Review: “Playing at the Next Level” (SEGA Dreamcast Anniversary Special)
Welcome back to SEGA Dreamcast 20th Anniversary Week at The Splintering!
Today we’re reviewing Playing at the Next Level in which author Ken Horowitz details the history of SEGA of America with an emphasis on SEGA’s U.S. development teams and some of their more notable games.* Starting with the ill-fated Master System and continuing all the way until SEGA’s swan song Dreamcast, fans of SEGA’s U.S. development teams and the old-school franchises they created have a lot to learn and enjoy here.
Playing at the Next Level is written as historical non-fiction, though it has more of a textbook tone than a narrative one, so if you are a fan of the semi-novelized style of other books such as Console Wars, this may not be your cup of tea. This is not to say that the book is at all dull or dry, as I still found the stories to be very engaging. There is the occasional technical information presented such as techniques used to program certain games, and while I’m personally not very tech-savvy, I was still able to follow these details and never found myself completely lost.
The layout of the book is semi-chronological, though you can read a chapter that extends into 32X or Saturn development and then jump back to the Genesis the next chapter. This can be slightly off-putting for more extended reading sessions, but given how each chapter focuses on the life span of each particular developer, this approach makes sense. It also explains why I had to wait a full 145 pages to arrive at a chapter dedicated to my personal favorite U.S. SEGA developer, Blue Sky Software.
Each of the accounts is thorough and extremely well sourced, although I did find one factual inaccuracy on page 133, when Horowitz refers to the Super Nintendo as “technologically superior” to the SEGA Genesis. Dem’s fightin’ words, sir. There are also plenty of black and white photos sprinkled throughout, most of which are candid pictures of the development teams, though there are some photos of hardware, memorabilia, and concept art as well. No game screenshots, though? Hurm…
The stories told within are each themselves small testaments to SEGA’s innovation and dedication to pushing the boundaries at the developer level. Even small victories such as getting M-1 Abrams Battle Tank to run on the Genesis or achieving full-screen full motion video in Tomcat Alley on SEGA CD likely will bring a nostalgic smile to your face. My own favorite tale was how Star Wars Arcade on 32X was completed – from beginning to end – in less than four months. Hell, after reading Playing at the Next Level, I now respect the heck out of the Joe Montana Football series, and genuinely want to try playing it again.
But for every story of success, there are also those stories of failure.
Apparently one particular type of game even caused early SEGA CD prototypes to catch fire. It’s also stunning to read so many accounts of games that were cancelled prior to their final release, and not just Sonic Xtreme, either. I’ve been following SEGA for a long time, and there were several projects detailed in Playing at the Next Level of which I had never heard, and the cancellation of a few are borderline heartbreaking.
Playing at the Next Level was clearly written with the SEGA and retro gaming enthusiast in mind. If you were a child of the 90s and have been playing and enjoying SEGA games since that time, Playing at the Next Level is a fantastic supplement to some of those experiences. However, if you’re a younger or more recent SEGA fan (post-Dreamcast), your enjoyment will probably be a bit more limited. I personally enjoyed this book thoroughly and I am confident in recommending it to most retro gamers or SEGA fans.
+ Written for SEGA fans
+ Interesting uncommon knowledge of SEGA history
+ Not bogged down in technical details
+ Fully sourced & thorough
– Enjoyment depends on your nostalgia
– Um, no color photos?
– Stop looking for stuff to nitpick. If you read books and enjoy retro games, you’ll probably like this book
*Disclosure: a copy of Playing at the Next Level was provided by the author for the purpose of review