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History of the Sega Mega-CD

From Sega Retro

Development

Sega's plan had always been to extend the functionality of the Sega Mega Drive by releasing add-ons in a similar manner to how the SG-1000 II and Sega Mark III consoles were treated by the firm. So when the console was put into production, an expansion port was included on the bottom-right hand side of the console, with the promise that one day it would be used.

In 1988 the expansion port was widely believed to be for the Mega Drive Floppy Disk Drive peripheral, revealed quite late into the Mega Drive's development. Combined with a planned keyboard and tablet, the Mega Drive could theoretically be turned into a competitive 16-bit home computer - a more modern take on the SG-1000 and SC-3000 relationship.

Neither of these accessories were released, but the Mega Drive continued to be manufactured with an expansion slot for a full two years before it was given a purpose. When NEC released its CD-ROM² add-on for its PC Engine in December 1988, the future started to resemble the idea of playing video games from optical disc. CD-ROM technology could be produced en masse at a vastly reduced price, while simultaneously offering far more digital storage capacity than a traditional video game ROM cartridge.

CDs had been held back across the 1980s, not just because it took a long time to read data from a disc (in comparison to the near-instantaneous load from a cartridge), and the equipment needed to achieve this task was expensive, and because moving parts were now involved, more prone to failure. However, by the end of the decade the concept was becoming more feasible, and so Sega embarked on a CD-ROM upgrade for their Mega Drive console, the Sega Mega-CD.

Tomio Takami oversaw a group tasked with producing the Mega-CD, initially as a device that could match the performance of the CD-ROM² and sell for about ¥20,000[1]. The original plan was simply to offer double the memory, but after looking into the CD-ROM² console further, a number of flaws were discovered that Sega decided to rectify.

Sega wanted hardware scaling and rotation of sprites, which meant a new chip. This in-turn caused bottlenecks for the Mega Drive's Motorola 68000 CPU, and so another 68000-series CPU, clocked at a higher rate, was included to handle the extra tasks[2].

But NEC weren't sitting still - they too were working on an updated CD-ROM-based format, and learning that this so-called "Super CD-ROM²" standard may have included a further 2-4 megabits (256kB-512kB) of RAM, Sega chose to raise the Mega-CD's amount to 6Mb (768kB). All of these changes hiked up the cost considerably, but internal research suggested this might not have a hugely detrimental affect on Japanese sales[2].

Internally the Mega-CD project was a closely guarded secret, to the extent that Japan refused to send development CD drives to the US on fears of the project being leaked[3]. It was also boasted as being almost an entirely new and more capable system than the Mega Drive, but it quickly became apparent that in reality, it was just a mass storage device with a few extras[4].

Giga Drive

Meanwhile publically rumours were spreading about a so-called "32-bit" "Giga Drive" machine set to arrive from Sega[5]. Details surrounding this development are sketchy - the Giga Drive was originally thought to be an arcade board[6], then a console based on Sega System 32 hardware[7][8] and finally, the Mega-CD[9].

With two 16-bit 68000 processors, one could (falsely) jump to the conclusion the Mega-CD is a 32-bit machine, although the Giga Drive cannot be ruled out as an entirely different project, whose existence was leaked around the same period.

Tokyo Toy Show 1991

On the first day of the Tokyo Toy Show 1991 (1991-06-01), Sega showed the device to the world[10]. 27 third-party companies signed up for Mega-CD development, and three titles (with vague descriptions) were planned for the Japanese release in Autumn 1991.

Sega weren't the only company to announce CD-ROM-based consoles that day. NEC unveiled their TurboDuo system (and Super CD-ROM² add-on) and Nintendo and Philips talked about the CD-i. Also in the air were rumours about a possible Neo Geo CD unit, all of which would end up competing with Sega's device[11]. Sega may have also demonstrated the system's capability with a specifically made demo disc[12] - whether it appeared at the Tokyo Toy Show is not known, but it was certainly shown not long afterwards.

Release

Japan

The Sega Mega-CD was released first in Japan on December 12, 1991. Its retail price was ¥49,800 and had two launch titles, both third party and both Sharp X68000 ports: Wolf Team's Sol-Feace and Micronet's Heavy Nova. Sega didn't give its developers much time to produce CD software - while it estimated CD games cost less to physically produce, development time was much longer. As such, several early games were, curiously, RPGs, released on the grounds that they were "big" games that typically didn't require advanced special effects. It was also a genre that was (and continues to be) popular with Japanese audiences[2].

