~Second Part: From Sonic to Strider and Darius, how titles were selected~
A cool design with a black body. High specs with a 16bitCPU. “Mega Drive” attracted video game fans all over the world from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s with many masterpiece titles by SEGA and third parties. The successful hardware has now been reproduced as the “Mega Drive Mini” and “Genesis Mini” by shrinking it to a palm-size while keeping the original design, and it comes with as many as 42 titles from classics to rare titles that have a premium price in a used market.
The machine was announced at “SEGA FES 2018” for the Japanese domestic market, but it gathered huge attention and response from fans all over the world, so the plan was changed. It was later decided to release a North American version of “Genesis Mini” with different titles, and European & Asian versions of “Mega Drive Mini” at the same time. Since the included titles were announced in stages, getting fans excited each time titles were announced.
“Mega Drive Mini” was finally released on September 19th, 2019 in Japan, North America, and Asia. At this time, we had an interview with Mr. Hiroyuki Miyazaki and Mr. Yosuke Okunari from SEGA Games who played an important role in the development project of the world-wide-welcomed machine and asked them about the story of the development and the history behind it.
In this second part, let’s dig deeper into secrets about the story of development & game selection.
“The emulator developed by M2, who supports SEGA’s transplant titles, is like a secret sauce.”
OTAQUEST: I heard that the emulator(*) used in the Mega Drive Mini is developed by M2.
(*an emulator is a reproductive program of previous hardware that makes an original gaming program of the hardware work on different hardware.)
Yosuke Okunari: M2 is a developer who has been supporting SEGA’s transplant business for many of our legacy titles, and they are extremely good at transplanting retro games. The relationship was started when I reached out asking M2 to develop when I became a producer of the “SEGA AGES 2500” series for PS2. As I remained in charge of the transplant business, we have deepened our relationship with them as a partner. By working with the same developer for a long time, not only SEGA but also the developer can build know-how. By now we are in a situation where both of us can develop very efficiently.
Their technology was already quite advanced when we started doing business together 14 years ago, but now it’s even more advanced and has been continuously upgraded by developing emulators for various classic games. In other words, their emulator is like the “secret sauce” which has more than 10 years’ worth of knowledge behind it, and the product of that labor is inside the Mega Drive Mini. Of course, we might be able to make something better if we use high spec PC hardware, but considering the balance of performance and price, I can proudly say what we’re using in the Mega Drive Mini is best.
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: M2 has been researching emulators that work properly in various environments from Virtual Console for Nintendo Switch, PS4, PC, and even a board like what you find in the Mega Drive Mini. They have been constantly gaining experience. By continuing to research, they’ve realized various things about development and they can find easily solutions for a variety of problems. At the same time, emulated game software also has some specific characteristics, and understanding those is the key for proper emulation. Especially because legacy games were made to take advantage of the original hardware’s performance as much as it could, it happens commonly that games might now work quite right on an emulator or cannot display properly. If a company has been developing for a long time, they can find solutions for these problems by noticing things like “this is working the same as this other one we worked on before”. This is important knowledge & experience for transplanting games across platforms and it’s very hard to do the same thing for other manufacturers. Because M2 has a long history as our partner, we were able to develop the Mega Drive Mini in a relatively short period of time.
OTAQUEST: How long was the development period for the included game software?
Yosuke Okunari: Just for the included titles, we started in autumn 2018 and ended in spring 2019. It took about half a year. Of course, there was a preparation period, and if we add the time of building the actual hardware at the factory, the whole development period for the Mega Drive Mini is longer.
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: Around June, we announced the included titles on a Livestream, and also we announced “We started building the body at the factory yesterday!” We started receiving prototypes in mid-May, and development quickly progressed daily. The main reason why we were able to finish the software development in just about half a year is that we didn’t need to make the emulator from scratch. The Mega Drive Mini includes 42 different titles for each region. Some of them were our first time transplanting for emulation, but for other titles such as “SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2”, M2 had already made those work on their emulator, so we were able to finish transplanting those games very quickly.
OTAQUEST: Is there a reason why there are 42 included titles for each region?
