Get ready to feel old, Genesis kids, because Sega’s legendary 16-bit console recently turned 25. Like many kids who first cut their gaming teeth on the NES, I briefly betrayed Nintendo and joined Sega’s camp during the 16-bit wars. The Sega Genesis (or the Mega Drive to those not from North America) just seemed so much fresher and, dare I say it, more rude, crude and full of ‘tude than the stodgy old Super Nintendo.
But the SNES did narrowly outsell the Genesis, and winners write the history books, so the Genesis’ accomplishments tend to be downplayed these days. Well, we’ll have none of that nonsense here! Here are 12 facts you may not know about the best console of the 16-bit era (yeah, I just threw down that gauntlet)…
1) The Genesis was actually Sega’s third console. Most people know that Sega had an 8-bit console before the Genesis in the Mega Drive, but they actually had yet another console before that called the SG-1000. The SG-1000 launched in Japan on he same day as Nintendo’s Famicom (July 15, 1983) and, well, I bet you can guess how that battle went for Sega — the SG-1000 was such an immediate flop it was never even considered for an American release. So, the Mega Drive/Genesis was a real “get a hit or go back to the bench” situation for Sega.
Oh, you don’t own an SG-1000? And here I thought you were a Sega fan.
2) The console’s internal hardware was a mashup of an Apple Macintosh and a Game Boy. Sega wanted the Genesis to be easy to develop for and port games to, so it was built out of the most common chips and components possible. The system’s main processor was a Motorola 68000, the same chip that powered the original Apple Macintosh five years earlier, and its sound chip was a Zilog Z80, the ancient chip (it first hit the market in 1976) that powered the Game Boy.
3) The system was a flop in Sega’s home country of Japan, but a huge success in Brazil. The Genesis/Mega Drive may have been the product of a Japanese company, but the machine tanked hard in Japan. In fact, the Mega Drive was a rather distant third place in Japan, trailing both the Super Famicom and the Japanese version of the TurboGrafx-16.
On the other hand, the console was a rousing success in Brazil (and the rest of South America for that matter) with the system continuing to sell there well after it was a dead system in the rest of the world. The 8-bit Master System was also a major success in Brazil. This was mainly because Tectoy, the company with a complete iron grip on the South American video game market, was oddly loyal to Sega. Tectoy could have brought in Nintendo products if they had wanted to, but they never bothered, sticking faithfully to Sega and its machines.
Want to buy a brand new, weirdly-colored Genesis in a super ugly box? Brazil is the place for you.
4) The console had a super-confusing name in Korea. Due to Korea and Japan’s centuries old simmering blood feud, Japanese companies were barred from selling their products in South Korea until fairly recently. Most Japanese products still ended up in Korea, but they had to be sold by local company under a different name, which led to Sega teaming up with Samsung. The Master System was the first Sega console Samsung sold in Korea, and they renamed the system the Gam*Boy, and what did they call the Mega Drive? The Super Gam*Boy, naturally.
So, if you say you want a Super Game Boy in most of the world, you’ll get this…
…but in Korea, you’ll probably get this.
Yup, totally a Samsung creation — no devious Japanese companies involved here.
5) There were wireless controllers for Genesis. Think Nintendo’s Wavebird for the Gamecube was the first wireless video game controller? Nope! Sega released wireless infrared Genesis controllers back in the 90s, and by all accounts, they worked better than you might think.
6) It also beat Nintendo to motion controls by around 20-years. Yup, decades before Nintendo let you flail your way to sports supremacy, Sega sold this baby…
Swing the bat and your guy in the game would swing his bat. Simple, but then again, most Wii motion controls never advanced much beyond this stage. Then of course there was the Sega Activator, which was essentially the 90s version of Kinect.
Is that kid wearing like, three layers of sweater over shorts?
Your controller’s various buttons were mapped to a big plastic hexagon you put on the floor and activated by punching and kicking. Once again, the comparison to modern-day motion controls is depressingly apt.
7) You could play Genesis games online. Yes, back in 1990 Sega offered full online gaming support for the Genesis/Mega Drive, you just don’t remember it because it never came to America or Europe. Sega Meganet was a Japanese and Brazilian service that let you take your Mega Drive online via a small dial-up modem, and featured a library of around 25 downloadable titles, some of which supported competitive online play. Again, this was happening in 1990. Unfortunately, early ’90s Internet adoption rates were still too low for Sega Meganet to make a go of it, and it folded before an American version of the service, entitled Tele-Genesis, could be launched. That said, Sega of America would offer downloadable titles through Sega Channel a couple years later.
