Today's Op-Ed is about the underrated,unappreciated, often misunderstood Mega CD/Sega CD. I feel compelled to write this because I everytime I see or read an article or comment on SEGA's past, the Sega CD/Mega CD is often referenced in a negative, if not often misunderstood, one dimensional manner.
Often, I notice articles or resource sites saying things like: "Sega CD was a flop" or "that it had way too much shovelware" or that "Sega CD was just too ahead of its time" and even often, the Sega CD is unfairly lumped with the atrocious 32X as an "unwated add on for Genesis" all of these are just mere incredulous talking points with no actual facts to back it up. And I'd like to point out the real facts regarding Sega CD/Mega CD. Not only in the op-ed, will I point out how false all those talking points were as well reveal secret facts regarding Mega CD's development. Which secretly took place during 1989-1990.
It all started in August 1988, SEGA's System 16, 16-bit Arcade line was a rousing success both in Japan and Globally, it was clear by then that the company needed to include a new up-gradable board for the new decade codenamed "Project Moon" or System 24. The new Arcade board,would have 3 revolutionary features, the first, System 24 would be the first Arcade board in history to support CD-ROM as a proprietary format, the second, the whopping 1300 KBs of Memory and Data which in the late 80s was considered cutting edge and finally, "Mode 7" sprite technology.
System 24 would also be capable of producing up to a max of over 4.000 colors, and 2,048 sprites.(NES/Famicom was only capable of 16, Master System/Mark III only capable of 64, PC Engine/Turbo Graphix only capable of 128) and used 2 16-bit Motorola 68000 CPUs(Twice the power of the new Mega Drive). It was also clear to SEGA, that was certainly an initiative to attempt home Arcade ports from System 24, but the problem was obvious, The Mega Drive was way inferior and incapable of handing such power with its 256 sprite limitation and lack of scaling,rotation and Mode 7 scrolling(in which Nintendo begin to incorporate in Famicom 2 a.k,a the Super Famicom which had just started development).
The solution was obvious: Instead of developing another console or SKU, all they had to do is design a special accessory for the new ready to be launched Mega Drive. There were 2 options: A Floppy Disk Drive ala Famicom Disk Drive which had launched in 1986, the second, a Laser Disc add on that powered System 24 chips codenamed "Project Earth" or Mega Laser Disc. Which was inspired by the failed 1985 LD multi player the "RDI Halcyon".
And so, in November 1988, SEGA signed on a joint venture deal with Pioneer to design and develop a LD add on machine for Mega Drive, since SEGA and Pioneer had worked together on SEGA's 1984 cutting edge LD Arcade motherboard. Pioneer was very ambitious. They wanted to build a full fledged LD multi media machine that doubled as an add on for Sega Mega Drive. This was around the same time in the Netherlands, Philips was developing "CD Interactive" or "CD-i" which was a horribly executed,gimmicky,over budgeted multi media CD player which didn't get introduced until early 1991.
Also around the same time, Hasbro and Radio Shack were also working on a 16-bit VHS based console NEMO. These two failed machines would play a crucial role in Sega "Project Earth" later on.
The development process of Sega "Project Earth" Mega LD finally begin in the Summer of 1989 around the time Mega Drive newly nicknamed "Sega Genesis" for the Western Hemisphere, (referencing the first book of the Holy Bible in the hopes this would be the "beginning" of success as a home video game console brand) In the middle of R&D headed and managed by Masami Ishikawa,Hideki Okamura, and Tomio Takumi, Sega Away 27 and Pioneer ran into several set backs: the first was the overall cost and supply shortage for System 24 silicon(BOM prices for the Motherboard alone were a whopping $400). The second was the illogical thought process regarding the design of both Mega LD and its pin attachment to MD's large motherboard. Too many chips simply risked overheating,over-inflation,over-performing and overpricing; The 3rd and final: The overall unreliability on Laser Disc itself. It was too bulky,too pricey and too niche. Although SEGA was approaching Sega Earth/Mega LD from a niche perspective, LD just didn't have an audience or market who would be willing to pay mad dollars for such a hybrid.
Also, Ishikawa wanted to keep his 8 bit line alive despite SEGA by 1989 already abandoning it, so he suggested, it be recycled for a full colored portable handheld codenamed "Project Mercury" that would be designed to take on Nintendo's new B&W "Gameboy" and Atari's new "LYNX". This became the Sega Game Gear.
And so, in March 1990, SEGA and Pioneer's plans for Sega Earth/Mega Laser Disc were scrapped. The project needed a retool and was headed back to the drawing board. As part of the brokerage deal, Pioneer took the patents for the concept, and SEGA agreed to allow ROM compatibility of Mega Drive to be used for it, later, when Project Earth finally became "Mega CD", SEGA allowed ROM compatibility with Pioneer's newly retooled stand alone Laser Disc multimedia player "LaserActive".
After the failed deal with Pioneer, SEGA sought a solution for Project Earth, and they saw one so simple an obvious: CD-ROM! It was clear from NEC's PC Engine CD add on, Compact Disc ROM had serious potential, and would eventually replace Cartridges for game ROM storage(Sega was far from correct on this matter) also CD offered larger storage,better, STEREO sound and could push better quality via MPEG. SEGA finally signed JVC "Japan Victor Company" on board as their 2nd party partner, since JVC was the dominate home video media giant and creator of VHS.
