Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works review

One of gaming’s key consoles gets a lavish book devoted to its history. Here’s our review of Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works...

For most of us, a console isn’t just a piece of hardware: it’s a part of our cultural backdrop. The Sega Mega Drive was one of the key consoles of the 1990s, arriving in the US and Europe at a time when Nintendo’s market dominance seemed unbreakable. But for a few brief, glorious years, Sega managed to capture the zeitgeist with its 16-bit wonder machine, called the Genesis in the US. Unlike the soft-edged, family-friendly approach adopted by Nintendo at the time, the Mega Drive felt like a console for grown-ups – or a console for teenagers, at the very least.  It offered near arcade-perfect versions of some Sega’s biggest games – Altered Beast, Golden Axe – technically accomplished sports sims courtesy of EA, and in Sonic the Hedgehog, boasted a charismatic mascot to rival Super Mario.

For gamers with fond memories of Sega’s glory days, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works is a fascinating artefact. Its publishers, Read-Only Memory, brought us the affectionate and superbly put-together Sensible Software book last year, which offered a comprehensive insight into one of the UK’s pivotal game developers. Collected Works is, if anything, even more lavish. Its stylish, hardbound covers contain a wealth of artwork, sprite designs, developer interviews and design documents, offering a detailed overview of the Mega Drive’s creation, its numerous peripherals, and most importantly, its varied library of games.

The book draws on a variety of voices in its voyage through the console’s history. Designer David Perry offers an illuminating inside perspective on what it was like to work on the Mega Drive; his first game for the machine was The Terminator – an adaptation of James Cameron’s movie that garnered solid reviews when it emerged in 1992. Yet this seemingly assured debut was troublesome for Perry, to say the least; he and artist colleague Nick Bruty were still getting to grips with Sega’s unfamiliar new system, while at the same time working out how they could make a Terminator game without having the player control the title cyborg or his quarry, Sarah Connor.

It’s a snapshot of the transitional phase the games industry was going through at the time; from a period where one or two people could program a game and make it a hit, to a new epoch of multi-million dollar deals and expensive marketing. That transition is covered in a lengthy essay by Keith Stuart, which charts the birth of the console and Sega’s change in fortunes, from a company utterly eclipsed by its competitor, Nintendo, to one with a significant share of the market by 1993.

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Stuart covers the cheeky advertising campaigns and behind-the-scenes deals that led to Sega’s 90s triumph in Europe and America. It’s a detailed history, peppered with quotes from Sega’s old guard, such as Hayao Nakayama, who was president between 1984 and 1999, and provides an insight into how the Mega Drive’s cool image and library of games made it a such a success: the heated boardroom discussions over pricing for example, or the initially lukewarm reaction to an early build of Sonic The Hedgehog.

That essay gives way to a wealth of fold-out production diagrams, design documents and photographs of the Mega Drive and its various peripherals – some of them never released. Then there are examples of the era’s airbrushed logos and cover illustrations from such games as Phantasy Star II, ToeJam & Earl and Shadow Dancer. In each instance, we get to see these designs without the distraction of logos or gaudy titles, and in some cases, it’s like seeing them with fresh eyes: the surreal cover for the Japanese version of Altered Beast, one of several pieces of artwork treated to a gatefold page, is an eerie explosion of colour and growling monsters.

There are pieces of concept art from Sega’s archives, many of which has never been published before. There are behind the scenes looks at Treasure’s gloriously odd run-and-gun opus Gunstar Heroes, Streets Of Rage and Eswat, and a character concept for Sonic the Hedgehog’s girlfriend, Madonna – a design that was mercifully dropped while the game was still a work in progress.

Elsewhere, the book showcases some of the pixel art from the games themselves. There are sprites, loading screens and level maps, all serving to remind us how artists in the 90s managed to create such unforgettable characters with just a handful of pixels. Each design is numbered, which means you can flick to a list at the back of the book and find out what each piece is called; did you know that the characters in ToeJam & Earl all have faux Latin names, such as Mole (Diggus Thiefius Yawannakillum)? I certainly didn’t.

The next section is devoted to a series of interviews with some of the Mega Drive’s key figures. Mitsushige Shiraiwa talks about designing the console, and how its distinctive, gold ’16-bit’ emblem was designed to look like the badge on a car. Yuji Naka talks about designing the early Sonic games, and how delays forced him to effectively release Sonic 3 on two cartridges. The interviews aren’t especially long, but there’s an impressive number of them, ranging from such famous names as Yu Suzuki and Yuzo Koshiro to less familiar yet vital figures like Masami Ishikawa, the Mega Drive’s hardware designer.

Some of the nuggets of information in these interviews are priceless. Ryuichi Nishizawa, the designer of the Wonder Boy and Monster World games, when asked about his inspiration, says that Wonder Boy was born out of his frustration with Super Mario. “It was a huge hit in Japan at the time, but I just didn’t like it,” he says. “The game had a very bad control system. Some people say that was its strength, but I still hate it, even to this day…”

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It’s candid moments like that, as well as all the historical facts, that make the book so engrossing: Collected Works strikes a fine balance between pure eye candy and information-packed depth, resulting in a comprehensive (and beautifully designed) history of the Mega Drive, its games, and the often unsung talents behind it all.

Even with the book stretching to well over 300 pages, Collected Works can’t cover the huge expanse of games and other ephemera relating to the Mega Drive. Classic third-party games from the likes of Namco, Taito and Toaplan are sadly missing, possibly because of licensing issues, and it’s a pity that the sprite designs from DecapAttack are reproduced, but not those of the completely bonkers original, Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure.

This is but a small gripe, though. What makes Collected Works feel so valuable is that it provides such a comprehensive package of context, technical information and pure nostalgia.

Having reached the peak of its success in 1993, Sega began to struggle as the next generation beckoned. A deal between Sony and Nintendo went sour, inadvertently sparking the birth of a powerful new rival, the PlayStation, and the consoles released after the Mega Drive never captured the 16-bit machine’s success. But the system’s place in history, and in our memories, is assured; Collected Works is a fitting tribute to the Mega Drive and the games that made it so special.

Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works is available now from Read-Only Memory.

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4 out of 5