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Happy (belated) birthday, Sega Genesis

The venerable Sega Genesis turned 20 years old on Friday. It's time to commemorate the Sega console that helped shape the video game industry.

The Sega Genesis, put on the market to challenge Nintendo, turned 20 on Friday. And after a long and enviable stint, it became a classic game console that, to this day, is remembered as one of the few that made its mark without actually leading the market by the end of its generation.

Sega Genesis
The 20-year-old Sega Genesis. GiantBomb

Sega has had one of the most tragic histories in the video game industry. In the early 1990s, it had Sonic; Nintendo had Mario. It had high-quality, third-party titles; Nintendo had high-quality, third-party titles. It had the Sega Genesis; Nintendo had the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Battles over which console was better were waged on playgrounds across the world. The Nintendo fans said Mario and the SNES were the kings of gaming. Sega fans said Sonic and the Genesis held that crown.

Today, the Genesis (and Sega's console business) are relics of the past. In the 20 years that has lapsed between the Genesis' release and today, despite Mario's enduring presence, the video game industry has changed dramatically. Nowadays, battles are waged over price as much as they are waged over games. And Sega, the once-beloved organization that kept a blue hedgehog as its mascot, is a third-party developer.

But it's the Genesis--and its success--that we remember today.

A fine history

The Sega Genesis was released to North American gamers on August 14, 1989. It started the "16-bit war." It was a shot over the bow of Nintendo, which was enjoying its position as the market leader with its 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System.

At launch, the Sega Genesis didn't have the "killer app." Sega was still looking for that special something to help it get the Genesis to the next level.

That happened in 1991 when Sega released Sonic the Hedgehog. It wasn't the top-selling game on the Genesis (Sonic the Hedgehog 2 took that honor), but it was the first game that Sega could call its flagship. Sonic was its Mario. It put the Genesis on the map of those who hadn't considered buying a Sega console. And it ensured that going forward, there would be a real battle between Nintendo and Sega.

Gore, anyone?
During the early 1990s, Nintendo took an admittedly less-adult stance in its game strategy. The hardware maker was extremely careful with the content being played on its console.

Sega saw an opportunity to capture market share by being everything Nintendo wasn't. It accepted more mature games. It didn't mind gore. And it made it well known.

One of the most popular Sega advertising campaigns, "Genesis does what the Nintendon't," used both its willingness to bring more graphic titles to the console and its arcadelike gaming experience to make its point. Sega wanted to be viewed as the more forward-thinking console. It wanted to be "cooler" than Nintendo.

That was further supported with the release of Mortal Kombat in 1993 to home consoles. Although Mortal Kombat was made available on the SNES, Nintendo of America decided that the game was too graphic for its family-friendly public image. It ordered the removal of some of the game's "fatalities" (death blows), gore, and religious elements. Sega decided to modify Mortal Kombat only slightly. And a special cheat code brought all the gore back. It was much closer to the original version of the game than Nintendo's version.

In the meantime, the Genesis was selling well. Over the course of its lifetime, Sega sold almost 30 million units. It didn't quite top the 49 million SNES units Nintendo sold, but it marked the golden age of Sega's stint in the console market.

After the Genesis, Sega made a series of missteps, including releasing the 32X and Sega CD, two add-ons that Sega hoped would attract consumer attention. Both the Sega CD and 32X were failures. Worst of all, they proved to be contributing factors to Sega's downfall in the hardware business.

The games
Besides the obvious one (I'm looking at you, Sonic), the Genesis was home to so many great games, it's impossible to list them all here. That said, I'm going to try to list some of the more prominent titles that left their mark.

Mortal Kombat would have never experienced the kind of public outcry it did, if it weren't for the Genesis. It brought the gore--and the legislators.

Phantasy Star II is, to this day, one of my favorite role-playing games of all time. Complete with an epic storyline and some of the most difficult puzzles I've ever experienced, Phantasty Star II kept me engrossed until the bitter end.

Streets of Rage was another classic. I can still remember battling my way through the various levels with reckless abandon.

Call me crazy, but I loved Aladdin for the Genesis. It had incredible visuals and outstanding gameplay, and it was a great time-waster. It's probably one of the best Genesis games ever made.

Although I could go on, I'll end this list with Earthworm Jim. It was unique, it had gorgeous graphics for its time, gameplay was outstanding, and it had an interesting storyline. To this day, it holds a special place in my game collection.

A brief retrospective
Twenty years later, much has changed in the video game industry. Sega isn't in the console market. Microsoft and Sony are playing catch-up with that old stalwart, Nintendo. And Sonic the Hedgehog, once the favorite of so many, is now an afterthought, when it comes to major video game characters.

And yet Sega still has an incredible following. The Sega fanatics still congregate on forums across the Web, discussing Sega's Golden Age, what went wrong, how it could have been avoided, and whether the company can re-emerge as a console maker.

The hope is there. But it's doubtful that Sega's desire can match it. The company had a bad experience in the hardware market, and so far, it hasn't made any indication that it's willing to jump back in.

Although it didn't save Sega over the long term, the Genesis was the prime reason that many gamers stuck with the company. More importantly, it was a console that got many more people into gaming.

Isn't that all we can really ask for from a console?

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