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Sega Genesis — kicking off the 16-bit wars

By: 3 December 2010 5 Comments
Sonic 2!

Sonic 2!

Ah, the famed  Sega Genesis — the system that challenged the formidable Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and ushered in the 16-bit console gaming era in earnest.

By the time the Genesis arrived on the North American scene in 1989 (it was released as the Mega Drive in Japan in 1988), the Nintendo Entertainment System had been around for four years and was starting to show its age. The company did try to take a run at the NES with the Sega Master System, but didn’t achieve much success — Nintendo was the undisputed king of consoles and simply dominated the market.

Truth be told, the Genesis didn’t make much of a splash until 1991 with the release of Sonic the Hedgehog, a lightening-fast platform game that borrowed a lot of elements from Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros., but was more colorful, far more brash and made most NES games look horribly dated by comparison. By the time the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released later in 1991, the Genesis had a solid foothold on the market and the two companies engaged in a nasty, two-fisted console war that had fanboys at each others’ throats.

Now, let’s make this very clear — we’re not going to rehash those console wars because the whole thing seems a bit idiotic at this point. The truth of the matter is this — you really can’t go wrong with either system. Each had its great share of titles and any serious fan of the 16-bit era of gaming ought to own both consoles.

Having said that, let’s take a look at the Genesis, shall we? The machine was clearly Sega’s attempt to one-up the NES. The NES was powered by what was, essentially, a modified MOS Technology 6502 (the same central processing unit (CPU) that powered the Apple 2, Commodore 64 and Atari 400/800 computer) that ran at 1.79 MHz. The Genesis also had an 8-bit CPU under the hood — a Zilog Z-80 — but it mostly controlled the system’s sound and allowed for compatibility with Master System with the purchase of an adapter. The Genesis’ claim to fame back in 1989 was a Motorola 68000 running at 7.67 MHz. That Motorola chip, by the way, powered such cutting edge (well, for the time) systems such as the Apple Macintosh and Lisa, the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST.

Indeed, the folks at Sega implemented the successful strategy of pointing out the advanced CPU and pointing out the Genesis utilized the same technology powering the emerging line of next generation computers while the NES was rooted in aging, 8-bit technology. That’s right — Sega is partially to blame for video game console manufacturers howling about “bits” all the time.

The Genesis continued the one-up game by introducing a controller that had three buttons while the NES had one that only sported two. The Genesis offered more sound channels, could throw more sprites on the screen and was could handle more complex graphics, to boot. Oh, and Nintendo was represented by it’s Mario character while the Genesis’ mascot was the hyperactive, smart-alec Sonic — a thrill-seeker built for speed.

Genesis 1

Genesis 1

Yes, the Sonic titles propelled Sega from just another company that was getting whipped by Nintendo to the brand to beat. The system’s popularity resulted in the release of over 500 games for the system in just about every genre imaginable. Sports fans, arcade nuts, people who were thrilled with stress-inducing shooters, strategy enthusiasts and role playing game devotees could all find something to love. Also, the system turned the nation just downright crazy over those button-mashing, beat ’em titles such as Streets of Rage.

So, Sega did everything perfectly, right? Well, not exactly. First of all, the three-button controller proved inadequate for the emerging fighter genre, so Sega was forced to release a six-button controller that feels a bit awkward. Also, the RF adapter is absolute garbage that’s prone to failure. If you have a Genesis 2 (the one that doesn’t have “16-bit” stamped in big, goofy characters on the front), grab an RCA adapter and throw the RF box in the trash. The Genesis 1 had an internal RF adapter that’s much more reliable than the horrible external thing that shipped with the Genesis 2. An odd thing about the Genesis 1, by the way, is that stereo sound was only available through the unit’s headphone jack. The Genesis 2 produces stereo through a television set, but sounds a bit “scratchier” than the original.

Genesis 2

Genesis 2

Speaking of sound, the Genesis sounds horrible compared to the Super NES. Voice synthesis is scratchy and the system simply couldn’t generate the rich, range of sound enjoyed by Super NES fans. Also, the system simply couldn’t produce the “deep,” flicker free graphics capable on the Super NES.

