Sega CD: A Console too Soon

By: Sam Pettus | July 15, 2004

 

 

Introduction

This is a story about a remarkable piece of video game hardware that, through no fault of its own, has wound up being a footnote in the annals of video game history. Long the butt of jokes and snide remarks, it nevertheless was a remarkable feat of engineering in its day that, unknown to its many critics at the time, helped pave the way for the type of consoles we take for granted nowadays. Overpriced and underrated, with vast storage resources at its disposal yet having a pathetically small library of software (few of which actually took full advantage of the system), it has staggered on somehow to achieve something of a cult status among its few yet diehard loyalists. Oft maligned, even more often openly derided, nevertheless its legacy remains with us - a legacy that not even its most virulent critics can take from it.

The time frame is 1990 to 1996, Gregorian calendar. The company behind this controversial video game console is better known for high-quality games than home-user hardware. They are barely holding their own in their home country of Japan, but their products have proven to be popular in the West and are bringing in profits by the bucket load. This company is just beginning to hit its stride in the economic powerhouse that is the United States, though, and within the space of a few short years will rise to become the #1 video game company in that country.

The name of the company is Sega.

The name of the console in question is the Sega CD.

Planning Ahead

By 1990, it had become obvious to Sega executives that their new 16-bit video game console, the MegaDrive (known in the U.S. as the Genesis) was not about to put a dent into the profits of their competition. Nintendo, their longtime rival, ruled the roost in the Japanese market with its aging Famicom (NES) and newer Super Famicom (SNES) systems, the latter of which was released as a direct response to the MegaDrive's initial popularity. Something had to be done to revive flagging MegaDrive sales - but what?

The answer seemed to lie in new technology that had just made its way into the personal computer market. It was about this time that the very first CD-ROM drives became available for PC owners. Derived from patented Sony-Phillips compact disc (CD) audio technology, PC owners were suddenly presented with a mass storage media capable of storing over 500 MB of data. If this does not seem so impressive now, remember that back in 1990 the most common size for a home-user PC hard drive was about 200 MB. Now, with the advent of CD-ROM, you had a mass storage device capable of storing over three times as much data as was on your average hard drive. The implications were enormous, and the arrival of CD-ROM is but one of several factors that helped usher in what is now affectionately called by some the multimedia revolution.

All of this was not lost on the video game companies, either. Back in the 1980s, laserdisc technology had already been tried in the arcades. Don Bluth's Dragon's Lair and the inevitable knock-offs met with a fair amount of success with the gaming public at that time. These older machines were rather cumbersome and difficult to maintain, so CD-ROM technology seemed to promise the arrival of a media that was finally large enough for the kind of video games that would approach, if not equal, a cinematic experience.  With judicious use of the new multimedia compression codecs that were being developed almost as fast as the fledgling industry could crank them out, it seemed that video game companies could pack a CD-ROM full of movie-quality graphics and sound - something for which many players had been demanding for some years now.  Sega was no stranger to these and other such trends taking place at this time, and with their usual bravado in being willing to field-test new technology before their competitors, they took the plunge.  They decided to come up with a CD-ROM based video game system that would build upon their existing MegaDrive technology to provide just the kind of new games that the multimedia revolution seemed to demand.

It should be noted in all fairness that Sega was not the first maker of video game consoles to consider this idea. Fellow competitor NEC was actually the first to employ CD-ROM technology in a home video game console with their PC Engine CD (aka Turbo Duo, Turbo CD). NEC's console was selling very well in Japan at the time - so strong in fact that it posed a direct threat to MegaDrive sales over there. While the Turbo Duo never proved to be the contender that Sega of Japan initially thought it would be in the overseas markets, nevertheless its very existence was an important factor in Sega's console plans. Nintendo, the real enemy, was also rumored to be considering a CD-ROM add-on drive for the SNES, working with none other that Sony itself to produce a device with the working title of PlayStation. Nonetheless, it would be Sega (as usual) who would take the biggest plunge into this brave new frontier - and, as is often the case, those who take the biggest gamble must sometimes pay the biggest price.

Building the System

The plunge into CD-ROM technology was regarded by Sega of Japan as one of the company's biggest experiments in console technology. In fact, they considered it so significant that were holding up development of Sega's 32-bit nextgen systems (Mars and Jupiter) to see how it played out. On paper, the concept seemed simple enough - take the existing hardware of the MegaDrive and add a CD-ROM drive onto it. In reality, it proved not to be so easy - especially after the designers decided to add some extras to the system in order to make up for the MegaDrive's known deficiencies. Remember, Sega was having to build a system that was going to compete against the SNES, so just adding a CD-ROM to the MegaDrive, with its known hardware deficiencies, just wouldn't cut it. The new system would have to be able to compete with the SNES on its own terms as far as graphics and sound were concerned, and that meant extending the capabilities of the MegaDrive along with adding the CD-ROM drive. It would also have to be a system that could deliver CD-ROM based games that were at least as good as, if not better than, NEC's existing CD-ROM console. Mega CD was the first time Sega would graft an upgrade onto MegaDrive hardware, but it would not be the last. The end result would be a completely new system that, while based on older and proven technology, would end up functioning quite differently than its noted ancestor.

So what upgrades aside from the CD-ROM drive did Mega CD bring to the MegaDrive?  What stuff did Sega add to the system so Mega CD could compete with both the PC Engine CD and SNES? Five items immediately come to mind: extended data storage, biaxial sprite rotation, ultra smooth graphics scaling, standard use of CD-based soundtracks, and support for full-motion video (FMV). Storing game data on CD-ROMs meant that Sega CD titles could in theory have over 150 times more data than their cart-based ancestors. Rotation and scaling were standard features of Nintendo's system, so their addition to Mega CD would put Sega's system on equal terms with its competitor.  The built-in support for Sega's FMV codecs meant that Sega CD would be able to deliver larger and more graphically impressive titles than the pokey SNES could ever hope to accomplish.

Needless to say, the final system specs for Mega CD were quite impressive.

Component
Description
Processors
- 12.5 MHz Motorola 68000 16-bit CPU (syncs with Genesis 68000 CPU)
- Stock Genesis audio (16-bit, 8-channel PCM with 8x oversampling at 32 KHz)
- Enhanced PCM and DAC capabilities
Graphics
- Sega custom ASIC graphics processor (scaling, rotation, zoom, etc.)
- 128 color palette using HAM (hold and modify) techniques
- 256 color palette for FMV sequences (CinePak and TruVideo)
Memory
- 768K RAM on-board (added to stock Genesis memory, doubles system memory)
- 128K RAM dedicated to CD-ROM
- 128K ROM
- 64K backup RAM
Connection
- Custom sidecar connector (plugs into side of Genesis console)
Storage
- ISO-9660 Mode 1 compliant 1X CD-ROM drive (150 kbytes/sec data transfer rate)
- 500 MB max capacity utilizing standard CD-ROM discs
- CD-ROM compatible with High Sierra, Red Book (CDDA), and CD+G formats

The only major drawback to this impressive array of hardware was the fact that Mega CD would for the most part still be using the same color palette and audio hardware as a stock Genesis. Sega decided to forge ahead anyway, though, because it felt that the advantages gained by the rest of the new system would in large part make up for these two notable flaws. Besides - it would have driven up the cost of the system to upgrade or rebuild them.

Mega CD made its official debut at the 1991 Tokyo Toy Show. At the time, it was on paper the most advanced video game console of its day, due in large part to its CD-ROM drive, dual Motorola 68000 CPUs, and its dedicated ASIC graphics processor. It was superior to NEC's PC Engine CD in every aspect. It could out-run a stock Genesis.  Furthermore, it could certainly compete with the SNES on an equal footing - in theory, anyway. Truth be told, Sega's newest system anticipated the arrival of Commodore's long-delayed CD32 system, as it could do practically everything that Commodore was advertising for the new box. It may not seem like much now, but it was a lot back then.  Put yourself into the mindset of the typical video game addict, circa 1991-1992. Sega, the number one company on the market at the time, is about to come out with a brand new video game console that is going to be about as powerful as the Amiga - the most sophisticated personal computer of its day. Best of all, it will use CD-ROM instead of carts for its software!  Imagine what kind of games could be made with that much processing power and that much storage space! Think of the possibilities!