Yosuke Okunari: At first, the project was only for Japan, so we made a lineup for Japan first and we were going to reconsider what titles to use if we decided to release it to overseas. At that time, we were thinking about including only around 30 titles due to the production period, but after we decided to release it worldwide simultaneously, we were able to get more time to develop, so we increased the lineup to 40 titles.
Regarding the titles for each region, Nintendo changed their lineup between North America/Europe and Japan. We knew that we were going to have many requests like “We want this title for America, or we need to have this title for Japan”, so we asked M2 in advance “Please prepare 70 titles.” (laughs) Then we discussed with staff from the US, Japan, and Europe about what titles each region wants to have, and we narrowed it down to 70 titles which was the limit.
As we made a progress, we started to realize things like “we want to have this title, but we can’t get the license”, and we started having a realistic overview of what exactly we were able to do. Eventually, we decided the 70 titles by changing the lineup little by little, and then we officially made an agreement with M2. As we were selecting titles, we decided to have the same lineup for North America and Europe. While M2 was working on their job, we worked on getting the necessary licenses.
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: We basically ordered M2 to make 70 titles without getting any licenses yet, so even if we were able to develop a game for the emulator, we didn’t know if the title actually could be included. (laughs) There were some titles we weren’t able to include for reasons related to the changes in the market since the 90s, like it being too gory, but the main reason came down to whether we could get the license or not.
Yosuke Okunari: Getting a license is like asking a third party “Please give us your game”. For the third party, even if they have once released the game, they have various intentions and agreements, so they sometimes say “we don’t want to re-release this game now…” Also, there were some titles that we didn’t even know who had the license anymore. While considering these things, for the lineup selection, we selected titles which “we can negotiate” and titles which “it might be hard to negotiate, but it would attract people if we can include it”. Our goal was to gather titles in which we were able to get a license by the end of the transplant work.
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: We can’t really say which ones but there are some titles that we were developing but include because we couldn’t settle an agreement in time.
OTAQUEST: Do you have any of those titles that you can name?
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: “Sword of Sodan” is one of them. It’s not said to be a masterpiece, but we wanted to include this because in some ways it’s one of the games that symbolizes the “Mega Drive Era”. However, if we included it, we would have had trouble with the rating, and we wouldn’t have been able to sell the Mega Drive Mini itself to kids. Also, you might notice by looking at the lineup, but we couldn’t include sports games which had real players’ names in them, again due to the license issue. On the Mega Drive Mini, there is only one sports game, “Powerball”, which is a fictional sport.
Yosuke Okunari: “Joe Montana Football” was a big hit in the US, so we really wanted to include it in the Genesis Mini, but it is very difficult to get a license for real players.
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: Other than that game, games related to major sports such as “NBA JAM” were very popular in the US. Thanks to those titles, the Genesis was very successful in the US market. In the recent retro game boom, the reason why we can’t include those titles is because of the licensing problem.
Yosuke Okunari: Genesis was so successful that it once became the top market share holder of consumer consoles in the US. Sports games were the necessary driving force, but this time we couldn’t cover the genre at all.
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: In a Mega Drive sales meeting at that time, a pie chart of the sales for each region showed that RPGs had a big percentage for Japan, but sports games covered most of the chart for the US. We are very disappointed that Genesis doesn’t have any of those very important titles.
OTAQUEST: Out of the selected 70 titles, how many titles were eventually included?
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: The Japanese version of the Mega Drive Mini has 42 titles. There are 17 titles that can be played only on Genesis, and there are 4 titles that can be played only on the Asian version of Mega Drive Mini, so the grand total is 63 titles.
““DARIUS” and “TETRIS”. Developing the two new titles was like walking a tightrope.”
OTAQUEST: Did you have a hard time selecting titles?
