Given the struggles of the Master System, it was shocking that SEGA produced a successor so soon. It only took three years after the release of the Master System for the SEGA Genesis (SEGA Megadrive in Japan) to launch in the United States in August 1989. In Japan, SEGA continued to struggle against the NES (and later the Super Nintendo), but in other markets, primarily the American market, the SEGA Genesis flourished. SEGA learned from the many mistakes it made with the Master System…but went on to make fresh ones.
The SEGA Surge
The company’s arcade presence exploded during the late ’80s and early ’90s, which saw the rise of popular titles like Golden Axe, Space Harrier, and Super Hang-On. SEGA ported those hot properties to the Genesis with the marketing slogan “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.” A bold, and genius, move.
SEGA continued to make drastic changes by replacing Michael Katz with Tom Kalinske as CEO of SEGA of America and relieving Tonka of marketing duties. This brought a variety of successful changes to the company. Initially, the Genesis came bundled with Altered Beast, but Kalinske replaced the game with Sonic The Hedgehog. Sonic received amazing reviews, gaining high praise for being a solid platformer with slick controls and interesting level design. This pushed gamers to purchase a Genesis, and nearly doubled the Genesis’ sales. SEGA continued to promote the Genesis as the superior, “cooler” console after the Super Nintendo arrived on American shores, and due to it’s larger game library and cheaper price, gamers flocked to the console.
Kalineske continued to make memorable marketing decisions in print and television commercials. SEGA compared the Super Nintendo to the Genesis side-by-side in what may have been the first console smear campaign. The commercial depicted an F-1 car with a SEGA Genesis attached to its rear, and an old van powered by a Super Nintendo. The commercial showcased how much faster and graphically intense games were on the SEGA Genesis. SEGA marketed the consoles graphical rendering power as “Blast Processing,” and stated that its hardware was far superior than anything found in the Super Nintendo. It was clear that the marketing took off, as here in the United States SEGA held more than half of console sales during 1994.
SEGA continued to push the Genesis as the superior, “cooler” console after the Super Nintendo arrived on American shores, and due to it’s larger game library and cheaper price, gamers flocked to the console.
Nintendo GameBoy’s vice grip on the handheld market didn’t prevent SEGA from competing with its own portable, the $149 SEGA Game Gear. However, the 3-4 hour battery life hampered the handheld. The $89 GameBoy saw 10-12 hours with only four-AA batteries as opposed to the Game Gear’s six.
The SEGA CD, released in 1992, was critically acclaimed despite the huge amounts of shovelware. However, some of the best games from that generation appeared on the SEGA CD. Sonic CD (1993), for example, was hailed as a gaming masterpiece due to its amazing level design and improved visuals. Lunar: The Silver Star (1992) was released to a crowd of thirsty gamers who were in dire need of a great RPG.
It would be a gross oversight to not mention the TurboGrafx-16, the Liquid Snake to the Genesis’ Solid Snake. The 16-bit systems were released the same year (1989), and both had CD add-ons. However, the TG-16 had a weaker library than the Genesis and SEGA CD add-on. The TG-16 didn’t stand a chance and the Genesis trampled it.
SEGA’s 32x was released in November of 1994, but the add-on didn’t reach the cult acclaim that the SEGA CD enjoyed. It suffered from bad timing, a lack of developer support, and a ridiculously high price point ($160). The lack of developer interest goes hand-in-hand with the bad timing, as SEGA made the huge mistake of releasing the 32x a month after it released the SEGA Saturn in Japan. Developers quickly flocked over to the Saturn and dismissed the 32x as a gimmick. The 32x only had 39 games, and was quickly discontinued a year later.
Still, there are a number of games on the Genesis that every gamer should take the time to try. Personally, I had both a Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis in my household, but I spent much of my time on the Genesis. Not because I thought it was a better console, but because it had some of the most innovative and unique games at the time. Such as….
Ecco The Dolphin (1992)
Ecco the Dolphin captured gamers’ imaginations with its deep-sea exploration, and underwater caverns full of sea creatures. The story has an intriguing plot about extraterrestrials, time travel, and Atlantians, but what makes this game so special is the ambiance; you feel the disparity and the loneliness throughout your travels. Everything from the enemies to the amazing soundtrack (from the legendary composer Spencer Nielsen) helps convey this feeling.
Sonic 1,2,3, Sonic and Knuckles, and Sonic CD
These five games comprise the hedgehog’s golden age. The original Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) contains speedy platforming and excellent level design, but it’s criticized for being too linear.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992) is vibrant, fast, and has many branching paths (as such, it’s considered the best in the series). Sonic can now crouch and charge into a devastating speed ball that destroys anything in his path.
Tails is even more useful in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994) as he can carry Sonic to unreachable locations. Knuckles the Echidna debuted here, and his rivalry with Sonic that would later turn into friendship. Gamers were also interested in playing as Knuckles, so SEGA heeded their calls with Sonic & Knuckles.
During the second half of 1994, the innovative Sonic & Knuckles hit store shelves. Gamers could play the game as a standalone title, or they could attach either Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 into a built in slot on Sonic & Knuckles. This let gamers play Sonic 2 as Knuckles, but the real treat was replaying Sonic 3 as Knuckles. All the locked out locations became reachable, which opened up a whole new game. Sonic & Knuckles could also be played as a standalone title.
Sonic CD is easily the best title for the SEGA CD add-on. The time traveling aspect was a new concept that fans of the series weren’t to familiar with. Each stage has four different variations depending on the point in time which Sonic traveled.
Gunstar Heroes (1993)
Treasure’s game is brutally hard, but it has some of the best multiplayer experience on the SEGA Genesis. The anime art style is a welcome change from the dull art design seen in other 16-bit side-scrolling shooters. The weapons system is the main attraction here as players can combine different ammo types to achieve various effects like homing bullets, flame throwers, and high-powered lasers.
Shining Force II (1994)
The Genesis doesn’t have many RPGs, but the ones it does have are brilliant. Shining Force II is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s that generation’s deepest, most tactical RPG and it features a steep learning curve. It also features one of the most fleshed out and character driven stories in gaming. This is rare in the tactical RPG genre; it took what Fire Emblem did right and improved upon it, and influenced games like Tactics Ogre, Arc the Lad, and Final Fantasy Tactics.
Comix Zone looks like your typical beat ‘em up, but if you take a closer look, you’ll find that it’s one of the deepest Genesis brawlers. It take excellent timing and precise moves to defeat enemies; button-mashing leaves you demolished. The game is also known for its fourth-wall breaking plot that sees a comic creator battling his own creations.
The Next Episode
The Genesis is easily SEGA’s most successful console. With the Genesis, SEGA established a dominant foothold in the United States that was short-lived. Sony’s emergence as a console manufacturer and the on-going disagreements with SEGA’s arcade and console department in the mid to late 90′s would prove overwhelming. Next: The SEGA Chronicles pt. III.