On 29 October 1988, SEGA released the 16-bit Mega Drive (known as the SEGA Genesis in North America); far superior to Nintendo’s 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and bolstered by both an aggressive marketing campaign and the eventual release of Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991), this release kicked off the “Console Wars” of the mid-nineties and changed the face of home consoles forever. This year, to celebrate this momentous occasion, I’m going to share some of my memories of this sleek, beautiful machine and the impact it had on my childhood.
I was just a kid, something like six or eight, when I had what I am pretty sure was my first ever home console (and videogame) experience; I remember being at my aunt’s house and being introduced to the SEGA Master System II and, more specifically, Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time when I sat down to fumble my way through Sonic the Hedgehog’s (Ancient, 1991) Green Hill Zone. The colours, the sounds, and the user-friendly nature of the system clearly struck a chord with me and it wasn’t long (it was probably my birthday that same year) before my parents gifted me that very same machine and, as I recall, three titles: Spider-Man (Technopop, 1991), Trivial Pursuit: Genius Edition (Domark, 1992), and the aforementioned Sonic built-into the machine.
For a long time, probably something like two or maybe even three years, the Master System more than met my demands; I amassed a pretty decent library considering money was a bit tight back in those days and wasted many hours playing a variety of 8-bit titles. One memory that sticks out for me in particular was when I had a friend come over to play games (this was, of course, back in the days when kids mostly only owned one machine so you had to actually go around someone’s house to play other consoles and games) and he was struggling to get past the Green Hill Zone boss. I took the controller from him and reached the last Zone of the game for the first time, which was quite the achievement for me at the time; though I distinctly recall not actually completing Sonic that day, I did eventually, and many times over. Another memory for me was when I discovered the elaborate method of activating Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s (Aspect, 1992) level select and actually being able to bypass the God-awful Sky High Zone. My love for videogames had well and truly began; I played the NES at a friend’s house, the PC at another friend’s, and enjoyed a handful of ZX Spectrum, MSX, and Amiga titles while routinely playing the Master System, reading Sonic the Comic (Fleetway, 1993 to 2002), and watching the likes of Captain N: The Game Master (1989 to 1991), Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (1993 to 1996), and GamesMaster (1992 to 1998).
I bought videogame magazines from car boot sales, drooled over Master System games in the local game’s shop, and doodled pictures of Sonic and his friends at every opportunity. Then, one fateful day, I became aware of another SEGA console; one with far more detailed graphics, bigger, better games, and, more importantly, more Sonic titles. I can’t be exactly sure when I first became aware of the Mega Drive but I distinctly recall owning issue two of Mega (Future Publishing/Maverick Magazines, 1992 to 1995) which had a whole article devoted to the upcoming (or recently released) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (SEGA Technical Institute, 1992). I was awe-struck; the sprites were so big and colourful, the graphics so crisp and detailed. Unlike in the 8-bit Sonic 2, Miles “Tails” Prower was actually a playable character…and he followed Sonic around onscreen, too! I’m sure I must have seen other photos, articles, and gameplay footage of the Mega Drive across the other magazines and shows I watched but this particular issue of Mega really sticks out in my mind; I read that article over and over, each time more and more attracted to the power and superior graphics of the Mega Drive.
Another memory I distinctly have is pointing the machine out to my parents in an Argos catalogue and trying to explain the benefits of upgrading to SEGA’s newer, sexier console. As I said, money was tight back then for us; we weren’t exactly poor and destitute but we also weren’t rolling in disposable income so I’m sure the decision to buy a Mega Drive didn’t come easily for my parents. Thankfully, however, unlike a lot of parents these days, mine were cleaver and, that Christmas, I received the coveted SEGA Mega Drive and two games (Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (SEGA, 1990) and my equally-coveted Sonic 2) on one proviso: it was to be a joint present for me to share with my older sister. I’m pretty sure that that gorgeous black machine, with its two control pads and those two fantastic games, was the only present either of us got that year, as well, but I didn’t care: I had it and that’s all that mattered.
In 1983, an influx of home consoles, poorly-made titles, and a vastly oversaturated market caused the videogame industry to crash in spectacular fashion; what had once been a booming, attractive business had crumbled under the weight of expectation, success, and a market inundated with machines and titles that retailers just couldn’t sell. A few years later, the industry began to recover thanks to the release of the Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom); known as the NES outside of Japan, the machine was marketed not as a home videogame console but more as an “Entertainment System” (it wasn’t a “home console”, it was a “control deck” and the cartridges were “Game Paks” rather than “videogames”) to give it a better chance at selling in toy shops.
