In today’s episode of RetroConsole not a proper console but an add-on, a peripheral, maybe the most important during the early era of CD-ROM. Today I’d like to introduce you the Sega CD, also known in Europe as Mega CD that was released in the US on, October 15th, 1995 so 25 years ago!
The story in a nutshell
Even thought the first appearence of add-ons capable to read the CD-ROMs are dated towards the end of the 80s, the CD-ROM as a storage media found its popularity and its virtual monopoly only in the second part of the 90s. The first effort in this direction came from NEC which released the CD-ROM² System (also known as TurboGrafx-CD for the western market) in 1988. However, NEC was not Sega or Nintendo and the CD-ROM industry wasn’t completely flourished yet. Even the first fully-CD console was a complete disaster: when in 1991 Commodore released the CD-TV the incredibly high retail price (999$) and the poor games library for sure didn’t orient the market toward the new optical technology. Same thing for the Philips CD-i (which came out at the end of 1991) whose awkward controller and technically poor games led Philips to discontinue the console in 1998 after only 1 millions units sold in 7 years.
When in 1992 Sega launched its add-on even Sega’s own territorial division were in the dark therefore the first games developed for it were japanese exclusives or better Sega exclusive, since the dev kits were shipped with gret delay. In Japan the add-on was released on December 12th, 1991 and in Europe in spring 1993 at the price of 299€. A second version was released on April 23rd 1993 and was shipped to the US in autumn of the same year with a reduced price of 229€.
On the board of the Sega CD we can find a 16-bit Motorola 68000 clocked at 12.5MHz. The chip was one of the most popular in the 80s and it has been used in the Apple Macintosh and in the Genesis itself as well as in the Neo Geo, in the Amiga family (500, 600, 1000, 2000) and in the Atari ST.
Being an add-on, the Sega CD has no proprietary controller but we can compare the tons of cables needed to use it as additional hands of the console. For a foolish decision, to play the Sega CD you need a separate power adapter and an additional jack to connect it with the base: a needless load of cables that made the franken-console a bulky piece to keep in your living room or under your bedroom TV.
The great amount of data available on a CD-ROM, 320 times greater than a standard Genesis cartridge, allowed the developers to fill the extra space with all sort of things, especially motion videos at the point that the Sega CD was the reference of the burgeoning FMV-based games genre. However the videos were still rudimental and with a very low quality. They look like some porn videos you could have found on the internet in the late 90s.
Luckily the Sega CD featured also some great games that didn’t take advantage of the FMV fashion, even though they were more like some straightforward SNES or Genesis games: beautiful to see but without the kind of improvement that could led someone to buy a Sega CD.
A total of 209 games were developed for the Sega-CD including the ones designed to be used with the Sega-CD together with 32X. Among some really awful games there are some remarkable titles that deserve to be reminded like Sonic CD. However the most known games are the ones that popularized the FMV technique like Night Trap, Sewer Shark, Dracula Unleashed, Corpse Killer and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective.
Night Trap was like pleasure and pain for the Sega CD: marketed as a marvellous interactive fiction, first suffered negative reviews by the critics and then was killed by the censorship for its adult content at the point that shortly after was creates the ESRB to give an appropriated rating for the gamnes released in North America. A perfect example of the failure of theperipheral.
Regarding the gems for the Sega CD we can cite Final Fight CD, a good improvement of the famous brawler, in which the differences with the arcade version were reduced to the minimum, Shining Force CD, Robo Aleste and Thunderhawk. So not only FMV games for God sake.
Most of the Genesis games re-released for the Sega CD were basically the same games stuffed with useless cutscenes to show the potential of the peripheral and to fill the immense extra-space available. Probably this was the biggest issue back then: paradoxically having suddenly so much space to fill and a little time to think about how to fill it pushed the developers to put everything they had on a CD, even useless and pixellated motion videos.
Even though the peripheral proved to be unsuccessful, Sega launched different iterations of it depending on the supporting hardware (the different Genesis/Mega Drive models). The Type I it’s basically a CD player with an original Genesis upon it; the Type II, dedicated to the customers who bought a 2nd generation Genesis is larger and also features a base where to place the console and the add-on: good looking but too large. The last iteration was the Genesis CDX, a separate console that was a mix between the hardware of the Genesis and a CD drive. Being very compact (even though it looks a bit cheap), that could have been a good solution but who was willing to pay for an underpowered pseudo-Saturn at the eve of the launch of Saturn itself?
The console became more and more bulky (and sincerely impossible to handle) when the 32X was mounted upon it: a swarm of cables and peripherals always based on the hardware of the outdated Genesis.
The Sega CD sold in total 2,24 million units : still far from the success of Sony PlayStation that impose the CD as the dominant format but rather good in relation of other optical add-ons, like the Jaguar CD by Atari, whose sales can be counted on ther fingers of two hands. To give an idea of the different consoles that flooded the market in the early 90s we can cite 3DO (1993, 2 millions units sold), Amiga CD32 (1993, 100k units sold), FM Towns Marty (1993, 45k units sold) and NeoGeo CD (1994, half millions of units sold): all together they sold less than the Sega Saturn.
Sega decision to release the Sega CD was, in the end, a lost bet. The company found more glory with their official CD-based console, the Saturn, which sold around 9 million units; however the time for Sega was over: a new competitor rose in the console market, Sony, that with its PlayStation literally killed the market. It killed even Nintendo, that, actually, had the possibility to be the reference point even in the growing optical consoles field with its prototype of Nintendo PlayStation. If they only knew…
But that’s all another story…