The Sega Genesis has a fond place in the heart of gamers who evolved past the era of the NES in the mid-1980s and continued playing games. Fast on the heels of an older console that lost considerable market share to Nintendo, the Genesis would cement Sega’s initial dominance in the home console market. Although this dominance would wither and die within a decade, the Genesis brought Sega to the forefront of home console gaming in the early 1990s, and it would be forever enshrined as one of the best consoles ever produced.
Sega began life as Service Games, a manufacturer of coin operated amusement machines that was founded by three Americans following the sale of a similar company they formed in Honolulu called Standard Games. Their business centered on amusement machines for military bases, and the advent of World War II brought increased personnel and the demand for leisure. The new company cemented this focus on service personnel, and moved to Japan post-war after the US government outlawed slot machines in US territories. While Service Games eventually closed in Japan, its operations merged with Rosen Enterprises, founded by American Air Force officer David Rosen who launched photo booths and eventually distributed imported coin-op games in Japan. The new company, Sega Enterprises, took its name from an abbreviation of Service Games. Sega began developing arcade games and over the decades, and in 1969 was sold to American corporation Gulf and Western Industries which retained the Sega Enterprises name. Sega began to prosper in the era of arcade games to follow, producing very profitable arcade machines in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Unfortunately, an industry slump in 1982 led to the need to diversify. A decision was made at Sega backed by their holding company to enter the home console market. In July of 1983, the SG-1000 was released as Sega’s first home console. Sales were poor, despite initial success that was attributed to a fortuitous faulty circuit in it’s competitor, the Nintendo Famicom (eventually released as the Nintendo Entertainment System). Eventually the Famicom began to catch up and overtake the SG-1000 and its revision the SG-1000 II. A successor, the Sega Mark III, was released in 1985 in Japan. For its 1986 North American release, Sega rebranded the Mark III as the Sega Master System. This console had poor success in Japan and North America, competing directly with the Famicom and NEC’s PC engine in Japan, and the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America. It did enjoy relative success in Europe and Brazil. Sega then began work on a successor to the Master System in an effort to capture the market. It was determined a 16 bit microprocessor was needed to become competitive, and they developed a system keeping in mind the Sega System 16 arcade board in current use. Sega settled on using Motorola for its main CPU, and a Zilog chip for sound.
What eventually became the Genesis was announced in June of 1988 in Japanese gaming media. It was originally called the Mark V, but this was later changed to the Mega Drive for Japan, and Genesis for North America. The Mega Drive was released 10/29/1988 in Japan. Poor first year sales hurt Sega, who responded with niche peripherals such as an online banking terminal module via modem connection. The North American release followed on 8/14/1989 in New York and Los Angeles, with an extended release later that year. Atari was originally offered distribution rights but they eventually declined. However, they did have a role in coming up with the name ‘Genesis’. Sega turned to in-house Sega of America for North American distribution, and a European release followed in 1990 via other partners. The Genesis release in North America came under the specter of an upcoming Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), and Sega’s management decided on a two pronged approach to counter this anticipated heavy competition. The first approach was to develop games that featured celebrities and sports stars as attractions, as Nintendo had a lock on many third party publishers who could not port their popular games to the competition. The second approach was to create an aggressive marketing plan that would emphasize the Genesis as the more serious console. The famous ‘Genesis Does What Nintendon’t’ phrase came from this, as well as the eventual ‘Blast Processing’ marketing nonsense that characterized the Genesis’ supposed speed and power advantage. Sales eventually sagged from projected numbers, and a new CEO was hired to help improve sales numbers in North America. This was done via a four-ponged approach, which emphasized a price drop to $149, the development of a US-based team to develop games for the North American market, increasing the aggressive marketing style, and replacing the fun but relatively static pack-in game Altered Beast with an upstart property called Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991. Sonic began life during a corporate-wide search for a company mascot. The winner was a teal hedgehog in shoes called Mr. Needlemouse. As the chosen character evolved, it took inspiration from Michael Jackson, Santa, and even Bill Clinton’s ‘can-do attitude’. These marketing measures worked, as sales spurred on via Sonic’s exploding popularity. NEC released their PC engine in North America as the TurboGrafx-16, anticipating to compete with the Genesis, but sales were dismal and they left the market. Even the newly released SNES could not compete, as the Genesis outsold the SNES by a factor of 2 in the 1991 holiday season.
