Year Released: 1991
Original Price: £270
Buy It Now For: £20+
Associated magazines: Megatech, Mean Machines Sega, Sega Power, Sega Pro, Mega
Why The Game Boy Color Was Great: For many gamers it was their first glimpse of the raw potential offered by the CD-ROM format, and while it wasn’t the success that Sega might have hoped for, you can’t deny that the Mega-CD was privy to some wonderful games. Plus the ‘Mark 1’ Mega Drive and Mega-CD combi is one of the sexiest hardware setups in the history of consoles – fact.
They say that pride comes before a fall but as the first broadsides of the 16-bit war were unleashed at the dawn of the Nineties, Sega certainly had plenty to feel proud about. The launch of the Mega Drive (rebranded ‘Genesis’ in the US) had transformed the company from plucky also-ran to industry leader virtually overnight; the hitherto unchallenged dominance of Nintendo’s 8-bit NES was broken and by the time 1992 arrived Sega was able to call 50 per cent of the American home console market its own.
It was during this exciting period in Sega’s history that Scot Bayless joined the company. He vividly remembers what it was like to work for Sega at its peak: “It was exhilarating; we were running about 50 per cent on sheer bravado. One of the great things about Sega in those days was the company’s willingness to just try stuff. We had a T-shirt made with the slogan ‘This may not work, but what the hell’ – that was pretty much our attitude.” Such joyous ebullience imbued Sega with the confidence to experiment with new technology – and in this case, it was the medium of CD-ROM that intrigued the Japanese firm.
Coming straight from Spectrum Holobyte (where he worked on the epic air combat flight simulator Falcon 3.0) Bayless took the position of Technical Director at Sega of America and was ultimately put in charge of overseeing the US debut of Sega’s latest piece of hardware – the Mega-CD. It wasn’t the first company to embrace the possibilities of the shiny plastic disc – rival NEC had produced its own CD-ROM add-on for the 8-bit PC Engine in 1988 – but with the Sega brand in the ascendancy and the war between the Mega Drive and Nintendo’s SNES about to go global, all eyes were on this latest system and the new era of technological brilliance it was about to usher in. “Sega of Japan was already well along the road and the first development kits showed up not long after I did,” reveals Bayless. “My first responsibility was to help get the first demos ready for the big announcement event in New York.”
The machine had been conceived by Sega’s top hardware team in Japan, but so fearful was the company of internal leaks that it had been intentionally slow to provide Sega of America with vital technical information relating to the project. This clandestine attitude meant that Bayless and his team had to work overtime to get things ready for the US launch, which was scheduled for 1992. “At that point there were virtually no software tools – only barely functional dev kits and incomplete documents that were being translated more slowly than they were being revised,” he remembers. “There was one stretch where I spent four continuous days in the building – as in didn’t actually leave the premises. I lived off vending machines and coffee while I slogged through a bunch of systems code, trying to get the demos to function reliably.”
Because the hardware development was being done exclusively by Sega’s Japanese team, Bayless decided early on that it was vital that he familiarise himself with the new machine. “One of the first things I did was to go to Tokyo and get up to speed on the hardware,” he recalls. With the relevant tools in place, Bayless and his US team were able to start tinkering around with the console, and it didn’t take long for potential problems to arise. “The big headline was that there was a second CPU with its own memory – that was the good news,” he says. “The bad news was that the data path between the Mega Drive and the Mega-CD was very limited. What really stood out was the machine’s ability to store (for that time) ridiculous amounts of data; the real challenge was figuring out what to do with all that storage. Given the tools of the time, the human cost of building that much content was prohibitive, so people started looking at other possibilities. Probably the most promising element of the hardware was the sound system; it hugely enhanced the sound capabilities of the system of the Mega Drive. But, short of just playing back Red Book audio, nothing really interesting got done with that lovely hardware.”
