Tuesday, 29 October 2013

25 Years of the Sega MegaDrive

Saturday 29th October, 1988. 25 years ago today the Sega MegaDrive (or Genesis if you lived in North America) got released in Japan. It promised high definition graphics, stereo sound, and had enough power to make the competition - the Famicom (the eponymous Nintendo Entertainment System in the West) and NEC's PC Engine melt before Sega's technological white heat. Unfortunately, both companies had the home Japanese market sewn up. It was overseas where the MegaDrive's sun rose high into the sky.

The North American gaming market was even more gaga than Japan for the NES. At one point Nintendo had a 90% share to brag about. This was because Nintendo carefully recreated demand for video games in the wake of the 1983 North American video game crash by pursuing two canny strategies. First, their system was marketed as a toy. Its accessories, its shape, the fact you inserted "game paks" (not cartridges) into a flip up front loader as you would a VCR were ploys designed to persuade sceptical parents suspicious of shoddy games consoles that it was anything but. Second, knowing the reason for the crash was down to the glut of appalling games on the market, Nintendo imposed strict terms on software companies publishing for their system. A licence restricted them to no more than five titles a year (though certain firms were allowed to circumvent the rule by publishing through front companies), and they had to buy the proprietary game paks direct from Nintendo. A further clause in licensees' contracts stipulated they were not allowed to republish games they had already released on the NES for other platforms within two years of issue.

These restrictive - and now illegal - practices ensured Nintendo's dominance during the latter half of the 80s. But it also meant the MegaDrive's predecessor, the Sega Master System, fell foul of the monopoly. Though technically superior to the NES, restrictive licensing meant virtually no one in North America apart from Sega themselves backed it. Matters weren't helped by Sega giving Tonka the marketing and distribution rights - a bit like making a special advisor with no teaching qualifications nor classroom experience the head of a school. And so, it sank.

Meanwhile, in Europe matters were rather different. The bottom did not fall out of video games in the early 80s. In fact, the scene was thriving and was dominated by home computers. First there were the much-loved Sinclair Spectrum, the Commodore 64, and the Amstrad CPC464 and from the mid-80s they uneasily co-existed with the more expensive 16 bit beasts: the Atari ST and Commodore's Amiga. Sega released the Master System across key European markets over 1986 and 1987 and, despite having games costing ten times as much as their Speccy and C64 competitors (and twice as much as ST and Amiga software) it did very well. By the turn of the decade Sega were the leading games console manufacturer in Europe. Nintendo, for once, were the also-rans.

Despite the two different markets, the MegaDrive went on to do very well in both. In North America Sega very aggressively marketed the machine with its infamous Genesis Does commercials. In Europe a slightly different tack was taken. Perhaps slagging off the opposition would have fallen foul of advertising standards, so the initial advertising run concentrated on the power lurking within the MegaDrive's supercool-looking case.

The truth was, technically speaking, the Amiga outclassed Sega's machine in the graphics and sound departments. But Sega knew how to make theirs perform better than software houses churning out floppy discs by the skipload. Side-by-side MegaDrive games looked miles ahead of anything available in American and European homes at that time, and the  'free' pack-in game reflected that. Altered Beast was a minor Sega arcade hit that had been converted to all the main computer formats (and the Master System). Compare. Here's the Amiga version. Now witness the Mega Drive game. An amazing difference. But it wasn't just this. Try Strider. See Out Run. Gawp at Ghouls 'n' Ghosts. And Golden Axe. The gap in performance is cavernous. In this regard, including Altered Beast was a smart move. It's an easy game to pick up and play. It's two player. It closely resembled the arcade original. And it hinted at the potential curled up in the MegaDrive's circuitry.

In North America, aggressive marketing and celebrity endorsements paid off. Nintendo had the software houses locked down, but Sega had a clutch of original titles, a library of exclusive arcade conversions and, crucially, the now-reviled-but-then-upstart Electronic Arts. Slowly at first, but then rapidly Nintendo's market share fell back to the point Sega became the predominant video gaming power. In Europe, and particularly Britain, the MegaDrive was much cheaper than its 16 bit computer competition. At launch the it was £199.99, quickly falling to £149.99 and then £129.99. The ST and Amiga at that time weighed in at £260 and £300 respectively. It would appear Sega's achilles heel would be the retail price of the games, which then ranged between £29.99 and £49.99 (Phantasy Star II was £60 upon its 1990 Western release!) Typical full price ST and Amiga games were £14.99 - £19.99. But the obvious leap in quality, and gaming press hype around arcade-style perfection (which was almost true) saw the home computers off in short order.

