It was the mid-nineties. The console war was still raging, but the Sega Genesis was rapidly losing ground to its competition: the Super Nintendo. Meanwhile, both companies were bracing themselves for the imminent release of Sony's Playstation. Sega knew that they had been backed into a corner, and that the situation called for drastic action. So, in what must have been a feverish series of all-night marketing conferences, the boys in blue created one of their most ambitious projects to date: Sega Club.
Sega knew that it was far too late for a simple re-branding strategy to save their sales figures. They were already losing their influence with adults, teens, and children, in most territories. If they were to save the Genesis, they'd need to reshape the entire consumer-base by introducing an entirely new demographic to the gaming marketplace. And so, in July of '94, Sega made the bold move to create an entire line of games designed to specifically entice the massive consumer presence of toddlers.
The first title to sport the Sega Club logo was Wacky Worlds, a sort of massively scaled-back version of Mario Paint, which came packaged with a Genesis compatible track-ball mouse. It wasn't exactly a blockbuster success, but it's simplistic menus and vibrant color palettes were a perfect indication of things to come.
Sega Club games needed to hold the attention of an audience that was barely old enough to talk, much less hold a controller. So they were designed to be be more colorful than a Lisa Frank binder, and easy to play. Very easy. Condescendingly easy. A perfect example of this is Ecco Jr.
The original Ecco game had been a controler-snappingly difficult, aquatic, dungeon explorer, with phenomenal graphics, and a wonderfully hypnotic ambient soundtrack. It was also a terrifyingly dark game, with an air meter that constantly reminded you that Ecco was moments away from drowning, and an end boss that was made of weapons-grade nightmare fuel.
Ecco Jr cannibalized its big brother's audio and graphic assets to create a game that was essentially a laid-back digital scavenger hunt. Nothing is out to hurt you, there's no Lovecraftian end-boss, and dolphins can now breathe underweater for as long as they want. There's really no way to lose this game, unless you voluntarily choose to turn it off. It's cute. It's colorful. It still sounds great. It's definitely kid friendly. However, it's still an embarrassing impersonation of its source material.
However, Sega Club titles did far more than just recycle the company's console-exclusive characters. They also prominently featured a lot of licensed children's book characters. Magic School Bus, Richard Scary's Busy Town, even the Berenstain Bears were featured in games developed for the Sega Club brand.
The Berenstain Bears' Camping Adventure is especially notable for being one of very few co-op game designed to be played by gamers who had yet to master the art of eating Cheerios, without flinging them across the room. In it you played as Brother and/or Sister Bear as they travel through a National Park, and lob rocks at every animal in sight. This seems really wrong, but the game was still rated "E" for everyone. Maybe since they're bears it's cool? I dunno. It's a weird game.
However, no retrospective of the Sega Club would be complete without taking a peek at the one completely original game series it brought to the Genesis: Crystal's Pony Tale.
In this 16 bit Masterpiece, you play Crystal. She's a pony. She's on her way to a big party with all of her Pony friends at a Pony Castle, when the Storm Witch shows up and kidnaps everyone, because she's kind of a jerk like that. Now you must take the reigns of Crystal and giddy up through three progressively more retina-meltingly colorful worlds to set things right. If this sounds really mediocre: it is. This game really only had one major thing going for it: character customization.
It doesn't seem like much now, but in 94' being able to choose your Pony's colors was actually a pretty nifty feature. I mean, it would've been a little nicer if you could have renamed the pony too. But hey, I guess there's only so much content you can jam onto one cartridge, Still, it feels kinda' lazy.
There were a handful of other games in the Sega Club collection, released for Genesis, Game Gear, and Sega CD. But, it's really more of the same. If there's anything special about the Sega Club series it's that they're slightly rarer than normal Genesis games, making them titles of interest for die-hard collectors. In any case, Sega quickly realized the error of assuming pre-schoolers had a lot of disposable income, and discontinued the entire line by 1995.
However before it all went under, they did manage to roll out one last embarrassment: the Sega Club controller. This incredible peripheral had been designed to be "perfect for smaller hands." This could have been more delicately worded, especially considering it was just a repackaged version of the Genesis' standard Japanese controllers. Whoops.
The Sega Club is a weird series to review. They're niche titles, designed for a target demographic that never really existed. Yet for what they were meant to be, they're not actually that bad. The titles are simple, accessible, and probably quite fun for anyone who still thinks Dora the Explorer is must see TV. So, do I recommend these titles? Not really. However, if you're one of those rare kindergartner hardcore gamers, who's looking for a few retro titles you might enjoy, well then I suppose you could do far worse than the Sega Club collection.
That said, what do you think? Am I being too critical of a series designed for children? Did you grow up playing any of these games? And if so, how did they contribute to your development as a gamer?