Sega Ages Vol. 1 (1997, Sega and Working Designs)
In Japan, Sega released a series of retrospective discs for Saturn called Sega Ages, featuring many of their most beloved classic arcade and console videogames. In 1997, a compilation of three titles was assembled and released in the West under the title Sega Ages Vol. 1. Unfortunately, as these things happen, time ran out on the Sega Saturn before future volumes could be released, including Phantasy Star, Fantasy Zone, Power Drift and Galaxy Force. Thankfully, what we were given is the absolute cream of the crop.
Sega Ages includes perfect arcade translations of Space Harrier, Outrun and Afterburner, three arcade blockbusters created by Sega’s AM2, led by the legendary Yu Suzuki. This is where Suzuki-san built his reputation as a programmer and videogame designer, and he demonstrates his mastery of speed, motion and excitement. Arcade games were always seen as the descendants of carnivals and amusement parks, and Sukuki created three masterful thrill rides, digital roller coasters that blaze by in flashes of color and light, all set to rocking guitar riffs and endlessly catchy pop melodies. This is pure Sega at its finest.
Space Harrier is a shoot-em-up where you control a futuristic astronaut who carries an enormous laser cannon and flies through a series of highly surreal and hallucinogenic worlds that are one part Lewis Carrol, one part Peter Max and three parts LSD. You find yourself battling strange aliens, starships, giant stone heads and strange flying creatures across an endless array of checkerboard stages populated by boulders, trees, bushes and stone columns. Everything blazes by at such a clip that one barely has time to catch one’s breath, much less take in the scenery. And being this is a 1980s arcade videogame, the challenge is high and relentless. Your first few plays will probably last less than a minute. Practice and you will do much better and you’ll be owning the high score table before too long.
Outrun is the seminal racing game that puts you behind the wheel of a red Ferrari as you race cross-country along long roads, winding curves, sudden dips and hills, through tunnels, forests and farmland, all while dodging heavy traffic and trying not to crash into something. Chances are that you will flip your vehicle into a billboard or roadside surf shop sooner or later. I always find myself getting caught by that sudden s-curve at the end of the first section. You will need to skillfully use the gearbox and let your foot off the gas pedal in order to avoid these crashes, yet you are also on a very strict time limit that pushes you to go faster, faster, all set to the greatest chiptunes Sega’s musical wizards have ever composed.
Afterburner is a aerial combat game where you fly an F-14 fighter armed with machine guns and heat-seeking rockets, and you don’t quite battle or race as much as you survive. Flying at a breathtaking speed, your jet can perform dizzying barrel rolls in order to avoid onslaughts of enemy missiles as you try to shoot down planes. In later stages, you will fly missions at sunset and night, dodge rocky canyons and attack ground targets, all while flying at mach speed. The arcade game even featured a deluxe cabinet that would tilt and turn in fully three dimensions. Surely, this is the most intense roller coaster trip of them all.
I remember a video arcade in downtown Duluth that had Afterburner, and it was the only place in town where you could play the game. The owners had a novel approach for inspiring the kids: they would give you free game tokens for every “A” and “B” you received on your report card. Needless to say, we were highly motivated to study hard and get good grades so we could play another round of Afterburner for free, even if I could never last more than five minutes to save my life before crashing and burning. That game took a lot of quarters and tokens from my pockets in those days.
Sega Ages features support for digital and analog controls, and Sega should be commended for going the extra mile in supporting their Mission Stick controller. Space Harrier, for example, used a centering analog joystick in the arcade, and this option is perfectly preserved in analog mode. Indeed, I would recommend scoring a Mission Stick just so that you can play Space Harrier and Afterburner as God and AM2 intended. Thankfully, the digital controls work perfectly fine and are my choice when playing with the standard controller.
The Japanese Sega Ages series only features a single game, but each disc includes an arranged soundtrack that was removed from the Western release. The prices are also somewhat lower, especially compared the US version that was released by Working Designs. Pretty much anything with a Working Designs logo will jack the price by at least one Benjamin, but if you have ever seen their package designs and artwork (Dragon Force is the perfect example), you would understand why collectors are completely gaga over having them. That said, even the Japanese titles are becoming expensive so you had better move fast.
I can’t imagine any Sega Saturn library without Sega Ages. This is Sega at its absolute best, and for kids who grew up in the 1980s, the idea of playing the arcades at home is a dream come true. Just try playing these games on a Commodore 64 or NES or even a Sega Genesis to compare. You kids today are spoiled rotten. You have no idea how good you’ve got it.