Sega Megadrive / Genesis

Sega Megadrive / Genesis

4th Generation Competitors
Neo Geo CD PC Engine Super NES Neo Geo AES CDTV Philips CDI NEC SuperGrafx
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 29th Oct 1988 1997 35M
North America 14th Aug 1989 Ongoing
Europe Sep 1990 Ongoing

Sega knew they had to try harder to beat Nintendo in the next generation, part of which was getting out first.  To this end they took their System 16 arcade board, home to such classics as Altered Beast, and made a living room friendly version.

The Megadrive was born, it sold well in Japan eventually, but the launch was disrupted slightly by the release of Mario Bros. 3 on the Famicom a week before.  Positive reviews helped build sales but they still only sold 400,000 units in the first year.

They needed to go international quickly, after two mis-steps, a deal with Tonka toys and a deal with Atari, they opened a North American office and hired a staff.  Unfortunately, due to a trademark dispute the Megadrive had to be renamed to Genesis in North America.  The Sega America team wasted no time and got some hard hitting adverts out.

The Megadrive sold well, it was eventually overtaken by the Super Nintendo, but it’s sales were easily strong enough for Sega to consider it a success.

Sega attempted to prolong the life of the Megadrive by adding a number of peripherals.  The first, the Mega CD, added CD capabilities to the Megadrive.  It was a nominal success, but the need for a separate power supply made for a messy living room though.

The next add-on was far less successful.  Because Sega were still developing their next console they were keen to string the Megadrive along even more.  They introduced the 32X, a device that added a new set of processors to the Megadrive that could be used alongside the existing hardware.

It was expensive and added yet another power supply.  Owners of the console weren’t sold and only a few games were made.  But the introduction caused a lot of confusion and caused Sega to rush the introduction of the Saturn.

There were numerous versions of the console.

  • A compact version was released with slightly cost reduced components.  This also had a revised version of the MegaCD which sat next to it instead of on top.
  • TecToy are still creating versions of the Megadrive and games for the Brazilian market.
  • Sega released a combined Megadrive and MegaCD called the CDX, which could also be used as a portable CD Players.
  • Victor released a combined Megadrive and MegaCD in Japan called the Wondermega.  JVC released a restyled version called the X’eye in North America.  Neither were popular.
  • Amstrad released a combined PC and Megadrive for the European market, called the Mega PC.  It was similar to Sega’s own Terradrive, but considered better built.
  • Pioneer released a MegaDrive module for it’s LaserActive laser disc player.

 

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Sega Master System

Sega Master System

3rd Generation Competitors
Atari 7800 Famicom / NES Amstrad GX4000 Commodore 64 Game System
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 20 Oct 1985  1992 1M
North America Sep 1986 1992 2M
Europe 1987 1992 6.8M

Sega had a few cracks at breaking into the burgeoning console market in it’s home country, Japan.  The Mark III was the first console that showed any kind of competition with Nintendo (which still wasn’t much) and with the Famicom selling well overseas as the NES Sega decided to do the same.

They rebadged the Mark 3 as the Master System, changed the casing and, for cost reasons, removed the ability to use FM Synthesis.

Because of that last point, although games are largely compatible all the way back to the SG 1000, some of the Japanese games don’t quite sound right on a Master System.

The Master System was more powerful than the Nintendo in pretty much every department, but it was never as popular.  There are many possible reasons, Nintendo already had a strangle-hold on North America and parts of Europe, better (or at least more numerous) games (due to Nintendo’s contract agreements) and a genuinely loved mascot in Mario.

Sega tried to fight the last two points by utilising their already solid arcade IP, but they’d already ported quite a few across to other platforms (including the Famicom).

There were various versions of the Master System released, many with different in-built games.  Eventually Sega ended the Master System with a reduced cost version 2, placing it as a cheap option to those who couldn’t afford it’s new Megadrive / Genesis.

Mastertronic were signed up to distribute the Master System in most of Europe and got an impressive number of preorders, however, Sega were unable to meet demand and many retailers cancelled their entire order, this pushed Mastertronic and it’s partners into financial difficulty.

