Today, thirty-two years ago, the Nintendo Famicom hit the shelves of Japan. But also released on the same day was Sega’s own console — the SG-1000 — beginning a rivalry fought both in the arcades and, eventually, in the living rooms of millions of avid gamers.
It sounds epic, but in truth, Sega’s first effort didn’t quite herald the kind of disruption to the industry that, years later, their Mega Drive would. There’s a reason why not a lot people may have heard of the SG-1000 and a lot of that has to do with the wild success that the Famicom eventually earned in Japan before heading West to try its magic in the United States. Two years later, in 1985, support for the system sharply dropped off having been left behind by game developers like Konami who went on to create games for the far more successful Nintendo Famicom.
Sega Retro, a fan-run wiki of all things Sega, traces the history of the console with plenty of details. Despite being overshadowed by the Nintendo Famicom, for example, the console still saw sales of two million units worldwide along with a number of licensed clones.
However, being released in the same month as the Nintendo Famicom (and its considerably more powerful hardware) and into a crowded market place with the likes of Bandai all trying to grab a piece of that gaming pie with their own consoles, it still didn’t fare as well as Sega hoped it would. There’s a reason why you probably didn’t even know that Tomy, Bandai, and others had even released consoles in Japan — and you can already guess that reason has a lot to do with Nintendo.
The SG-1000’s guts had pieces that were also used in the ColecoVision. The brains were an NEC 780C which was a clone of the famous Zilog Z80 chip so often used in arcade machines as a sound CPU in conjunction with Yamaha sound chips. For video, it used the TMS9928A by Texas Instruments capable of displaying 16 colors. As for sound, it used another chip from Texas Instruments — the SN76489. The console hooked up to TVs via an RF switch.
It, like the Nintendo Famicom, also sported an expansion port for additional devices that Sega hoped to sell for the system like a keyboard (the SK-1100), growing its capabilities and turning it into a PC-like device.
Sega would also release a “computer” version of the SG-1000 they would be the 8-bit SC-3000 at the same time and, according to Sega Retro, apparently saw some success in Japan and other countries like France, Italy, and Finland as a “low cost” PC alternative. Interestingly, that expansion port left the door open on Sega’s version of a “trojan horse” as Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi had hoped the Famicom would become in sneaking in a PC into everyone’s home. Unfortunately, despite being more expensive than the SG-1000, the SC-3000 cannibalized some of the potential sales for the system and become something of an eerie herald of Sega’s later years in the 90s when it came to hardware, hardware, and more short-lived hardware.
The SG-1000 also suffered from a few bumps in the road that made it less attractive than the Famicom.
For one, it was hard to compete with a console that could boast great ports of iconic titles like Donkey Kong and and Popeye with more to come even with an exclusive library of Sega favorites. And despite a chip issue with the first rollout of Famicoms, that didn’t keep Nintendo from regaining the public’s trust and sweeping away the competition. Incidentally, Chris Kohler over at Wired notes in his own journey with the SG-1000 that one of the games, Girl’s Garden, was directed by Yuji Naka who would later go on to create Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis. But for the most part, many of the games were apparently not that great, but there were a few notable titles in that mix.
Games included ports of Western titles like Lode Runner in ’84 and Activision’s H.E.R.O. in ’85. In 1987, the last title that made it over was the RPG, The Black Onyx, which some credit as a pivotal title for Japan whose mechanics would inform later JRPGs such as Final Fantasy. But they then, the SG-1000 was all but buried.
The second thing that didn’t help the SG-1000’s fortunes were the controllers which were hardwired to the thing. You couldn’t detach them so if one broke, you were out of luck. The “Mark II” version in 1984 redesigned the SG-1000 putting the expansion port towards the front instead of in the back and made the controllers detachable. But what about all of the users that already had one? Your guess was as good as mine.
Despite the SG-1000’s stumbling start and short life, it did provide Sega with valuable lessons on building a console, tricks that it would use with the Mark III — the Sega Master System — which was considerably far more powerful than the Famicom. But as Hiroshi Yamauchi had already learned, it’s the software that drives the hardware, a lesson that Sega would only take to heart much later, just in time for the 16-bit wars.