The best SEGA consoles throughout history: Evolution of Sega console design from the Master System to the Game Gear Micro

From the Master System to the Dreamcast, here’s a history of SEGA hardware. Which era do you think spawned the best SEGA consoles?

by Daryl Baxter
Best Sega consoles history evolution sega console design

SEGA had one of the most up and down journeys in video games as a company. From releasing their first 8-bit console in 1985, to exiting the console-market in 2001, they enjoyed massive successes and spectacular falls.

You probably remember the first time you used a SEGA console. It may have been in the mid-nineties, it could even have been through the Mega Drive Mini that was released last year.

READ MORE: Sega Mega Drive Mini now less than £50

But a lot of people have had their careers defined by games that were there during their childhood. It can depend on the level, the pixels, or the polygons that hold that memory.

With that, here’s a run-through of the consoles from SEGA, start to finish.

Sega Master System

SEGA Master System

Released in October of 1985 in Japan, 1986 in America and 1987 for Europe, this was SEGA’s introduction into the console market, and running on a chip at the speed of 4Mhz, it was meant to be a rival to Nintendo’s NES console. A name you may be familiar with, Mark Cerny, was involved with the development of certain games, with some only being allotted a three-month development time.

It was a rectangular design with a slight pyramid structure, coated in that mid-eighties black and sand-brown, with its controller having a DPAD and two buttons.

Priced at $199 in America and £99 in the UK the following year, Mastertronic, a company involved in distributing the console, advertised with the line ‘an arcade in the home’, and up to a point, that was correct. Alex Kidd, Hang On and Wonder Boy were games that would be fondly remembered of this time, especially with the ‘Master System 2’, a smaller version which would commonly have Alex Kidd pre-installed on the console.

It met its end in 1991 once the Mega Drive, and Sonic was released to the masses.

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Sega Game Gear

SEGA Game Gear

A handheld that’s come into focus thanks to the ‘Game Gear Micro’ this week, the original was released twenty years ago in October, with a launch in other territories the following year. Priced at £99, its aim was to rival the huge success of Nintendo’s Game Boy, with its colour, backlit screen and a form factor that was meant to be even easier on the hands, it was essentially a portable Master System. Similar to the Game Boy and Tetris, it would be bundled with ‘Columns’, as a way of introducing owners to what the portable was capable of, especially due to the game featuring many different coloured blocks.

But while the GameBoy could stay on for more than a day with two AA batteries, the Game Gear required six AA batteries, and could only run for 4 hours at the most, severely limiting its play-time.

There were many games for the Game Gear that were essentially ports of Master System games, such as Sonic Chaos, Space Harrier, Shinobi and lots more, but unfortunately its timing was an issue. Despite selling over 10 million units by 1996, SEGA’s focus on the Mega Drive and its subsequent peripherals and successors lead to its demise toward the end of the nineties.

READ MORE: SEGA reveals Game Gear Micro

SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis

The console that began people’s history in video games, this writer included, where it was the introduction into 16-bit gaming.

First released in 1988 and subsequently in 1990 in Europe, this was what launched Sonic the Hedgehog into the stratosphere. Featuring a controller with three buttons, a start button, and a fully-directional DPAD, it was shaped to fit most hands, rather than its more angular predecessor, and with this, many games became ones that we still remember today.

Streets of Rage, Revenge of Shinobi, Ecco the Dolphin, Disney’s Lion King and Aladdin, Mickey Mouse’s Castle of Illusion. So many that defined the era, and with its own take of 16-bit graphics and sound compared to Nintendo’s SNES console, it’s still spawning soundtracks from these games as vinyl and streaming releases.

It saw a resurgence last year with the ‘Mega Drive Mini’, a console that accurately had the original design of the console and the controller into a miniature-sized purchase, where you could play a wide selection of games for £49.99.

Between 1988 and 1997, SEGA also tried to extend the life of the console with add-ons. 

The SEGA CD launched in 1991, and depending on what model of Mega Drive you had, the console would either be placed on top, or by the side of this add-on. Using disks this time, full motion video and much more crisp and detailed music tracks were possible, with games such as Night Trap, Sonic CD and even enhanced versions of previous games like Mortal Kombat 2 and Earthworm Jim, featured better sound, better graphics, and even new levels to play. This was discontinued around 1995 due to the launch of the successor, the Sega Saturn.

The 32X was another add-on that slotted into the cartridge slot which then used the console to display more-polygonal graphics. Games such as Knuckles Chaotix, Star Wars Arcade and Virtua Racing were great examples of this, but with its high price of £199 at the time, it didn’t last long. This was mainly thanks to the bizarre decision to launch this at the same time as SEGA’s new console, the Sega Saturn, confusing customers and not knowing where to put their focus to.

