Out of all the hardware I was in charge of writing about the Mega-CD or Sega-CD as it was called in North America was the one I was most looking forward to and for several reasons that I will get into in more detail below.
Firstly it's important to begin by stating the basics so let's get that out of the way shall we? The Mega-CD was developed and released by Sega of Japan in December 1991 in order to bring the megadrive up to the standard of the SNES regarding things like colour pallette and to enable vastly superior sound through the use of the CD media. At the time of its release in it's home territory CD-ROM was still a very new technology only really embraced by the PC community and even then in very small numbers, Sega had looked at it though and decided that this was the way to go as it would allow for vastly larger games benefitting from new concepts such as FMV (full motion video) and as mentioned a much larger colour pallette and even faster processing. Considering that CD technology would not really become the standard until the arrival of the Sega Saturn and Sony's Playstation this shows how much ahead of the game Sega at that time were, only NEC with their PC Engine range were moving down this path and it was a massive leap of faith, surfice it to say the leap in fact turned out to be far too vast.
When Sega first decided to enter the console race with the Master System they were playing catch-up to Nintendo and others and even though the Megadrive was selling like hot cakes the new Nintendo 16-bit console the SNES was already showing signs of leaving the megadrive behind, with Mode 7 and that sound chip it had the advantage, the Mega-CD was going to level the playing field.
At the time of the Mega-CD development a rift between Sega of Japan and Sega of America which had been around for a while grew massive to the extent that the R&D department in Japan who developed it refused to send anybody in America a working system for them to use, study and more importantly begin to create games for, this above all else was the be the main cause of the hardware failing although many other factors didnt help one bit. The rift that became of Sega of America being almost completely left out of the loop only grew worse from that moment on and most Sega followers would agree this would ultimately spell the end for the company as a whole.
The main problem between the two Sega divisions (Japan & America) was the fact that both completely disagreed on the Mega-CD's final form. Japan insisted and eventually produced it as an Add-On to the existing hardware (megadrive) America however knew this to be a mistake based on confusing the consumers and meaning in order to play Mega-CD games you would need 2 seperate pieces of hardware and you would need overall a huge spend. Sega of Japan were so caught up in exploring the new tech that they forgot to include developers in on the project, went ahead with their idea and went to market with a console Add-On that was very expensive for a machine that was still sold at a high price with absolutely zero software support. Sega of America had been proven completely right on all fronts.
In the first year of sale in Japan the Mega-CD sold less than 100,000 units but still Sega refused to change strategy and release an all in one console that would play both megadrive and Mega-CD games instead licensing out the tech to JVC who would in fact produce their own version that did just that, part of the deal would be that JVC would now become a developer for Sega hence the reason Wonder Dog was released, it was a partnership that never went anywhere and the JVC Wondermega as it was known was a short lived dream that never saw a western release, as such it now commands large sums of money in the collector's community.
Sega of America during all of this grew more and more furious, the top executives openly critisised their parent company and rightly so, both territories had spent millions developing and more importantly marketing this new hardware and where America was concerned it literally had nothing to work with, early games produced by Sega of America were made using Bios images on dummy hardware. Almost with a point to prove that they were right all along Sega of America set out to make this new Add-on work for them, they partnered with several large developers and in line with their in your face marketing of the Megadrive (genesis) decided to heavily promote the FMV capabilities of this console, one such studio called Digital Pictures had been working hard on making several large scale games that looked and played like a movie.
When the Sega-CD (Mega-CD) launched in America on October 15th 1992 it hit the ground running with the first of their games called Sewer Shark, everybody could see that genesis did what Nintendo couldn't and as Sewer Shark was given away free with every unit those who invested immediately had something to impress them and anybody else who saw it in action. As a game it was very basic but as a statement of gaming evolving it was massive, it didnt make for the launch Sega wanted or better still needed but it meant it was off to a better start that what it had experienced in Japan.
Back in Japan Sega decided that cost not quality of games was the main factor so went about making a second version of the console dubbed Mark2 it would cut costs by removing the flashing light front panel and the motorised CD tray, instead of sitting underneath the megadrive this would sit next to it, very much the PC Engine approach looks wise. It certainly cut costs massively however the Mega-CD 2 was ugly and looked terrible when plugged into a megadrive, the increase in sales helped but it was still treading water because Japan simply had no decent games.
