Goodbye to a Legend; The Passing of Bernie Stolar
Growing up in the 90’s, I was enamored with the “Console war,” the battle between Sega and Nintendo. I found myself strictly on the Nintendo side, but was also intrigued by Sega. A friend of mine had Genesis and would spend hours, sometimes days on it. While I liked it, I had always felt a bit more attached to the Nintendo brand.
Fast forward to 1999 and I’m sitting in college sitting in the lounge when a friend of mine says “Have you seen Dreamcast?” I sternly said “No.”
“You might want to get one, it’s amazing.”
Those words rattled around in my brain for days that September. By the end of the month, I couldn’t resist any longer, so off to the store I went. After running into my bedroom with a Dreamcast console and Sonic Adventure firmly in my grasp, I unboxed this beauty and began a journey that changed my entire outlook on the gaming world; “Next-Gen” was no longer what I thought it was. I found Dreamcast to be light years ahead of anything that Nintendo or anyone else for that matter had produced. I was hooked.
It wasn’t long before I accessed SegaNet. The ability to connect with friends, find tips, get game saves from others was enthralling. While it seems primitive by today’s standards, it was incredible and awe-inspiring technology back then.
While the life of Dreamcast was short, my memory of it is long.
In 2016, two years after starting this company, I decided to start reaching out to what I consider gaming industry icons. One of my favorites was Bernie Stolar. While he’s a polarizing figure and there were many stories about why he left Sega, all of the left out details. So I reached out to him; hoping. To my astonishment he got back to me and said that he’d read my material from my Twin Galaxies days as well as the other companies I had written for, and he had always liked my work, so he agreed to an interview.
The interview happened over the phone on a Saturday and what began as a simple Q&A soon morphed into what felt like a conversation between old friends. The conversation lasted roughly 30 minutes and in that time he told me the Dreamcast story; how he had decided to discontinue the Saturn and most other platforms and concentrate on a new, truly next-gen console. He said that Saturn’s launch, the subsequent releases for it and the difficulty in programming made it hard for developers to make games for it and other than a handful of games, most releases were shovelware.
Being a Nintendo fan for so many years, I had to ask “While at Sony, did you happen to be at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1991?” Bernie laughed and said “Yes, I remember Ken Kuturagi walking around, all sorts of pissed off.” He then explained how much he admires Kuturagi-san and how much he missed working with him.
He then got into the reason he was let go from Sega two weeks before the US launch. While he told me the story in great detail, he later asked me not to print it while he was alive as Nakayama-san had advised that it may burn some bridges. I will say that the disagreement between he and Okawa was that since Dreamcast was an online console, Okawa wanted to “walk away from retail.” Okawa wanted to distribute titles virtually, but Bernie explained that there were millions of dollars in firm orders that were already paid for. Okawa did not budge. Some words were exchanged (while he told me the details of the conversation, it’s not appropriate to share here), and ultimately Bernie moved on. The gist of it is that Bernie Stolar stood up for the consumer. He wanted the software readily available for consumers and felt strongly that walking away from retail would abandon most of the audience.
Bernie also mentioned his mistake with Dreamcast; no DVD drive. He didn’t see the vision for DVD yet and really thought that online gaming would be more important. In addition, he didn’t want to add more cost to the device. he explained that in retrospect it obviously was the wrong decision.
When I asked about his disdain for RPG’s on Sega platforms, he told me that that stemmed from a publisher who was “pissed off” that Bernie had rejected their title because he didn’t feel it was even close to the quality that he wanted to release. He loved to use the phrase “pissed off.”
At the end of our conversation, Bernie mentioned to me that I should reach out any time I’d like to chat. I took him up on that and we exchanged texts and phone calls for a few weeks, up until the day before I was to publish the interview. I had ran all drafts by him because I wanted to ensure he approved of the content. He had asked for some content to be edited out, so I did so. While some disagree and have said that my job as a journalist is to report the good and bad, I disagree, because to me it’s about respect. Sometimes people say things they don’t mean and divulge more than they are comfortable with.
The day of the publishing date I called multiple times but was unable to reach him. I explained in my final voicemail that day that I needed to get the interview up (after all, the date was 9/9), so I would be publishing. Throughout the next few days I still could not reach him so I began to worry. The following week I had received an email from him that he had had an accident, so when I called him he mentioned he had fallen and hit his head. At that time he was still in the hospital. Once he was back home, we stayed in touch for a bit longer, but eventually lost touch. I eventually lost the text messages we exchanged once my phone was replaced, but I still have the audio of our interview. I listen to it often.
I found out on Sunday, June 26th that Bernie had passed away. I thought back to our interview and thought “here’s a guy that has been everywhere in the industry, launched fantastic products and agreed to not only do an interview, but divulge info that he hadn’t divulged before. How he could have easily said no like he did to most others, but he liked the way I conducted interviews because I asked questions in a respectful way, even the tough ones.
Rest in Peace Bernie, thank you for being you.