Sega Megadrive/Genesis

Background:

Sega (Kabushiki Kaisha Sega) used to be a major video game console manufacturer until the fateful year of 2001 when Sega announced that the video game giant would pull out from the console market for good with its final Dreamcast console being the final console to date bearing the logo of the famous blue lines.

Arguably, the greatest part of its earlier success had been the Megadrive console. The company entered the 16-bit market early, even pre-dating the mighty but ageing Nintendo 8-bit console which repopularize the console for the domestic markets. Sega’s own 8-bit Sega Master System wasn’t a commercial success. I recall seeing it before somewhere but didn’t think much of it anyway since it is the games which matter more than what were the machines you used them on.

If you’d read this interesting piece of an article here, you would also be starting to think that Sega self-destructed early when it didn’t need to. There are, of course, many wrong corporate decisions made daily and executed in the unforgiving world of business but no one can quite defeat Sega like how they ruined themselves. For one, Sega had the video game world at their chokehold back in 1992. Sonic the Hedgehog was all the rage back then. No one thinks that Mario Bros are the ‘in’ characters anymore. The Sega ‘scream’ also helped establish the lasting image gamers would have in their minds. Best of all, Sega games are on the average just as memorable as the 8-bit games Nintendo used to publish for their dying console.

In order to get a good view of how strong-handed, decisive tactics can win the day while bad corporate management and decisions can ruin a company, you can read the excellent article from the incomparable Sega-16.com site here.

Make no mistake: the Sega Megadrive fared rather poorly in Japan and if that’s anything to go by, in Asia as well. Conversely speaking, Nintendo’s great products confidently rode past the finish line with aplomb, selling well with the Nintendo Entertainment System with over 60 million units, and the Super Nintendo console with a 49 million sale; a clear 20 million advantage over even Sega’s most successful console ever, the Megadrive/Genesis.

Sega of America then claimed that they had 50% of the American market by 1993, up from the lows of 2% in 1990. Even the uninspiring Sega Master System could only snatch a meager 1-2% of the American market which was well and truly dominated by Nintendo. There is the common understanding that to conquer the American market is to be in a commanding spot for the ongoing console war. If Sega of America performed spectacularly to challenge the fickle American market from the once near-monopoly of Nintendo, then Sega of Japan must have then felt intimidated that they could not exercise their authority as parent company to the American branch since the Japanese market pronounced their support for the rivalling Super Nintendo console which came out in Japan in 1990.

Then came the nadir of the greatest Sega console ever; Hayao Nakayama of the Sega of Japan announced in 1995 that the Genesis and the Megadrive would cease production with immediate effect to make a concentrated effort to push for the first 32-bit system in the console world – the Sega Saturn. Whether poor corporate decision-making or prudent business tactics, Sega effectively isolated itself from the 29 million strong Megadrive and Genesis owners worldwide. Games such as Ristar the Shooting Star and Vectorman 2 didn’t really get the appreciation I feel that they deserve. These games came at the time when the fateful decision was executed with the view that the exhausted and dozing Megadrive was already on the downslide, with its near obsolete visuals and rather limited and meager resources available for game developers to work on. It was a tragic end to the console of the hearts for many of its owners the world over.

Suddenly, the SNES found a breath of fresh air again as it continued unopposed to claim victory of the 4th generation Console war.

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If you ask me which was the greater true 16-bit console during the famed Console Wars, my affirmative answer has got to be Sega’s greatest product to date – the Sega Megadrive. The Megadrive, or only known in North America as the ‘Genesis’ due to certain trademark limitations can lay claim as the first 16-bit system in the world of video games.

To be fair, I’ve not really played much Super Nintendo games at all during my lifetime. The little I do know of the console was bad, however. First thing, the SNES console was woefully overpriced back then in 1994 in Malaysia. While the Megadrive 2 (the 2nd version of the 1st Megadrive) commands a market price of RM335, the SNES sold at RM390+ and came only with one factory-packed controller, meaning that you’d have to fork out another RM80 for a second controller. The SNES would easily be rounded up to the tune of RM 500 for a complete set and that may even come without complimentary free games.

