Monday, December 9, 2019

Games 116-121: Early Sega

The first time I ever heard of “Sega” was in late 1990, when a friend introduced me to the Sega Genesis. Until then, Nintendo had been more or less synonymous with video games in my mind, and the Sega games, with their massively improved graphics and audio, blew my mind. This was, in effect, my first exposure to next-generation gaming.

For a long time, I viewed Sega as a relative newcomer to video games, existing mainly as a competitor to Nintendo. I later learned of the Master System, which I viewed as a predecessor to the Genesis, and understood existed as a response to Nintendo. I became aware of their prolific and often cutting-edge arcade game output in the 80’s, but viewed them as ephemera with less lasting appeal than the Nintendo games I had been playing at home during this time.

Imagine my surprise, when I learned that Sega not only been making video games for years before Nintendo, but had presence in the arcade scene long before Atari existed!

Their earliest arcade games were electromechanical machines, with their first international hit Periscope released in 1966. Based on an earlier Namco electromechanical game, also called Periscope, players launch torpedoes, represented by lines of electric lights, at a convoy of model boats moving through an ocean diorama. This game design survives today as Midway’s Sea Wolf, which is emulated in MAME, but the periscope peripheral can’t be properly emulated, and without it, it isn’t much fun to play.

Photo by SegaRetro

Following the huge success of Pong, Sega was among the first of many companies to copy its design. They released Pong-Tron to Japanese arcades in 1973, making it their first purely electronic video game. Updates later that year included Pong-Tron II, which added a singleplayer challenge mode where the player aims for a field goal in the middle of the left-hand side of the screen, and Hockey TV, which gives each player two paddles (but only one knob per side to control both, unlike Pong Doubles in 1974).

Over the next few years, they would transition away from electromechanical games, phasing them out by 1976. Some of their games released over these years included light gun games such as Balloon Gun and Bullet Mark, and sports games such as Goal Kick and Last Inning. They would also license games from American developers, such as Clean Sweep from Ramtek, for Japanese distribution. Moto-Cross was one of their more important games of this period, a pseudo-3D motorcycle racing game with sprite and background scaling. It was rebranded as Road Race, Man T.T., and most famously, Fonz. All of these games are based on TTL logic, and none are emulated.

In 1977, Sega created the VIC Dual system board, which powers their earliest emulated games.  Here, I feel, the history of Sega games truly begins.

Game 116: Depthcharge

Among the first games published by Sega for their platform, Depthcharge was developed by Gremlin, who previously developed Blockade; an important ancestor to the Snake game genre. It’s difficult to know how much Sega was involved in the development of any of these games, but I have to imagine that, being new hardware designed by Sega, they must have had some involvement in creating the earliest games for it.

The concept is like Periscope in reverse – you control a destroyer, and drop proximity charges on convoys of submarines below, which blindly launch surface mines. Atari released a conceptually very similar game the same year, and it’s unknown which came first, but in Atari’s game, you had little control over the destroyer, the subs did not return fire, and it featured actual depth charges, with depth fuzes that had to be set before dropping. Sega’s game gives you direct control, and you simply drop your charges from the port or starboard, which automatically detonate on contact with a sub.

Depthcharge is a very slow-paced game, but doesn’t lack for challenge. You can have a maximum of six charges in the water at once, which is indicated on the UI, and I found I had better results by dropping blankets of charges than I did by trying to estimate how far a sub would travel by the time my charge would drop to its depth. Often, my extra charges would wind up hitting previously unseen subs – generally a good thing, but sometimes it meant that a low-scoring sub ate multiple charges intended for a higher scoring one.

That said, low-scoring subs are worth more than it seems. When the time runs out, you will receive a 30 point bonus for each sub sunk, which effectively means each sub is worth 30 points more than its score tag says. The game grants extended time for scoring 500 points, and the bonus does not count toward this, so you will want to prioritize high-scoring subs accordingly until you’ve reached this threshold.

Getting hit by the floating mines won’t end your game, but will cost you 100 points, and potentially much more. This is because during your destroyer’s sinking animation, you can’t move, and each additional mine that hits during this time will cost you another 100 points. They’re slow and easy to avoid, but hit detection is a bit off and you can sometimes get sunk by one that looks like it should have been a miss, so it’s better to stay far away from them until the explosion animation ends.