The Master System, and it’s successor the Mega Drive, continue to be successful in Brazil.  Tectoy has a perpetual license and continues to release new versions of both consoles and new games.

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Sega Dreamcast

Sega Dreamcast

6th Generation Competitors
Gamecube Playstation 2 XBox
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 27th Nov 1998 2001  9.13M
North America 9th Sep 1999 2001
Europe 14th Oct 1999 2001

The Saturn had caused Sega a lot of issues.  Not only was it largely a flop, being massively outsold by the Playstation and beaten by Nintendo.  But it also caused Sega numerous issues with publishers, distributors and retailers.

Several large retailers in North America, upset at being missed out of the Saturn launch, refused to carry Sega products, and that refusal carried on through the Dreamcast.

Although most publishers eventually did produce games for the Dreamcast, one especially damaging holdout was Electronic Arts.  Whilst they weren’t quite the size they are today, they were still an important figure with a lot of popular IP.  Most importantly for the North American market their sports licenses that had proved very popular in the previous generation.

Initial sales of the Dreamcast were strong though, helped by some solid arcade conversions from Sega and their partners.  Indeed it was considered to be one of the strongest launches in software terms up to that point.  The sales continued strong up until the Playstation 2 was announced.

As soon as Sony gave a launch date the Dreamcast sales started to dry up.  They did get a minor boost when Sony were unable to meet demand, but not enough for Sega to continue.

To add to their problems a flaw was found in their copy protection system, a routine created to cope with a special form of Japanese disc allowed discs to be created on normal CDs that bypassed region and copy checks.

This was the final nail in the coffin, Sega reduced the price of the Dreamcast to sell the back stock.  Once it was gone, they removed the Dreamcast from sale and left the console world for good.

The Dreamcast was certainly a powerful console, easily able to match the Playstation 2.  A lot of this was due to the custom  PowerVR GPU created by Imagination Technologies.  It was designed to pair with the SH4 processor perfectly and that meant there was very little bottleneck in the system.

Online play was a feature built-in to the console.  All consoles came with a dial-up modem, but a broadband option was also available.  Notably it was the first time that Quake had online play outside of the PC.

Sega produced a unique memory card system called Visual Memory Units.  These memory cards had little screens that games could use to display information and even install mini games onto.  Unfortunately, this also meant the VMUs cost quite a bit more than other consoles memory cards.

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Philips CDI

Philips CDI

4th Generation Competitors
Neo Geo CD Megadrive Super NES Neo Geo AES CDTV PC Engine NEC SuperGrafx
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan NA  NA  NA
North America 3rd Dec 1992 1998
Europe 1992 1998

Philips were one of the creators of the CD standard and they decided to make a machine to show off it’s capabilities.  Initially they expected to license the technology to other manufacturers, much like the 3DO company tried later on.

Initial interest was not strong however and Philips ended up releasing several models themselves.  Magnavox did release a variant of the 450, but it was mostly just a rebadged version of Philips own model.

Philips placed the CDI as an educational tool, and didn’t have a strong games library.  Like many companies that tried the same strategy Philips failed.  The initial machines were quite expensive and a relatively limited library that suffered from quality didn’t help.

The platform is renowned for licensing the Zelda and Mario licenses from Nintendo and the games were so bad that it, allegedly, stopped Nintendo from every licensing their IP ever again.

Philips eventually released the cut price 400 series, it was more console like and did away with infra-red controller capability (which wasn’t popular for games anyway).

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Gamecube

Nintendo Gamecube

5th Generation Competitors
Dreamcast Playstation 2 XBox
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 14th Sep 2001 2007  4.04M
North America 18th Nov 2001 2007  21.74M
Europe 3rd May 2002 2007  4.77M

Nintendo followed the 64 with their first optical disc based console.  The Gamecube used mini DVD discs, they held less than a full sized DVD but were also (slightly) harder to reproduce.

Obviously using the smaller discs also meant that the Gamecube had no chance of playing DVD movies – although Panasonic did release a licensed version called the Q that could.  The Q was the result of a similar deal to the Sharp deal that Nintendo struck with the Famicom.  Panasonic’s parent company, Matsushita, created the miniDVD drives and Panasonic were allowed to release the Q.

