Retronauts Episode 91: A survey of SEGA’s arcade work, 1980-85

It’s Monday morning, and you know what that means. Yeah, it’s time for another Retronauts episode.

Specifically, it’s time for another Retronauts East episode. Ben and Benj join me once again in my still-in-development home studio to sit and jaw for a couple of hours about a rarely explored video game topic: SEGA’s arcade games.

“But wait,” you say. “SEGA is a beloved arcade game creator and always has been! Its arcade hits are a known quantity!” And that is true indeed. However, we’re not really looking to the company’s hits; we’re digging further into its past, to the coin-op titles SEGA produced before the ones you know and love. Specifically, we’re focused on their 1980-85 lineup.


As you can see from the art above, we certainly do touch on some fairly famous games: Congo Bongo, Zaxxon, Pengo, and of course Space Harrier. They’re the exceptions. For the most part, SEGA’s output in the first half of the ’80s remains fairly obscure; their work from 1986 and on is far better known here in the U.S. SEGA does a better job of preserving and republishing its later games, allowing the likes of Flashgal and Super Locomotive to vanish into the realms of the unknown and unavailable-through-legitimate-means.

This unfortunately makes for a slightly dicey episode at the beginning. We’ve all played some of these games, but certainly not all of them, and a lot of what defines them is the arcade experience. Sure, you can emulate Pro Monaco GP or Zoom 909, but an emulator doesn’t include the funky LED readouts and gauges next to the screen. Stick with it, though, and you’ll find that the conversation comes into focus as we move into SEGA’s prime days. (We also concoct some pretty decent on-the-fly theories about why SEGA’s arcade output improved so significantly around 1985 or so.)

Despite some audio bugs we’re still trying to iron out of the Retronauts East setup, and the fact that we’re taking the Retronauts name seriously by exploring somewhat unfamiliar territory here, it’s a pretty solid episode overall. And a long one, coming in at more than two hours in length! We had actually planned to take this conversation up through 1987 but literally ran out of time. But that’s OK. That just gives us an excuse to reconvene again in a few months and explore SEGA’s work in the latter half of the ’80s.

Episode description: Ben Elgin and Benj Edwards reconvene with Jeremy to explore the first half of SEGA’s arcade output. Like the games we’re discussing, the episode starts off a bit shaky, but everything is awesome by 1985. Pengo! Zaxxon! Space Harrier! Hang On! And more!

MP3, 56.8 MB | 2:03:59
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Music in this episode comes from Space Harrier (except where noted in the show), because honestly there wasn’t really all that much music worth noting in SEGA’s output from this era. That’s just a sign of the times, though. Once arcade games got to 1985 or so, their soundtracks improved exponentially. Our next SEGA arcade episode will have the opposite problem: There’ll be so much incredible music to pick from we won’t know where to begin…


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12 Responses to Retronauts Episode 91: A survey of SEGA’s arcade work, 1980-85

  1. Good stuff.

    Honestly, a lot of the earlier arcade games were impressive mostly due to their cabinets. As you mentioned, Monaco GP and Turbo both had those dope LED displays, whereas Turbo had the sit-down cabinet as well. Subroc’s 3D telescope was amazing for its time, and emulation simply does not capture the feel of being immersed in a high-tech, super submarine. The Star Trek arcade was amazing for anyone that had an inkling for Trekkie nature. Similar to the show and unlike Star Wars madcap laser blasting, it was a more strategic battle of conserving energy and striking at the right time. Also, the dial used as a joystick was innovative for true 360 3D warfare.

    GP World, which I’m impressed that you guys talked about, was just as cool at the time since it was around the Laserdisc boom, along with Cobra Command and Dragon’s Lair. Video for it is on YouTube and I highly suggest to check it out if you’ve never seen it.

    Then Congo Bongo, Zaxxon, and Fantasy Zone were arcade regulars. But, yeah–Congo Bongo is murderous hard if you don’t practice on it. The jumping is beyond ridiculous and that type of game isn’t fit for isometrics.

    Man, I could go on and on about Sega arcades, but I won’t LOL! I just can’t wait to get you guys’ take on R360.

