Review by The Vic Viper

"Sega's golden age. Unfortunately for Sega it occured durring Nintendo's golden age"

The high point in Sega's popularity came in the early 1990's with the release of their second console – the Sega Genesis (also called the Mega Drive outside of America). Due to a combination of bad marketing, Nintendo's iron grip over third party developers, and a late release Sega's previous system - the Sega Master System (SMS) - never took off except in Europe. In 1990 the NES was still going strong so Nintendo was not rushed to bring out their next generation system, Atari had pulled the plug on the Atari 7800, and NEC's PC Engine system had not taken off outside of Japan. The time was perfect for Sega to introduce a new console powerful enough to make the NES show its age.

Physically, the Genesis was a bit of an improvement over the Master System since Sega decided to go with a sleeker design than the rectilinear box that the SMS and NES were. While not particularly important, the physical appearance must have gone over well with Nintendo's marketing department since the Super Nintendo looked suspiciously like it when it came out a few years later. Like the SMS, and pretty much all of the consoles of that time, it was made of durable plastic that could probably survive getting a fall out of a second floor window. The cartridges were also quite durable and rarely broke down or allowed the data chips to be damaged. The CD based games were more prone to damage, as all optical discs are, but the cases were still very sturdy.

The hardware would go through three different models during the life of the Genesis. The earliest model had a headphone jack, but it was never used so Sega dropped it from the next one. There were also some apparent compatibility issues for the original Sega CD drive on the second Genesis due to regional coding, so that was remodeled into the Sega CD 2. After Sega dropped support for the system in favor of the Saturn, Majesco Inc released the third version of the Genesis which was unable to use the CD drives, but only cost $50.

The controller was also much improved over the previous generation. Rather than use a box as the basic shape of the controller, the Genesis one was bulkier and molded to fit into a person's hands in a way that they could maintain a decent grip on the device. Sega kept most of the original button layout from the SMS, including the eight-way directional pad, and added four more buttons on the right side of the controller in a 2x3 grid (the first controller actually only had three buttons, but the six button version came out soon after the console's release). Games were also noticeably much more responsive to user interactions, both as a result of faster hardware in the console and better chips in the controller.

Since the only real competition was the NES (which already looked ancient due to advances in PC hardware), the Genesis was obviously the most powerful console at the time it was released. As a 16-bit system it could push more colors on screen at once, handle larger and more numerous enemies, etc than the previous generations. Even after the Super Nintendo was released in 1991, the Genesis was the technologically superior system in some ways (which Sega's marketing department exploited the hell out of). And unlike with the Sega Master System, developers began to use the hardware to create stunning visuals, detailed characters, multilayered, non-static backgrounds, and more. As the best (and basically end) of the 2D era of gaming, some of the games are still visually impressive by today's standards.

In 1994 Sega released the Sega CD, an add-on to the Genesis which was supposed to be able to push the system even further beyond competing consoles. While the potential was certainly there, the hardware was never used. A few good games with improved graphics came out, but since it was an expensive accessory, few developers pushed the hardware. In the end, most CD games were not noticeably different than their cartridge based counterparts. The CD unit had its own processors, which not only gave the Genesis more video RAM, but had several build in graphical manipulators that the Super Nintendo had but the base model of the Genesis did not.

Later on Sega would release the 32X, another CD add-on that could play 32bit games. While not quite a true 32bit system like some newly introduced systems were, it could produce games that were by the standards of the day absolutely amazing. Because the add-on used CDs it allowed developers to add movie clips and large CGI videos. However, as was the case with the Sega CD, few developers were willing to spend the resources needed to develop for an expensive add-on that didn't sell particularly well.

The audio system on the Genesis was also much improved over the 8-bit systems, with games now able to produce stereo sound using multiple channels. While the base system did not have amazing sound, it was still a huge improvement over the SMS and the potential was there for developers (and more than a few used that potential). The two CD add-ons did as much, if not more, for improving the audio of Genesis games as did for improving the graphics. Games were now about to use CD quality audio, which cartridges were never able to handle due to the (relatively) enormous size of CD audio files.

The two different CD drives that could be attached to the Genesis make the system both a 16 and 32 bit system, which in theory should have made the console last a very long time. However, because these accessories were very expensive (almost the cost of the core system) they did not sell very well. Additionally Sega was extremely secretive about the drives while they were in development, to the point that even software developers did not know about the existence of the 32X drive before it was released to the public. As a result of the lack of development tools and the lack of demand for disc based games at this point in time, there were very few games developed for the new devices.

What truly killed Sega's attempt at breaking into the 32bit market (and the entire 32bit market for that matter), was the release of several absolutely amazing 16bit games that were, unfortunately for Sega, Super Nintendo exclusives. The most notable of these games was Donkey Kong Country (DKC was released in 1994, the same year that the 32bit systems were introduced). The problem for 32bit system manufacturers was that DKC didn't just look like a 32bit game, it looked better. DKC sold extremely well, so the consumers noticed that they did not need the really expensive consoles or peripherals to get amazing games.

Sega also dropped support for the devices after their initial failures, so there was no chance of the hardware suddenly becoming a hot-selling item. While the 32X was supported by all versions of the Genesis, production of any version of the console would stop less than three years after the introduction of the 32X in favor of the Sega Saturn. In a repeat of the previous generation where Sega released a portable version of their console it it's dying days, the Sega Nomad was released in the mid nineties. However, like the GameGear, the new portable was overpriced and underpowered compared to the new line of consoles that came out around the same time.

