Hedging Sonic the Hedgehog

Thinking about retro gaming in the age of app stores

A funny thing happened on the way to Nintendo putting their catalog of games on to smartphones: Sega 1-up’d them.

Well, to be clear, Nintendo does have a couple mobile games out there, most notably Super Mario Run, which is well-done, but not without its own issues (more on those in a bit). But when news hit last week that Sega would be going more or less all-in on mobile gaming, I was excited to see what they came up with.

The answer, unfortunately, sucks.

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. I’ve had fun over the past couple of days playing games like Altered Beast and Kid Chameleon. The ports are actually pretty good. But make no mistake, unlike Super Mario Run, these are pure ports. The only real difference between these and the originals are some slight tweaks to work with virtual controls and things like cloud saving.

And those things are fine. Yes, I would prefer a physical gamepad, but you more or less get used to the virtual Sega Genesis controls after a time.¹ What you won’t get used to is the god-awful ads.

So, again unlike Super Mario Run, Sega has opted to let users download these games for free. And you can play them for free — as long as you’re willing to sit through some truly annoying and invasive ads. We’re talking interstitials, video ads, long ads, short ads. No format will go untested here. The only commonality is that they’re dreadful.

The good news is that you can turn them off with an in-app purchase. And it’s pretty cheap to do so. The bad news is that most people, undoubtedly, will not do so. And so what we’re left with is some classic games that are simply vessels for shitty web advertising.

Look, I get it. Again, free is nice. But in this case, I’m honestly not sure the (lack of) cost is worth it. Beyond sitting through ads to begin a game, you have to sit through them in between levels. And, naturally, when you decide you want to save a game.

It’s just an awful, awful experience. The exact opposite of fun.

This negates what is otherwise a very cool phenomenon. I recall being a kid riding the bus home after school and dreaming that maybe, just maybe, my parents would be waiting at home to surprise me with the latest and greatest videogame. Unfortunately, beyond my birthday, that never happened. Because those were tangible cartridges you needed to buy back then. And those games were $50 at the time, which may as well have been infinity dollars to my young self. And beyond not having any money, I had no way to get to a store — an actual physical store — to get said game. These are the things kids used to have to go through to get a videogame.

Today, all you need is a smartphone/tablet and access to the internet. The screen on my iPad is bigger than the television screen I used to play these games on. And I’m holding it. And touching it! The mind inside my 10-year-old head is blown. 25 years later, the world is fucking amazing. And yet, here I am complaining about ads.

But they’re worth complaining about. Because this is a cool thing made decidedly less cool by Sega’s need to monetize. Which, look, I get. I just think it’s the wrong approach.

I don’t think Nintendo’s approach with Super Mario Run is the right one either, as I’ve written about before. I think all of these guys need to get together and recognize that there is real value in what they’ve created. Just because the internet has taught us not to pay for anything, it doesn’t mean no one will pay if you offer up something worth paying for. The trend has to be bucked somewhere, because the alternative is ultimately untenable.

If I were Sega (or Nintendo), I would charge variable pricing for these games based on likely popularity (for which there is some historical data to help determine!). I think $3 all the way up to $30 is reasonable. And yes, maybe the option for some in-app upgrade content.

Yes, $30 sounds like a lot these days. Almost infinity in the age of app stores! But again, it’s basically half what we used to pay for games (and half what we still do on the actual consoles). Beyond simply paying for popularity, I would expect the more expensive games to have a bit more polish and maybe even added functionality.

And guess what? Sega is already doing that. While Altered Beast and Kid Chameleon are one thing, Sonic the Hedgehog, which was released a while ago, is a much more polished and elaborate port.² This makes sense: that’s Sega’s key title. It gets more love. And a premium should be charged for said love. And I suspect a premium would be paid for said love.

The alternative is the continued race to the bottom. Actually, we’ve already hit that bottom with these free, ad-supported Sega games. If this is the future of gaming, I want out. I understand that Sega is not Nintendo. I understand that they long ago sold all but their soul to save the company. But I do believe there is another way to make all of this work.

Things like the NES Classic show the demand is there for retro gaming. Nintendo was blindsided by it, but there’s still time to come around and figure out how to make this into a major part of the future for these companies.³ At least, that’s what I selfishly hope for as a fan and a retro-gamer. Let’s make these games great again.

¹ Though, oddly, the controls are often different from game-to-game.

² And, as Matt Sephton reminds us in a response below, Sega started out charging for Sonic — though, at $2.99, they clearly weren’t properly valuing the title, in my book (and it soon went on sale for $0.99 — now free).

³ Imagine too if beyond the older ports, Sega, Nintendo, and the like decided to start coming out with retro sequels (sequels to the original games done in the retro-style) and even new original content done in the retro-gaming style. This is a no-brainer winning strategy, in my mind.