SEGA Retrospective: The Deeper Arcade game – An oxymoron that became one of SEGA’s pillars

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Arcade? When you ask the modern western gamer about such a concept, they will likely know about the genre of “arcade” in today’s market of downloadable games on console, PC and smartphone. Home and mobile ports of classic coin operated titles. But twenty years ago, people would visit actual venues to play games they could otherwise not to, offering considerable advantages in graphics, controls and cabinet designs.

Putting a coin into a machine should get you more enjoyment that you expect out of it. That has been the ethos of SEGA’s coin-up division for as long as existed. Immediate, visceral, thrilling; all of that should be encapsulated into the experience. One session should not go longer than 3 minutes. Often times games offer more depth as well, which is best summed up by the phrase “easy to learn hard to master” – which can be said of countless fighting games.

But different cultural perspectives can transform one concept considerably, and this can be applied to arcade games. Back in the glory days of arcades, westerners played in an arcade maybe once a month or even once a week at most. However in Japan, with its density of population, going to an arcade can become simply a part of your everyday routine, similar to how westerners play their games on home and mobile platforms. But what could one keep coming back to the arcade, time and again? Cards. Yes. Magnetic cards.

Derby Owners Club

It all began with the SEGA horse raising and racing game Derby Owners Club, where each magnetic card the machine dispenses and reads contains your individually trained horse. A very absurd concept to bring to arcades, indeed. But it caught on very well, even in the few times it went to western arcades:

It’s not uncommon for players to remain on the game for over eight hours, in some cases taking their lunch and dinner right at the game,” said Peter Gustafson, Sega Entertainment USA’s director of sales and marketing, in a press release announcing the game’s 2002 US release. “In fact, one of the most loyal players, a man in his early 50s, owns a stable of over forty horses. He keeps track of [them] on an excel spreadsheet. I’m not familiar of [sic] any other video game that elicits this kind of passion.

Each player trains their horse in one of 10 exercises, and also feeds it. Then it’s off to the races.  Players use “whip” and “hold” buttons to control the speed of their horse. After the race, players are awarded with virtual prize money and the opportunity to give the horse encouragement or derision, based on its performance. Like a pet simulator, the horse either shows happiness and affection or is perhaps dissatisfied and will show it to the player in various ways.

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World Club Champion Football

That is the kind of experience that normally MMO type of games on PC would provide, but is offered in the arcade. Derby Owners Club is a relaxing game inviting 8 players at a time. The total opposite by what would one think of an arcade game.

But Sega didn’t stop there. Horses are popular, but what by far one of the most popular sport in the world? Football (or Soccer)!

Utilizing Sega’s same DOC Cabinet concept, World Club Champion Football, has some more tricks up its sleeve. Namely trading cards and the flat surface reader that can be manipulated with the cards. Once you place your eleven players and have your formation, you then via the buttons either give commands to the team or shoot the ball and also catch the ball with the goalie. Your team can have stats in either Offense, Defense, Passing, Possession, Speed, and Power, which all improve along the game, like the horses in Derby Owners Club.

The Key of Avalon
The Key of Avalon

If Derby Owners Club is the relaxing “hangout” game, World Club Champion Football is the cheering and “crowd” game. SEGA’s third card-based hit was the game The Key of Avalon, a strategy/thinking sort of game.

If you are familiar with Culdcept, the game is basically that, tough I’m not sure where the finer differences lie. Both games can basicilly be described as a mix of board game and card game. Nonetheless like World Club Champion Football, it offers some more unique cabinet features. Firstly it has a card reader, where the slot can read an entire deck of cards in a matter of seconds. Secondly, there is a touchscreen, using no buttons at all like previous card reader games did. Less moving parts is certainly a plus for arcade owners.

The Key of Avalon offers a different experience than the sport-oriented games, bringing the Magic The Gathering type of aesthetics and also that type of audience.

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Quest of D

At first the game makes you choose out of about thirteen different avatars as well making you read your deck. The game lays out a board with four players which have two roles. One is the holder with the name “Key of Avalon”. The holder must visit three out of four towers and the the remaining castle to win the game. The remaining chasers try to get the key by bumping into the holder and starting the battle with your accompanied monster. To move on the field, you use six cards in each turn. There are monster cards, monster support and character support cards, divided into colors (green, yellow, red, blue), rarity value (of which there are five), and also their value in attack, defense and movement.