The graphics chip for the Gamecube was created by a startup called ArtX.  ArtX was started by ex SGI employees, who had previously created the Graphics processor for the Nintendo 64.  Although ArtX were purchased by ATI before it was finally delivered.

The CPU was created by IBM and based on the PowerPC technology mostly used by Apple’s PowerMac computers.

The Gamecube did not sell great compared to it’s main rivals, but it did outsell the XBox in it’s home territory of Japan.  It did manage to outsell the early cancelled Dreamcast.

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Famicom

Famicom

 

3rd Generation Competitors
Sega MasterSystem Amstrad GX4000 Commodore 64 Game System Atari 7800
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 15th Jul 1983 2003  19.35M
North America 18th Oct 1985 1995  34M
Europe 1987 1995  8.56M

The Family Computer (Famicom).  Possibly one of the most famous consoles in history.  It supplanted the Atari 2600 as the go to word for gaming and successfully rebooted a failing gaming market.

Nintendo was hot off a string of popular arcade titles and decided they didn’t want other companies to get the money for bringing them in the home.  So they started development of their home system.

Initially released in Japan, it eventually made it’s way to North America and Europe as the Nintendo Entertainment System and to South Korea as the Hyundai Comport.  It was easily the best selling consoles of the third generation.

Along with a new hardware platform, Nintendo also created the now standard method of licensing and approval.  They’d witnessed how the gaming market in America had combusted due to a rash of poor quality titles.  So developers had to register with Nintendo and get their products licensed before they could be distributed.

To stop non-licensees releasing games Nintendo added a simple method of authentication.  The solution meant that each cartridge had to have a compatible chip inside it to run.  This didn’t entirely stop unlicensed games, a few companies reverse engineered the design and made their own cartridges, or made cartridges that could ‘piggy back’ on licensed games and run that way.

The power of the Famicom drew a lot of developers to Nintendo, and Nintendo took advantage of this by making them sign rigid agreements, these agreements stopped them from developing from competing platforms.  Because of this it was hard for competitors to thrive and is one of the main reasons Sega struggled with the Master System.

The platform also lured a group of incredibly successful developers who had worked on the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64.  These developers, called Imagine, sold the rights to the name and most of their IP and re-appeared named Rare.  They impressed Nintendo so much that they eventually bought a large share in the small British company.

Nintendo didn’t really see much competition in the third generation.  The MasterSystem was poorly advertised and was missing many of the key developers due to Nintendo’s agreements.  The two other notable platforms, the GX4000 from Amstrad and the Game System from Commodore never took off.  The C64GS was underpowered and the GX4000 hit the market too late.

Nintendo also released a disc drive for the Famicom.  This drive only came out in Japan and used proprietary 3 inch discs.  These discs had an embossed Nintendo logo which acted like the copy protection.

The idea behind the discs was that you could buy games as normal but you could also go to kiosks which would burn the game you wanted to a disc.  These discs could also be time locked for demo or rental purposes.

Sharp helped with the development of the drive and were allowed to create several Famicom based products.  These included a TV with a built-in Famicom and a unit, called the Famicom Twin which merged the Famicom and Disc System into one.

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Nintendo 64

Nintendo 64

5th Generation Competitors
3DO Jaguar Saturn Playstation CD32 FM Towns Marty PC-FX Pippin Playdia Loopy
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 23rd Jun 1996 2002  5.54M
North America 26th Sep 1996 2003  20.63M
Europe 1st Mar 1997 2003  6.75M

How do you follow-up two classic consoles like the Super Nintendo and the Nintendo Entertainment System?  For Nintendo it was the 64.  The Nintendo 64 was a 3D powerhouse designed to compete with Sony‘s Playstation and Sega‘s Saturn.

The first difference in this generation was the game medium, after the fiasco with the Super Nintendo and the CD system being designed by Sony (which ended up at the Playstation), Nintendo decided to stick to cartridges, unlike their competitors who changed to the cheaper and far more versatile CD.

Even the choice of technology wasn’t without drama.  The 3D capabilities were driven by a custom SGI chip.  SGI were masters of 3D, known for their workstations that helped deliver early CGI film effects.