By the time the Mega-CD hit Europe, Australia and New Zealand on April 19th 1993 it was effectively dead in its home territory of Japan, games magazines such as Mega and Mean Machines Sega tried their best to promote it as a game changer and the next big thing but industry experts and developers already knew it was doomed, only Sega of America took it seriously and by this time had produced several quality titles in order to make it at least relevant gaming wise.
If the Mega-CD had a golden era it would be in the time period of the European launch until the end of 1994 when developers such as Core, Digital Pictures, Capcom and finally Sega released titles such as Thunderhawk, Night Trap, Final Fight and the mighty Sonic CD. Of all these titles the most important was Night Trap but not because of it's quality of gaming but because of the superb marketing that caught the attention of the worlds media, Sega and Ditital Pictures had produced a game where you spied on teenage girls at a sleep over in order to protect them from mysterious creatures who were trying to kidnap them, it was completely voyuristic and slightly seedy, sexist beyond belief and it screemed controversy.
As a game Night Trap was pretty rubbish, all the player did was switch between several cameras and wait for the FMV sequences to happen and activate traps to save the girls who would run around in night wear screaming from the bumbling kidnappers, I wont ruin the underlying story because it's superly cheesy but it's in many ways classic Scream fodder minus the intense gore. The media went mental with this, it was one of the only games of the time for consoles that had a BBFC rating, and a 15 at that. Every single newspaper in the UK ran stories about it with almost everyone completely missing the point and comparing it to porn, which of course it wasnt at all, it got close to the line at times for sure but this was hysteria running wild in the mainstream press.
Capcom at this time had produced the quite simply stunning Final Fight which was arcade perfect animation wise and the soundtrack was something else entirely, people played this again and again just to hear the Mega-CD quite frankly show off. Core which at the time were a UK developer loved the Mega-CD and their flagship game Thunderhawk made anything the SNES could do in mode 7 look uttely pointless. Not content with just releasing one killer title they released several must have games such as Battlecorps, Soulstar and BC Racers, every one of their games are must play's and absolutely worth collecting.
Sega in typical Sega fashion though stole the show with SONIC CD, for this writer it's the greatest 2D sonic game ever made by them simply because it took everything the megadrive had already done with Sonic and super sized it all up, as well as the traditional Sonic stuff they whacked on amazing ideas like time travel through the zones, put in extra animation, tagged in some incredible anime stlye cut scenes and intro's then to top it all off Sega added a soundtrack that blew your mind.
I cannot be more clear about this my fellow Retro-Holics SONIC CD is worth buying a Mega-CD for alone, it was exactly what Sega wanted the hardware for in the first place, it could never be done on a standard megadrive, the SNES could never have done it either, nor could the Amiga, ST or anything else of it's time. This is what CD gaming meant, this is why Sega spent so much bringing it to market, why they kept Sega of America out of the loop to keep it all secret and whilst the final product gaming wise was fantastic it completely failed on every single other aspect.
History will show this is where Sega started to sign their own death warrant, the rift would only grow larger, they would not learn from the Add-on idea an repeat the same exact mistake with the 32X then in trying to get the enxt generation out quickest would end up developing multiple consoles all at the same time confusing their custom base, annoying developers and most of all retailers then ultimately release only 1 of them as a true console (Sega Saturn) Sega Japan over the course of several years spent incredible amounts of money simply trying to maintain the market share the Megadrive had given them when as Sega of America tried telling htem they never needed to, they could have simply gone from Megadrive to Saturn and most of their custom and developer base would have stayed with them.
The Mega-CD project was finally officially cancelled during 1996 when Sega finally realised they had far too many formats to promote (Megadrive, Mega-CD, 32X, Saturn) and at that point decided to focus soley on the Sega Saturn, by this point they had a software catalogue of around 150 titles worldwide with sales (hardware) of around 2.5 – 3 million (some estimates go as high as 6 million but no actual numbers exist to confirm this) Of the games available 6 utilised the use of the 32X in conjunction with both the Mega-CD unit and the Megadrive, all of these titles are rare now due to very limited print numbers.
As a system it never really hit it's stride, it had moments of course but nothing that gave consumers hope, retailers faith or developers the idea real money could be made from making games for the format, it had a development cycle from hell to the extent early units actually caught fire because of the problems with CD speed access and problems with the first version having faulty disc tray mechanisms. The second model was ugly, still cost too much, confused people by how it connected to what version of the actual megadrive you owned and again suffered from a consistant lack of releases in all territories. The idea was perfectly valid and made total sense however the implementation was completely wrong meaning what we got was a glimpse instead of the real product, think trailer but no film. The number one fact of Japan developing an Add-On when America wanted a stand alone console then after being proved wrong Japan promptly moving onto several other projects and not developing actual games for it smacks of child like bitterness and stupidity.
