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The Evolution Of Sega: A Conversation With Simon Jeffery

August 11, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Japanese-headquartered Sonic The Hedgehog creator Sega has long been an innovative and compelling creator of games -- ahead of its time for much of its history.

Its transition from a hardware manufacturer (Game Gear, Genesis, Dreamcast) to a pure game publisher, however, has been a work in progress - particularly in terms of building up a robust western division with its own product slate.

But in the past couple of years, the company has improved its status -- to the point where the company is the sixth biggest publisher in the U.S., according to recent statistics. And the suitability of games for the Western market has also increased, thanks to studio acquisitions including San Francisco-based Secret Level and the UK-based The Creative Assembly.

But where to now? Gamasutra had a chance to sit down with the CEO of Sega Of America, Simon Jeffery, who has been instrumental in changing Sega's fortunes in the west.

Topics included the transformation of the company's global development efforts, its acquisition of studios, and the importance of big-name talent (and the Sonic franchise) to its longevity and success -- and more.

The Transformation

My interpretation of Sega of America right now is that it's becoming something of a different company from Sega of Japan. I don't know if that's accurate, but if it is, how did this semi-autonomy come about?

Simon Jeffery: It was by design, very much so. I think we've strongly tried to make Sega of America feel like it's not a Japanese company. We want to resonate better with gamers in the casual market than I think Japanese companies have traditionally been able to do in the west for a few years.

The output from Japan (in general) right now seems to be geared around a small number of huge games which really resonate with the western market, but most Japanese content just does not anymore. So that's a pretty big change from five or six years ago, and it's a big change from last generation.

We're trying to make sure we don't make the mistake of being another Japanese company trying to be another Japanese company in the west. We want to build our success through building products for the west in the west, so there are not many Japanese staff in our office at Sega of America. We have a lot of autonomy now, and it's absolutely by design.

This seemed to be an initiative that coincided somewhat with your arrival. Was this an initiative you spearheaded?

SJ: It was part of the initiative by Sega in Japan. They were making a conscious decision to have the western operations have a western management team in place. They brought me in to set up a new management team and build it out to start building western content.

What were the major points you were trying to address when setting this plan in motion?

SJ: Taking that moment in time, it was a good time to do this. Sega had been going through sort of a control-alt-delete, and starting fresh with a start-up mentality. We were on the cusp of the next generation, and on the cusp of Nintendo changing into a different company and opening up a new part of the market. So it felt like the time was right for Sega to reinvent itself.

Really what I tried to do was ride that train and make the most of that point in time, bringing new people into the company and start building the kind of products that would get a leadership position in the next generation on the Wii and the DS, rather than just playing catch-up with everybody else, which is what we've traditionally done.

Well, that's a little harsh on Sega. (laughter) But anyway, starting with the Sega Gamers Day two years ago was when I was really struck by a different feeling that was coming from the company with things like Condemned 2. They were games that felt very iconic -- not very traditional Sega, but it felt like the company was building toward a new, "This is the kind of entertainment you can expect from us."

SJ: I would say that's a great observation, and thank you for that. It makes me feel good, because that's absolutely what we set out to achieve. I think that our ability to be successful is really down to being different from the big players. So much product these days is safe and formulaic, and therefore not particularly creative or interesting.

Sega's never really been the company to do that, so we've really tried to not seem like a mini-EA or a mini-Activision or anything like that. Games like Condemned, whilst not being traditionally Sega, we want them to feel like Sega, as part of the new look company.

Sega/Monolith Productions' Condemned 2: Bloodshot

The feeling I was getting was that while the Sega I grew up with is more or less gone, the Sega that is forming now is perhaps still a company one can rely on to bring a certain level of content. So it may not be the Sega that I knew, but it's a Sega that can be relied on, maybe?

SJ: That's absolutely where we're trying to get to. It's a struggle, and we're doing quite a lot. One of our big focuses right now is to improve the quality of the games going forward.