Yosuke Okunari: First of all, SEGA had already transplanted many legacy titles through the “SEGA AGES” brand and Nintendo’s Virtual Console. Overseas, there were also other products that collected Genesis titles. Compared to other developers, you can actually play a lot of our legacy titles. In that situation, when we thought about what kind of users would choose to buy this hardware, we asked ourselves “Is it enough to put just the classic games which already have been re-released?”. So we wanted to try to work on titles which we haven’t touched before, but for the un-touched titles, sometimes the development experience can be difficult. Unexpected things happen for transplants, we think we can do without much trouble it but once we actually start working on it, we end up doing a lot of hard work. Actually, there was a case in the past that we announced a game expecting to release it soon on Virtual Console, but then we found an unexpected problem and the release was pushed back for a year. If the schedule was anticipating that kind of problem, we could have put it off, but the Mega Drive Mini was set to half a year for the development period, so we couldn’t do that. We divided the 70 titles into around 1/3 of titles which we haven’t touched and the rest of the 2/3 which we could finish in a short period by utilizing past experience.
OTAQUEST: What difficulties did you face about transplanting the titles you selected?
Yosuke Okunari: The most difficult part was figuring out how we could finish the 1/3 of the titles within the time frame. Also, another difficult part was getting an internal approval for the risky challenge of developing the two “new” surprise titles, “DARIUS” and “TETRIS”, before getting the licenses. I don’t think we could have gotten the approval if it wasn’t for Miyazaki. (laughs)
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: It was difficult to get approval. It’s fine to develop things, but of course, it costs us to develop. I thought the two titles could be the keystone of various announcements and our marketing strategy. Our marketing strategy would have been different depending on having the 2 titles or not. For the announcement on the Livestream, we planned from the very beginning to announce the two titles at the end of the lineup. If we couldn’t include “DARIUS” and “TETRIS”, the end of the lineup would have been ended with “Lord Monarch Tokoton Sentou Densetsu” (Japan only) and “Snow Bros.” (Japan and Asia only), which are very unique titles LOL.
OTAQUEST: From a Mega Drive fan’s point of view, I think those two titles are so unpredictable. (laughs)
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: Yes, but it’s hard to beat “DARIUS” and “TETRIS” in terms of surprise. It was surely risky to approve.
Yosuke Okunari: Actually, we started working on them underground back around March just to be safe. That’s why we were almost certain that it was going to be included. (laughs) Miyazaki planned to announce 10 titles each at every online Livestream, but it was very fun to announce titles one after another to surprise the fans by making them think “What? Isn’t this title the main surprise?”.
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: For the games which have already been re-released on another product, they were developed by M2 who has a ton of experience, and I trusted Okunari’s choice, so I wasn’t expecting a big problem. For “TETRIS” and “DARIUS”, those games have never been released on Mega Drive and it was something that we had never seen before. We had no idea how it would come out as a transplant. Also, it required additional work on top of regular emulation. For the procedures of the production deadline for “DARIUS”, we had to think of it as a new title while being supervised by the licensee, Taito. I didn’t even know if we could actually finish on time for these titles. When I think back now, Okunari said “We can do it” but I think he was bluffing. (LAUGHS) For “TETRIS”, we applied the classic Tetris rules, and we had to be supervised by the licensee, The Tetris Company in Hawaii. They didn’t have a development environment for Mega Drive Mini, so I was wondering “How can they supervise us?” It was like walking a tightrope.
Yosuke Okunari: “TETRIS” was actually the slowest one to get an approval. It took a long time to make it work properly, and we barely made it in time by extending the development period for a month and a half. We thought that just saying “We have newly transplanted SEGA games!” would be boring and weak as a surprise, so we wanted some strong impact with “new titles” which had never been released on Mega Drive.
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: The first 70 titles and the 40 titles for each region, we overwrote the title lineup so many times. There were some titles which we tried to negotiate for but there was no hope. When I was looking at the lineup, I felt that Mega Drive was hardware for shooting and action games. The majority of the titles which we tried to include were shooting and action. We tried to balance out by combining the two genres into action shooting… It’s an old way of thinking but I re-realized that it was “guy’s hardware”.
“Mega Drive Mini focused on being able to enjoyed by players even for the first time. Genesis Mini focused on having more recognizable titles for many people.”
OTAQUEST: What was the part you cared about most when deciding titles for each region?
