In a surprise move, Sega is about to make its vast catalogue of retro classics completely free to play on iPhone and Android. The new service is called Sega Forever and spans two decades of wonderful home consoles. To facilitate such a feast of free gaming, you will have to watch adverts every now and then, but if you really hate adverts and want them banished to hell from whence they so obviously came, you can just pay a fee of £1.99/$1.99 and your chosen game will be ad-free. That’s a very reasonable deal, whichever way you look at it.
The initial batch of five games is familiar but not indicative of what the service will ultimately provide. It will launch with the Mega Drive/Genesis classics Sonic the Hedgehog, Phantasy Star 2, Kid Chameleon, Altered Beast and Comix Zone, with the ‘+1’ addition of Sonic CD, as it’s converted from the superb, Christian Whitehead-coded premium app to work with the new ad-supported/one-off IAP ad removal structure.
While we’re not quite at the stage of (legally) having every single game you loved as a kid in your pocket by the end of the year, we are for once talking about more than just the usual collection of Mega Drive/Genesis suspects. Sega Forever will feature games from every main Sega console. From the SG-1000 (which only came out in Japan) and Master System, Game Gear and Mega Drive/Genesis to the Saturn and Dreamcast, if you ever loved a Sega console, chances are you’re going to be able to play a classic title that graced it on your phone in the near future.
The big question that will immediately arise for anyone interested in retro Sega emulation is the inclusion of Sega Saturn in that list. Getting Saturn titles to run properly on anything other than a Sega Saturn is notoriously difficult. The team expects to have Saturn games on the service in one to two years’ time, as they still need to figure out exactly how they’re going to do it. But it is in the roadmap, so cautious optimism is advised.
New Sega Forever games will be released at the rate of one every two weeks, totalling 25 a year. The team already has enough games licensed and cleared for three years’ worth of releases, but is hoping to add even more interesting titles to the mix soon.
What does ‘even more interesting’ mean? Well, the team is keen to add previously unreleased games to the list. That means not just Japan-only titles that never saw a Western release, like Yuji Naka’s first game, Girl’s Garden, but also cancelled games like Propeller Arena on Dreamcast – the dogfighting plane combat game set around skyscrapers, that was due to launch in September 2001… the week that 9/11 happened.
The other issue that Propeller Arena raises is that of multiplayer. Local multiplayer will not be supported in any game at launch, but the plan is for local play to be added in in the coming months. And as for online play, the team is conscious that mobile connections and Wifi may not work perfectly together for fast-paced retro games, but we’d argue that since Dreamcast games had to work on a 33.3k modem, it’s surely not going to be that difficult to come up with a solution. Again, it’s something that will be worked on after launch.
The emulation allows new features that will enhance the old games. You’ll be able to save your game in the cloud (even in games that didn’t support save data first time round), but you will need an internet connection to save if you’re using the ad-supported version. Pay the one-off fee and you’ll be given three slots for offline saves in the game in question. There will also be leaderboards for high scores and controller compatibility. I played a selection of titles with a separate controller on an iPad and it felt good. Though the touch-screen controls felt good too – and they can be remapped if you’re not comfortable. The straight-emulated games we saw didn’t seem to run as rock-solid smoothly as they do on an actual Mega Drive, though they’re still being optimised at the time of writing. And each title is being optimised specifically for the platform, so any titles demonstrating emulation errors will be held back until they’re working properly.
The biggest problem facing the service, however, is one that can’t be fixed easily. Pretty much every game that hasn’t appeared in retro collections before has been omitted due to a problem with licensing. For example, Sega doesn’t have the Ferrari license these days for OutRun, Sonic 3’s music is causing all kinds of issues (though it appeared on Nintendo DS so it must be possible…), and the superb Castle/World/Land of Illusion and Lucky Dime Caper are apparently all property of Disney, not Sega. But since Disney couldn’t legally emulate the Mega Drive to run a game like World of Illusion if they wanted to, and Sega could do the legwork on the ports, surely the prospect of making some money with no additional work would be of interest to the House of Mouse.
As it stands, no third parties have been contacted to get their games on Sega Forever, so don’t expect Capcom, EA, Konami or Codemasters games in the immediate future, but do expect that to change over time. But even ignoring all the ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’, the fact remains that you can expect ‘new’ old Sega games in your pocket - for free - every two weeks for at least the next three years. That’s not too shabby at all, is it? Turns out Sega still does what Nintendon’t.