SEGA successfully brought the novelty of cards to the arcade through personalized horses, soccer teams, and fantasy creatures.

But how about loot that you get from playing action RPG’s like Phantasy Star Online or Diablo? That would be the concept behind the game Quest of D. It essentially uses the cabinet style of The Key of Avalon, however in addition to touchscreen controls to manipulate the game it also utilizes a control stick and buttons to play. Also like The Key of Avalon it has different types of cards, as well as a character you choose before starting. The game has monster cards (supporting familiars), item cards (the loot of the game), as well as the skill cards. The classes available to play as are Warrior, Monk, Magician, Thief, Human, Elf and Dwarf.

Below is an impression from a Podcast that played this…

It was really fun, it was this very interesting evolution of games that I haven’t really expected. I have seen the card games where you move cards on the flat surface, or do you things like Pokémon. I have never seen this. Where it is like Magic the Gathering…where you put in your deck, but then you play with other people like Diablo. And the loot is a physical thing that you can trade in the real world, which is the crack that unfortuanently will never come to western arcades.

The flat panel reader from World Club Champion Football had too much potential to just be used for the soccer crowd. Koei Tecmo’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms series has been popular in Japan for a long while, and making it into an arcade game like World Club Champion Football is a recipe for success. Unlike that game, however, Sangokushi Taisen can detect the exact movement of the cards, and not just the initial placement, making it more intense.

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Sangokushi/Sengoku Taisen

Battle plays out in a way in which you put out different generals in the battlefield, rather than soccer players. Each general has difference in attributes in strengh and itelligence, and is differentiated in the types of troops. You also have different types of mana energy in this game. One is for the troops, meaning from the eight slots, each troop can take up from 1 to 3 slots. Then there is the bar for special abilities, which fills itself up over time. Generally this contributes to strength that can be applied to the troop type, while intelligence contributes to the abilities that the troop has. Sometimes, when two troops face each other, a mini-game activates where one strike kills the other troop. Generally the player wins when they bring the enemy’s health of its castle down to zero, and like a fighting there is a time limit as well.

The troops are Swordmen, Spearmen, Cavalry, Archers and Siege. The troops are all weak and strong against each other, but have additional attributes as well. For one, they have six special abilities which are Revival (speed up the revival of the generals when they fall in battle), Charisma (buffers up the mana bar in the game), Recruitment (takes in a troop that you never used in the battle taking place), Ambush (a stealth technique that makes your troop invisible until contact), Fence (places a wooden plate for more defense on your castle), Link (if multiple troops have that Link ability, they can enhance the current ability that is being used).

Sangokushi Taisen became a giant hit and is said to be extremely addicting. Here described as one of Sega’s more younger designers, Takashi Youda, who started developing from Jet Set Radio, through Yakuza, to currently mobile games:

This game is very unique where moving physical cards is required to play the game. While the game mechanic is simple, deck management, situational awareness, and accurate army management is required. All these factors culminate into addictive 8 minute battles that offer the joys of victory, and at times the bitter taste of defeat. This game is played with other players, so there is plenty of deck variety to be seen with lots of art illustrations. It’s almost impossible to see the same deck from any two people. I’ve continued playing this game for over 7 years and I don’t think I’ll be getting sick of it any time soon…

In 2006, arcade revenue in Japan reached it’s peak, and this is in part thanks to SEGA’s titles mentioned above. It’s likely World Club Champion Football made SEGA more money than pretty much any other title they have released.

As SEGA moved in the HD era in arcades with the Lindbergh onwards, the company took these games and further evolved them. Derby Owners Club got a version on the Sega Lindbergh, World Club Champion Football evolved into World Club Champion Football: Intercontinental ClubsQuest of D eventually evolved in 2009 into an action rpg called Shining Force Cross, having little to do with the Shining Force SPRG’s. I think it looks very fun, however dropping the card aspect of Quest of D, makes it seem like another action RPG.

