Sega CD Turns 25 – Its Impact on Gaming

Bob Mackey

You won’t find the Sega CD on any list of the most successful consoles of all time. But despite its retail failure, the few years this Genesis add-on survived saw plenty of worthwhile experiences that could only happen on the CD-ROM format. Sega might not have been the first to the scene when it came to embracing this technology in the console space, but their little experiment served as a dry run for what the future of gaming would be—at least, until we go completely digital. On the month of its 25th birthday, let’s remember the Sega CD for its unmistakable impact on gaming.

Breaking in the CD Format

A screenshot of the Sega CD boot screen.

Until consoles like the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation formally established the CD-ROM as the official format for gaming, developers had their hands tied by the limitations of cartridges. Though the assets they worked with carried much, much smaller file sizes than those found in the games of today, most cartridge games of yore maxed out at around 32 megabits—that’s about 4 megabytes. Crafty programmers found a way to work around these restrictions, but some concepts were simply too massive for the cartridge format.

Granted, the actual game data on a Sega CD disc typically didn’t take up more than a small fraction of the actual capacity, but designers didn’t have to worry as much about cutting corners now that they could play with 175 times more space. This meant creators now had the chance to play with the same types of multimedia found in the PC space: voice acting, video, and pre-recorded, high-quality music. In just a few year’s after the Sega CD’s launch, these features would eventually become the norm for console games.

Evolving Video Game Music

Since developers were building their Sega CD games out of 16-bit assets, even the larger productions had plenty of space left over on the disc. In most cases, digital music occupied these excess 1s and 0s—a far cry from the limited power of the Sega Genesis’ FM synthesis. Games like Sonic CD took advantage of this new technology by giving players soundtracks unlike anything they’ve ever heard from a video game. And since most of these songs simply played directly off the CD, you could also listen to the same tunes outside of the game by sticking the disc in any CD player. Beats buying an overpriced import soundtrack.

The ESRB Rating System

A screenshot of Night Trap for the Sega CD.

Unwittingly, the Sega CD helped spawn a formal ratings system for video games with the help of a little release called Night Trap. Originally pegged to release on a cancelled VHS video game system, Night Trap made the transition to Sega CD in October 1992. A campy send-up of horror films from the same era, this Digital Pictures production tasks players with jumping between different video feeds to save a group of girls in a way that feels like a precursor to Five Nights at Freddy’s. Night Trap amounted to goofy, low-budget fun—its content wouldn’t merit a PG-13, even in the early ’90s.

A little over a year later, Sega found Night Trap (along with a few other games) at the center of a congressional hearing about violence in video games. Despite its lighthearted take on horror, elected officials treated Night Trap as nothing less than a snuff film, and castigated Sega for corrupting children’s minds. In order to avoid government censorship, Sega adopted their own ratings system, which would be supplanted by the ESRB system we know and love roughly a year later. Who knew this silly FMV adventure about a sleepover gone wrong would change video games forever?

New Genres, New Experiences

A screenshot of Snatcher for the Sega CD.

Games had certainly evolved by the early ’90s, but most console experiences outside of RPGs typically involved the player running from left to right across a series of levels. The Sega CD changed all this by offering types of games they’d previously only seen on the PC. This meant comical point-and-click adventures like The Secret of Monkey Island, and interactive live-action movies like Sewer Shark and Time Gal. Not all of these games hold up today, but in the early ’90s, we’d never seen anything like them before.

The Sega CD also gave us Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima’s first American video game release with Snatcher. (We saw two Metal Gear games before this, but one exists as a shabby NES port, while another is a sequel Kojima didn’t work on.) Though Konami produced it in small numbers—and it sold in even smaller numbers—Snatcher gave Americans their first taste of Japanese adventure games, which are heavy on reading, and light on action. We also got our first glimpse of Kojima’s former penchant for stealing from movies he loves, as Snatcher feels like a mix of Blade Runner and The Terminator’s best parts. No lawsuits so far, though.

A More Focused Sega

Ultimately, the Sega CD’s failure taught its parent company to focus its efforts on one product alone. In an attempt to compete with the Super Nintendo, Sega created both the Sega CD and the 32X as add-ons for their existing Genesis hardware, confusing and fragmenting their user base as a result. Meanwhile, Nintendo grafted advanced technology onto the game cartridges themselves, making things much simpler and more cost-effective. Sega wouldn’t be completely mistake-free in the coming generations, but they at least learned to stick with one console at a time.

Even if the Sega CD only flirted with relevance, its few short years on this planet showed us what the coming decades of gaming would hold. Sega CD might not have won over the marketplace 25 years ago, but it at least won over our hearts with its bleeding-edge take on video games.

Bob Mackey
Bob Mackey is Games Editor at Fandom. Since joining the games press in 2007, he's written for sites like 1UP, Joystiq, The A.V. Club, Gamasutra, USgamer, and many others. He also hosts the weekly podcasts Retronauts and Talking Simpsons. Follow him on Twitter @bobservo.
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