The Mega Drive is 20 years old today! SEGA's 16-bit behemoth launched in Japan on 29th October, 1988, and we'll be toasting its anniversary on Eurogamer over the next week, kicking off with this look back at the console itself. It's only right that we celebrate this milestone, since no-one was blowing up balloons or sticking up banners when the poor thing first arrived. There was no gap in the games market in 1988, and no room for new hardware.
SEGA's Master System had performed pretty well in a few territories, but not the ones a gaming power needed to dominate. Japan and the US were far too enamoured with the NES to pay much attention to any other hardware, and SEGA had allowed a lacklustre, disinterested alliance with Tonka to push the 8-bit console into obscurity and minority cult-worship, piling up hardware and game cartridges in warehouses with no real thoughts on what to do with them.
It's something of a consumer tradition that technically superior hardware doesn't necessarily win out, and the Master System found itself grazing in pastures alongside Betamax and 8-track tapes. The extra memory, dual-format games, the 3D glasses - none of these features could break through the Nintendo culture that had formed tightly around the games industry. But it wasn't all bad luck and marketing; the truth was that by the time SEGA bothered to launch the Master System in the UK, it was already into development of a console it had far more interest in - the MK1601. You'll remember it better as the Mega Drive.
It's well known as a 16-bit system, but that's like saying 'a four wheel drive car'; it tells you nothing about the other features that really made the hardware stand out. The Mega Drive was indeed 16-bit - making incredible use of the Motorola 68000 CPU - but its powerhouse brain was shored up by an equally muscular body. Sound processing was handled separately, reducing load on the processor so it could dedicate itself to powering arcade-quality games. The 512-strong colour palette ensured those games leapt off the screen, while a dedicated video processor threw huge sprites about in a way only previously managed in the arcades.
Impressive as this sexy black number was on schematic paper, SEGA had learned from experience that technical specifications didn't fit on a price-tag or advert. So it readied itself in the background with a hidden army of arcade ports ready to march under the Mega Drive banner. The arcades were enjoying a revival, and although SEGA struggled to penetrate the home market, it had conquered the commercial sector with some outstanding coin-op titles. The majority of these were built on the popular System 16 architecture, a platform almost identical to the new Mega Drive, and not by coincidence.
So SEGA was somewhat surprised when it released this incredible revolution in home gaming to the Japanese market and was met with a resounding silence. SEGA's native gamers had NES cartridges piled to the ceiling, and were more infatuated by NEC's PC Engine released one year previous almost to the day.
Moving fewer than half a million units in its first year of life, it was reasonable to believe - as the competition did - that SEGA had simply built a more powerful Master System, that would soon be unceremoniously forsaken in exactly the same manner. But SEGA still had the US market to test and - after the disastrous results of recruiting a toy manufacturer rather than a videogame developer to sell the Master System - initially set about forging a relationship with Atari to deliver the console across America. If the licensing deal hadn't broken down after SEGA of America and Jack Tramiel failed to see eye to eye, Atari would have controlled not only SEGA's presence in the US market, but also been able to actively position its own 7800 console ahead of the competition.
When the deal fell apart, SEGA decided to put its native distribution experience to use in America and marketed the Mega Drive itself. Rebranded Genesis, to avoid a naming conflict in the US, it beat the PC Engine (rebranded as the TurboGrafx-16) to the shelves by a matter of days in August of 1989. But Nintendo had a tight rein on its third parties, who buckled quickly under suggestions that developing for SEGA could cost them valuable NES licences. So SEGA only had its own coin-ops to fall back on when it wanted to show off the arcade quality of Mega Drive games.
Coin-op conversion Altered Beast was bundled with the console and it proved the point SEGA needed to make. It had to demonstrate the power of the Mega Drive without turning off young consumers with sterile talk about 16-bit processors and dedicated video drivers. The huge, detailed characters of Altered Beast provided this demonstration, and angled the Mega Drive for a unique market attack.
SEGA was pulling in its coin-op licences, which ran like a dream on the Drive, but there weren't enough to conquer the mountain of power Nintendo sat upon. So instead of turning to big name games, SEGA turned simply to big names. With EA's help the Mega Drive launched a series of big-money, big-name licensed sports titles across America. The Japanese parent company balked at the decision to pay millions in royalties to sports personalities such as Joe Montana, Arnold Palmer and Buster Douglas. But it paid off in droves, and not only for SEGA.
