Throughout the early 1990s the Sega Mega Drive was one of the most advanced and popular games consoles in the world, with over 35 million bought worldwide. Today, it remains one of the most fondly remembered. The Mega Drive was a uniquely adaptable console. Unlike its competitors, it was a flexible, confident, 'can do' machine that ushered in the 16-bit era of games consoles. This forced Nintendo to respond with the SNES1. It not only had its own established range of games, it was also able to play older Master System games and even looked to the future with the 32X adaptor and the Mega-CD. No other system has been this successful in spanning innovations of console development.
Mega Drive and Genesis
In Asia, Australia, Europe, Japan and South America the console was known as the Mega Drive, however, in North America Sega failed to gain the legal right to use that trade name2. Instead it was called the Genesis, using biblical imagery to suggest the creation of a world first, a new era, something thrilling.
Despite the different name and slightly different logo, the Mega Drive and Genesis were essentially the same console3.
Mega Drive's Development
Although Sega's previous games console, the Master System, had proved a success in Europe and South America, it failed to have as much impact in North America or Japan as had been hoped. Throughout the late 1980s the Nintendo Entertainment System, commonly called the 'NES', dominated games console sales. Hoping to challenge their established rival, Sega set about creating a new machine that would be as powerful as the most impressive computers then commonly available; the 16-bit Commodore Amiga and Atari ST home computers.
As the System 16 arcade games that Sega were making for their 16-bit coin-operated games were very popular, Sega's Chief Executive Officer, Hayao Nakayama, decided to make their new home system a 16-bit format. Many existing arcade games could then easily be transferred onto a cartridge, a technique known as 'porting'. This gave the new console a range of already established and popular titles with which to tempt the game-playing public. Similarly, it was designed to be able to play existing Master System games through a special cartridge adaptor, known as the Power Base Converter.
The name Sega used for their console during the development stage was MK-1601. When launched, Sega decided to market the console as the 'Mega Drive'. 'Mega' had the connotation of stimulating superiority, and was only one letter different from the company name Sega, and 'Drive' had the connotation of speed and power, emphasising that the Mega Drive was a much, much faster console than any of its rivals. It was this speed, almost above all, that impressed game players; many of Sega's target customers were only just emerging from the cassette tape-loading home computer age.
Technology and Design
One of the advantages the Mega Drive had over other consoles was that it had two processors – a rarity in game consoles at the time. The main 16-bit processor ran more than twice as fast as a Sinclair ZX Spectrum or Nintendo SNES.
This was the second console to feature a 16-bit Central Processing Unit4 and the first to feature single instruction 32-bit arithmetic. This meant that it was now possible in certain games, such as Sonic 3 and Shining Force II, to actually save your progress. The Mega Drive was the first console ever to introduce such a useful, revolutionary feature. This innovation has now become the standard and expected ability of all subsequent consoles.
The crescent-shaped control pads5 were also the first games console controllers not to be rectangular. Unlike other controllers, they had three buttons rather than just two, with six-button versions subsequently released. The control pad's curved design made it more comfortable to play for long periods of time. The radical appearance of the control pad was exciting and made all previous rectangular control pads appear old-fashioned overnight.
The console was first released in Japan on 29 October, 1988. It was successful there until the Nintendo Super Famicom was released on 21 November, 1990.
In North America the Genesis was released on 9 January, 1989, initially only in New York City and Los Angeles. Although it originally had a hard time competing against Nintendo's incredibly popular NES, sales soon began to improve. In Europe the Mega Drive was first released in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in November, 1990, in time for the lucrative Christmas market. It was released there, before anywhere else in Europe, because of the high popularity of Sega's Master System.
The arrival of the Mega Drive was heralded by an advertising campaign that concentrated on the excitement factor of the new games console. Television sets, bored of broadcasting the same channels, begged their owners:
Do me a favour
Plug me into a Sega.
Other adverts used clever word tricks, such as spelling Sega backwards. Among the more famous catchphrases was:
To be good takes Ages
To be this good takes Sega.
Development and Competition
The main competition for the Mega Drive was Nintendo's 16-bit SNES. This was released a year after Sega's new games system, on 1 September, 1991 in America and April 1992 in Britain and Ireland, becoming one of the fastest selling games consoles ever. This sparked the fiercest 'console war' in video gaming yet. However, the Mega Drive had gained a head start, especially with the number of games available for the console.
