Sega’s early history can be traced back to company called Service Games. Founded in 1940 and based in Honolulu, Hawaii. Service Games made jukeboxes and slot machines, selling them to the American Military. They relocated to Tokyo in 1951, and after merging with another arcade manufacture called Rosen Enterprises in 1965, called themselves Sega, taking the first 2 letters of Service Games.
The first international hit for Sega was an arcade cabinet game called Periscope, a submarine simulator using a unique light and sound system. The blue Sega logo came from a 1976 large screen TV called Sega-Vision. The company expanded during the Arcade Boom of the late 70s and became highly profitable. In the early 80s they were the first to use Laser Disc technology in games with the arcade Astronbelt.
Sega’s first console was the SG-1000 which was released in 1983 (oddly enough the exact same day as the Famicom, though it wasn’t intentional). The system was cartridge based, but not as powerful, or popular as the Famicom. The console was a modest success in Japan; however it was very popular in Taiwan. It was also released in Australia in 1985 but failed to meet sales expectations. The later versions also had the option for game cards, which was carried over to the first version of the Master System.
The Sega Mark III, released in Japan 1985, was actually the first version of the Master System. It was rebranded as the Master System but once again failed to find a solid market in Japan. Sega then released the Master System in North America and contracted Tonka to do the marketing. Despite the fact that the MS was more powerful than the NES, the console still bombed, due to a combination of Tonka’s substandard marketing, the NES owning 83% of the console market and Nintendo telling third party publishers they were not allowed to publish with Sega if they already had a relationship with them (this was later overturned in court).
But that’s not the end of the Master System’s story. Sega started directly marketing the console in new areas around the world where Nintendo wasn’t quite so prolific. This wonderful little console made its way into homes all across Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. After the Master System II (with built in game Alex Kid in Miracle World) was released, it was bought by a lot of parents seeing it as the cheaper version of a Mega Drive. After all, they both had Sonic and a Sega is a Sega, according to them.
However the biggest market the Master System found was in Brazil, where they had more versions than any other region as well as it being the best-selling console for over a decade. Brazil made a lot of their own games, or at least their own version of popular games, between 1989 and 2012 over 5 million consoles were sold in just the one country. There are still unofficial and homebrew carts being made to this day.
The best release for the Master System is generally considered to be Sonic the Hedgehog 2. You don’t get to play as Tails in this version, but you do get an awesome hang-glider! And yes, as the author of this article, I should admit to being a Master System tragic. I loved this console.
The 16 bit era started with the Mega Drive , which was released in 1988 in Japan, 1989 in North America (where it was renamed the ‘Genesis’, as Mega Drive was already copyrighted) and 1990 in the PAL regions. Despite being the successor to the Master System, both consoles co-existed happily in the PAL regions and turned a profit for Sega for many years.
Sega themselves directly marketed the Genesis in North America, this time with the famous “Genesis does what Nintendon’t!” campaign. This strategy was hugely successful, at least in the beginning, as Sega wanted kids to know them as the company that had the most arcade-like games. And being the 90s, most of the commercials featured the word ‘extreme’ at least 3 times every 10 seconds. Sega were also the first to give their games a classification so they could release more violent games such as Mortal Kombat (which had blood, rather than SNES version, which had sweat).
As the console wars heated up, the SNES (released in 1992) gave the Mega Drive a run for its money. Although both consoles did very well, the SNES ended up outselling the Mega Drive. Sega’s reaction to this was to extend the life of the Mega Drive with some extra peripherals. This included the 32x, a cartridge based 32 bit system that slotted into the top of the Mega Drive, and the Sega Mega-CD (Sega CD) which was fitted either underneath or off to the side of the system. Both of these systems required their own power adapter and both were commercial failures. The Sega CD in particular came into considerable criticism for its use of ‘full motion video’ which often lacked any actual gameplay.
The worst game for the Mega Drive was Shaq-Fu (Shaquille O’Neal). It sounds like it would be just a silly game, but it was genuinely awful to play.
This era was notable for the release of Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991, a game which focused on speed. Sonic went on to become Sega’s mascot, which had been Alex Kidd up until that point in time.
The Game Gear was Sega’s first attempt at a portable gaming device (followed by the relatively unknown Sega Nomad in 1995). It was designed to directly compete with Nintendo’s Game Boy. Boasting a larger, backlit colour screen, the Game Gear was effectively a portable Master System and shared many of the same games (albeit with a few tweaks). There was also the option of a TV tuner, a novel idea as portable TVs were very expensive at the time. The Game Gear didn’t fare too badly at first but it suffered from the same problem as all early portable gaming devices: The batteries went flat very quickly. And this beast took six of them.
One of the reasons the Sega CD fared so poorly was the people knew the next generation of CD based consoles was on the way, and for Sega in 1994, this was the Sega Saturn. Sega had this console in the works for a while, but the console was drastically redesigned after Sega found out the specs for the Sony PlayStation. The Saturn used dual CPUs which became a headache for game developers, sometimes having to recode entire games to get them to work.
The Sega Saturn is often looked upon as a failure; however it was quite popular in Japan where it had a much larger library of games. Many of these games weren’t released in North America and PAL regions as Sega thought they would be unappealing to western audiences. The best game for this system is believed to be Nights into Dreams (personally, I found that game kind of ordinary).
The Dreamcast was the final home console from Sega and many consider it Sega’s console swansong. The Dreamcast was the first of the sixth generation consoles and was released in 1998. Despite the Dreamcast getting off to a suspicious start (Japan thought they’d moved on too quickly from the Sega Saturn, and the rest of the world didn’t trust them because of the Sega Saturn), it was actually very well received by critics and gamers alike, mostly thanks to a heavy marketing campaign by Sega and good launch titles. However not long after the PlayStation 2 (with built in DVD player) was announced, Dreamcast sales plummeted. Sega, now in deep financial trouble, decided to opt out of the home console market to concentrate purely on games.
Despite the overall commercial unreliability of the Dreamcast, it still has something of a cult following, software was still being produced for it until 2007, with many games being ahead of their time. This console even had an internal modem, paving the way for console online gaming (although the first such instance of online console gaming was the Super Famicom’s Satellaview in 1995. Japan only of course). Crazy Taxi is often cited as the most popular game, and Shenmue was the most expensive game ever produced (at the time).
For those of us who survived the early console wars (and managed to rebuild their shattered lives) it was a big surprise to start seeing Sonic games being released on Nintendo. Indeed many classic Sega games are available on the Virtual Console and several Mega Drive Collection discs have been released for the PS3. Mario and Sonic have even appeared in sports games together!
Throughout the decades, Sega has given us both some classic games and classic consoles and continues to be a big player in software gaming. However there is one thing that Sega has done consistently well over the years: Arcade Games.
Although arcades are no longer prolific as they once were (especially in Australia), if you go to any surviving game centre (or bowling alley) you are almost guaranteed to find such classic games as Sega Rally, Daytona USA or Virtua Fighter.
But once again, it’s in Japan where Sega still shines. Club Sega, multi-storey arcade centres, are found near most of the major Railway Station in Tokyo. But as well as the latest fighter and puzzle games, they also have UFO machines (think massive Skill Testers), gambling games (such as video poker and horse racing) and Print Club (photo sticker) machines, probably their biggest money maker.
My favourite games for each Sega console are:
- Master System: Wonder Boy in Monster Land
- Mega Drive: Streets of Rage 2
- Saturn: Virtual On: Cyber Troopers (with the proper joysticks of course)
- Dreamcast: Power Stone 2 (especially with 4 players)
What are yours?
- Andrew “ProdTally” Yoshimura