Playing at the Next Level Book Review

Playing at the Next Level: A History of American Sega Games
Author: Ken Horowitz
Publisher: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Ken Horowitz is the founder of Sega-16.com, a website devoted to chiefly to the Genesis/Mega Drive console and it’s add-ons; the Mega CD and the 32X. Not only will you find a review for almost every game released on the console, there is also an extensive library of more in depth articles and interviews, with developers and other Sega luminaries. Ken has been working for years with a small but dedicated group of volunteers to provide in depth coverage of the console, it’s library and tell the story of those involved, whether they worked for Sega or just enjoyed the products. It makes perfect sense then, that Ken should bring all his knowledge together to write a history that has yet to be told in a comprehensive way.

Playing at the Next Level: A History of American Sega Games covers the short but fruitful history of the American arm of Sega. It’s probably not appreciated just how much Sega relied on Japanese developers, for many years, to bring products to their consoles. Nintendo had a near monopoly on third-party publishers with the NES, and Sega had to do more to branch out and win consumers. A major strategy involved setting up strong US-based development teams which began to take off in the early 90s. This began with licensed properties like Joe Montana Football, porting games from personal computers and eventually expanded into many new and exclusive titles that are still fondly remembered today. Revolutionary and imaginative games like Ecco the Dolphin, Vectorman and Eternal Champions were the result of these efforts and within the pages of this book, the stories of these titles (and many others) are told.

A minor complaint I had about 2013’s Console Wars (a book about Sega’s rise and fall in the US market against Nintendo and later Sony), was that it focused almost entirely on the executive teams efforts with little attention to the developers producing the much needed software. This was a minor complaint as it wasn’t at all the focus of the book but it makes Playing at the Next Level all the more welcome as a companion to this title. This truly focuses on the developers, even delving into the more technical aspects of development and how these people dealt with the limitations whether with time, hardware restrictions and other difficulties. This doesn’t include every title ever developed but a wide variety, including titles that were less successful whether critically or commercially.

The structure of the of the book is generally linear, beginning with the Master System, early Sega Genesis development and ending with the Dreamcast and the last of the major US developed titles on PlayStation 2, Xbox and the GameCube. However, within this structure the stories behind specific developers and games require jumping in and out of this time frame and some latter and earlier events are mentioned. It is possible to get confused reading different names with similar titles, as Sega of America went through multiple Presidents and many changes throughout this period. There were also many developers contracted, renamed and opened with the same people involved. So some prior knowledge of the companies history and key figures is helpful but definitely not necessary. As the book also covers specific games, it is possible a reader to browse through and read the development history of a specific game or developer without missing anything.

Anyone who read about or was there to witness the rise and fall of Sega as a hardware maker, must be baffled as to how the company managed to rise so high only to fall so suddenly. Playing at the Next Level does give some insight into this as well. The more obvious and well-known such as the poorly planned and supported Sega 32X is certainly covered. But what surprises me is what seemed to be the hostile relationship between Sega of Japan and America, something also covered in Console Wars. An example would be the decision making behind the Saturn. I remember being confused at the time why there was no Sonic the Hedgehog title for it. As a child, I was about as big a fan of Sonic as one could be and I still remember the teased thumbnail size image of Sonic Xtreme, a game that never eventuated. Sonic Xtreme was being developed in the US and apparently during development the team was refused use of the Nights into Dreams engine by Sega of Japan after Yuji Naka, (one of Sonic’s creators) angrily threatened to leave the company if it were allowed. This was a new game in Sega’s flagship franchise being hindered from within. Eternal Champions saw a similar (and more permanent) end as despite it’s success, it was likely shelved for being a rival to Sega of Japan’s Virtua Fighter series.

Playing at the Next Level is full of stories such as those above but the best are those of the struggles and ultimate success many developers experienced. The innovation, the risks and the rewards that resulted in many memorable and highly influential titles. For anyone interested in gaming history, particularly with Sega this book deserves pride of place next to Console Wars and is a must own for Sega enthusiasts. It also will be of interest to anyone who follows the history of the medium in general and certainly those interested in gaming development.

 

Disclosure: I have been writing for Sega-16.com in a voluntary capacity since 2007. The book was received as a Christmas gift and not from the publisher or author. 

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