How Sega’s Mega Drive Made Modern Gaming What It Is Today

Sega's 16bit machine set a whole bunch of precedents that the games world is still following.

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27 November 2014, 6:00am

Blueprints of the Mega Drive (Image courtesy of Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works)

There is a new Book of Genesis, a hardback that's bursting with throwback pleasures. ​Read Only Memory's Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works is a comprehensive compendium of colourful pixel work, revealing blueprints, detailed interviews, concept art and cover illustrations. It is, probably, the definitive tome for anyone who ever loved Sega's 16bit machine – and who owns a table sturdy enough to rest it on between reads.

As a Sega kid in my teenage years, I don't need much of an excuse to revisit games that I could easily lose a week to perfecting in days gone by. ROM's new book is reason enough to have another crack at Sonic The Hedgehog 3 (seriously, I don't remember ever being this bad at it – game over on the second Hydrocity zone), Streets of Rage II (still the best music on the Mega Drive) and Golden Axe (why do I struggle so badly at kicking the shitty little sprites bearing bonus treats?). 

These all feature on the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection, a compilation released in 2009 for the 360 and PS3, which saves me a trip to the loft for the Mega Drive/Mega-CD/32X combo that's sadly been squeezed out of my beneath-the-telly setup.

The original Streets of Rage at the planning stage (1991), this storyboard showing its end scene.

Most Mega Drive games that seemed great at the time simply don't stand up today – Sonic 3, for example, is a flawed conclusion to the Sega mascot's 16bit series, sacrificing the speed of previous titles for complicated level designs and fiddly checkerboard bonus stages that forget the half-pipe thrills of the second game. 

Electronic Gaming Monthly might have awarded it 9.5/10 back when, but their claim that it's superior to the speedy Sonic CD – for my money, the best of the 16bit bunch and owner of an awesome soundtrack – is pure madness. There are games worth a spin in 2014 – 25 of them ​documented here – but, for the most part, the 900-plus games released for the system are best left in the past.

Yet, the Mega Drive itself is a vital entry in console gaming's evolution – from something that kids did with their parents in the living room, to the multimedia systems we own today, via the bedroom shut-aways with curtains closed, focused only on nailing Gunstar Heroes. It set several precedents that carry through to today's market, to how manufacturers best sell their new hardware to not-always-eager punters. Here are four that come to mind – to mark the publication of Collected Works, and just because I loved my Mega Drive, OK?

Genesis does: like to blow its own trumpet quite a lot (Image ​via)

IT WAS THE ORIGINAL HYPE(D) MACHINE

Every company that made games consoles advertised its products –  ​here's Nintendo doing just that for its NES, promising "real sound, and real pictures", which I think they just about delivered. But when it came to push the Mega Drive, Sega's attitude became less about its ​"more accurate controls" and "more levels of play", and more about actively attacking the opposition. The primary target in its sights: Nintendo, naturally.

​This whole advert is just a bunch of braggadocio dressed up with bullshit about something called "blast processing". But you know what? It worked. Twenty-five million Genesis units ​were sold in the Americas, and over 10 million in Europe, representing a bigger user base than that enjoyed by the SNES. (They can fuck right off with dissing Super Mario Kart, though.)

As time passed, so Sega's aggressive marketing – centred at times on what "Nintendon't" – aimed itself at older audiences.  ​This British commercial features a 20-something living in the back of a truck, but it's all good because he's got Sonic the Hedgehog, and no job's going to keep him from mastering its unprecedented speed. Some years ahead of Sony's PlayStation, a games company was already going after older wallets – even if ​it'd eventually take Wipeout to properly convince the clubber demographic to spend the occasional night in.

An American advert for Sonic 2 that is, frankly, full of awful advice

Sega didn't just hype its hardware – it made games releases into global events, long before midnight queues to pick up the latest Grand Theft Auto. On the 21st of November, 1992, it launched Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in the US and Europe on what it called "Sonic 2s day", and the cheesy branding worked: 400,000 copies sold in the game's first week of release. Sega joined in with "Mortal Monday" on the 13th of September, 1993, the day when ​​Mortal Kombat​ made its way to home consoles – and Sega held another trump card over Nintendo there, by incorporating the blood of the arcade original in its port, while SNES owners had to make do with "sweat".

Nowadays, games like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Destiny are launched with special ceremony across the world, with "day zero" events and exclusive parties where ​rappers​footballers and rugby players get hands-on with the shooting and the banging before us regular plebs get to take them back to our caves. In your face, brash and boisterous, these senses-scattering showcases of a new game's desirability can trace their roots back to the pun-times of "Sonic 2s Day".