Of course, Bayless couldn’t go public with his concerns; Nintendo was gearing up for the launch of the Super Nintendo and as a result Sega was putting a lot of effort into making the Mega-CD a success. However, even when he tried to talk up the power of the console, it didn’t always work out as expected. Take the infamous ‘Blast Processing’ boast, for example. “Sadly I have to take responsibility for that ghastly phrase,” admits Bayless with a grimace. “One of our programmers called Marty Franz discovered that you could do this nifty trick by hooking the scan line interrupt and firing off a Direct Memory Access at just the right time. The result was that you could effectively jam data onto the graphics chip while the scan line was being drawn – which meant you could drive the Digital-to-Analogue Converters with 8 bits per pixel. Assuming you could get the timing just right, you could effectively draw 256 colour static images. There were all kinds of subtleties to the timing and the trick didn’t work reliably on all iterations of the hardware, but you could do it and it was cool as heck. So during the run-up to the Western launch of Mega-CD the PR guys interviewed me about what made the platform interesting from a technical standpoint and somewhere in there I mentioned the fact that you could just ‘blast data into the DACs’. They loved the word ‘blast’ and the next thing I knew ‘Blast Processing’ was born.”
Tinkering around with new technology was undeniably fun but not having any input into the actual development of the machine was frustrating for Bayless and his team at Sega of America. However, as fate would have it, they were able to pitch in with critical assistance from time to time. “There was one technical issue that we did a pretty good job of coping with before it got onto consumers’ radar,” remembers Bayless. “The CD drive Sega of Japan chose was, predictably, an inexpensive single speed consumer CD drive. What nobody stopped to think about was how that drive would get used by those early FMV games. I got this frantic call one day from the Quality Assurance guys; they were using retail Mega-CDs – the same ones queuing up to be sold to consumers – for final QA, and they were suddenly experiencing an insane hardware failure rate. Units were burning up in droves; in fact, a few of them had literally caught fire as they died. We were in the big push toward launch and the whole place was in a panic because QA was out of hardware on which to test games. It was like an episode of House; the patient was doomed but nobody could figure out why. About all we knew was that the systems started flaming out when the FMV-based titles were being tested by QA. All of those games used some form of multi-stream video technique, which meant they were constantly seeking the read head in the drive. What finally tipped me off was an obscure manufacturer’s specification for the CD drive; it was rated for a five per cent duty cycle – which means that they were expecting that no more than five per cent of the time would the drive be seeking from one track to another. It was built for people who wanted to play music CDs and, of course, you rarely seek between tracks more than once every few minutes, so five per cent was way more than they’d ever expected people to need. What nobody anticipated was a multi-stream FMV videogame seeking 75 per cent of the time – or more. We were literally cooking the motors that moved the heads.” Bayless had identified the problem in the nick of time and ultimately saved Sega from suffering a potentially catastrophic PR blunder.
Despite these setbacks, the allure of CD-ROM technology – coupled with Sega’s recently elevated status within the videogame industry – meant that hype for the Mega-CD grew exponentially as the launch drew ever closer. As a result, Bayless found himself receiving phone calls from somewhat unexpected quarters. “I remember I was sitting in my office one day tinkering with some low level code when the phone rang,” he recalls. “This sexy female voice said, ‘Is this Scot Bayless?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and she replied, ‘This is David Bowie’s office. Can you please hold?’ It turned out it was Bowie’s manager, a very cool guy named Bob Goodale. Bowie was completely jazzed about the potential of Mega-CD as a window for music into games.” The artist formerly known as The Thin White Duke wasn’t the only musician to take interest in the aural capabilities of the Sega’s new baby. “I had the bizarre meeting with Michael Jackson around the same time,” Bayless remembers. “He’d already signed the Moonwalker deal with Sega and they were touring him around the Redwood City studio. I spent about half an hour showing him all kinds of techie stuff we were doing and not once did he ever comment or even make eye contact; he just kind of stood there with about 15 of his minions hovering around him. When we finished there we walked him over to the sound studio, which was just down the hall. Suddenly there was this new person in the room; it was uncanny. Jackson came to life like someone had flipped a switch. It was obvious that the only thing he was excited about was the music.”
The Japanese launch of the Mega-CD took place in December 1991. Units flew off the shelves despite the high retail price of ¥49,800, but the relatively small installed base of the Mega Drive in that region meant that sales soon dipped. Sega knew that the US launch was far more important, given the strength of the Genesis. It took place almost a year later (with the machine being re-christened ‘Sega-CD’) and although the public was ravenous for this new add-on, production issues meant that a paltry 50,000 units were made available to American retailers. Like Japan, the price was bordering on the prohibitive but Sega’s lofty standing Stateside helped the company quickly sell through what limited stock it had; by the time 1992 drew to a close, 200,000 units had found their way into US gamers’ homes. Likewise, 60,000 of the 70,000 machines made available for the UK release the following spring were snapped up before August. It was a positive start, but it wasn’t to last…
Four Great Mega-CD Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 61, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
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