Nowadays, SEGA is known for games like Total War and the Yakuza series. But many gamers will also remember that SEGA used to be in the console market. In fact, at one point, SEGA even began outselling Nintendo.
Some of the company’s consoles were abject failures, others were hits, and some simply weren’t understood or respected at the time, but have gone on to be highly regarded in retrospect. While gamers all have different views on SEGA, what can’t be denied is that the company was unique, innovative, and helped push gaming into a new era.
Easily the least-known of all mainstream SEGA consoles, the SG-1000 was the company’s first major foray into the console market. The SG-1000 was released only the in Pacific region, focusing mainly on Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand. It launched on July 15, 1983, the same day as Nintendo’s Famicom.
The SG-1000 went virtually unnoticed, unable to compete with the juggernaut that was Nintendo, but it did give SEGA some much-needed experience in the home gaming market. SEGA would learn from the SG-1000 and make improvements for their next console.
Released in 1994, the 32X was a peripheral (or, add-on) for the Genesis/Mega Drive console. While the Genesis was 16-bit, the 32X addition would allow gamers to play new titles that were 32-bit, meaning they had better graphics and smoother gameplay. The problem was that SEGA tried launching the 32X alongside their new next-gen Saturn console in Japan (and only five months before the Saturn launch in North America).
Because of this, developers focused on Saturn games instead of 32X titles, giving the peripheral a pathetically small game library of just 40 titles. On top of that, the 32X needed its own power cord and a cord that connected to the Genesis/Mega Drive, which also had its own power cord, leading to a messy power-hungry machine that required a lot of space and open outlets.
The Pico was launched in 1993 and was an “edutainment” console for children. At the time, the Pico’s technology was quite impressive. It looked like a laptop (but hooked up to a TV) and came with an attached stylus that could be used to interact with the games and even draw on the console’s gamepad, producing an image on the screen.
While the console did moderately well in Japan, it was a complete failure in North America. This was largely due to the cultural perception of SEGA and video games at the time. SEGA had just been part of a congressional hearing and video games were being blamed for crime and delinquency, so no parent wanted to have their four-year-old learn from a gaming console.
6 Game Gear
In 1990, SEGA released their first (and only) handheld console, the Game Gear. It was designed to compete directly with Nintendo’s Game Boy, and SEGA felt they had a winner. Unlike the Game Boy’s dull, calculator-looking screen display, the Game Gear was in full color and backlit, allowing you to play it in the dark. It even had cool peripherals like a TV tuner and screen magnifier.
However, the Game Gear had its downsides too. Its massive amount of power quickly sucked the life out of batteries (the console required four at a time) and it wasn’t as portable as the Game Boy. It was bulky, long, and heavy. The game cartridges were bigger than the Game Boy’s as well.
5 SEGA CD
Before the 32X was released, the Genesis/Mega Drive received its first peripheral in 1991 with the SEGA CD. The new disk drive was attached to the console, allowing for better sound quality, better graphics, and most importantly, bigger, longer games. Unfortunately, many games released for the peripheral were tacky FMV (Full Motion Video) games that play out like interactive movies. These became notorious for being low quality and dull.
However, the SEGA CD also saw some outstanding titles in its library, many of which went on to be critically acclaimed and are now prized possessions for retro gamers. Games like Sonic CD, the Lunar series, Snatcher, and Heart of the Alien all became celebrated classics.
When the Saturn was released in the US in 1995, it was an absolute failure. SEGA thought the future of gaming would be a continuation of what it was in the Genesis/SNES era – 2D sidescrollers, arcade ports, and fantasy-based RPGs. However, the release of the PlayStation changed everything. The console market was now moving towards fully 3D adventure games, first-person shooters, and survival horror. The Saturn didn’t have any of those, so customers chose other consoles instead.
This doesn’t mean the system was bad, but merely misunderstood. The Saturn did in fact have tons of highly praised games, like Nights into Dreams, Clockwork Knight, Dragon Force, and the Panzer Dragoon franchise. Sadly, the console’s high price point and disinterest from consumers meant that many of these excellent titles would only be enjoyed by a small number of players.
3 Master System
After the failure of the SG-1000, SEGA learned quite a few lessons. In 1986 they came out with their new console, the Master System. This 8-bit device was finally on par with Nintendo and became SEGA’s first true competitive move in the growing console wars.
It was also the first time SEGA released games that would become famous and cement the company in gaming history forever. Both Space Harrier and Phantasy Star were first released on the Master System and proved that SEGA could produce outstanding games. The console saw widespread success in Europe, and especially Brazil, where the Master System is still being sold to this day.
Sadly, the console that many argue is SEGA’s best also turned out to be their last. In 1998, the company launched the Dreamcast in Japan. A year later it was released in North America. It was high-powered, had better graphics than anything else on the market, and even had built-in internet connectivity. At the time, it was a true technological marvel. It also had some heavily praised games like Soul Caliber, Jet Set Radio, and the groundbreaking Shenmue.
But throughout the Dreamcast’s lifespan, the imminent launch of the PS2 loomed over SEGA like a dark cloud. SONY was about to launch an even more powerful gaming machine, and due to failures like the 32X and Saturn, consumers had lost faith in SEGA. This combination led to the death of the Dreamcast and SEGA as a console-maker, despite the fact that the Dreamcast was truly a great system.
1 Genesis/Mega Drive
Launched as the Genesis in North America and the Mega Drive everywhere else, this 16-bit console was the biggest win in SEGA’s history. Thanks to hit games like Streets of Rage, Earthworm Jim, Altered Beast, and of course, SEGA’s bestselling franchise of all time, Sonic the Hedgehog, the console skyrocketed in popularity and gave Nintendo some serious competition.
Part of this success was because the Genesis/Mega Drive targeted an older market than Nintendo. This is most obvious in SEGA’s decision to keep the blood in Mortal Kombat red, whereas the SNES changed it to grey “sweat”. Sadly, SEGA was never able to recapture this level of fame, success, and fortune ever again.
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