We really feel that we've gone through massive growth in the last few years, and we're bringing a lot of product to market. We've got fairly mixed results. Some of the product we're really happy with, and some of it not so much, but a year from now, we want to be happy with everything that comes out.

Do you see the handheld market as an opportunity for Sega to exploit further?

SJ: Very much so, and if you include the iPhone, even moreso. We've been pretty successful on the DS, and we're kind of shocked to hear that Iron Man is the biggest-selling game on the PSP so far this year.

With the recent success of the PSP in Japan, and it seems to be taking off in the U.S., we're going to look at that. The DS is a perfect machine for the Sega customers. Sonic Chronicles is something we're very excited about. We think it's going to be a very cool game, and we want to continue to do stuff like that.

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Matt Ponton
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I really hope they get rid of the "Werehog" idea. Just remove all the night stages from Sonic Unleashed. Let Sonic be Sonic. Listen to the fans.

Oh, and best of luck in their other new properties (Just so long as the let Sonic be Sonic).

brandon sheffield
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Matt - the Werehog thing is actually surprisingly well-implemented... I'm cautiously optimistic. It's the main thing that made me think this was going to be yet another crappy Sonic cash-in, but the night stages actually play pretty well, and Sonic himself is cartoony and exaggerated, not at all XTREME or edgy. His limbs distend, and bend around...the music in those stages is excellent as well. I can't say it'll be great, but it's not as horrifying as I though.

Matt Ponton
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I'll leave it to my experiences when playing. I just don't like the concept as of right now. Then again, I haven't had the chance to get my hands on it or see anything more than one screen.

Giles ODell
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Well, I'm sure the gang at Secret Level is going to have some mixed feelings about these statements to say the least.

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As one of the designers at Secret Level I have to say that Simon Jeffery's statement about us is one of the most shockingly unprofessional things I've ever seen in an interview.

As a group we've been sacrificing our personal lives and health to ship products for Sega. We didn't expect thank yous, but we definitely never expected a slap like that.

There's more I could say about his statements, but I'll hold my tongue because it wouldn't be professional to discuss these things in a public forum.

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I must admit that Simon Jeffery hit the nail. Dear secret level, you may be sacrificing a lot of your personal lives, but if the end something like Iron Man comes out......well I don't know what to say.....just look at your metacritic....and by the way Golden Axe is looking.....not a lot better......who...I mean who really decided to be golden axe only 1 player.......and did you look at the original game? Cause by the things look it's just a underwhelming generic brawler that happens to got slapped the name golen axe on it to sell a few more units to the old predictions for that's going to suck.......but it sucked from the beginning.....better planing and better quality instead of sacrificing your personal life.....I would say!

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Simon Jeffery has to be one of the dumbest CEO's in history. What's the nonsense about the Japanese dont have a handle on casual games??? I mean i'm sure Nintendo would argue against that point???

And to rail one of your own developers in public? I mean what does he hope to gain by saying this? Credibility??? If you paid good money for B-studio, shame on you... if it's true or not, why do it in public???

plenty of companies put out bad games, but i have never seen a publisher rail on their own developers in the press - never. Very unprofessional, and short sighted and self-defeating. I'd be surprise if their was anyone left at Secret Level after reading that.

I feel sorry for platinum games if you think sega can get you more exposure to the west than capcom... just looking at the track record capcom was the better choice... 3 million sellers to sega's 1 (mario/sonic olympics)...

i'm a long time sega fan and i have to say everything out of simon's mouth has been pure rubbish... its like he spouts a couple of buzzwords and thinks he's said something.

Go back to lucas.

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Shenmue 1 & 2 has an episodic download on PSN Store & xbox live arcade this would be awesome, like Siren on the PSN. Put one guy in a room day & night to port the game and make it happen please !

Phantasy Star Online need a new come back on home console too, a true nextgen one...

I dont really like the new Sega, sure codemned was good, but where are all the old franchise?

