Around Christmas 2013 I got struck with a sudden urge to buy myself a new video game system, because there’s no better time to spend money on yourself than the holidays. Having not bought a new retro console lately and spending most of the summer beefing up my Saturn collection, I browsed eBay for a few options until I found a good price for a CDX bundle, that end-of-life combination Genesis/Sega CD I heard so many good things about.
I’d wanted a CDX for a while since my old beloved Genesis had kinda taken a dump, so I took the plunge and ordered it.
A few bottles of Moosehead later, it dawned on me what just happened: I now owned a Sega CD.
Call it adolescent susceptibility to advertising jargon, call it a youthful need to play every video game system ever (that I have only recently shaken), but I wanted a Sega CD so frigging bad you guys seriously. And it didn’t take a lot to talk me into it. There was a Sonic game I could only play on a Sega CD that GamePro wouldn’t shut up about, and I while I was never able to pick between Sega and Nintendo (still can’t and don’t you dare make me) Super Mario World was old hat at at this point. That’s all it took to convince me I needed this thing; well, maybe that and the ads for Time Gal.
But no matter how many chores I did and how much I begged and pleaded, I just…never got one, even after I was old enough to have income. My senior year of high school, I even bought a copy of the Sega CD port of Wing Commander at a garage sale (that still had a receipt from Babbage’s dates Christmas Eve 1994 tucked into the manual) just in case I found a cheap one and it still just never came together.
Now, some 18-20 years later, I finally own a version of the Sega CD and can complete my own Sega Tower of Power to play me some Corpse Killer or whatever that firefighter game was. And what a version it is! The CDX is pretty much the nicest looking piece of hardware Sega of America produced before the gorgeous American Saturn; it’s tiny, does all the same stuff (including compatibility with the 32X) and it looks like Johnny Mnemonic would’ve plugged into it to help Henry Rollins save that dolphin or something. A perfect example of 90’s futurism, is what I’m trying to say.
So does it live up to the impossible standards that I surely would’ve held it to as a youngin? Well…yes and no. It isn’t fair to judge a system by buying a handful of games off Amazon some twenty-odd years later and passing a blanket statement on the whole thing. So I will reserve judgment until I’m able to amass a much more complete library (this is why I haven’t totally written my Jaguar off for dead yet). In the meantime, though, there are a few things that have stuck out to me that seem worth mentioning.
Collecting Games is Pretty Cheap…With a Few Giant Exceptions. Maybe I’ve just been landing deals, but so far I haven’t paid more than $20 (or less than $5) for any of my Sega CD games and I feel like I own some decent stuff! Granted, not all of them are complete, but the earlier CD games came in flimsy-ass cardboard boxes and it’s much easier to come up with alternate storage solutions for CDs than it is cartridges. Sure, maybe part of this is because I’m less picky, but within a month of buying the system I came up with some pretty cool CD games for cheaper than I could find the average SNES game at this point. But…the rule isn’t exactly universal.
Let’s take Popful Mail for example. A fun game, one that I’ve played the hell out of thanks to emulation and one of my reasons for wanting a Sega CD in the first place. I was aware it was harder to find, being a cherished mid-90’s Working Designs game, and that’s when I hopped on eBay to look for a copy. Rookie mistake.
I just checked on eBay while writing this and the only one I came up with was $165 for a complete copy. I’ve seen it go as high as $500 in some cases (and that one wasn’t sealed). The rest of the listings were either for custom cases for any orphaned discs and the strategy guide. The strategy guide by itself was $50. It isn’t even like it’s a common game that got expensive like Final Fantasy VII did for a bit there, it just…doesn’t exist.
It’s not like this is the only one. Try looking for a copy of Lunar, or even something as seemingly common as the Earthwom Jim Special Edition. And be prepared to WEEP.
The Music is Basically Amazing for Every Game Ever. This was pretty much the first thing I noticed when I actually used the system. While the graphics were a noticeable step up, it isn’t exactly an evolutionary leap. It does seem, however, the developers decided to harness Redbook Audio to produce the sexiest melodies imaginable.
Final Fight CD was one of my first purchases and the one I was most excited about. As a kid I would have given anything to have a 2-player home version of Final Fight with all three characters, as I adored the arcade version and the SNES version was laughably gimped. So I boot it up and it quickly occurs to me the music is now all sexy bumpin’ saxophone jams. Blaring sax, butt rock guitars, charmingly synthetic drums…whenever I stopped punching transvestites long enough to hear it, the music sent me into giggling fits of joy.
And it wasn’t an isolated incident. The American soundtrack of Sonic CD falls somewhere between a 90’s workout video and standing in line at Old Country Buffet. Batman Returns switched wildly between weird MIDI Myst-esque ambiance and slammin’ Gary Hoey instrumental guitar dad-rock. Even the frustratingly obtuse Ecco the Dolphin sequel had replaced its moody tracks from the original game with Pure Moods.
As well-done as it all is, the music for nearly every Sega CD game I own is hilariously inappropriate and really helps to place any time spent with the system exactly in the right context: your mom’s living room floor with an open bottle of Yoo-Hoo next to you. You likely have a backwards hat on and in a few hours your dad will kick you off the TV to watch Seinfeld.
The Games Tend Not To Be…All That Different. Sadly, here comes the biggest aspect of Sega CD ownership I’ve been confronted with and the one that’s perhaps hardest for me to admit. While the games I’ve bought so far have all been fun, they just don’t seem like the giant steps forward Sega might have wanted.
The most obvious issue is that there’s an AWFUL lot of ports. The aforementioned Earthworm Jim Special Edition was…Earthworm Jim, with improvements done to the already fancy-ass animation and one whole new level. Batman Returns and Final Fight CD are gussied up versions of games I could have easily already owned at that point with some noticeable-but-minor gameplay additions. Browsing a collection of Sega CD games for sale (as I’ve done a lot of lately) you could easily start thinking you’re accidentally browsing a listing of Genesis titles with weird box art and obnoxiously fluctuating prices.
I was even given a free copy of NHL ’94 with it and as best as I can tell it’s the Genesis game with stilted commentary tracks. The trend of polishing up ports was so pervasive that The Terminator‘s manual went out of its way to assure you it was a completely new game made from scratch for the Sega CD, and not…a port of a Sega game with voice acting added.
Maybe I should have expected this. I’ve looked over lists of Sega CD games at various points in my life, I’m well aware of how many of these games are on other platforms. Johnny Turbo did his best to let me know the Turbo CD had Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective first. Why didn’t I listen?
To be frank, I basically bought this system and all these games just to say I did. I have a huge nostalgic affinity for Sega; even with all their missteps and failings they provided me years of enjoyment as a child and I would have played pretty much anything they came out with. I loved the Saturn and Dreamcast, and I even managed to own a 32X back when those were relevant (were they ever?), so I basically just got myself a Sega CD to complete the library, such as it were. And now I can finally play Time Gal and see what all the 80’s-anime fuss is about!
But if I had the chance to let Little Tim know about it back in 1994, I’d warn him: “ehhh…how about you worry less about Sonic CD and more about Sonic X-Treme, huh?” and then savor in his/my tears when that game never actually exists. The future is cruel.