Sonic the Hedgehog? Tired and boring. Alex Kidd? Don’t insult us. Sega’s greatest spokesman was born in advertising, starred in one game, and never made it stateside before literally exploding on television. And since last week marked the two-decade anniversary of the Sega Saturn’s surprise (and, as we’d later come to realize, horribly timed) launch in the U.S., we’d be remiss if we didn’t spend some time recognizing the insane hard-sell mascot that hawked Sega’s lovably clunky 32-bit machine in Japan: Segata Sanshiro.
Where Sega’s American marketing efforts relied on cryptic, eye-searing ’90s-pop-art ads featuring bald models and shrieking blob heads, Japanese gamers were enticed into the Saturn camp by an angry, middle-aged martial artist who hurt people for not playing Saturn. To clarify, he didn’t hurt people for playing Saturn’s competitors – he hurt them for playing baseball, dancing, or doing pretty much anything that wasn’t sitting in front of a TV and playing video games.
Armed only with judo skills and the phrase “Sega Saturn, Shiro!” (“You must play Sega Saturn!”), Segata was a figure of pure terror in his early ads. Not even little kids were safe from his wrath; in a move worthy of Freddy Krueger, he dressed up in Santa’s stolen skin to earn the trust of children, only to cruelly destroy their hopes just as they were at their highest.
Not to worry, though – Segata only wanted to terrorize these rotten kids so he could give them a free Saturn, which they evidently had no idea how to use.
So who was this monster, this intemperate Goliath who entered the lands of men to make war on all non-Saturn forms of recreation? In the real world, he was a parody of Sugata Sanshiro (a fictional judo master and subject of a couple Akira Kurosawa films), and was played by Kamen Rider star Hiroshi Fujioka. As his theme song tells us, however, he was a man who’d devoted his life to gaming, which meant he spent all his time training in the mountains with a comically oversized Saturn.
Segata’s training regimen was so rigorous, in fact, that it didn’t need electricity or a TV; back in the ’90s, after all, all you really needed to become an expert gamer was to hit buttons really fast.
After his backstory was revealed, Segata’s image softened somewhat, maybe because threatening consumers with physical violence if they don’t buy your underdog console isn’t the most effective sales tactic. In later ads, Segata’s focus drifted away from punishing the innocent, and he came to be defined by less violent feats of strength.
He was not, however, above hurling a fellow judoka into a landmine if it meant moving a few more copies of Saturn Bomberman.
Even with the occasional burst of psychopathy, however, the damage was done: Segata was already on a slippery slope toward cuddliness. Nowhere was this better illustrated than when he fell in luuuuurv with kimono-clad temptress Sakura Shinguji, chasing her through a field of bright-pink cherry blossoms in a character-inappropriate promo for a Sakura Taisen game.
Before long, even the cold fury he harbored toward other forms of fun began to thaw. Some ads went so far as to show him doing the unthinkable: playing team sports. Sure, he was home-run kicking baseballs into the scoreboard and lifting goals out of the way of soccer balls — but there was a time, not so long before, when Segata would have savagely shoulder-thrown every last player into submission just for wearing a uniform. He even coached a team at one point, with a little Bobby Knight-style abuse thrown in for good measure.
Then shit got weird.
Segata’s fame culminated with his own Saturn game, Segata Sanshiro Shinken Yugi, which is exactly what you think it is: a series of silly minigames, with Segata’s unlockable commercials doled out as a reward for success. Some of these are based loosely on his ads, like one in which you get to smash Segata’s face through a stack of bricks, thereby making up somewhat for Solo Crisis’ blatant false advertising.
Other minigames get predictably strange. Want to help Segata separate his recyclables? No? What if we told you he gets to kick them into a bin while they’re thrown at his head?
Weirder still, one of the activities fills the screen with low-res dragons from Panzer Dragoon, challenging players to remember how many of them are being ridden by little pixelated Segatas. I guess that technically makes this (and not Orta), the fourth Panzer Dragoon game.
Sadly, it wasn’t to last. When Sega switched priorities from the Saturn to the Dreamcast in 1999, it no longer had a use for its aggro pitchman and his convenient “Sega Saturn, Shiro!” pun. Where other companies might have simply phased him out or kept him around to awkwardly market a new system, Sega did something that – depending on your perspective – was either amazing or horrifying. There would be no retirement for Segata Sanshiro. There would, instead, be fiery death. In space.
Segata’s infamous final adventure began when some sneering terrorist launched a missile at Sega’s boardroom, where the company’s executives celebrated the Dreamcast’s impending launch. Luckily, Segata was already on the building’s roof, always prepared for just such an eventuality.
In a final test of his judo skills, Segata put himself between the missile and the boardroom in a glorious act of extravagant self-sacrifice, instantly atoning for all the misery he’d caused Japan’s less nerdy citizens over the years. With one last, manly grunt, he redirected the missile’s path and rode it into the stratosphere.
Would there be a last-minute rescue for Segata? Would he jump off to safety, his Saturn-hardened body impervious to a fall from miles in the air? Surely he…
And so Segata’s brilliant career came to a sad end. But his lunatic brand loyalty to Saturn cemented his place in history, especially once the Internet caught on and started passing his bizarre ad campaign around. Thanks to YouTube, you can even relive the glory with subtitles: