Half Steps: A History of Console Upgrades, Part 2: Sega CD

Our look back at console add-ons and upgrades continues with the first of the Genesis's two ill-fated enhancements.


Miss a chapter of Half Steps? Get caught up here: Part 1

Numerous headstones populate the graveyard of half-step consoles—add-ons that broaden a system's technical capabilities and serve as a bridge from one platform to the next.

Two of the most infamous, Sega CD and 32X, were devised as a means of giving the Genesis a boost in the vaunted 16-bit war between Nintendo and Sega. The end result cast a shadow over Sega that never dissipated, looming over it like a monstrous Jenga tower made from plastic, circuitry, and half-baked functionality.

Sega CD

Base PlatformSega Genesis
Release: 1991 (JP), 1992 (US)

Image: A Sega Genesis with a Sega CD docked at the bottom. The Sega CD required its own power supply and was dependent on much of the Genesis's horsepower.

Nobody believed Sega could take a nibble out of Nintendo's market share in the early 1990s, much less sit at the table with Mario. Nintendo had cornered 90 percent of the market. In effect, Mario didn't just sit at the table. He owned it.

Nobody until Tom Kalinske, a former toy executive responsible for rebranding Barbie for Mattel and hired by Sega of Japan to helm Sega of America. Kalinske rebranded the company from the top down, mothballing Alex the Kidd, a blatant knockoff of Nintendo's goody-two-shoes plumber, and refurbishing a hedgehog drawn by one of Sega of Japan's artists by imbuing him with attitude and deeming him Sonic.

To be fair, Sonic the Hedgehog's gameplay was rote: he runs, he jumps, he can be revved up and unleashed to zoom up and down and all around at blistering speeds. But Sonic didn't need to out-Mario Mario. Sega wasn't selling a platform game. They were selling an image—a hip mascot that appealed to teens and adults who considered themselves too cool for Nintendo's colorful characters.

Image: Tom Kalinske. (Credit Alan Levenson/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images)

Fast forward to 1992, not even one year following the launch of the Super NES in North America, and Sega had done more than nibble from Mario's plate. It was the dominant leader, holding 60 percent of the market and rolling out the red carpet for third parties relieved to be out from under Nintendo's thumb. A string of smart marketing decisions—a blood code nested deep inside the Genesis conversion of Mortal Kombat, a smoke-and-mirrors advertising campaign hyping the console's pseudo "blast processing" technology—strengthened Sega's position.

In the midst of those decisions, a blip showed up on Sega's radar and went unnoticed at first.

Looking to widen its lead even further, Sega of Japan engineered the Mega-CD, known as Sega CD in the States. It was an add-on designed to connect to the Genesis, feeding off the base console's resources and augmenting them with some of its own. But it was not originally planned as a game-playing device. Sega built it as a cheap audio drive before pivoting, harnessing the increased capacity of optical discs to store more game data than was possible on cartridges.

Image: Some politicians found this one scene from Night Trap very disturbing.

Aiming for a $150 price tag, the add-on would decrease loading times and feature hardware tricks like rotation and scaling similar to Sega's arcade games, which could only pull off such trickery using a dedicated processor. But the Genesis's aging processor proved too slow for the Sega CD's graphical capabilities, so the engineers weighed the Sega CD down with an extra processor. And after learning of NEC's plans to upgrade the RAM in its TurboGrafx-CD system, Sega tripled the Sega CD's amount of RAM to six megabits, determined to lead the pack.

Sega's mistake was not balancing the scales. The Sega CD's augmented tech far outpaced that of the Genesis—a critical factor, since the CD add-on was linked with the base console. A single bottleneck clogged the entire system. Sure enough, the Genesis's processor and memory hamstrung the Sega CD, causing extensive load times and sluggish performance.

Not that Genesis was always to blame. Some games needed more time to search out and load data into memory than the Sega CD was programmed to give, a critical oversight that came into play later.

Image: More stylized games such as Konami's Snatcher have stood the test of time better than FMV games like Night Trap.

The discord between Sega's two divisions further hobbled Sega CD. Even though Sega of Japan's leadership had hired Tom Kalinske to revamp the company's business, the Japanese developers waffled at the brasher, in-your-face style of advertising so pervasive in American culture. That aggressive style had spurred the Genesis to success, a fact that rubbed the Japanese developers—who had, after all, created Sonic, if not his final appearance and personality, and toiled for years to get a seat at Nintendo's table—the wrong way.

When the Sega CD arrived at the American division's doorstep, no one knew quite what to make of it. Technical documents had shown up earlier in the year—and then, nothing. Not so much as a prototype. According to ex-Sega of America representatives, Japan's leadership fretted over what the American division's sales team would do with it, and unilaterally decided to keep it under wraps until the 11th hour.

Image: Sonic CD.

Sega of America's team spent that final hour putting out literal fires. Sega CD units fresh off the assembly line had a tendency to burst into flames, sending QA testers scrambling to diagnose the problem. The predefined time limit to spend loading data into memory turned out to be the source: games heavy on video revved the drive so long and hard that the motors caught fire.

Sega CD finally made its way to American retail stores in the fall of 1992, and all signs pointed to the add-on being a success. Despite retailing for $299, twice the projected cost, sales were up, and buzz around Night Trap, a full-motion video (FMV) game about a group of scantily clad women hunted by vampire-like creatures, titillated consumers and critics.

While Night Trap bolstered Sega's street cred with older players, the game was all sizzle and no steak: bloodshed was intentionally unrealistic, and aside from one voluptuous character wearing a nightgown, nothing remotely close to nudity was in evidence. Still, Night Trap deserves almost as much credit (or blame) as Mortal Kombat for lighting a fire under politicians to enforce a rating system for games.

Image: Mortal Kombat on Sega CD looked only slightly crisper than the Sega Genesis port.

Night Trap controversy aside, Sega CD started as hot as its overworked motors and went up in smoke. Graphics were grainy, load times were long, and the price was stiff, especially with hints of new consoles coming just around the corner. Perhaps most problematic, many games such as Mortal Kombat, Eternal Champions, and Streets of Rage were retooled versions of titles already available for Genesis.

Today, consumers are used to paying for HD rehashes of games. But Sega CD ports exhibited few differences from Genesis titles to justify the cost to upgrade. Mortal Kombat, for instance, adds in animations and sounds effects cut from the Genesis port due to storage restrictions, and throws in the arcade soundtrack and a remixed "Mortal Monday" commercial that ran ahead of the controversial game's release on consoles in September 1993. However, the graphics appear as washed out as on the Genesis, sound effects trip over one another due to the drive's inability to load data quickly, and gameplay stutters triggered by loading occur just frequently enough to grate.

Although Sega ended up selling 2.4 million Sega CD add-ons, new consoles such as Sony's PlayStation, 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, and Sega's own Saturn console arrived on the scene within two years of its release. With no killer app on the horizon, Sega CD ate the dust of other, newer CD-based hardware.


The following resources were helpful in writing this article: Siliconera's "Sega’s Original Hardware Developer Talks About The Company’s Past Consoles" and Eurogamer's "The Rise and Fall of Sega Enterprises."

Long Reads Editor

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing Mario, Zelda, and Dark Souls games, and will be happy to discuss at length the myriad reasons why Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series. Follow him online at davidlcraddock.com and @davidlcraddock.

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