Sega knew they had what appeared to be another Genesis on their hands. Now it was up to them to sell it.

On the Road to Success

 The Mega CD was launched in Japan on 1 December 1991 with an initial retail price of ¥49800 (US $380). Less than 100,000 Mega CDs sold during its first full year on the market - a fact that was not lost on Sega. It was not an auspicious beginning for what was supposed to be their "SNES killer." For one, many complained (and rightly so) that the price was way too high for what amounted to an add-on unit. Second, the only two Mega CD games available at launch were Heavy Nova and Sol-Feace, which obviously failed to take advantage of the system's capabilities other than spool CD-quality music off of the CD-ROM. In fact, Sol-Feace was nothing more than an old MegaDrive game, Sol-Deace, that had been given a cosmetic facelift via a CD soundtrack and some rather stilted attempts at anime-style cut scenes to liven things up a bit. Once again, Sega had made the mistake of releasing a new video game system without a "killer app" to attract potential buyers. It was the same mistake that they had made with the launch of the MegaDrive, but fortunately Mega CD owners would not have as long to wait for a quality title to appear.

Meanwhile, JVC had been sufficiently impressed with Sega's CD-ROM console experiment during their work together on the unit's CD-ROM hardware to decide that they would license the technology for use in their own comparable product. Thus it was that they sprang the WonderMega on the Japanese market in April of 1992. Essentially an enhanced, all-in-one MegaDrive and Mega CD contained within a single case, it could do everything that a MegaDrive/Mega CD combo system could do and more. It was quieter than Sega's combo unit. It could play CDs faster, too, which meant a lot to Mega CD gamers. While it may have only been 15% faster, or thereabouts, every extra bit mattered where single-speed CD drives were concerned. It had special enhancement technology to enrich both CD and cartridge audio playback. It had two extra connections absent from the Sega system - a SVHS video jack and a MIDI output jack. It also had two microphone jacks and an echo effects switch, which were designed expressly with karaoke use in mind. It was compatible with multiple CD formats, including one that the Mega CD did not support - CD+MIDI. It came with two pack-in discs - JVC's own WonderMega Collection game library and a karaoke disk. All of this, along with one game pad, a special RF adapter, and the power supply for only ¥81,000 (US $600). That was a lot of money for an all-in-one console, but it could certainly do a lot of things. It did about as well as could be expected in Japan given the smallness of the market, and both JVC and Sega quietly made plans to send the system overseas to the United States by the following fall.

Without question, though, the one product that made people finally sit up and take notice of Mega CD was a piece of software that has since become the stuff of legend.  On 26 June 1992, GameArts quietly released a game called Lunar: The Silver Star - a fantasy RPG for Mega CD. Even though the final production version was not what its creators had intended (they wound up leaving a good one-third of the game on the cutting-room floor due to publishing deadlines), nevertheless it took the market by storm. Lunar was the first mega hit Mega CD title, selling well over 100,000 copies (its entire production run) during its initial market debut. Sega of Japan directly attributed increased consoles sales to Lunar, and it caused many companies in the industry to sit up and take note of the system - including a certain American importer of Japanese RPGs looking to back the new system with the rather unusual name of Working Designs.

Before we continue, though, let us step back for a moment and examine Sega's overseas concerns. You see, Sega of Japan had gotten so wrapped up in the possibilities of their little CD-ROM experiment that they didn't - or wouldn't - tell the company's Western offices what it was really all about. They deliberately kept their project hidden from their American and European counterparts until mid-1991. They finally sent Sega of America a deliberately crippled Mega CD prototype in the summer of 1991, not long after the system's Tokyo Toy Show debut. "They were concerned about what we would do with it and if it would leak out," recalls former Sega executive Michael Latham. "It was very frustrating." Sega's Shinobu Toyoda, who was assigned to the U.S. offices at the time, managed to get one of the systems working so his America counterparts would know with what they were dealing. They were delighted.

Sega of America officially announced the impending release of Mega CD to the highly profitable North America market in September of 1991 - just three months before the official Japanese rollout and almost a full year before its customers would ever see the system. Why so soon? Nintendo had just released the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (aka Super NES or SNES) to its eager American fans - a system specifically geared to do everything that Genesis could not. Whether or not the SNES was actually superior to the Genesis remains a matter of debate even to this day, but there was no arguing the fact that Nintendo's reputation for excellence combined with its large and dedicated customer base spelled trouble in big block letters about a mile tall for Sega.  That was the main reason why Sega was quick to mention Mega CD to its own U.S. customers. After all, at that time Sega was in the process of surpassing longtime rival Nintendo to become the #1 video game company in the States, eventually seizing a 55% share of the market in 1992, and it had no illusions that it needed to do everything it could to stay ahead of former #1 Nintendo. The only thing that Sega had ready to combat the SNES challenge was Mega CD, so Sega of America played what they believed to be their trump card for all it was worth.

Sega of America's attitude that Mega CD as a system worthy of being treated as a console in its own right was treated with some bemusement by its Japanese creators.  "It wasn't a new system, and that was always the confusion internally," Lantham would later say. "The internal people believed it to be a completely new system with new abilities." Of course he and a few others who had actually dealt with Sega of Japan knew the real story, but not too many of their Western colleagues ever caught on to their little scheme. Mega CD had yet to launch Stateside, but already Sega of America was beginning to believe its own PR. They began making plans to launch Mega CD in the U.S. the following year, and arrangements were made with a new software house called Digital Pictures to begin producing FMV titles for the new system.

Sega of America officially unveiled its version of Mega CD in May at the 1992 Summer Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Chicago, Illinois - almost a full half-year after Mega CD had first been released in Japan. Sega CD, as it was to be named in the United States, would make the Genesis "the console of the future" and was to be officially launched in November - although Sega hinted that it wanted and might make it available to gamers as early as October. Sega CD was pretty much identical to its overseas counterpart, save for some minor cosmetic changes to the case and a slight revamping of the CD control menus. It would have the requisite country lock, thus making it impossible to play Japanese Mega CD imports. The announced price of the system was US$300.  All of the regular players in Sega's stable of licensees were promising at least one game for the new system, including one in particular - Sony Imagesoft, the software marketing division of Sony Corporation. Sony announced that its Imagesoft division would actively support Sega's new platform for the time being; however, it was in the planning stages of releasing the PlayStation CD-ROM drive for the SNES and would switch support to that as it neared completion. Nintendo was insisting that the SNES PlayStation would ship by the end of 1993 and had already distributed initial devkits to its own stable of licensees.  Sony saw Sega CD as a valuable opportunity to gain needed experience in developing for and marketing software on a CD-ROM based system without having to spend nearly as much as Sega was having to do at this point. It was an telling prediction that was overlooked by practically everybody at the time, including most of the industry insiders themselves.

A number of pack-in possibilities were discussed for Sega CD at CES that caught a lot of gamer's attention. There were the games, of course. Three video game titles were announced as possible pack-ins - Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective by Icom, Sega Arcade Classics 10-in-1 by Sega, and a third "brand-new multimedia CD" that Sega had in development. Then there was the music disc. Sega announced that it was making arrangements with several major record labels in order to include either a multimedia or a CD+G music disc. This mirrored Sega's dual-track plan for CD software development - one track being regular games and the other track consisting of multimedia titles.