The Mega Drive continued to be popular worldwide in the early 1990s, although initially it lacked a defining computer game and mascot. The release of Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991 gave the console a hero that rivalled the popularity of Nintendo's 'Mario'. Sonic was fast, dramatic and exciting, the perfect embodiment of the dynamic, forward-thinking Mega Drive. If left standing still, Sonic would begin to look impatient, wishing to advance into more exhilarating adventures, the perfect embodiment of the philosophy that was behind the console. In Sonic 2, Sonic gained a spin-dash move, becoming even faster, more spectacular and even more electrifying.
In 1992, on the release of the extremely popular Street Fighter II arcade game, Sega developed a more advanced control pad. This had six action buttons, and D-pad6, with the six buttons each used for separate attacks, such as low, medium and high kicks and punches. The A, B, C buttons and X, Y and Z buttons promised players that they had the alpha and omega of hand-held game control in their hands.
Mega Drive II
In 1993, Sega released a redesigned version of the console at a newly reduced price7. By consolidating the internal chipset onto a smaller, unified motherboard, Sega was able to both physically reduce the system's size and bring down production costs by simplifying the assembly procedure, and reducing the number of integrated circuits required for each unit. This new console was called the Mega Drive II, however, in America this redesigned console was still known as the Genesis, and never officially named Genesis II.
In 1991 a revolutionary CD-rom extension was developed. This was known as the Mega-CD, or Sega CD in North America. It was intended to increase the size of games available. Mega Drive games cartridges held 16 megabits of data, while Mega-CD games could hold up to 5,120 megabits. Released first in Japan, by mid 1993 it was available worldwide. The Mega-CD was the first games console to use CD-Rom based games, which would subsequently become the standard until the introduction of DVD based games consoles.
Initial versions were designed to fit beneath the Mega Drive and had a motorised ejectable front-loading CD tray. After the release of the Mega Drive II a smaller Mega-CD, designed to slot to the right of the Mega Drive II with a top-popping opening flap CD loading system, was developed. Both versions of Mega-CD were compatible with either version of the original console.
Although over 200 games were released for the new console, it did not prove as popular as had been hoped. It was expensive, and few of the games for it caught the public's imagination. Many games for the Mega-CD were Full-Motion Video (FMV) games. These used grainy film footage to show action, which the player would interact with. The most famous FMV game was the controversial Night Trap, the aim of which was to prevent a group of young girls from being attacked by vampires during a slumber party. This game was banned in America. The most popular game overall for the Mega-CD was 1993's Sonic CD.
After the Mega-CD, Sega developed another add-on feature. Sega wished to produce a console more powerful than Nintendo's 16-bit SNES, and planned to introduce a 32-bit console. Two designs were proposed, the first was an American project for a 32-bit version of the Mega Drive, the second was a Japanese design for a CD-rom based console, later to evolve into the Sega Saturn. The 32-bit version of the Mega Drive was instead modified into an add-on to convert existing Mega Drives into 32-bit consoles. This, known as the 32X, was released in November 1994 in America, December 1994 in Japan but in Europe it missed the lucrative Christmas market and was released in January 1995.
Like the Mega-CD, it was compatible with both models and could play 32X games as well as standard games. However, it was very expensive and only 34 games were released for it. Six games for the 32X were CD based, meaning that players needed both the Mega-CD and 32X in order to be play them. By the time of release, Sega had announced that their whole new console, the Sega Saturn, was being developed and would soon be available to purchase. As a result, the 32X rapidly fell into obscurity while their intended customers waited to purchase the new console. Sega of America had been unaware of Sega of Japan's new console development and sustained a large debt on developing the 32X, only for this console extension to be quietly abandoned.
By 1995 the Mega Drive was competing against newer, more powerful games consoles. Although able to hold its ground against the 32-bit 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, other threats included the 32-bit Sega Saturn and the unstoppable 32-bit Sony PlayStation, released worldwide in 1995. Wishing to concentrate on their new console, Sega ended worldwide production of the 32X and Mega-CD. The Mega Drive and Genesis in Japan and America were also discontinued. This move angered loyal Sega customers who had bought the expensive CD and 32X attachments only to see Sega promptly abandon all support, and turn their back on them. This was a contributing factor to the loss of consumer brand loyalty felt towards Sega, and its decline as a console manufacturer.
