It almost seems pointless to do a retro corner on the Megadrive. Everyone remembers Sega’s 16-bit monster; it was the sledgehammer that broke Nintendo’s dominance of the market in two. The console that brought us Sonic the Hedgehog, that made sports gaming acceptable, that inspired the work lives of so many today as Sega were able to back up their heritage as an arcade stalwart with dedicated home games in almost every genre.
However, that’s merely talk based on the Megadrive’s Western existence. In Sega’s homeland, the story is entirely different. The Megadrive had limited traction here, shipping just 400k in its first year. It remained a very distant third behind the Super Nintendo and even the PC Engine, which has long since been predominantly recognised as an 8-bit console.
However, this failure actually makes the Megadrive a wonderful curio in her native market, with a variety of peripherals, offshoots and bizarre games sat at the head of a table which Sega bravely tried to fit into any small room they could.
Sega’s first move was to produce add-ons that they felt the market couldn’t do without. The most obvious ones that come to mind are the Mega-CD, but there are certainly others – the Sega Mega Answer, professional online software for your Megadrive. The Mega Answer would give you full online banking in the early 90s, along with a comprehensive accounting package and an answering machine. Naturally, no gamer needed or wanted this at the time, and no business wanted to buy a simple, brainless gaming console to do things they could pay accomplished businessmen to do for them. A nice device, but ultimately pointless.
Sega’s next step was to take this one further, and bolt the Megadrive into a PC. Known as the Sega Teradrive, it combined an IBM DOS V computer complete with all the productivity functions and capability you’d expect for a PC, with a Megadrive mode that you could plug cartridges into. It’s long been believed that the Teradrive was a prototype for building a console into a computer where you could then create and edit your own games, but with no information on any possible software that might have allowed you to do that, it’s a questionable statement at best. The Teradrive was, again, a failure, largely due to its outdated and un-upgradable PC hardware, and today is moderately rare.
There’s also the Mega Jet. This is perhaps one of Sega’s smarter moves – on Japanese airline JAL, Mega Jets could be rented from the airline and played on the inflight entertainment monitor. The Mega Jet was no more than a portable Megadrive without a screen, with the carts plugging directly into the back of the unit. Consumer Mega Jets were released, and could be plugged into a TV. The unit was a success on planes, although like most Megadrive based hardware in Japan, limited sales stunted its growth in that region.
It’s perhaps just as well Sega gave up on the trying to sell the Megadrive in her own territory, as the American and European performance of the machine were making Sega significant amounts of money and Sega’s decision to concentrate what resources they had in those parts of the world funded the Japanese side of the business quite handsomely. As a result, it often fell to third parties who couldn’t find footing with the SNES and PC Engine (where games would often be lost in a swamp of new titles).
Games that didn’t appear in the West include GO! NET!, an online only game of “Go” (A Japanese board game similar to Chess) which is believed to number in the hundreds of actual shipped copies, Slap Fight, a port of a 1980′s Taito shoot em up which was reputedly shipped in limited copies to appease Nintendo, and Vampire Killer, a version of Castlevania for the Megadrive that was made primarily for Western audiences and only reluctantly released in Konami’s homeland.
Even Final Fantasy producer Square would release their first, and only Megadrive game exclusively in Japan, a game called Bahamut Lagoon, which later got a port to the SNES.
Western game producer Acclaim’s Japanese output is also a curious story. The American publisher made every effort to release almost every game they produced overseas as well, and games like Batman Forever and Maximum Carnage made it to Japan. However, rather than attempting to find true support for their products, Acclaim simply took unsold European Megadrive games and reused this remaining stock for sale in Japan. As a result, almost all Acclaim published products for the Megadrive in Japan go for £300+ each.
Perhaps the rarest game of all, however, is Tetris. The story of Tetris’ licensing web has been told in full details many times before in many other forms, so to cut a long story short, Sega produced a version for the Megadrive that they had no rights to. A small number of cartridges were shipped before they had to be hastily recalled and the number of copies in the wild today is estimated to be less than 10. Those who have the game often make sure it is the showpiece in their games collection, and in the extremely rare cases where it winds up for sale, it is usually found selling for more than a Ford Fiesta.
So if the Megadrive was such a massive failure in Japan, why did it last as long as it did? Unquestionably, it was thanks to the other markets. A classic case in point is to look at Konami, a developer and publisher who, up until this point, had been dedicated to Nintendo. They turned some of their teams loose on the Megadrive simply because it offered them a greater marketshare in other lands. Arguably, the competition created by Sega in America and Europe is the first sign of why we have such a broad and varied supply of the same product across multiple systems today.
Sega Megadrive, we salute you for starting something special for all gamers. You took a bullet in the heart from your own countrymen for the greater good of gaming. Thank you.