"But what about the games?" inquisitive types asked. "They're coming," responded Sega of America. At the top of the list was Joe Montana's NFL Football - no surprise there, considering the popularity of the existing Genesis franchise. The Sega CD version of Batman Returns was advertised as playing at twice the speed of the cartridge version, featuring an all-new BatSki level and additional bonus levels. Sega CD's very first RPG was also announced, Kenji Terada's Dark Wizard. Lunar was nowhere to be seen, but it was not forgotten - even then, Working Designs was considering entering negotiations for an English-language version of the game for Sega CD to be released sometime after the system launch. Other offerings mentioned at CES included Panic, Black Hole Assault, The Terminator, Dune, Wing Commander, Rise of the Dragon, as well as special Sega CD retoolings of Instruments of Chaos, Fantasia, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

One other title deserves special mention at this point, because its impending arrival was emphasized at the 1992 Summer CES. Sonic CD was on its way. Sega's hyperactive hedgehog was going back to his roots, with Yuji Naka and the rest of Sonic Team hard at work on a release worthy of Sega's new hardware. The game promised to return to the simple formula that had made the original Sonic so successful, while at the same time including some of the complexities and fiendish level design that was the highlight of Sonic 2.  No Tails this time - this adventure was going to be purely Sonic's - but the possibilities seemed endless. This was good news to potential Sega CD buyers, many of whom were ardent Sonic fans, and a lot of them began to quietly scrimp together the money need for Sega's expensive upgrade. It was also good news to Sega's accountants, who were banking on the potential profits that a new Sonic game could bring to the already troubled system.

In the meantime, though, Sega of Japan was keeping busy improving the Mega CD. As far as the hardware was concerned, there was a new version of the console in the works - designed with the same styling as the smaller MegaDrive consoles Sega was ready to put on the market. In terms of software, the biggest news by far was with the Phantasy Star RPG series - the closest thing Sega had to Square's Final Fantasy franchise - with two Mega CD titles announced as being in development. The more notable of the two was the all-new title The Return of Alis, which was to take place immediately after the events depicted in Phantasy Star 3 and tell the story of the fight against a revival of the intergalactic slave trade. This new installment in the saga would be 20 times the size of the earlier game and would incorporate both audio and anime clips. Captain Commando would be a straightforward port of Capcom's fighter, and would be prototyped as an (unreleased) cart before making the transfer to CD format. Word on the street had it that enhanced versions of Phantasy Star 3 and Super Shinobi 2 were in the works, as well as such titles as Power Drift, Super Gaiares, and Chopper Command. Reliable sources within the industry were reporting that Technosoft was hard at work on an enhanced Mega CD port of Thunder Force IV. Konami had jumped onto the Mega CD bandwagon by this time, and among the titles being whispered by eager gamers (but unconfirmed) for possible release were ports of Super Contra, Super Gradius, Castlevania IV, Contra Spirits, Life Force, Parodius, and Orius.

On 15 October 1992, Sega CD was officially launched in the North American market. It was an instant sellout despite a noticeable lack of software, but the Sega loyalists did not seem to mind during those first few heady months. Each system sold came with a set of pack-in discs, which allowed prospective buyers to start using their new setup right away. Here is what U.S. launch buyers got with their systems:

Sega CD launch pack-ins
(courtesy of Christian Schiller)
Rock Paintings & Hard Hits (CD+G samplers, 2 discs)
Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective (Volume 1)
Sega Classics 4-in-1
Sol-Feace

Here is what American gamers were able to buy off the shelf the day that Sega CD launched:

Sega CD launch titles
(courtesy of Barry Cantin)
Black Hole Assault
Make My Video: Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch
Cobra Command
Night Trap
Chuck Rock
Sewer Shark
Make My Video: INXS
 

These pack-ins were a good move on Sega's part, considering the US $300 cost of the system. There was also a scant handful of retail titles available at launch and in the following weeks of the 1992 holiday season, with Batman Returns and Sewer Shark being the two most prominent. The console proved to be an instant hit with Sega's core following, with all 50,000 units in the initial shipment sold out by Thanksgiving. All in all, some 200,000 units cleared American store shelves by the end of the year.

The 1992 holiday season was especially good for Sega gamers in the U.S. There was, of course, the official release of Sega CD for retail sale, along with its requisite games.  The first ones weren't terribly impressive, but Sega fans had faith that more and better were to come in 1993. There was also a whole string of new Genesis games available, with a rumored port of the eye-popping 3D polygonal arcade game Virtua Racing set for sometime the following year. Sega of America was at the top of its form, its games dominated the charts, and its presence dominated the market. This was Sega at its finest, and its dedicated customer base shared in its glory and pride. Nintendo may have been on the verge of bouncing back, but for now Sega was the king of the hill, and Sega CD was the latest jewel in its crown. Nothing, it seemed, could go wrong.

Sega CD did not make it to Europe until the spring of 1993. Since its parent console used the original Japanese name of MegaDrive in the Old World, its newer sibling did likewise. Mega CD made its European debut in England in April 1993, some five months after the Stateside rollout. It was a logical choice for Sega of Europe, since England was known as the "Sega stronghold" due to the fact that the MegaDrive was almost as strong there as it was in the US. There was the usual advertising blitz, accompanied by an 8-minute promotional video touting the capabilities of the new system. As for software, Mega CD had one less pack-in title than did Sega CD, with Sherlock Holmes Volume 1 winding up as the odd man out. At least there were seven other retail titles from which to choose, and here is the complete list of UK Mega CD launch titles.

UK Mega CD launch lineup
(courtesy of Matt Neilson)
Cobra Command (pack-in)
Hook
Sega Classics 4-in-1 (pack-in)
Prince of Persia
Sol-Feace (pack-in)
Road Avenger
Black Hole Assault
Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective (Volume 1)
Chuck Rock
Wonderdog

It should also be noted that some of the UK Mega CD units had problems with the Sega Classics disc due to a bad batch of discs - mirroring a similar problem that would happen with Sonic Adventure and the Dreamcast launch some seven years later.

Mega CD was not cheap, with an initial retail price of a whopping £270 (about US $ 400) - far more than in any other English-language market. While such high prices are typical in the European video game industry, they were of small comfort to hardcore British Sega fans anxious to get their hands on their very own Mega CD. Even so, and this comes as something of a surprise to certain cynical video game historians, Sega of Europe had sold 60,000 of the 70,000 Mega CD consoles originally allotted to the British market by August 1993. It was no surprise that Sega rushed to get the then-new Mega CD 2, the second incarnation of the console, onto the market. It finally hit British store shelves in October, continuing to sell well through the end of the 1993 holiday season.

Cost more than anything else seems to have been the limiting factor for the rest of Europe. Mega CD sold rather slowly, and this was not helped by the fact that some countries did not get the system until the second incarnation of the console. This was the case in Germany, birthplace of the legendary Amiga personal computer, where the Mega CD 2 first saw the light of day in September 1993 for an initial retail price of DM530 - and that without a pack-in game to boot. At least by this time there was a decent library of software available for launch, and the German Mega CD launch lineup had everything except a sports game or a fantasy RPG.

German Mega CD launch lineup
(courtesy of Christian Schiller)
Afterburner 3
Prince of Persia
Batman Returns
Road Avenger
Black Hole Assault
Robo Aleste
Cobra Command
Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective (Volume 1)
Final Fight
Sol-Feace
Jaguar XJ220
Time Gal
Make My Video: INXS
Wing Commander
Make My Video: Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch
Wolf Child

Spain, in contrast, wasn't so lucky, with only five titles in their launch list.
 

