30 years of Sega Mega Drive in Europe: 16 bits for a hallelujah

30 years of Sega Mega Drive in Europe: 16 bits for a hallelujah
The console war is no longer what it used to be! When the Xbox Series X / S came onto the market, competitor Sony was one of the first to congratulate the successful launch. And when the Playstation 5 appeared shortly afterwards, there was of course the revenge and a few warm words from Microsoft to Sony. There is not much left of the peaks and the sometimes bitter rivalry between the console manufacturers in 2020.

Thirty years ago it looked completely different: Sega and Nintendo were crazy enemies. And the upstart Sega never missed an opportunity to attack and provoke the industry giant Nintendo. Need a taste? In the commercials broadcast on US television, Sega put the Mega Drive, dubbed "Genesis" there for licensing reasons, directly against the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Slogans such as "More for less" (in German: "More for less") or "Genesis does what Nintendon't" ("Genesis does what Nintendo doesn't do") showed how aggressively Sega was at work back then.

Sonic the Hedgehog, published in 1991, was an absolute stroke of luck for Sega. The lightning-fast jump'n'run became a crowd favorite and made the blue racing hedgehog the Sega mascot. Source: Moby Games) The Sega console appeared in Japan on October 29, 1988, but could not establish itself there due to Nintendo dominance. The breakthrough came with the US launch on August 14, 1989 and the launch in Europe on November 30, 1990. The Sega Mega Drive (buy now € 83.99) was the "missing link" between the arcade and home entertainment and a real 16-bit powerhouse that was even a little ahead of its time.

Top dog Nintendo

Let's look back at the history of the creation of the Mega Drive and travel to the wild 1980s. At the beginning of this decade, Sega was among the top five arcade machine developers in the United States. But this market collapsed with the advancement of technology towards home entertainment. Sega changed saddles and presented its first home console in 1983 with the SG-1000 (short for Sega Game). Right from the start, the company brought 160,000 units to customers in Japan. The top management was extremely satisfied with these figures. Finally, Nintendo dominated the Japanese market with the Famicom, which was released in the same year and which was sold internationally as Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) a short time later. The first cornerstone for a great rivalry was laid. The action game Altered Beast was included with the console, which was later released in Europe and North America. Thanks to parallax scrolling and a beautiful soundtrack, there was a first foretaste of the capabilities of the new 16-bit hardware. Source: Moby Games)

In the following period Sega developed - after the intermediate step in the form of the visually discreetly pimped up SG-1000 II - the successor model SG-1000 Mark III. This later came onto the market in the USA and Europe as the Sega Master System. With the start of the old hardware generation, however, the development department was already working on the new one. Under the direction of Masami Ishikawa and under the supervision of Hideki Sato, the concept for the Sega Mega Drive, powered by 16-bit processors, was created. At that time, the Japanese built a 68000 processor from Motorola, which was also used in arcade machines, with a clock rate of "rapid" 7.67 megahertz. At its side, the Zilog Z80 also worked as a second processor, which was responsible for the sound chip control. Separate processors for graphics and sound naturally cost a lot of money. In order to keep the price for the console as low as possible, Sega negotiated a hefty discount with the chip manufacturer - under the premise that they would buy significantly more chipsets in the future.

A different kind of motorcycle action: Road Rash wasn't always peaceful. In the racing game you could kick your competitors off the bike with a juicy kick. Source: Moby Games) During this time, another competitor entered the console market: With the PC Engine developed by Hudson Soft and sold by the technology giant NEC, a strong competitor was added in Japan in 1987. The PC Engine only relied on a modified 8-bit chipset, but was technically superior to the NES that was prevalent at the time and thus also secured a piece of the console pie. Meanwhile, Nintendo was resting on its own laurels. After all, the Super Nintendo would not appear until 1990 in Japan, 1991 in the USA and 1992 in Europe. The market leader did not waste its place at the top, but left the competition enough room to grow up in the shadow of the capital N.

In contrast to Nintendo, Sega's company policy towards virtual violence or nudity in games was relative relaxed. It was not until 1993 that the company set up a “Videogame Rating Council” for the age rating of games. Source: Moby Games) Flopped in Japan, but then ...

Young, modern and technically superior: This is how Sega presented the Mega Drive to the outside world. The black polished surface and the round shapes were based on the design of a sports car and modern music electronics. Sega received positive press for the innovative hardware and its performance. However, the launch line-up with a few titles such as Space Harrier 2, Altered Beast and Super Thunderblade was anything but outstanding. The Mega Drive sold only 400,000 times in Japan in its first year, not only ranking behind the NES, Earthworm Jim is certainly one of the craziest video games of all time. The 2D platformer was so popular that it even became a cartoon series. Source: Moby Games) but also behind NEC's PC Engine. Firing the market with new models and additional hardware also brought hardly any improvement.

After talks with Atari failed, Sega sold the console in 1989 in the USA on its own. However, since the name "Mega Drive" was already used elsewhere in North America, the console there was called "Genesis" (in German: "Origin" or "Creation"). The console at the start came with Altered Beast - including parallax scrolling and a modernized soundtrack. The beat'em-up suggested the qualities that were actually in the Mega Drive or Genesis, but it took another year before the console really caught fire.

Game variety and big names

Sega changed its own marketing strategy. Michael Katz, the new President of Sega of America, launched a two-stage campaign to make the console more accessible to the masses, and especially to the western market. One marketing ploy involved competing directly with Nintendo. As mentioned at the beginning, Sega produced provocative advertising and presented the fast 16-bit console as the next gaming evolutionary stage. Nintendo, on the other hand, was declared a relic of bygone days: If the Mega Drive was a racing car, then the NES was an old rattle. Sega was both aggressive and progressive.