These 2 consoles sold rather poorly in the Malaysian market in my view. The Sega Megadrive distribution rights were handed over to a telco entity once called the WYWY shop. The Megadrive 2 at WYWY outlets could retail for as much as RM375 due to the fact that they were shipped from Japan and so incurred additional tax and so on.

I acquired my original Megadrive 2 from a now defunct video game retailer at the Jaya Supermarket in Petaling Jaya sometime in October 1994. It was to be a somewhat belated gift for my straight-A success in the primary school UPSR examinations in 1993. My dad offered 2 choices – either the Sega Megadrive 2 or the SNES. I can’t have both. My parents weren’t the type to be so generous as to furnish both consoles at my luxury and add more  games to top off the library. My choice has got to be fuelled by either past experiences with the Megadrive or the SNES. I do enjoy playing my cousin’s Sega games on his Megadrive in 1993 and my first impressions were excellent. The ageing Nintendo 8-bit system which I had until that time just won’t cut it. It’s like when you see something clearly more beautiful, you just can’t get it out the back of your head to settle for something clearly inferior as did the old Nintendo console. Score 1 for Sega. The visuals, the 3 button controllers on the Sega Megadrive meant that it was cool to own one. The Nintendo had only a 2-button controller at that time, had completely forgettable games coming out in 1993 onwards and suffered from severe piracy issues so much so that even the cartridges for the old Nintendo 8-bit were of inescapably doubtful quality.

Next, the game cartridges for either consoles were also arguably expensive in 1993/1994. In Malaysia, then as the same as now, software piracy has been rampant since time immemorable. You could obtain a Sega Megadrive pirated cartridge for as low as RM50 but the original ones at the official distributor at WYWY shop sells these games at the upmarket price of RM200 and above. Of course, that depended on the type of game sold. If you were looking for hit games of the day such as ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ and ‘Bare Knuckles I’ you could expect to shell out money to the tune of RM300 above at the official distributor’s notwithstanding that these games came out for a year already in Japan. Yeah, Malaysia never seemed to be able to get the latest gadgets in technological sophistication be it mobile phones or game consoles. The Playstation 3 came to our shores long after the Singaporeans have already gotten their hands on it. Shame on Malaysia.

But one look at the SNES game cartridges confirm their super high prices. For a pirated SNES game in the Kuala Lumpur region, it’s not unusual for the prices to be RM75 tops. This compared to RM50 for the same quality Megadrive cartridge. If you know where to look, there are original Megadrive cartriges on sale at smaller retail outlets as well, for example, where I gotten my MD 2 console. I’m a still-proud owner of an original ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ cart.
The differences between an original and pirated cartridge are not immediately tangible. For some reason, the pirates have wonderful machinery and equipment to replicate the same circuit board as the original but for certain flaws – the games could be quite unstable at times; with certain games freezing at selected frames and the visuals can also be corrupted at various images. I have pirated cartridges of Sega because my parents are pragmatic people – if it’s a game it has got to be leisure and leisure is not something we need to splash the cash on. Agreed.

Soon, the Megadrive 2 had the floor. I wouldn’t want the SNES. I’ve grown tired of Super Mario Bros and their roll-of-the-mill franchises and milked out sequels. Mario wasn’t the greatest and coolest video game character ever – Sonic the Hedgehog was (and in my mind, still is). Kids at primary school no longer talk about Double Dragon 2 and 3 – they clamour for Bare Knuckles and its celebrated sequels. But Sonic personified Sega and the Megadrive in his own inimitable way – the refreshing concept of speed coupled with the colourful graphics and its  relatively easy learning curve. (Further, Mario has a short timer which makes exploration somewhat limited as compared to 10 minutes for the Sonic series). Plus, I can vouch that hardly anyone plays the Super Nintendo in Malaysia in 1993 onwards.