In Europe, the Mega Drive continued to be popular and still available in retailers until 1998. This was after Nintendo's even more powerful 64-bit Nintendo N64, launched in 1997, had signalled that the 16-bit era of games consoles was effectively over.
As well as the main design of consoles, various spin-offs of the Mega Drive have been released. These include:
16-bit video game consoles that combined the Mega Drive with the Mega-CD into a single, compact unit. Overpriced and undersold due to both a lack of high quality Mega-CD games and the anticipation of the the Sega Saturn, they were never well supported by Sega and died a quiet death. Variations on this console were:
- Sega Multi-Mega – European version
- CDX – American version
- Wondermega – Japanese version
- X'eye – Japanese version, sold in America
Sega Genesis 3 – a budget version released in 1998 in North America. In order to cut costs the expansion port and circuitry were omitted, making the Genesis 3 incompatible with the Sega CD, 32X, Master System Converter and Virtua Racing.
Mega-Tech – an arcade machine. It featured ten interchangeable Mega Drive or Master System games in an arcade cabinet. Games were supplied by special cartridges, not compatible with a regular Mega Drive due to the extra information on them needed for a second, smaller nine-inch monitor located at the top of the cabinet.
Mega Play – another arcade system like the Mega-Tech, but not as advanced. Cartridges were incompatible with domestic Mega Drives or the Mega-Tech.
Mega Jet – a version used by Japan Airlines for in-flight entertainment.
Genesis Nomad – an improved Mega Jet featuring a 3.25 inch colour LCD screen and battery compartment to make it portable. Owners could connect the Nomad to a television screen, so the console could be a fully functional home system for 2 players, as well as a completely portable handheld console with a large library of games available. While the Nomad won praise for its screen resolution and features, there were some problems. The 32X, Power Base Converter and Mega-CD were not compatible with it, and battery life was usually only 30 minutes.
Teradrive – A PC manufactured by IBM with an integrated Mega Drive, released only in Japan. Although three models were available, only the most expensive PC had a hard disk. A monitor, sold separately, could display both the Mega Drive hardware and the PC hardware. Mega Drive games could be played at the same time as the PC was being used, and it was possible for the Mega Drive and PC hardware to interact with each other. This was very expensive and not very popular.
Aiwa Mega CD – Probably the most unusual of any incarnation, this was built around a stereo system. It only saw limited release into the Japanese market.
Plug 'n' Play Mega Drive / Radica Games' Legends Sega Genesis – This device consists of a classic Mega Drive joypad and a cable ready for plugging into a television to play a variety of pre-loaded popular games, up to six per unit, with different units to choose from.
The Mega PC
Perhaps the best spin-off, the Mega PC was a PC produced by Amstrad under licence from Sega. It was both a Mega Drive and IBM-compatible PC in one. The Mega PC was similar in concept to the Teradrive, but was a better design. The PC was a 386, ran at 25 MHz, had 1MB of RAM and a 40MB hard disk drive in addition to a 3.5" disc drive.
Released in Europe and Australia in 1993 the Mega PC was cream-coloured, with a sliding cover on the front of the base unit to change between Mega Drive and PC modes. Games cartridges were slotted on the left with two control pad ports beneath the cartridge slot. The output from the Mega Drive section was only available to the supplied monitor. Though the PC section always ran when the system was switched on, the console could not be used at the same time as the PC. The Mega PC could also even be used with a Mega CD, with the use of a special connector only available from Amstrad. The Mega PC boasted special white control pads, although standard black Mega Drive controllers worked perfectly with the Mega PC also. An updated version with a more powerful PC, the Mega Plus, was later released.
There were over 900 games made for the console, but by far the most significant and popular were the Sonic the Hedgehog games. The most popular and best selling game was Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Sonic the Hedgehog remains popular today and has gained a cult following, and has even starred in his own cartoon series. Sega excelled in creating original and unique games purely for play on the Mega Drive. Other popular and influential games included:
- Double Dragon
- Dune 2
- Ecco the Dolphin
- Golden Axe
- The Micro Machines series8
- The Mortal Kombat series
- The Shining Force series
- Space Harrier II
- Street Fighter II
- The Streets of Rage series
Many much-loved games first released for the Mega Drive have subsequently been released for newer games consoles. Characters first introduced for this games system, including Sonic the Hedgehog, continue to star in new games released for other consoles.