3D action, crashing effects and a powerful soundtrack: Space Harrier 2 was one of the launch titles for the Sega Mega Drive in Japan (Source: Moby Games)

The company also sought proximity to third-party manufacturers and made it easier for them to develop for their console. So while Nintendo and Namco, for example, were at odds with each other and arguing about gag agreements, Sega made chapters and secured the rights to an increasingly growing games portfolio. What was missing now, however, was a certain recognition value. To this end, the company bought licenses with prominent athletes and other celebrities. Titles like Joe Montana Football, Mario Lemieux Hockey and Michael Jackson's Moonwalker attracted attention. Sega later even put together entire packages and enclosed some of the valuable cartridges with the console - true to the motto "More for less!".

1990 was a crucial year for the console's success, even if the effects of the Course change only in the subsequent Golden Ax did justice to the arcade roots of the Mega Drive. In the medieval action game, up to two participants fight their way through wild adventures as dwarfs, barbarians or amazons. Source: Moby Games) years should really show. In 1990 Sega did not achieve the target of one million sold consoles in the USA and Europe. Nevertheless, a U-turn was recognizable.

The effects of this became apparent with the appearance of the SNES in 1991 in the USA. You'd think Nintendo would dominate the Christmas business here. De facto, however, Sega's new mascot Sonic was ahead of the game thanks to the platformer hit Sonic the Hedgehog and increasingly helped the Nintendo competitor to the lead. At that time, all games with Sega's blue racing hedgehog were real crowd pullers. With its lightning-fast gameplay, atmospheric graphics and also the energetic soundtrack, Sonic perfectly showed what the Mega Drive was all about at the time.

That is why the Mega Drive was special

The Mega Drive embodied an attitude towards life: Worked Other consoles at that time still like children's toys, Sega's 16-bitter was rough, cool and even a little grown-up. Sega was a trendsetter, and even then the Mega Drive demonstrated the direction in which video games should increasingly go in the coming decades. The gaming device became an independent entertainment medium that brought gaming and pop culture together. At first glance it looks a lot like Final Fantasy, but it is Shining Force 2. The tactical role-playing game had a depth and a size that set it apart from many other titles of the time. Source: Moby Games)

One reason for the console's success was the exclusive partnership with Electronic Arts and especially EA Sports. The first part of the NHL series appeared exclusively for the Mega Drive - a huge coup in sports-loving America. In this case, both brands benefited: Sega received exclusive games that set them apart from Nintendo and other competitors. Electronic Arts and especially EA Sports on the other hand also made a huge leap forward through the cooperation. For a while, the Mega Drive was the number 1 port of call for all sports game fans.

The variety of games and concepts made the difference here. Many popular game series found their origin or even a new home on the Mega Drive: Road Rash, Earthworm Jim, Shinobi, Streets of Rage, Desert Strike, Golden Ax, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and many more. The list is endless and shows how important the mega drive really was for weddings. Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi was the second and final offshoot of the Shinobi series. As a ninja you save people kidnapped by the Union Lizard cult. Always by your side: fighting dog Yamato. Source: Moby Games)

The platform was a playground without limits, on which an underwater adventure with a hint of esotericism like Ecco the Dolphin could easily survive next to a tough fighting game like Mortal Kombat on the store shelf. Sega was open in its company policy and - in contrast to Nintendo - also let violent and adult games get away. This caused anger on the part of politicians, but that is exactly what fueled the platform's image. Sega smoothed things over and set up the so-called Videogame Rating Council in 1993, which was temporarily responsible for the age rating of the games.

Let's agree on a tie

And so we come back to the console war mentioned above between Sega and Nintendo. The result of this rivalry varies greatly in the end: In Japan, Nintendo was clearly ahead with the Super Nintendo in the end and dominated the market. In the USA, however, things looked different - in 1994, about 55 percent of the 16-bit devices sold went to Sega. In previous years, Sega even sold twice as many Mega Drives here as Nintendo SNES consoles. While this trend also continued in Great Britain, Germany was more of a Nintendo nation: In this country, the Super Nintendo was able to position itself well ahead of the Mega Drive with a ratio of around 2: 1.

But ultimately that is The result doesn't really matter: The Sega Mega Drive has made video games better and, above all, a good deal cooler. Like few others, the console describes a time of new ideas, a spirit of optimism and a small gaming revolution. And that's exactly what we would want again today, wouldn't we?

The Sega Mega Drive Mini Source: Sega

The Sega Mega Drive Mini

Nintendo is showing the way and Sega follows suit: That was also the case in 2019. After the Mario makers had already provided retro rapture with their NES and SNES mini retro consoles, Sega launched the Mega Drive Mini, a toy for adults with a very similar concept, at the end of 2019. There are 42 pre-installed classics on the device, including Castle of Illusion, Shining Force, Sonic The Hedgehog, Wonderboy in Monster World, Earthworm Jim, Castlevania: Bloodlines or Ecco the Dolphin.

In addition to the console, the package includes two Three-button controller as known from the first generation of the original hardware. The Mega Drive Mini is now sold out in many places and is therefore a small collector's item. A good year after the release, Sega's mini-console is often only needed; a real increase in value has not yet taken place. The play equipment cost 72.99 euros in the RRP, today you can usually get it for a price between 60 and 80 euros.

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