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Cartridges on cartridges: exploring the many weird accessories of the Sega Mega Drive

Dan Taipua’s Save State series presents five gaming relics that every collector needs in their shrine/garage, from the very essential basics to the very rare and frustratingly pointless. In this second edition, he looks at the Sega Mega Drive.

5. Six Button Control Pad

Sega-Mega-Drive-controllers

You need one of these if you want to play fighting games. So you need one of these.

The Mega Drive launched in 1988, when their original three button control pad matched modern arcade layouts. By 1990 however, the Super Nintendo came with six buttons straight out of the box to meet the needs of more sophisticated games.

At the time, spending extra money to play Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, or god forbid Shaq Fu  was a bummer but absolutely necessary. For collectors it’s a reminder that Sega spent a lot or maybe all of their time playing catch up with other systems, which leads us to …

4. Sega 32X

Sega_32X

The Mega Drive is a great system: lots of good games, plenty of cool and weird innovations. In the U.S. it had a 50% market share with Nintendo, but in New Zealand it must have been much higher, as barely anyone had a SNES. The console hit a wobble in the late ’90s though, as it struggled to improve its technical performance, and when insecurity hits tech the results are always hilari-bad.

The 32X was a ‘new console’ and those inverted commas mean a cartridge plonked into a Mega Drive that needed another game cartridge plonked on top. Sega thought it was okay to charge an extra $100 bucks for the privilege to pay another extra $100 to play a 32-bit game like NBA Jam Tournament Edition (very good) or Golf Magazine: 36 Great Holes Starring Fred Couples (very, very bad).

The physical design of the system has its own charms: a bit like a crap spaceship, or The Predator’s hole-punch, or Darth Vader’s toaster.

As rushed as the Sega 32X was, it also came too late: It got smoked by the Sony Playstation’s CD-ROM based technology. Which must have hurt extra bad, because…

3. Mega-CD

Mega_CD

This console add-on was released two years before the 32X. You have to understand: Sega really, really loved making you plug things into other things at a very high markup. They loved it to all hell.

At the time of release, the Mega-CD cost even more than the console you had to already own to make it work, meaning the only way I got to play one was at the demonstration stand in Farmers, St Lukes *cries one CD coloured tear*. Sat in a double padlocked display case it actually looked pretty cool, with the designers going for heft as a sign of quality – a tactic that’s quite effective with young consumers.

You can find base units in NZ for about $60 these days, but since that’s still too expensive for me I’ll never know the joy of Mega-CD exclusive titles Make My Video: INXS, Make My Video: Kriss Kross or Make My Video: Marky Mark and the Funky BunchAll the best games for the Mega-CD were made for the Japanese market, but in the true Sega spirit of the double-purchase the company re-released a bunch of existing Mega Drive titles in the CD format. A new console add-on that lets you play games that you already own you say…?

2. Master System Converter

Master_System_Converter

Released two years ahead of the Mega-CD and four years ahead of the 32X, this inglorious piece of shit let you play old 8-Bit Sega Master System games on your new and much more powerful 16-Bit Mega Drive. It didn’t improve the games, and it didn’t improve the Mega Drive; the Power Base Converter is one of the few add-ons in gaming history that actually makes your console worse. It’s hard to view this as anything other than Sega’s sheer contempt for children and possibly for the concept of economics itself.

Backwards compatibility (being able to play old games on new consoles) is a fantastic feature that a lot of gamers and collectors seek out – but it’s a feature that’s usually built into a new console and not an extra $100 for another cartridge to stick another cartridge into.

On the mountain of crap that you can stick into Mega Drive, the Master System Converter sits highest. It doesn’t even look cool. Buy one today!

1. Sonic The Hedgehog 2

Sonic_The_Hedgehog_2

I try to keep games out of these lists, but Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is a must: It’s the god flow, the coldest story ever told, the Michael Jordan of Sega’s ’92 season Bulls, a good thing to own and then to have a play on because it’s good.

Best of all: it doesn’t require any add-ons. None at all. You can get a Mega Drive, push in a Sonic 2 cart, and run a little blue guy across a colourful screen. You don’t even need a six button control pad.

The genius of the Sonic series is how it exploited technical limitations of the time: consoles could only really handle two dimensions, so Sega made those two dimensions fast and big. The levels for Sonic 2 are hectic and massive, with a vertical expanse that Mario never got close to. The introduction of Sonic’s wee mate ‘Tails’ took advantage of this level design by allowing the fox to helicopter about, reaching areas that were easily overlooked when you zipped past on foot. Sonic 2 even takes a crack at a third dimension with recurring bonus stages set in a 3D half-pipe, and while they look a bit jokey nowadays, the physics of forward movement were a great addition to play.

In the nostalgia stakes, it’s brightly coloured and good humoured with excellent sprite design. It also has a cracking Boogie soundtrack from Masato Nakamura.

Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is one of the few perfect experiences available in video gaming: wholly formed and unfettered. It sold about six million copies back in the day, so you can always find one on TradeMe for under ten bucks, or in my garage if you promise to sweep it out when you’re done.


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