Two years after the MegaDrive's Japanese release, Nintendo replied by releasing its own 16 bit monster, the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo/SNES to Western gamers). And it was truly a beast. It had over 32,000 colours (compared to the Mega Drive's 512). Its sound was near-CD quality. It had hardware allowing Mode Seven effects. And most importantly, its initial wave of games were quite simply some of the greatest pieces of software ever written. In Japan, capitalising on the Famicom's installed user base Nintendo swatted the MegaDrive away as a minor irritant and latterly overtook the PC Engine. Sega were determined that would not happen in the other territories. The company had to up its game. On June 23rd 1991 it did.

Sonic the Hedgehog was specifically designed as a Mario-style mascot that would give Sega a marketing edge and a must-have reason for buying a MegaDrive. And it worked. From the moment "SAY-GA!" screams out of your TV to the final animation of Dr Robotnik at game's end, Sonic the Hedgehog is an absolute masterpiece of game design. If you wanted to be uncharitable, Nintendo's mascot - Mario, the fat moustachioed plumber - was tired and plodding, Sonic was all about sharp looks and speed. The upcoming Super Mario World was a sprawling game you could lose yourself in. Sonic was a fast, tightly plotted and superbly programmed joyride. Putting them together, Mario appeared samey. Sure, the graphics were an upgrade on the classic Super Mario Bros 3 on the NES, but it looked like there was little new. Sonic was a total departure from any platform game that went before it. Never before were levels designed around a speeding protagonist. And matching it was a supremely catchy soundtrack and absolutely sumptuous visuals. It has its sequels but none of Sonic's successors quite matched the beauty - yes, beauty - of the original. The vibrant colours, the brilliantly realised in-game sprites, the amazing sense of speed, the fantastic music, none of it would have mattered if it was a dog to play. But it wasn't. Left, right and jump are the only controls you need to get to grips with Sonic and off you go.

The screenshots in Computer and Video Games left my teenaged self amazed. When I saw it running for the first time at the local import specialist, I was agog. It was August 1991. I gave up all thought of saving for an Amiga and promptly splashed out on my Mega Drive (which came with Altered Beast as per), and picked up Star Control with it. My third purchase, however, was good old Sonic. It is a game one appreciates more as one gets older and it is still, for my money, one of the best-looking video games ever released on any format. And yes, that's inclusive of Skyrim.

It worked for me. It worked for millions of kids across Europe and North America. Despite the stellar launch line up, despite the full power of Nintendo's hype machine weighing in behind it, it was actually that year Sega carved out the lion's share of the video game market, outselling the Super Nintendo two-to-one that Christmas. By the start of 1992 in Europe the ST and Amiga were properly on their way out. Changing the pack-in game from Altered Beast to the new premium product really shifted the units - the SNES would never catch up.

I came to the Mega Drive while it was just entering the golden age of the 16-bit wars, where the tight competition with Nintendo produced brilliant title after brilliant title for both machines. And not forgetting a fair few stinkers too. But this is more than just a self-satisfied meander down memory lane. The MegaDrive was more significant to video game history than fodder for the wistful nostalgia of twenty, thirty, and forty-somethings.

In the first place, the MegaDrive's significance lies in its breaking Nintendo's stranglehold in North America. Not only did it topple them from pole position, it showed there was a viable, commercial alternative to restrictive licensing practices. Sure, Sega tried pulling the same trick, but intransigence from EA, a costly court case with unlicensed publishers Accolade, and judgements going against Nintendo meant an end to the restrictions. This may have happened if the MegaDrive hadn't been a success, but competition empowered third party software houses to get from under the licensing yoke and renegotiate terms.