The controls aren’t as fancy as Atari’s Destroyer, let alone Periscope and its pedigree; all you get is four pushbuttons, two to move the destroyer, and two to drop charges on either side. The hit detection is kind of wonky too, on both sides. Despite this, I found it more fun than those games. There’s a sense of strategy, balancing the act of keeping charges in the water with having enough reserves to deal with unexpected and unpredictable shallow-sailing subs. The sound design is excellent, and the animations, though few in number, are pretty elaborate considering this is a game from 1977.

GAB rating: Above Average. I like it, but don’t feel too strongly about it.

The majority of VIC Dual games were also developed by Gremlin, until late 1978, when they merged with Sega.

Game 117: Deep Scan

The original version of Deep Scan is not emulated in MAME, but rather MAME emulates a dual-game machine with Deep Scan and Invinco; Sega’s take on Space Invaders (as seems was standard for all Japanese developers of the day). Deep Scan’s sound effects, sadly, are not emulated or sampled.

It’s a remake of Depthcharge, but abandons the penny arcade structure in favor of the now more familiar format where you play until you run out of lives. To ensure that you do run out of lives at some point, the subs get more numerous and more aggressive as they start to get away.

Compared to Depthcharge, Deep Scan plays a bit faster, has more colorful graphics, albeit with less animation. Hit detection now appears to be pixel-accurate, which makes hitting subs much harder. Subs now become destroyed instantly, and do not block multiple charges, which actually discourages cluster bombing, as all but one will probably miss and leave you disarmed until they hit the bottom of the ocean. Once subs start getting away, they’ll become more numerous, and therefore more of them will get away, quickly and exponentially ramping up the difficulty until survival is impossible.

The destruction bonus is now 50 points per sub, but it is no longer automatically gained at the end; you must hit a red submarine to cash in, and taking a hit costs you the entire bonus. The bonus far outstrips points gained normally, but I wasn’t able to achieve it even once.

I don’t especially like the positive feedback loop mechanic, where small errors quickly beget more and more errors until the difficulty reaches critical mass and you’re screwed. Arcade games must have some built-in mechanism for ending the game to keep the quarters flowing, but I’d rather difficulty spikes come from player success than player failure.

GAB rating: Average. It has positive points, but I like it less than Depthcharge, and still don’t feel all that strongly about it.

Game 118: Carnival

A shooting gallery video game, with some gimmicks made possible by the video game format.

The bezel provides some instructions:

There are actually two bonuses – one for hitting all of the pipes, which starts out large, and decreases over time, and another for spelling B-O-N-U-S, which starts out small, and increases with each target you hit (but stops increasing once you hit the B, and is forfeit if you hit any of the letters out of order). In addition, sometimes a yellow frame with bonus bullets or points appears, and can be worth upwards of 500 points or the bullet equivalent if you hit it fast enough, which is as good as a reasonably quick pipe bonus.

Ducks are a real nuisance, and ensure that you can’t just sit in one spot and hit the pipes at leisure. And the B-O-N-U-S letters just seem to be ridiculously easy to hit when unintended, therefore ruining the spelling bonus, but nigh-impossible to hit when you’re just trying to hit them so you can clear the board and finish the round.

GAB rating: Average.

I found this game more annoying than fun. Things are always getting in the way or being a distraction. That’s where the difficulty comes from, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying to play. And while it was nice of them to provide a way to turn off that annoying carnival music, it’s just a time-waster as you have to move all the way to the far right of the screen and shoot the music box to turn it off, and it turns back on again at the beginning of the next round. It’s fun enough that I can rate it Average, but also annoying enough that I can’t rate it more than that.

Game 119: Space Fury

Sega’s take on Asteroids is frantic, chaotic, and colorful, but what might be its most notable feature (apart from allegedly tending to catch on fire!) is the almost alarmingly clear voice synthesis, which emotes and inflects, even if does sound more like a Buzz Lightyear toy than a fearsome alien warlord. Sound emulation isn’t perfect – it’s too fast, too high pitched, and clips at the end of each syllable, but even with these flaws it’s still almost uncanny considering the era.

The game itself feels pretty wack. To finish a wave, you have to destroy all onscreen enemies before reinforcements come, and reinforcements seem to come almost immediately when you start shooting, and hit detection on both sides is unreliable, so you just wind up spraying and praying. Between rounds, you have the option of picking a “dock” to upgrade your weapon capabilities, and woe betide you should you overshoot your target and begin a round without one – you will in effect be doomed, unable to take on the endlessly respawning destroyers with your stock pea shooter.