Micro Machines II : simply one of the most fun racers, ever

IT OPENED ITS DOORS TO THIRD-PARTY DEVELOPERS

Nintendo makes great games – always has, always will. But with the Mega Drive, Sega realised what it couldn't completely see with its Master System: the value of quality third-party developers. Its own arcade games, like Altered Beast and Golden Axe, made for decent European launch-title conversions, but as Nintendo's contracts with third parties proved restrictive and only ever favoured the NES-men, Sega moved to embrace creative teams from beyond its own departments.

Look at the best-selling NES and SNES games of all time; the developer credit almost always goes to Nintendo – on the former system the top three slots are taken by Super Mario Bros. and its two sequels, and on the latter by Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario Kart. DKC is Rare-developed, and the game at four on the all-time SNES list is Capcom's Street Fighter II – but any other entries in the top nine come from Nintendo franchises. On the Mega Drive, third spot is taken by Virgin Games' Disney's Aladdin, four is occupied by Midway's NBA Jam and five by the same developer as Mortal Kombat II.

CGR Undertow review Disney's Aladdin – yes, enemies explode when they're pelted with apples

Game developer David Perry provides the foreword for Collected Works – he was at Virgin when they got the Aladdin gig. He calls it a "special project", and the game introduced him not only to the then-president of Sega itself, Hayao Nakayama, but also "some of the most famous business people in the world". 

"The Genesis altered the course of the global video game industry," he concludes. "It gave us the opportunity to go really big – to move from making little games... to producing blockbusters that everyone talked about."

Dip beneath the best sellers and some of the Mega Drive's most critically acclaimed games are the work of third parties. US Gamer's  ​top ten Genesis games list puts Treasure's terrific run-and-gunner Gunstar Heroes top of the pile, Konami's Castlevania: Bloodlines at seven and that same company's amazing port of Snatcher as its greatest Mega-CD (Sega-CD in America) title. The Mega Drive's Micro Machines II: Turbo Tournament was the definitive version of Codemasters' top-down racer, and Electronic Arts' action games like Road Rash and Desert Strike were at their best played on Sega's hardware.

A lot of these games also appeared on Nintendo platforms, but Sega's approach to third parties was easier on developers than the restrictions that a NES contract could put on any team, of any size. You see this same setup today, only distilled to a far more direct developer-to-distributor workflow, with Sony's dealings with multiple indie studios through its Strategic Content team and the Xbox Live Indie Games storefront, as well as the architecture of Steam.

Altered Beast cover art by Michiaki Satoh, packaged with early European Mega Drives. This was the shit in 1990.

"ARCADE QUALITY" ACTUALLY MEANT SOMETHING

Sega's (perhaps most considerable) advantage over Nintendo was always its arcade division, which dates back to 1976 and is still going to this day. Its AM2 team worked on everything from OutRun and After Burner to the Virtua Fighter series and the evergreen Daytona USA. Sega's 8bit Master System might have lost out to the NES in same-gen sales, but its ports of arcade hits like Hang-On and Space Harrier ensured it enjoyed a loyal, if specialist, audience.

The Mega Drive's additional power brought these games to life at home like never before. Yes, the NES had the exclusive rights to Konami's arcade classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but Sega's own library of coin-op titles, including After Burner II and Altered Beast, soon made their new machine the go-to for those who'd otherwise be wearing their pockets out rummaging for 20 pence pieces down the pier on any Saturday afternoon. 

Graphics and sound, while not spot-on exactly, were close-enough conversions of what was out there in the wilds of the amusement arcades, while the Mega Drive's three-button pad opened more control possibilities than the two-button NES ever could. For the first time, reading that something was "arcade quality" might actually mean it was. Almost.

After Burner II: an arcade hit that made the move to the Mega Drive fairly unscathed

The arcade conversion route would gain Sega valuable ground as it struck out first, ahead of Nintendo, into the 16bit market – the 1988-launched Mega Drive had two years on the SNES, which would follow in November of 1990. It allowed for relatively quick, in-house software turnaround times where teams always had access to original assets. 

Despite some internal reservations that creating home ports of Sega's arcade gems would lead to lower coin-op takings, eventually the company's divisions were remedied, with Nakayama telling Keith Stuart, in his Collected Works essay, "Arcade Perfect", "We knew the US console market was huge and, from the beginning, our aim was to break Nintendo's stranglehold in America."

Today, nobody really talks about home console games having the aesthetic clout to match their arcade counterparts – mainly because it's rarer and rarer to see games going from the arcade to the home market, whereas you might step into an arcade today and see large-scale versions of mobile games like Infinity Blade or Fruit Ninja

By realising arcade-"perfect" ports on the Mega Drive, Sega set targets for home gaming that its closest competitors had to match, even if they couldn't better them. ( Mode 7 was pretty flash, but the big graphics buzz of the SNES wasn't always put to best use.) It's not enough to have great gameplay – your title's got to look amazing, too. And while that might seem like an industry-general aspect of games development, it's a quality that was first firmly instilled in developer mindsets during the Mega Drive's early years. Precision controls and pin-sharp visuals: this was the new standard.

