The Radical Environmentalism of the Sega Genesis
In the early 90s, most Americans were environmentalists. Games like 'Sonic,' 'Ecco,' and 'Vectorman' followed suit. In Trump's America, those games feel subversive.
When I think back to the Sega Genesis games I played in my childhood, the classics come to mind: NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat, ToeJam and Earl. I also can't stop thinking about another one. Awesome Possum Kicks Dr. Machino's Butt.
Awesome Possum is a bad game. It has a terrible framerate, an annoying main character, bad controls. It's also perhaps the most pro-environment game ever released on any console. You collect recyclable cans and newspapers instead of rings (it's a Sonic clone), kill robots who have "automated the destruction of the environment," and fight global warming in the Arctic.
I've been thinking about this game a lot lately because the federal government has just been taken over by an administration that rejects the idea that humanity should take any economically difficult steps to combat global warming. Unlike in Awesome Possum, environmental destruction isn't an explicit goal of humanity, just a side effect of continued global industrialization. But still, a very bad game from 1993 now feels like a crucial text in the canon of dystopian warnings.
"I think there's a lot that can be learned from the games we did back then"
During my nostalgia trip, I realized something else: Awesome Possum wasn't alone in its radical environmentalism. The Sega Genesis has a slew of games that focus on cleaning up pollution, protecting the environment, and saving animals.
"For us it was clearly a conscious decision," Tom Kalinske, the CEO of Sega of America from 1990-1996, told me. "I always allowed the development teams to do what they loved to do, to do what they were passionate about. The guys involved in these games were very much environmentalists."
In Sonic 2, our heroic hedgehog speeds through the Chemical Plant, where he definitely doesn't want to stay under the chemical solutions they've been working on for more than a few seconds. Later, he fights toxic sludge-spewing, enslaved and mechanized animals in the "Oil Ocean Zone." The game ends with Super Sonic flying alongside the baby eagles he's freed from the evil Dr. Robotnik.
Vectorman follows "Orbots" who are cleaning up Earth because humans have destroyed it: "It's 2049 and Earth's cities, forests, and icecaps are fouled with toxic sludge," the game starts. Vectorman fights through the ruins of humanity's cityscapes in an attempt to make it safe for the return of mankind.
Growl is a beat-em-up game about eco-warriors who kill would-be elephant poachers. It ends with a bizarre boss fight against an evil worm (which was controlling the poachers the whole time!). After the worm is vanquished, this happens:
Ecco the Dolphin is on another primordial plane of existence altogether; it's a love letter to marine life and their ocean ecosystem. As a child, I never thought of it as much of a "game" at all, more just a chance to explore the ocean and fly out of the water as an ultraintelligent dolphin. As an adult, I realize there is more to it than that—it's a chance to explore the ocean and hang out with other sea creatures, who have built an underwater society that is threatened by extraterrestrials. To defeat them, Ecco uses underwater time machines, a sunken library, and communes with mystical crystals. It also has an incredible soundtrack. I need to play this game high. Its Dreamcast sequel, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future, has a completely bonkers story in which humans and dolphins live side by side as equals, until humans enslave dolphins and fuck up the environment.
Playing these games now feels subversive. But at the time, Sega was actually hitting on an environmental movement that had wide public appeal. A Gallup poll from 1990 found that 76 percent of Americans called themselves "environmentalists." In 1990, 350,000 people showed up to an Earth Day rally in Washington DC, and a total of 20 million Americans participated in rallies throughout the country. In 1992, the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit gave environmentalism and climate protection real global political momentum; 116 heads of state attended and the conference led to conventions on deforestation, protecting biodiversity, and reversing climate change.
Sega differentiated itself from Nintendo, which had a stranglehold on the console market before the Genesis was released, by encouraging its developers to pursue passion projects, especially if they tapped into pop culture buzz. While Nintendo was content to pop out rock solid games set in colorful fantasy worlds, Sega was exploring new corners of the gaming market, releasing games aimed at adults, sports fans, and environmentalists.
