As I write this, every movie studio on Earth is attempting to copy the success of The Avengers by creating vast, interconnected movie franchises that all add up to huge blockbusters with all-star casts. Spoilers: this is not at all sustainable. Even if all of these “building” movies perform well (fun fact, this article is being written almost immediately after the disastrous release of The Fantastic 4. Errm… the 2015 disastrous release, not any of the other disastrous Fantastic Four movies), and even if all the movies naturally segue into Avengers-esque blockbusters, it will all come to a screeching halt in approximately a decade or two. The chief problem? Movies unfortunately star actors and actresses, and, thanks to a factory defect in humanity, actors age. Faster than anyone wants to admit, your handsome young movie star is looking a little less handsome and young, and suddenly movies have to be about aging characters, and that’s time better spent fighting galactic horrors. The world does not need another movie dedicated to explaining why the Enterprise’s central chair has been gradually widening.
But there’s hope for neverending franchises, and that’s in the video game medium. Back in the 1980’s, the fabulous jumping Mario was born: a tubby Italian dude of indeterminate (but certainly not “young”) age. A trio of decades later, Mario is still out of shape, but still jumping just as high as ever. Pudgy lil’ guy doesn’t have to worry about aging, nor does the entire rest of the Nintendo stable. Hell, if Kirby was portrayed by a real biological entity, he would have perished from a massive coronary about halfway through his first adventure. He’d never know the joys of being rolled around by a giant cat!
So it’s kind of odd that game companies, in stark contrast to Hollywood, have seemingly given up on creating new and exciting franchise mascots. Well, that’s a bit insincere. It’s not that Microsoft isn’t promoting Master Chief, as an easy example, it’s just that there’s no Halo cereal or Halo animated series or, I don’t know, Halo dog bathing service. Make no mistake, Mario hails from one of the objectively best video game franchises ever, but part of his popularity originates from ubiquitous 80’s marketing that just never went away. And there was, believe it or not, a time when Crash Bandicoot was actually considered a rival for the Mario empire… but Sony decided to go in another direction, and now they can barely scrape together a fat princess and a war god to populate their own dismal imitation of Smash Bros.
But one company never forgot the benefits of a stable stable of characters: Sega. In fact, I’d argue that Sega is the only game company that didn’t have a presence on the NES but still has anything like a cast of “All-Stars” to parade out for various tennis and racing games. And the sad thing? Almost the entire cast are a bunch of failures.
Sega, ladies and gentlemen.
Let’s take a look at the cast of Sega Superstars Tennis. These, right here, are Sega’s superstars.
Sonic the Hedgehog needs no introduction. This really is Sega’s all-star: a character that has become synonymous with video game mascots, but not necessarily worthwhile video games. Sonic is basically the Lucille Ball of our generation, as there will never be a time in our lives when there isn’t Sonic the Hedgehog based entertainment available. You could claim this is some creepy power play performed by Mona, Goddess of Hedgehogs, but it’s so much more mundane than that. Sega struck gold with Sonic, and never, ever let it slip. Yeah, you or I may be over the rodent, but there’s a new crop of kids every six seconds or so, and the blue blur is cool and fun and has just enough attitude to hook a whole new harvest of eyeballs. Sonic the Hedgehog is basically like dinosaurs: the concept is always going to be interesting to kids, because they’re cool and strong and follow their own rules, whether those rules be zooming around at the speed of sound or stomping on tiny mammals. Sonic is just as perennial as terrible thunder lizards.
Sonic is joined in this game by his supporting cast: Tails (the sidekick), Amy Rose (the girl), Dr. Eggman (the villain), and Shadow the Hedgehog (the walking turd). Strangely absent is Knuckles (the strong man), but it’s just as likely that Robotnik tricked him into mowing the Egg Mansion’s lawn the day of qualifiers.
