After gaining international exposure in the home console space with the Master System, Sega was ready to step up to the competition with a new, much more powerful unit based on the 68000 processor. The Mega Drive, renamed Genesis in the United States, debuted in Japan in time for the 1988 holiday season. Even though the reception in Japan wasn’t enthusiastic due to the strong competition from the PC Engine, Sega was hopeful that its machine would be a hit in Europe and even in the North American market, possibly breaking into Nintendo’s stronghold.
To achieve its ambitious objectives, Sega’s strategy was articulated across different points, spanning all aspects of marketing and new ways to attract audiences as well as third-party developers. First and foremost, there was the need to emphasize the technical superiority of the Genesis against the older NES. The game chosen to be bundled with the console was Sega’s port of its own arcade title Altered Beast.
This game, while not a memorable experience in terms of gameplay, showed that the system could handle faithful arcade renditions with colorful graphics and giant, detailed sprites in contrast to the usually tiny and less defined graphics of the 8-bit NES.
The NES was also targeted directly in Sega’s advertising campaign through a series of bold ads built around the “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” slogan to make the new system look “cooler” in the eyes of a young crowd
The Mega Drive, rebranded Genesis in the United States where it debuted, like the PC Engine, during August 1989. The Genesis retailed at a price of $189 and games could display up to 64 colors on-screen from a palette of 512 while sound was handled by a dedicated Zilog Z-80 processor, like in many arcade machines of the time
To make the system attractive to old and new players alike, Sega’s strategy was two-fold. First, the Genesis was retro-compatible with the Master System, a feature that was especially appreciated in Europe where Sega’s 8-bit console was more popular. Second, like Electronic Arts did with its pioneering basketball game One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird, Sega tied new games to famous personalities to encourage instant awareness and excitement about the titles. Joe Montana’s Football, Pat Riley’s Basketball,
Arnold Palmer’s Golf, and even Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker were all quickly added to the catalogue to appeal to fans worldwide.
Another noteworthy aspect of Sega’s policies was the effort in getting relevant third-party support for the console. Nintendo still had very strict policies for its developers and Sega offered much better deals—in addition to better royalties, companies could publish as many games as they wanted and they could even “greenlight” games themselves.7
Electronic Arts was one of the first developers to release games
for the Genesis and other companies soon followed, providing the system with a good and varied catalogue. Most importantly, though, the real breakthrough for the Genesis happened once they featured an iconic character, Sonic the Hedgehog, who was able to rival even Super Mario in popularity
A screenshot from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, programmed by Yuji Naka with the main character designed by Naoto Oshima. The game was released in 1991. Running at high speed across colorful levels added new excitement to side-scrolling action games.
Lastly, to keep the offer fresh and lengthen the system lifespan, Sega also offered a very valuable add-on, first released in Japan in 1991: the Mega-CD, which provided access to CD-based games as well as allowed users to play music CDs.
All of these concerted efforts succeeded in putting the Mega Drive on the international map and fueled the sales of about 30 million units worldwide. At least halfwere bought in the North American market, bringing Sega to own a 55% share of all 16-bit hardware sales during 1994 in North America.