The would-be king of the home consoles, Sega, mounted perhaps its greatest challenge ever and its best bid to claim the throne with its release of the Mega Drive in 1988, its third home console and the successor to the powerful though poor-selling Master System.
Sega as Nintendo’s rival is as natural as oil being in opposition to water, but few gamers know that this dichotomy only arose because of Sega’s heated competition with Nintendo during the 16-bit era. Launching a system specifically tailored to handle its arcade games, the Sega Mega Drive launched to a lukewarm reception in its home country Japan, being outpaced by first the PC Engine and then the new Super Famicom from Nintendo.
Outside of Japan, however, Sega found success like it had never enjoyed before or since. Perhaps owing to its vaunted arcade success, the Mega Drive initially coasted on the backs of Sega’s popular arcade titles which were both well known and very popular with consumers.
It wasn’t until the release of Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991 that things really changed for Sega and in a huge way.
The blue blur was a phenomenon for the system and really showed off what the Mega Drive was capable of in terms of graphics. The phrase “blast processing” was coined at this time to describe the Mega Drive’s athletic capabilities and Nintendo’s Super Mario World, a classic in its own right, seemed slow by comparison with the fast moving, brightly colored Sonic the Hedgehog.
Capitalizing on this success, Sega began to pack the game in with its systems and then started pushing it to consumers hardcore. Another thing Sega had that Nintendo didn’t was a more mature library of games and gamers, meaning the company could take more risks in terms of content than the SNES could or would.
This particularly became apparent with the release of the fighting game sensation Mortal Kombat which featured blood and (for the time) detailed, gory fatalities that caused an uproar among parents and government officials. Sticking to its base of family-friendly titles and corporate appearances, Nintendo lambasted Sega for allowing blood in its iteration of Mortal Kombat.
But despite Nintendo’s protests this title became a touchstone for the console wars and resulted in a massive sales boon and boom for Sega which reaped the rewards of perceived lack of censorship. Nintendo eventually recovered from this misstep, allowing blood in Mortal Kombat 2, but this strategic error allowed the Mega Drive even more room in the market that was once wholly owned by Nintendo.
While eventually laden down with too many peripherals and add-ons to count, the Sega Mega Drive in its original iteration is a hardware and software classic, a true icon and titan of 16-bit gaming that helped introduce gaming as an adult form of entertainment and broke Nintendo’s iron grip over the industry. It is difficult to say where we would be now without the Sega Mega Drive’s release, but it is safe to say the gaming world would be missing a lot.