Sega's Activator: whoever green-lit this is either from the future, locked up, or both

IT HAD INSPIRING PERIPHERALS (AND SOME THAT EVEN WORKED)

It's easy to leap to the conclusion that the Mega-CD was a piece of shit – but, really, it wasn't. The Mega Drive's CD add-on, which either sat snugly beneath the main system or beside it, depending on what model you owned, was home to many amazing games: from the aforementioned Snatcher and Sonic CD through to a properly arcade-perfect Final Fight, which smashed the preceding SNES port into tiny little Nintendo tears, and the magnificent Core-developed Thunderhawk, a 3D helicopter game that made Desert Strike look like a game of marbles. Yeah, the FMV titles were mostly tat – I've a soft spot for Ground Zero: Texas all the same – but while it's apparently ​the seventh-worst selling console of all time, the Mega-CD was a hit in my house, and I'm standing by it.

Hell, while we're at it, I'll even make a case for the 32X. The Mega Drive's double-power tower that sat atop its cartridge slot might have been a god-awful ugly piece of plastic, but its double Hitachi SH2 processors continued Sega's arcade-port excellence. Virtua Fighter and Racing were both excellent on the system, while older affairs like After Burner had never looked better. Weird, lesser-seen games like the hummingbird shoot-'em up Kolibri and colourful platformer Tempo show that, if Sega had stuck by the 32X rather than throw all of its eggs into the Saturn basket, who knows what might have been.

These library-expanding hardware-boosters were great, and for me gave the Mega Drive the edge over the SNES. But what also sold Sega's 16bit machine to Master System-owning kids – or, rather, the parents of those kids – was its backwards compatibility, something that Microsoft would work into its 360, and that Sony's PS2 afforded those who'd amassed a large collection of original PlayStation titles. The Power Base Converter was a relatively inexpensive add-on for the Mega Drive that allowed gamers to play Master System software on their new system. It even included a card slot, for the handful of games that came on that format for the Master System (I never actually owned any of them, as they looked as if they'd snap under the foot of a younger brother).

The ridiculously proportioned Menacer was the Mega Drive's light gun, and its three-part design made it an easier weapon for a 12-year-old to wield than the SNES-compatible Super Scope (a massive, bazooka-like monster). It lacked much decent software support, but the Menacer worked excellently, its infrared feedback feeling more immediate than its rival's. It also made those annoying shooting-range-style sections in Snatcher a little more exciting, and was essential for playing Probe's Mega Drive port of Terminator 2.

A UK ad for the Mega-CD that's "mega seedy"

Poor sales for the Menacer rendered it a flop, but it still found its way into more households than the ambitious Sega Activator, a full-body control system that predates Xbox's Kinect by 17 years. I've never used one myself, but as it was compatible with Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat I'm fairly sure I would have broken a limb trying. 

While the Activator didn't really work – IGN  ​named it the third-worst controller, ever – it showed that Sega was willing to invest in hardware development that went beyond what other manufacturers were attempting. And when you look at the Kinect and Sony's PS4 Camera and Move controller system, a line back to the Activator is easily drawn.

(Image courtesy of Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works)

Returning to Micro Machines II: Turbo Tournament, the J-Cart – allowing up to eight simultaneous players – was the single best innovation of the 16bit cartridge era. Two additional controller ports on the cart itself: some sort of freaking genius. If Codemasters had only come up with the thing at the beginning of the Mega Drive's lifespan, rather than in 1994, just imagine how many more games would have benefitted from insanely fun local multiplayer sessions. In the wireless age, up to four pads can connect to a console as standard – but back when controllers were forever tangled up, the J-Cart was a vision of a future that I know I couldn't wait to dive into.

And if I can close on a multiplayer tangent, you know all those console games you love playing with your mates over a broadband connection? Yeah, Sega was working on an online service for Mega Drive users in 1990: the Meganet. You plugged a Sega-branded modem into the back of your console and away you went – but a high price and only a small number of games meant that the Meganet never made it beyond Japan and, oddly perhaps, Brazil, where it was introduced in 1995. Nintendo's closest comparable peripheral for the SNES, the satellite modem Satellaview, wouldn't come out until five years after Sega's experiment. I'd love to say "advantage Sega", but the Meganet bombed. All the same, Sega's vision was inspiring – and gaming today would be a poorer place had the company not taken so many (ultimately commercially suicidal) risks.

Read Only Memory's Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works is available now.

​@MikeDiver