So where does this leave the Mega-CD as a console? What was it's legacy? Why should you even bother to experience it? These are all great questions (thank you inner voice) and if you just look at face value then the Mega-CD is something you will pass right by and not bother with, it's so easy to dismiss it from the sales failure it was, however this is no Atari Jaguar or Philips CD-I as behind all the mistakes and company in-fighting there are some moments of real genius here and lots of unique, exclusive and definite firsts to enjoy, I'm not ashamed to say that I personally love the Mega-CD to me it represents the What If? Perfectly, it's the console that so very nearly could have been.
Whilst Sega were not the first to use CD as a game media (that honour goes to NEC) they absolutely did the best with it when the mood took them, it's fair to say that the intro sequences and video quality cut sequences you see in games today all stem from the concept Sega introduced, championed and in the case of Digital Pictures actually invented. Exclusive's and stand out titles wise theres so much to experience here, from the games mentioned above like Thunderhawk and Wonderdog which were completely unique and only ever released on the Mega-CD format to outstanding conversions and ports such as Pugsy and the magnificent Earthworm Jim Special Edition.
Where the Mega-CD really shines however is when developers got the balance of new tech, storage and colour pallette expansion right and once again this is where key titles such as Final Fight and Sonic CD stand above all others. However theres so many more fantastic games to play, Spiderman, Time Gal, Ground Zero Texas, NHL'94, Batman & Robin, Silpheed, Snatcher, Shining Force, Flink and some brilliant North America exclusives such as Monkey Island, Willy Bemish and Cadalacs & Dinosaurs.
A full set of Digital Pictures games would also be a great idea with games such as Tomcat Alley, Prize Fighter, Night Trap, Corpse Killer, Double Switch, Sewer Shark and several others ensuring you will see the best the Mega-CD had to offer utilising FMV. Core with their impressive catalogue of titles would also give one a fantastic night of retro fun.
From a collectors stand point the Mega-CD is a great choice due to its smalish overall software library although roughly 10 of them will easily set you back over £100.00 each, Fatal Fury, Samurai Showdown, Flink, Syndicate and Batman & Robin (PAL) versions being amongst the most expensive, this collector has seen several Mega-CD games on Ebay for well over £500.00. There were also roughly 20 demo discs given away with select magazines that are now becoming highly collectable as is the only dedicated Mega-CD magazine the UK ever produced Mega Power. Hardware wise the original Mega-CD 1 unit boxed fetches high prizes as does the Jap only Wondermega and the very hard to find Multi-Mega which was a Sega made all in one unit.
I guess what I have been trying to say all along is that the Sega Mega-CD is most probably the most under appreciated, mis-understood hardware/console of all time, it was a complete sales and financial failure for sure but it has so many fantastic games to enjoy. In another time and place under different circumstances it could have so easily been a massive success, had Sega of Japan actually liased with Sega of America from the start it would have hit all markets with a massive software line-up. Had it been released as a completely seperate console consumers would not have been confused and retail would have known how to display and promote it, basically if the Multi-Mega version had been the day 1 machine release I can confidently say things would have been completely different.
A CD based machine launched in 1991 would have had 4 years to grow before its natural successor or nearest real rival would have been released, in fact if you examine this further you could argue that had it been launched properly and taken off Nintendo would never have abandoned their own CD based add-on unit for the SNES annoying Sony so much that they would go out and develop something that would eventually destroy Sega less than 5 years later. What if is a real killer isnt it?
At Retro Game Geeks I like to think it's the job of the writers try to inspire you to give things you never tried before a go, I personally can think of no other console where this philosophy rings more true, History as they say is written by the winners, however if you miss out on trying the delights of the unique, mis-understood and unfairly shunned Sega Add-on then history has made you it's loser.
As the UK advertising slogan for the Master System so rightly once said... Do yourself a favour, plug me (TV) into a Sega. As the americans also say...Genesis does what NintenDON'T. The Mega-CD was the prime example of this, go immerse yourself in it now and see why so many of us defend it so strongly and why if it is indeed to be remembered as a failure then it's the most spectacularly unique, fun and playable failure of all time.