Spanish Mega CD launch lineup
(courtesy of Daniel Cuadras)
Batman Returns
Road Avenger
Final Fight
Thunderhawk
Jaguar XJ220
 

Overall though, and with the significant exception of the British Isles, Mega CD did not receive the same kind of warm reception that it did in Japan and the United States.  Emotions were mixed, and Euro industry watchers were critical of both the media and the hardware. They pretty much voiced the same concerns as their Stateside counterparts about lack of quality software and the slowness of the system's CD-ROM drive, only louder and more strident. The lukewarm response that Europe as a whole game Mega CD in large part accounts for the fact that only about 400,000 units sold throughout the European Common Market during the system's Euro market cycle (1993-1996), and no than 1 million for all of England and Europe overall. In fact only 4% of Euro MegaDrive owners ever bothered to buy either version of Mega CD for their systems.

Success Spawns Siblings

This is a good time to take a break from our history lesson and review the Sega CD hardware once again. There was by now more than one version of the console at this point in its history either on the market or in the final production stages. Let us see for ourselves just what these various Sega CD clone consoles were and how they fared.

Observant readers will have already noted by this point that we are now talking about two different iterations of the same console - Mega CD 1 and Mega CD 2, as Euro and Japanese system fans know them, or Sega CD 1 and Sega CD 2 in the U.S. market. The second iteration of the console was introduced in 1993 (US $230) and represented a radical redesign of the case and internal layout tailored to fit the new Genesis/MegaDrive Model 2 console, which was smaller and had a lower profile than its venerable ancestor. The new CD units would work with the older consoles, however - Sega was thoughtful enough to make and include a special tray adapter so it could work with the older units. Other significant differences included a built-in tray upon which your console sat and a top-loading CD-ROM drive design as opposed to the front-loading drive used in the earlier system. The Model 2 systems were first introduced in 1993 and heavily promoted by Sega in all markets - so well in fact that they represent the bulk of Sega CD/Mega CD systems still in existence today.

One other in-house variation on Sega CD deserves mention at this point. JVC's WonderMega had been popular enough in Japan that Sega decided to release its very own combination MegaDrive/Mega CD console. Resembling an oversized black portable audio CD player in appearance, the Multi-Mega was first announced at the 1993 Summer Consumer Electronics show. It also saw release in both Europe and the United States (where it was known as the CD-X). It lacked a built-in screen, meaning that users had to provide their own, but you must remember that small LCD screens in those days were still rather expensive and would have driven the price of the console beyond the reach of most consumers. While the Multi-Mega had no built-in RAM save function as did the original Mega CD or JVC's WonderMega, its small size and portability almost made up for this flaw. It also came with three pack-in titles in most markets - the CD titles Road Avenger and Ecco the Dolphin, as well as a Sonic 2 cartridge. A spacer for use with Sega's 32X adapter was prototyped and advertised - although it was never released due to balance and overheating problems. These were the most expensive versions of the Mega CD that Sega ever produced, with a suggested retail price of US$350 Stateside and UK£500 overseas, and that (along with marketing issues) probably explains why they never sold very well. First issued to the U.S. in April of 1994, only 5,000 of these ever made it across the ocean to Stateside shores. Nowadays, to quote Sega Force, "... the unit is rare, very desirable, and quite collectable."

While we are at it, let us not forget JVC's WonderMega. What turned out to be the third incarnation of the console - featuring a cheaper design that stripped out the SVHS video, modem, and MIDI functions - was reduced the JVC X'Eye and belatedly released to the U.S. market in September of 1994 - about a year behind JVC's original target date of fall 1993. Its pack-ins included Prize Fighter, Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, and a karaoke disc. JVC's avowed goal for the X'Eye as much the same as Sega's for the CD-X in that it was seeking older, more affluent buyers for this particular console.  Unfortunately, it was a flop as far as the market was concerned, with only 10,000 or so consoles sold in all of North America. This was largely due to three things - the poor timing of its release, even more poor distribution, and JVC's misreading of the console's potential user base. It came on the scene just as Sega CD was into full belly-up mode, and if you could find it at all, it was usually in a specialty music shop that dealt in karaoke machines. That, combined with its high price (US $500) accounted for its dismal retail performance in the U.S. Those lucky few who did manage to buy one, or stumble across them in pawn shops in later years for a fraction of their original cost (like me!), quickly grew to love JVC's thoughtful design. Being as it is an all-in-one 16-bit Sega console, lacking only 32X support, the JVC X'Eye is a highly prized collector's items today among Western Sega CD fans and have been known at times to fetch US $120 or more in auction for a complete and working system in the original packing box.

There were at least two other Sega CD/Mega CD clones produced around this time as well. The Pioneer LaserActive CLD-A100 was a combination laserdisc and video game unit first released on 20 August 1993 that had a plug-in bay at the bottom for three different modules - a Sega-produced MegaDrive/Mega CD module, a NEC-produced PC-Engine/PC-CD module, and a karaoke module with accompanying microphone. The built-in 12" disc player could handle all major disc formats, and was also employed by the console modules in support of CD-ROM based games. The unit had its own unique video game format for Mega CD games called Mega LD (or LD-ROM), which allowed Mega CD graphics to be superimposed over streaming video from 12" laserdiscs. There were almost two dozen Mega LD games released, but the system never really took off and was eventually discontinued to its low popularity - which is a shame, considering that the system's digital A/V functions made it possibly the best Genesis/MegaDrive/CD experience one could ever possibly have. Originally retailing for ¥89800, a £1000 PAL version was planned for England to be released at the end of 1994 but apparently never happened. The system did find its way to the U.S. in early 1995, with the price increased to US $1600. The Pioneer Laseractive died a quick death in the U.S. due to its prohibitively expensive price. As a footnote, it is the rarest of the tabletop Mega CD clone consoles, and you probably can expect to pay a princely triple-digit sum should you manage to find one still in good working order. The other clone console in question is perhaps the rarest Mega CD clone - the portable Aiwa CSD-GM1, released sometime around 1994. This was little more than one of their stock portable "boom boxes" with a built-in CD player that also incorporated MegaDrive and Mega CD support into the unit. These were only released in Asia to limited distribution, and are almost impossible to find here in the West.

Now it is time to return to the tale of a console that was. By May 1993, Sega CD was the most talked-about system on the U.S. market. The promise of cinema-quality FMV titles appealed to an audience hungry for new experiences, and more traditional titles in the Sega CD library were also doing quite well. The FMV shooter Sewer Shark was one of Sega CD's best-selling titles, and Sonic CD was considered by all to be the pinnacle of Sonic platforming bliss. By the end of the year, though, that would all change. Sega CD would go from red-hot to stone-cold within the space of a few months, due in part to circumstances beyond Sega's control and due in part to the system itself. Let us look at the first of these items and see how one legendary Sega CD game forever made its mark on the video game industry.

An Old Demon Rears Its Head

Back up a bit if you will to 1991, because events unfolding in the video game industry as part of the multimedia revolution would have a direct impact on Sega CD in 1993. At the time, noted toy maker Hasbro was just beginning to join the multimedia revolution, and was open to any decent video game projects that might further their aims. One such project was Scene of the Crime by Digital Pictures, utilizing the latest in FMV technology to deliver a compelling story about a series of mysterious disappearances inside a spooky old house. Hasbro liked what they saw, and commissioned it for release under the in-house title Project NEMO. It would be the first truly interactive video game to deliver something approaching a real cinematic experience, and the choices that the player made during the course of the game would determine its eventual outcome. Adding to the aura of the project was its youthful star, the attractive Dana Plato, who was having difficulty after her long stint as Kimberly on the popular TV sitcom Different Strokes and was in desperate need of a job. Project NEMO offered her that chance, and she took the role of undercover police agent Kelli Medd to heart. Production wrapped in early 1992, with the game being released first for Panasonic's fledgling 3DO system and then later ported to other systems, including Sega CD, by the end of the year. Little did Hasbro or Digital Pictures realize what they had unleashed upon the video game industry.

This game became one of the best-selling titles ever released for Sega CD in the U.S.  Its premise - a bunch of pretty girls being chased around a creepy old house by vampires - appealed strongly to a gaming public which was at that time largely composed of young males.