Its like with Sega Rally revo, im sure Sega forced the developer to build the game like the old arcade racing game. And the game had good review, look at metacritic (75), and it was their first game. But they sold the studio... who is going to bring back daytona usa now ? and all the beloved racing game from sega...

I really dont understand, gamer want more old sega game, but not like they were back in the days, with an arcade mode and thats all.

The only game we wanted like the old days was sonic, and every times its was the one they choose to change and ad more stuff...

Fan want more of Jet set radio too, that doesnt mean it need to be set in japan with japaness music (love the game music) but it could be set in europe citys, with a more western feel for the music.

im really looking forward for the next sonic game, i hope the night stuff isnt a big part of the game, because i really love the look & feel of the day part with sonic !

Oh and the Valkyria look great too, a demo to try it that would be awesome !

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Surely the fact that the developer was very likely rushed to meet the deadline alongside the movie was not a major factor on why Iron Man was of questionable quality.

Also, to single out and undermine a particular department in public is extremely unprofessional, and I'm shocked he has been in the industry for as long as he has with such a poor display of judgment.

The awesome Iron Man console game fans, gamers and designers dream of cannot be created AT ALL from start to finish with only 14 months of development time in the schedule. That is insane. There is no room there to release a game that can meet the expectations of fans, and at the same time address the critical issues that always arise when developing for all major systems simultaneously while still catering to the limitations a license brings. Add to that the design restrictions imposed by the license provider, and bottleneck communication between license provider, publisher and developer on any idea to make the game better, and it can easily be seen why the game turned out like it did despite restless hours of work from dedicated professionals (I don't know anyone at Secret Level, but I can tell you people don't crunch and miss family and good health just for the fun of it). Since Mr. Jeffery is a veteran in the industry, we can all agree he was very well aware of this, as it's not an uncommon occurrence when developing licensed titles in the industry; especially those that must be released prior to a blockbuster movie.

If Mr. Jeffery knew this, and wanted a quality title that was also a success, he could have worked with Marvel to reach a reasonable middle ground. However, since his skills as a business man are not "world class" enough to release a license title of BOTH quality and financial success (Golden Compass, The Hulk, Iron Man... 0-for-3 so far), then he should at least take the responsibility for, as CEO of the US branch of Sega, allowing the title to be developed under such restrictions for a guaranteed critical failure.

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I think people are taking this all a little bit too personally or reading into this too deeply.

First of all, I can't see that anyone has singled out designers as being bad, but simply not as 'world class'. If people are offended by this, they should at least acknowledge that it has been pointed out that all of this happened over the course of and due to a short 14 month project and then at least take some accountability for the idea that this isn't the worlds best game design anyway. There's no reason to hold that title up and be offended when someone suggests you haven't proven yourself to be 'world class'.

Also, comparing them to Creative Assembly is merely a way of saying that one studio has created original, top selling IP and another one is a work for hire organization. Secret Level, even before being involved with Sega was exactly that. There is nothing wrong with being a work for hire organization...many organizations have tried to be more than this and have lasted only 12 months, so have some self respect for what you might have achieved. These comments seem fair to me.

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I mean I could see the excuse for Iron Man being shit..........but Golden Axe? Come on, Secret Level you suck..........put less crunch and better planning and quality in your games........then maybe your parent company will talk better about you and you'll be, maybe just maybe, a triple A studio....... though I doubt it.........

Thomas Grove
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All you people posting as Anonymous are cowards. Oh well, at least you're mostly making great points. From what I can tell, things were being severely mismanaged and they then basically rebooted the entire Golden Axe team, and are making the best of a bad situation. They are well aware that Golden Axe without multiplayer is a huge shame, but what are they going to do when they've already spent their entire budget?

Here is a well worded criticism by someone not afraid to use their real name:

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Thomas, maybe you haven't thought things through. An Anonymous poster might be working for a studio that works for Sega, or a studio that is in the middle of working out a deal with Sega, or a studio that doesn't want to burn bridges with Sega. It may not even be a lowly employee, but someone higher up the chain.

