Five days from this time of writing the Sega Mega Drive video game console turned twenty five years old. No doubt that announcement made a lot of people, myself included, feel rather old. The 16-bit Era itself tends to have that power.
Known as the Sega Genesis in North America, the console was undoubtedly Sega’s most successful ever selling an estimated 37 million units worldwide. A rather tame figure perhaps by modern standards but nevertheless, the Mega Drive’s success was instrumental in introducing the 16-bit era of games machines to a much wider audience especially in territories where Sega’s main rival Nintendo had been slow to seize.
One of these territories was the United Kingdom, where at the time of its release I was four and half years old. My first experience with the Mega Drive was when I saw a TV advert for it. I don’t remember exactly whether this was one of the now infamous Pirate TV adverts that aired in the UK or another ‘tamer’ (yeah) example, but the important part was how this console stuck in my mind from then on.
These adverts will seem silly today but kids at the time were very receptive to the rebellious image that Sega was presenting; to have a Mega Drive would be considered cool. You might remember these times; it was back when wearing a baseball cap backwards could also be considered “cool” or perhaps even “hip”.
I don’t know, I can’t really explain that one…
If you look back now though you’ll find that the Mega Drive really was a master class in how to market a video game console. Up until now the system had been experiencing a rather lukewarm reception in its native Japan; failing to make much of an impression over the dominant Nintendo Famicon and fellow upstart PC Engine. All that changed in 1990 however when Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinkse instigated an aggressive ‘American-style’ youth targeted ad campaign that caught Nintendo unaware and sent Sega’s popularity skyrocketing throughout the United States and later Europe as well.
The Mega Drive was especially popular in England and I found myself swept up in that wave of change the moment I saw that TV advert for the first time. I wouldn’t know it then but looking back that stupid ad really changed things for me; I would be a devout Sega supporter for the rest of my childhood and teenage years, keeping up with the consoles, the magazines, the playground arguments; all of it. Video games were about to become a serious part of my life from then on and like any gullible kid I gave Sega everything I had; not just my pocket money, but also my support, my dedication and my trust.
Years down the line Sega would make decisions that would shatter that bond and drastically change my stance towards them and the video games industry as a whole. But that’s another story for another time, so best to concentrate on the positive part whilst we can, eh?
It will have been during Sega’s golden years then; either 1992 or 1993, when I would finally experience what the Mega Drive had to offer. It was Christmas morning and there was a huge box next to the tree. At first I didn’t give the box a second thought, I reasoned that a box that big had to be a present for my Dad but as the other presents dwindled away I was finally told that the big box was in fact for me.
I couldn’t believe it.
I eagerly unwrapped the box and discovered why it was so big; it was a television. A whole television just for me.
This was a big deal, our family was not wealthy and money was much tighter back then. After that came the old surprise “bonus present” which of course contained the Mega Drive console along with three games.
The Mega Drive was fast and the games were exceptional. The first three games which I owned could not have been much better as an introduction to this new generation of interactive entertainment; Quackshot featuring Donald Duck, Lemmings and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sonic the Hedgehog from my perspective is the defining game of the whole 16-bit era. From the high-action gameplay, impressive graphics, catchy music and even the unforgettable level select cheat code; this game just had it all. Sonic was everything that Sega desperately needed at the time; an awesome mascot and one hell of a killer app. Sonic was one of those special few video games in history that sold consoles as a result of its quality and Sega would ride that high for a good few years after. Sonic became blessed with amazing sequels too and saw another three major releases that would bolster the franchise and the Mega Drive’s expanding library even further.
Once the kids in my neighbourhood had seen my Mega Drive for themselves it didn’t take long for them to adopt one too. Together we went through every major game that saw release for the system; Mortal Kombat, Streets of Rage, Gunstar Heroes, Road Rash, Rocket Knight Adventures, Flashback and Alien Soldier are just a few of the major games that I would have the esteemed pleasure of experiencing in their heyday.
Looking back at this period I have always held the belief that the 16-bit era ended far too early. It’s gratifying to know that there are others out there who share this belief, not least of whom being the previously mentioned Tom Kalinske who in 1994 (way before I connected the dots) said:
“The 16-bit business…is going to be very, very strong for at least another two to three years“
Kalinske would turn out to be dead right and the market would be strong well up until the end of 1996.
Eventually I would be one of the gamers of the time who “upgraded” their Mega Drive with the Sega Mega CD attachment that Sega later released in hopes of prolonging the consoles shelf life. This move proved to be a failure as the add-on’s high price, unreasonable hype and poor library of games quickly doomed it to an early grave and would mark the beginning of a reversal in Sega’s market fortunes.
Seeing full motion video for the first time (in the opening Cinematic to a game called Puggsy no less) was a highlight of the Mega CD for me but sadly it became something that the console overused. With the exception of the odd bright spot (the excellent Sonic CD to mention one), the Mega CD is not part of the 16-bit era that I remember fondly; it was simply “there”. The most positive effect it had perhaps was to introduce me to a grander world of video game music as the CD-ROM format delivered this marvellously through the add-on’s dashboard system. I would go on to record many a Mega CD game’s music to my Walkman.
As a sweet innocent child, I was oblivious to the destructive Mega CD hype machine and the existence of “swap shops” kept me from losing large sums of money on the lousy FMV games that cluttered its library.
Speaking of swap shops; these were one of the best parts of growing up with video games. The bulk of the games I played as a kid came from swap shops. The concept was simple, you took a game to one of these special shops and they would value it for you. You would then pay no more than £3-£5 and the store would allow you to “swap”your game for another of the same value. It was a genius system for a cash-strapped kid like me and it meant I got to try out new titles on a weekly basis. Swap shops would eventually die a death to lack of profitability but it was great while it lasted.
I think that the 16-bit era is a funny one looking back; to me it always seemed like the one era that was really tough to crack. The Super Nintendo would go on to do tremendous business well into the 1996 holiday season and the 32-bit systems would really have their work cut out for them.
I guess that this fourth generation of home video game consoles would constitute somewhat of a golden period in my own gaming history. Like many moments, I always found it extremely special to be part of something like this the first time around as well as rediscovering it after many years.
As Ronnie James Dio once sang:
“Nothing’s in the past, it always seems to come again
Again and again and again”.