A winner is you.*
Hmm. Perhaps I will rise from my grave.*
RELEASED: 10/29/88 (JP), 09/14/90 (UK), 12/1990 (BR); as the Genesis – 08/14/89 (US)
PRICE: 21,000 yen (JP), $200 (US), 189.99 pounds (UK), Unknown (BR)
TECH SPECS: Motorola 68000 running at 7.67 Mhz, 64KB of RAM, 64KB of VRAM
Video processor: Yamaha YM7101 capable of 512 direct colors, 64 standard colors, and 4 graphic layers
Sound processor: Zilog Z80 with a Yamaha YM2612 FM sound chip capable of 6 channel sound, and a Sega PSG sound chip
# OF GAMES: Over 900, according to Wikipedia.
UPDATES: Official – Mega Drive / Genesis 2 (1993), Mega Jet (1994), Nomad (1995); Licensed by Majesco – Genesis 3 (1998)
UNITS SOLD: 40 million est. worldwide
Sega’s Mark III/Master System was considerably more successful than their first console, the SG-1000, but this success still paled in comparison to the Famicom/NES behemoth. Nintendo’s first console was an unstoppable force in both North America and Japan, and Sega had to make do with market scraps- as they had done ever since launching the SG-1000 in 1983.
In 1986, almost immediately after the release of the Master System, Sega set to work developing a new console. This might seem rash or sudden, like Sega was jumping the gun, but up until this point the company had always been a step behind Nintendo. The SG-1000 launched on the same day as the Famicom in 1983, and while technically an 8-bit system, the games looked like Intellivision titles. Top Famicom ports like Donkey Kong and Popeye looked and played remarkably similar to their arcade counterparts. The SG-1000 had… Borderline. Nice for 1980, confusing for ’83. The Mark III/Master System, released in 1985, was slightly more powerful than the Famicom. Colorful graphics aside, though, the system offered games far inferior to Nintendo’s selections, despite the occasional gem shining through the shrug pile. By ’86, the Famicom’s grasp on the home console market was so tight, Sega couldn’t break in, despite its best efforts.
Cry me a bongo.
Sega’s arcade business, however, was doing gangbusters. The company was having hit after hit with Space Harrier, After Burner, Shinobi and OutRun, among others. The Master System had ports of all these games, but none of them came close to the quality of the arcade versions. This was to be expected from an older 8-bit console, but the question within the company soon became: what if Sega could produce perfect arcade ports? They would need a stronger console, one that could accurately replicate, at the very least, Sega’s System 16 board.
Enter ‘Mega Drive,’ Sega’s 16-bit console, and the first 16-bit console to hit the market when it debuted in Japan on October 29th, 1988. According to then-Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama, ‘Mega’ meant superiority over rival machines and ‘Drive’ represented the speed of the console’s 16-bit Motorola 68000 processor. The system launched with two titles, Space Harrier II and Super Thunder Blade, and retailed for 21,000 yen, which translates to about $170 in 1988 and $340 in 2015.
She’s a peach.*
Despite positive coverage from Famitsu, the Mega Drive only shipped 400,000 units its first year. There have been many speculations as to why the Mega Drive sold less than the Mark III in its first year (Mark III sold a million, according to Sega Retro). The two biggest reasons likely were: the release of Super Mario Bros. 3 for Famicom only six days earlier and the lack of third-party developers in Sega’s court from the get-go. The first reason is just sad. Sega should have changed the release date just to allow SMB3 some breathing room; perhaps unchecked pride for their system got in the way. The second reason makes too much sense, particularly in Japan where both Nintendo and NEC had an iron grip on the majority of third-party developers. Remember, Sega singlehandedly supported the Master System, with up to 95% of the games being released developed/ported by Sega themselves or with close associates, Compile. Sega could support the Mega Drive for awhile with arcade ports and quick genre fixes like shoot-em-ups or mahjong titles. Due to increasing development time for games, however, they needed partners if they were going to maintain a varied lineup.
Unfortunately, Sega never gained traction with the Mega Drive in Japan. Despite the advanced age of the Famicom, the system remained the number-one selling console for 1988 and ’89. Competition from NEC’s fantastic PC-Engine didn’t help matters nor did the Super Famicom’s eventual release on November 21, 1990. The Super Famicom took over the role of best-selling console from the Famicom and would go on to dominate sales charts, as its predecessor had done for years prior. Unfortunately for Sega, Nintendo kept most of their best help – Capcom, Konami, Square, Enix, Tecmo – to themselves, for the most part. The Mega Drive remained in third place in Japan until Sega finally discontinued the console in 1995.
This ferocious little tyke kept Sega from 2nd place in Japan.*
Third-parties eventually came to Sega’s aid, but only after Sega’s North American launch. Due to a trademark dispute with a computer storage company, the ‘Mega Drive’ was renamed the Genesis and launched in North America on August 14th, 1989. Rather than let the Genesis languish as they did with the Master System, Sega marketed their new console aggressively with the now-infamous slogan, “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t.” They also focused on how arcade-perfect many of their games looked and created a number of games sponsored by celebrities, including Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.
Sega couldn’t afford a better Sonic fat suit for Michael Jackson’s support? Sheesh.*
The Genesis sold at a steady pace in America. Not enough to topple the NES, but at a better rate than the Master System. The Genesis really took off, though, when Sonic the Hedgehog launched on June 23, 1991. Created as a counterpoint to Nintendo’s Mario, Sonic was everything Mario wasn’t: fast, hip, and edgy. Sonic’s snarky attitude clearly fit with the Genesis, which catered to an older demographic than the NES. But it wasn’t just the character that was cool. Sonic’s first game was a fast-paced respite from all the belabored Mario clones. The quality of Sonic the Hedgehog coupled with the brilliant character design helped Sega sell millions of consoles. By January 1992, Sega’s Genesis had a 65% market share over the just-released Super Nintendo. Sega had toppled Nintendo.
