Saturday, April 15, 2017

Welcome To The Next Level

Texan gamer Dylan Cornelius has embarked upon quite possibly the most ambitious fan project ever - a decade long quest to play and review every game ever released on a Sega console.

VIRTUAL INSANITY: Dylan Cornelius, 31, is the mastermind behind Sega Does - an ambitious web project that seeks to review every piece of software ever released on Sega hardware. (Photograph courtesy Dylan Cornelius.)

By: James Swift

Dylan Cornelius’ fascination with video games began the same way it did for many children of the 1980s.

“When I was 5, my dad came home with an Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) set - it had a Zapper, two controllers and Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt,” the 31 year-old recounts. “As far as I know, it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas, just a random event which made it more memorable.”

Weaned on Nintendo’s 8-bit console classics and Pac-Man - “they let kids play on cocktail tables in the ‘80s, because parents weren’t afraid we would become little alcoholics,” he reminisced - it’s not surprising the Austin, Texas writer would eventually turn to his childhood hobby for inspiration.

“I hadn’t written in about a year due to a prolonged, life-threatening illness,” he said. “When I was feeling better enough to start writing again, I figured a fun project like Questicle would help.”

That project - in which Cornelius took it upon himself to play and write in-depth reviews of all 700-plus NES games, as well as a litany of unlicensed titles and Japanese imports - would span three and a half years.

“At the beginning, I was doing one a day, but you burn out real quick doing that,” he said. “I started reviewing as often as I wanted, and I still finished fairly fast.”

Cornelius said he easily sunk several thousand hours into Questicle. Despite some critics chiding him for his B-minus review of DuckTales - “I prefer other Capcom Disney games,” he explained, “Ducktales 2 is the better game, anyway” - he said feedback from fellow retro gaming fans was overwhelmingly positive. “I think people liked the 'quest' aspect of it and the humor,” he said. “So many game reviewers are humorless, and I’m not entirely sure why.”

Never one to rest on his laurels, however, Cornelius soon began mulling ideas for his next major video game project. And as massive as Questicle may have been, his follow-up truly took things to the next level.

Starting a New Game

Although Cornelius owned a Sega Genesis in his youth, he never really delved into the depths of the 16-bit console’s library. A self-described “Nintendo kid,” Cornelius said that beyond a few dalliances with the handheld Game Gear and the 128-bit Dreamcast, his experiences with Sega software were few and far between.

So as a spiritual successor to Questicle, he decided to review every piece of Sega software ever released - a massive library of games spanning 20 years and 10 consoles’ worth of material.

“I was originally going to start with the Genesis and work my way up through the Dreamcast, then I realized the Master System had a huge following in Europe and Brazil, so I thought, sure, why not?” he said. “Then I learned about the SG-1000, Sega’s first system that never came to Europe or the States - I thought, eh, fine, I’ll just review ‘em all. I’m committed.”

Cornelius' project, titled Sega Does, launched in 2014. If Cornelius can keep up his two-to-three game reviews a week pace, he anticipates completing the gargantuan project in about 10 years.

He said he spends about 10 to 20 hours a week working on content for the website. That includes time spent playing the titles, writing reviews, conducting general site maintenance and producing a tie-in podcast. “The size of the game dictates how long I spend, as does my writing time,” he said. “Sometimes the words come quickly, other times I have to strain my brain to come up with simple sentences.”

Just how serious is Cornelius taking the project? So serious that he’s trying to become fluent in Japanese so he can play all of the games that were never translated into English.

“I studied it for two years in college, but that was almost 10 years ago at this point and a refresher course is definitely in order,” he said. “Those visual novels on the Saturn aren't going to read themselves.”

When the Physical and the Virtual Collide

As of April 2017, Cornelius has made his way up to the first wave of pre-Sonic the Hedgehog Sega Genesis games. He’s already churned his way through a large swath of the SG-1000 and Sega Master System libraries and even knocked out a couple of early Game Gear releases.
POWER UP: Sega Does maestro Dylan Cornelius
 said he anticipates his 'chronogaming' project
to take at least 10 years. (Photo courtesy Dylan

“I can't believe Phantasy Star came out in 1987 - that game was so ahead of its time, with its sci-fi focus, female protagonist [and] three different planets to explore,” he said. “Girl’s Garden for the SG-1000 is [another] great game that I wish would get re-released over in the West on the 3DS or something. It’s charming and sad in a way that few games were in the early ‘80s.”

Although he loves playing games on the original hardware, for the Sega Does project he is primarily working with emulated .ROM files.

“Collecting is ridiculously expensive these days, I don’t know how people can afford to do it,” he said. “Even mediocre titles usually run between $10-$20, depending on the system.”

The journey is going to get much more difficult once Cornelius makes it to the 32-bit Sega Saturn - a console notoriously difficult to emulate, with many games fetching exorbitantly high prices.

“Every time I go to my local retro game store, any decent game runs you between $30 to $120,” he said. “The rare ones, like Panzer Dragoon Saga or The House of the Dead, are even worse. I’d love to have an awesome Saturn library, but there’s no way.”

