The rise and fall of Sega Enterprises is a classic tale of hard-won success being scuppered by a bewildering lack of focus and an incredible degree of overconfidence. The company scored an almost impossible victory by bloodying the nose of the all-powerful Nintendo in the early '90s and was arguably the first console maker to bring an edgy, mature vibe to its software output, but by the end of the decade Sega's reputation lay in tatters and it was forced to exit the home hardware arena, instead concentrating on software publishing.
The reasons for Sega's spectacular fall from grace are many, but for a lot of fans the rot began with the Mega CD - or Sega CD as it was branded in North America. Expensive to own and under-supported when it came to quality games, this add-on device was intended to combat the newly-released SNES and give the Mega Drive / Genesis a much-needed injection of processing power. Instead, it served to fracture the market and annoy those loyal Sega supporters who were keen enough to commit to the machine's massive price tag. Taking all of this into account, you might assume that the Mega CD is a poor choice for a Hardware Classics feature, but like any system, it still attracts a passionate following - and we're not ashamed to admit we consider ourselves to be among that number here at Nintendo Life.
Rumours regarding a CD-ROM attachment for Sega's 16-bit console started very early on in the decade, which is unsurprising when you consider that NEC and Hudson Soft had already performed the same trick with the PC Engine in 1988, the year the Mega Drive launched in Japan. At the time, CD-ROM tech was still seen as cutting-edge, offering an incredible storage advantage over expensive cartridges. Other benefits included CD-quality audio, speech and very basic FMV video - all things NEC included in its PC Engine CD-ROM² attachment. Sega began development on its own unit shortly after the launch of the Mega Drive, with NEC being the obvious rival. Taking inspiration from its range of popular arcade titles such as After Burner and OutRun, Sega incorporated scaling and rotational effects into the hardware - something that gave the system some degree of parity with Nintendo's 16-bit Super Famicom (SNES in North America), which hit Japanese stores at the end of 1990 and boasted "Mode 7" effects that would be used to excellent effect in titles like F-Zero and Pilotwings.
The Mega CD's Japanese launch in 1991 was a positive one, with systems selling briskly despite the rather lofty 49,800 Yen ($415 / £270 / €372) retail price. However, unlike North America and Europe - where Sega's install base was much higher - its Japanese audience was too small to maintain this momentum and sales dropped off rapidly - only 100,000 units were sold in the territory during its first year, whereas NEC shifted 80,000 PC Engine CD-ROM² units in half that time. It was clear to Sega that the West would be where the system's impact would be most important, and the US release duly took place in 1992. Retailing for $299, the rechristened Sega CD sold 200,000 units by the end of the year, with production issues preventing it from further commercial success. A European release took place the following year, with 60,000 systems finding their way into consumer's homes by August 1993.
With the launch out of the way, Sega's next task was to supply software that would not only pacify those who had shelled out a considerable amount of cash for the system, but also attract sceptical gamers still unconvinced by the merits of CD-ROM tech. Sega teamed with Digital Pictures - a company which specialised in FMV titles - to bring a series of games to the platform, the most infamous of which was Night Trap. Attacked at the time for its perceived presentation of violence against scantily-clad women, the game was vilified in US Congress and earned an 15 age rating in the UK. This turned the game into a hot property with players, but the fact that it was little more than a series of grainy video clips that boasted very limited interaction ensured that it was never destined to become a classic, but rather an interesting footnote in the history of video game age classification. Other FMV titles - such as Sewer Shark, Road Avenger and Time Gal - had their fans at the time, but they could hardly have been described as killer apps, even back in the early '90s. FMV was a cheap parlour trick that offered little in the way of gameplay innovation.
Sega would provide the most appealing reason to pick up a Mega CD in 1993 when it launched the sublime Sonic CD. Rightly regarded as one of the blue hedgehog's finest moments, this 2D platform adventure offered an amazing FMV intro, CD-quality music and massive levels which changed in appearance depending on what time zone you happened to occupy. Another big-name Sega release was Final Fight CD, a reprogrammed version of the Capcom's smash-hit arcade title that had launched alongside the Super Famicom in Japan. Final Fight CD gave Sega followers the ammo they needed to win playground arguments with their Nintendo-loving friends; the SNES edition of Final Fight lacked the two-player mode and was missing a character - Guy - as well as an entire level. Given the massive storage space afforded by CD, the Sega conversion suffered no such cuts, and even today is considered to be one of the best domestic ports of the game ever made. Sega also produced many other excellent titles for the system, such as Shining Force CD and Sega Arcade Classics Collection - a selection of classic Mega Drive titles packed onto a single CD which was bundled with some models of the add-on.
Elsewhere, third party titles like Lunar: The Silver Star, Popful Mail, Snatcher, Thunderhawk, Silpheed, Robo Aleste and Keio Flying Squadron were all well worth owning, but it was clear that publisher support for the system was nowhere near as robust as it should have been. The Mega CD suffered from a lack of truly essential titles, with many of its games being little more than the standard Mega Drive edition with added music and FMV sequences. Wolf Team's side-scrolling shooter Sol-Feace - a launch title in Japan and mooted as a true demonstration of the system's capabilities - would see a largely intact cartridge release shortly afterwards, and Batman Returns - arguably one of the Mega CD's best releases - was merely the cartridge version with special Batmobile driving sections thrown in.
Despite sluggish sales, Sega revised the Mega CD hardware twice during its lifespan - the Mega CD 2 launched alongside the remodelled Mega Drive 2 in 1993, while the all-in-one Multi-Mega (known as the Genesis CDX in North America) would combine the base console with the CD-ROM hardware, creating one of the most desirable - and insanely expensive - systems of the era. Sega also allowed tech firm JVC to produce its own all-in-one system in the shape of the Wondermega, which would be launched in North America as the X'Eye in 1994 to little commercial success.
No doubt you've built up a pretty negative picture of Sega's ill-fated CD-ROM add-on by now, but as ever, how a system performs in purely commercial terms isn't always a reflection on how beloved it is by its devoted fans. For many veterans of the 16-bit console war, Final Fight CD was practically reason enough to invest in the attachment; back in the early '90s there were many individuals who would have gladly donated vital organs in order to get a near-arcade perfect version of Capcom's brawling masterpiece in their home, and after the disappointment of the SNES version, this really did fit the bill in every way imaginable. Sonic CD is arguably one of the best 16-bit games ever - hence its conversion to a wide range of modern platforms, including Android and iOS - while the Mega CD edition of Konami's Snatcher - the brainchild of Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima - remains the only English-language version of the game, and continues to be in high demand on the secondary market. Other games - like the visually stunning Silpheed and the Parodius-like Keio Flying Squadron - are perhaps less essential, but still made plenty of Mega CD owners feel a bit better about their purchase back in the '90s.
The Mega CD was unquestionably a poor move by Sega, but it was merely one mistake in a long line of catastrophic fumbles. The Mega Drive 32X add-on was arguably even more disastrous, and with the underpowered 32-bit Saturn, Sega effectively entered a console war that it simply could not win. By the time the underrated Dreamcast was launched in 1998, Sega Enterprises was already on life-support and with the dawn of a new millennium the company was forced to make drastic changes in order to survive. Sega's many missteps might look obvious given the benefit of hindsight, but that doesn't stop the Mega CD from effortlessly entering our Hardware Classics series. It might not have provided as many thrills and spills as the SNES or even its bolt-on companion the Mega Drive, but it still deserves a place in any discerning gamer's collection.