Imagine if Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo granted a license to someone else to build consoles based on their platform. That’s unthinkable today for those three, but in the 90s, Sega did just that.
In the early 90s, the 16-bit wars were getting warmed up between Sega, Nintendo, NEC, and SNK in North America. Arguably, NEC’s PC Engine (which would eventually come over as the TurboGrafx-16t in the West in 1989) was the first out of the gate in ’87 in Japan. It was later joined by Sega’s Mega Drive in ’88, and finally by Nintendo’s Super Famicom in 1990. SNK’s Neo Geo AES would also hit Japan in the same year. Eventually, all of these systems made it over to the West where the war heated up to epic proportions as they fought it out for supremacy.
By the time 1991 ended, all four systems were duking it out in the West. But there was also another revolution that was beginning to set the world on fire. Or, at least, on fire with the power of lasers.
CD-ROMs were making inroads with PCs offering huge advantages over traditional disk-based media and opening the door on the possibilities that it offered. Encyclopedias, music, movies…it seemed to be the answer to providing consumers with all of those things on one plastic platter. Despite averaging a few hundred dollars at the time for a PC kit, it seemed that journalists continued singing the praises of “Siliwood”, or a merging of Silicon Valley know-how and Hollywood talent, to create interactive experiences no one had ever seen before because of the new format.
This wasn’t lost on the console makers with each one exploring the same possibilities (and with Nintendo’s breakup with Sony over their own CD solution creating the catalyst for the Playstation…and Squaresoft’s marketing department poking fun at the cartridge format for the Nintendo 64 during the FF7 campaign). The NEC’s PC Engine had gotten a CD drive as early as 1988, arriving in the US as the TurboGrafx-CD in 1990. SNK would release the Neo Geo CD in 1994. And Sega? They came out with the Sega CD in 1991 which eventually made it over to North America in 1992. Just like their PC counterparts, these were quite expensive.
The Sega CD arrived in North America in 1992 as an add-on to the Genesis (as the Mega Drive was called in North America). But earlier, in 1991, Sega gave JVC — a huge manufacturer of electronics such as VHS players which were still popular at the time — the license to build what would become known in Japan as the WonderMega which arrived under JVC’s Victor label in 1992 for the low, low price of ¥82,800 (roughly $617 USD in 1992) according to Sega Retro (which also has a great gallery of pics for the WonderMega).
JVC’s version came with a Victor labeled control pad (which was essentially the Mega Drive/Genesis controller but with Victor badging), boasted JVC’s audio expertise with a new DSP, MIDI output jack, mic inputs for karaoke, and S-video output. The disk tray area also had cool lighting built in and around it along with DSP controls along the rim. The cartridge slot was to the left of the drive. It was essentially like looking at a slimmed down and more stylish version of the Mega Drive/Sega CD combo without all of the extra plastic. It could do everything that the Genesis and the Sega CD could do and then some thanks to JVC’s tinkering with the sound hardware.
Sega also released their own WonderMega version which was similar to JVC’s except for the Sega badged controller and a motorized CD door. How’s that for fancy?
The WonderMega 2 eventually came out in 1993 in Japan…a year later…featuring a few new additions to the system. This time, JVC/Victor added wireless controllers to the mix with an infrared sensor. The controllers also went through a redesign featuring quite a few more buttons. It was also quite a bit cheaper, though not quite by much, debuting at the tune of ¥59,800 (or roughly $555.35 USD that year).
And that brings us to the ad above. Unlike the first WonderMega, the M2 made it over to the states as JVC’s X’Eye in 1994 but it didn’t survive without a few changes. It replaced the wireless infrared with standard 9-pin controller ports, removed the S-video connector (replaced with the 9-pin AV port though as Sega Retro points out, not all of the systems have this), took out the motor for the lid that Sega added with their version, and also removed the MIDI interface reducing its usefulness to musicians looking to jam with it.
The first WonderMega consoles came with the Wondermega Collection which included four CD+G karaoke songs and four games (Battle Fighter, Flicky, Pyramid Magic, and Quiz Scramble). The X’Eye came with Prize Fighter (a video boxing game for the Sega CD), Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, and a karaoke disc. Sega Driven has a great writeup on the Wondermega in general along with plans on how Sega hoped to support it.
As cool as the system was, it didn’t sell very well to an audience that either already had a Sega Genesis, the expensive Sega CD add-on, or could opt to just buy a Sega Genesis by itself on the cheap in 1994. By then, the Mega Drive had been around for six years — a lifetime in the console world.
From what I’ve been able to dredge up, price was also a problem. The X’Eye seems to have debuted at $500 USD ($786 USD in 2014) which made it more expensive than even the Neo Geo CD which came out in the same year. It was also 1994, near the tail end of the 16-bit era for consoles and in the midst of a 3D revolution amongst PCs shaking things up game-wise. Atari had launched the Jaguar in 1993 and Sony would unleash the Playstation in 1994. Nintendo would be late to the party with the Nintendo 64 in ’96. And then there would be the Saturn.
Sega would release the CD-based Sega Saturn in 1994 in Japan, further undercutting its own WonderMega efforts at home. A year later, in 1995, the Saturn would come to Europe and North America, dooming the expensive X’Eye. To a crowd that wanted to leave the 16-bit generation behind, the console was an expensive alternative that wasn’t told the the party was almost over.
Its price tag was also something that had cursed the 3DO which came out in 1993 as a pure CD-ROM system. Compared to that, however, the X’Eye had one very important thing that it didn’t — a seasoned third party library of Mega Drive/Genesis/Sega CD titles in one sleek case. Granted, the 3DO’s intention wasn’t to solely be a new game console, though that’s what quite a few people thought it was when it arrived.
It’s also interesting to point out a few parallels with the X’Eye to more recent battles such as the Xbox 360 and PS3 launch in 2006. The PS3 was a few hundred dollars more expensive than the Xbox 360, though on a more technical level, the most expensive model combined wireless internet, the new blu-ray drive, memory card slots, and hardware-based backwards compatibility. Still, general sticker shock made the Xbox 360 seem like the better option to a number of gamers by allowing them to add in things like wi-fi at a later date instead of adding it all in at once — even if the price for the add-on and a larger hard drive were much higher than comparable PC peripherals.
In the end, the X’Eye was an impressive piece of hardware, like the 3DO, but also like the 3DO, was a victim of timing. The 3DO had a vision of where it wanted to take the living room, but to an audience eagerly awaiting the next phase of the console war and the games it could bring, it couldn’t justify itself at $699 on anything other than potential without the army of third-parties Sega and Nintendo had gobbled up.
The X’Eye, on the other hand, had the games. Unfortunately, everyone had already been playing them without breaking the bank…and were ready for something else.