The Sega Mega Drive is Here!

The following is a translation of the feature article in the November 1988 issue of Beep! magazine on the unveiling of the Sega Mega Drive. The original scans can be found at the bottom.

The Sega Mega Drive is Here!

by Tsugio Aki

The veil has finally been lowered! A 16-bit game machine!

Sega’s long-rumored “Mark V” home console will finally be released on October 29. It will feature a 16-bit Motorola 68000 as its main CPU. Its name, “Mega Drive,” calls forth a new generation of gaming hardware. What dreams will Sega’s new black console show us?

The main Mega Drive console and controller. Notice the three buttons and rounded “bio” design of the controller.

Hyper Specs that Exceed Expectations

In a show of contempt for the Super Famicom, which is scheduled to be revealed on November 21 and expected to ship next spring, Sega has announced that its new home console “Mega Drive” will officially launch on October 29. The Mega Drive has the honor of being the first 16-bit home game console in the world.

We have provided a comparison table of the detailed specifications below, but let’s start by analyzing what makes the Mega Drive the best performing console to date.

A Name Chosen from Over 300 Candidates

The name “Mega Drive” was chosen from a list of over 300 candidates. Although Sega had already dropped the traditional “Mark –“ naming convention for the Master System, they further likely wanted to introduce a new image for the next-generation 16-bit console.

The team from Sega that spoke with us. From the left: Shigeo Kamata, head of the home video sales department in the home electronics division; Hideki Sato, assistant manager of the research and development main office; and the familiar Iida from the publicity department.

An Exterior Design Inspired by Audio Equipment

The outward appearance of the Mega Drive gives perhaps the biggest impression of significant change. Unlike the straight-lined designs of Sega’s previous consoles, the Mega Drive has a unique rounded design. In particular, its controller, which features a characteristic three-button layout, has what might be called an organic “bio” design. Sega foresees its game console becoming an information machine with high quality audio, and in line with that, the production model was chosen from over 60 prototypes.

The console features functional enhancements such as an independent reset button and a volume slider for the headphone port. There is also a safety mechanism that prevents the cartridge from being removed unless the power switch is set to off.

The unique three-button banana-like controller was designed to improve the operability of the controls, which has long been a common weak point for home consoles. The pressure of the buttons has even been carefully decided through repeated testing. Although only one controller is included with the console, there are two controller ports available, so all you need to play with someone else is a second controller and a game that supports two players. In addition, there is not a rapid-fire button on the controller, but rapid-fire is supported through game software (selected from the options menu).

A comparison with the Master System. The width of the Mega Drive has been reduced in consideration of add-ons such as the FDD.

The “16-BIT” lettering on the main unit might stand out a bit too much, but it is a suitably ambitious design to accompany the completely new console.

MC68000 and Z80: Twin CPU Configuration

The question of what will be used for the main CPU has finally been answered with the adoption of the Motorola 68000.

This CPU is used in a variety of new-generation personal computers, including the Apple Macintosh (used here at BeePress), the Commodore Amiga (as reported in the Beep Global Software Report), and also the Sharp X68000. Not too long ago, this high grade chip was even used in specialist workstations that cost millions of yen (its impressively small size really makes it stand out on circuit boards).

The Mega Drive is also equipped with an 8-bit Z80 as a sub-CPU. Such a multi-CPU configuration is common in arcade machines.

Why was the 68000 chosen? The assistant manager of Sega’s research and development department, Hideki Sato, offered the following explanation.

“As you know, Sega has a great amount of know-how when it comes to arcade games, and we’ve been applying this know-how to home console games. However, the limits of current home console technology have really started to become visible. If you think of a game as a food, we were considering how to upgrade the bowl that the food is served in. We decided to go with the 68000, which is already being used in Sega’s arcade machines.”

With the 68000, arcade games can be ported relatively easily without the significant downgrades seen in current ports.

How does the Mega Drive compare with the rumored Super Famicom? The Super Famicom has a 65816 for CPU, which is also a 16-bit CPU. However, to illustrate the difference by way of example, the 68000 is used in the Apple Macintosh, while the 65816 is used in the lower model Apple IIGS. The 65816 was likely chosen because it is compatible with the Famicom’s 6502 CPU, but overall, the 68000 is a higher performance chip.

