Review: SEGA hard historia

There’s no point pretending otherwise – this box of delights is damned expensive. Even if you can read every last word in the two included books as well as you do your native tongue, and the DVD’s contents are everything you ever dreamed of, and you’re desperate for an accurately modelled 1/6th scale range of 16-bit Sega hardware SEGA hard historia‘s steep 16500 yen (150USD/109GBP) price tag is enough to make anyone pause before hitting that “Buy” button – and that’s how much it costs before shipping. And it’s so, so, big and heavy.

The shocking thing is even at this high price the set honestly represents great value for money.

We’ll start with the bit that’s of interest to everyone – the included DVD. This shiny platter contains PDFs of a very thorough, very helpful, and very cleanly laid out cheat and tips encyclopaedia covering just about every Japanese Mega Drive, Mega CD, Saturn and Dreamcast release known to game-dom (just to be perfectly clear before we go on: Everything in the set is written in Japanese) as well as three huge collections of short gag comics pulled together from issues of Beep!’s Sega Saturn Magazine and Dorimaga starring amusingly anthropomorphised Sega hardware. To over-generalise years of semi-topical comedy material these strips take a sort of “We know we’re the underdog but that only makes us love Sega more” tone; for example in one comic two Saturns approach a small boy and one of them asks the kid what they’re doing:
“I’m playing a game” he says.
“A Game Gear?” comes the hopeful reply.
The kid is, of course, playing Pokémon on their Game Boy and one Saturn has to physically restrain the other to stop them from killing the kid. These two clowns then try to connect one of themselves to the Game Boy using a link lead and… the Gamy Boy wins, leaving one Saturn saying nothing but “Pikachu” and the other thinking this unexpected turn of events is absolutely adorable. In another the Dreamcast stands at the edge of the Sanzu River (think of the mythological River Styx and you’re not too far off), previous Sega consoles beckoning her over from the other side. As she goes to cross the river she’s grabbed by an army of beautiful anime girls (a reference to the deluge of visual novels/adventure/dating sims released towards the end of the system’s life) with an arcade machine prominently seen in the background. It’s knowingly bittersweet in much the same way Segagaga is. These comics are a fun thing to dip in and out of when the mood takes you, although the new digital format does make a casual browse more difficult than it was in either the original magazines or the previously published physical collections these PDFs are based on.

A bundle of ten emulated Mega Drive games (Windows PCs only) complete the DVD, all of them running on a repackaged version of Project EGGs unremarkable but reliable emulator (the ROMs are sadly fused to their respective .exes, preventing easy use with your preferred emulator or flashcart of choice). Two of the ten are text heavy – Star Cruiser and Langrisser – and not recommended for importers uncomfortable with the language but the rest are a thrilling mix of shmups, shmuplikes, and action games so action-y they may as well be shmups with little pixelled people in them: Undeadline, Eliminate Down, El Viento, Kuuga (Vapor Trail), Granada X, Same! Same! Same! (Fire Shark), Chelnov, and Midnight Resistance. With the arguable exception of Langrisser not a single one of those games listed is the sort we usually see in retro compilations but they are all without a doubt still as unmistakeably Mega Drive as games can get: slightly weird, slightly grungy, far more concerned with trying something a little different than being polished or playing it safe, giving the selection a Sega B-side mixtape feel to it. As far as I can tell Same! Same! Same!, Star Cruiser, and Eliminate Down have never been re-released anywhere or anyhow until this collection came along. Eliminate Down’s presence in particular is a real boon as outside of this set prices for this shmup are comfortably within “Not a hope in hell of owning a legit copy” territory – it’s the sort of game you find for just under £900 (approx 1200USD) and think “Oh wow, that’s a cheap one!“; and best of all it’s a shmup that’s well worth playing even when shorn of its cred-boosting rarity and resale value. So! At the very least anyone who buys SEGA hard historia is getting their hands on official re-releases of some very rare, very expensive, and very good Mega Drive games in a DRM-free format (once installed – without the need for a serial key or any online phoning-in – the .exe doesn’t even bother checking for the disc) – surely that’s got to be worth celebrating.

All of the above’s contained within just one part of this extraordinary four part set so let’s dive deeper into the box and take a look at the next layer, which just so happens to hold a beautiful menagerie of miniature Mega Drives, Mega CDs, and their magnificent accessories. The details on these models are the sort of thing guaranteed to make an old Sega fan squeak with glee: The cords on both the three and six button type controllers really do fit into tiny “ports” cut out in exactly the right places on both Mega Drives, the extraordinarily accurate Sonic & Knuckles cart has a functional plastic connector cover and yes, really will accept its complimentary Sonic 3 (which you can then plug into the 32X, which will plug into a Mega Drive, which can then sit on top or to the side of one of two Mega CDs). Both CD add-ons open up to accept the two tiny CDs included in the set, and in keeping with SEGA hard historia’s off-kilter look at the 16-bit Sega library, the shiny labels included are not for anything as obvious as Sonic CD but Yumimi Mix and Silpheed instead. The artwork you need to apply to all five standard Mega Drive carts (Sonic & Knuckles too) as well as the lone 32X cart (Chaotix, if you were wondering), include not only the expected labels but also the small info stickers designed to go on the reverse too, as well as individual and accurate stickers for the underside of the hardware as well (they’re all labelled – in Japanese – to stop you mixing them up). It is of course all completely useless but in an adorable way, and whether you have them out on display and connected to each other or leave them in the packaging they do feel like models, rather than toys. 

