The 90s were an interesting time: tearaway pants, presidents rocking saxophones, the Atari Jaguar… It was a grab bag of culture, packed to the gills with foundational artistic forays that still ripple into today. Simply look at how Rob Schneider or Adam Sandler have permeated mainstream society and become cornerstones of our modern cultural tapestry. Alongside the many technological milestones of the time, gaming and otherwise, there was an entire new world of marketing, full of opportunity.
In the midst of it all, Sega released the first nail in their own coffin, the Saturn. Having pioneered polygonal graphics in fighting games with their Model 1 arcade system board, the realization quickly set in that releasing arcade titles for their flagship home console, the Genesis, would prove impossible. Interested in staying frontrunner in both 2D and 3D, Sega went into the next generation with the “32X” addon for the Genesis alongside their new platform. On November 21st, the 32X rolled out for $160 in North America, while the Saturn came out in Japan on November 22nd at nearly $400.
Planned to hit shelves in America on September 2nd, 1995, Sega christened it “Saturnday,” the most unholy of names. However, in a bid to pull a fast one on Sony, Sega went with a surprise release on May 11 at E3. With early shipments sent to specific retailers, certain stores dropped Sega, upset for with them for not telling them about the stunt. Similarly, an early, unplanned rollout was done in Europe. Unable to promote the Saturn, sales suffered severely, ultimately being steamrolled by the Playstation months later. Things proved the same in America: with a high entry point and lack of console-moving first-party titles, the Playstation outsold the Saturn within two days of its own release.
In Japan, however, Sega reigned supreme. Given their dominance in arcades and their proven history, the Saturn was a huge success, shipping more hardware than Sony in the domestic market. As 1998 arrived, Sega were at the top of their game, and started a marketing campaign that would light the Saturn’s popularity on fire in the region.
Centering a judo-fighting character, a parody of the titular character of Kurosawa’s famous film Sanshiro Sugata, ex-Kamen Rider actor Hiroshi Fujioka was cast as “Segata Sanshiro.” Having gained an extremely large following from his time as the original Kamen Rider, his appearance was instantly recognizable to the Japanese public. In the initial commercials, he did nothing more than arrive on the scene, scream “Play Sega Saturn!”, then judo flip children unconscious before moving on to the next group of souls unfortunate enough to draw his ire. Original commercials starring Fujioka were a smash hit, spurring a series of increasingly surreal and bizarre entries to the legend of Segata, some calling back to his Kamen Rider roots as he threw or kicked opponents so hard they would literally explode.
Growing popularity gave Sanshiro a place among Sega’s classics as they released a Saturn title specifically for the character: Segata Sanshirō Shinken Yūgi. It wasn’t anything special, nothing more than a collection of minigames, each based on a gimmick from each commercial that had aired. Rewards for play came in the form of videos of the commercials. Nevertheless, it certainly happened. Regardless of quality, Sega had struck enough of a chord with the Japanese public, created a character recognizable enough from a marketing campaign, that they could comfortably release a game of his own.
However, the legacy of Sanshiro is not that he was the bulwark of the Saturn, giving it the boost it needed to survive over the struggling years overseas. Rather, he’s the reason that we’re able to fondly look back on the huge catastrophe that was the Dreamcast. Captured on film, a missile was headed directly for a boardroom of Sega bigwigs readying for the Dreamcast launch. It was Segata who leapt in the way, redirecting it to the heavens and saving us all. Were it not for him, we would have no Phantasy Star Online, no Sonic Adventure (or Sonic Shuffle), no Jet Set Radio. Now, he only lives on in our memories.
Let’s all take a moment of silence to thank our forgotten savior and his sacrifice for our favorite console of misfortune. Taken too young, both the Dreamcast and Sanshiro deserved better than this world. I hope he found it out there. Sanshiro, demanding that anyone in the vicinity partake in the wonder of 90’s Sega hardware lest they suffer a judo throw.
This one’s for you, big guy.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.