Never underestimate the power of snark.*
Sega maintained a dominant hold on the 16-bit market until 1994 when Donkey Kong Country melted faces with its pseudo-3D graphics. The SNES took charge, sales-wise, and never let up for the rest of either console’s lifespan. One could argue, however, that even before Nintendo’s resurgence, Sega had already lost the plot. By late 1994, Sega was supporting the Genesis, the Game Gear, the Sega CD, the 32X, and was about to release the Saturn. Consumers may have fell in love with Sega and its flagship hedgehog, but this greedy cry for our superfluous Clinton dollars was too much for all but the diehard fans.
I’m exhausted just looking at this thing.
Despite consumers’ declining interest in Sega as a company, the Genesis remained popular until its eventual death in the late ’90s. Sega kept interest in the Genesis alive with the Genesis II, a smaller, lighter re-model, in 1993. The Nomad was essentially a portable Genesis and could play all the console’s games, presuming you had enough batteries to power the thing. Majesco, a third-party, even released the Genesis 3 in 1998 for the budget price of $50, almost nine years after the system’s initial release in America.
That Low Battery signal was always on.*
Thanks to the previous success of the Master System in Europe, the Mega Drive found great popularity there, as well, when it released in most regions in September of 1990. The almost two-year timespan between the European release and the Japanese release meant the system had built a steady library of games. By the time Sonic launched on June 23rd, 1991, the Mega Drive was Europe’s 16-bit system of choice. The territory wouldn’t even receive the SNES until late 1992, and by that time, the people’s billfolds had already spoken.
While the Master System and (to a much lesser extent) the SG-1000 had some decent games in their library, the Mega Drive/Genesis had an insane treasure trove. Not only did Sega bring over the majority of their arcade titles released in the late 80s/early 90s, they also developed a partnership with Electronic Arts, resulting in some of the best sports games of the 16-bit era. Mortal Kombat‘s Genesis version was heavily favored over the SNES version, due to the code that let you change white sweat into ‘red sweat.’ Then there’s the Streets of Rage trilogy, Phantasy Star II and IV, Vectorman, Comix Zone, Toe Jam & Earl and Panic on Funk-o-tron, Shining Force 1 and 2, Kid Chameleon, Herzog Zwei. Contra, Castlevania, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all saw Sega-exclusive entries. The Mega Drive has one of the best libraries in all of gaming, and it will be my absolute pleasure to go through them all.
Yup, I’m excited to play through the Mega Drive / Genesis library.*
No Sega console would be complete without a ton of peripherals, most crap, with only the occasional burst of creative genius. The Power Base Convertor allows you to play Master System games on the Mega Drive/Genesis, thanks to the Master System’s processor and sound chip being included within the 16-bit console. Unfortunately, this Convertor only worked with the initial Mega Drive/Genesis units. Any later hardware revisions were unable to use the Convertor (at least legally). Sega also released the light-gun Menacer, an answer to Nintendo’s equally ridiculous Super Scope and about as useful. There’s the Activator, an octagonal ring that sat on the floor and allowed you to input in-game movements with your body instead of a controller. The Activator was made when fighting games ruled the earth. Street Fighter II: Championship Edition and Mortal Kombat both supported the device, but that doesn’t mean the peripheral could read your hilarious attempts at Hadoukens. Inaccurate and overpriced, the Activator had a mercifully brief life before being damned to Toys ‘R Us clearance sections.
I wonder where these flickering triplets are today.
The Sega Channel stands alone, more prophecy than peripheral. Somewhat modeled after the “Sega Meganet,” which debuted in 1990 in Japan and allowed players to play games online, the Sega Channel was a service offered in partnership with Time Warner Cable in 1994. With a subscription fee and special adapter, players could choose to play from a list of 35-50 games using their cable providers. Players would choose a game, download it to the console’s internal memory, play it, then when the console was turned off, the game would be deleted from the console. The service was forward-thinking and expensive for its time – $15/month plus $25 activation fee. Then again, you could play a wide variety of Genesis games, including some like Mega Man: The Wily Wars that never came to the U.S. And considering game rentals were between four and five dollars for a few days, the Sega Channel would more than pay for itself if you played a lot of titles.
The Sega Channel dude is really excited about the future.*
The Genesis changed Sega’s fortunes and, arguably, their souls. No other system would be as profitable for the company as the Genesis. Massive sales came from their brilliant early 90s marketing campaign, Sonic’s release, and a plethora of excellent titles found only on the system. Sega, however, seemed to believe that creative marketing and fantastic games were not enough, and that consumers wanted newer, better technology all the time. Rather than supporting the Genesis with good games until its natural end, they flooded the market with add-ons, ruined consumer goodwill, and destined the Saturn – the Genesis’ true follow-up – to be met with indifference, if not outright disdain. And yet, few gamers would argue that the Mega Drive / Genesis remains one of the company’s crowning achievements. Not even Sega’s questionable business decisions could ruin the console’s legacy.
*thanks to GameFAQS, Wikipedia, TechnoBuffalo, SegaGagaDomain, OC Weekly, and ScrewAttack for these pictures/gif.