The Sega CD, released as the Mega-CD (Japanese: メガCD Hepburn: Mega-Shī Dī?) in most regions outside North America, is a CD-ROM accessory for the Sega Genesis video game console designed and produced by Sega as part of the fourth generation of video game consoles. The add-on was released on December 12, 1991 in Japan, October 15, 1992 in North America, and 1993 in Europe. The Sega CD lets the user play CD-based games and adds extra hardware functionality, such as a faster central processing unit and graphic enhancements. It can also play audio CDs and CD+G discs.
Seeking to create an add-on device for the Genesis, Sega developed the unit to read compact discs as its storage medium. The main benefit of CD technology was greater storage capacity, which allowed for games to be nearly 320 times larger than their Genesis cartridge counterparts. This benefit manifested in the form of full motion video (FMV) games like the controversial Night Trap, which became a focus of the 1993 Congressional hearings on issues of video game violence and ratings. Sega Enterprises partnered with JVC to design the add-on and refused to consult with Sega of America until the project was completed. Sega of America assembled parts from various “dummy” units to obtain a working prototype. While the add-on became known for several well-received games such as Sonic the Hedgehog CD and Lunar: Eternal Blue, its game library contained a large number of Genesis ports and FMV titles. The Sega CD was redesigned a number of times, including once by Sega and several times by licensed third-party developers.
2.24 million Sega CD units were sold by March 1996, after which the system was officially discontinued as Sega shifted its focus to the Sega Saturn. Retrospective reception to the add-on is mixed, praising the Sega CD for its individual offerings and additions to the Genesis’ functions, but offering criticism to the game library for its depth issues, high price of the unit, and how the add-on was supported by Sega.
Sega entered the 16-bit era of video game consoles with the Sega Genesis. It was first released in Japan in 1988 as the Mega Drive and later released in North America in 1989 (as the Sega Genesis) and in Europe and other regions in 1990 (as the Mega Drive).
By the early 1990s, compact discs were making significant headway as a storage medium for music and video games. NEC had been the first to use compact disc technology in a video game console with their PC Engine CD-ROM² System add-on in October 1988 in Japan (launched in North America as the TurboGrafx-CD the following year), which sold 80,000 units in six months. That same year, Nintendo announced a partnership with Sony to develop its own CD-ROM peripheral for the Super NES. Commodore International released their CD-based CDTV multimedia system centered in early 1991, while long-in-waiting CD-i from Philips finally arrived towards the end of that year.
Shortly after the release of the Genesis, Sega’s Consumer Products Research and Development Labs led by manager Tomio Takami were tasked with creating a CD-ROM add-on for the system, which became the Sega CD. The Sega CD was originally intended to equal the capabilities of the TurboGrafx-CD, but with twice as much random-access memory (RAM), and sell for about JP¥20,000 (or US$150). In addition to relatively short loading times, Takami’s team planned for the device to feature hardware scaling and rotation similar to that found in Sega’s arcade games, which required the use of a dedicated digital signal processor (DSP). However, two changes made later in development contributed to the final unit’s higher than expected price. Because the Genesis’ Motorola 68000 CPU was too slow to handle the Sega CD’s new graphical capabilities, an additional 68000 CPU was incorporated into the add-on. In addition, upon hearing rumors that NEC planned a memory upgrade to the TurboGrafx-CD, which would bring its available RAM from 0.5 Mbit to between 2 and 4 Mbit, Sega decided to increase the Sega CD’s available RAM from 1 Mbit to 6 Mbit. This proved to be one of the greatest technical challenges during development since the Genesis’ access speed was initially too slow to run programs effectively. The cost of the device was now estimated at $370, but market research convinced Sega executives that consumers would be willing to pay more for a state-of-the-art machine. Sega partnered with JVC, which had been working with Warner New Media to develop a CD player under the CD+G standard, to develop the Sega CD.
Up until the middle of 1991, Sega of America had been kept largely uninformed of the details of the project, without a functioning unit to test (although Sega of America was provided with preliminary technical documents earlier in the year). According to former Sega of America executive producer Michael Latham, “When you work at a multinational company, there are things that go well and there are things that don’t. They didn’t want to send us working Sega CD units. They wanted to send us dummies and not send us the working CD units until the last minute because they were concerned about what we would do with it and if it would leak out. It was very frustrating.” Even though they were not provided a functioning unit, Latham and Sega of America vice president of licensing Shinobu Toyoda put together a functioning Sega CD by acquiring a ROM for the system and installing it in a dummy unit. Further frustrating the Sega of America staff was the construction of the add-on. “The Mega-CD was designed with a cheap, consumer-grade audio CD drive, not a CD-ROM,” stated Scot Bayless, former Sega of America senior producer. “Quite late in the run-up to launch, the quality assurance teams started running into severe problems with many of the units—and when I say severe, I mean units literally bursting into flames. We worked around the clock, trying to catch the failure in-progress, and after about a week we finally realized what was happening,” citing the need of game titles to utilize more time seeking data than the CD drive was designed to provide.
Sega announced the release of the Mega-CD in Japan for late 1991, and North America (as the Sega CD) in 1992. It was unveiled to the public for the first time at the 1991 Tokyo Toy Show, to positive reception from critics. The Mega-CD would go on to be released in Japan on December 12, 1991, initially retailing at JP¥49,800. Though the unit sold quickly, the small install base of the Mega Drive in Japan meant that sales declined rapidly after launch. Within its first year in Japan, the Mega-CD only sold 100,000 units. Third-party development of games for the new system suffered because Sega took a long amount of time to release software development kits. Other factors impacting sales included the high launch price of the Mega-CD in Japan and only two titles being available at launch.
On October 15, 1992, the Sega CD was released in North America, with a retail price of US$299. Advertising for the add-on included one of Sega’s slogans, “Welcome to the Next Level”. Though only 50,000 units were available at launch due to production issues, the add-on sold over 200,000 units by the end of 1992. As part of Sega’s sales, Blockbuster LLC purchased Sega CD units for rental in their stores. The Mega-CD was launched in Europe in the spring of 1993, at a price of GB£270. Only 70,000 units were initially available in the United Kingdom, but 60,000 units were sold by August 1993. Emphasized by Sega of America, the benefits of the Sega CD’s additional storage space allowed for a large amount of full motion video (FMV) games to be published for the add-on, with Digital Pictures becoming an important partner for Sega. After the initial competition between Sega and Nintendo to develop a CD-based add-on, Nintendo eventually canceled the development process of its own competing peripheral after having partnered with Sony and then with Philips to develop one