On November 30, 1990, the Sega Mega Drive appeared in stores in Europe. The 16bit console at the time was much more advanced than its major competitor, the 8bit NES. It was also the first console for which a Sonic game appeared.
Sega introduced the Mega Drive in Japan at the end of 1988. In the US, the console appeared a year later as the Sega Genesis. When Sega brought the console to the European market at the end of November 1990, many games were immediately available. In addition, the hardware was based on Sega’s System 16 arcade platform. Popular games from the arcades, including Golden Axe, were available for purchase immediately upon European release.
The Sega Mega Drive contains a Motorola 68000 processor with a clock speed of 7.6MHz and 72kB of ram. The 16-bit chip is assisted by a Zilog Z80 coprocessor at 3.58MHz. That chip has been widely used in various devices since 1976 and can still be found in Texas Instruments graphing calculators today. In the Mega Drive, the Zilog processor was used to control the sound; because it was feared that the Motorola processor would not be powerful enough to provide the image and sound at the same time. The graphics processor is a Yamaha YM7101 with 64kB. This enables the Mega Drive to simultaneously conjure up 64 colors on the screen at a resolution of 320×240 pixels, from a palette of a total of 512 different colors.
With its hardware, the Sega Mega Drive was well ahead of Nintendo’s 8-bit system. The NES had to make do with a 1.55MHz CPU and could display up to 24 colors simultaneously. Although the 16bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System was also released in Japan in 1990, it was not until June 1992 that Sega faced competition from Nintendo’s 16bit console in Europe.
The Mega Drive was the first console to feature a Sonic game. Sega was looking for a new game character, who could also act as a “mascot” for the company to compete with Mario. Eventually that became Sonic the Hedgehog. The game of the same name appeared in June 1991 and the blue hedgehog became the mascot that Sega wanted. In addition, bundling the game with the Mega Drive is seen as a big reason for the console’s success.
The Sega Mega Drive even made it possible to download online games and compete against other gamers over the internet. At least, Sega introduced the Meganet service in Japan, which required a special Mega Modem and a paid monthly subscription. However, it was not a great success and although there were plans to bring the service to the US under the name Tele-Genesis, they were not carried through.
Several variations of the Mega Drive appeared. For example, the Mega Drive II was a smaller and more economical variant. In 1995, when the 16bit era came to an end, Sega even made a handheld version of the console. However, this Sega Nomad only came out in the US. The Mega Drive was succeeded in November 1994 by the 32-bit Sega Saturn. That console appeared in Europe in July 1995. However, licensed variations of the Sega Mega Drive are still sold to this day. The British company Blaze released a new variant of the console in 2009.
The Sega Mega Drive Motherboard – Photo © Bill Bertram (Pixel8) 2008 / Creative Commons