Although the Turbografx-16 CD attachment technically beat Sega to market, the Sega CD was the first major CD-based system. Attaching to the underside of Sega's mega-successful Genesis console, it promised to take gamers to "the next level". In addition to displaying full-motin video (FMV) and playing high-fidelity audio, it had built-in scaling and rotation graphic capabilities. It also had internal memory storage for saving games.
Interactive video titles like Night Trap and Sewer Shark were expected to revolutionize gaming, but their limited interaction and minimal replay value rendered them as more novelty items. As we've seen with so many other video game technologies, just because you can do something doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea.
The initial version of the Sega CD was a square, front-loading model that attached to the bottom of the Genesis console. With no controls on the outside (only two lights), it was controlled entirely through software. Eventually this model was replaced with a more lightweight version that rode sidesaddle with the Genesis II. With a pop-top lid, this version felt flimsy and cheap. It was also known to have problems running certain games.
The Genesis with its limited color palette was not well-suited to FMV, and consequently the Sega CD's footage appears very grainy. In most cases the video doesn't even fill the screen, but is displayed on a smaller window. Although the Sega CD did add rotation and scaling capabilities, it wasn't much of a selling point for Sega considering the Super Nintendo had those features all along.
Many Sega CD games were simply repackaged Genesis titles with enhanced music, FMV intermissions, and load times. To be fair, the load times are minimal compared to the Neo Geo CD or even the Playstation. The Sega CD eventually amassed a decent library of games. Many have not aged well, particularly compared to their Genesis counterparts. Still, there are a few gems including the souped-up Batman Returns, the rapid-fire Silpheed, the engrossing graphic adventure Snatcher. There are a few critically acclaimed RPGs as well.
As the system's most famous launch title, Night Trap is a game with great historical value. Along with Mortal Kombat, it was a lightning rod of controversy, prompting Congress to launch investigations on video game violence. This would Utlimately lead to the establishment of the video game rating system in use today. It's also interesting to note that the standard Genesis system far outlived the Sega CD. In fact, the Genesis 3 didn't even support the add-on.
Console design: B+/D. The original front-loading model is highly-prized by collectors and expensive to aquire. Clean and elegant in design, it fits neatly under the original-model Genesis. The only part that clutters the configuration is the "mixing cable" that runs from the Genesis headphone jack.
The second, more-common Sega CD version is easier to acquire but looks somewhat junky in comparison. Both systems feature internal memory for saving games, which may or may not still function after all of these years. A Sega CD memory cartridge is available as a storage alternative.
Console durability: C/D. Like many old CD-based systems, the Sega CD is susceptible to disk read problems. In some cases this can be fixed by properly cleaning the lens, but in general, purchasing a used Sega CD system is a risky proposition. Also, the internal memory tends to stop working and can not be easily fixed.
Graphics: D. Outside of its full-motion video, Sega CD graphics look identical to their Genesis counterparts. I imagine this came as quite a shock to early adopters who were promised "the next level" of video gaming. Genesis games don't look particularly bad, but they lack the color and sharpness of SNES titles. The full-motion video, though amazing for its time, tends to be underwhelming and has not aged well.
Audio: B. Remarkably, the music in many Sega CD titles is not even CD quality! Although certain Sega CD titles do feature a rich soundtrack (like Ecco the Dolphin), this perk isn't as great as its sounds. I personally find the distinctive electronic tunes generated by the Genesis to be far more interesting than the pre-recorded music tracks used in many Sega CD titles.
Controllers: B. The Sega CD uses the same controllers as the Sega Genesis. These are highly regarded, in spite of their modest, three-button configuration.
Media: C. While the CD format is suitable for video games, the Sega CD didn't make the most of it. The sound quality of many Sega CD games is less than crystal clear, and the added load times probably made many early adopters think twice about their new investment. In addition, although CD games are considerably cheaper to produce than cartridges, Sega didn't bother passing along the savings to the customer.
Packaging: F/C+. Initially Sega CD games were packaged in flimsy cardboard boxes. A few months after release however, these were replaced by long, clear plastic boxes like those used for Saturn games. While these don't look bad on a shelf, they crack very easily and take up a lot of space.
Pack-In Game: C. Sega's complete lack of direction of the system is reflected in its pack-in titles. Sewer Shark represented the new full-motion video genre, but was underwhelming due to grainy visuals. Sega also tossed in a disc full of classic Genesis titles, along with a Sherlock Holmes title they knew nobody would be willing to spend money on.
Launch Titles: C. The ten launch titles reflect the scattershot quality of the system. There are two "make my own music video" titles, a Genesis game compilation, and a dull Sherlock Holmes mystery. Most intriguing were the titles that showed off the system's FMV capabilities, namely the controversial Night Trap.
Library: C-. The Sega CD is well-known for its popular RPG's such as the "Lunar" series and Popful Mail. The system also had an exclusive (and highly regarded) Sonic the Hedgehog title called "Sonic CD". Outside of these however, most Sega CD games can either be categorized as "enhanced" Genesis games or full-motion video (FMV) titles. Enhanced games like Batman Returns and Ecco the Dolphin offer added extra stages and improved audio at the cost of load times. As for the FMV titles, these may be limited in gameplay but they tend to provide a charming window into 90's pop culture.
Collectability: D. Nostalga buffs will appreciate this system, but if you already have a Genesis, the Sega CD doesn't offer much of an improvement. Many of the enhanced Genesis games aren't worth the upgrade, and most of the FMV games (Night Trap, Dragon's Lair) were done better on other systems (like the 3DO).
Tracking down a working system is difficult, and you'll want to confirm that the system is fully functional before buying it. Even well-conditioned systems can suffer from read problems on occasion. Also, I'd recommend purchasing a system already attached to a Genesis unit, since the extra parts required to connect it to a Genesis may be missing. On a positive note, most popular Sega CD games themselves are readily available.
Innovations: First major CD-based system, internal memory storage.
Pros and Cons:
+ Games asy to find
- Grainy video
- Reliability issues