Yosuke Okunari: The first thing we thought about was the people who are going to “play Mega Drive for the first time”. Of course, we thought about people who used to like playing Mega Drive too, but when we considered the number of people who have bought and played Mega Drive in Japan, it wasn’t really enough for the business. It’s not like we ignored the old fans. We needed to care about the current SEGA fans and people who only had Super Famicom at that time and played Mega Drive only at a friend’s house. Also, we needed to convince people who used to be interested in the Mega Drive to be interested in it again, otherwise it didn’t make sense from a business perspective.
When we were deciding the included titles with that in mind, if we only selected “classic games for Mega Drive fans”, we thought we would get the “same result as before”. (laughs) Therefore, this time, we selected the lineup by considering how to get as many customers as we could. At the same time, we had an idea of removing games that are too difficult to play now, since some old games were user-unfriendly. We tried to include games that people can at least play even if it’s their first time.
OTAQUEST: The way of evaluating games is certainly different now from 30 years ago.
Yosuke Okunari: For example, SEGA has the popular RPG series, “Phantasy Star”. For Mega Drive, we have 3 titles in that franchise, “Phantasy Star II”, “Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom”, and “Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium”. Among these 3 titles, we included “The End of the Millennium” in Mega Drive Mini, however, the most popular title among the fans is “Phantasy Star II” which was released in 1989. I’m sure Mega Drive fans from that time have some strong feelings about this title.
The reason why we didn’t include it was that it’s too hard to play now. The moving speed feels like 1/3 of current games, the chance of enemy encounter is twice or three times higher, and the experience you get from enemies is so small. The difficulties of the dungeons are high, and it’s easy to get lost because the visibility of the map is so low. On top of that, we have to purposely fall into a hole to get some items that necessary to clear a dungeon… It’s very mean. (laughs) People who play this for the first time would probably quit playing before going to the first dungeon. On the other hand, “The End of the Millennium” which was released 4 years later in 1993 is a lot easier to play. By considering people who are playing for the first time, we thought “The End of the Millennium” would be the better choice. We can say the same for games in other genres released in later years being easier to play. We ended up having more titles that were released in later years for the Japanese version, and there are fewer favorite titles for core fans who bought Mega Drive on the release day and used to play a lot.
OTAQUEST: Is the title selection for Genesis Mini different?
Yosuke Okunari: The lineup for Genesis Mini was selected by staff in overseas. People in the US focus on their feelings about purchasing, and they have a strong opinion of “we want games which had a strong impact that everyone remembers, rather than the quality of game”, so Genesis Mini has “Altered Beast” and “Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle” for example which Japanese users call lackluster.
When we announced all of the included titles before Mega Drive Mini was released, I heard some Japanese core Mega Drive fan saying “My preference is more towards Genesis Mini. The Japanese lineup doesn’t attract me much”. I personally strongly agree with that. I was also one of the fans who bought and played Mega Drive on the release day. (laughs) But because of the reasons I previously mentioned, we made a lineup that core Mega Drive fans would feel like “it would be perfect if 30% of the titles were changed” and that various users would 70% satisfied. Each core Mega Drive fan might think “This title is missing!”, but by looking at the whole picture, we think we have enough titles to cover core Mega Drive fans, people who just know of Mega Drive, and people who don’t know about Mega Drive at all in a way that everyone would feel like it’s worth buying. In reverse, I think there are some people in the US who complain “I want to play more maniac-focused games from the later years like Mega Drive Mini, but Genesis Mini only has classic games”.
OTAQUEST: The Japanese version has many so-called premium games that are worth high prices in the collector’s market.
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: Premium games are, in other words, games that didn’t get many orders so didn’t have many shipped at that time. Especially, some titles from later years were so fun to play but were released around the time when game stores were having fewer Mega Drive games on their shelves, so it didn’t receive many orders and became rare. Now we can distribute games by download, so if something is a masterpiece, there is a chance for it to get played regardless of how many physical copies we make, but at that time there was no such convenient system, so I think those titles were unfortunate.
Yosuke Okunari: “Yu Yu Hakusho: Makyo Toitsusen” (Japan only), which everyone was surprised by at the lineup announcement, was released around October in 1994, and one month after the release, Sega Saturn was released. I’m sure that a lot of core SEGA fans were saving up money to buy games for Sega Saturn by that time. PlayStation was released around the same time. There were a lot of fun games in which people who had Mega Drive at that time didn’t touch for those reasons too.
