When you see Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario getting together for yet another Olympic game, it’s easy to forget the past. At one time Sega and Nintendo built entire marketing campaigns around insulting and destroying one another. These were the companies that ultimately battled for video game home console supremacy from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, with Sega at one point leading Nintendo in sales with the iconic Sega Genesis. It probably won’t surprise you with every Sega console ranked from worst to best which system takes the number one spot.
But what about the rest? Sega’s story as a home console manufacturer is a bit of a mixed bag. Beyond the Genesis, every system they made either struggled to find a sustaining audience (which isn’t necessarily indicative of how good the system was) or failed critically and commercially in one fell swoop.
The story of Sega can be a sad one at times, but this is also a company responsible for several excellent game systems. Barring excellence, some of their efforts were at least ambitious and interesting. Others are infamous failures that were rightfully scorned and ignored in their time. The story of Sega is a wild one worth celebrating from top to bottom. Or in this case, from worst to best.
Every Sega Console Ranked
9. SG-1000 / SC-3000 / SG-1000 II
Release Date: July 15, 1983
Units Sold: 1.4 million (estimated)
It looks we’re talking about three different consoles here, but really, the SG-1000, SC-3000, and SG-1000 II all refer to the same system. Sega’s first foray into the world of home consoles is easily their worst effort, which is fair enough. The company not only had to contend with the rising juggernaut known as Nintendo, but also their own inexperience and a video game industry that, in the late 1980s, was at best struggling. Nothing was going to work out for the SG-1000 or any of its variations.
Largely forgotten to time, the Sega SG-1000 was interestingly enough released on July 15th, 1983. Those who know their video game history will know that was also the day Nintendo released the Famicom. While Nintendo’s first serious effort at a home console would eventually spread worldwide, the SG-1000 stayed primarily in Japan and Taiwan, with systems also released in Australia and New Zealand. Not surprisingly, the system didn’t do well. It’s worth mentioning that early Sega mascot franchise Wonder Boy made an appearance here, as well as titles like Girl’s Garden, Bomb Jack, and Flicky.
Sega would also release the SC-3000, which was basically the SG-1000 transformed into a computer, and eventually the SG-1000 II, an update to the SG-1000 that didn’t really go anywhere either. Despite this, Sega decided to stay in the console market, which worked out pretty well for everyone.
Release Date: June 1993
Units Sold: 3.8 million (estimated)
The edutainment console Pico by Sega on paper and in terms of specs wasn’t a bad console by any means. In fact, the console was very well received in its native country of Japan. The unit sold millions and some 400 games were made for the console. There’s even a successor exclusive to Japan called the Advanced Pico Beena.
Then the system was released in North America, generating a meager few hundred thousand in sales, before disappearing quietly. A number of titles were launched in the west, but we’re ultimately talking about a range of games made specifically for very small children. That fact alone, coupled with the Pico’s failure in North America, keeps this system down near the bottom of any Sega console ranking. The only reason why it outranks the SG-1000 is because an argument could be made that the Sega Pico was technically more successful in what it set out to do. Even if virtually no one outside of Japan ever played the thing.
There’s not much to really recommend here with the Sega Pico and its place among every Sega console. However, if you’re a diehard retro Sega collector, you’ll be pleased to find that the system and many of its games are pretty cheap.
Release Date: November 21, 1994
Units Sold: 800,000
Nothing on this ranked list has the infamy of Sega’s baffling, comically shortsighted and arrogant 32X. Functioning as an add-on that would be attached to your Sega Genesis, the 32X was in a vacuum designed to carry Genesis players along to the thrilling, upcoming world of 32-bit gaming. The system saw some pretty good titles released during its short lifespan, including Star Wars Arcade, Metal Head, and Mortal Kombat II.
That’s fine, but the problem with that was Sega also releasing its real 32-bit console the Sega Saturn in the same year. Sega even decided it would be wise to release the 32X just one month after the Saturn in Japan. In the U.S., the 32X had five months to exist on its own, before it would be effectively replaced by the Saturn’s U.S. release.
The 32X in of itself wasn’t a bad idea, released to good reviews in November 1994, but developers wondered the point of making games for it when Sega was just going to throw everything behind the Saturn in a few months anyway. They were right to avoid making games for the 32X, and those who did more often than not barely made an effort to take advantage of what the attachment could genuinely do.
The system sold poorly, given what it promised, saw only 40 games ever released, and was being sold for $19.95 by the middle of 1995.
6. Game Gear
Release Date: October 6, 1990
Units Sold: 10.62 million
The Sega Game Gear came to us in 1990 and wasn’t perfect by any means. While its handheld rival, the Game Boy, had issues like no backlight and ravenous battery consumption, at least its sprites were a little more defined.