Of course, the actual performance will depend on the clock frequency and hardware architecture, but looking at the CPU alone, we can say that the Mega Drive exceeds the Super Famicom.

Sato also said the following in regards to the multi-CPU arrangement:

“New home consoles are going to be used for more than just games. This will put a burden even on the 68000. By letting the Z80 handle secondary processing, we can increase the speed of the entire system with almost no cost.”

The console controls include a power switch, a reset switch, and a headphone volume slider. You can also see the stereo headphone port.

There are two controller ports available.

At present, the Z80 is primarily going to handle sound processing, so there will not be any unpleasant cases where sound causes problems with on-screen graphics (or vice-versa).

In addition, the use of twin CPUs will help to avoid the reason that the PC Engine did not use the 68000: the slowness of instruction processing in 16-bit chips. If it is only being used for games, the 68000 certainly does seem to have a bit of “slowness.” However, together with the Z80, each CPU can be put to use doing what it does best.

Well, without a doubt, going from the current 8-bit 4-MHz clock to 16-bit 8-MHz will provide a significant increase in performance.

Furthermore, in terms of performance, we can conclude that the twin CPU configuration is nearly the same as Sega’s System 16B arcade board.

Graphics: Two Scrolling Planes, 80 On-screen Sprites

The Mega Drive has 512 colors available, of which 64 can be displayed at once, representing the highest standard for a home console. It has a resolution of 320×224 pixels (max), equal to arcade machines, which is sure to appeal to the gamer’s heart. A resolution higher than that requires a special display and is impossible on a normal consumer television.

Sato: “A new CPU was necessary to increase the capabilities of games.”

The Mega Drive is also the first home console to support two scrolling planes. For example, without using sprites, the foreground and background can be moved independently of each other. In addition, unlike current hardware which can only do horizontal split scrolling, the Mega Drive supports both horizontal and vertical split scrolling for both planes. There is even a window sub-plane that does not scroll. Together, these dynamic functions enhance the ability to create easy-to-understand game presentations.

From left to right, the following ports are available in the back of the console: an expansion control port (to connect a printer, etc.), an A/V output port, and a power cable port.

There is an expansion slot on the right of the console that is connected to the system bus.

Up to 80 sprites (with a programmable size ranging from 8×8 to 32×32 pixels) can be displayed on-screen at the same time, and moreover, up to 20 sprites can be displayed on the same horizontal line (the PC Engine can only do eight). The Mega Drive also has the exceptional ability to hold up to 2,048 sprite and layer tiles in memory at once.

The Mega Drive supports an interlaced mode running at 30 fps. This allows for the pseudo-doubling of the vertical resolution, as well as the display of separate left- and right-eye screens for 3D glasses support.

The console is equipped with composite video output only, but RF and analog RGB are supported through adapters.

This table displays a comparison of the functions that are most relevant for games.

A High Standard of Sound: FM & PCM, Stereo Port

For sound, the Mega Drive has three PSG channels and a noise channel, together with six FM channels, one of which is a PCM channel that can handle sampling. This is the first time that a home console has been equipped with a complete PCM channel, so it will be nice to enjoy true-to-life sounds and voices.

The port for standard stereo headphones allows for impressive stereo sound.

The standard composite output is monaural, but the headphone port supports stereo output. In this way, you can enjoy stereo sound on all of your Mega Drive games.

A prototype cartridge of Space Harrier II is inserted into the Mega Drive circuit board. The 68000 CPU is located on the other side of the cartridge base.

A Price of 21,000 yen

With such high specs, the matter of cost certainly comes to mind. Even with the reduced costs of mass production, it is undeniable that the inclusion of the 68000 CPU must result in a higher price tag.

However, the price has somehow settled at 21,000 yen. No matter how you look at it, this is an astoundingly low price for what is included. The cost of the hardware alone must push Sega close to, or even into, the red.

