Initially released in 1988 in Japan, The Mega Drive (Genesis in America) represented the coming of age for Sega in the console war and is its best-selling console of all time, selling over 30 million units worldwide.
It’s easy to criticize Sega for the vast amount of things they subsequently got wrong, but the Mega Drive marked a time when the Japanese videogame giant got the vast majority of things right. A new mascot was born in the form of Sonic The Hedgehog to directly compete with the popular Mario character on the Nintendo systems, and by bundling the game with consoles, it was enough to see sales of the console increase. Sonic was cool, super-speedy and would ultimately appear on anything you can think of, from cereal boxes to bedsheets and his own comic. Everyone wanted a piece of the blue hedgehog!
Nintendo had always been known for its family-friendly image, so Sega decided to go with advertising aimed more at teenagers and young adults. As a result, the Sega/Pirate TV commercials are fondly remembered alongside the slogans ‘Genesis Does What Nintendon’t’ and ‘To be this Good Takes Ages’, with, in case you hadn’t noticed, the word ages spelling Sega backwards.
Then we had the more controversial types of advertisements that Sega unleashed during the Mega Drive era as it attempted to increase appeal to virtually everyone. Adverts were made explicitly for the adult-orientated comic Viz, and while these began for the Master System, they were ramped up for the Mega Drive. Drug references for Ecco The Dolphin? Check. Sexual references for a joystick? Absolutely. Bloke urinating on the Sega logo? Standard! Edgy adverts that would cause mass offence now? Definitely.
Worldwide, the console boasts a games library of over 900 games and thanks to the brilliant independent and homebrew community, we are still seeing games released on the console today. As well as the Sonic series, we were introduced to some truly iconic franchises such as Streets Of Rage, the Shining RPG series and a partnership with Disney, which saw some epic games featuring Mickey and Donald.
We were also introduced to another groundbreaking aspect of video games: violence and gratuitous violence in the form of Mortal Kombat. I remember sneaking round to my friend’s house to play this as an innocent 8-year-old, knowing my parents would have disapproved had they known I was ripping spinal cords out of opponents. Mortal Kombat would be released on both the Mega Drive and the Super Nintendo, but the latter would go down a heavy censorship route to keep the family-friendly image intact. Gore became sweat, and fatalities were toned right down. Mega Drive owners got the uncensored version (albeit some of it behind a code), and gaming fans voted with their wallets, with the Sega game vastly outselling its censored SNES counterpart. Due to this success, Nintendo would back down on its strict censorship.
Who can forget the innovative ‘lock-on technology’ we saw with the release of Sonic And Knuckles? Not only did it breathe new life into old Sonic games, but you could also plonk practically any Mega Drive cart onto the game, each giving a unique sphere bonus stage level.
1993 saw the launch of the Mega Drive 2, a cost-reduced redesign of the console to help Sega in the price war battle that was going on at the time. The USA market would also see a minimal, vastly stripped-back third version released via Majesco in 1998.
The Mega Drive’s success saw Sega release many add-ons for the console, with the two major ones, the Mega-CD and 32X, significantly underperforming and causing confusion among consumers, especially with Sega touting the Saturn as the true next-gen console. The Mega-CD was first released in 1991 in Japan and most other territories by 1993. The add-on bolted underneath the Mega Drive, increasing the hardware performance while catering to CD standard software and audio. Unfortunately, the expensive nature of this hardware, coupled with fewer games due to longer development times, led to Sega quickly discounting the product in an effort to boost sales. Ultimately by the end of 1994, the lack of software had effectively killed the Mega-CD off.
Meanwhile, the 32X was released in 1994 as a way to extend the life of the Mega Drive by catering for 32-bit carts. The problem for Sega at this point was that the Sega Saturn was around the corner, which meant developers and consumers shunned the system in favour of waiting for the actual next-gen console.
It’s a testament that the Mega Drive’s success led to it lasting nearly as long as the Saturn in many regions. FIFA 98, for example, was the final FIFA game released on both the Mega Drive and the Saturn, and ultimately the last time we ever saw an Electronic Arts game on Sega hardware. Of course, Sega is still riding on the success of the Mega Drive today with releases such as the Mega Drive mini consoles.
Internal conflicts and haphazard releases meant that Sega got an awful lot wrong during its hardware years, but I think we can all agree that the original Mega Drive represents a time when they got it totally right.
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