Hardware Classics: Sega Mega Drive

The genesis of Sega's superstardom

It's fitting that the first non-Nintendo entry in our Hardware Classics series should be the Sega Mega Drive. This sleek 16-bit powerhouse remains Sega's most commercially successful console, having shifted around 40 million units globally. Famous for being the first console to challenge Nintendo's dominance in North America — where it was christened the Sega Genesis — it played host to a wide range of amazing games, including the debut of Sonic the Hedgehog, arguably Sega's most renowned and enduring creation. Released in 1988 in Japan, the Mega Drive never really caught on in its homeland and was relegated to third place behind Nintendo and PC Engine creator NEC. It would be the console's western launch which would propel it to real success, with the North American console going toe-to-toe with the Super Nintendo console. In Europe — where the machine would retain the Mega Drive moniker — it enjoyed even more popularity, thanks to Sega's impressive stranglehold on that particular region.

Throughout the course of the console's life Sega was quick to embrace new technology — certainly more so that its rival Nintendo. The Mega CD launched in 1991 in Japan and 1992 in the US, and the increased storage space allowed developers to add animated cut-scenes, extra levels and CD-quality music to their games. However, it failed to live up to its potential and outside of a handful of desirable titles — Sonic CD being perhaps the most notable — it remains something of a curiosity. Even less successful was the ill-fated 32X, a bolt-on device which attempted to bridge the gap between the Mega Drive and its 32-bit successor, the Sega Saturn. These missteps eroded consumer confidence in the Sega brand, something which would prove fatal by the time the Sony PlayStation arrived on the scene. Mistakes aside, the Sega Mega Drive remains a legendary system. It's ergonomic joypad was a revolution for the time, offering increased comfort when compared to the boxy NES and Sega Master System controllers. It also offered backward compatibility with Sega's previous system thanks to the Power Base Converter, which allowed Mega Drive owners access to hundreds of Master System titles.

Sega's skill as an arcade developer helped flesh out the Mega Drive's software selection considerably; a string of high-profile conversions such as Golden Axe, Alien Storm, Super Monaco GP and After Burner set standards. Other coin-op ports — such as Capcom's Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Forgotten Worlds, MERCS and Strider — were also handled by Sega, with equally striking results. However, Sega's domestic exclusives were just as impressive; titles such as Streets of Rage, Revenge of Shinobi and Shining Force proved that when it was firing on all cylinders, the company was more than a match for Nintendo's talented designers. Third-party support was less effusive than on the Super Nintendo, but games such as Gunstar Heroes, MUSHA and Monster World IV — the latter a superb collaboration between Sega and Westone — kept fans happy. In North America and Europe, the console benefited from support from super-publisher Electronic Arts, which released million-selling franchises such as Madden, FIFA and NHL Hockey to the console, as well as critical hits like Road Rash and Desert Strike.

Although the Mega Drive's pad looks primitive when compared to the Super Nintendo's iconic joypad, the circular "rolling" D-pad is arguably more responsive and is ideal for smooth, precise movements. Sega attempted to catch up in the "button war" by launching a smaller six-button pad to coincide with the conversion of Capcom's Street Fighter II. Released at launch, the robust Arcade Power Stick represented another link with Sega's arcade heritage; the heavy, micro-switched joystick was a big change from the plastic controllers that were so commonplace at the time. To counter the launch of the Nintendo Super Scope for the SNES, Sega released a copycat light-gun called The Menacer, but it failed to gain any traction due to a dearth of quality software. Towards the end of the console's lifespan, Sega was working on a Virtual Reality headset which would never see the light of day — despite reaching quite an advanced stage of development.

Collecting for the Mega Drive today is relatively easy, thanks to the popularity of the console. Like the Super Nintendo, hardware is common and cheap, and software is just as abundant on auction sites. There are certain titles which remain highly collectable and command steep prices. Many Japan-exclusive releases — such as Gley Lancer, Panorama Cotton, Battle Mania 2, Eliminate Down, Slap Fight MD and Snow Bros — sell for eye-watering prices, and their value is only going to creep upwards as copies get snapped up by savvy collectors. The plastic cases used for Mega Drive software ensure that collecting for the console is easier than it is for the Super Nintendo, which utilised more fragile cardboard boxes. Japanese Mega Drive box-art makes that region's games even more desirable; as you can see from the examples shown here, there are some truly beautiful pieces of art adorning the covers of many Japanese releases.

Given the Nintendo focus of this site, it seems almost odd to speak so glowingly about a rival piece of hardware, but we're prepared to make an exception for the Sega Mega Drive. It may have been a deadly adversary for the SNES, but it also delivered some of the best games of the 16-bit era — many of which are now available on the Wii Virtual Console. Sega and Nintendo have now put their differences behind them and have even collaborated on games such as F-Zero GX and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, but fans of a certain age will no doubt retain fond memories of the 16-bit console wars and the amazing software which appeared from both firms as a result.