The SEGA Mega Drive was the second 16-bit console to be released, two years earlier than the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Its primary goal was to offer all '80s gamers an experience that would make the NES, which until then was dominating sales charts, appear weak in comparison. What followed was something truly special.
Back in 1988, SEGA was already quite successful within the arcade game field and had released two consoles. What they were lacking, however, was a machine with the level of popularity as Nintendo’s NES, which had built a name for itself both in the Japanese and in the difficult US markets. This led SEGA to the release of the second 16-bit console after NEC’s TurboGrafx-16.
What may have hindered SEGA in the long run is that they were a bit too anxious to release this console, allowing their major competitors (Nintendo) a whole two years to prepare before they could enter the 16-bit market.
The Mega Drive was best described as an “arcade-ready” console. What that means is that many of the games that kids and teens were lining up to play at their local arcade were now available on their own televisions thanks to this device, ported to the console. In fact, that was the basis of a highly successful marketing scheme created by the company in order to attract more buyers.
Released in Japan on October 29, 1988 and just two days later, it had sold out! It launched about a year later in the US under the name “Genesis”, while European stores had to wait until September 1990 to get it on their shelves.
The Mega Drive introduced many new elements to the industry when it first launched.
Its main CPU was a Motorolla 68000 running at 7.63 Mhz which was used as the basis for the Blast Processing technology which, combined with some of the other minor systems in the console, could elevate gaming speed to the next level. Yet many people thought this was nothing less than a marketing trick by SEGA in order to downplay the capabilities of the NES — and the SNES later on. The US commercials for the Genesis that show how fast it could play games compared to the old and outdated NES paint a pretty good picture.
The Mega Drive’s RAM had a capacity of 64KB, with an additional 64KB dedicated to its video RAM and another 8KB for the audio RAM. The console also came with a Zilog Z80 sound CPU, which was the unit used by all consoles of the previous era. There were also two sound chips — one by Yamaha and another by Texas Instruments — to help create the sound effects.
The Z80 also served as the first-ever backwards compatible processor. With the purchase of a simple add-on, Mega Drive owners could play all the SEGA Master System’s games on their new console.
The Mega Drive’s GPU could display up to 512 colours, with any 61 one of them appearing on-screen simultaneously.
The console’s outward appearance was futuristic, with volume sliders for the use of speakers and a black colour to give it a cooler look than the bland, white-and-grey Nintendo consoles. Its controller came with three buttons on the right side and was far more comfortable and easier to use compared to that of the Master System. In some nations, they gave the controller the nickname “croissant” because of its shape, which was altered a little later with the Mega CD II.
As a concept, the Mega Drive was designed with a more mature audience in mind.
The Mega Drive was the console which could put a stop — albeit temporary — to Nintendo’s dominance in the US gaming market. Former CEO of Mattel and Matchbox and CEO of SEGA America in the 90s, Tom Kalinske, came up with many aggressive marketing strategies to help promote the console, some of which are still discussed to this day.
There were huge advertising campaigns inside department stores and on multiple TV networks, tournaments, billboards, a “Sonic Days” campaign, and even blimps flying over multiple cities that featured the company’s logo on them! In fact, we would need to dedicate a whole separate article to talk about Kalinske’s marketing strategy.
Things didn’t go as expected for the Mega Drive in the Japanese market, as they quickly lost steam after the console’s great launch numbers.However, in other areas of the world, such as Brazil, Russia, Asia, etc. the Mega Drive was incredibly well received.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that in some nations, SEGA’s console occupied a higher piece of the market compared to the SNES. One of the main reasons behind this success was that it was the cheapest option out of the two. The Mega Drive’s lowered price was one of the key marketing strategies to help it fight back against the competition and it proved to be highly successful. The launch of Sonic the Hedgehog and its inclusion in a package deal with the console back in 1991 gave players a significant reason to turn to SEGA’s device. Another factor that helped raise sales digits was the additional 7.63 Mhz on the Mega Drive’s CPU, which when combined with the Mega CD, could improve gaming speed significantly.
With impressive titles such as Golden Axe, The Punisher, Streets of Rage, Afterburner, Altered Beasts, Ghouls n Ghosts, Strider, etc. SEGA turned the market on its head.
Meanwhile, the Sonic Team was continuing to deliver quality titles that had dethroned Super Mario from the No.1 gaming mascot position. At the same time, the Japanese company’s partnerships with multiple third-party developers, such as EA, were beginning to bear fruit through the launch of games that the industry hadn’t even laid eyes on until that point.
All this brought total sales numbers for the Mega Drive far above those of the SNES in 1994. The balance, however, shifted once Nintendo released multiple new hit titles of their own, such as Super Metroid, Killer Instinct, Donkey Kong Country, etc., with SEGA’s console barely missing out on the opportunity to become widely known as the “winner” of the 4th console generation.
Back in 1993, a smaller version of the console known as the Mega Drive II was released which, just as the Master System II and the Mega CD II before it, was designed with the lower production value in mind and was available for a more affordable price. In 1998, a third edition released to the US market exclusively for an even lower price. This version had the disadvantage that it wasn’t able to connect to the SEGA CD or the Master System Converter, but with a price tag of just $19.99, it was something that few people could resist.
The Mega Drive is reported to have closed its life cycle with around 42-47 million in total sales and over 900 titles in its collection. It was a truly remarkable piece of hardware, with even more innovative ideas introduced during its era. The Mega CD, the 32X, the Nomad, the Multi-Mega, the Karaoke Kit, and the modem that supported online play (which was released exclusively in Japan) showed people how much SEGA wanted to push the industry forward. Unfortunately, most of these ideas were rushed, resulting in many marketing errors. It would also influence the groundwork of the company, moving away from hardware development later down the line.
Yet players left with hundreds of hours spent playing great games which, when combined with the friendly competition between the Mega Drive and the SNES, helped raise the standards of the industry.
The Mega Drive will always be one of those sweet childhood memories, for those who experienced it. It left its mark in the history of gaming as one of the two greatest consoles of the 16-bit generation. For those of you who have yet to try it out, I would highly recommend that you give it a go! You’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find!
For the end, most people who are approaching their 40s will find it hard to forget the first part of former SEGA CEO Kalinske’s aggressive campaign, which featured the unforgettable tagline: SEGA DOES WHAT NINTENDON'T!
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