“Other regional versions can be played by switching the console’s language. Contents will also change for some games.”
OTAQUEST: When you look at the lineup for Genesis Mini, it has “VIRTUA FIGHTER 2” which was the 2D version of the Sega Saturn’s system seller.
Yosuke Okunari: This title didn’t get released in Japan, but it was developed in Japan.
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: The one we worked on seriously.
Yosuke Okunari: The main staff was from Data East, and some experienced staff who worked on the pixel art for “CYBERNATOR” worked on that game.
OTAQUEST: Did M2 do all transplant work for Genesis Mini as well?
Yosuke Okunari: If we count each version with different languages as one title, M2 developed over 100 titles. This includes titles which they transplanted but did not get included due to the licensing problem. Some Japanese versions of Mega Drive game cartridges automatically switched the language to English when it was played on a Genesis. Some other titles were separate cartridges between Japan and overseas due to regulations for each country. For example, the Japanese version and European version of “Streets of Rage II” have the same contents as well as the internal data, but we had to change the game for the US version. The difference came down to whether we can see the underwear of the female character, Blaze, when she jumps. We had to follow regulations about sexual content. Mega Drive Mini multiples types of the software inside, so you can play and compare the 3 different versions for each region by switching the languages.
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: When Mega Drive was still major, such a difference was very common. You may think that we only need to change the graphics a little, but sometimes it would have been easier to just recreate the whole game as a different version than switching the graphics within the same software.
Yosuke Okunari: M2 was not expecting to make over 100 titles. At first, they were saying “We need to make 70, and the rest is just for different regions.”, but as they were making everything, they realized more about those kinds of differences. I’ve been talking about this a lot recently, but there is an action RPG game called “The Story of Thor: A Successor of The Light”. When the title was released, Saturn was already released, so the Mega Drive was becoming more multilingual and the title supported 7 different languages which were Japanese, American English, English, French, Spanish, German, and Korean. When we used to transplant games to new hardware, we only made the Japanese version, the US version, and European version… The European version is British English, and we basically had only 3 versions. Mega Drive Mini has a language setting, so we reproduced all the languages. Then we had to think about how to convert video output. The European version uses the PAL standard but Japan and the US use NTSC standard. There are some ways to convert PAL to be shown the same as NTSC. If we convert things in a normal way, some parts of the graphics pop out of the screen in PAL standard. There is a case in this game in which a dungeon door is displayed at the bottom of the screen and we can’t see the exit due to the conversion. Sometimes it affects the gameplay, so we need to change the way we convert things. There are some games that have differences between the US and British versions too like the US version of “The Story of Thor” has a completely different name, “Beyond Oasis”. It was changed probably because the marketing thought it could sell more.
OTAQUEST: Is there a case where the content itself is different?
Yosuke Okunari: Yes. In the RPG game, “Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole”, where a treasure hunter looks for an ancient treasure, the story ending is different between the US and the other regions. I don’t want to spoil it, so I’m not going to say it here, but it was probably changed due to a decision from the US marketing staff. Anyway, as we were proceeding on the project, we’ve found more of those differences and noticed “The European version can’t be the same as the US version”. People would be surprised if the ending was different from what they used to play, so we had to make transplanted software versions. In this way, we had to keep adding different versions.
OTAQUEST: Were you thinking about switching languages from the beginning?
Yosuke Okunari: This time, we were working from the beginning with a concept of not only having the multilanguage menu but also having each game in multiple languages so that people can play the games in different regions. The included titles are different between the Japanese version, Western version, and Asian version, but when there is the same title in Mega Drive Mini and Genesis Mini, we didn’t want to make people buy both of them in order to play in both Japanese and English. We wanted core fans to be able to play in the way they wanted and wanted them to also be able to play both versions and compare the language difference, so for the included titles, you can play all of the versions. Therefore, even if you buy the Japanese Mega Drive Mini, you can play English versions by changing the language on the menu. A player who has already tried the hardware in the US was surprised and said “When I changed “Dr. Robotnik” to Japanese, it became “Puyo Puyo”!” We would be happy if people feel that they got a good value from this.
