In 1989, a man named Toshihiro Nagoshi graduated from Tokyo Zokei University, earning a degree in film production. Shortly thereafter, he joined Sega, a game developer that recently made a name for itself in the arcade scene and the budding console market when they released the Mega Drive – renamed the Genesis in North America. When the developer conceived its mascot in the form of Sonic the Hedgehog, whose debut game launched in 1991, they suddenly became a force capable of challenging Nintendo. Mr. Nagoshi was first assigned to the company’s second arcade department (AM2). Under the wing of Yu Suzuki, he was a CG designer for the 1992 arcade hit Virtua Racing – one of the first games of its kind to utilize three-dimensional polygons. He then used this knowledge to direct, produce, and design a game of his own in 1998: Daytona USA 2.
In 2000, Sega had separated their nine research and development departments from the parent company. They were established as semi-autonomous subsidiaries with a president acting as a studio head. Mr. Nagoshi found himself in charge of one of them; the subsidiary’s name was Amusement Vision. Their first two projects saw the creation of Planet Harriers and SlashOut. The former was a 3D rail shooter and the latter a fantasy-themed beat ‘em up. Their first console project saw them revamp the original Daytona USA alongside Genki for the Sega Dreamcast – the successor of the Sega Saturn.
Despite this success, Mr. Nagoshi felt he was bad at actually playing games. Therefore, his next project would be one that new players could instantly understand and play. Specifically, he wanted to make a game involving rolling a sphere through a maze. This was to provide a contrast to the increasingly complex titles dominating Japanese arcades at the time. Although they quickly conceived a physics engine, he felt the idea of guiding plain spheres to be visually unappealing. Worse, without any distinguishing features, it would be difficult for the player to gauge their avatar’s movements. Therefore, Mr. Nagoshi decided to place monkey characters inside the spheres, using concept art from designer Mika Kojima. The game, entitled Monkey Ball, debuted at the 2001 Amusement Operator Union trade show before formally hitting arcades in June of that year.
Despite its arcade design sensibilities, Monkey Ball provided gameplay that would make for an ideal console port. However, there was just one problem with such a proposition. Although it was well-received and is thought of as a great console for its time, the Dreamcast’s run ended up being short-lived. Isao Okawa had replaced Shoichiro Irimajiri as Sega’s president in 2000. Unlike his predecessor, he had advised Sega to leave the console business to focus entirely on software. Combined with a lack of third-party support, the enormous success of Sony’s PlayStation 2 console, and Sega’s damaged reputation as a result of previous failed attempts to launch new hardware such as the Sega 32X and the Sega Saturn, March of 2001 marked the end of an era when the Dreamcast was discontinued. With Sega officially having left the console race, they were now a “platform-agnostic” third-party publisher. Mr. Nagoshi still intended to create a console port for Monkey Ball, and the parent company had chosen the ideal platform for its debut.
The creation of Sonic the Hedgehog sparked the medium’s first true console rivalry between the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and the Sega Genesis. Due to their fairly high price points, most kids would only own one of these consoles. This meant you were either a Nintendo kid or a Sega kid. In schools, it wasn’t unheard of for gangs to form based on which console they owned. All of that came to an abrupt and shocking end in 2001 when, in the very same year as the Dreamcast’s discontinuation, a game published by Sega would be among the Nintendo GameCube’s launch titles.
Unlike Sony’s PlayStation 2 or Microsoft’s inaugural console, the Xbox, the Nintendo GameCube sought to draw in a younger audience, meaning that Monkey Ball would fit right in. Mr. Nagoshi even commented that the Amusement Vision staff felt more comfortable with the GameCube hardware than they did Sega’s own. He also joked that Nintendo was the only console manufacturer his staff members didn’t hate.
Sega assured fans that the port would be created in time for the GameCube’s launch. A little over a month later, the team modified their game to run on the GameCube’s hardware. They spent additional time to conceive bonus features, enhance the graphics, and even introduce a fourth character. As promised, this port, named Super Monkey Ball, was released alongside the Nintendo GameCube itself in 2001. The game proved to be a commercial success, though to Mr. Nagoshi’s surprise, it fared better in the United States than it did domestically. There, it became one of Sega’s bestselling titles in 2002. Many journalists even went as far as considering it the highlight of the GameCube’s launch titles. As the very first game Sega ever published for a Nintendo console, were they able to begin their new life as a third-party developer on the right foot?