Alex Kidd was the Sega mascot before Sonic, and he was as big a failure as Sonic was a success. I think the general idea was to copy Nintendo’s success with a character that looked like the bastard child of Mario and Link, but, shockingly, Alex’s rock-paper-scissors “guess for your life” gameplay didn’t tickle anyone’s fancy. Alex Kidd will continue to appear in Sega productions for years to come, no doubt, as he’s a sort of a “you never forget your first time” character, fueled by nostalgia and man’s natural love of elves. Sometimes, Alex Kidd and Mr. Game & Watch hang out and play Pong together.
Gilius Thunderhead is the other superstar that predates Sonic. If you don’t recognize the name, I don’t blame you; Gilius is the jumbo dwarf of the Golden Axe series. If that means nothing to you, just know that there was an alternative to Streets of Rage on the Genesis that featured medieval times and a complete lack of fun of any sort. Oh, wait, you could ride those freaky bipedal bird snakes from Altered Beast. That was kind of cool. Gilius was chosen as the representative of Golden Axe because his other companions were simply Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, so it was legally determined that just ripping off Gimli was the best course of action.
Now here’s where it gets ridiculous.
Everyone remembers the Genesis/Master System as Sega’s prime. This was the era when Nintendo vs. Sega meant something, and having an opinion on where you stood in that divide was as important as knowing the Konami Code. Sega Kids and Nintendo Kids battled long into the night, and much blood was spilled on both sides. I lost good friends in those days…
But during the time of the Super Nintendo, Nintendo expanded its pantheon to include many characters that are still fondly remembered and see love today. Captain Falcon, Star Fox, Yoshi, and Ness all premiered on the Super Nintendo. Samus Aran had her most famous adventure in the 16-bit days, and Donkey Kong firmed up his modern look and personality. And, depending on how you jiggle the dates and regions, while it was only on the SNES in a Super Gameboy capacity, this was the time a little yellow shock rat decided to make the scene. Nintendo basically became Nintendo in the midst of its battle with the Sega Genesis.
Here’s a list of Sega Superstars from the Sega Genesis that originated after Sonic the Hedgehog premiered:
Way to put all your eggs in one basket, Sega.
NiGHTS and Reala of NiGHTS into Dreams finally came along in ’96 on the Sega Saturn. NiGHTS into Dreams was a game that seemed to have been built to show off the new Saturn analog controller, and very well could have been the next Mario 64, but its gameplay, while fun, was just a bit on the shallow side. I was not someone who had a Saturn when it was new, and coming back to the game around the time of the slightly more modern PS2 era was… well… it didn’t do the jester any favors. NiGHTS wound up being the Ark of the Covenant carried forward by the Saturn kids, though, and that crazy clown finally got a sequel on the Wii in 2007. This, sadly, makes NiGHTS one of the few Sega characters to have a genuinely new game within the last decade.
Beat and Gum skate onto the court compliments of Jet Set Radio. JSR might not have had the best controls in the universe, but it took full advantage of the fact that the Dreamcast could produce some gorgeous graphics. This one I experienced at launch, and, man, it’s kind of hard to describe uncovering this world for the first time. I guess this is where the NiGHTS true believers are coming from? However, looking at JSR with a more discerning eye reveals that this may have been a calculated move to make a Sonic the Hedgehog: The Next Generation. The emphasis from top to bottom is on attitude and speed, just now mixed with a more overt disrespect for authority and more “urban” stylings. The more I think about it, the more I feel like this was a miraculously successful Poochy to Sonic’s Itchy and Scratchy.
Wait, scratch that “miraculously successful” bit. Jet Set Radio hasn’t seen a new game since 2002. Yes, we’ve got a million remakes, but no one claims that Final Fantasy 4 is its own successful franchise. Well, nobody I’d care to listen to.