You see, back in those days, most video game retailers since the days of the 8-bit consoles offer pay-as-you-play services to kids and those who are kids at heart. For a nominal sum of RM5, you can play any game you wish for one hour. Typically, the 2 warring consoles are at your disposal and I thought that it was a good way for kids and their families who can’t afford either consoles to appraise for themselves these 16-bit wonders. Yes, the average Malaysian family simply may not have the purchasing power to afford either console, let alone both. There are considerations to feed the mouths and pay off mounting loans of all shapes and sizes. These video game vendors, while opening a can of worms by openly closing down all chapters of healthy and productive youths as propounded by worried school authorities (who are understandably concerned with truancy and falling grades) and the government, are also offering a considerable, albeit controversial dimension to video gaming. To me, it’s better to play at a small video game station than hang out with the bad hats at video arcades. At least the proprietor has a selling image to protect and would not tolerate any unacceptable vices among youths. They are running a business where parents drop by often, so what was the big deal, anyway?

I do apologise for I’ve digressed – there are limited SNES gamers from what I’ve seen at these video game stations offering these services. The choice was always the Megadrive and even SNES games weren’t that numerous as did the MD nemesis on display. So, I joined the caravan of the Sega short-lived revolution.

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The Megadrive doesn’t have a dedicated library of games in Malaysia, though. When I went video game shopping at BB Plaza and Sungei Wang (reputedly,  these 2 places were the best ones to buy video games), having acquired the Megadrive 2, my disappointment became acute. There were many games, which is well and good – but these games are mostly of the ones you wouldn’t even show off to your friends who may come calling. In terms of volume, if you don’t mind the sort of games you pick up and play, then it’s not a big issue. You could grab RM 100 worth of games and come away with easily 3-4 cartridges of these. Did I mention that they were pirated versions? I guess that I entered the 16-bit craze later than expected but to see nothing in the category of Sonic 2 or 3 was downright disgusting. There were those cheap Chinese language games unofficially manufactured in Taiwan and had sexual themes related to them, something which my parents found most abhorring. There were also those thrashy games which had little to no replayability value and wouldn’t be proud to call friends over to partake in them. It was that awful.

Fortunately, my MD 2 came with the special package of one additional six-button controller (quite useless up till now although it was hands down the better Megadrive controller to handle and to abuse, while at the same time retaining the feel of superior craftsmanship) and also the ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ with complete box and manual. At the time of purchase, I was also given the option between that game and another ‘Mickey Mouse and the Castle of Illusion’ which can accomodate 2 players as opposed to RKA’s single player mode. Still, I instantly fell in love with ‘Rocket Knight’ and took home these goodies. To date, I haven’t regretted choosing RKA over Mickey Mouse which I don’t really like.

As time goes by interest in the Megadrive, however, has also waned and Windows 95 was about to make its debut in the PC world, promising Windows-based applications and games. I’d later join the Windows-games brigade, hardly ever coming back to my beloved Megadrive.

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Elsewhere around the world. the SNES was better acclaimed than the Megadrive/Genesis. According to the Wikipedia entry on the console war, the SNES finished the console war the most victorious with 49 million units sold, whereas the Sega Megadrive emerged clear 2nd with only 29 units sold worldwide. I’m sure that the difference of 20 million surplus SNES owners can’t be all that wrong – so I take it that there should be a reason for that.

Firstly, the SNES had better game controllers. With its standard 4-button layout, there are even additional ‘left’ ‘right’ buttons for additional functions and although their directional pad is inferior to the upgraded Sega Megadrive 6-button controller later, the games which Nintendo could put forth with these functions in mind clearly surpassed the Sega games development teams.

The SNES article on Wikipedia also explains that while the SNES had a CPU half the capability of that of the Megadrive, it makes it up with superior graphics and sound processors, resulting in a more impressive gameplay experience overall where ambience and graphical innovation is concerned.

