Sega may be a name that many people readily associate with videogame brilliance, but when you seriously think about it, they've only really had one universally successful machine - the Mega Drive (Genesis to our American readers).
The Saturn and Dreamcast may have garnered critical support but they died a sad, painful death at retail and the 8-bit Master System was virtually ignored outside of Europe. It's hard to deny that much of Sega's reputation is down to the classic 16-bit console and the wide range of quality software released for it.
Released in Japan in 1988, the sleek black 16-bit powerhouse got off to something of a slow start. Squaring up against the dominance of Nintendo's 8-bit Famicom and the rapidly emerging PC Engine from NEC (released a year earlier), Sega's new console initially struggled to find a place in the Japanese market. However, thanks to some superb conversions of hit arcade titles like Golden Axe, Ghouls 'n' Ghosts and Super Monaco GP, it started to carve out a respectable niche in the sales charts. However, it's worth noting that at this point the Mega Drive was not seen as a massive success for the company. That would have to wait for the US release of the machine.
The story was a similar one Stateside - Nintendo were the company to beat. Due to a copyright issue regarding the name 'Mega Drive' (and not because Sega hoped to attract Phil Collins fans), the name of the console was changed to 'Genesis'. Sega of America were far more ruthless than Sega of Japan and the early adverts attacked the rival company, boasting that 'Genesis does what Nintendon't'. The machine was aimed at gamers that had grown up with the NES and now wanted something more edgy and 'cool'.
The combination of high-profile arcade conversions and heavily licensed sports titles helped Sega win a massive slice of the US videogame market, and the Genesis successfully saw off the rather limp challenge of the Turbografx (the American version of the previously mentioned PC Engine). The European launch of the console also went according to plan and it wasn't until Nintendo unleashed their 16-bit 'Super' Nintendo console that the Sega had anything to worry about. Even then, they amazed skeptics by going toe-to-toe with Nintendo - something that during the NES era would have been virtually unthinkable. Much of this success was down to one thing - Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sega knew that they needed a mascot to boost the profile of both the company and the Mega Drive (monkey-boy Alex Kidd was the previous choice, but he had faltered in the face of Nintendo's Mario). The answer was a blue hedgehog named Sonic. Faster than a speeding bullet, he quickly entered the hearts and minds of gamers worldwide and for a short while became the face of videogames, pushing the decidedly 'uncool' Mario into second place. The high point was undoubtedly the release of the second Sonic game, which was shipped worldwide on what came to be known as 'Sonic Twos-day'. Yes, it was on a Tuesday, in case you were wondering.
Of course, the console enjoyed other hit titles too. Although it could be argued that the SNES had more 3rd party support and a better range of software, the Mega Drive seemed to be made with a different kind of gamer in mind. Titles like Gunstar Heroes, Comix Zone, Streets of Rage 2, Alien Soldier, Ranger X, Thunderforce IV and Revenge of Shinobi had a different edge to them when compared to the output found on Nintendo's machines. Although the Mega Drive was in many ways technically inferior to the rival SNES, with less colourful graphics and crude sound capabilities, it did boast a faster CPU and this allowed for some frantic and action packed games. The system was flooded with brilliant 2D shooters, whereas Nintendo's console (produced with a slower CPU in order to keep costs down) catered for more sedate experiences, like platformers and RPGs. Thankfully the market was big enough to contain both machines and a spirited rivalry appeared that has seldom been experienced since.
Sega later augmented the power of the Mega Drive with some ill-fated peripherals - the Mega CD (released in the States as the Sega CD) and the 32X. Although there were highlights (such as an excellent home port of Capcom's Final Fight on the Mega CD and Star Wars Arcade on the 32X) these two catastrophic add-ons did much to damage public opinion and consequently many gamers turned away from Sega when they announced the 32-bit Saturn. Thankfully, lucky Wii owners can gloss over the bad times and enjoy the games that made the Mega Drive so great.