There was a time, back in the early 1990s, when ‘Sega’ was what your grandparents called video games.
The Mega Drive – thanks to Sonic The Hedgehog and Sega’s brilliant advertising – blew away the boring home computer market of the 1980s and made gaming cool for the very first time.
FIFA, Madden NFL and Sonic all started out on Sega’s black box, and a generation of kids learned that gaming didn’t have to be done on a computer bought for ‘homework’ purposes. Here’s how the story played out…
What’s the story?
A quarter of a century ago, the big gaming battle wasn’t PlayStation vs Xbox but rather Nintendo vs Sega. And it was a battle that Nintendo was winning.
Despite Sega’s Master System being technically more advanced than the rival Nintendo Entertainment System, Mario-power had led the NES to a crushing victory. How could Sega hit back?
With a blue-and-white hedgehog, of course.
Or rather that’s what a cursory glance at history might suggest. And indeed Sonic did help: it gave Sega a proper mascot to rival Nintendo’s portly plumber, and the game itself was superb – super-fast, packed with neat touches and properly nailing that balance between so-hard-that-you-hurl-the-controller-across-the-room and so-easy-that-there’s-really-no-point.
But really there was much more to the Mega Drive’s success than a spiky mammal.
The Mega Drive – confusingly renamed the Sega Genesis in the States – also benefitted from that classic marketing strategy of creating an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. The ‘them’ was obviously Nintendo gamers, with one memorable ad campaign closing with the punchline of "Genesis does what Nintendon’t".
It was all part of a strategy to pitch the Mega Drive as the cooler, more adult option compared to Nintendo’s SNES, and the games helped here too – it had the uncensored version of Mortal Combat, for instance, plus a heap of top sports games including the first must-play Madden titles and the first entries in the NBA Live and NHL series.
And for a time it worked – the Genesis/Mega Drive outsold the SNES in the US and Europe for much of its lifespan, and remains a favourite of ours to this day.
What would I want to get one?
Playing these classic games on an emulator on your phone just isn’t the same. Where’s the satisfying clunk you get from plugging in a cartridge? Where’s the joy in upgrading to an RGB Scart cable and seeing the picture quality improve by approximately 33 per cent? And why play with some awful PC controller, when Sega designed the perfect six-button one to accompany the release of Street Fighter II?
No, the only way to really revisit your gaming adolescence is by setting up and sitting down in front of the real thing. So you’re going to need Ebay…
What should I go for?
There’s only one option: the original Mega Drive. Sega redesigned the hardware after a couple of years and released this smaller, cheaper machine as the Mega Drive II, but it lost a lot of its charm.
The original Mega Drive’s a classic, even featuring a headphone socket and volume control for listening to those pulsating 16-bit soundtracks in all their muffled-stereo glory. And it’s built like a breezeblock. Gaming consoles didn’t do error messages back then.
You’ll find plenty of them available on Ebay, and for good prices too – the average is probably around the £30 mark for a console on its own, rising to around £50 or so for a boxed unit with controllers and leads. There are vast numbers of games on offer, too.
The other option is to buy one of the third-party Mega Drive consoles. There are several of these around, and while they’re not going to give you the authentic experience, they do come with loads of pre-installed games. We’d still personally go for the real deal, though.
Essential Mega Drive games
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
The greatest achievement of Sega’s Sonic team. The tunnel-based bonus round is still a riot today.
Boosted the 3D power by cramming in another processor. Still looked bad, but played like a dream.
Streets of Rage 2
The home console’s best scrolling beat ’em up. The soundtrack tingles the spine of all who hear it.
Thrash metal accompanied by layers of detail beyond the scope of the human eye – a stunning shooter.
Also in 1990…
1990 proved a pretty big year in world history: Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Germany was reunified, Yugoslavia began to break up and Tim Berners-Lee created the first web servers. Oh, and Arnie had a new movie out…
Arnie went to the edge of his very limited range as a man unsure whether his memories are real or created in this adaptation of a Philip K Dick short story.
It was packed with interesting ideas for those of a philosophical bent, but equally you could just relax and enjoy the bit with the guy who has a little man inside him.
Happy Mondays – Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches
Before becoming the Queen Mum of Junkies, Shaun Ryder wrote the most bizarrely brilliant lyrics ever committed to record. On this album he was at the top of his game.