But Nintendo weren’t the first potential customers, Sega were the original partners, but in a move just like Nintendo‘s own Sony CD decision, Sega Japan decided they couldn’t work with SGI.

Whilst the Nintendo 64 didn’t win in it’s generation, it was beaten by the Playstation.  It was certainly a powerful machine and delivered several revolutionary games.

Mario 64 and GoldenEye laid down the rules for 3D platformers and console FPSs respectively.  Mario Kart showed that fast local multiplayer games were a reality and Zelda: Ocarina of Time showed that story driven games were still possible on a cartridge medium.

The Nintendo 64 had 4 ports built-in and many games supported local multiplayer.  Nintendo also sold controllers in a variety of colours.

In an effort to support some of the advantages of CD (such as streaming music and larger storage size) Nintendo released the 64DD.  This was a magneto-optical storage system that more resembled large floppy disks than CDs.

The add-on wasn’t very popular and most games were cancelled, in the end it only came out in Japan (although a US prototype had been found).  As an example of how versatile the system could have been, the F-Zero X extension kit was released which added a map editor.

In the end the high price of the cartridges compared to the CDs of the Playstation stopped Nintendo from truly competing.  The Nintendo 64 would be the last console with cartridge support for quite a while.

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SNK Neo Geo CD

SNK Neo Geo CD

4th Generation Competitors
PC Engine Megadrive Super NES Neo Geo AES CDTV Philips CDI NEC SuperGrafx
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 9th Sep 1994 1997
North America Jan 1996 1997
Europe Dec 1994 1997

The AES was SNKs first attempt at a home console, due to it literally being the same hardware as the arcade it meant that the console and games were expensive.  To fix that they decided to release a cost reduced version that relied on optical discs rather than the very expensive cartridges, the Neo Geo CD.

This move was unsuccessful for a few reasons, although the games were far cheaper, the actual console was still expensive compared to the rest of the generation.  The CD was only single speed, meaning it took a long time to load the very large cartridge data.  Because the Neo Geo CD didn’t have much cache memory, it tended to need to reload often.

The failure pretty much finished SNKs home aspirations.  The company as a whole was experiencing financial difficulties due to the diminishing arcade revenues and the home failures piled on to that.

A revised edition, the CDZ, was released later in Japan.  This version featured a faster CD Drive and fixed some of the loading issues, but it was released around the same time as the Playstation and Saturn.  It lacked any 3D capabilities and just couldn’t compete.

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SNK Neo Geo AES

SNK Neo Geo AES

4th Generation Competitors
PC Engine Megadrive Super NES Neo Geo CD CDTV Philips CDI NEC SuperGrafx
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 1st Jul 1991 1997
North America 1st Jul 1991 1997
Europe NA NA  NA

SNK had a successful arcade platform in their MVS hardware, but they were feeling the pinch of a shrinking arcade and decided to increase profits by releasing a home version.

The AES was literally a boxed version of their arcade hardware with slight changes to the cartridge slot to stop people buying games from non home sources.

The benefit of this was some of the greatest visuals available in the home market and literally arcade perfect games, because they were taken directly from the arcade.

The downside was cost.  The hardware was exceptionally expensive compared to other consoles and the games were even worse.  This meant limited sales in the home.

SNK attempted to lower costs by releasing a CD based version of the AES, but even this was more expensive than the alternatives, plus the power advantage had largely been lost.
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NEC PC Engine Duo

NEC PC Engine Duo

4th Generation Competitors
Neo Geo CD Megadrive Super NES Neo Geo AES CDTV Philips CDI
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 21st Sep 1991 1995
North America 10th Oct 1992 1995
Europe NA NA  NA

Whilst the SuperGrafx was largely failing in the market, NEC kept pushing the PC Engine platform.  One of it’s various versions (and my personal favourite) was the PC Engine Duo.

The Duo took the PC Engine and combined it, in one sleek package, with the SuperCD addon.  It was certainly successful in terms of hardware, the unit was far more convenient than the previous add on units had been and was very reliable.

The Duo was also released in North America as the TurboDuo but never made it to Europe.

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