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I’ll Never Love a Console Like I Loved the Sega CD

It was far from Sega's greatest idea, but the Genesis's CD expansion arrived at a memorable time.

by Mike Diver
May 7 2015, 4:30pm

Artwork from 'Sonic the Hedgehog CD.'

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

I assure you, I've not recently been in an accident, still suffering the effects of some minor head trauma, and nor am I being a deliberately contrary so-and-so simply to get your eyes on this page (but hello, all the same). And I'm certainly not saying that Sega's CD unit expansion to their all-conquering 16-bit Mega Drive system (Genesis stateside, making said add-on the Sega CD) represents the greatest achievement in console hardware of all time.

But I loved it. I loved mine. I still have it, albeit in the loft. It comes down from time to time, but there's no space for a permanent position beneath the telly. Blame this damned thing we call progress.

The Mega-CD was one of the most brilliantly botched black boxes of nuts and bolts in gaming history—a device that nobody really wanted, its very existence led more by an obsession with the technological arms race than any strictly gameplay-based reasons. Nintendo didn't have a CD-based system (though they so nearly did), so Sega saw that as an opportunity, regardless of whether they should have gone down said road or not. They soon realized what a mess they'd made, and were relatively quick to put it to the sword—though they'd soon enough kill another of their own with even more ruthless haste. From the very beginning, the signs of it doing well were completely absent: its development was led by Sega of Japan, with American counterparts largely kept in the dark as to its specs, until it was almost too late.

Sega's Mega-CD, slotted beneath an original model Mega Drive, via Wikipedia.

According to Scott Bayless, a senior producer at Sega of America at the time, when the States did get a fully working unit, it was a disaster waiting to happen: "[It] was designed with a cheap audio CD drive, not a CD-ROM. The quality assurance teams started running into severe problems... I mean units literally bursting into flame."

I won't get into all of the technical details here—you're online already, so go look them up if you want to—but after what sounds like a painful QA process, Sega was finally able to launch the Mega-CD in 1991 in Japan, with the machine reaching North America in October 1992 and Europe the next spring. I remember reading all about it, in the pages of Mean Machines (Sega) and Sega Pro. I was fascinated with what seemed like the future, now; movies, but games. In 1993 I still had a Master System and a stack of software, but I was about to upgrade to the Mega Drive, my parents buying me (after no little pestering) a pack bundled with the two-on-one cart of EA Hockey and John Madden Football. And I didn't intend to stop there: A Mega-CD would be mine.

I'd not bought the Master System new—it'd been picked up a couple of years earlier when a school friend wanted rid of it to finance the acquisition of more games for his new Mega Drive. Having previously been denied ownership of a "games-only" machine by Amiga-pushing parents (I could do my homework on that, see), I gladly took it off his hands—the console was on its last legs in terms of developer support, but plenty of other friends had one, so swapping our games for weekends or more became a regular thing. Anyway, if it's nostalgia for the Master System you're now after, click here; I sold mine to buy Ash's 1977 and that double album from the Smashing Pumpkins in 1996 (idiot). And that same year I finally got a Mega-CD, as the very same friend who'd flogged me Sega's 8bit darling dangled his one in front of my eyes. He was after a Saturn now. I didn't say no.

Sega would officially discontinue the Mega-CD just months after I had one to call my own, but games for it lined the shelves of my local bring-your-shit-here-to-get-money-to-buy-drugs pawnshop palace, so adding to my collection was easy enough after new copies fled Tandy, Dixons, and Woolworths. Buying second hand meant I immediately received a fairly substantial library, ranging from the pack-in retail discs of the Classics Arcade Collection and the Sol-Feace and Cobra Command double-header to the essential Sonic the Hedgehog CD, one of the brightest jewels in the Mega-CD's 200-titles-deep catalogue, and a spread of full motion video games. You know, Night Trap and that. You couldn't not know about Night Trap, even if you'd never gone near a CD-based console in your life.

A screen shot from 'Night Trap,' via YouTube.

I played Night Trap. I finished it—initially by purely fluking my way through trapping enough "teenage" girl-kidnapping vampire minions, and then later with a perfect record courtesy of an in-mag guide. It was shit. I didn't get the fuss over the (awfully staged, barely even there) violence, and even as a teenager I could quite clearly see, through the fuzzy, 32-color visuals on offer, that the game was about as titillating as camping through a wet weekend on the Suffolk Heaths with the Norwich region's premier Mr. Bean impersonator. But there was another game from its makers, Digital Pictures, that I did enjoy a lot more.

Ground Zero Texas came on two discs in a bigger-than-a-DVD-case-sized box (rather than the standard Mega-CD packaging). It had a fat manual. It was so delightfully old school, from its artwork to how it played: a simple target shooter in the vein of Mad Dog McCree, with enemies popping out from beneath bars and behind bales of hay. It was gloriously rubbish, but with The X-Files massive at the time its story of an alien invasion in rural Texas (though filmed in California) resonated with me.