8) EA hacked the system and held Sega to ransom. Ever wonder why EA-published Genesis games always had that weird little yellow doohickie on the side? Well, those ugly cartridges were the result of some seriously sneaky (downright sketchy really) EA behavior.
If you ever find yourself cursing the soulless husk EA has become, just remember — they did make Road Rash.
Before EA became the towering soulless conglomerate it is today, it was a spunky little company looking to get any competitive advantage they could. When the Genesis hit America, EA got their hands on a development kit, reverse engineered it and figured out how to publish games on the system without Sega’s approval. EA founder Trip Hawkins confronted the president of Sega, demanding a more favorable licensing agreement under threat they would start independently licensing games for Sega’s machine. Since, technically, there’s nothing illegal about publishing your own games for a console as long as you’re smart enough to figure out how, EA had Sega over a barrel, so Sega agreed to grant EA more reasonable royalty rates, the ability to approve their own games and, yes, the right to manufacture their own funky-looking cartridges.
Ironically, EA’s blackmail actually worked out well for Sega, as EA’s sports games ended up being a major Genesis selling point, and the more “enlightened” licensing agreement they hammered out with Sega ended up attracting all manner of third parties that might not have strayed from Nintendo’s reliable side otherwise.
9) There are a huge number of different Genesis models. Everybody’s familiar with the two main Genesis models — the big, clunky knob-and-switch covered original, and the sleeker Genesis Model 2, but there were actually at least a dozen different Genesis models released throughout the years. Far more than a dozen if you count all the cheap-o plug-and-play Genesis machines out there.
For instance, did you know that there was a Genesis Model 3? It was actually manufactured by Majesco instead of Sega.
Or that Sega made the TeraDrive, which was a weird mix of a Genesis and a home computer?
Or what about the super obscure CSD-GM1, which was a Genesis and Sega CD built into a boombox?
Ever wish your Genesis could play cassette tapes? Really? What’s wrong with you?
If you can imagine a weird, useless Genesis variation, it probably actually exists. I would not be the slightest bit surprised if an official Sonic-playing toaster is a real thing somewhere out there in the world.
10) Games continue to be developed for the system to this day. Sega may have long since abandoned the system, but dedicated fans continue to produce new games for the console. Recent years have seen the release of the well-regarded RPG Pier Solar and the Great Architects and Fix-It Felix Jr., an actual playable version of the fictional game at the heart of Wreck-It Ralph (well, it used to be fictional).
11) The Genesis beat the Super Nintendo in the West. The narrative you most often hear about the 16-bit console wars is that the Genesis pulled ahead on the strength of Sonic for a couple years, but then Nintendo hit the nitro with the release of Donkey Kong Country and soundly trounced Sega’s machine. The reality is, the race was much closer than you think, and in fact Sega outright won the war in the Americas and Europe.
Now, Nintendo did triumph on a worldwide basis. According to official numbers from Nintendo, the Super Nintendo sold around 49 million units worldwide. Sega was less forthcoming about sales, and for years the most quoted Genesis number was 29 million, but that figure was lifted from a single quote from 1994. The Genesis continued to sell well for years after 1994, and more recent estimates put the number of Genesis units sold at closer to 40 million.
The reason Nintendo had a higher worldwide tally was entirely down to Japan, where the Super Famicom outsold the Mega Drive on a nearly 4-to-1 basis. Meanwhile, in the Americas the Super Nintendo ended up selling 23.35 million, while the Genesis sold at least 24 million units (it could be significantly more, but Brazilian sales figures are very hard to track down). The Mega Drive also beat the SNES in Europe and other regions (other regions usually refers to Australia and the Middle East) 10.4 million to 8.6 million. So there you have it — the 16-bit wars (which was mostly a western thing) were officially won by Sega.
Ugh, this jerk is going to get even more smug now.
12) Blast Processing was real. To this day Sega’s “Blast Processing” is held up as the ultimate example of video game industry meaningless technobabble, but the fact is Blast Processing wasn’t pure PR nonsense. Yes, the words Blast Processing were dreamt up at a marketing meeting, but the idea behind those words — that the Genesis was a much faster machine than the SNES — was absolutely true.
The Genesis had a much more muscular CPU than the SNES and was capable of direct memory access. It’s complicated, but basically, various Genesis functions could access the system’s RAM without going through the CPU — in other words, the system could multitask in a way the SNES couldn’t, further speeding up the system. The SNES had other things going for it, like a greater range of colors and fancy Mode-7 3D effects, but the Genesis was undeniably the speedier system.
So there you are, Genesis kids, a few facts about Sega’s unforgettable Sonic machine. Have any interesting Genesis facts of your own? Just want to share some Sega Genesis memories? Hit the comments and have at it.
Thanks as always to Joel Stice for the Fascinating Facts format!