The game in question was Night Trap - a game that was to cause more controversy than any other commercially vended FMV title to date.

On 1 December 1993, U.S. Senator Joseph P. "Joe" Lieberman (D, Connecticut) launched a full-fledged Congressional investigation into the issue of violence in video games. "We are here today to talk about the nightmare before Christmas . Not the movie, but - unfortunately - the video games," he declared at the press conference that formally kicked off the investigation. Digital Pictures' Night Trap took center stage at the subsequent public hearings of Lieberman's committee, as did another well-known title. Midway's Mortal Kombat franchise had also drawn public ire for its "Fatalities" system, in which combatants could kill each other in spectacularly bloody ways through the use of special moves, and their was growing public concern that violence in video games led to violence in real life. This was also the year that saw the release of the ground-breaking shooter DOOM, and its on-screen violence also did not escape Lieberman's eye. As a matter of fact, the issue of violence in video games was not new - Exidy's Death Race suffered from a similar public outcry back in the 1980s - but this was the first time that the hardware was capable of delivering the same kind of graphic displays of violence one normally saw in visual media, such as artwork and films. This made for perfect political cannon fodder, and so it was with a great deal of gusto that Lieberman and his fellow senators plunged into the murky waters surrounding this debate full steam ahead. The first round of public hearings began just eight days later on 9 December 1993, right at the height of the Christmas shopping season, and would prove to be one of the major causes for Sega's worsening market fortunes that year.

In all fairness, the anti-violence activists had some cause for alarm. Market analysts had noted a steadily increasing trend towards video games with violent themes, such as action, fighting, and shooter titles. In a well-published study for Clinical Pediatrics, Dr. Jeanne Funk had discovered that 49% of junior high students preferred video games depicting human or fantasy violence, with sports games coming in second at 29%.  California Attorney General Dan Lungren fanned the flames, calling for violent video games to be removed from store shelves. The actor Bob Keeshan, known to generations of U.S. television watchers as the original Captain Kangaroo, publicly rebuked video game manufacturers in testimony at the hearings for producing such titles.  This was music to the ears of Nintendo CEO Howard Lincoln, who would go on to make a public spectacle of his appearance before Lieberman's Senate committee days later. He openly attacked Sega for releasing both games for its systems, noted Nintendo's long-standing support for antiviolent games, and gleefully agreed with the committee's proposal to shut down noncompliant companies. For the record, Nintendo was responsible for the Night Trap and Mortal Kombat outtake videos used by Lieberman's committee to illustrate their concern - again driving home the point that Sega was in large part responsible, if not totally responsible, for putting "this stuff" in the homes of unsuspecting children. Armed with this "evidence" and with endlessly hyped stories in the press about children going on violent rampages supposedly due to video games, Lieberman and fellow senator Howard Kohl (D, Wisconsin) eventually called for nothing less than a total ban on violent video games and the dismantling of companies that promoted such fare - including Sega, the chief culprit behind the spread of violent video games.

One of the more immediate results from the Lieberman hearings was the banning of violent video games in certain areas. It should have been expected - after all, controversial books continue to be banned by the ignorant and the religious radicals even today despite others' sophistication in and acceptance of the ways of the world.  It is a sad practice that has remained with us to this day. So it is with all forms of media, and that now included video games. The state of Utah, with its well-known conservative Mormon tendencies, banned Atari's Primal Rage for violent content - noting that combatants (who role-played as dinosaurs) could and often did take the time to snack on the on-screen locals cheering on the fight. Other states and many localities adopted similar measures, and the more conservative minds in the video game industry began to fear a public backlash against such titles. The radical Christian community in the United States had an especially adverse reaction to the controversy, and were quick to blame Sega for the sins of their children. "To most people, abstract constitutional arguments for prohibiting public school prayer seem an inadequate response to the terror of Night Trap videos and school shootings," noted Christian commentator Mark Meyer, and his statement was but one among many to share this view. Another result, and the only one that mattered to Nintendo, was bad publicity for Sega.

The Lieberman hearings took a major hit on Sega's market share at the time, and they saw sales for Sega CD begin to dry up - much to the gleeful delight of their chief competitor. Major retail distributors such as Toys 'R' Us responded to Lieberman's call and pulled Night Trap and other such "violent fare" from their store shelves. The fact that a lot of these games were made for Sega consoles was all the more news to rejoice at Nintendo corporate headquarters. Time Magazine named Night Trap one of the worst products of 1993. The New York Times went even farther, running an article on the controversy in which they named Digital Pictures as "the new digital pornographers." All of this and more combined to a dramatic downturn in Sega products during the most critical sales period of the year in any industry. The poor Sega CD, being the offending console for which Night Trap was produced, took the biggest hit of all. Before the controversy exploded, Sega had sold around 130,000 copies of Night Trap, making it one of the console's hit titles. Another 50,000 sold the week the controversy broke out, but very few cleared the shelves after that. By the end of the Christmas shopping season, every remaining copy that had been on store shelves was sitting in Sega warehouses because the retailers refused to sell them for fear of sparking local protests. Sega eventually yanked the license for the game due to the controversy. It was not a good turn of events for Sega, and they moved as quickly as they were able to counter it.

Sega did everything it could to shake itself of the charges of promoting violence in video games - far more so than just about any other vendor in the industry and in spite of Nintendo's underhanded efforts at putting them out of business. While all the press feeding frenzy and Congressional posturing was going on, Sega was quietly sponsoring a number of round-table discussions with developers, gamers, and concerned citizens groups in an effort to find a workable solution to the issue. Sega tapped the talents of the noted public relations firm Manning, Selvage, and Lee in order to develop a strategy against these charges. The end result of those sessions was an industry-wide press conference on 9 December 1993, the same day that the hearings were to commence, attended by some 125 of the major players in the video game industry - with Nintendo being a notable exception. The eventual outcome of that press conference was the Video game Ratings Council (VRC) - the video game industry's first-ever ratings system.  Sega's quick action ensured that the VRC system was in place in time for the height of the holiday shopping season and guaranteed positive press coverage when they needed it the most. Sega CEO Tom Kalinske also undertook the extra effort of promising Senator Lieberman that they would pull Night Trap off the market and censor the offending bits - which they subsequently did. As for the VRC, it proved so popular with consumers that Senator Lieberman and his allies were forced to concede the point and praise Sega for its leadership. The VRC was eventually revamped by Lieberman and his allies into the Entertainment Standards Review Board (ESRB) in 1994 - a industry watchdog group that is still doing its job today. Back to the subject, though - Sega was the first to begin rating its titles for content and led the industry in public efforts to tone down (or at least notify about) overt violence in video games. The ESRB ratings system, which they helped to develop, is now a standard fixture of the video game market in the United States and is used on a regular basis by both the industry and concerned parents alike.

The idea that violence in video games is a direct cause of violence in real life has been disproven time and again since the infamous Lieberman hearings of 1993. In 1997, Dr. Steven Silvern of Auburn University authored two independent studies which discounted this notion. "After playing [video games], children don't necessarily feel angry, they feel aroused," he noted in an interview with U.S. News and World Report. Energy that would normally be funneled into physical activity is focused instead on beating the video game - regardless of its content. After the session is finished, the players are aroused and have a heightened sense of action. This is a routine response to any type of activity that causes stress, as many doctors have noted, whether you are playing a violent video game such as Street Fighter 2 or are actually involved in a fistfight. Dr. Silvern also noted that make-believe violence is a routine and possibly necessary part of growing up, and reminded parents of the games they used to play as children - cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, and so on. Finally, the supposed link between playing violent video games and desensitization to real-world violence has never been conclusively proven - no more than it has for watching violent images on television or at the movies. In short - while violent video games may be cause for concern for parents wishing to impart select moral values on their children, they are not nor have they ever been the source of all evil in the world. At best, they can be only a contributing factor, and even their role in that regard is debatable. Nevertheless, the issue will remain with us as long as violent video games are produced, and the aftereffects of the Lieberman hearings continue to influence the video game industry to this day.