Third-party developers were shackled by an oppressive licensing system required to make games for the NES. Nintendo held all the keys and there was no real alternative for reaching gamers. It was a case of pay, or they can't play. At least until the Mega Drive came along. Considering the early experience it gained working on the sports games, Electronic Arts decided it was going to create its own, unlicensed Mega Drive games before SEGA had time to put any security restrictions into the US console, but out of courtesy it first approached the new hardware distributor and laid its plans out in the open.
SEGA astonished EA with a far more reasonable and open licensing agreement that allowed third parties to develop as many games as they wanted and to operate their own quality control procedures. Players had seen the arcade quality games the Mega Drive was capable of, but it was a particularly fulfilling dream for third-party developers. In retrospect, getting the game designers who'd been systematically abused by Nintendo for several years onside was the crowbar SEGA needed to prise open the games market.
The install base was small, but the freedom to create was huge, and that's all the game developers needed. The Mega Drive was a massively superior machine to the NES in technical terms, but now it was also superior financially. And this coup against the industry regime spread beyond the Mega Drive; thanks to SEGA's new presence in one small corner of the market, Nintendo's totalitarian policies would no longer sustain themselves as the new generation of games systems cautiously moved in.
There's a strong temptation at this point to pour praise and salutation upon Sonic the Hedgehog. Indeed he was a powerful force behind the Mega Drive as well as starring in one of the finest games ever made, but in truth his arrival in 1991 was the culmination of well-played marketing strategies on behalf of SEGA of America. Sonic was a twist in the tale, brought in at the end of a struggle that saw SEGA wrestle dominance from Nintendo and share it out across the games industry. To gamers the Mega Drive was a great new machine that brought as much credibility into their living rooms as it did arcade quality games, but to the games industry it was a freedom fighter, and an engine of revolution.
The long-awaited Super NES struggled to displace the Mega Drive due to release delays and, to be frank, sour grapes on the part of suspicious developers. And, at every turn, SEGA's shrewd marketing strategies kept it one step ahead. When Nintendo released its annual Mario game, SEGA slashed the price of the console to practically sell it at cost (with Sonic thrown in for good measure), and the Mega Drive spread like a wonderful, silicon virus across Europe and South America. Even the Master System received some overdue attention as conversions of Mega Drive games were made to support the faithful gamers who still cradled a hand-polished square joypad.
But the corporate mind is singular in purpose, and the perceptive tactics SEGA had employed to establish the Mega Drive duped the company into focusing, once again, on hardware saturation. The Mega Drive was dissected and tested like a laboratory rat, with accessory after peripheral after redesign butchering the system's purity into some kind of repulsive amalgam. The Mega-CD and 32X add-ons were both reasonable concepts, intended to prolong the life of the Mega Drive now the SNES had technical superiority, but concentrating on so much hardware (with concept projects Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all bouncing around SEGA R&D) the games giant casually overlooked the software needed to support these peripherals. With a lack of quality games to shore them up, the two accessories quickly fell among thieves.
SEGA immediately embraced the bad habit that would eventually cause it to pull out of the hardware market all together. Instead of returning its attention to the still successful Mega Drive, and continuing to promote the incredible games that had shunted the system into first place, it assumed that more add-ons and technical improvements were the answer. As rumours of the Saturn project increased in the background a slew of Mega Drive alternatives and redesigns attempted to wring the last few drops of blood from the once great stone. Gradually, the thrice-bastardised Mega Drive became something of a joke without a punch line - unceremoniously forsaken once the Saturn came along. Or so it seemed.
Way back in 1987, when SEGA was first designing the Mega Drive, the Brazilian company TecToy was founded to build electronic toys for the South American markets. It landed the contract to become SEGA's local representative, and over time SEGA gradually allowed it to manufacture gaming hardware that had fizzled out in other regions. Since this was a part of the globe that had been almost completely ignored by the games industry, officially produced Master Systems and Mega Drives became immensely popular, to the point that TecToy still builds (and sells) variations on the hardware today.
And it's not alone. The retro revival culture that hit with the millennium saw the Mega Drive's glory restored. Plug-and-play TV games brought Sonic and friends racing back to our screens, teams of dedicated home-brew programmers have spent years celebrating SEGA franchises like Streets Of Rage, and once-bitter rival Nintendo relies on it to populate its online games catalogue for the Wii. Even handheld versions of the classic system are finally reaching their potential more than a decade after the Nomad failed to make a dent on the collapsing Mega Drive market.
As its 20th anniversary rolls around we find ourselves in a very different videogame world, but the Mega Drive is undeniably one of the most solid parts of the modern industry's foundations. This is a machine that's earned its place in history and weathered as many bad times as good. Its hardware legacy might be somewhat shrouded in absurdity, but the games it made possible will be remembered as the pinnacle of 16-bit arcade gaming.