Thanks to a lack of competition and the blockbuster success of Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo EAD, 1985), 30% of American households owned the NES by 1990 and Nintendo absolutely dominated the slowly re-emerging videogame market after the NES sold over 35 million units in the United States, a number that was far beyond those of other consoles and computers. Videogames were back, and more popular than ever, thanks to Nintendo’s efforts and high quality titles, and the industry once again became lucrative and profitably so, naturally, others wanted in on the action. Enter SEGA; formally one of the top five arcade game manufactures in the US, the videogame crash and a decline in the popularity of arcades had seriously hurt the company and led to its purchase by Bally Manufacturing and an eventual restructure towards the home console market with the SG-1000, a precursor to my beloved Master System.
Though the console sold well in Japan, it barely made a dent thanks to Nintendo’s stranglehold on the market so, amidst growing competition, SEGA’s research and development team, led by Masami Ishikawa decided that the only way for SEGA to remain competitive was to incorporate a 16-bit microprocessor by adapting their successful SEGA System 16 arcade board into the architecture for a new home console. Mitsushige Shiraiwa led the team that designed the Mega Drive, drawing inspiration from audiophile equipment and automobiles, and the machine was purposely designed to appeal to gamers of all ages, rather than just children like Nintendo’s console. To impress customers with the system’s power, “16-bit” was slapped right onto the console itself in impressive, striking gold yet, despite shipping 400,000 units in its first year and producing a number of additional peripherals, the console’s launch was overshadowed by the released of Super Mario Bros. 3 (Nintendo EAD, 1988) and the system was unable to surpass the NES in terms of sales or popularity.
For the Mega Drive’s release in North America, the system was rebranded as the “Genesis” and SEGA of America CEO Michael Katz spearheaded an aggressive marketing campaign to sell the power and superiority of the console compared to the NES. While the Genesis certainly did do what Nintendo didn’t, it still wasn’t enough to topple or compete with NES or their podgy little plumber. Thus, when Tom Kalinske replaced Katz as CEO, he developed a four-point plan that involved cutting the console’s price, create a U.S.-based team to develop games specifically for the American market, continue and expand their aggressive advertising campaigns, and bundle copies of the Genesis with the one game exclusively developed to overtake Mario once and for all: Sonic the Hedgehog. For a time, this plan worked wonderfully; bundling Sonic in with the Mega Drive gave SEGA the edge it needed as gamers who had been anticipating the release of Nintendo’s own 16-bit console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), bought a Mega Drive instead just to play Sonic. Sonic’s popularity also led to the Mega Drive outselling the SNES during the 1991 holiday season and, but 1992, SEGA had wrestling 65% of the market away from Nintendo and overtaken Nintendo as the home console market leader for the first time since 1985.
With a focus more on arcade-quality titles, a willingness to consider a greater variety of genres and videogames compared to Nintendo, and Sonic’s explosive popularity as not just a videogame icon but a mainstream icon, SEGA seemed unstoppable; a sleeker, more streamlined version of the Mega Drive released in 1993 and the company even produced a special convertor unit that would allow gamers (such as myself) to play their Master System cartridges on the 16-bit console. SEGA were ahead of the times in many ways; unlike Nintendo, they released Mortal Kombat (Midway, 1993) with its signature blood and Fatalities intact through use of a special code, showing the machine (and the company) to be the more mature and “edgier” of the two, and SEGA soon began to experiment in both CD-based games and 32-bit graphics with the Mega/SEGA-CD and Mega/SEGA-32X add-ons. Unfortunately, despite showcasing some impressive graphics, CD-quality sound, and the sheer potential of these peripherals, producing such expensive add-ons to prolong the Mega Drive’s lifespan ultimately proved financially disastrous for SEGA. When research SEGA and their tumultuous history for my PhD thesis, I was disappointed to see how the company squandered all their success with blunder after blunder in this way; to me, they had the right idea with the Mega-CD and should have stuck with that. Had SEGA simply made the little-known SEGA Multi-Mega the standard and ditched all plans for both the 32X and the SEGA Saturn, producing all the games that released for those console (and the Mega-CD) as CD-based games, the company may have fared better heading into the sixth generation of gaming. I don’t know if would have been enough to make the Dreamcast more competitive but SEGA would definitely have been in a much better financial position without wasting all that money making expensive add-ons and inferior consoles.