Tom Zito of Digital Pictures has gone on the record defending Night Trap, noting, "These guys actually said in the hearing that the object of the game was to stalk and kill women. That clearly is not the object of the game ....You could take 20 seconds out of Bambi and make it seem like the most horrific product ever developed, and you could similarly say how could the Walt Disney company sell this horrible Bambi to children. Now the difference between Bambi and Night Trap is most people have seen Bambi, so if they tried to take something out of context, people would have understood that was the case. But most people hadn't seen Night Trap, and in fact, in 1993 during the hearings, the general population (for the most part), didn't have a clue that you could actually have real video playing on a game machine or a PC, and so I think there was a kind of novelty shock."

After the uncut version of the game was put back on the market and released for PC systems in 1996, vendor Hasbro produced a rather unusual television commercial that made fun of all the furor. With a flashy background that resembled the American flag, the ad featured footage from the game and an unseen commentator spouting lines like "... a bunch of sickoid vampires who do indescribably disgusting things to their victims ..." and "Some members of Congress tried to ban Night Trap for being sexist and offensive to women." The PC version of Night Trap, which includes the previously censored footage and the accompanying Digital Pictures documentary Dangerous Games, is now something of a collector's item.

Actress Dana Plato died of a drug overdose in 1999 while attempting to make a comeback in her acting career. Night Trap had marked one of the more sane periods in her life after Different Strokes was cancelled in 1986. She had drifted in and out of show business, unable to recapture the stardom she had enjoyed in her youth.  Her first marriage ended in divorce, and she had a number of well-publicized run-ins with the law - including one arrest for armed robbery (1991) and another for drug possession (1992).  After being placed on probation, she began to appear in a number of low-budget films and projects, of which Night Trap was one. Her life seemed to be finally getting back on track after a memorable appearance with former Different Strokes co-star Todd Bridges at the 1997 Hollywood Autograph Collector's Show. Two years later, she was dead by her own hand.

As for Senator Joe Lieberman, he and his supporters have continued non-stop on their anti-violent video game crusade, keeping the issue before the public eye in their never-ending quest to outlaw violent video games for good.

One final observation. Not long after the Lieberman hearings and in response to demand from their customer base, Nintendo began incorporating violent content into video games for its own systems. The first such title? The SNES port of Mortal Kombat 2. Oh, the irony!

The Promise Flounders

The Congressional hearings on violence in video games make for one of Sega CD's more notable side stories, coming as they did right in the middle of the system's lifetime. It could have been a lot worse had not Sega pulled out the public-relations stops.  Once the story got off Sega and moved on to the new ratings system, then it was over - but the damage had already been done. Sega CD sales, which were already foundering, took a a dramatic hit from the Lieberman hearings in both system and software sales during this time; nevertheless, it was but one factor among many. In fact, things had not been going well for Sega CD from 1993 onward despite the hearings. What was supposed to have been Sega's new flagship console, their "SNES killer," was doing a lackluster job in the Western markets. Even such supposedly killer apps as Sonic CD and Eternal Champions failed to perk up additional interest in the system. JVC's highly touted X'Eye clone console and Sega's own CD-X came and went and almost nobody noticed. One can understand, if not approve, of Nintendo's taking the opportunity of the Congressional hearings to trash the system and its vendor, thus weakening support on all fronts even further. In October 1994, Sega was forced to reduce the price of the system from its original US $300 to US $150 in an effort to boost sagging sales. It didn't help. The only major console Sega CD outsold was the Phillips CD-i, and sales of Sega CD systems and software began a marked downward spiral from which they never recovered.

The developers began to bail about this time, sensing the impending death of the system. Early losses for Sega CD including planned ports of such notable titles as the LucasArts games Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Instruments of Chaos. Sega cancelled the planned Sega CD release of Phantasy Star 4, opting instead for a cartridge-based Genesis game that bore little resemblance to its original Sega CD concept. Many of the games promised by various vendors, or rumored to be on the way for either Mega CD or Sega CD, never materialized  On and on it went, day after day, week after week, and month after month. The planned software library for Sega CD continued its massive hemorrhage throughout the rest of 1994 and into 1995, with SNES cartridges taking up more and more of the retail space that had formerly been devoted to Sega. Sega CD was withering on the vine right before Sega's eyes and there was little they could do to stop it. By mid-1995, Sega CD was doomed and everybody knew it, so thereafter it was quietly relegated to the bargain bins of the retailers and the scrap heap of console history. Most gamers ditched it without a second thought, saving their cash for the newer 32-bit systems instead.

Given the fact that the Lieberman congressional hearings of 1993-1994 was the point around which Sega CD's fortunes turned, are there any other factors that bear mention?  Two things immediately come to mind, and these are reasons upon which all Sega advocates seem to agree. Congressional hearings and the conservative crowd notwithstanding, the major reasons for the failure of Sega CD are closely linked due to the nature of the subject at hand. They were the lack of quality titles and the FMV debacle.

The lack of quality titles for Sega CD is an issue that has been harped upon again and again not only by the video game historians but by Sega buffs as well. The sparseness of the Sega CD library's range of so-called top-notch titles stands in striking comparison to its chief competitor at the time, the NEC TurboCD. One of the reasons that the TurboCD did as well as it did was that it had a large library of high-quality, CD-ROM only titles. In comparison, many of Sega CD's titles were obvious Genesis ports with little more than a bit of graphical window-dressing and a CD-ROM soundtrack. A dozen or so such titles immediately spring to mind - Bill Walsh College Football ...Brutal: Paws of Fury ...Cliffhanger ...the Chuck Rock series ... Earnest Evans ..Earthworm Jim...Hook ... the Lethal Enforcers series ..Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ...Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure ...Puggsy ... Road Rash ...Sol-Feace ...Wolf Child ...and more. In fact, there are only a dozen or so Sega CD games in the entire worldwide library that would rate as a "9" or a "10" on a ten-point scale, and some claim that are even less than that.

There is an answer for this failing, of course, and not surprisingly, Sega itself turns out to be the chief culprit. Sega delayed shipment of its Sega CD software development kits (SDK) to its Western licensees prior to the system launch, thus hurting any chances that quality titles would become available for the first 12-18 months Sega CD was on the market. This put companies who wished to develop for this promising new system into a bind, so many were forced to either acquire rights to import titles or do what some of their Japanese counterparts had already done - take existing Genesis games off their storeroom shelves, slap a CD soundtrack on in and graft the odd bits of FMV cinema here and there, and then kick it out the door. It was about all they could do until their official Sega CD SDKs arrived, and they had commitments to meet, so who could blame them? "Shovel ware," the idea of taking a title for one console and quickly porting it to another with little or no change, is a practice that is as old as the industry itself. It is one of the unfortunate aspects of the system that Sega CD has had to endure a reputation for shovel ware more than any other console to date - and more than it deserved, in comparison to Sony's and Nintendo's machines.

