The Menacer was yet another skirmish in the ongoing war between Nintendo and Sega in the early nineties. Nintendo brought out a light gun – the Super Scope for the SNES – so of course Sega had to have one, too. But the Menacer is interesting in that whereas most of the Sega hardware was developed in Japan, this unusual light gun was made entirely by Sega of America.
I would show up in the Origin Systems office in my full uniform and freak everybody out, which was fun
The producer in charge of making it happen was Mac Senour (which is pronounced ‘senior’, in case you’re wondering). Senour started his career as a programmer for 8-bit computers back in the early eighties, working on games like Serpentine for Brøderbund, but after the US video game crash in 1983, he struggled to find any work. "I couldn't get a job for nothing," he tells Time Extension. "I was really desperate, so I joined the army." Senour took a role as a computer-programming instructor and spent the next few years in the military. However, on the side, he started doing some freelance work for Ultima developer Origin Systems in Austin, Texas, which was just an hour or so away from his base in Fort Hood. "I would show up in the Origin Systems office in my full uniform and freak everybody out, which was fun," he laughs. Initially, he was given the job of porting the Apple II game Ring Quest to the Commodore 64, although Origin abandoned the port when sales of the original game turned out to be disappointing.
After he was released from the army, Senour applied for a technical support job at Sega of America, based in San Francisco. He explains that they needed "someone to take the letters and phone calls and faxes from developers, turn it into technical speak, and fax it off to Japan so they can understand it, get the answers back, and then put it back into American English." It was the ideal job for someone with Senour's skills; it’s clear from our conversation that he’s an enthusiastic communicator, as well as endlessly cheerful. He reckons part of the reason he landed the job at Sega is that Dallas Snell at Origin gave him a glowing reference, particularly emphasising his communication skills.
Senour had a somewhat humbling start at Sega, though: initially, he was given a broom cupboard as an office. "Then they moved me to a little cubicle that was actually smaller than the broom closet," he says. "But I kind of liked it because I could spin my chair and be right in front of the bookcase where I had all the technical documents." One thing he distinctly remembers from his time at the firm was the terse relationship between Sega of America and its Japanese parent company. Early on, he remembers asking his boss, Steve Hanawa, why the messages he was sending to Japan weren’t getting a response. "He said, 'Oh, I failed to explain something very important to you. Sega Japan hates Sega of America, and won't do anything to help us. And they will actually throw stumbling blocks in front of you. Have a good day!'"
He said, 'Oh, I failed to explain something very important to you. Sega Japan hates Sega of America, and won't do anything to help us. And they will actually throw stumbling blocks in front of you. Have a good day!'
We asked Senour why the relationship between the US and Japanese arms of Sega was so frosty. "They didn't trust us, and they didn't understand our market. So we would turn down titles, and they were insulted that we would turn down their side-scrolling shooting games. And at the upper levels, they really wanted us just to behave, to do what they wanted us to do, to be a carbon copy. And the two markets are very different from each other; you can't take a great game in Japan and assume it's going to be a great game in America." There was a similarly uncomfortable dynamic between Sega Europe and Sega of Japan at the time, with the latter being particularly baffled by the enormously successful Sega Pirate TV adverts in the UK.
Senour went on to take a producer role at Sega of America, working on games like Taz-Mania and Evander Holyfield’s ‘Real Deal’ Boxing. But one day in 1992, Clyde Grossman, the head of product development, popped by his cubicle with a new project. "He goes: 'Someone noticed in Sega Japan that Nintendo has this Super Scope, and we don't have anything like it – so we have to have something like it.'" Suddenly, Senour was in charge of creating Sega’s rival to the Super NES light gun – and unlike most other Sega hardware, it would be entirely produced in the US. Senour reckons the main reason for this was that Sega "didn't want to release it in Japan at all. It was for the American market, so let's have the Americans do it."
The design of the Menacer hardware was done by Western Technologies, the firm founded by Jay Smith, designer of the pioneering MB Microvision handheld console from 1979 and the unique vector-display-based Vectrex home console from 1982. "He and his company designed the internals of the Menacer," explains Senour, who adds that there were various initial designs for the light gun. "It was a pistol, it was a tube, it was a thing that was this big and then you pulled it out [like a telescope]," he says. "And we just ran out of time. I was told many times: 'The deadline, hit the deadline, hit that deadline'." Senour had just six months to finish the Menacer and its six pack-in games ahead of the 1992 holiday season.