Also, Sega made the terrible decision to produce the Sega CD unit so people could play grainy “full motion video” games and rehashes of successful titles that did little more than add distracting, horrible cut scenes. The Sega CD, honestly, isn’t much worth owning (I’ve got one out in a box in my garage where it will probably rot). Oh, and the CD unit requires its own power supply.

Another worthless unit that requires its own power supply is the Sega 32X. That unit came out in 1994 as the result of Sega’s desire to squeeze a bit more life out of the aging Genesis. The 32-bit era of consoles was emerging and Sega wanted to jump on board. The 32X died from both game developer’s lack of interest and Sega’s lack of support. The 32X unit, in fact, helped mark the end of Sega — those consumers that bought the 32X got irate when Sega abandoned the expensive add-on shortly after releasing it and the company’s reputation suffered. Sega didn’t gain back the consumers’ trust with the 32-bit Saturn console or the 128-bit Dreamcast (a great system that died an early death as the company wasn’t in a position to battle Sony or Nintendo).

The Genesis is a great system for collectors because the system is built like a tank, can be found for cheap (visit the Sega Genesis category at Amazon to see what I mean) and most of the best titles for the system can be had for next to nothing. With over 500 games available, there’s something for everyone. Here’s a word of warning, however — there were far too many sports games released for the system and a lot of those haven’t aged well. Finding the best games for the system requires a bit of research, so the reviews at The Video Game Critic are very handy for collectors.

Collectors also need to know the console looks downright horrible on modern HDTV sets. The games are playable, but the graphics are very pixelated. If you’ve got a tube television set, however, you’re golden.

By the way, you may be in luck if you’d like to grab some Genesis games without buying a console and hooking it up to a tube television. Indeed, there are several compilations of Genesis titles available for modern systems and perhaps the finest of the lot is Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony Playstation 3. I own the Xbox 360 version of the game, and it’s pretty amazing — you get 40 classic genesis titles rendered in high definition. The games, indeed, look better than they ever could on the Genesis and provide hours (heck, decades perhaps) of fun.

Stay tuned — more reviews to come in the “retrogaming” category here at First Arkansas News.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email =


  • MrX said:

    I liked this article until i read “a six-button controller that feels a bit awkward” then i stopped reading..

    So SEGA made a six-button controller that feels a bit awkward for the Mega Drive did they? No they didn’t Ethan, think about it. Nearly every fight pad created after has implemented the exact same design 3 buttons in a row top and bottom just like the arcade layouts. Shoulder buttons suck for fighters. The SNES pad was not ideal for any fighter.

    If the SEGA 6-button pad was “a bit awkward” then how come there still made like this?

    The best pads ever are the official Mega Drive 6 button pad US/UK design and if you wanted a smaller version then you bought the JP version. Thats without mentioning the slightly revised SEGA saturn 6 button pad (the second saturn pad)

    Other than that, Nice article (from what i read)

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Strictly a matter of opinion. I’m not the only out there who has a complaint with the six-button controller — the “awkward” comment comes in as those two rows of buttons have always felt a bit too close together. It just takes some adjustment, if all, and the design feels like it came of necessity.

    Still, that’s just one man’s opinion. If the controller works well for you and millions of others, I can respect that. The layout never caused me to abandon the console in frustration or, heck, reduce the amount I play on it one whit. Of all the “classic” consoles I own, the Genesis remains one of my favorites.

    Thanks for the comment. Ah, but you should have kept reading 😉

  • MrX said:

    Hey Ethan il read it all a bit later man, iv book marked it so thats a good thing right :)

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    That’s a very good thing, MrX. At some point, by the way, I’ll get around to writing a review about the portable Genesis knockoff I bought lately (love it — it’s not as good as a Sega Nomad but it does have a rechargeable battery, meaning I don’t have to swap out 6 AAs every couple of hours).

    Again, I wasn’t out to bash the Genesis controller unnecessarily. It’s always felt a bit awkward to me is all. Love the heck out of the system, however, and have wound up with about three of them over the years (one of them is chained to the Sega CD unit I have, so I’ve not pulled that out in a very long time).

    Oh, and visit often and comment! Getting discussions going around here is a great idea…

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