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Border Break

2009 was the launch year of big mecha versus game Border Break, a much bigger and complex game than SEGA’s other mecha franchise Virtual-On. 10 vs 10, described as a mix of Battlefield and Armored Core. The cabinet itself is set up like Quest of D with a touchscreen, but with controls that resemble a PC control stick and mouse to emulate the feel of playing on the PC. Also like Quest of D, it uses the online component, but it enhances it to the point where there is no need to disc swap, it updates the software of the game as well.

In Border Break. the mech is known as a Blast Runner, which are divided into four classes: Assault, Heavy, Sniper and Support. All with different weapons and all being customizable on 5 different parts. Before the match you customize, and each time you respawn on the map you can choose one of your classes. What makes the game special are the nuances and behaviors depending on the classes and also the type of armor, and also choosing the right class after you respawn. And the touchscreen to manipulate the game also makes it very active. To describe the charm and success of Border Break, one reviewer put it this way:

Though the truly striking thing about Border Break, more than any other, is how seamless the game integrates a western design approach for a PC shooter with the very Japanese rule sets that ensconce its mecha mythos. You’d think that Western developers would have nailed this long ago but SEGA have done what many probably thought to be wholly incompatible; a standardized western approach to controls with the bespoke nature of Japanese mecha. It’s an impressive achievement and one that will most likely be completely overlooked, as there are currently no plans to release Border Break overseas.

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Sega Card Gen MLB

The same year, Sega did location testing on an MLB themed game, developed for the North American market,called Sega Card Gen MLB however it failed in location testing (and was more successful in Japan). You stick the cards on top of the cabinet to simulate eleven position of a real baseball field. The game is played with just the touchscreen and one button that is shaped like a baseball. The cards have stats in Power, Contact, Speed, Throwing and Fielding. The game has both pitching and batting, with the former being simply played with the button, while the former has some more touchscreen elements.

2013, Code of Joker launched. This is the most barebones game of all of them thus far, having no physical cards – and also being just a standard card battle game. There is no board or strategy game mixed within, but is really just one on one game like Yu-Gi-Oh or Magic the Gathering.

You have the 7 characters to choose from with all their specific joker cards with all their special abilities. Then you have the Unit Card, which are the monsters which are divided into warrior, monster, genius, devil, angel, machine, hero and more. Combination monsters can also be summoned to help the units, just like the character you choose. Non-monster cards are the Trigger cards, which activate when you attack and then there are Inticaptor cards that activate on players. As you can see, there are many layers to it.

One blogger living in Japan describes the positives of the game in this way, of him choosing the game to be the second best game of the year in 2013:

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Code of Joker

Code of Joker is a little bit hard to describe but the way I put it forward to my friends is “imagine if you took Yu-Gi-Oh, Magic the Gathering and the Pokemon trading card game and smashed them all together” and that about sums the whole thing up.

While it’s a little expensive at 300 Yen per play, matches do tend to last a while and you are given more and more cards every time.  Also you don’t need to carry a deck around with you since it is kept on a nice little stat card that you register when you put in your first credit.

There’s a large number of cards so there is plenty of room to tailor a strategy that suits you and on top of that you get to pick one character out of a pool of about….7…I think…each with their own unique power that may change the tide of a duel if it’s not going so well for you.

Couple that with every single Code of Joker machine being hooked up to an internet connection so that you can play anyone in Japan from any game centre in the country and it makes for a fun time.  It’s a shame this kind of coin-op innovation isn’t more readily available in western countries.

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The World of Three Kingdoms

In 2014, SEGA launched their next game, which featured a feudal Asian theme. Sangokushi Taisen based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms had been replaced by the feudal Japan version Sengoku TaIsen, but the Chinese themes were still popular. So SEGA came up with a game called THE WORLD OF THE THREE KINGDOMS, with the Japanese title being literally being spelled out like that to differentiate from the Japanese lettering of Sangokushi Taisen.

Either way, it is not an RTS, but rather a real time action game. There are four troops, with cavalry and foot soldiers with an additional heavy version of each, all with their special abilities, such as being able to climb steeper terrain. The commands are either attack, archers and special, with the touchscreen being used to execute certain abilities or certain formations of your army. Of course before anything else, you choose your general that you customize differently to influence your stats.