Still, it is what it is and, for many years, even when I owned a Nintendo 64, I still returned to the Master System and the Mega Drive. My library of Mega Drive games grew respectfully as I continued to indulge my love of colourful, action-packed action/platformers like Rocket Knight Adventures (Konami, 1993), Marko’s Magic Football (Domark, 1994), The Revenge of Shinobi (SEGA, 1989) and, of course, every Sonic title released for the console. However, to say that I was a fan of Sonic was an understatement; I remember incurring the wrath of my mother for not pausing Sonic 2 right as I beat the game for the first time to go for dinner and I must have played that game endlessly, rejoicing every time I got to play as Sonic and someone else got to play as Tails for a change. I distinctly remember getting Sonic & Knuckles (SEGA Technical Institute, 1994) for a birthday and that I got the game before I owned Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (ibid). I’m not sure exactly how that happened but I remember being fascinated by Sonic & Knuckles’ unique “lock-on” technology and being able to play as Knuckles the Echidna in Sonic 2. Some time later, while at a game’s shop in Northampton, I picked up an unboxed copy of Sonic 3 for £9 and, after reading a guide in Sonic the Comic that showcased the awesomeness of Super Sonic, Hyper Sonic, and the Doomsday Zone, eventually made it my top priority to unlock these forms and reach this final Zone in a precursor to my newfound desire to obtain as many Achievements as possible.
It wasn’t just about Sonic, though; the Mega Drive was a great two-player console and I lost a lot of hours playing T2: The Arcade Game (Probe Software, 1991), Captain America and the Avengers (Data East, 1992), and Mortal Kombat 3 (Midway Games/Sculptured Software, 1995) even while I was playing the likes of WCW vs. nWo: World Tour (Asmik Ace Entertainment/AKI Corporation, 1997) and Quake 64 (Midway Games, 1998). While not every title I played or owned for the Mega Drive was a smash hit, I still managed to find plenty to love thanks to the eye-catching graphics, catchy tunes, generally tight controls and gameplay, and the sheer attractiveness of those black boxes and cartridges. I even got a lot of enjoyment out of games that were short-lived in my collection, like Cosmic Spacehead (Codemasters, 1993) and The Aquatic Games Starring James Pond and the Aquabats (Millennium Interactive, 1992), even though they may not have necessarily been the easiest or most suitable games for my tastes at the time. Sadly, as I mentioned, money was always an issue in keeping me from having a truly expansive Mega Drive library; I borrowed a few titles I never actually owned, like Taz in Escape from Mars (HeadGames, 1994) and Street Fighter II’: Special Champion Edition (Capcom, 1993) but, while I played the likes of Golden Axe (SEGA, 1988) and Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension (Gremlin Graphics, 1992) on the Amiga, I never actually owned them for the Mega Drive back in the day.
Thus, once we tore down our unused garage and had a little log cabin built and my dream of having an actual, physical game corner quickly became a reality, I knew what my first priority would be: to build a respectable library of physical, complete Mega Drive games to play at my leisure. It’s an expensive and long-winded process thanks to the fact that complete versions of Mega Drive games can be quite expensive but it’s a much easier prospect than collecting for Nintendo’s 8-, 16-, and 64-bit consoles as Nintendo favoured flimsy cardboard boxes for their games so the only Mega Drive game you really have to worry about having a battered or ripped box is Sonic & Knuckles. I first made my steps towards building this library when I finally bought a boxed and complete version of Sonic 3 a few years ago and, since then, the collection has grown slowly, but steadily. I’m prepared to play the long game when it comes to completing my collection as, while my Odroid console is great for emulating thousands of games and there’s plenty of ports or collections of classic Mega Drive titles available for modern consoles, there’s nothing quite like seeing a shelving unit full of those gorgeous, bulky, black or blue boxes and slotting a physical cartridge into that very same Mega Drive my parents gifted me all those years ago.
What are your memories of the SEGA Mega Drive? When did you first play or own one and which model did you have? Perhaps you preferred Nintendo’s consoles; if so, why and share your memories of those days? Do you also believe that SEGA might still be something of a competitor in the home console industry had they avoided the 32X and the Saturn or do you think their downfall was inevitable given how crowded and competitive the home console market became? What are some of your favourite Mega Drive titles? How are you celebrating this momentous day today? No matter what your thoughts, please feel free to share your opinions and memories of the Mega Drive and this era of gaming below.