There are five titles, all of them import RPGs, which deserve mention at this point because they stand out among the dismal offerings that comprise the bulk of the Sega CD's U.S. software library. Four of these come from one U.S. vendor, and the fifth direct from its Japanese vendor. The first four were released by one of Sega's newest licensees at the time - a little-known company named Working Designs. Founded in 1988 by Todd Mark and Sylvia Schmidt and originally conceived as a developer of PC business software, the company's focus changed to video games after the hiring of Victor Ireland two years later. They were the first third-party company to release a CD-ROM based video game in the United States (Cosmic Fantasy 2 for the NEC Turbo Graph/X 16 CD system), and as a result were in a perfect position to develop for Sega CD. In 1993 they secured the rights to produce an English-language version of GameArt's monster hit RPG Lunar: The Silver Star, and the rest is history. Lunar was named Best RPG of 1993 by GameFan magazine, and eventually went on to become the #1 best-selling Sega CD title of all time. Three other RPGs followed in course - Vay (July 1994), Popful Mail (1995), and Lunar 2: Eternal Blue (30 June 1995, best-selling Sega CD game of 1995). A planned fifth title, A Side Story of Armageddon, was scrubbed due to the death of the system. It has been many years since Working Designs ended their involvement with Sega CD - let alone another Sega platform, such as the Saturn - but they do not shy away from their past. On the contrary, they are quite proud of it and have one of the few developer's sites on the Internet with a Sega CD section. It's easy to understand their feelings, and Working Designs used their experiences to build upon their successes with Sega's revolutionary platform. Working Designs may be better known nowadays for its high-quality imports for the Sony PlayStation and PlayStation2 consoles, but it is their work with Sega CD that made the company's fortunes - not to mention its reputation for translation excellence and high production values.

It should come as no surprise that the four RPGs which Working Designs released for Sega CD represent four of the top five most desired English-language Sega CD RPGs in terms of possessing original copies. The complete set - Lunar, Vay, Popful Mail, and Lunar 2, in order of release - will cost you about US $200 nowadays in the original with the original packaging. The other title in our selection of high-grade import RPGs is also widely regarded as a classic - Konami's Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk sci-fi RPG Snatcher, representing the only English-language version of the game to date despite numerous releases for various systems. Released for all markets, the U.S. Sega CD or European Mega CD English-language originals of Snatcher with complete packaging have fetched an online auction price as high as US $100 - or more, in rare cases. Taken as a whole, these five RPGs represent the best of what limited offerings Sega CD had to show in this particular and popular category of video games.

Practically everyone who has researched the history of Sega CD honestly agrees that one of the major causes for the death of Sega CD was the virtual onslaught of FMV thrown at its users. Most of it was pure crap - poor excuses for video games using extensive digital rendering for window dressing - and the massive amount of system resources required for FMV often strained the console's hardware to near-breaking point in some cases. True, there were a few exceptions to the rule, but for every Ground Zero Texas and Night Trap there were at least a dozen dollops of drek such as A/X-101, Double Switch, The Lawnmower Man, the entire Make My Video series, Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, Wire Head, and so on. In fact, VideoGames.com has recently gone on the record asserting that the Make My Video series did more to destroy Sega CD's reputation in the eyes of gamers than any other group of FMV titles for the system. Even so groundbreaking a title as Night Trap, arguably one of the best FMV titles in the Sega CD library, did not escape the eyes of the critics. "Offering little more than clever sprite effects, CD audio and FMV, this inauspiciously pricey add-on for the Mega Drive failed to deliver much in the way of innovation, let alone a killer app." noted ISGN in their recent review of the console. "The controversial Night Trap title saw little more than poorly strung together FMV sequences, while Sewer Shark and Cobra Command only served to acknowledge Sega's injudicious gaming commitment. Despite Sega's suave 'Pirate TV' ad campaign, the shunt being exerted upon existing Mega Drive owners was the very catalyst for Sega's discord."

"Now wait a minute!  Wasn't FMV supposed to be the wave of the future?"

It was, and that's what everybody would have told you back in 1992-1993. The computer hardware of the day just wasn't up to recreating cinematic experiences purely through processing power unless you were willing to spend thousands of dollars, which no average consumer in their right mind would do, so FMV seemed the natural road to take.  Sega believed so too, and was in a position to monitor the market trends. They invested a lot of their money into the technology, producing many titles on their own and licensing others for Sega CD. The only problem with their reasoning was that it left no room for technological advancements of the kind that Sega itself was helping to push out the door. FMV required far too much in terms of resources and delivered too little in terms of a truly interactive experience to ever catch on as a real trend, save for the novelty factor. The more you wanted to make available to the gamer, the more FMV you had to produce and program into the game engine - which ate up system and storage capacity at a rate that even the best compression codecs could not surmount. Fortunately for the videogame industry, the days of FMV games were numbered a couple of years after they hit the mainstream markets. The rise of dedicated, cost-effective 3D-oriented processors in the mid-1990s pretty much spelled the doom of FMV as the basis for a video game engine. After all, who wanted to play Prize Fighter when Virtua Fighter offered better gameplay and a more graphically satisfying experience? Who wanted to waste their time on Star Wars: Rebel Assault when Star Wars Arcade was obviously the better game?  It was a no-brainer, of course. The gamers flocked to the newer, 3D-oriented machines, and almost the entire FMV industry was left to dangle in the breeze.  FMV eventually survived, of course, but in form in which it should have stayed all along - as a supplement to, rather than the basis for, a video game. Sega took a financial bath in the FMV market, and this is yet another reason why their fortunes failed in the mid-to-late 1990s. They had gone out on a limb, only to have it break under them. Sega corporate would never admit its mistake, and Sega of Japan blamed its fellow division Sega of America for the debacle. It was the start of an internal feud that would almost destroy the company's market share inside of a few short years.

It is a shame that few other Sega licensees chose to tread the path that companies such as Sega, GameArts, and Konami chose to follow. There simply aren't that many more "great" titles for Sega CD apart from their offerings, and surprisingly few "good" ones. In a recent survey with the patrons of the Tavern at the Internet site Eidolon's Inn, representing a cross-section of Sega CD and Mega CD devotees from around the world, the following were named as the top ten best and worst Sega CD titles of all time:

Top Ten Best
Mega CD and Sega CD Games
of all time
(as decided by the visitors to Eidolon's Inn)
Top Ten Worst
Mega CD and Sega CD Games
of all time
(as decided by the visitors to Eidolon's Inn)
1. Lunar: The Silver Star
(GameArts/Working Designs)
1.  The entire Make My Video series
(Sony Imagesoft)
2. Snatcher
(Konami)
2. Almost any other FMV title
(with the notable exceptions of
Ground Zero Texas, Night Trap, and Fahrenheit.)
3. Sonic the Hedgehog CD
(Sonic Team/Sega)
3. Racing Aces
(Hammond & Leyland/Sega)
4. Shining Force CD
(Sega)
4. Earnest Evans
(Wolfteam)
5. Eternal Champions:
Challenge from the Dark Side
(Sega)
5. Sol-Feace
(Wolfteam)
6. Lunar 2: Eternal Blue
(GameArts/Working Designs)
6. Night Striker
(Taito)
7. Popful Mail
(Falcom/Working Designs)
7. Iron Helix
(Spectrum Holobyte)
8. Silpheed
(GameArts/Sega)
8. Mortal Kombat
(Midway/Arena)
9. Heart of the Alien
(Delphine/Virgin/interplay)
9. The Space Adventure
(Hudson/Sega)
10. Ecco the Dolphin
(Novotrade/Sega)
10. Stellar Fire
(Dynamix/Sierra)
Honorable Mention (11):  Night Trap
(Digital PIctures/Acclaim)
 
Honorable Mention (12):  Vay
(SIMS Co. Ltd./Working Designs)
 
NOTE:  Both Night Trap and Vay received as many votes as Ecco the Dolphin after the survey results were compiled.
The final selection for the #10 spot was made by the staff and supporters of Eidolon's Inn.

The odd thing about this survey was the lack of agreement on the worst ten games for the system. The only thing on which everybody agreed were that the FMV games as a whole should have never happened. After that, the survey results quickly devolved, with few titles getting more than three votes aside from certain universally despised Genesis ports.

The folks over in the Orient have quite a different opinion as to what were the best ten titles for the console they know as Mega CD. Here is one such list, reprinted from the Fanatics web site. I reproduce it for the sake of fairness.