15,000 consoles were sold on the first day in Japan[13].

Sega's Mega-CD software missed the console's launch, with the only first-party game to be released in 1991 being December's Japanese-exclusive Wakusei Woodstock: Funky Horror Band. The company seemingly had problems with its own hardware and its plans were subjected to severe development problems - Seima Densetsu 3x3 Eyes was delayed by a year and a half, while the announced port of Power Drift did not materialise at all. In fact, after Funky Horror Band, it took Sega five months to release its second title, Quiz Scramble Special in May 1992.

On the plus side, Nintendo didn't see the Mega-CD as a competitor, so its restrictive policies in regards to third-party developers publishing for rival platforms did not apply - something Koei took advantage of[2].

Sega initially pushed the Mega-CD by calling for developers, especially X68000 and other home computer developers, to bring their games to the system. Third-party support was dominated by Telenet Japan and its web of subsidiaries during this time period, with other computer developers or developers with notable titles like Micronet, Sur de Wave (Nostalgia 1907), Kogado Studio (Mega Schwarzschild), Compile, and Game Arts stepping on. Game Arts went a step further by releasing Lunar: The Silver Star as an exclusive for the system. Sega themselves tried to bring a mix of original titles (Panic!, Pro Yakyuu Super League CD) and home computer ports (SimEarth, Mega Schwarzschild) to the mix as well.

Despite its arcade heritage, Sega held back from showering the Mega-CD in arcade conversions, and third-parties held back on this front too. Only Taito really supported the system (and even then, only with a handful of ports, half of which were done by Wolf Team). Namco and Data East, two of the biggest contributors to the Mega Drive library, hardly released anything at all on the expansion (Namco only released StarBlade, Data East only had two, both by Wolf Team). Instead, third-party attention flocked to to Sega's main rival, NEC and the three CD formats of its PC Engine family, a move which saw the Mega-CD lag far behind in this early compact disc games market (a situation practically reversed in North America).

Victor Musical Industries turned out to be one of the most important Sega third-parties by also dedicating themselves to supporting the system hardware. They developed the Wondermega unit, which not only combined a Mega Drive with a Mega-CD, but also added features such as MIDI support, as well as special software like Wonder Library and Wonder MIDI that took advantage of these features. To promote their Wonder-branded Mega-CD ecosystem, Victor created a mascot, Wonder Dog. Victor also brought many overseas games to Japan, going so far as to work with British developer Core Design on a Wonder Dog for the system (which was also ported to the Amiga, Core Design's main release platform).

During the first six months the Mega-CD's problems became immediately clear - it cost too much, and the software didn't exist to back up the extra purchase. Sales were initially high, but dropped off dramatically[14], casting the CD console game industry into doubt until consoles could be made affordably. Sega reportedly cut the price[15] in response.

The system sold 100,000 units during the first year of release in Japan.

April 23, 1993[17] saw the redesigned Mega-CD 2 release priced at ¥29,800[18].

By mid-1993, however, it was obvious that the Mega Drive was on its way out in Japan, and the Mega-CD's popularity started to wane with it. Telenet Japan dropped all Sega support outright, and though a proliferation of other third-party publishers followed, only Victor Musical Industries continued to release many games. Sega's own first-party support also started to wane; despite big releases like Popful Mail, Sega wound up spending the last years of the system's life releasing its American FMV games en masse.

380,000 Japanese Mega-CDs had been sold by the 20th March 1994[19]. 850,000 had been sold by the first half of 1995[20].

Rumours suggest Sega of Japan cancelled all internal CD projects as the focus moved towards their upcoming 32-bit system, the Sega Saturn in 1994[21], but despite this, the system continued to be supported and received games until 1996, the last being Shadowrun in February.

North America

Sega of America had very little involvement in the Mega-CD project, and it wasn't until a few months after the '91 Tokyo Toy Show that Sega of Japan entered into discussions with their US counterpart regarding a localised version of the add-on.

