In December of 1996 I somewhat reluctantly traveled to England for the first time with my mom. Today I would jump at the chance for a free ride to London, but back then I was a dumb teen who had yet to truly experience the joys of travel, whether for work or for pleasure. To put it in perspective, I almost certainly would have chosen a week locked in my room playing Sega Saturn instead of a week abroad. But I’m glad I went, because London and the English countryside were idyllic. But whether it was Buckingham Palace or Big Ben, nothing delighted me quite like what I spotted while wandering around in Piccadilly Circus. I was shocked to see what looked like a bronze Sonic the Hedgehog statue on top of an electronic sign that scrolled “SEGAWORLD.” I just had to go, and in the process I converted my mom into the reluctant traveler.
One thing to keep in mind: I’m going off of memory and a few photos and souvenirs. Or should I inflate the importance of these items and call them artifacts? It was 25 years ago, after all.
We waited in line at the SegaWorld entrance to buy tickets.
According to the ticket I held onto, I was there on December 14, 1996, only a few months after the opening. We were there for at least an hour, but no more than two. I don’t think my mom did anything but follow me while I gawked at the most insane arcade I had ever been in up to that point, and I’m sure she would have rather been elsewhere.
Once you got your ticket you’d go up a huge escalator and work your way down the six or seven floors that comprised SegaWorld. But not before being greeted by the now-famous Sonic “statue.”
I spent the most time on the top floor because it featured several Virtua Fighter 3 arcade cabinets. Virtua Fighter 3 had been unveiled earlier in the year and was probably the most technologically advanced videogame up to that point. It represents the conclusion of the Virtua Fighter trilogy in the sense that the first three games in the series weren’t hyped simply because they were great. Each successive title was a showcase for cutting-edge technology that influenced the industry for years to come. I was blown away, even on the slightly washed out 50 inch screen. I watched more than I played, because it was expensive—nothing was on free play—and it was clear the local players had a better grasp of the then-new Dodge button because they were routinely kicking my ass. I wasn’t expecting Virtua Fighter 3 to show up in my local arcade until 1997, so I felt privileged to play so much earlier than I expected.
Sega arcade titles dominated, but other developers had a presence, whether the games were related in some way or not. Namco, certainly one of Sega’s rivals, had several games there, while others like Tecmo had the fighting game Dead or Alive and Jaleco had the racer Super GT 24H, both which ran on Sega hardware. I saw the fighting games Last Bronx and Sonic the Fighters, Sega’s super rare R360 deluxe cab, and a version of Ridge Racer called “Full Scale” where you sit in what seemed to be a full-size red sports car to play. I haven’t encountered any of these cabs since. There seemed to be an emphasis on deluxe cabinets, but perhaps the coolest arcade game I saw there outside of Virtua Fighter 3 kinda seemed crammed in a corner alone. I saw and touched, but didn’t play due to blowing most of my money already, a SegaSonic the Hedgehog arcade cabinet. I remember spinning the trackball as I watched the attract screen and some gameplay. I’ve played the game via emulation, but I seriously regret not giving it a spin when I had the chance.
When you take SegaWorld as an arcade, it was a triumph. But all the other crap designed for dumb tourists like me didn’t hold much appeal. The novelty rides weren’t interesting in the slightest, and while there were a lot of people there, Sega obviously couldn’t sustain over the long haul.
Once we made our way down we exited through the Sega Store. I remember they sold SegaWorld-themed merch on one side and a ton of Sega Saturn hardware, software, and accessories on the other. I didn’t buy any software due to being in a PAL region and being broke, but I did pick up a few things.
I believe the final shot I took was of a sign stating “Come Back Soon” with Sonic the Hedgehog in the middle. I believe it was from inside the store, but I can’t say for sure.
While SegaWorld London is dead and Sega’s position in the industry has been severely diminished for a multitude of reasons, up until recently you could still get a SegaWorld-style experience. I can’t say what Japanese arcades are like post-pandemic, but the Club Sega and Taito Station arcades in Tokyo in particular both gave a scaled down, but still-cool taste of what SegaWorld was like. You’d have a nice mix of the latest and greatest right next to oddities and rarities like Radiant Silvergun and Dancing Eyes, but with a lot of the bullshit novelty stripped away. If you’re ever in Japan I urge you to go and play in arcades while the scene is still thriving (assuming it is in the face of COVID) so you can get that SegaWorld experience before it’s too late.
NOTE: All pictures and video taken by me with the exception of the SegaWorld shirt.