With 1994 beginning to show the next-generation of consoles from Nintendo and an outsider like Sony, eyes were beginning to wonder, and SEGA wanted to bring out their newest console as soon as possible, and to leave the 32X by the wayside.

READ MORE: SEGA Fog Gaming explained

Sega Saturn

SEGA Saturn

SEGA had been enjoying some unexpected success in the arcade market during the early 90s, with Virtua Fighter and other properties enjoying a lot of play-time across the world, thanks to its ‘Model 1’ system.

SEGA wanted to move this into a console, something that was barely possible with the 32X, let alone the Mega Drive, so they decided to create the next console, the Sega Saturn, as a base for this.

Released in 1994 in Japan, it didn’t launch to much fanfare, mainly due to their mess in launching the 32X at the same time, and a bare launch title lineup.

It was a design that looked like a Mega Drive 2, with it being more square, and the controller featuring six buttons and being almost the image of a Mega Drive controller. Games such as Virtua Fighter, NIGHTS and Daytona USA would eventually launch, with the 3D graphics being a wow-factor in the console. But it was E3 in 1995 which would be a total misfire for SEGA. Suddenly announcing a price, and a launch date of ‘today’ for the console in USA, it caught retailers and even developers off guard, causing frustration across many ranks, and games suddenly needing to be finished. Its price of $399 was seen by SEGA as affordable, for an hour, until Sony hosted its own announcement of $299 for the PlayStation.

This, coupled with the fact of the console having two CPU, implemented at almost the last minute, baffled and confused many third-party developers, struggling to understand the technical side to really make their games shine. It also was a final blow that there wasn’t a dedicated Sonic game to help the console, and even though games such as ‘Sonic R’ and ‘Sonic 3D’ were released for the system, they weren’t seen as true successors to the Mega Drive games.

With all of this, SEGA needed to step back, and figure out just what they could do for next time.

READ MORE: The most underrated retro consoles

Dreamcast

The console that ultimately resulted in it being SEGA’s final console. Released in 1998 in Japan and 1999 in other markets, it was meant to be the easiest console to develop for, thanks to the PowerVR 2 GPU. It supported both OpenGL and DirectX at the time, meaning that games such as ‘Quake III Arena’ could be ported with ease.

It looked like a slimmer Saturn but with a white colour scheme this time. It had four controller ports so there could be a lot of multiplayer times had, while its online capabilities for games was a first-time for this space, and opened up a whole avenue of just how online-games in a console could work.

The VMU is something that’s mainly remembered from the Dreamcast. We spoke about it in a feature, but being able to not only store game saves on it, you could play mini-games and swap certain items between other players, while it could simply show the game’s logo while it was placed in the controller.

It introduced online play, thanks to its ‘Dreamarena’ platform, so you could easily hook up your Dreamcast to your ISP modem, and play games such as ‘Chu Chu Rocket’, ‘Phantasy Star Online’, and many more.

It also finally had a Sonic game to call its own. ‘Sonic Adventure’ introduced RPG elements into a Sonic game for the first time, with huge, 3D levels that you could roam in, from stages to hubs, it’s a game that fans are clamouring for a remake of.

Unfortunately, as good as the console was, it just couldn’t compare to the coming consoles of the PlayStation 2, Xbox and the others. Its lack of DVD playback was something of a misfire, while SEGA seemed to have an arrogance that they would operate as normal. But due to the monster sales of the PlayStation 2 and the other console of the time, SEGA had no choice but to transform into being a third-party developer to save itself.

READ MORE: Sega Mega Drive Mini now less than £50

SEGA Game Gear Micro colours

The End?

But to end on a note with the Dreamcast instead of the Saturn… the Dreamcast was a great conclusion to SEGA’s battle throughout the late eighties and to the early noughties, showing just how arcade games and certain franchises could shine.

Every console from SEGA had its own ups and downs, but if you grew up with a SEGA console, you may still have franchises from those times that you fondly remember, and ones that have seen a resurgence in these times, such as Streets of Rage 4.

Hopefully we’ll see another mini-variant soon, such as the Dreamcast, or even games being remastered onto the current-gen consoles and the Switch, such as NIGHTS and Sonic Adventure.

The recent announcements of the SEGA Game Gear Micro and SEGA Fog Gaming suggest that SEGA is still working on interesting stuff, but another proper console would be very welcome at this point.

But if you completely missed SEGA’s consoles, now would be a great time to discover just what could have been during your childhood.

READ MORE: Remembering the WEIRD Dreamcast peripherals

Daryl Baxter