For some reason or another, the game ended not being successful and was shut down two years after operation.

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Wonderland Wars

However the following year, a game called Wonderland Wars would end up being much more successful. Like Border Break, it translates a popular western genre, that being the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), and translates it to Japanese arcades. The control is also unique with one joystick and a pen to use to manipulate the game’s environment, and perform and execute actions.

At first you choose four out of more than 20 characters, with multiple variations, for a 4vs4 match. They have health, magic, base attack, speed, and drawing distance stats (related to effectiveness of drawing with the pen). You level your character and customize them with different cards to either apply different “attack skills”, assist cards and during a pitch during a match you can activate an ultimate “Soul Card”, that could be a deciding factor during a match. Like in Sangokushi Taisen, an actual K.O. or the opponents higher health bar after the time limit decides the match. To knock down the enemies health, you defeat your opponent characters as well as the castles stationed on the field.

The last game to mention here is Kantai Collection Arcade – the licensed game of the bunch and the latest to be released. It is a conversion of the web based game that is about organizing fleetships, that are represented as girls, to fight various enemies. The arcade version truly is an envolved version of the game, with actual physical cards. The game has naval themed controls in the wheel and throttle, as well as a button to fire.

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Kancolle Arcade

As you play the game you get more and more ships to build your fleet, and also build as you get more resources to build your ships. The ships are divided into multiple types such as Destroyer, Battleships and Aircraft Carriers, and you equip different weapons such as torpedoes or short range rapid fire guns. You also have stats for each ship such as how well they can traverse the sea and take down enemies and/or collect resources. You go through different missions and setting up the right fleet with the right formation is key. The game starts deploying the ships and then start traveling the vague paths that you set them to, based on hints on the map. The battle is all but determined on how well you format your troops, use the right ships, and also have have the right timing. After battle, you get more points to customize your ship and weapons, as well as equip items to use on battle.

Once again, I can only describe the surface of each game as I have not personally played it. However it is worth noting that this game was developed by the greatest arcade developer of all time – AM2! The game is said to be enjoyable by all kinds of players, at least according to this blogger:

There is a crazy amount of depth to this arcade game, with a boatload of ships to collect, weapons to craft and missions to undertake. Playing for an hour felt like I barely scratched the surface and I plan to play again in the near future and try to add to my collection. I can see why the game has a constant hour plus wait to play. If you happen to have the chance to play, it’s absolutely worth checking out regardless of whether you are a fan of KanColle before playing.

CONCLUSION

As mentioned, these types of games became one SEGA’s pillars, and in the western world, it is pretty much unknown. Ten years ago, SEGA’s development strength were truly in the games that you think of as “actiony”, with countless games that are designed to be tight and polished. Examples of the early third party era of SEGA would be Jet Set Radio Future, Super Monkey Ball or even Sonic Adventure 2 (for all the hate it gets, Sonic and company move around pretty solidly). However with clunky games like Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg or even Shinobi and the epitome of them all, Sonic 2006, SEGA lost some reputation as reputable developer.

One thing Sega managed to stay good at are deeper experiences like RPG’s, management types of games or anything of that sort. And the games mentioned in this article prove it. However SEGA has given western gamers little taste of this – one would be Valkyria Chronicles and certain mini-games in the Yakuza series, and also in mobile games like Kingdom Conquest and Alexandria Bloodshow that have been acclaimed for their inventiveness. Derby Owners Club machines can even still be found in the west at select arcades – namely Dave & Busters and GameWorks. Here is hoping SEGA can deliver more of this in the future in a big way.

3 responses to “SEGA Retrospective: The Deeper Arcade game – An oxymoron that became one of SEGA’s pillars

  1. U-10 says:

    Part of me thinks that the lack of coverage on these arcade SEGA games not just has to do with their Japan-exclusivity, but with the bad reputation SEGA has (and still kinda does have) outside of Japan — even before titles like the infamous Sonic ’06.