Lift up that layer and we finally reach the real meat of the set; two approximately A4 sized books, the first one of them a mere 103 full-colour pages long. Opening up this deceptively slender tome reveals it’s stuffed with fresh interviews (the oldest ones were conducted in 2020), the interviewee list reading like a who’s who of Sega legends: history-protecting Yosuke Okunari, legendary composer and Ancient staff member Yuzo Koshiro, arcade trailblazer and Shenmue creator Yu Suzuki, ex-Sonic Team head Yuji Naka, Super Monkey Ball‘s Toshihiro Nagoshi, Daytonaaaaaaaaaaaaaa~ singer and musical treasure Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, Treasure‘s Masato Maegawa, Phantasy Star‘s/Skies of Arcadia‘s Reiko Kodama and more all get their chance to reminisce on past glories and chat all things Sega. Questions are naturally on the lighter side of things (nobody’s asking Naka what he thought of Sonic X-Treme, for example), but considering the insight and experience these people have a fluffy anecdote from them is always going to make for a fascinating read and a genuine love for the company shines through in their answers. As if to prove just how much material SEGA hard historia had to work with small photographs of prototype Dreamcasts and other riches are used on occasion to break up chunks of interview text rather than given their own dedicated page. This feature-packed volume then follows that up with a varied spread of contemporary Eighties photos showing Outrun cabinets demoing to new customers at the 1986 Amusement Machine Show, an official Mega Drive keyboard and floppy drive, untidy staff desks and more formal business-related announcements. It’s a rare glimpse into an often unseen world and now unreachable, the candid and unstaged nature of the images only making them even more alluring.

We’re not done yet and yes, we’re still talking about the first book! The final results of the “Reader’s Races” run throughout these magazine’s lives are also included, giving us valuable insight into tastes of the past without them being filtered through modern “corrections” first. The way this worked was simple: Readers would mail in votes for games on whatever hardware was relevant to the magazine at the time (in this case the Game Gear, Mega Drive, Saturn, and Dreamcast), on a scale of one to ten and the updated rankings would be published in every issue. On its own it’s just a few opinions printed on paper, but at this scale and over this length of time we get to see trends come and go, to see games capture the imagination or slide out of view. What did they care about? What did they notice? What did they miss? What reviewed well at the time but was maybe just too much of the same to really hold the public’s attention? Did you know NBA Jam on Game Gear ranked twenty-eight places higher with the Japanese readers of these magazines than Sonic The Hedgehog 2, for example? And after dropping those bombshells the book just keeps going: There are technical features for each Sega console complete with hardware diagrams, photographs, proto hardware illustrations and more, a look at Sega games released exclusively overseas, or games that were popular/originated from overseas, sprinkled with a little extra information to give context – a segment that somehow manages to cram in everything from MSR and Rampage to the Amiga and Command & Conquer, full colour comic spreads by Takahiro Yoshimatsu, Izumi Takemoto, and more, and after that… there’s still page after page of more more to flip through. Even when you’re holding it in your hand it’s difficult to believe they managed to fit so much into this one book.

The final book contained in SEGA hard historia’s glossy box is a far weightier 304 full colour page affair, a straight to the point edited digest of every single issue of the Mega Drive, Saturn, and Dreamcast magazines Beep! put out, with each magazine condensed down to a single chaotically busy page. Standard information includes the top three best selling games on the format as of that issue as well as the current top and bottom five in the reader’s race. Below all that is selection of small (unreadably small) reproductions of magazine features from the issue complimented by brief captions. Even if you have no nostalgia for the magazines themselves it’s still an enthralling book to spend your time with, to see the genuine excitement people had for Soul Calibur and Resident Evil: CODE: Veronica or the Mega Drive struggles turn into the Saturn’s success.

And with that last glorious infodump of Sega history the set is finally done. Every aspect of SEGA hard historia is at the very least incredibly interesting and there is guaranteed to be something in here that even the most dedicated of Sega fans will not have seen or read before and even if by some slim chance there isn’t – and if those dedicated Sega fans are honest with themselves that’s really not going to be true – there’s always that DVD full of playable officially licensed rarities to be getting on with anyway. The only negative I can level at the set isn’t really anything to do with the quality of SEGA hard historia at all but more a word of warning for potential importers: Everything in this box of wonders has understandably been made with Japanese readers and Japanese readers alone in mind, and as such anyone who falls outside that category should think very carefully before ordering.

[Ko-fi supporters helped to make this article possible – and read about this set last week too! Thank you so very much!]