I remember him coming back and saying, 'Oh, by the way, I don't want six shooting games, because that's what Nintendo has; we have to have six games that are unique'
Eventually, Sega and Western Technologies settled on the Menacer’s unusual modular design, which features a pistol with a removable shoulder stock and sights. Senour fought to put lenses in the sights to make them more functional, but was informed it would be too expensive. "So it's just two cans," he laments. He pointed out at the time that no one would use the sights because they didn’t do anything, but he was told that the Menacer had to have them because the Super Scope had sights. The compromise was that the sights could be taken off – and the different configurations also allowed the marketing department to trumpet that the Menacer offered 'four ways to play.' Senour remembers the name 'Menacer' came out of a meeting with the marketing department. "We were brainstorming different ideas," he says. "It's shooting, it's scary, and so forth, and somebody said, 'It's menacing.' And somebody else said, 'So it’s the Menacer, then'."
When Grossman stopped by Senour's cubicle to task him with developing an answer to Nintendo’s Super Scope, he also ordered him to make six games to go with the light gun: Sega’s equivalent of the Super Scope 6 cartridge. "He denies this," reveals Senour, "but I remember him coming back and saying, 'Oh, by the way, I don't want six shooting games, because that's what Nintendo has; we have to have six games that are unique. So come up with six unique games, and we have to start development in two weeks, otherwise you won't have enough time to run it through QA. And you won't have hardware for two months'."
Senour's initial thought was, "Well, we’ve got all these licences, I might as well use them," so he set about designing six games based around popular Sega properties. One of the Menacer titles he came up with was Joe Montana Practice Football, where the aim was to throw a ball to a receiver. Another was based on the basketball game David Robinson’s Supreme Court, and revolved around three-point shooting and dunks. "I presented it to Clyde, and he goes, 'Where’s all the shooting games?' And I said, 'You told me not to make shooting games!' He said, 'I changed my mind.' And I said, 'But you didn't tell me that.' And he said, 'I didn't tell you, you're supposed to know that I changed my mind.' [Laughs]”
Their imagination and creativity is all over that game. If you ask me, hands down, it's the best game on the Menacer
Senour was sent back to the drawing board and was also told that Sega couldn’t afford the royalties for using licenses like Joe Montana on the Menacer titles. But one game that did survive this early cull was Ready, Aim, Tomatoes!, which was based on ToeJam & Earl. Senour already knew the game’s developers, Mark Voorsanger and Greg Johnson. "They were hilarious guys. There's so many funny things in their games." He recalls that in the original version of ToeJam & Earl, you could touch the Pope to gain an extra life, but Sega’s marketing department insisted that this was removed before release, fearing they’d get sued. In response, Senour recalls that the game’s producer, Scott Berfield, made a T-shirt featuring the artwork of the Pope with a red line through it and the words 'Banned'. "I still have it in the closet," he says with a smile.
Senour sent a brief outline to Voorsanger and Johnson about the idea for a Menacer ToeJam & Earl spin-off, suggesting a side-scrolling affair featuring ToeJam firing tomatoes at enemies. "And boy, did they run with that," he says. "Their imagination and creativity is all over that game. If you ask me, hands down, it's the best game on the Menacer." He adds that Haven Carter in Sega’s marketing department came up with the perfect title in Ready, Aim, Tomatoes!
The remaining five games were Rockman’s Zone, Space Station Defender, Whack Ball, Front Line and Pest Control. Rockman’s Zone tasks the player with shooting cardboard cut-outs of criminals without hitting innocent bystanders, and Senour says it was inspired by the 1959 James Stewart movie The FBI Story, which featured an FBI training sequence. Space Station Defender and Front Line, meanwhile, made the roster simply because "Clyde said he wanted a game with aliens and another one with tanks."
