As the console that ultimately dethroned the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) in the early 90's, the Genesis effectively ushered in the era of 16-bit gaming. Although released in 1989, the system didn't gain serious traction until Sega released the landmark Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991. Sonic borrowed many platform-jumping elements from Super Mario Bros., yet also boasted lush graphics and lightning-fast gameplay. Sonic also provided Sega with the recognizable mascot they desperately needed.
When the long-delayed Super Nintendo entered the fold in late 1991, what ensued was perhaps the most heated console rivalry in history. At one point, Sega ran a controversial advertising campaign boasting about the Genesis' "blast processing" capabilities. It was mainly marketing hype, but the Genesis did contain a faster processor than the SNES, allowing certain games (particularly sports titles) to run faster and smoother. The Super Nintendo eventually edged out the Genesis during the mid-90's, thanks to its superior graphics and sound, but by then the next generation of systems was dawning.
Console design: C-. The original Genesis console looked dated almost from its inception. The "16 BIT" label looks cheesy and an unnecessary headphone jack and volume control slider clutter the left side of the unit (did anyone ever use that thing?) There's also a sliding power-switch, a red power light, and a gray reset button.
Two easily-accessible controller ports line the front, with a hidden expansion port on the right side that would facilitate the Sega CD peripheral. Sega later re-released the system with a smaller, more understated and symmetrical design. The final iteration of the console was downright tiny - not much larger than a controller!
Console durability: A. Genesis consoles age well and rarely break. A friend once reported a broken controller port but that was a rare exception.
Graphics: B+. As the first true 16-bit system on the market, the Genesis' graphics eclipsed the competition in 1989. In addition to huge sprites and fast animation, the system was capable of gorgeous animated backgrounds and dazzling special effects. Its game just screamed "ARCADE!" Unfortunately, the fuzzy Genesis video signal resulted in visuals less well-defined as those on the SNES. In addition, the Genesis did not have built-in support for rotation and scaling capabilitiy, although some developers managed to implement this in their software.
Audio: C. Technically the Genesis is somewhat limited in terms of audio. Digitized sound effects and voice clips on the Genesis tend to sound muffled and scratchy. Its limited range prevents it from generating deep bass, and most Genesis music has a distinctive, whiney sound. Still, that sound quality became an endearing part of the system's identity. Games like Thunder Force 3, Madden '92, Streets of Rage, and Road Rash made the most of the system's audio capabilities with their infectious, high-energy tunes.
Controllers: B. Large and smoothly-rounded, the original Genesis controller is one of the most comfortable you'll ever hold. Its directional pad is wide and firm, with three concave buttons that are easy to tap. A rectangular Start button is located above the action buttons, and often serves as a pause.
Unfortunately Sega failed to foresee the advent of one-on-one fighting games like Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat which required additional buttons. This gave the Super Nintendo a huge advantage with their six-button controllers. Sega tried to address this issue by releasing a six-button controller of their own. While still comfortable to hold, this new model was substantially smaller than the original. A hidden shoulder button allowed you to switch between the three and six-button mode, but it was confusing ot use. Sega later released a larger six-button model, but by then most developers had given up on the concept.
Sega also introduced an innovative "body motion" controller called the Activator. Taking the form of a large plastic ring you stand in the center of, the Activator recognized body movements such as punches and kicks. Using this controller proved both awkward and tiresome however, so it never really caught on.
Media: A. Ideal in size, Genesis cartridges are black, compact, and have a distinctive rounded design. The front label extends over the top where the name of the game is conveniently printed.
Packaging: A/F. Like the Sega Master System, Genesis games were initially sold in protective black plastic cases which snap firmly shut and look terrific on a shelf. When opened, the right side holds the cartridge firmly, with the instruction book sliding into the left side. This quality packaging is the primary reason why it's still so easy to find Genesis games in good condition.
Unfortunately, Sega took a few ill-advised cost-cutting measures in 1994, replacing the sturdy plastic cases with flimsy red cardboard boxes. In addition, the instruction manuals went from glossy color covers to dull black-and-white. Genesis fans were not happy with these changes, which made their still-expensive new games look very cheap in appearance.
Pack-In Game: C-/A+. The initial pack-in for the Genesis was Altered Beast. While the game was close to the arcade version, its appeal was limited. When Sonic the Hedgehog became the pack-in in 1991, it turned the console's fortunes on a dime, almost single-handing catapulting the system past the Nintendo juggernaut.
Launch Titles: C+. For its initial launch there were five additional titles available: Last Battle, Space Harrier II, Super Thunder Blade, Thunder Force II, and Tommy Lasorda Baseball. While not of these were spectacular they conveyed the arcade experience the system was shooting for.
Library: A. In case you're wondering why the Genesis is held in such high esteem, all you need to do is look at its extensive library. The early titles were marginal arcade ports but over time the quality increased substantially. The system excelled in platformers, shooters, and most of all, sports. Compared to their Super Nintendo counterparts, Genesis sports titles may not have looked as sharp or sound as clear, but they played far better. Especially in the case of Madden, NHL Hockey, and NBA Live, the animation was expectionally fluid and the controls super-responsive.
The system's blazing processor also allowed it to run intense shooters and frenetic platformers like Sonic the Hedgehog without the dreaded "slow-down" most systems experience during over-activity on the screen. The Genesis was weaker in terms of RPGs and one-on-one fighters, two genres which thrived on the SNES. The Genesis did manage to edge out the SNES in sales of the first Mortal Kombat game however, thanks to a blood-enabling code (the SNES version was limited to "flying sweat").
Another interesting maneuver by Sega was introducing "lock-on" technology with their Sonic and Knuckles cartridge. Not only was the cartridge a complete game in of itself, but it allowed Sonic 2 and 3 cartridges to plug into the top of it, exposing new features and hidden areas in those games. Although a novel concept, the technology was never attempted again. Sega also released a version of the 3D driving game Virtua Racer in 1994. Equipped with a special chip in an oversized cartridge, this game was impressive but its $100 pricetag proved prohibitive to most gamers.
Collectability: A+. Due to its sizeable library and fine packaging, the Genesis is a dream to collect for. Individual cartridges are inexpensive, and it's not difficult to find complete games in great condition. The variety of games will satisfy any taste, although shooter and sports fans will especially be drawn to the system. Genesis systems are quite commonplace and inexpensive.
Innovations: First true 16-bit system, "blast processing", activator body controller, "lock-on technology" (Sonic and Knuckles only), Sega CD/32X attachments
Pros and Cons:
+ Huge, terrific library
+ Arcade-quality visuals
+ Superb packaging
+ Highly collectable
- Three-button controller limiting for fighting games
- So-so sound capabilities