Each of the three upgrades, when taken, will be unavailable for the next phase, until you have taken each one, at which point they’ll all be available again. The blue upgrade, which allows triple forward-fire, is clearly the best, and therefore best saved for the very difficult wave 4. Once wave 4 is completed, if you have taken all three upgrades, then all three upgrades come back and you can take the blue one again for the fifth round against the “entire fleet,” which as far as I can tell is endless.

GAB rating: Below Average

It’s inoffensive, but the play is marred by weird mechanics, poor hit detection and is otherwise unremarkable.

Game 120: Turbo

This strikes me as a pseudo-3D remake of Monaco GP, an earlier TTL-based Sega game that through some voodoo accomplishes more graphical tricks than should be possible without a CPU.

You’re driving in a very long endurance race against seemingly unlimited opponents, all of them incapable of hitting high gear. Passing them wouldn’t be a problem, except that they drive like they’re drunk and it’s easy to slam into them, again and again, costing precious seconds. Your goal is to pass 40 before time runs out, which grants extended play, but with a nasty surprise; now crashing kills you. Lose two lives, and your extended play (and game) is over.

Like Monaco GP, controls are twitchy and annoying, and crashes just don’t feel avoidable. I played with a keyboard, as I don’t have a steering wheel, but I don’t think a wheel would have helped much; the crashes came less often from my inability to control the car and more often from my inability to predict where all those road hogs were going to be as I tried to not be there when it happened. The constant perspective changes are kind of neat, but the transitions are abrupt and jarring, and another source of unavoidable crashes.

GAB rating: Below Average, for the sum of its annoying play mechanics.

Game 121: Zaxxon

Sega’s earliest whale is, according to Wikipedia, the very first video game to employ an axonometric projection to convey a 3D effect. Mathematically, all isometric projection is axonometric, but not all axonometric projection is isometric. In true isometric perspective, any two lines that would intersect at 90 degrees in the 3D space will intersect at exactly 120 degrees in the 2D projection.

True isometric perspective is rare in video games, and most of the games labeled this way are merely axonometric, but Zaxxon is in fact both.

And this seems like an odd choice for this kind of game, a 3D variant of Scramble. Gauging depth is nearly impossible in a truly isometric perspective, and this is a critical skill in a shmup. To aim at your enemies, or avoid crashing into the terrain, you must know where your ship is relative to these things. An altimeter on display doesn’t help very much, as it doesn’t really indicate anything relative to the terrain.

Fortunately, there are a few tools; your shadow indicates the ship’s X,Y position, and most of your targets are on the ground – pity your only weapon is a laser gun, and you don’t have bombs! The laser gun also helps determine your position relative to the terrain; often you must pass through a small opening in a wall, but firing your laser gun will either impact on the wall or pass through the opening, as will your ship on its unadjusted trajectory.

Once you understand how to deal with brick walls, you’re fairly safe in the air. But, if you spend too much time at a high altitude, a homing missile will fly right at you, so it’s best to stay at low altitude where you can shoot at the ground targets for points and fuel, as you do in Scramble. Fuel drums are wide targets but must be hit close to the center to count, while merely brushing up against them is enough to kill you. High scoring targets are risky; laser guns pointed in your direction don’t shoot often, but if they do, dodging may be impossible. The most valuable targets are the satellite dishes, which are often out of the way and close to dangerous terrain, requiring fancy flying to swoop in, shoot them down and swoop out fast enough to pass through the next obstacle without crashing into it.

But at the midpoint of the loop, forget it. There, you’ll encounter a dogfight against up to 20 fighters in deep space, and without shadows as a visual aid there’s just no good way to align them in your sights. The game cheats on the isometric projection a bit by enlarging or shrinking the sprites as they climb or dive, which doesn’t normally occur during a true isometric projection, but it’s not enough. Your fighter also displays a targeting reticle, complete with an audible ding, when a fighter is in your sights, but they’ll fly out of your sights too quickly for human reaction time. Fortunately, their shots are just as unlikely to hit you as yours are to hit them, so flying around wildly and shooting a lot, hitting whenever you happen to, seems to get pretty good results.

