Remembering Sydney’s Sega World: The little theme park that couldn’t

A decade following the closure of the indoor theme park, PC World looks at the near non-existent legacy of the ambitious venture

The Sega World facility in Sydney's Darling Harbour district in 1998. Image: Wikipedia.

The Sega World facility in Sydney's Darling Harbour district in 1998. Image: Wikipedia.

When 1998 rolled around, Sega realised that it was essentially do or die time for the company. Recognising that it had failed with the Saturn, Sega ended support for the platform to focus on its upcoming 128-bit Dreamcast console. Having already exited out of the Sega World venture to save itself from hemorrhaging funds any further, Sega turned its attention to its own domestic theme park chain, Joypolis. Although the Joypolis in Yokohama had the honour of being the first branch of the theme park that Sega had opened, Sega would close it in 1998 to cut costs. Sega would instead focus on the more profitable branches located in large metropolises such as Tokyo and Osaka.

The dream is over

While Sega valiantly tried to succeed with the Dreamcast where it failed with the Saturn, the unfortunate reality was that the company had already burned through most of its funds over the years developing and supporting failed video game hardware and ventures. As a result, Sega would end support for the Dreamcast in 2001 after two years on the market. It would also end its involvement in hardware to become a multiplatform software develop and publisher instead. To this day, Sega continues to operate its two Joypolis theme parks in Japan, which continue to see regular attendance from visitors year after year.

These days, Jacfun only exists in name, as it no longer occupies its former office in the Skygarden building on Sydney’s Castlereagh Street. Jacfun may still locked in a legal battle with the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority around the use of the former Sega World site, but founder Bermeister has moved away from his roots with video games and Sega to focus on other technology start-ups and real estate. As for Bermeister’s venture before Jacfun, Sega Ozisoft, French publisher Atari (then known as Infogrames) acquired the distributor in 2002 and renamed it to Atari Australia Pty Ltd in May 2003. In July 2009, Atari Australia was acquired by and renamed to the currently operated Namco Bandai Holdings.

As for the legacy left by the Sega World venture, there are no signs left to indicate that it ever existed. Following the redevelopment of the Sega World site, the Darling Walk area contains no remnants from Sega World. There are no leftover signboards or architecture that may have been overlooked in the wake of the closure, nor is there anything that commemorates the opening or existence of the indoor theme park. The only connection to the past in the Darling Harbour area is the 2000 Summer Olympics memorial in front of the entrance of the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, and even then its connection to Sega World is fleeting.

The fact that Sega World operated only between 1997 and 2000 means that there is very little anecdotal information and photos about the theme park, as the Internet was still in its infancy back then and not widely used, and digital camera technology was still expensive and out of the hands of many consumers. Photo sharing services such as Flickr also did not exist at that time, meaning that the few photos that are accessible on the Internet are during its period of inactivity and later use by the SGA, and not from its heyday as a fully operational theme park. Apart from an archived copy of the now inaccessible Sega World web site, the theme park nowadays only lives on in the memories of those who once attended or worked there.

Making sense of the failure

As to why Sega World failed so spectacularly in such a short time, especially after a generous investment by both private and public organisations, one can only speculate. Anecdotal evidence from those who attended Sega World found it to be an underwhelming experience overall, mired by long lines and waiting times for a handful of rides that were not all that exciting to begin with. The small size of the theme park and its limited scope, as well as lack of updates to its attractions, resulted in guests rarely making return visits.

However, the bigger issue with Sega World was that it essentially felt misplaced and out of time. Between the time planning began, the theme park opened and closed a few years later, the business situation surrounding it had changed. Sega and its mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, were a household name in 1994 thanks to the success the vendor had experienced with the Mega Drive. This had no doubt made the Sega brand and its video game properties a logical choice as the face of the theme park. However, by the time Sega World opened in 1997, Sega’s brand had been tarnished and no longer held the same appeal among consumers as it had only a few years before.

The main reason was that Sega’s string of failed hardware products after the Mega Drive had left a sour taste with gamers who had either owned one of the hardware, or were planning on owning it. Sega’s image would sink even lower following the launch of Saturn, which consumers saw as being less impressive on a technological and software level when compared to the cutting edge Sony PlayStation. When Sega World opened in 1997, the sad reality was that Sega was fighting a losing battle against Sony and Nintendo, especially in PAL markets such as Australia.

Sega’s image would take a further hit when it would end support for the Saturn in 1998 to focus on the Dreamcast, which also sold poorly and did little to lift Sega’s reputation. When Sega World closed in 2000, the poor financial health of Sega meant that the Dreamcast was also one year away from having its support ended. Had Sega been a consistently successful company and brand such as Nintendo, it may have raised the amount of visitors coming to the park, though it is hard to say whether it would have enabled the park to reach its breakeven point.

The weak Sega brand in the late ‘90s was most likely the reason why very few visitors for the 2000 Summer Olympics dropped by the theme park, as they had no other way to decide whether it was worth a visit or not. The other issue that worked against Sega World was its own mishandling of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. While Sega had successfully managed to establish the Sonic character as the company mascot with a series of successful platforming games on the Mega Drive, the company failed to keep up the momentum when it came to subsequent platforms.

Sonic CD was a strong title on the Mega CD and the 32X received a spin-off title called Knuckles Chaotix, but the limited success of the two platforms meant very few people played the games, let alone knew about them. Sega then struggled to bring the Sonic franchise to the Saturn, and instead focused on bringing original IP such as Panzer Dragoon, Clockwork Knight, and other titles for the console’s launch. Gamers who grew up with Sonic the Hedgehog games naturally expected new Sonic games on the Saturn, much in the way that Nintendo fans have grown to expect new Mario games with each new Nintendo console, but Sega would instead bungle this in a spectacular fashion.

Sonic is not here anymore

A few years after launching the Saturn, Sega decided to invest in a new Sonic the Hedgehog games. As the 32-bit consoles were all about polygonal graphics, Sega naturally wanted the new Sonic game to be in 3D. However, the original team behind the Sonic games on the Mega Drive, commonly known as Sonic Team, had decided to take a break from the franchise to work on a new IP for the Saturn, Nights into Dreams. As a result, Sega had its U.S.-based studio, Sega Technical Institute, work on developing the title instead, which was tentatively titled, Sonic X-treme.

However, the project was mired with problems from day one, and a combination of bad luck, company politics, and the limited Saturn hardware meant that the game would be cancelled. Sega tried to appease Saturn owners during the time by releasing Sonic Jam, a compilation of the Sonic games on Mega Drive, and Sonic 3D Blast, an isometric 2D platformer, but neither of these titles were system sellers.

It has been long speculated that the lack of a proper Sonic title on the Saturn adversely affected the overall success of the console, and by that same logic, it would unsurprising if this same sentiment extended to Sega World. The Sonic franchise relied on new software titles in the series, and Sega’s inability to deliver the new title on the Saturn meant that the brand lost value in the eyes of the consumer. Releasing lackluster Sonic titles also did not help the franchise and instead continued to devaluate it. By the time Sega finally released a new Sonic game in time for the Dreamcast launch in 1999, both Sega and the Sonic brands had already suffered too much damage.

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Patrick Budmar

Patrick Budmar

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