An employee or representative of such a studio speaking his or her mind about the issue, which may include harsh words against a top Sega executive, could cause the poster to get fired; or worse, it could cause a strain in any relationship between Sega and the studio, including the breaking of a deal.

However, if the poster has to either keep quiet OR give their name when posting, then why not choose to keep quiet? Well, that's because it's more important to read sincere comments (as a result of anonymity) than it is to know the name of the individual giving the comment. There is no point in knowing the name. Also, bear in mind that the person could easily be supporting a family as a game developer, so it wouldn't be his neck alone on the line for making such comments. That is far from being a coward. It's just being smart, and knowing what could be at stake.

Geoffrey Mackey
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Dammit I hate getting in the conversation so late. I know I squeeze too many things in a post, but I'll try to be short and too the point.

I've said it before Sega needs ME as their CEO. :)

I don't agree with Jeffery's vision. Focusing on "casual gaming" doesn't necessarily equal profits and some profits doesn't mean you're making the most of the companies talents. I don't buy that crap about "we need to be a western company." That sounds like a bunch chatter. I applaud Sega for publishing games like condemned, but I don't believe their failures were due to the fact that they were "too Japanese." Learn lessons from the past Sega for the love of god. History seems to repeat itself. One thing Sega needs to do better is marketing. I think they are a bit out of touch. Jeffery's is wrong about Sonic completely. It's true that mascot gaming is not what it used to be, but people haven't been buying sonic because they are not made well. I could give you several bad examples, but the Sonic DS games are a good example of what they should be. Stop saturating the market with bad Sonic games and I have a feeling sales will pick up.

I feel bad about Iron Man now. I did talk smack about it, but I had no idea it's development time was only 14 months. I'm totally blown away that a solid game could be produced in such a short time. Imagine if they had 18 months.

Badmouthing developers is the worst thing any CEO could do. I was excited about Golden Axe, but if the CEO doesn't think it's great, why would I? I'm still going to get it cause I have faith in the developers.

In my opinion Sega has a reputation to upheld. Being profitable isn't good enough. They must be great AND profitable. I'm sure everyone thinks I'm mental about Sega, but I want to be able to love them again.

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Clearly "Evolution" was a typo.

Anyway regarding his comments on SL; they are harsh and unnecessary in a public forum. Also ironic... I know a chap at Sega who was fired by Mr Jeffery & co. last year for daring to write in public that management at Sega had lost the plot.

In regards to SL - while they may not be at fault for Iron Man in terms of the development schedule they had to work with; they have no such excuse with Golden Axe. I'm not even talking about the MP, I mean the game play experience in general - I've played it a fair bit and it's simply awful. Sega are not blameless, but nor are they entirely to blame. We can all make excuses (valid or not) but when all else is stripped away the reality speaks for itself.

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Very good words and exactly to the point. Secret Level cannot just say that's not their fault that Golden Axe is was already shit at the planning guess that is was one brawler they were working on and then thought that by adding the name Golden Axe it would help them to get noticed.....which in this case they're going to destroy that name and we'll never see another Golden Axe game.......sometimes dear Secret Level good will is not're mediocre and with the next game coming're going to fall even the point were Sega will have to ask if it can have you guys thing Secret Level the words "DOOM" are written all clearly all over you's only a matter of time and the saddest part is that you can't see the writings on the wall........

Thomas Grove
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Anonymous @ 13 Aug 2008 at 5:58 pm PST

You're completely right; I though of adding a caveat for employees as soon as I had hit the submit button.

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There are a lot of things I will not / cannot say about all of this, but I will say one thing: It is unfair for Simon Jeffery to publicly disparage the design team at Secret Level in a widely read trade publication, when those same Secret Level employees making negative comments about him in an article would likely face termination.

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This posting is specifically in response to the Anonymous poster who uses too many ellipses in his responses...