But there was a problem, System 24 was still very expensive and SEGA wanted to price its new hybrid just fair enough for niche consumers. it was basically next to impossible for System 24 to make it to the home consumers. The newly official christened, finalized hybrid of Sega Earth: The "Mega CD" could simply DOUBLE the power of Mega Drive. Adding more sprites,more colors, REAL Stereo sound,larger capacity, and double its RAM from 512KBs to 768KBs for these purposes, SEGA simply powered Mega CD with an addition 68000 CPU with twice the clockspeed of Mega Drive's.
SEGA also came up with a new solution regarding game data memory: Cartridges being used for back up memory!Later reused for Sega Saturn, the Mega CD allowed a storage program to copy certain game data on the disc and also backup data on a separate Cartridge running through Mega Drive's motherboard.
The Mega CD finally completed development in November 1990. JVC was tasked to provide its motherboard,CD lens,tray,drive,motor and extra Motorola 68000 and with SEGA's final BOM price: $175 and a set retail price for Japan at 40,000 Yen($400), the new Mega CD was ready for Japan.
SEGA of Japan had also just launched its new Handheld the Game Gear and was finding it to be modestly successful, fearing breaches and mishandling of PR, SOJ kept Mega CD secret from SOA, intrusting it to Sega of Europe.
The Mega CD was finally unveiled to the public for the first time at the Tokyo Toy Fair in April 1991 the same day as CES 1991 in which Philips unveiled its CD-i . Also that same time, SEGA's new Mascot "Sonic The Hedgehog" was also unveiled to the world for the very first time. Reaction was very positive at first, and pre-orders and demand was very high for Mega CD, but that ultimately became a curse instead of a blessing for it. Due to the high demand, the Mega CD was hit by massive shortages and silicon supply problems forcing SOJ to delay its planned Early Fall 1991 rollout until early December.
The Mega CD finally hit Japan on December 6,1991 for 38,900 Yen($390) despite the ten dollar difference, and despite the shortage issues, MCD was a solid hit selling about 100,000 units its first 2 months of availability. For a niche device especially one competing against NEC PC Engine CD and SNK Neo Geo, 100K is very good.
The Mega CD and Sonic The Hedgehog also helped turn the tide for Mega Drive in Japan, by 1992, MD was outselling PC Engine by 3 to 1. Although sales remained modest for Mega CD, developer support was limited. Many developers were simply too overwhelmed by CD ROM itself and CD+G. Although SEGA sent out SDKs and CD masters, most 3rd party developers were inexperienced in burning and programming games on CDs. The Mega CD soon begin to become barren on game releases, and SEGA was unable to convince many to fully support Mega CD despite how easy it was to program, by then SOJ was more focused on their 5th gen plans with the new projects: The System 32 based "MARS" and System 32 with Model 1 3D Technology 2D powerhouse "JUPITER".
Sega of Japan finally sent out SDKs for Mega CD as well as patents to Sega of America in February 1992. SOJ instructed SOA to find a way to successfully market it in the West. Tom Kalinske really felt that the nicknamed "Sega CD" could find an audience with Full Motion Video, so after meeting with NEMO creator Tom Zito who had formed a new game development studio "Digital Pictures", Kalinske was convinced FMV could work and was easily marketable, so he decided that Sega CD would be marketed as an Interactive, Next Level new hybrid for Genesis, while agreeing to allow Zito to port all of NEMO's unreleased FMVs like "Sewer Shark" "Prize Fighter" and the infamous "Night Trap" to Sega CD.
Sega of America also signed an OEM deal with Sony without realizing that JVC was in charge or completely unaware that Sony was planning a strategy secretly to get into the console business. Sony not only agreed to develop plenty of FMV titles for Sega CD, they also claimed full patent and OEM rights on Sega CD and got wind of SEGA of Japan's Jupiter project. SEGA had no idea that Sony would use info regarding Jupiter to design its PlayStation hybrid and planned on double crossing Nintendo's Super CD project to get it made.
The Sega CD was displayed at Summer CES 1992 alongside the anticipated "Sonic The Hedgehog 2" game. The stunning surprise success of Sonic The Hedgehog the previous year which completely turned the tables on Nintendo regarding NES and cast doubts on the new Super Nintendo while injecting NEW life into the Genesis, meant Sonic was a force to be reckoned with. He was marketable,he had mass appeal, he was a money making machine for SEGA, so his sequel was the talk of the town. Everyone was focused on Sonic 2. But the second place focus was certainly on the new Sega CD. This new add on was supposed to enhance the Genesis and was supposed to be BETTER priced and better executed than the failed CD-i. SOA was confident its steep $399 price point was economical and also figured they'd win over TurboGraphix consumers.
Because of the hit positive reception of Sega CD at Summer CES, demand for it was pretty high. Alas, the same problems it had in Japan, also carried over to the states and Sony claiming OEM rights, drastically affected supply.