The second, from a European point of view, was the death of the popular home computer. The MegaDrive's low price point and stunning-looking (and playing!) games were beyond anything available on the ST and Amiga. They might have had a few fancy fight sims and role playing games to boast about, but that was not where the mass market was at. When the Super Nintendo finally arrived in 1992 the market by then had shifted firmly towards game consoles as the platform of choice - a state of affairs that has carried on up to this day. Sega did this. The little black box is responsible.

Thirdly, Sega knew how to market their machine. Even when the SNES was establishing itself in North America, Sega kept the momentum going through yet more attack ads. In Britain it ran a slick, zeitgeisty marketing campaign. It may look hopelessly 90s now, but then, believe me, this shit was edgy. At least where video game advertising was concerned. Remember the Super Nintendo adverts from the period? Didn't think so.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, Sega knew gamers were growing up. Another date. September 13th, 1993. This was 'Mortal Monday', ground zero of the home versions of  Mortal Kombat, the infamous and gratuitously violent fighting game franchise. Nintendo, in-keeping with their family-friendly branding demanded publishers Acclaim removed the blood and hilarious 'fatality' end moves from the SNES and Game Boy games. Sega kept both. This divergence played nicely into Sega's hands. Their machine was cool. It was black, swish, fast. It catered for grown-ups. The SNES was grey, blocky, slow, and was really for the kiddy-winks. This wasn't true, of course. The MegaDrive had more than its fair share of cutesy platformers. The SNES had plenty of violent video games. But perceptions matter. Sega had the hip machine. Nintendo didn't.

Unfortunately for Sega, their success with the MegaDrive was fleeting. Forays into costly add-ons and their panicky early launch of the successor console, the powerful but ill-fated Saturn inflicted severe reputational damage on Sega's brand among the buying public and third party software providers. The strategy of slick marketing and targeting older/adult gamers was a torch they ruinously passed to Sony. In this respect it is not the Saturn but Sony's PlayStation that is the Mega Drive's spiritual and cultural successor. Sega fans have been ruing the company's daft decisions for two decades. And we still do.

Today of all days is not one to mourn the ghost of hardware manufacturers past. It is about celebration. So, why not join the nostalgia fest? Whatever you're doing, if you've got a Mega Drive or Genesis at home dust it off like I did mine a couple of years ago, or, if you must, emulate! Raise a glass to 25 years of this highly significant bit of kit. Throw in Sonic. Throw in whatever you fancy and ride on the 16-bit wild side. You will not regret it.


Evan said...

Did you read Mean Machines magazine during this period? It was always my impression that SNES was seen as superior to the Mega Drive and that the debate was over whether the SNES or Amiga were better.

Apart from Mortal Kombat and Sonic, what did the Mega Drive have? Nothing that rivalled Super Mario Kart or Street Fighter II (in mu humble opinion).

You haven't mentioned the Mega CD, which was a big deal back in the early 1990s, but went bust pretty soon.

Phil said...

Of course I read Mean Machines! It was a classic mag!

I think they did a very skilful job keeping a multi-format mag of antagonistic stables going for as long as they did. It was great seeing what 'the enemy' were getting, and it is why I lusted after a SNES as well. A desire I'm happy to say I sated a couple of years ago when I finally picked one up.

How you experienced the 16 bit wars depended on where you were, I guess. In my school it was very much the PC vs the Amiga vs the Mega Drive. For whatever reason no one had a SNES. Whereas for one of my comrades in sarf London, everyone had a NES or a SNES and he didn't know anyone with a Mega Drive. Funny old world.

As for rivalling the SNES, considering the Mega Drive was way technologically inferior (apart from the processor, of course) it had Streets of Rage 2 for starters - probably the best scrolling beat em up ever created. Virtua Racing also put the Super FX chip firmly in the shade. Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III were topper, Hellfire was amaze. And, of course, Contra Hard Corps/Probotector is reputedly better than Contra III/Super Probotector. And the Mega Drive has Streetfighter II too. The difference is its version does not slow down :P

But yes, there were a load of SNES games unmatched on Sega's machine, and vice versa. It's one of them that will never be scientifically proven either way thanks to the lovely nostalgia we drape over them.