The full 60 minutes of 'Ground Zero Texas'

Despite its grainy visuals, Ground Zero Texas seemed to have been made with a much bigger budget than Night Trap—which proved to be the case. A full Hollywood crew was used in its production, the cost of which came to $2 million, and director Dwight H. Little had previously helmed several movies, including Halloween 4. He'd go on to direct Free Willy 2 and Murder at 1600 before moving into TV and earning credits on series including 24, Prison Break, and Castle.

Ground Zero Texas was far from a showcase for what the Mega-CD could actually do, though. To really get the most out of its extra storage—the CD format offered developers 320 times the space that a ROM cartridge could provide—and (slightly) faster processor, games makers turned away from the "interactive movie" affairs offered by Digital Pictures and towards more traditional graphics, albeit of a quality that the Mega Drive alone could never have handled.

Overkills and Sudden Deaths from 'Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side'— the ticket-seller shotgun finish at a minute in is why I won't go to the pictures alone.

This approach bore bloody fruit with Eternal Champions: Challenge From the Dark Side, a one-on-one fighter that was, for my money, a Mortal Kombat (of the time) beater, certainly in terms of splattery deaths. The superbly crisp, boisterously bright visuals made the game's finishing moves, of which there were many, pop from the screen. It used a little FMV, albeit of the CG variety, for an overlong intro sequence and bout-ending "cinekills," but for the most part it was a sprites-only offering, and it looked gorgeous. My copy still has pages of notes in the box, walking me through how to pull off every single fatality. Hideo Kojima's Snatcher was equally generous with its gore, and the Mega-CD port of Konami's old MSX2 cyberpunk adventure is, perhaps, the most beautiful of all its versions. (You can read a lot more on my time with that game here.)

I became obsessed, for a while, with Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, which used its FMV sparingly, focusing the gameplay on puzzle solving (obviously). Like Eternal Champions, my boxed copy of the game is bursting with torn-out notepad pages, scribbles of clues and suspects spilling over them. Final Fight had never looked better in its play-at-home guise as it did on Mega-CD. The system's version of FIFA International Soccer—given a "Championship Edition" subtitle, and starring David Platt on the artwork—had one of my dad's mates come upstairs to see what match was on, so realistic was its crowd noise (even though, if memory serves, it was actually recorded at a lackluster game involving Tranmere Rovers). I loved that it featured clips of Italia 90 in its intro and between the interactive action, including Platt's remarkable over-the-shoulder volley against Belgium, as that's the World Cup I remember clearest from my childhood.

A complete playthrough of 'Sonic CD,' which is like a favorite album to me when heard and not seen.

Core Design brought Mode 7-style visuals to the Mega-CD with celebrated helicopter shooter Thunderhawk and the multi-viewpoint sci-fi blaster Soulstar—I owned both and played them hard, and the latter featured a stirring orchestral soundtrack that you could access by popping the disc into any regular stereo. I picked up games I never got anywhere with, like the RPG Eye of the Beholder, which I got simply because it had a new soundtrack from Streets of Rage series composer Yuzo Koshiro.

But my absolute favorite game for the Mega-CD was, is, Sonic CD, a (mostly) 2D masterpiece that took the best of the Mega Drive titles, set those qualities against visuals so sparkling they could dazzle a nosy neighbor through two sets of net curtains, and came with a suite of music so incredible that I wish it was on my iPod right now. For once, just ignore the damsel-in-distress plot—I know I did. Instead, focus on the amazing speed, the innovative time-travel dynamic that opened up fresh perspectives on each stage, the 3D special stages, and that exquisite soundtrack on the PAL and Japanese versions. (You can read more about the game here.)

An original Mega Drive, a Mega-CD II, and a 32X—maybe the ugliest combination of components ever seen in gaming, via Wikipedia.

I missed several of the Mega-CD's so-called essential games entirely—they were either beyond my price range, or simply never discovered on the racks, between countless copies of (the perfectly enjoyable, for one playthrough) Road Avenger. But the system itself is one that I will forever hold dear, its arrival in my bedroom coinciding with a budding romance—we'd play some of these games together—and my transition into adulthood, I guess. These games were more mature than those I'd had on prior Sega systems; they challenged me in new ways, and I responded to them with an affection that would soon shift to other obsessions, resulting in something of a gaming hiatus that'd last until the Xbox 360 came along.

I took my passion for all things Sega further, picking up a 32X in 1996, but even with decent versions of DOOM and Virtual Racing to call my own, it was to the Mega-CD that I consistently turned, until university took me away from its permanently grinding, reset-to-open drawer. As awful a failure as it was for its manufacturer, the first sign that Sega were going to fall out of competition with Nintendo and, soon enough, Sony, the Mega-CD is the one console I'll probably always hold a place in my heart for. I can still see its green and red lights blinking away; I can still hear its home menu music and see the Sega logo spinning through space. I know it's a bit crap, really, but it deserves better than the loft. Maybe if we ever move to a bigger place, and then the kids leave home...

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