To trudge his way through the system’s titles, Cornelius said he will likely have to mod his Saturn to play burned copies of games or titles stored on an SD card. “There’s over a thousand games for the Saturn in all regions - no way am I tracking them all down,” he said. “Same with the Dreamcast, I imagine, since there’s already been reports of Dreamcast game discs just not working. I don’t even want to deal with that.”

However, Cornelius said he isn’t above outsourcing a few duties, such as recaps of games released on Sega’s short-lived educational hardware the Pico. “If some collector out there has one with all the games and wants to review them for the site,” he said, “they can have at it.”

The Rise and Fall of Sega

Naturally, Cornelius’ project brings to mind the heated “console wars” of the 1990s, in which Nintendo and Sega and fought tooth and nail for video game market supremacy. Indeed, the very title Sega Does harkens back to the first advertising volley of the 16-bit battle between the Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES.)

“The magazines pushed it, as did Sega and eventually Nintendo through advertising, but in my own life, it was nonexistent,” Cornelius said. “I preferred Nintendo, but I liked Sega, too. None of my friends ever gave me crap for liking Nintendo over Sega. We were all just happy to play whatever video games we could get our hands on.”

Having extensively played both Nintendo and Sega software from the era, Cornelius is quick to note a few differences between the companies and their products. Even during the heyday of the Dreamcast, he said Sega focused on creating fast and frenetic, pick-up-and-play games while their chief competitor was more focused on crafting longer, more nuanced gaming experiences.

“Nintendo learned early on that the arcade and the home console experience are two different things,” he said. “Even with games like Phantasy Star for the Master System, Sega never really understood that until the Genesis. They were an arcade game manufacturer, first and foremost, so their game were shorter and more action-oriented.”

Although Sega hardware and software sales overtook Nintendo in the United States in the early-to-mid 1990s, the company’s time at the top of video game market was short-lived. Cornelius said Sega’s downfall can be partly attributed to the company’s decision to flood the market with a deluge of hardware.

“Sega loves to experiment with new technology, weird peripherals, you name it - in a way, the Genesis being a huge success was a terrible thing for them,” he said. “They used all that 16-bit money to experiment with the CD format (Sega CD) and add-on technology (32x), among other things (Pico, Nomad, CDX.) This would have been fine except the guinea pigs were their biggest fans, and they were constantly getting burned.”

Cornelius recounts seeing the brand new 32X hardware on store shelves in 1994 with a $200 price tag. A year later, that same hardware could be purchased at Toys ‘R Us for just $20. The market failure of the Sega CD and 32X add-ons, he said, was a big factor in the 32-bit Saturn’s underperformance in the U.S. - a massive commercial flop that, perhaps more than anything else, expedited Sega’s exit from the console manufacturing business in the early 2000s.

“By the time the Saturn came out in the West for $400, most fans didn’t want to give any more of their money to Sega so they switched to Sony’s Playstation,” Cornelius said. “By the time the Dreamcast emerged, Sega was being smarter than they had in years, but it was too late. The Ps2 began to dominate and Sega pulled out before they went under completely.”

Life, Post-Sega?

Cornelius, who is married and volunteers at a Christian healing ministry in his spare time, said he really doesn’t get much input from friends and family about the project - or even his fellow retro gaming friends, for that matter. Still, Sega Does traffic has increased steadily since the project went online in 2014.

“In 2016, I had about 70,000 views, which was a significant increase from 2015," he said. “Pretty small for some sites, but decent traffic for a niche game blog.”

His site even has staff writers now. A Sega Does fan, Taylor Pinson, covers games released on the obscure Mega LD LaserActive home console, while well known retro game blogger Peter Skerritt is tackling the Sega sports beat. Sega Does even managed to draw the interest of former Electronic Gaming Monthly editor Greg Stewart, who has lent his services to Cornelius’ site as a Sega CD and Saturn reviewer.

Ultimately, Cornelius said he wants readers - be they hardcore Sega fanatics or neophyte gamers who have never even heard of Shinobi or Shining Force - to walk away from his project informed, enlightened and entertained. “I hope readers who are interested in game history, whether young or old, could explore my site and get something out of it,” Cornelius said. “The SG-1000 reviews in particular are one-of-a-kind. That system does not have a lot of English coverage."

Another aspect that makes Cornelius’ project unique is that it isn’t necessarily driven by nostalgia. In fact, the bulk of the games he reviews on Sega Does are not only games he never played in his youth, but until recently, he never even knew existed. “I’m also coming at 99 percent of these games as a Sega newbie, so my viewpoints on these games are sometimes different than that of long-time Sega fans,” he said. “The comment section gets lively at times for that reason.”

Although Sega Does still has about a decade or more of content to wade through - “I’m not a robot who can only sit at a computer screen and play old Sega games,” Cornelius said, “as a wise man once said, ‘I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does’” - that doesn’t mean the ultra-dedicated gamer isn’t already brainstorming for his next major video game project.

“I absolutely would love to do a Sony 'chronogaming' project - Playstation 1 and Playstation 2 in particular, but if I had to choose just one, Playstation 2,” he said.

“I have an awesome name for it and everything, but I’m not sharing it here. I don’t want anyone to rip it off.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2017.

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