    SEGA as a whole was always known for being an offbeat developer, and while they might’ve had a lot of hits at the time, things were never exactly smooth sailing for them, if at all. Because of SEGA’s incredulously determined attempts at often-expensive “experimentation” (the Model 2 and 3 arcade boards co-produced with Lockheed Martin, Shenmue, etc.), the numerous bad business decisions they made (arguably the Mega CD/Sega CD and 32X, SEGA having basically rushed the Saturn and Dreamcast to get “headstarts” against Sony, etc.), and, of course, their over-reliance on Sonic (among other things; such as the constant in-fighting between the Japanese and American branches) is what lead to SEGA gaining it’s reputation, in spite of all their creative minds and innovation.

    It’s why most of SEGA’s first-time accomplishments are overlooked and taken for granted (Shenmue — which paved the way for open-world games — and Phantasy Star Online — which was the first online console game IIRC). It’s why certain good, yet obscure games from them are barely mentioned (Spikeout). It’s even why you have people exclaiming that “Sonic/SEGA was never good”. And I think that’s a very big fucking mistake; regardless of how you personally feel about SEGA’s games and/or the company itself.

    But I also think the lack of willingness SEGA has on trying to export their most popular Japanese arcade titles (and therefore, the relatively low coverage of them on overseas gaming sites) mostly has to do with, well… arcades having essentially been dead outside of Japan (but even there, it’s kinda on life support), due to the advent and convenience of video game consoles and handhelds (and, arguably, emulation); and perhaps some other factors that I might be overlooking as well. Considering how this article briefly mentions the failed American location test for Sega Card Gen MLB — a modern Japanese arcade game-esque title infused with Western appeal — I think that speaks volumes about the state of overseas arcades.

    [NOTE: Please do NOT quote me on any of what I’m about to say here, since I might be mostly or entirely off the mark about some/all of the following information here (and also I might be forgetting some stuff). This is just what I know from me lurking around video game enthusiast sites, reading up on a lot of articles and interviews and such — just from me being an amateur “game historian” of sorts. Take of this info what you will.]

    What I find especially ironic about this is that, “in the beginning” (so to speak), most Western and European game players/journalists/developers/etc. looked up a lot to [mostly Japanese-developed] arcade games; despite most Western and European devs and game markets being *vastly* different from Japanese ones (Atari and the second generation of video game consoles, the many UK-based cassette/PC games around that time, etc.). However, as the Japanese video game market were mostly “contained in it’s own bubble”, not many Japanese developers looked over yonder across the ocean for influence.

    Because of this, in later years (specifically from the early 90s to the late 2000s), most Japanese video game professionals and insiders didn’t really give much a shit about what Western and European game creators were doing across the ocean. The Japanese PC game market, at least during the advent of the Windows OS systems (I’m aware of stuff like NEC’s PC-9800 series, Fujitsu’s FM Towns and the MSX and all that) was sorta virtually “non-existent”. *Online* PC games? Pfffft.

    I only know of a few Japanese games whom’s development were influenced by what Western/European games were doing at the time (one of them being SEGA’s own Phantasy Star Online), and a few titles that attempted to localize PC games to suit a Japanese audience (Namco’s Counter Strike NEO, Taito’s Half-Life 2: Survivor). Eventually, however, a small, but dedicated PC market slowly started to build up in Japan, and Japanese devs are started to pay more attention to PC gaming.

    Nowdays, from what I can see, the complete opposite is happening: Japanese developers are more and more looking at the Western and European game markets for inspiration and influence (even collaborating with those devs more frequently), while most Western and European game professionals and insiders don’t really give much shit about the current Japanese arcade market (or indeed, as it could be argued, Japanese games in general — ignoring all the Otaku-pandering garbage fests). Of course, there are exceptions to this, but they’re few and far between.

    (And, of course, the current situation in the Japanese game market as a whole’s far more complicated; thanks to the alarming popularity of mobile apps and (arguably) pachinko machines, slowly “erasing” video game consoles and handhelds.)

    Sorry for the long comment here, but I felt like I had to chime in on the matter.

  2. super kock says:

    You could say sega is a louche bussiness company being leeched vy the ceo’s

  3. Foxysen says:

    What an excellent article about such untouched topic!

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