At the end of the loop, you’ll face Lego Robby the Robot, who is indestructible and armed with a single homing missile. Shoot the missile six times and it will explode, and cause the robot to run away, granting you a pathetically small 200 point bonus. It’s not terribly difficult, but you don’t have much time to find the correct altitude and alignment for blasting it out of its launcher, a task aided by your shadow and laser impact points on the robot itself.

Then, the loop repeats on a higher difficulty.

GAB rating: Above Average

Zaxxon has a pretty steep learning curve, but I had fun with it once I learned how to survive for longer than a few seconds. It won’t make my list of all-time greats – it hasn’t got the gameplay depth of Defender and Stargate, or the variety of Scramble and Super Cobra – but it was entertaining enough for a few hours.

Interestingly, despite its importance as an early hit, Sega hasn’t done much to revisit this IP. There aren’t very many 3D shmups out there, but with a polygonal 3D engine, I could see Zaxxon working out as one, and a true 3D perspective would solve some of the issues plaguing the original. In fact, Coleco used a pseudo-3D, behind-the-ship forward-scrolling perspective when they ported Zaxxon to the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. Sega would use the same perspective and also support stereoscopic 3D glasses in their much later Master System port. The next and final Zaxxon game, on Sega’s failed 32X console, did in fact use 3D polygons. Paradoxically, it lacked 3D gameplay, confining the action to a flat isometric-projected plane.


  1. Zaxxon is, in fact, not quite isometric. Zaxxon's faux isometric lines have slope of 1 over 2, which gives them the angle of 26.57 degrees (atan(1/2)) instead of true isometric's 30 degrees (atan(1/sqrt(3)). Sadly true isometric doesn't work well on a raster screen until high resolution displays with antialiasing. But this is the next best approximation on a computer screen and typically called isometric.

    I felt this was important to clarify since you talked about true isometric views.

    1. Thanks for that information. My videos usually preserve pixel aspect ratio, so that I can avoid resizing artifacts without upscaling very high, but also because I figured that a lot of early pixel artists didn't bother adjusting for aspect ratio (e.g. Combat, whose tanks rotate smoothly at a 14:9 aspect ratio, but not an authentic 4:3 one). Is it possible that this is why Zaxxon's angles aren't quite isometric? My video is a chunky pixel 7:8 aspect ratio, but real hardware runs on a slightly slimmer 3:4 one.

    2. Good observation, I forgot that these games often didn't have square pixels. Zaxxon runs at a really weird resolution. I looked up the monitor and it's just a bog standard 19" one, so it's a 4:3 monitor on its side.

      Correcting for the weird 224x256 resolution gives 30.26 degrees, which I think we can safely forgive. (atan[ (4/256) / 2(3/224) ] = 30.256437...)

      Standard VGA resolution (which also doesn't have square pixels), incidentally, gives 31 degrees. (atan[ (3/200) / 2(4/320) ] = 30.963756...)

      So, what I said holds up once we get to games in the SuperVGA era which do have square pixels, 640x480 and up, or games which use the undocumented 320x240 Mode-X VGA resolution.

      Also, interestingly once we get to Amiga era, NTSC Amigas do not have square pixels, they have same aspect as the VGA (320x200 on 4:3 TV), however PAL Amigas do have square pixels (320x256 4:3 TV). So exact same game with exact same graphics could be either close to true isometric in US and significantly off in Europe.

      Of course, since all of these monitors are analogue, you could easily have several percent errors either way depending on the adjustments of the image trim pots. The above figures are for the ideal perfectly adjusted to spec monitors.

    3. I just re-uploaded my Zaxxon video with a fixed 3:4 aspect ratio, since I think we can reasonably assume Sega did their work and took the thin pixels into account. I also added a better (I hope!) explanation of what isometric projection means.

      For contrast, look at the Carnival video, which runs at the same 224x256 resolution, but the spinning wheel is already perfectly circular without needing to correct the aspect ratio.

      I've encountered several games that use the 224x256 resolution. Blockade, Super Breakout, Berzerk, Donkey Kong and all of Nintendo's earlier emulated games, and all of the games in this post except Space Fury. I think the strangest resolution I've encountered so far is 768x224, used by Galaxian and Konami's Scramble, Super Cobra, and Frogger. The main graphics are actually 256x224, but the starfield layer is triple that horizontally. If you look at the starfields closely, you'll see that they aren't the same resolution or aspect ratio as anything in the foreground.


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