While the two disc drive units were the major accessories, there were a couple of others, most of which were completely worthless. Such accessories included a mouse which was used with only one “game” and a bulky unit that translated the movements of a person into inputs for the game. It was kind of like Sony's EyeToy for the PS2 but larger, more expensive, hard to use, and you looked really stupid using it (much like with the PowerGlove). As such it didn't sell at all and no developer in their right mind would support it.

The only good (low priced) accessory for the Genesis was a neat little device that let you play Sega Master System games on the Genesis. Like the modern Game Boy Advance Player for the GameCube, the SMS player (I forget the actual name) had its own CPU, GPU, and audio processing unit allowing it to play SMS games perfectly and without emulation. It was basically a SMS, just turned into a peripheral in the same was the GameGear was an SMS, just made portable.

Aside from these peripherals, which were all unique if not practical or fun, the Genesis also supported the usual third party controllers, arcade joysticks, and whatnot that come with every console.

Unlike the rest of Sega's consoles, the Genesis was widely supported by both developers and consumers, at least in the beginning. For various reasons (mostly legal) Nintendo no longer had the control over third party developers like it did a few years prior so developers could make a profit making games for two systems. While Sega was the biggest software developer notable third party supporters include:
-Electronic Arts: The now famous Madden football game series was started during this generation (in 1992 to be exact) and was published for both the Genesis and Super Nintendo, as they did with their NBA and NHL series. EA also published the incredibly fun Road Rash series – a racing game that allowed you to beat down competitors while out running the police.
-Konami: By far my favorite developer, Konami produced classics such as Castlevania Bloodlines, Contra: Hard Corps, and a couple great Ninja Turtles games. Konami was also one of the few supporters of the Sega CD with a few decent games.
-Capcom: Another great developer, especially at this point in time, Capcom produced a couple of hits for the Genesis including a Street Fighter and a Mega Man game. Capcom also produced a Final Fight game for the Sega CD, though it was just a simple port.
-Acclaim: While Acclaim didn't exactly shower the Genesis with hits, it is probably the most infamous developer in Sega's history. Acclaim developed the Mortal Kombat games for both the SNES and Genesis. The blood in the SNES version was heavily censored; the blood in the Genesis version was not. In response to the resulting horde of angry parents unable simply not buy a violent game for children and their bandwagon jumping politicians, Sega created the first videogame rating system.

The biggest and best developer for the Genesis was Sega themselves, and they produced a ton of hits. The most significant one is the Sonic series, which pushed the hardware as far as it could. Between its technical achievements and its massive marketing campaign, the series (especially Sonic 2), made the SNES look really, really weak. What's this? Sega's marketing department doing something intelligent? Yes, it's true, but it was just a fluke. Oh yeah, Sonic 2 was also one of the greatest games ever made and deserved every bit of hype it received, just in case you're wondering. Sonic 2 was to Sega what Donkey Kong was to Nintendo.

Aside from the Sonic series, there were a ton of other great action and adventure games for the Genesis. Shinobi, Double Dragon, Contra, Golden Axe, Alien Storm, Mega Man, Street Fighter, Battletoads, Ghosts and Ghouls, Castlevania, Mortal Kombat, Earthworm Jim, and Ecco are all fantastic games. The Genesis also had a lot of sports games such as the EA sports, ESPN games, FIFA soccer, tons of racers, and more.

For me personally, what made the Genesis second to the Super Nintendo was that it lacked shoot ‘em ups (i.e. Gradius, R-Type, Darius, etc.) and RPGs. Many of the greatest RPGs, such as the Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Robotrek, Soul Blazer, and so on were exclusive to the Super Nintendo. There were a few good RPGs for the Genesis that were unfortunately never brought over to the US, however two series – Phantasy Star and Shinning Force – are two great RPG series that did get translated into English.

Despite lacking in these two genres, the Genesis is a fantastic system that I unfortunately not get to owned ten years ago, though some of my friends did and I've emulated most of the good games for it by now. While I certainly wouldn't have traded my SNES for it, the Genesis can certainly be placed in the top 10 list of consoles. Sega managed to correct many of the mistakes and problems they had with the Master System (and would have with the Saturn and Dreamcast). The Genesis had numerous games covering almost every genre as well as a gigantic library of games from many different companies, which is exactly what a console needs to be considered great.

If you want to play Genesis games now (and you should) there are two way to go about doing it. The first is to actually get a hold of the hardware (eBay has the Genesis for $20 and the CD drives for $50 each). The games are dirt cheap too – probably only $5 or $10 each, though rarer games might cost $20 or so.

The other way is to emulate the console on your computer using a program such as Gens which can emulate both cartridge and CD games. (Gens is my personal favorite, though Genecyst and KGen are supposed to be really good as well) The ROMs are technically illegal to download, so you'll have to look for them on your own. I personally don't have a problem with not paying for old game since it's not like the developers profit from you buying games on eBay or in shops anymore. However if you don't want to emulate there really aren't any games that are hard to find legal copies of.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/07/05, Updated 09/26/05

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