The renamed "Sega CD" was announced at Summer CES 1992, with a $299.95[22] asking price and a tentative release date of October 1992, later pushed back to the week beginning on November 9th[23] for the benefit of developers[22][24]. Sega nevertheless held a press conference in New York on the 15th October to "launch" the console, giving the press a preview of the system[25]. There were 20 games planned for the launch window, with a further two dozen leading up to Spring 1993[26].

For the first six months only one package was available - a "model 1" Sega CD, along width (what Sega of America claimed to be $300's worth of software - a two disc set containing Sega Classics Arcade Collection (with Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Columns, and The Revenge of Shinobi) and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective Vol. I and a separate box for Sol-Feace, totalling what Sega of America called "five games". Also included was a CD+G disc and new music sampler audio CD; Rock Paintings/Hot Hits, used to merely demonstrate the CD technology.

Sega of America was keen to avoid mirroring the problems seen with the Mega-CD in Japan, and set about devoting roughly one third of its research and development workforce to Mega-CD projects[27]. As a result of this decision, Sega's American arm became the largest developer of Mega-CD software across the globe, overtaking Sega of Japan which were struggling to keep the add-on afloat in their native territory.

Sega also made sure to put more effort publicising the Sega CD. One such example was coverage of ten-year-old Cory Fox from Long Island, New York, playing Sewer Shark on ABC's Good Morning America. This ensured that footage of the game was broadcast to morning commuters on a 750 square foot Sony JumboTron monitor in Times Square[28].

Tom Kalinske outlined different five types of Mega-CD game; the "value disc", being a compilation of four-to-six Mega Drive titles previously released on cartridge (or potentially arcade conversions too big for cartridge), "enhanced cartridges" which would act as enhanced versions of a cartridge game, with better sound and/or extra levels, "interactive cinema" games (more commonly known as full motion video (FMV) games, a genre "invented" by the advent of the compact disc), "unique animation" games, whose true meanings were never defined but likely involved 3D polygons, and a fifth category for games which defy definition, the Make My Video series being the prime example[29].

Meanwhile many "first generation" Mega-CD games from Japan were purposefully ignored by Sega of America[29], likely due to a combination of poor Japanese sales and failing to make full use of the Mega-CD hardware.

While initially a success, the expensive launch price (far more than a Sega Genesis console during this period) saw the Sega CD be quickly sidelined by American consumers, and the system failed to recover over its lifespan. Many of Kalinske's genres of CD games failed to catch on - the full motion video craze subsided in the mid-1990s, and few of the enhanced cartridge titles could justify their higher price tag.

The Sega CD's later-than-planned release was also met with other problems - competition from the CD-i, 3DO, Atari Jaguar CD and the Neo Geo CD all emerged during the early-to-mid 1990s, and when combined with the already trading TurboGrafx-CD and IBM PCs starting to utilise CD technology, the Sega CD lacked an edge. Furthermore, the 64-colour graphics hindered the effectiveness of full motion video - better versions of games could often be found elsewhere.

As prices for the system dropped and the redesigned Sega CD "model 2" hit store shelves in mid-1993, the bundled games changed, Sewer Shark being the most common pack-in. Systems such as the X'Eye and CDX were also made available during 1993/1994.

One million Sega CDs had been sold by the end of 1993[30]. This had risen to 1.5 million by the first half of 1995[20].

CD technology as a whole was hindered in the early 90s by slow disc reading speeds, the side effect being long loading times. Generally it is thought CD-based games did not catch on in North America until late 1995, with the advent of the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation.

By 1995 developers were becoming progressively less interested in the Mega-CD, preferring to work on upcoming "32-bit" projects. To counter some of this, starting with Fahrenheit and Wirehead Sega of America pushed for a policy where FMV games would be released for the Sega Mega-CD 32X instead, before being quickly downgraded to Mega-CD quality and packaged in the same box[31]. Fahrenheit was the only game that managed to follow through with this - the CD 32X version of Wirehead was cancelled, as were numerous similar projects.

The Sega CD was dropped entirely in early 1996 as efforts were diverted to the Saturn[32].

Europe

Similarly to the Mega Drive, the Mega-CD was delayed, arriving in Europe sixteen months after the Japanese model. That is, with the exception of one unit - 20-year-old Reza Abdolali from Germany won the first European Mega-CD by winning the 1992 Sega European Championship on July 31st, 1992[33].