  2. dc12

    Tis a shame not many people bought those 3D classics. A totally awesome collection. And it would be cool if M2 was hired to work on a few more classics from that period.

  3. Nathan Daniels

    I am so happy right now

    ….I can’t wait to listen, both to this episode and its sequel. Sega’s arcade output is inexorably linked to explaining why I love them so much as a company. Their modus operandi has always been to offer an exhilerating, fun user experience. Whether that’s from speeding through loops as Sonic, battling gigantic sandworms in Phantasy Star, or spinning like mad in a sitdown cabinet of Galaxy Force, or taking down a tower of cyborg Ashuras with a submachine gun in Shinobi, their main goal has principally been to provide exciting fun.

  4. Natalie Kusoge

    I’m alctually that elusive Flicky fan you mention in this episode. I got into it thanks to the Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection comp from a few years ago. Then my local arcade got a Flicky cabinet, and it’s pretty much the first game I run to every time I go. I can’t really explain what it is about the game I find so appealing. Maybe it’s just that it’s pretty easygoing difficulty-wise, so it’s nice and fun without trying to murder you—pretty rare among Sega arcade games.

  5. Jay

    If ever an episode needed accompanying visuals, it’d be this one!

  6. Nathan Daniels

    Well, wasn’t that awesome! Thanks for a well-researched episode. By the end, Ben and Benj were apologizing for their lack of knowledge, but I felt their comments were appropriate, and the whole thing was fun to listen to.

    My own experience with pre-1986 Sega is somewhat limited, but I played the heck out of Turbo(the sit-down version), a bit of Zaxxon and Choplifter, and enjoyed the heck out of Hang-On and especially Space Harrier.

    Space Harrier, like a lot of Sega’s mid-80’arcade games, is a fantastic spectacle. Sure, it’s basically an LSD-infused prelude to After Burner. But it’s a freaking LSD-infused prelude to After Burner!!

    I think there are a lot of reasons behind the gradual rise in success of Sega. Your speculations about ownership changes certainly hold merit, as does your note that their “killer apps” coincided with the arrival of Yu Suzuki. Also, consider that we’re only talking about a five year span here, from Sega’s entry into a new-ish electronic arcade market to the prominence they earned by the mid-80’s. It takes a bit of time to master a medium…..and judging by their output, it could be said that they adhered to the ‘practice makes perfect’ philosophy.

    So I’m REALLY looking forward to the next part of this one. Quartet, Outrun, Shinobi, Alien Syndrome, Thunder Blade, After Burner, Wonderboy, and so on…..I do have a humble suggestion: Please consider mentioning Yasuhiro Kawakami, and more importantly, Hiroshi Kawaguchi(Hiro). Starting with Hang-On and Space Harrier, the music in Sega’s arcade games was phenomenal, classic, and exceedingly hummable. Kawakami did Shinobi’s music and Kawaguchi did most of the other great soundtracks for Sega’s arcade games. His contributions to gaming music can’t be overstated. Heck, I’m even writing VGM Karaoke lyrics to two tunes he composed for Sword of Vermilion in my spare time.

  7. Greg Falkingham

    One thing that didn’t get touched on was the Sega Gremlin thing. I bought JoyStik magazine around that time, and they always listed games like Zaxxon and Turbo as being Sega Gremlin games. I guess it’s safe to assume Gremlin specifically handled the distribution end of things for Sega in America, and at some point that relationship ended. I just remember thinking back when the Master System came out, “huh, whatever happened to Gremlin?”

    Speaking of JoyStik, I vividly remember them specifically referring to the 3D effect of Zaxxon’s playfield as a ‘wallpaper’. This led to a probably intentional bit of confusion in a reader’s mail letter asking them where they could buy Zaxxon wallpaper, followed by a fairly clever photo manipulation by the magazine of a bunch of dudes playing Atari in a living room with Zaxxon literally being the wallpaper on the wall.

  8. Cassie Devereaux

    Au contraire! Zaxxon (1982) was a huge hit, and an arcade mainstay for years to come.