I don't see anything constructive in your postings. What are you trying to say? That Secret Level puts out poor quality games?

So what? I feel like you don't understand how this industry works at all.

Every studio falters. Every publisher has made a bad call. This article is itself a clear example of a very powerful and experienced industry veteran making a bad call - a mistake if you will - in disparaging an internal studio. As you can see from the responses of his peers, even if the remark is warranted it is still in bad form, particularly from a CEO. It is a mistake I am sure he will not be making again in the near future, in much the same way that Secret Level as a studio is also learning from its mistakes. This article is probably a very painful reminder to their employees and managers that their studio still has a very long way to go before they earn the consumer and peer respect that we all desire as creatives. Kicking them when they are down is demeaning & unwarranted, especially when the venue does not allow them a proper response.

Sometimes studios make mistakes, or experience growing pains on small projects. Sometimes they make colossal blunders on big IPs with huge budgets. Studios are just creative men and women doing their jobs, after all: working, learning, growing and gaining experience. That some of the responses to this article imply long hours of overtime and crunch only does more to sign to myself and other vets that a lot of mistakes were made across the board in the creation of these two titles. And if that implies that Secret Level as a company "sucks" then I have some sad news for you, my friend: this industry sucks in general. "Less crunch and better planning" do not just magically appear from the ether of creativity and grant game developers good quality of life and great games they can be proud of: it takes a lot of blood, sweat & tears to make up for mistakes early on in development, and sometimes even that isn't enough for a team to pull through and make something worth your hard-earned dollars. I don't see anyone from Secret Level coming onto these forums and advocating you buy their products; not that it is even their call whether their games make it to market. It is the publisher's call whether or not they see something in a game that is worth selling. It is for that reason alone that I withhold my own judgment on Golden Axe. If it is a sub-par product like Iron Man then the onus is Sega's to pull the product from stores and give the consumer what they demand instead or nothing at all. But honestly Anonymous, historically your opinion isn't worth that much to them, or to any corporation for that matter. Apologies, but they will still market the product to the subset of consumers who just do not care and will still buy the game as long as Golden Axe or Iron Man is in the title.

Which again makes me question your postings: what would *you* have these people at Secret Level do, or have Sega or Simon Jeffery do for that matter beyond this? Line up the team and have them shot for making a couple of bad games? "You are going to fall even more;" is just a cruel and unintelligent response. I apologize if a couple of IPs dear to you as a consumer have been damaged, but I think that you will survive with only a few tears shed. After all, we've all had to live through the Star Wars prequels.

I disagree that Secret Level can never be a Triple-A studio, simply because - as Grassroots Gamemaster would cite - 'Secret Level' is just a corporate shell. Through the collective efforts of hiring managers, Sega corporate and Secret Level internal personnel, I'm sure a group of qualified game-makers can be assembled under their roof to make great games. Who knows, they may already have the secret sauce on premises: sometimes people and teams need to fail and to painfully learn from their mistakes on their way up the development ladder. American developers, it seems, always want to re-invent the wheel. With Sega's acquisition of Secret Level not more than five years old, Secret Level is certainly a young studio by industry standards; and if they chose to build their own engine (a choice I wouldn't necessarily agree with) then even more reason why their early games are not or will not be critical successes.

That is not to say that I do not question the judgment of any publisher that would allow a fledgling studio access to one of the biggest IPs of the year (Iron Man) - but then that seems to be the way the story goes in this industry. Young studios are willing to take on insane schedules or difficult publisher demands in an attempt to finally make it to the big leagues. It's a common 3rd-party dev mentality/causality, and one that I believe is endemic to the way in which games are currently published, marketed, and sold.