Jet Set Radio did set an amazing standard for music in games, so Sega produced a couple of games that were completely based on music. Amigo of Samba de Amigo hails originally from the arcades in ’99, but hit the Dreamcast in 2000. Samba de Amigo was a crazy Mexican version of Guitar Hero, but since it predated Guitar Hero by a fair few years, I guess we have to say it was trying to capitalize on the popularity of Dance Dance Revolution, which is such an odd statement to make in the far flung future of 2015. Shake a crazy pair of maracas to percussion along with an adorable monkey and his furry friends (maybe actually capital-F Furry, I mean, a couple of those guys just appear to be wearing teddy bear costumes). I want to say Samba de Amigo didn’t catch on with American audiences because there were six maraca controllers to pass around here in the USA, but Amigo and his buddies did make a return in a remake in 2007 on the Wii, where… it was just another damn Wii game with weird controls. Poor monkey just can’t catch a break.
Ulala and her frenemy Pudding are the stars of the more-popular-than-any-monkey Space Channel 5, another rhythm/music game. Despite the game’s future setting, Space Channel 5 oozed a sort of retro charm and was, if nothing else, immediately recognizable for its overflowing waves of kitsch. It was also fun to play, and didn’t require any whacky peripherals to do so. It was one of the standout games of 2000, so naturally Ulala hasn’t been seen in her element again since her 2002 sequel. As a result, I cry a single manly tear every time I see the pitiable gal forced to make a living swinging a racket around.
Finally, Sega’s tennis roster is completed with AiAi and MeeMee, the boy and girl monkey stars of Super Monkey Ball. This series got rolling in 2001, and features gameplay based on those damn wooden labyrinth toys that your uncle was always giving you for Christmas because I think he had a personal vendetta against all the times your parents said that you were such a smart little child, so here’s a toy that will drive that darling child to punch a kiddy-sized hole in the refrigerator. Er-hem. AiAi and MeeMee are less playable characters and are more or less hostages in their own games: they’re stuck in the petite balls you roll around the stage, and should they roll off the side of the stage… well… try to be civil when delivering the news to their next of kin. The Super Monkey Ball series has actually been pretty healthy since its debut, probably because you can make a whole variety of games based around “ball rolling”. I’m pretty sure that’s how Soccer got so popular.
And that’s it. That’s your Sega Superstars. Let’s take a quick tally, hm? Of Sega’s All-Stars featured in Sega Superstars Tennis, exactly two franchises are still seeing any kind of new, non rehash/remake releases. Second runner-up is NiGHTS, who last saw moonlight eight years ago. Sega, you created a lasting troop of varied and interesting headliners, and have proceeded not do a thing with nearly the whole lot of them. Just keep holding on to that hedgehog’s spiky coattails and hope for the best, I suppose. At least you tried.
FGC #27 Sega Superstars Tennis
- System: Wii for the purposes of this review, though damn near every system that was in existence at the time saw a release, too.
- Number of Players: 4. Oh boy, a full doubles tennis group.
- Maybe actually talk about the game for a second? Fine. This is a tennis game. It is a perfectly competent tennis game. Every once in a while, you may use your character’s super power to, I don’t know, make the ball appear bigger or something. If you told me this game was a color/Sega enhanced remake of Virtual Boy’s Mario’s Tennis, I would believe you. I’ve bored myself stupid just writing this paragraph.
- Favorite Character: Ulala in concept, but Eggman is just so charmingly weird to use. That is not the shape of a man intended to play sports of any kind.
- Did you know? Those Golden Axe bird things are apparently called “Chicken Legs”. I would rather play tennis against a chicken leg. Or as a chicken leg. Or riding a chicken leg? Can that be a thing? Golden Axe: Tennis Riders?
- Hey, some of these pictures aren’t from the featured game: Well, yeah. I had to play something to restore my faith in Sega. In retrospect, Alex Kidd and Golden Axe II are, at best, lateral moves.
- Would I play again? Nope. I barely played this game when it was released. I thought it might be a fun alternative to Wii Sports Tennis for my friends, but guess what? We just kept playing Wii Sports Tennis. Heck, if I want to see the “Sega Superstars” again, I’m just going to fire up Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. It doesn’t treat the cast any better, but at least it’s fun to play.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania Portrait of Ruin. Hey! That’s a game I might even play without a robot’s provocation. Way to go, ROB. Please look forward to it!