Days or hours before we had to lock in – I can't remember the exact time – I got a message from Sega Japan saying, ‘Here's the new design of the internals of the Menacer’
Perhaps the most unique and unusual game of the six is Whack Ball. Senour vividly remembers how it came about. "I couldn't come up with the last title, and I was just really frustrated. So I left the office early and I went to the golf range. I'm hitting a bucket of balls on the golf range, and I thought, 'What if I did a reverse Breakout?' I had to run back and type it up while I was thinking about it, so I handed the guy next to me the rest of this bucket of balls, and I said, ‘I gotta go, I gotta design a game!’” Whack Ball sees the player controlling a large ball by shooting it with the Menacer, with the idea of using it to hit a smaller ball, which in turn changes the colour of bricks when it collides with them. Quirkily, all of the sound effects in the game are human voices. Senour recalls gathering up six or seven staff members from the Sega offices, putting them in a sound room, and telling them to say things like ‘beep’ and ‘awwwww’. “There’d be somebody in the sound studio going, ‘beep’, ‘beep’, ‘beep’, and I'm saying, ‘No, no, no, you don’t sound happy enough,” laughs Senour. "These are sad ‘beeps’, we want happy ‘beeps’. Now say ‘bonk’."
Senour says the most nerve-wracking moment came when the head of Sega Japan visited and wanted to see what progress was being made on the Menacer titles. Senour didn’t have any gameplay footage to show him, so he resorted to using storyboards instead. Grossman warned Senour that he had to speak slowly, because the visiting Sega dignitary (presumably Hayao Nakayama, although Senour can’t remember for sure) wasn’t a fluent English speaker, although he could understand English better than he could speak it. Crucially, Grossman warned that if their visitor didn’t like the games, the Menacer project was finished. Senour remembers the Sega head arriving at his tiny cubicle and patiently sitting through his storyboard presentations. At the end, Senour asked if he had any questions. "He said, ‘No’. And then he looked at me for what seemed like at least three years, and he goes, ‘Very good, I like it’. And he left."
One final stumbling block thrown by Sega Japan did almost scupper the project, however. "Days or hours before we had to lock in [the hardware design ahead of manufacturing] – I can't remember the exact time – I got a message from Sega Japan saying, ‘Here's the new design of the internals of the Menacer.’" recalls Senour. "And I look at the parts, and I don't see anything terribly different. So I sent it off to Jay, and I said, ‘Is there anything different? What is different about this that’s so important?’ And they looked at it, and said, ‘It says Sega of Japan on it. It uses the exact same parts, it fits in the exact same space. There is nothing different other than they moved this over here, and this over here, and it says Sega of Japan on it. That's it’."
Senour asked Jay Smith and his colleagues at Western Technologies whether making the requested changes would push them over the deadline. He was told it would. "And I said, ‘We never had this conversation’," remembers Mac. "And I rolled up the stuff and I put it in my filing cabinet. I said, ‘We're not changing anything’." Senour reasoned it was more important to meet the deadline than make minor changes requested by the Japanese office. "To my knowledge, Sega Japan thinks that we went with their design," he says. "I never said anything, I never told anybody."
I rolled up the stuff and I put it in my filing cabinet. I said, ‘We're not changing anything.' To my knowledge, Sega Japan thinks that we went with their design. I never said anything, I never told anybody
The Menacer launched in North America and Europe in late 1992, turning heads thanks to its quirky design, but otherwise making little impact in the market. Like the Nintendo Super Scope it was designed to imitate, it proved something of a flop at retail, although a memorable one. The dearth of Menacer-compatible games certainly didn’t help its chances. T2: The Arcade Game arrived at almost the same time that the Menacer hit shop shelves, but the game pipeline mostly dried up after that. Body Count from Probe Software was the only other Menacer title to make it to the Mega Drive, although a few FMV shooters were released for the Mega-CD, including Mad Dog McCree, Who Shot Johnny Rock? and Crime Patrol.
Still, Senour has fond memories of the experience. "It was a rocket ship ride," he smiles, adding that his only regret is that he would have loved to have done the games he originally pitched. Overall, it was a fascinating and exciting time to be working at Sega of America. "I loved being there," concludes Senour. "It was a unique group of people, and we didn't all get along – and I still have some scars from that. But a great group of people that really produced a lot of really great games in a really golden time for us, where we wasted too much money, and we had way too much fun."