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Epilogue:

Sadly, I too believe that in 1995, the Sega Megadrive has reached something of a stumbling block and Sega would have to find another way to get itself on the right track. The only thing is – would Sega pull itself out of the Megadrive era gracefully or did it come crashing through the era window in the most clumsy fashion? It turned out that the latter was the more suited approach.

Back in 1990 and 1991, the Megadrive had among the most delectable visuals ever had in video game history. It can beat the 8-bit Nintendo flat on its face and its sound, while having the famous Megadrive ‘sore throat’ while handling higher pitched sounds from the inferior sound chip, can hold its own against other competitors of its day at least until the Nintendo SNES comes out and wows its fans with its clean sound and even luscious graphics.

Let’s face it – we all love to look at beautiful things. That is where the first impression is very important. Sonic the Hedgehog had its growing fanbase eating out of its hands because it had stunning graphics and equally compelling gameplay such as never experienced before. As a 12-year old, seeing my cousin’s Sonic speeding through the famous Green Hill Zone was simply awesome. It didn’t matter that I’ve not really heard of Sega before 1992; the thing is that Sega had a pièce de résistance to win over its new fans by introducing a new dimension in video games. There were fantastic games like the Revenge of Shinobi as well. By applying the same formula from 1991 through to 1994, the Megadrive virtually asserted itself and can lay claim to being ‘the other’ console.

From my point of view, there is little chance that 16-bit consoles (forget the Megadrive for a while) would stand a chance in the mid 1990s. Windows games looked promising – Westwood Studios’ Command and Conquer: Red Alert stole the show in 1996 and 1997 was the definitive year when video games for Windows became standard fare again after the long dominance of console systems. Would the Megadrive age gracefully in the era of next-gen graphics and interactive gameplay?

We need only remember that the Megadrive was not the only 16-bit console which Sega released. The moderately successful Sega Mega-CD was also what we could think of as a supplementary console – to demonstrate the areas where 16-bit machines can actually improve while lessening the effects of its own limitations in sound and sights. Plus, the extra capacity of the compact disc medium had game developers relishing the idea of larger game levels and more sophisticated sound to boot. Unfortunately, the Sega Mega-CD sells at a price more suited for those in the higher echelons of purchasing power. I’ve seen the Sega Mega-CD retailing for RM700+ at the same store where I purchased my Megadrive 2 and truth be told – RM700 is a lot of money even in those days. Besides, what sort of games did the Mega-CD have which could be their major selling point? I learnt that the Mega-CD is a novelty but thought little of it. It turns out that the Sega Mega-CD lacked enough great games to sustain interest in the CD console aside from the lovely Sonic CD.

Sega also released the Sega 32-X add-on (If there is any company truly displaying technological genius, astuteness and foresight, it has got to be Sega; even if little could be said of its management) to give its Megadrive owners a taste of 32-bit action. The 32-X has to be slotted into the Megadrive cartridge slot and technically, it could be assumed to be an add-on rather than a new console in itself. So, now that Sega have pretty much a new avenue to work with; then they could legitimately challenge the Super Nintendo? Wrong.

Part of the problem could be the 32-X’s identity. In Malaysia, I swore that I’ve never seen nor heard before of the 32-X. I’ve recently read articles on the add-on and I think that part of the problem lies in Sega’s clumsy and overanxious attitude in promoting its line of hardware.

Earlier, Sega released the Sega Mega-CD. I think that loyal Sega customers would identify it as the CD-ROM console with superior sound, extended data capacity etc. No issue there. The greatest misfortune which happened on the 32-X is that Sega was not sure as to its reception, as by the time it came out in 1994, the gaming world was abuzz with the prospect of a true 32-bit console (the Sega Saturn), where next-gen capabilities can be experienced. That probably defaced the 32-X’s integrity as the unit to prolong the Megadrive’s life by 2 to 3 years tops. Worse, the 32-X system had some of the most deplorable amount of games ever had for a console, with the only best-seller to date being the strange but reasonably good Knuckles’ Chaotix and the other games not effectively utilizing the 32-X capabilities to the max, meaning that the stock Megadrive/Genesis may likely perform the same.

