The Downfall of Sega, Part 1
I played, and finished, Sonic CD for the first time today. It wasn’t that bad of a game; it was no Sonic 3 and Knuckles, but it was about on par with Sonic 2. Unfortunately, even though the CD audio background music and the small number of full motion video was cool, it did little to enhance the gameplay.
While playing it, I thought about how Sega failed not only itself, but all Sega fans everywhere. I’ve decided to compile my thoughts, so here’s a warning, this entry is quite long, and may take awhile to read; it’s also full of technical terms, and delves into the technical side of game platform development.
Also, I’ve decided to split this into two halves, part one is about the Genesis, SegaCD, 32x, and the Neptune; part two will be about the Saturn, and Dreamcast.
In the beginning…
In 1988, Sega released the famous sequel to their lackluster Sega Master System: the Sega Megadrive, or as we call it here in America, the Sega Genesis. This console was Sega’s foray into the world of 16-bit game consoles, and they managed to make a successful platform out of it.
Between the Sonic the Hedgehog series of games, and smart marketing, it put Sega on the map. Sega continued to be widely recognized as a console manufacturer until they quit the console business with the utter and complete failure with the Saturn, and then the Dreamcast.
The hardware inside the console was very powerful; between the fast 8Mhz Motorola 68k, the giant helping of 64KB system and 64KB video memory, the well designed custom video processing unit, the Genesis was very powerful. (Remember, this was 1988, people were still using 386s and running DOS.)
The best selling game, Sonic 2, sold millions of copies via one of the best marketing schemes, Sega’s famous ‘Sonic 2uesday’. You can’t hope for anything better than this. So, you, my faithful readers, are probably asking yourselves, “Wow, Sega rocks! What could possibly have gone wrong?” Everything.
The Genesis kept selling well, and both Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles also sold well. Sega knew that Nintendo’s Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) managed to make up the gap in popularity, and was beating the Genesis in sales and popularity, so Sega decided to make something new; actually, they ended up making two new things, the SegaCD and Sega 32x add-ons to the Genesis.
“150KB/sec is enough for anyone!”
Oh boy, what the hell was Sega thinking. Its like after the creation of the Genesis they decided to turn off their brains, and just produce crap for the next ten years. The SegaCD was simply an add-on 1x CD drive for the Genesis, and the Genesis plugged into it. It was released in 1991.
Inside the SegaCD was a faster 12.5Mhz 68k, a second audio processor (with 64KB of RAM dedicated to it) to mix high quality stereo PCM and CD audio, which was combined with the Genesis’s own audio processor to do traditional Genesis audio work as well as enhanced PCM sample playback, an additional 768KB of system memory, and another video processing unit that would add allow the Genesis to do effects similar to the SNES’s Mode 7 (however, don’t expect something like Mario Kart, it wasn’t powerful enough) and to decode full motion video (which it wasn’t very good at).
But as I said earlier, the CD drive itself was a mere 1x, and many games suffered from severe lag from loading data from the CD; unlike cart-based games where nothing needed loaded, and could be directly accessed/executed. Particularly, Mortal Kombat CD would pause for several seconds when doing complex moves, because it needed to load data off the CD.
Because the CD drive was so slow, most games decided just to have a few full motion video sequences, some CD audio background music, and fit everything else they needed in the 768KB of system RAM. In comparison, Genesis games couldn’t do CD audio/PCM sample playback or full motion video, but they had up to 4096KB to store anything they needed in the cart itself, and in my opinion, the trade-off was worth it.
Between that, and the release day selling price of ¥49,800 (vs the Genesis’ own release day selling price of ¥21,000), the add-on was a failure; and the first true killer app for it, Sonic CD was released three years after the release of the SegaCD, in 1994, right about the same time the 32x was released.
Now with thirty-two times the suck!
Okay, so the SegaCD was a failure, that shouldn’t mean anything, right? Wrong. It only started a long standing tradition of Sega consoles sucking. The Sega 32x, released in 1994 for about ¥18,000 (at least they got the damn price right), was an add-on that plugged in as a cart slot, and allowed you to plug both normal Genesis and 32x games into it.
The 32x was almost like a completely different console. Where the Genesis was powered by a single 68k, the 32x was powered by twin 32Mhz Hitachi SH2 processors; Sega changed to a completely incompatible processing architecture, totally unlike the 68k, and developers had to learn the new processors from scratch; or rather, some did, a vast majority of others simply ignored the platform or incorrectly used it because of that..
In addition to the twin processors, it had a new linear framebuffer design with a simple graphics co-processor, allowing it to composite alpha-blended graphics, and also composite 32x and Genesis graphics in the same scene.
The 32x did all scaling, rotation, and 3D graphics in software instead of using some hardware accelerated method; this arguably made the 32x as powerful as a SNES doing Mode 7 with a SuperFX math co-processor. However, this did not bode well seeing as the SNES was released in 1991, and the first SuperFX game was released in 1993.
Rounding the 32x off, was 256KB of main system RAM; a third of what was added by the Sega CD. Also lacking from the SegaCD was the ability to play back and mix PCM samples, the 32x simply added another synth (which like the SegaCD) was paired with the Genesis’s main one.
Unlike the the SegaCD, the 32x had no killer app. The Sonic title for the 32x didn’t even have Sonic in it, just Team Chaotix in their self-titled game Knuckles’ Chaotix, which had horrible and very annoying game play. I’ve played the game myself, and I can’t stand it; I feel it was rushed, badly planned, and even though it was on the 32x, it was no more graphically intense than Sonic 3 was.
At that time, I remember thinking, why don’t they just release a Genesis that has the 32x and SegaCD built in for little more than what it costs to buy a plain Genesis. About two years ago, I learned about Project Neptune, Sega’s half-hearted answer to that way of thinking.
Originally, the 32x was supposed to be a self-standing platform, a sequal to the Genesis instead of an add-on, as requested by Hayao Nakayama, CEO of Sega of Japan. This original concept project was called Project Jupiter. A few engineers from SoJ and a Sega of America decided to split and create Project Mars, which became the 32x; other engineers joined Project Saturn, which ended up producing the Sega Saturn. Communication between the two projects was very poor, and the 32x and Saturn ultimately became competing products.
Joe Miller (head of Project Mars, from SoA) decided that no one would actually want a simply upgraded Genesis, and ordered that the 32x be built as an add-on instead. By the time Miller realized he was wrong, and build a few prototypes of Project Neptune, a combo Genesis and 32x, the Saturn was already shipping. Project Mars and Project Neptune were complete and utter failures: Project Saturn crushed them.
And this ends part 1. Read part 2 here.