It is rare that you see a success story of stepping-stone development: I cite Rockstar's Table Tennis as an example of iterative development done the right way (build a small game on a new engine before upgrading to something big like say a GTA 4). But then Rockstar can make games this way because of the confluence of great sales and marketing, a proven track record with a team of vets, and just a bit of luck. The rest of us aren't always so lucky, and so 'big' games like Iron Man and Golden Axe will continue to hit the shelves and un-impress us (and the development team themselves) with tech-demo scores. As long as publishers are more willing to take your money than they are to take the loss and stop development on games that do not offer the consumer a satisfying experience, this trend will continue.

But that fact does not detract from my main point that it is possible for teams to do better over time. Is Resident Evil 4 a good game? Do you know what game that Capcom development team make just before making what is widely considered one of the greatest games of all time?


Have you even heard of this game? It has a 63 Metacritic rating. I hear it has a cult following, but even Mikami-san did not necessarily approve of his own team's game: '"This game doesn't have so much catchy point" "I wanted to put little more time into it" and a lot more.'

What would have happened if Capcom management looked at that score and said, "Well this team is obviously terrible.......and can never amount to anything........Let's all take them out back and tell them they SUCK and then kick them and laugh.........That'll teach 'em to try to make games, losers!"

But they didn't did they? Instead they fostered continued growth and trusted the team with further games to develop, and eventually there was greatness. I think even Simon Jeffery understands this, otherwise he never would have backed the purchase of Secret Level in the first place. I only hope that his comments in this article reflect a current level of frustration in his organization with the obvious blunder of giving a new studio two big titles to cut its teeth on, rather than follow a more sensible track of delayed cost-recoup paired with smaller games to start. I stress that I do not advocate discontinuing support for that studio in the future. As a developer who has seen many teams cut down just as they were really gaining their stride, and as someone who hates to see poor decisions like that made in haste above all else, I hope that both Sega and Secret Level are taking active steps to learn from their mistakes and strive towards making every title a Triple-A consumer experience... not just 80s and 85s.

Good teams and good developers learn from their mistakes, Anonymous. Contrary to your post's assertion, I would speculate that a post-mortem for both Iron Man and Golden Axe would reveal a sincere effort to make games that were true to their IPs that fell short for one reason or another (probably several). And that any reference to the 'reality' of a situation is premature at this point until we get to hear from the team(s) themselves. I for one would welcome a Game Developer Post-Mortem for both Iron Man and Golden Axe games that we can all share and learn from as developers, publishers, marketers, etc.

Until then I welcome continued constructive discussion on this thread concerning issues germane to game development. Please take your consumer comments about the quality of past games or games under development to sites like where they are more appropriate.

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I feel like the "after SEGA" Total War expansion packs and games aren't as good as the "before SEGA" games. It feels like the game has been downgraded, with less strategy, less care for history accuracy and more ridiculous fantasy-style units.

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wow. i have never seen a publisher act with such hubris regarding one of their developers. this is going to cause problems for simon (who I have never held in high regard anyway, after watching him get wasted at e3 and then go on to belittle multiple employees to their face. this guy is why lucasarts was a failure for so many years and now is the reason why sega of america struggles.

there are great talents at secret level. his comments are out of line. if they need to reshuffle to put a better group together, so be it, but seriously what has simon ever done in this industry that was considered AAA quality. Nothing. He has more failures under his belt than just about anyone.

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To the anoymus poster who wrote the long comment......yes I know P.N.03...I own was a shinji mikami masterpiece..underappreciated.... so Capcom know what it had with Mikami...I beat it twice...and just to let you know I've been playing games more than 20 years....and just to excuse of all guilt Secret Level is just plain learn from your mistakes.but Secret Level is not a new studio....they've been around for some time...and making the same mistake twice talks for the quality, creative and managment of that company........just to let you know a little start up company called Valve with no experience in games made a megaseller and highly regarded game called Half Live don't know if you know it.....Golden Axe is in horrible shape and it has no sign of looking better.........Secret Level got the pun it deserves publicly.......props for that to Simon Jeffery to have the guts to call them out.......Golden Axe looks like a game who just happens to come around and get the title slapped on it........