If you were a video game console purchaser back in 1994, you could expect a wide range of choices. The Megadrive has been in the market for close to 6 years if you take into account its 1988 Japanese release but there are still a cache of good games to feed your interest in it. With the 32-X, you might think that it’s a pretty safe bet that your investment would be sound for another 3 years. Then you got wind that the 32-bit Saturn would be out. With 32-bit systems, there are no pretentious graphics any longer – just well-drawn polygons and more; there would also be superior sound and the games would also encompass different, versatile modes which was only a pipedream back then. Would you wait or would you jump straight into the Megadrive fold knowing that you are confident all along with the choice which you have to make?

Personally, I ‘d go for the Saturn if that were the case but I’m also sure that new consoles command a hefty price during its initial release. While waiting for the price to level out by itself, and this could take as long as 2 years, I could go for the Megadrive first then only head for the Saturn when the time is right. So, if you’re the hypothetical purchaser, you might go for the Megadrive.

The only thing is – the 1994 Megadrive blissful idyll was only to last till 1995 when Hayao Nakayama infamously ordered all Megadrive/Genesis units to cease production. Suddenly, your Megadrive unit is a confirmed dead dinosaur overnight. Or more like orphaned. This meant that support for the unit would not carry on; no more new games may come in the horizon and you could expect that interest in the console would die off quicker than Tommy Page or the New Kids on the Block.

Of course, when I heard that new Megadrive games would no longer be released after 1995 in a video game magazine, I was suitably enraged. Here I was, stuck with a console I’ve earned with my dad’s money and you can’t acquire any more new games for it, other than unofficial, bootleg ones. Where’s the customer loyalty, Sega?

My purchase of the Megadrive 2 was driven by the reasons that:

1) My first impression of the console was good. I had first hand experience playing it at cousin E’s and was never disappointed. I’ve not seen enough of the Nintendo SNES to commit a purchase.

2) There appears to be new games such as Sonic 3 etc. in the future. In that, investing in the console appeared justified. I know very little of SNES games up to that point and I no longer like Mario Bros games as I don’t need to look cute anymore.

3) The price of the Megadrive console in Malaysia was competitive if not cheap. If you work hard and do your scouting around, you may find deals which would make you go home with smiles which won’t get one bit wider. On the other hand, vendor deals concerning SNES consoles are likely to burn a hole in your pocket and having burned your pocket, would also burn your wallet to buy more games which you don’t think are the best yet.

I’d just think that Sega is really a talent-rich company. They have sound foresight of what gamers expect in the future and have the means and the technology to give gamers what they want. The sad thing is – they have abundance of riches at their disposal that they frequently shot themselves in the foot. They were effectively confusing the console market with its many upgrades and add-ons.

When they have finally settled on the Saturn, their customers’ fury at the treatment of the Genesis/Megadrive saga turned them away; when Sega released the wonderful 128-bit Dreamcast which was a technological pioneer of its time, their customers have almost all but abandoned them.

These days, Sega are no longer in the console market. They are primarily into games publishing and developing games for others. Man, you’d also never thought that Megadrive games would someday appear in Nintendo colours, don’t you, with the Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console. Unthinkable during the height of the first most fiercely-fought console war but life is indeed stranger than fiction.

Despite this, I still harbour the distant wish that Sega would someday re-enter the console market. It’s not that they aren’t capable of the technology it’s just something else which their management should sweat about. When Sega do release another worthy console proudly displaying their famous blue logo, you can expect me to scrimp and save for it.

Links:

1. Sega-16.com – The Complete Online Resource for Everything Genesis/Megadrive
2. Sega Memories
3. Sega Fans
4. Sega Nerds – Kicking Ass, One Plumber at a Time
5. Segagaga Domain
6. skillreactor.org

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