My first ever console was a Master System, I received it for my 13th birthday in October 1992. By then, the Mega Drive was already out and I was behind the times, but it was the only option available to me. Technically, I did have a games machine before then. My mum had picked up some weird thing at a jumble sale for a couple of quid. It was a sort of Binatone rip-off that played a version of Pong for which you could change various settings using the switches on the machine. It had two controllers that were attached to the main unit by curly telephone wires and the joysticks were metal things that didn’t reset to the centre, they just flopped around and lay wherever you left them. I’d occasionally play this thing on the 10” black-and-white TV that was on the shelf above the fireplace in my mum and dad’s bedroom. This was the only other TV in the house besides the main one which was in use 24/7 for horse racing or antiques shows.
I was aware, even as a largely ignorant child, that this feudal-era gaming wasn’t really necessary; my family weren’t well-off but we weren’t as poor as the fake Binatone and black-and-white TV combination made it seem. It was 1992 after all. My school friends spoke of 16-bit gold hidden in far-off lands and I just ignored them, they were talking about exotic fruit that I could never taste. Never, that is, until I went round my friend’s house and played his Mega Drive. He brought me up to speed on the world of videogames and I soon learnt what was what. Around that time my niece got a Master System and I’d occasionally play that too. The fact that the games scrolled was enough to impress me and, after some research, I realised that it might be possible to get one for my birthday.
I should pause here and explain a little. I wasn’t completely ignorant of videogames up to this point. I live in a seaside town and as such had plenty of access to arcades and would often drop some 10ps into Pole Position or Hard Drivin’. For some reason I was always more drawn to the big sit-in cabinet driving games, perhaps because it was obvious what you had to do and you wouldn’t waste time and money figuring it out. In addition to this, my friend, the one with the Mega Drive, had owned a Master System in the 80s and his brother had an Amstrad. We’d occasionally play on both but I’d never really thought much about it.
Eventually the big day rolled around and I remember being annoyed to find my sister had set my Master System up for me while I was at school. She’d meant well but she didn’t understand the importance of unboxing, I was ahead of my time in that regard. By now, there was another colour TV in the house. It was an old second-hand thing with a dodgy RF input that you had to fiddle with to get a clear image. I was the only one that both knew how to do this and cared enough to bother. Finally, though, I was there, in the world of gaming, playing Alex Kidd in Miracle World on my own console. With a bit of birthday money I went up the road to the furniture shop (where else?) and bought Pro Wrestling. It was the only multiplayer game they had and I had friends over. This furniture shop, alongside a myriad of independent video rental places, would provide 99% of my games. I’d cobble together the cash to buy something and then trade it elsewhere in a two-for-one deal or add a bit of cash here and there. I wheeled and dealed my way through an extraordinary amount of Master System games, so much so that when talking about this with a friend recently it was hard to believe I only had the machine for a year. It felt like an entire generation, but such is the perception of time. Some of the classics I remember from my year with a Master System include Phantasy Star and Spellcaster, both attempts to ape my now SNES owning friend and his obsession with RPGs. I got Sonic 2 (I still think the MS version is the best) and managed to convince my mum to let me have it on release day instead of Christmas, distracted as she was by my sister giving birth the very same day (I suspect in an attempt to make up for the earlier unboxing incident). I got through, by which I mean played (rarely did I finish anything back then), more games than I can possibly remember and to this day if someone mentions a Master System game I’ll often recognise it and then realise I had it at some point.
After a year of gaming I’d become what we all are: obsessed. At first I’d been happy just to have something to play on but by summer I’d started making plans to acquire bigger and better technology – a Mega Drive. The SNES was like the uber-expensive Holy Grail and I knew it remained out of reach. Mega Drives, however, would sometimes appear amongst the classified ads in the local paper, sometimes with prices that might just be possible. I saved the ten pounds or so that I acquired during our relative-visiting summer holiday and a couple of months later my birthday was imminent. After much politicking I’d convinced my mum to let me combine my birthday and Christmas presents, resulting in enough cash to buy the £70 Mega Drive from two guys who needed the cash to pay the rent. “Happy Sega-ing,” they prophetically said as I left with their Japanese MD and Altered Beast. That’s right folks, Japanese. One of those ones that was switched to run in the UK, it could play everything and was the coolest looking console of all time. Black and purple with a blue reset button and giant ‘16-BIT’ lettering. It sat in the corner drinking, smoking and looking cool, laughing at the UK version if ever it saw one.