In the United Kingdom the system launched on 2nd April 1993[34] (having moved from a tentative "autumn 1992" release date[35]), selling for a pricy £269.99. In the UK, Sega Classics Arcade Collection and Sol-Feace/Cobra Command were included as pack-ins. Italy which launched around the same period, did not include Sega Classics Arcade Collection.

The console was delayed on purpose for similar reasons to the US - fears that it should ship without a decent supply of quality software[36].

The delays in both hardware and software caused numerous problems, most notably conflicting with events in Japan, where the cost-reduced Mega-CD 2 was announced before the older Mega-CD models hit European shores. As the Mega-CD 2 (renamed the Mega-CD II for Europe) was expected to be less expensive, many held out for a cheaper deal towards Christmas 1993. Still, the initial 65,000 UK units were sold within a month[34].

In the UK, the Mega-CD II had a planned launch for around October/November 1993, but this was brought forward to August[37] at select retailers.

Realising the potential rift of releasing the same hardware in two different designs and price points over a short period of time, Sega España deliberately chose to delay releasing the Mega-CD until Mega-CD II models would be available for distribution[38]. France and Germany presumably followed similar plans, all receiving the Mega-CD II around September 1993. Despite being released in Japan on the same date, in Spain the Mega-CD II arrived several months before the redesigned Mega Drive II.

France's Mega-CD II debuted with Road Avenger as a pack-in for 1,990F. Germany also had this pack-in for DM 599,- but also offered a stand-alone unit for DM 529,-.

In the UK the system dropped to £99.99 at some point in 1995. In Spain there was a drop to 19,900 Ptas.

It is estimated that only 4% of European Mega Drive owners bought a Mega-CD, mostly due to price. Games were also delayed and arrived less frequently than releases for the Mega Drive, leading to the Mega-CD being largely written-off by 1994 as an expensive novelty with no long-term future.

In the UK, only 80,000 consoles had been sold by the first half of 1995 versus an estimated 2.1 million Mega Drives[20]. Germany had the highest rate of Mega-CD adoption around this time - 140,000 add-ons for 800,000 Mega Drives[39].

Another factor for this was the launch of the Amiga CD32, which was able to secure a large percentage of the CD games market in the UK during its run. Those desperate for CD technology opted for the Amiga system, a then tried-and-tested brand which had been succeeding in Europe since the mid-1980s. The CD32 was well received by the press in the beginning, but was allowed to fall into relative obscurity due to financial issues at Commodore in the mid-90s (ultimately leading to the demise of the device).

After this, CD-based headlines centred around the Atari Jaguar, 3DO and IBM PC compatibles - the Mega-CD never regained hearts and minds before being sidelined by the Sega Saturn.

In Germany several Mega-CD games were banned from sale, including Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers (as well as Mad Dog McCree and Space Pirates, neither of which were released in Europe)[40].

Australia

Australia followed a similar pattern to the United Kingdom, receiving their Mega-CDs on April 19, 1993 and the Mega-CD II in late August[41]. While there was less competition in this region, the console suffered a similar fate to its European counterparts - it was too expensive, and much of its software wasn't attractive enough to justify a purchase.

Brazil

Like other Sega consoles, the Sega Mega-CD was distributed in Brazil by Tectoy. The original Mega-CD model did not (officially) reach the region, so the Mega-CD 2 was released in Brazil under the name "Sega CD".

While Tectoy continued to produce localised packaging and manuals, the vast majority, if not all game discs were imported from North America without modifications. While difficult to gauge success in the country, support was dropped presumably when US stocks were depleted - it lacked the long-term support of the Mega Drive and Sega Master System, likely because Tectoy had no means (nor the desire) to manufacture discs themselves.

South Korea

Again, like other Sega consoles, both the Mega-CD and Mega-CD II were distributed in South Korea by Samsung. They were renamed "CD Aladdin Boy" and "CD Aladdin Boy II" and released in March and July of 1993, respectively.

Decline

Despite its initial hype, Mega-CD is not considered to have been a huge success, being held back by price, technology and in many cases, confusion as to what the system actually was. Almost every rival CD-based system was able to output higher quality full motion video, and despite adding new features, the add-on largely failed to justify its price tag.