Top Ten Best Mega CD Games of all time
(Fanatics)
1. Lunar: The Silver Star
(GameArts)
2. Silpheed
(GameArts)
3. Lunar 2: Eternal Blue
(GameArts)
4. Popful Mail
(Falcom)
5. Sonic the Hedgehog CD
(Sonic Team/Sega)
6. Urusei Yatsura: My Dear Friends
(GameArts)
7. Shining Force CD
(Sega)
8. Yuyumimi Mix
(GameArts)
9. F1 Heavenly Symphony
(Sega)
10. Keio Flying Squadron
(JVC)

Note that the same six titles - all but one of them RPGs - appear on both top ten lists? This is pretty much true regardless of whose top ten list you consult. It just goes to prove the point that there was only a handful of Sega CD titles that could be considered great in universal terms. Add another handful or two to account for the distinctions between Western and Eastern tastes, and you're still left over with a couple of hundred games that just don't make the cut.

With this in mind, let's take all the business about lack of good titles and a overload of crappy FMV ones, add on top of that the Lieberman hearings, and add a dash of Sega arrogance towards the end of 1994 and lasting well into 1995 seemingly aimed at both developers and gamers alike as to where it (being the #1 video game company in the U.S.at the time) wanted to lead the markets. Now it should be easy to see why Sega CD died. Most of the games available stunk, retailers either wouldn't stock or were almost always out of the good ones, nobody was interested in FMV anymore now that 3D texture-mapped polygonal graphics were finally coming of age, developers were bailing either because of the Lieberman hearings or because they sensed (correctly) that the platform was dying, and Sega was too busy worrying about which new console to go with next to pay attention to what was really happening in the marketplace. Most hardcore Sega gamers at the time felt like Blake Kelley, who wrote about his past experiences with video game consoles in the article, "In Retrospect: The Tables Turn" for Gamer's Alliance. "Support for the Sega CD died off and the game production came to a halt. I was at the game retailer once again. 'Take all this useless junk and gimme a SNES and one game.' I tell you, I felt like I have been violated or something. Some lessons are hard learned." No wonder that many a formerly proud Sega gamer refused to invest in either the 32X or Saturn. "[T]here was no way I was gonna give Sega one red cent of my money ....Sega had points against it in my book right from the start." quips Mr. Kelley in his article, and just about every other disgruntled Sega gamer at the time agreed with him. If Sega gamers were reinvesting on the cheap, they went with Nintendo's aging but still popular SNES. If they had the money and were willing to invest in a nextgen 32-bit system, most chose the inexpensive Sony PlayStation over the expensive Sega Saturn.

By 1995, the writing was on the wall. Sega CD developers quietly shelved existing projects or hurriedly finished them up and sent them to Sega for release. Some of the best games for the platform were released in 1995, among them JVC's decidedly wacky shooter Keio Flying Squadron, and they give us our only glimpse into what might have been had Sega CD survived another year. Perhaps the most notable release, not surprisingly, was Lunar 2: Eternal Blue. Working Designs cemented their reputation for excellence with gamers worldwide by choosing to go ahead and finish their English language release against all wisdom and marketing sense. It was the best-selling Sega CD title of 1995 and one of the best games ever released for Sega CD ...but by then, few people were buying anything for the system.

By the beginning of 1996, only two games remained on the official U.S. Sega CD release list - Myst and Brain Dead 13. Both were cancelled within months, with their development teams retasked to make the ports for the 32-bit Saturn instead. Sega officially discontinued the system around the same time - and with that postscript, the sad tale of the Sega CD comes to its close. In retrospect, the slow death of Sega CD marked the beginning of the end of Sega's fortunes, but nobody at Sega would realize what was happening until it was too late.

So Why Bother?

From 1991 to 1995, approximately 27 million Genesis consoles were sold around the world. In comparison, only around 6 million Sega CD units total were sold during its entire lifetime in the same markets, which happens to fall around the same time frame.  That is approximately 2 to 3 million Japanese Mega CDs, 2.5 million U.S. Sega CDs, and 1 million English and European Mega CDs.  Add to that about 20,000 to 30,000  JVC WonderMega/X'Eye consoles sold worldwide, and then top that off with a few thousand Mega CD capable Pioneer Laservisions and other assorted clone systems, and you might be able to stretch that number out to 6.1 million. Only 142 were released for Sega CD in the U.S., with a somewhat smaller number in Japan and Europe. Taking all the unique titles together from all markets, there were only about 200 or so titles that were ever released for the system. Not a lot for what was supposed to be a revolutionary video game console, is it? One might think that with so few sales in comparison to its older and less capable ancestor, Sega CD isn't worth the bother to investigate. If that is how you feel, then you are making a mistake.

Video game historians haven't termed Sega CD a "notable failure" just because that sounds like a nice turn of phrase. Sega CD was a console too soon, a system that tried to ride the cutting edge of new technology but wound up being bogged down by that very same technology. The single-speed drives were just too slow and the FMV-minded programmers just too ambitious in their dreams to ever make the most of the system.  Those few titles that proved successful were developed by programmers who were worried more about making the most out of what they had rather than try something too ambitious for the hardware. It is in this area that Sega CD shines, and it is no surprise that what many consider to be the ten finest games for the platform remain such outstanding titles even today. No abusive use of FMV, no uninspired porting of existing Genesis games, no hammering of the CD-ROM drive at every opportunity - just ... um ... "good game," as the players would say. Unfortunately, such games were few and far between for an otherwise excellent system.

As a sidebar, one should not take lightly Sony's involvement in licensing and vending software for Sega CD. A good many titles bear the Sony Imagesoft logo, and that was no accident. Remember, at that time, Sony was deep into negotiations with Nintendo about the possibilities of a SNES CD-ROM drive. Sega had one of only two systems on the market that were CD-ROM based, so it should come as no surprise that Sony decided to become involved. It was a valuable learning experience for them, and what they learned would be put to use just a few years later once Sony decided to strike out on its own with Ken Kuratagi's standalone PlayStation console. Although it was overlooked at the time, Sony's involvement with Sega CD had implications that went unnoticed by both Sega and Nintendo until it was too late to do anything about it.

So what was learned from Sega CD? If anything, it showed that neither the technology nor the intended user base was ready for prime time. The occasional cinema was fine, but the hardware would have to be capable of a lot more processing power if FMV was to enter the mainstream and become a regular, expected part of the gaming experience.  The Sega CD, along with NEC's CD-ROM accessory for the Turbo Graf/X 16, also showed that the public was willing to entertain the notion of a format change from cartridges to CD-ROM - provided the cost was lowered and high-quality games were offered that actually took advantage of the hardware. Sega CD was about three to four years too soon, as subsequent history showed, and could never offer enough to compensate for its obvious shortcomings. High price ...overrated technology ...lack of quality software.  These are the three reasons why Sega CD is now a footnote and not an icon.

Nevertheless, whether you accept it or not, Sega CD helped pave the way for the acceptance of CDs over cartridges as the standard delivery system of choice for home console video games during the 1990s. People were already becoming accustomed to CD-ROM drives as part of their personal computers, and the public acceptance of a CD-ROM based video game console was surprisingly easy. "I see CD-ROM for another four to six years," said International Computer Group's Barry Friedman, and he was right. The public knew that, while Sega CD and its fellow early systems failed to deliver on the promise that CD-ROM technology held, nevertheless its day was coming, and soon. It was a lesson that was not lost on all of the major players in the home video game market, and they quickly moved to put second-generation consoles on the market that would make the dream a reality. The singular exception was, of course, Nintendo - and their realization would be long and hard in coming. Once again, Nintendo would be forced to pay the price for its abysmal arrogance, although it would turn out to be former technology partner Sony and not rival Sega who would deliver their second humiliating fall from grace.

Sega CD ...a console too soon. A system abandoned, but not forgotten.

Sources (Note: Some of theses links are no longer active)

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