"Sega very intentionally tried to tap into the cultural zeitgeist—it pulled from Nickelodeon and MTV and this new America vibe," Blake Harris, author of Console Wars, a history of the Genesis-SNES rivalry, told me. This, at a time when Captain Planet was a popular television show. Sega was also a company that took all the developers who were a bit too weird for Nintendo. "If you were a third party developer, you were beholden to Nintendo, who had total control of the platform. So if you were an out-of-the-box developer, you would go to Sega, which was about freedom."
Awesome Possum is what I would imagine a game released by Greenpeace would look like. You pick up. You kill robots who are actively sawing down trees. You crawl through a landfill in the ruins of a polluted city, where the buildings have been overtaken by a "Fortress of Garbage." In between levels, you answer trivia questions about the environment in front of a tribunal of endangered animals, who get furious if, for example, you do not know which room of your house uses the most water.
At the end of the game, after literally kicking Dr. Machino's butt, Awesome Possum is enshrined next to Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore. The game ends with a plea: "Awesome's wish for a clean world is now in your hands."
Kalinske told me that Sega of America had several developers who made environmentalism a focus. Ed Annunziata, who made Ecco, still lives near the ocean and has spent much of his career putting out Ecco sequels and games about the oceanic ecosystem. The status of Big Blue, a virtual reality "spiritual successor" to Ecco, is up in the air after an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign. Mark Cerny, who headed up Sonic 2's development, specifically wanted the game to attack environmental issues. Vectorman, meanwhile, was headed up by an entire team of environmentalists. (Annunziata worked on that game, too.) "The environmental issues in that one in particular were certainly no accident," Kalinske said.
The indie game boom means that it's once again possible for weird games to get made, but it's hard to imagine another major release with a point of view like Ecco or Vectorman—which, it's worth pointing out, were both critically and commercially successful—on one of today's consoles. A big reason for that is environmentalism has sadly become a partisan issue.
Scientists, sociologists, and political scientists have spent much of the last two decades trying to unpack how this came to be. The popular narrative seems to be that conservative backlash to environmental progress was a strategy meant to oppose the Bill Clinton administration, especially his fiercely environmentalist Vice President Al Gore. Meanwhile, the international cooperation of the Rio Earth Summit was seen by conservative think tanks as an attack on American sovereignty, while the end of the Cold War meant that political attention was scattered.
Following the 1990 rallies, "a series of semihysterical stories and reports on 'eco-terrorism' were issued by the Heritage Foundation, the National Review, [and other right-wing publications]," David Helvarg wrote in his environmental history book The War Against the Greens. "With the collapse of communism then taking place, the Republican Right and its captive media has, for the first time in 45 years, lost a single unifying enemy to keep religious conservatives, gun advocates, antigovernment conspiracy buffs, and free-market advocates marching to the same beat."
"Replacing the red menace with the green menace and embracing a pro-industry backlash disguised as a citizen army seemed like a sound strategy," he added.
Two decades later, conservatives are still beating the same drum—protecting the environment is secondary to ensuring the profits and economic stability of fossil fuel companies, and consensus science is to be challenged or ignored. Environmentalism is to be considered a fringe movement.
Now, Donald Trump's cabinet contains an EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, who has sued the agency he's been picked to lead, and a secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, whose company, ExxonMobil, has gotten fabulously wealthy thanks to policies championed and implemented by the right.
The freedom Sega afforded its developers brought us a lot of good games and a lot of bad games. But most importantly, it brought us games that had something to say. After 25 years of anti-environmental rhetoric, games like Awesome Possum, as ridiculous as it is, have started to feel defiant as a relic of a more enlightened time.
"I tried to stay neutral on political issues when I was CEO of Sega, but I always encouraged the teams to do what they felt was correct," Kalinsky said. "Now, I think there's a lot that can be learned from the games we did back then."