Many saw the Mega-CD simply as being a way to play Mega Drive games on a new format, with the important caveats being that it cost more to maintain and there were fewer games to chose from. The pricing strategy was also wrong - CD versions of games cost more than their cartridge counterparts, despite being far cheaper to manufacture, a strategy reversed with the next generation of game systems (where at one point, new cartridge-based Nintendo 64 games were almost double the price of PlayStation discs).

While it is difficult to establish a direct link, Nintendo's plan to create a CD-based add-on for its Super Nintendo (or Super Famicom in Japan) console appears to have been driven by the actions of Sega and its Mega-CD. Nintendo went through various phases of announcing projects with Sony, Philips and then Sony again with 16-bit CD machines, then 32-bit CD machines, then no CD machines at all. These vapourware announcements likely caused many customers to delay buying the Sega machine just in case Nintendo's offering was better value for money.

Sega too likely altered its pricing based on rumoured launches of Nintendo CD units between late 1992 and 1994 - whether the apathy surrounding the Mega-CD system played a factor in Nintendo's ultimate decision to ignore the CD market is not known, but the company was always seen as the main competitor by Sega, even when they weren't technically competing.

Sega attempted to give the hardware a new lease of life with the introduction of the Sega 32X - the concept of Sega Mega-CD 32X games allowed Sega to compete more effectively with its CD peers, but this was a costly endeavour that led to only six games, all of which were available on the standard Mega-CD format.

News of new, 32-bit consoles arriving in 1993 and 1994 caused the Mega-CD to be sidelined by the gaming press, and when Sega themselves began making noises about the Sega Saturn and 32X, the system was considered to be on its last legs. While not officially discontinued until early 1996, for all intents and purposes the Mega-CD stopped being a viable development platform by 1994. Its original rival, NEC's CD-ROM² (by this point typically seen in the form of the PC Engine Duo-R) was also cast aside around this period for similar reasons.

In the years that have followed, the Mega-CD has been viewed by the gaming press as a failure, negatively affecting consumer confidence in the Sega brand and potentially furthering problems with the Saturn and later Sega Dreamcast. However, unlike the 32X which is widely accepted to have caused more significant problems, the Mega-CD was never widely adopted, and was supported by Sega for 4-5 years (as opposed to less than eighteen months). At no point was it viewed as a replacement for Mega Drive cartridges, just as an expensive alternative method to play games on the system - one which was never prioritised by Sega or its customer base.

References

  1. File:EGM US 029.pdf, page 115
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 File:EGM US 029.pdf, page 122
  3. File:UltimateHistoryofVideoGames Book US.pdf, page 465
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  5. File:EGM US 015.pdf, page 24
  6. File:MeanMachines UK 07.pdf, page 97
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  10. File:EGM US 025.pdf, page 36
  11. File:EGM US 025.pdf, page 38
  12. File:EGM US 026.pdf, page 38
  13. File:SegaForce UK 02.pdf, page 8
  14. File:EGM US 034.pdf, page 8
  15. File:EGM US 034.pdf, page 38
  16. /http://sega.jp/fb/segahard/mcd/mcd2.html (archived: 2016-03-03 23:30)
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  18. File:EGM US 047.pdf, page 58
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  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 File:MAN!AC DE 1995-05.pdf, page 25
  21. File:EGM US 053.pdf, page 65
  22. 22.0 22.1 File:SegaVisions US 09.pdf, page 6
  23. File:SegaSoftNewz US 1993-05.pdf, page 6
  24. File:MegaPlay US 11.pdf, page 16
  25. File:EGM US 041.pdf, page 60
  26. File:EGM US 039.pdf, page 54
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  29. 29.0 29.1 File:ElectronicGames2 US 04.pdf, page 55
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  32. File:NextGeneration US 15.pdf, page 21
  33. File:MDAG UK 02.pdf, page 10
  34. 34.0 34.1 File:GamesMaster UK 006.pdf, page 9
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  39. File:MAN!AC DE 1995-05.pdf, page 24
  40. File:MAN!AC DE 1993-11.pdf, page 50
  41. File:Megazone AU 29.pdf, page 11
Sega Mega-CD Hardware
 Mega CD Variations   Wondermega | LaserActive | Sega Multi-Mega | CSD-G1M
Misc. Hardware   CD BackUp RAM Cart | Mega-CD Karaoke | Pro CDX
Development Tools SNASM Mega-CD, PsyQ Mega-CD SDK
Cancelled Hardware   Game Genie