The controller features three buttons. This is the normal way of holding it…

You can also reverse the controller (normal and reverse settings are changed in the game software options menu).

No Backward Compatibility. However…

If you have read this far, your remaining doubts probably concern backward compatibility with the Master System. To get straight to the point, despite Mega Drive cartridges also being the size of a cassette tape, there is no backward compatibility. However, because the Master System’s main CPU (Z80) is also included in the Mega Drive, the use of an adapter could enable backward compatibility in a relatively simple manner. If there is enough demand, Sega is considering selling such an adapter (the Mega Adapter).

Nevertheless, current users will already have a Master System, and it is difficult to imagine that new users will want to play old games when console technology has progressed this far. What are your thoughts on the matter?

In addition, the Master System will continue to be sold and supported with new releases, so there is no need to worry about that.

Sato considers the Mega Drive as something like his own child.

Broadening the World of the Mega Drive with Options

The Mega Drive will not be a single “closed” machine. In competition with the PC Engine’s “core” strategy, a variety of add-ons for the Mega Drive are scheduled to be released.

CD-ROM

Without thought to any particular order, let’s first look at the CD-ROM, which has been receiving a lot of attention recently. The CD-ROM unit will attach directly to an expansion slot (connected to the system bus) located on the side of the Mega Drive. The add-on will blend smoothly in appearance with the main console, since they are being designed to form a single unified system. Sato revealed that he would like to offer it at a lower price than the PC Engine CD-ROM drive, so let’s keep our hopes up.

Two-inch Floppy Disk Drive

Next is the FDD (floppy disk drive). Unlike the failed Quick Disk system of the Famicom, this is a true FDD. Furthermore, the disk size is only two inches, which makes it smaller than an IC card. A single disk has a capacity of 1 MB (about ten times that of a Quick Disk). Two-inch FDDs are also used in electronic (still video) cameras, their access speeds are about four times that of conventional FDDs, and they are highly reliable. Of course, the FDD will also have a unified design with the Mega Drive, so it will not feel out of place when attached.

The 2-inch FDD is designed to match the main console.

The FDD and main console present a balanced appearance when connected, with matching slits on the left and right.

Keyboard and Printer

A keyboard prototype has also been developed, but its use is still being considered. One possibility is to turn the Mega Drive into a word processor by inserting a kanji cartridge, but it seems like the main development is focused on the keyboard’s use in entertainment. The Mega Drive will also support the attachment of a printer, but since this will make use of a regular printer cable, it will be possible to attach a commercial printer, depending on the software and adapter.

Superimposition

Superimposition allows the Mega Drive’s display to be placed on top of a separate video display. Using this, the natural video from a CD-ROM or LD can serve as the background to create a more realistic game.

Modem

Sega has put a lot of effort into researching network gaming, but that would be out of the question without a modem. If you are worried about cost, it appears that Sega is going to sell its high performance modem for an unprecedented low price. The modem will allow you to play games in real time with distant friends. In addition, Sega will eventually offer new games which can be downloaded onto floppy disks using the modem, so you can avoid the nightmare of waiting in line for new releases.

Five New Titles This Year, Fifteen by Spring

It is no easy feat to develop games that make full use of such hardware, but Sega is planning on making the standard cartridge 4 Mb in size. In October, Space Harrier II and Super Thunder Blade will be released, and we can expect Altered Beast in November. Osomatsu-kun and Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle will also be released by the end of the year. The first games released next year will be the well-known Super Daisenryaku as well as Phantasy Star II, and by spring there will be fifteen new games.

Space Harrier II. It’s perfect.

And here’s Super Thunder Blade.

The title screen of Altered Beast. The game makes good use of twin scrolling to create a feeling of depth.

Each game genre, such as action, RPG, adventure, sports, and so on, will receive at least one release, and then Sega’s development teams will shift over to working on large-scale titles. In the beginning, the available games will be in-house Sega titles, but it appears that there are several third party developers preparing to release games as well.

At any rate, the quality of games is not decided by the hardware alone. As the staff from Sega emphasized over and over, after developing such an advanced console, the next step is to put even more effort than ever into developing truly amazing games.

 

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