Part one of our journey back through console history took us to the 8-bit era of the NES, Sega Master System and PC Engine. However, it was with the 16-bit machines that console gaming really took off in the UK. This was the period when games consoles took the imagination of the kids, teens and twenty somethings by force. GamesMaster was on the TV, Sonic and Mario were becoming household names, and magazines like Mean Machines and Computer and Video Games were hyping the latest SNES and Mega Drive releases like there was no tomorrow. Arguably, this was the golden age of console gaming - a possibility borne out by the arrival of so many of the era's big releases on Xbox Live Arcade, the Wii Virtual Console service and the various compilation packs that have emerged on the PS2 and PSP.
The first of the 16-bit systems arrived in Japan in 1988, though we in the UK had to wait until 1990 for a European release. Known as the Genesis in the US, the Mega Drive was outsold in Japan by the PC Engine and the Super Famicom/SNES, but over here it was a huge success. The Mega Drive was the number one console of the 16-bit generation, and arguably the first console to achieve an impact in the previously computer-obsessed UK market.
Power-wise, the Mega Drive was a big step up from the Master System that had come before it. Based on a 7.1MHz Motorola 68000 CPU and a new Texas Instruments graphics processor, it could display 64 colours from a palette of 512 on a 320 x 240 resolution screen, and with 64KB of RAM and 64KB of VRAM, it had more onboard memory to cope with the demands of more graphically intensive games. Meanwhile a 6-channel FM audio chip for music and a 4-channel audio processor for spot effects meant that games were beginning to sound good as well. Titles such as Altered Beast and Mickey Mouse: Castle of Illusion proved early on that this was a games machine to be reckoned with.
However, it was only with the release of Sonic the Hedgehog that the system really took off. At the time it was an astonishing looking game. No branch of Dixons was complete without a display model running on a screen in the window, and nobody who saw the game running on a friend's Mega Drive could resist the urge to buy their own wonder console. In the meantime, the Mega Drive saw EA's sports line-up take off both here and in the US, in many respects laying the foundations of the hype and franchise-driven games industry we know and kind of love today. The Mega Drive might not have had as many golden greats as the SNES, but titles such as Sonic 2 and 3, the Mortal Combat series, ThunderForce IV and Toejam & Earl were hugely popular with the mainstream gamers of the day - including your humble writer.
Sadly, just as the Mega Drive was at its peak, Sega lost the plot. First it launched the MegaCD, a CD add-on that was needed in Japan to compete with the still popular PC Engine and its CD-ROM unit, but was unnecessary over here. Bar the excellent Sonic CD and Core's brilliant Thunderhawk, few games arrived that fully explored its potential. Then the company dithered between following its hit console with either a 32-bit cartridge system (codenamed Jupiter) or a CD-based console (codenamed Saturn). Sega decided that Saturn was the right solution, but rolled the Jupiter hardware into a bizarre mushroom-like plug-in called the 32x, which was designed to prolong the life of the Mega Drive while the Saturn grew a foothold in the market. The 32x was a disaster. Poor ports of Doom, Star Wars Arcade and Virtua Racing did little to convince the punters, and arguably the whole debacle did nothing but alienate the loyal Mega Drive owners who might otherwise have upgraded to the Saturn.