For other games, European countries were very sensitive about violent content at the time when “Contra: Hard Corps” by KONAMI was released, so it was released by changing the name to “Probotector” and all of the characters were changed to robots. I heard that people in Europe were like “robot game again…” but nowadays, we don’t have heavy regulations for pixel art, so they can play the US version or Japanese version with the human main character. In addition, there is a difference between the US version and the Japanese version. The game was too hard to play in the US, so in the Japanese version you can get hit 3 times before you die, but Americans will say “You die with 1 hit/1 mistake. That’s Contra.”, so the gaming balance was the same, but it was so difficult that you instantly die with one hit. For “Contra”, language is not that important to the gameplay, so if you couldn’t clear the US version, you can try again with the Japanese version. I hope people enjoy switching languages as if it were using a trick.
OTAQUEST: Now that the Mega Drive Mini is released, are you two going to be doing this kind of project in the future again?
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: I’m not sure. Actually, both of us were not in the core project team for Mega Drive Mini. This project took a lot of investment and time. A huge sale was expected, but the official department of this project was not in SEGA. We were certainly involved in this project during the development, but we usually have other jobs in different departments. The best example is like saying we go to school and attend classes and join a club activity, but in addition, we have a school festival as an irregular event. We were like the committee members of the festival.
Yosuke Okunari: That’s a good example. (laughs)
Hiroyuki Miyazaki: I was the chairman of the committee. Okunari and other staff from each department gathered like the “Seven Samurai” and moved the project forward. Sometimes we asked for help when we got information like “There is a staff still working in that department who used to be involved in designing Mega Drive.”. (laughs) Okunari joined the company when it was almost the end of the business cycle for Mega Drive in Japan. Before then he was just playing Mega Drive as a gamer, and also, I wasn’t involved in Mega Drive at the time of the launch. Thanks to the experts we still have in the company, we were able to finish this project. In Japan, we still have staff who were involved in the launch of Mega Drive, so it was easier to collect materials, but in the US and Europe, no material was left because the staff at that time were no longer working there. I felt the cultural difference between the countries in these situations.
Also, staff who had never experienced the hardware business didn’t have a sense of manufacturing schedules and selling hundreds of thousands of hardware units, so they asked me some questions such as “When do we need to decide this by?” when it should have been completed by 3 months ago. I had to tell them “Listen, there is a factory in Shenzhen, where materials are gathered and it gets assembled there. We need to start working far in advance.” (laughs) Recently, it has been common for software to fix bugs by releasing a patch on release day, but hardware manufacturing is still the same as before in that it takes months to procure materials and assemble large quantities of hardware at a factory, so once we decide, we cannot change things so easily. Compared to when the software was sold as ROM cartridge, the staff’s mind on the software and hardware sides are so different now. The generation gap was very obvious when working on this project.
The Mega Drive Mini is very well designed and has finally been released worldwide. Through this interview, we were able to understand more about the development team’s strong commitment to this product. We want OTAQUEST readers to feel and understand this commitment too when playing the Genesis Mini. We hope you can feel how great the hardware is and see how the Mega Drive has given so many unique gaming treasures to the world.
Mr. Hiroyuki Miyazaki
SEGA Games Co., Ltd. General Manager, Promotion Division, Asia Publishing Division, Japan
He joined SEGA Games in 1993 and has an experience of launching SEGA consoles and producing various game titles. He is one of the staff who knows about the history of SEGA. Currently, he is in charge of domestic Asia promotional management and also the head of their e-sports General Promotion Office. For Mega Drive Mini, he led the overall project as a project lead.
Mr. Yosuke Okunari
SEGA Games Co., Ltd. License Team Producer, Consumer Publishing Department, Asia Division
He was familiar with SEGA hardware when he was a child and joined SEGA in 1994. Since he had been a producer of PS2 “SEGA AGES 2500” from 2005 and has been in charge of the reproduction of legacy SEGA titles, he became widely well known among SEGA fans. For Mega Drive Mini, he played an important role as a software manager such as selecting included titles.