SEGA Activator, the not-so-amazing Kinect for the Mega Drive that had to be placed on the ground (without stepping on it)

The most daring company, SEGA, has brought us not only its best games, but also its most advanced technology.

Take on Chun Li or Scorpion from the comfort of your living room. Without buttons and levers, but with the whole body. Bring your arcade fighting passion to your TV by adding your own punches and kicks to the game. Turn those air strikes into combos and take the excitement of sagas like Street Fighter or Streets of Rage to the next level. For an entire generation, Mega Drive was the closest thing to a home slot machine. SEGA Activator was born to give this idea new nuances.

Released in 1993, a brutal year for 16-bit systems, SEGA Activator was the supersonic hedgehog company’s big bet on motion control. Something much more similar to the much later Xbox Kinect than the iconic NES Power Glove. And frankly, at the time, this technology not only bordered on magic, but also purported to give the player the feeling of having more than just a console in their home.

Lay out on the floor, it looked like a minimalist arcade cabinet from the future. In practice, assembling it for the game was the least of the problems. Because, as we will see, when connected to the console This brought more disappointment than joy.

To be fair, this avant-garde and apparently awesome idea didn’t really have much of a twist: the SEGA Activator is an octagonal ring that fits onto the floor like the Dance Dance Revolution mats, and the truth is that the way it is used in a slightly different way: the installation process involves connecting the eight parts into which it is divided, and the secret of its technology lies in the infrared system distributed on each side, which replaces the buttons on the Mega Drive remote control.

So on paper we might get excited and punch or kick the air, which we would later see translated into actions during video games. It makes sense that we could also do something as simple as reaching out to an infrared sensor. In practice, the most iconic Mega Drive games, such as Sonic 2 or Street Fighter II, required a minimum of precision that the SEGA Activator could not provide. So it was always a sensational invention with its own Achilles heel. But, How did this idea come about?

From laser harp technology to your tube TV, including SEGA’s black beast.

SEGA of the 90s may have been riding the crest of a wave when it came to gaming consoles, but what set its corporate image apart from the rest was the way it imbued its brand image with character and was constantly on the cutting edge with its hardware. .

From the amazing arcade games that amazed us ten years ago, to gadgets like the Mega CD or Mega Drive 32X that can unlock the unimaginable potential of 16-bit consoles. What’s more, with the right device, you can turn your Game Gear into a TV.

Logically, there were ideas that worked better, others took decades to be finally approved, others did not work as well as expected, and many were rejected out of hand. Among the latest is an initiative to offer domestic virtual reality equipment. A battle that SEGA chose not to fully engage in and that, like it or not, runs parallel to the rest of the gaming system three decades later. And it’s not a lack of options.

The double barrier that SEGA faced came down to one concept: it was very expensive. The technology was very expensive for them and the selling price would be prohibitive. They weren’t the only ones testing the waters as we deal with Virtual boy from Nintendo (released around the same time) and resulted in a resounding commercial failure.

However, its intentions remained firm: to offer a more immersive system for its games and a bolder one for an ever-expanding industry. So instead of betting on a system with very expensive visors, they looked for cheaper but no less attractive technology: a motion control system in which you had so much freedom that, in fact, the only thing you had to play with was – this is your own body.

The SEGA Activator was inspired by laser harp, also known as Light Harp. A very futuristic musical instrument in which the instrument’s strings are replaced by beams emitted in a column-shaped manner, so that when blocked by the musician, a sort of “keyboard without keys” is created. Concept developed by a musician and martial artist. Asaf Gurner. What if instead of music it was used to play and satisfy fighting game fans?

If there were steering wheels for racing games and guns for shooters (on rails), then the idea of ​​SEGA Activator was to give fans Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat a peripheral device that functioned as a martial arts simulator. Therefore, the idea was entrusted to Interactive Light, who finally gave it a simple, modern and at the same time easy to assemble design. Another thing is how this technology has actually improved the gaming experience. Spoiler: he didn’t.

SEGA Activator, Mega Drive’s not-so-surprising Kinect

SEGA officially introduced its idea to the world a year before the first E3, during which for many years it was the closest thing to a major global video game trade show: the 1993 CES (Consumer Electronics Show). SEGA and Nintendo had a huge rivalry on both the hardware and image levels, and while both companies were making moves towards successors to their 16-bit systems, there was still plenty of joy to be had in these machines. Therefore, attracting the attention of the whole world was transcendental.

To promote SEGA Activator, it was proposed to demonstrate its technology using the legendary Streets of Rage 2 and explained how it works: the directions of the controls and each of the buttons have been replaced with invisible infrared columns, so the result is very attractive.

The other side of the coin is that the experience was far from a martial arts simulator. Firstly because it lacked the precision of the D-pad and secondly because it didn’t pick up fast movements so using it in games that required multiple key presses or reflexes was a nightmare. The SEGA Activator was definitely not the equivalent of a steering wheel for the game. Monaco Grand Prix.

And while this was somewhat of a curiosity for specific games, especially fighting games, in the end it didn’t take us long to realize that the emotion of punching the air was something that was sustained on a basis of short sessions or small moments. Partly because we get tired, and partly because it can be annoying. Moreover, the player will always be at a disadvantage compared to anyone with a traditional controller.

The big problem with SEGA Activator were two elements that ruined the initiative, and they had nothing to do with the technology used:

  • To begin with, most Mega Drive games of the time, including those optimized for the SEGA Activator, required a degree of accuracy that could not be achieved using infrared readers. Perform tricks or special moves with Street Fighter II Marking the box with these sensors was a delicate test of resilience, patience and coordination against the team of a lifetime.
  • However, the big mistake of this initiative was promoting it as a martial arts simulator instead of going further and creating games that truly took advantage of this new way of playing. Needless to say, fighting games and beat-em-ups had a golden age, but only four games were created for the device(The Best of the Best: Karate Championship, Eternal Champions, Greatest Heavyweights. And Streets of Rage 3) and they all worked better with the Mega Drive controller.

The interesting thing is that, even taking these two obstacles into account, on the back of the SEGA Activator box you could read text that it is better than traditional controllers. Nothing could be further from reality.

The SEGA Activator soon became obsolete due to various factors: its production and marketing ceased just a few months after hitting shelves, and it was deservedly overshadowed by both the piles of extras that the Mega Drive had and the generational change that had begun. at the end of 1994 in Japan and which a year later would be fully established in the West.

In general, SEGA chose regions such as Brazil for its launch, a country that has always had a special affection for the supersonic hedgehog consoles, even when they appeared a little late due to the clever Tec Toy.

SEGA Activator was not the first system to use motion sensors. And the idea of ​​playing video games without using a joystick or a traditional controller didn’t go unnoticed either: the N64 got voice-controlled games; Years later we would see Sony pull Eye Toy out of the hat for the PS2 when digital cameras could already be produced at affordable prices, and after the success of the Wii, the Xbox picked up SEGA’s legacy again through the Kinect.

What’s interesting is that thirty years later, fighting game veterans and new fighting game enthusiasts alike still prefer traditional arcade sticks and controllers.

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