The Genesis saw elevated sales once Electronic Arts (EA) came on board as a third party developer, but how they entered this arrangement is a neat little tale of cloak and dagger. Sega, like Nintendo, had very restrictive third-part licensing contracts and approval requirements, combined with elevated cartridge manufacturing costs as they controlled manufacturing. EA decided to create a way around this so they could develop and manufacture cartridges for sale that would run on the Genesis without having to abide by Sega’s restrictions. They obtained a Genesis and began to reverse engineer the hardware. As games began to develop from this research, EA approached Sega the day before the 1990 Consumer Electronics Show and confronted them with this capability, and a threat to proceed with their own manufacturing if Sega did not deal with them. Armed with this potential threat, Sega agreed to EA’s terms as a third-party developer for the Genesis, and EA became an integral partner in its success. It later became known that EA had actually not quite reverse engineered Sega’s protection mechanism, and that this was all a bluff. Regardless, a little title called John Madden Football was soon released later that year, and the rest is history.
Nearly 31 million units were sold worldwide directly by Sega, with other sales coming from 3rd party manufacturers that provided the consoles under license to Brazil and South Korea.
There were some console variations developed over time, not including more modern re-releases of the console based on emulation of the hardware and software. Sega released the Mega Drive 2 in Japan in 1993, with a North American release of the ‘Genesis’ to follow, losing the heading prefix ‘Sega’. This variation required less power, added stereo sound support via a new AV out connector, and shed the headphone jack on the front. A combined Genesis and Sega CD unit called the Genesis CDX was released (Multi-Mega in Europe) that could also act as a portable CD player. A plethora of third-party licensed models appeared as well in various countries, generally as combination Genesis/Sega CD units. These include the Wondermega, X’Eye, LaserActive, and compact budget Genesis 3.
A number of peripherals and accessories were released for the Genesis/Mega Drive. These include a couple variations of a 6 button controller, with a latter version containing a turbo and slow toggle, as well as an eventual wireless controller. A Power Base was released which sat in the cartridge slot and allowed the Genesis to play Master System games. The Menacer light gun was released by Sega along side a couple third-party guns, and mouse was released for use in a few games that could utilize it. An expensive and poorly received peripheral, the Sega Activator, had players stand within its octagonal ring-like surface and transmit in game movement through body movement. Its poor accuracy landed it significant criticism and poor sales.
Sega also pioneered networking capabilities of home consoles in the form of an attached Mega Modem. The Sega Meganet was released in Japan in the latter part of 1990. Its American counterpart, the Sega Channel, debuted in 1994 in partnership with Time Warner Cable and TCI. This service permitted subscribers the ability to download one game out of a library of fifty, as well as game demos. The game was stored on internal memory, and was erased when the console was powered off.
Sega developed add-on consoles for the Genesis/Mega Drive prior to moving on to the Sega Saturn, which included the Sega CD and the Sega 32X. As these are generally consoles in their own right, I will discuss them individually in later articles.
The Genesis was home to a large library of classic games, which are still played in differing forms today as part of retail compilation games and modern console on-line download releases. A small list of notable titles follows:
Mutant League Football
Streets of Rage
Toejam and Earl 2: Panic on Funkotron
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Ecco the Dolphin
Wonder Boy in Monster World
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Hyper Stone Heist
Rocket Knight Adventures
Road Rash 2
Truxton (with perennial praise from Classic Game Room’s Mark Bussler)
My personal memories of the Sega Genesis start with a trip to a friend’s house in 1990 or 1991, where I watched him play Joe Montana Football. I was instantly impressed with the graphics, having played on the interior Nintendo Entertainment System for a number of years. Following my freshman year of collage, I saved enough money over that summer to buy a 13 inch TV and a Sega Genesis for my sophomore dorm room. The year was 1993, and my afternoons soon became filled with Madden football, Sonic the Hedgehog, Road Rash, and fighter Eternal Champions. Those were wonderful 16-bit days, to soon be followed by an unfortunate loss of interest in video games as a whole for several years.
What Sega Genesis memories do you hold dear? Did ‘blast processing’ really mean anything to you, even as Sonic’s incredible speed found you zipping from screen to screen? Did you relish at the thought that Mortal Kombat on the Genesis had real blood, while your SNES-owning friend had to settle with ‘sweat’? Did Sega’s first crop of ‘Virtua’ games on a home console excite you, or did the reduced texturing make you pine for an actual home arcade machine? Do you want Mutant League Football to make a return as much as I do in this Madden-only current climate? Also, do you wax nostalgic for the wonderful sprite-based shooters that were a dime a dozen on the Genesis in the early 1990’s, but are nowhere to be found on modern console generations? Leave your comments below, and look forward to another console review article coming soon.