Editor’s Note: Andy would prefer it if you read this article with Jeremy Clarkson’s voice in mind. It’s the greatest start to a new series…in the world!
Nintendo’s home console products have become the digital equivalent of a Frisbee: They’re cheap, simple fun for all ages, using gimmicky motion control that tricks you into exercising, and will gather dust two months after purchasing it. (Although, there are other schools of thought on this). Opposed to their rivals, Sony and Microsoft, whose consoles are the equivalent of a roller-coaster (being more expensive, technologically superior, and bulky), Nintendo’s current machine lacks thrills. It just looks rather quaint next to a PS3 and 360.
But the name Nintendo wasn’t always frowned upon by the serious, adult gaming community. Let’s wind the clock back thirty years. Yes, I know a lot of people reading this will only remember the PlayStation 2 onwards. It may also come as a shock that there were consoles before then composed of metals and materials mined by men with a pick-axe (and put together by those same men with a hammer and tong. In a sweatshop). As opposed to the four small wizards inside your iPad2, which makes everything happen by magic pixie dust and candy.
So place your cheaply made 360 controller down, douse out that over-heated machine with a fire extinguisher, and listen to a story of rivalry, triumph and tragedy.
In 1985 (North America) and 1986 (Europe), the Nintendo Entertainment System was released. It rode in like a knight in dull grey and, um, light grey, rejuvenating a failing video game market. Despite the looks of an old Star Wars prop or even a Betamax player (look it up, younglings), the NES managed to be fun and thrilling with a library of games that would make most publishers today green with envy.
Of course it had a rival which deliberately took a different approach; one which flaunted more attitude and flair. And although it wasn’t popular in America, it garnered wild popularity in Europe. The Master System was here to stay.
But hold it right there!
We’re not here to talk about either of those consoles. We’re here to talk about the Master System’s bigger, meaner brother. The one that, at the sacrifice of its future popularity, managed to push Nintendo into a downward spiral (at least until the Wii’s considerable popularity).
I am, of course, talking about the Sega Mega Drive. Or the “Genesis” to those who think the Bible is law, drive on the wrong side of the road, and think “lift” is pronounced “elevator.” The Mega Drive was a beast of a machine that had the words “16-Bit” in large golden letters, as if to say… “I’ve arrived.”
Unlike the SNES – with its light and dark greys complimented by smooth lines – the Mega Drive didn’t look like something Captain Picard or Luke Skywalker would use. Instead, it looked like a wild animal ready to be unleashed; a whole 16-bits of BLAST PROCESSING housed by a round dome, almost resembling a piece of alien technology. It certainly wasn’t painted as a child’s toy like the SNES (which Sega’s commercials were largely responsible for). It almost seems like a part of Darth Vader’s costume, with a bit of Borg technology thrown-in for good measure.
Released in Japan in 1988, the console was an instant success and remains Sega’s most profitable venture. It made its American debut the following year (with a swift name change due to a “trademark dispute”), and continued to hold its own in the market. We wouldn’t see it until 1990, when the beast finally made it across the pond. Upon release, it became the most successful console in Britain. Which might be understandable when you consider the amount of money Sega spent on advertising; going so far as to create a character, “Jimmy the Video Game Addict,” starring Caprica‘s Peter Wingfield. He’s not exactly the “Angry Video Game Nerd.”
Sega had a brand new mascot to boot: A mascot unlike the overweight Italian plumber who moved through near impossible lands of mushrooms, princesses and giant lizards. We had a streamlined, spiky blue hedgehog that moved at the speed of sound; who had to fight evil furry animals, and yes, admittedly, a small, fat man in dastardly death machines. There’s no way that isn’t a swipe at Mario, right?
The machine was a wonderful piece of technological craftsmanship and looked great. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and for Sega – the company that took on the mighty Nintendo – their console days were soon over.
With the dawn of CD-ROMs and full-motion-video, came the Mega Drive’s CD based ad-on, called the Mega CD (or Sega CD in the US). It acted as a bottom-slotting (or side-slotting) Siamese twin. It even required a separate power lead to run. It wasn’t pleasant to look at and the games weren’t much to marvel over either, with the only notable exception being Sonic CD.
Then came a mushroom-like tumour with another power adaptor – the 32x.
These monstrosities were expensive, ugly and frustrating as hell to use, while also cheapening the MD’s name in their bid to extend the console’s life. So useless were they that they were deemed replaceable by the Sega Neptune. However, by the time the Neptune was to be released the Sega Saturn had flopped massively, sparking mistrust in fans who chose to stay with the new and more reliable 32-bit PlayStation.
So there you have it: The sleek, sexy Mega Drive; a piece of gaming hardware that screamed cool and bad-to-the-bone. Unfortunately at the end of its life you could call it a failure of its own success. But that’s why I love it, and that’s why I love Sega. They dared to be different. We could use a little more of that today.
Top Mega Drive Games (Via GameRankings): Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), Shining Force II (1993), Gunstar Heroes (1993), Phantasy Star IV (1993), Earthworm Jim (1994), Streets of Rage (1991).
Best-Selling Games: Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992), Aladdin (1992).
Units Sold: Estimated from 37.3 to 40.8 million.
Discontinued: 1995 (Japan), 1997 (US).
- The Mega Drive’s last newly licensed game was a 2002 release in Brazil, Show do Milhão.
- Sega attempted to partner with Atari for distribution of the console in America, but the two companies could not agree to terms, so they ended up doing it themselves. Nice one, Atari!
- In 2009, IGN named the Mega Drive the fifth greatest console of all time.
- A lot of classic Mega Drive games can now be downloaded from Wii Virtual Console, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and Steam.