The Sega CD hit the US on November 24,1992, the same day as Sonic 2, Sega of America's new marketing campaign called "Welcome To The Next Level" is said to be what helped put the Genesis on the map in America and what launched Sonic into the Stratosphere.
The Sega CD launched with 12 titles. The most popular being Sewer Shark. About 50,000 units were sold through the Holiday of 1992. It was early 1993, when sales improved even more thanks to increase in 3rd party support. SEGA then decided not to port Sonic 2 to Sega CD, and instead design and develop its original planned Sonic 1 sequel, the newly christened "Sonic The Hedgehog CD".
The Mega CD finally made its way to Europe on March 26,1993 and in Australia on April 16,1993. In those territories,MCD caught on much better and was more successful.
In Early 1993, after a consultation with SEGA of Japan and after receiving prototypes for "Sega Mars/Giga Drive" now scrapped by SOJ, Sega of America learned that they had been lied to and deceived by Sony regarding OEM rights. That JVC was the OEM holder and stated they were and thus owned all licensing for Sega CD. Sony denied this claim and instead threatened to take JVC to court in which they did. But it backfired instead for Sony, as JVC was able to prove they were the OEM holders and owned the patent to Sega CD's motherboard and CD technology alongside SEGA. Sony's court battle against JVC was lost. In return, JVC,SEGA and Sony agreed to stop manufacturing the CD tray loader design of Mega CD/Sega CD. The Sega CD/Mega CD was getting a redesign with a top loader instead of a tray. Sony then learned, SEGA had no interest in getting them involved with Jupiter(unbeknownst to them and SOA, Sega of Japan had a top secret alternative to Jupiter codenamed "Aurora") so Sony moved forward with its secret plans for "PlayStation" after also learning Nintendo was no longer interested in partnerships with them.
By the summer of 1993, lack of software support was slowing Mega CD down in Japan. So SEGA rolled out Sonic CD in the hopes of sparking continued interest in it. the game was an instant success(thus far the only commercially successful Sonic release in Japan) but majority of the 3rd party developers were stuck on Super Famicom and instead were also flocking to the new 3DO console. SOJ finally felt the time was right to move on from Mega CD with the hopes that the other region divisions would keep it alive while they focused energy on the newly designed Aurora System 32 with Model 2 3D technology design "Saturn". Unbeknownst to them however, Sega of America had already ditched plans to upgrade Sega CD with Sega CD32/CDX and instead was designing a new Genesis add on hybrid to upgrade its successful Genesis line from Mars' "Genesis 32 or 32X".
Sega CD continued to fare well, but for SEGA, their clear belief was that it was running on empty. That even by 1994, its technology would be dated, and again SOA despite considering the idea of upgrading it with System 32 chips for the Mars project, was more concerned about the Genesis.
By 1994, the Sega CD/Mega CD was dying, internally. It was still selling very well overall globally(even in Japan, where within just 2 years it had reached 500,000). Alas the poor Sega CD was bogged down with frequent supply constraints,too many gimmicky FMV games(which weren't bad per say, they just had limited shelf life and replay-ability) and a frustrating lack of Japanese 3rd party support from developers just too squeamish about CD-ROM. Though Sega of Japan supported Mega CD until 1995 and SEGA overall until 1996, Sega CD was finally retired in March 1996 with just 200 games in its 4 year lifespan.
The tragic thing about it, is that it was a good system. It was just too overpriced early on and lacked great games. memorable games like Snatcher,Popful Mail,Sonic CD,Lethal Enforces,Sunset Riders,Final Final CD,Shining Force CD, and Ecco The Dolphin CD didn't come into later in its life and were weighed down by the FMV games. Many people who bash it fail to realize that the FMV titles for it were great for their time and well executed. That the CD-i had FAR worse FMV titles and 3X times more, that were all overall, very poorly executed and overpriced. Sega CD itself did what PC Engine CD and Neo Geo both failed to do and especially what 32X UTTERLY FAILED at doing: Become a console accessory that stood out as its own unique product.
Sega CD/Mega CD is a beloved,short lived product with an interesting history and good,small library to boot. Despite claims of it being a flop, Sega CD overall sold 6 million units worldwide by the end of 1995. Ignore all the hate, its a good investment with PLENTY of collectible games to choose from.
Here's its basic spec sheet:
CPU: 16-bit Motorolla 68000 (12.5MHz) The MCD used an additional M68000 processor, this allowed it to run a double the speed and also increase its performance.
RAM: 768kb(Mega Drive/Genesis was only capable of max 512KBs, Mega CD doubled available memory.)
Colors: 512 (64 on screen) Mega Drive/Genesis' max color was 256. At the time Mega CD was released in 1991, MD games only displayed 64-128 colors.
Resolution: 320x224 pixels
Sound: 10-channel PCM sound(No console at the time could do Stereo sound, and most PCs were incapable of doing so.)
CD Speed: 150kb/s (1x)
Sprites: 80(Mega CD may have come a year after Super Famicom, but being capable of micropolygons was a techinical feat for it prior to Star Fox)
Here's a more detailed spec sheet of Sega CD/Mega CD, this is for 1991 people: