When I wrote my blog about my three favourite, underappreciated consoles I considered including the Mega CD, but I chose against it because despite housing games of its own it was just an add-on for an already existing console. But I like the Mega CD too much to pass on an opportunity to talk about it. Much like the 3DO the Mega CD is a grossly misunderstood system, and here I want to tell you all why I like it so much.
Many believe the Mega CD was developed to extend the life span of the Mega Drive and to keep it competitive alongside the Super Nintendo. The Mega Drive was a powerful 16-bit machine, but the SNES was superior in many areas. The Mega Drive had the edge in processing speed, with a CPU twice the speed of the SNES, but the SNES had a far larger colour palette (over 32,000 colours compared to 512 on the Mega Drive), could display more colours on screen (256 compared to 64) and had a larger on-screen sprite count and could display larger sprites. It also had mode 7, something the Mega Drive lacked (although some savvy devs got around this issue) and had greater sprite scaling. In truth the Mega CD was about much more than trying to keep the Mega Drive competitive.
The system launched in 1992, and was very expensive. Unlike the PC Engine CD, the CD add-on developed by NEC for the PC Engine which beat the Mega CD to retail, the Mega CD housed its own processor, a Motorola X68000, much like the one in the base Mega Drive and Sega’s System 16 arcade machines, but clocked at a higher speed (12.4 MHz, compared to the 7.4 MHz of the Mega Drive). This allowed the Mega CD to produce games the Mega Drive had no chance in hell of running on its own, and the greater storage capacity of CDs compared to ROM carts meant games could be larger than ever. While the average Mega Drive game was between 8 and 24 mega bits (or, 1 and 3 mega bytes), CD’s could hold over 700 mega bytes of data. It was a substantial leap, and a lot of developers took advantage.
You see, despite claims from Nintendo fanboys that the Mega CD was worthless and a feeble attempt by Sega to catch up, it served a much more important purpose than allowing the system to remain competitive. With the Mega CD Sega was essentially preparing itself for future. The Mega CD launched in the west in 1992, three years after NEC first launched the PC Engine CD in Japan. In 1990 Philips had launched the maligned CD-i. A year after the western release of the Mega CD the FM Towns Marty and PC-FX were released in Japan, as well as the 3DO in the North America and the Amiga CD32 in Europe. All of these were systems that utilised optical media. The industry was moving away from ROM carts, and the Mega CD was, in essence, Sega testing the waters for the Saturn. The company wanted to familiarise itself with developing games on CD, and that was the main reason, above all others, why the Mega CD was developed. That was also the reason Sony came on board to publish several games for the Mega CD, as Sony too was testing the waters in preparation for the PlayStation.
Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, developers never really took advantage of the hardware of Mega CD. The Mega CD was designed to play Mega Drive-like games, but with added bells and whistles. Sonic CD is a great example of what the Mega CD was all about. In screenshots in magazines it looked almost identical to the Mega Drive Sonic titles, but it took advantage of the enhanced hardware to do some snazzy psuedo 3D effects and had a rocking CD-audio quality soundtrack. The Lunar RPGs were also a great showing of what the hardware could do, taking advantage of the greater storage capacity of CDs to create huge adventures with top quality anime movie sequences scattered throughout.
The system also received some updated versions of titles already available on the Mega Drive, such as Flashback and Mortal Kombat, and these versions generally made use of the advanced audio capabilities of the system to give the games CD audio sound. The Mega CD had a lot of potential, and initially customer interest was high.
Sadly what people most remember the Mega CD for today are the terrible FMV games which became a feature of its library. Optical media allowed developers to use full motion videos in their games, and no company took advantage of this more than Digital Pictures. Digital Pictures had initially developed several of their titles, such as Sewer Shark and the infamous Night Trap, a few years prior to the release of the Mega CD. The games were originally developed for a cancelled console which used VHS tapes, and upon the cancellation of the system the company shelved its games. But with the release of the Mega CD Digital Pictures finally had a console to showcase their games. And they were terrible. Lacking almost any content worthy of even calling them “games”, they are laughed at today for their incredibly poor quality.
I have to hand it to Digital Pictures though, Night Trap has its place in video game history as one of the reasons we now have video game ratings organisations. After the congressional hearing in America in 1994, which tackled violence in video games and centred primarily on Mortal Kombat and Night Trap, Sega introduced the video game ratings council, which eventually evolved in to the industry standard ESRB in North America, PEGI (Pan European Game Information) in Europe and the CERO (Computer Entertainment Ratings Organisation) in Japan. Not that Night Trap was violent in anyway, especially not compared to Mortal Kombat, but its inclusion in the hearing has given it a notoriety that has kept it known far longer than it would have on its own merit. Today these ratings organisations command a lot of power over the content of the games we play.
In retrospect you could view the Mega CD as a failure, because it wasn’t as successful as Sega hoped it would be, but I feel that doesn’t give the system the respect it deserves. It only sold a fraction of the amount of units the Mega Drive sold, only 2.5 million compared to over 40 million Mega Drive systems, but until the release of the Kinect the Mega CD was the best selling console add-on in history. That’s something you need to respect it for. And as a system it received some amazing games. Sonic CD is the standout piece of software. Developed alongside Sonic 2 it features some of the best, although most confusing, level design in the entire series and is debatably the best game Sonic game ever developed. The two Lunar games, Lunar: The Silver Star and Lunar: Eternal Blue, which were developed by the talented guys and gals at Game Arts, are widely regarded as JRPG classics thanks to their strong characters, awesome battle system and amazing English localisation by Working Designs. Working Designs also published an English version of Nihon Falcom’s action RPG Popful Mail as well as Vay. Shining Force CD brought two previously Japanese-exclusive Game Gear Shining Force games to the west with updated graphics and sound. Core Design developed the impressive Thunderhawk. And the Konami cult classic, and sought after collectible, Snatcher, created by Hideo Kojima, saw its only English release on the system, based on the Japanese PC Engine CD version (strangely the Mega CD version was never released in Japan).
The Mega CD also received a lot of other games that were available on other systems, but they certainly helped buff out its small library. As previously mentioned Flashback and Mortal Kombat were updated for the system. Sega itself released an updated version of Eternal Champions and Shiny released an extended version of Earthworm Jim with an entirely new level. SNK ported over a decent version of Samurai Shodown. Capcom released a version of Final Fight, with all the levels and characters included, as well as the two-player mode, far outshining the SNES port. Konami ported Lethal Enforcers. Game Arts also developed an impressive port of Silpheed. So, all in all, the Mega CD did receive many good games.
The biggest issue stopping the Mega CD achieving greater success was its price. When it launched it cost more than the Mega Drive itself, and it needed the Mega Drive to function. Even if you was an already existing Mega Drive owner you had to still had to fork out a fair sum for a Mega CD to play any game that interested you, but the cost was all the more substantial if you didn’t already own a Mega Drive. As time went on the price did come down, and it was given a makeover to compliment the launch of the Mega Drive II in 1993. The newer version was even included in some bundles alongside the Mega Drive II, but it just wasn’t enough.
It’s rather sad that people look back on the Mega CD as a failed experiment with little of worth on offer. It certainly wasn’t the success Sega wanted it to be, but it ultimately gave Sega a greater understanding of optical media and the benefit it had to gaming at the time. Unlike the 32X, which was plagued with problems, genuinely had few decent titles and was doomed from the moment it launched, the Mega CD had its moments of brilliance. Sega made many bad mistakes in the mid-90’s, but please don’t include the Mega CD as one of those mistakes.