their soundtracks highly memorable. Even the games themselves, as infuriating as they sometimes may be, still rank among those I always remember with a smile, even though I know 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 managed to show brilliant ideas and a talented bunch of artists at work. I thank Craig for his time and and I recommend everyone to check out the full interview
All non-game-related screenshots are images property of Craig Stitt, used with permission.
Thank you to Sega Retro for the valuable information provided.