My Mega Drive era was perhaps my golden era. I devoured everything, enjoying the newfound power of being able to play the games others couldn’t (unless they had an easily obtainable converter that for some reason most people didn’t bother with. I think some had issues with certain games so they weren’t always reliable). I could pick up the Japanese games that the furniture shop sold much cheaper than the others, often meaning that I could afford to take risks. I think I got Hellfire for about £3 and would pick up other games for similar amounts without even knowing what they were. I’m sure at one time I ended up getting the Japanese version of something I already had and, upon realising, took my UK version back to the shop and sold it for more than I’d paid. Now I was ‘current gen’ everything opened up, so much more was readily available and I had friends to trade with too. I got through a lot and became someone who might even have the latest games early instead of being years behind. I was an excellent dealer and knew where to hunt, picking up Bare Knuckle 3 for £15 quite a while before the release of Streets of Rage 3. The furniture shop guys didn’t know what they had, due to the different name. I also got Virtua Racing an age before it ever came out here for about £12. I’m being a little self-indulgent here but it really was the age of the bargain. It was before gaming became mainstream and the kids knew way more than anyone else.
I got through a huge amount of games on the Mega Drive, maybe five times as much as for the Master System over a similar period of time. Some of my personal highlights include Landstalker, the isometric action-RPG from where I got the internet username I still use on some sites; Shinobi III, a game that showed the MD could do the same tricks as the SNES if you asked it nicely and James Pond 3 which I really thought a lot of at the time. I also got Super Street Fighter II and the 6 button pads which represented a real sense of arrival somehow. My friend had had SFII for his SNES for a long time by then and it was always the differentiating factor between the consoles. The MD CE version wasn’t very good but with Super everything was suddenly equal, or so it seemed. I think my fondest memories, though, are of all the Japanese games I had. The boxes and the shape of the cartridges evoked a romanticism for a place that still seemed far away and exotic in pre-internet times (just like this level of gaming had felt only a year or so earlier, out of reach and yet available).
I managed to get my hands on a SNES after another year or so and owning one was enough for me to finally accept, or openly admit, that it was the better console. The quality of the SNES games and the machine itself just shone through in a way that it never really did with the MD, which always felt like it was trying to compete like an underachieving but eager brother; it didn’t have the same confidence in itself. The anthropomorphising of consoles is a little ridiculous of course, but I got that sort of feeling. Others disagree as they’re entitled to do; the 16-bit consoles are perhaps the most evenly split as to which is the people’s favourite. I had another fantastic time with the SNES and games like Secret of Mana, but that’s another story. For now, it’s just important to know that my Sega years were temporarily behind me. New consoles, and the next-gen were on the horizon.
Sega’s intervening years weren’t particularly successful. I stayed away from the Mega CD, 32X and Saturn and instead had a brief fling with a 3DO before getting a PlayStation. As the turn of the millennium loomed though, so did Sega’s new machine. A sleek looking white thing that promised more power than ever before. Being what I think was the first console launch of my working life, and therefore relatively easily obtainable, I couldn’t resist. Me and my friend put down our deposits and waited for release day. I remember back in the 90s I was given a promotional VHS for the Mega CD which opened with the line “When you bought that Mega Drive you bought your ticket to ride”. Little did I know that the ticket I was about to buy would be for a bus that would break down shortly after departure and leave me waiting on the side of the road for one of the rival company’s buses to come along and pick me up. The Dreamcast’s time was short but it had some great games, my most fondly remembered being Power Stone. I don’t think I ever got into the Dreamcast enough to have the same kind of love for it as a lot of people do but I can understand it, it was hugely promising. My new found ability to earn money meant I soon moved onto the PS2, however, and I never really looked back.
Sega’s hardware history is one of the more romantic tales of always the bridesmaid, never the bride and I do love them for it, but I think time just moved on and left them behind. I can’t think of Sega without thinking of the 90s, or vice versa. Labyrinth Zone from Sonic is an early-90s Saturday morning. If you weren’t around at the time and want to know what it was like just stick that on. There is so much of myself invested in those years, which were shaped so much by those games. The mystique of imports and the weird things you could find on the Mega Drive still influences my tastes today. The first half of my childhood was Lego and Subbuteo but the second half, and my early teenage years, were massively shaped by the Master System and Mega Drive. A little piece of me will always be devoted to Sega and those great memories.
(Editor’s Note: John actually had a better title for this, but it wouldn’t fit…so we had to cut it. The original – Your Seedy Master’s Mega Behind Saturn My Sega and Crushed My Dreamcast! – A Genesis Story.)