The Game Gear was also a fiend for batteries, but it did benefit greatly from at least two essential features. It offered players a chance to enjoy their favorite Sega games on the go, and it all came in brilliant color. Sega emphasized this during the deeply entertaining, existentially terrifying era in which the company and Nintendo would lob vicious insults at one another with surrealist nightmare TV commercials. The 90s were a weird time.
While nearly 400 games were made for the Game Gear over its lifespan, the system received middling third-party support where it really counted, leaving Sega responsible for most of its best games. That’s a sizable list, including several very good Sonic the Hedgehog games, Defenders of Oasis, Ristar, and Streets of Rage 2. It just wasn’t enough to definitively overtake Nintendo’s Game Boy, and the system was largely abandoned by Sega by the mid-90s.
The Game Gear was a relative success for Sega, but it’s tempting to wish Sega had done more with it.
5. Master System
Release Date: October 20, 1985
Units Sold: 10-13 million (estimated)
The first Sega console that people generally remember, the Sega Master System waged war more directly against Nintendo. Unfortunately, by 1985, Nintendo was largely in control of the market, leaving the home console to struggle in Japan, North America, and elsewhere. The system at least performed well enough that Sega continued the fight with the Genesis by the end of the 80s. The Sega Master System would prove to be a respectable 8-bit system, but we’re not quite in the range of true brilliance for Sega just yet.
The Master System may not have surpassed Nintendo, but they did outsell Atari, and, through a poor marketing agreement with Tonka, managed to move enough consoles to justify trying again. The Sega Master System saw some great games, including Alex Kidd in the Miracle World, a pair of excellent Disney platformers with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the original Phantasy Star, and a surprisingly fun Sonic the Hedgehog released at the end of the console’s life. It’s a shame the console didn’t get a little more attention.
There’s a fascinating piece of Sega history to be enjoyed with the Master System, which was technically more powerful under the hood than the NES, and also received a cheaper iterations, the Mark II, in its later years. However, Sega would need a stronger, more aggressive identity to become a serious threat to Nintendo’s dominance.
4. Sega CD
Release Date: December 12, 1991
Units Sold: 2.24 million
While the Sega CD wasn’t as bizarre a business decision as the 32X, the system nonetheless never quite found success with consumers.
Released in Japan in 1991 and in North America in 1992, the system promised not only a slew of CD-based games, a media format quickly asserting itself as the future of the industry, but also enhanced support for certain cartridge-based games, as well. Early reviews were good, but the system suffered in sales from both a high price tag and increasingly stiff competition from other companies getting into the home console market via CD technology.
Yet while the system didn’t prove to be as successful as Sega might have hoped, there’s a lot about this add-on to the Sega Genesis that’s worth celebrating. Some truly good games were released for the system during its rocky run, including Lunar: Silver Star Story, Snatcher, Final Fight CD, Sonic CD, Lords of Thunder, and Popful Mail: Magical Fantasy Adventure.
When looking through the catalog of games released for the system, also known as the Sega Mega-CD, it’s another instance of being frustrated at what could’ve been. Within two years, it was an afterthought to many, and by the middle of the decade it was just another system Sega abandoned for their next big thing. The Sega CD, in hindsight, deserved better.
Release Date: November 27, 1998
Units Sold: 9.13 million
Sega’s last major console is a tragic story indeed. Seeming to fire on all cylinders for the first time in a long time, the Sega Dreamcast was Sega’s entry into the sixth generation of video game consoles. In fact, it was the first, beating the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube to market. Launch games included strong titles like Sonic Adventure, Blue Stinger, and Ready 2 Rumble Boxing, with several promising games on the way shortly after that. Sega marketed the system aggressively, and fans and critics alike seemed to agree that Sega was in its best form in ages.
The Dreamcast was a 128-bit marvel that promised to revolutionize the way you played video games, and while it was a fantastic system across the board, Sony’s dominance with the PS1 was just too great. It just didn’t really matter how good the Dreamcast actually was, at the end of the day. It also didn’t help that Sega’s new console was extremely expensive, with third party developers complaining early on that it was a pain to make games for it.
By the time the PS2 was released by Sony and the Xbox came along from newcomer Microsoft, on top of the Nintendo GameCube, there just wasn’t any more attention to go around.
The Dreamcast is still a laudable effort by Sega and featured some of the most influential games ever made, even if the system was done for in just a couple of years.
Release Date: November 22, 1994
Units Sold: 9.26 million
It’s hard not to shed a tear for the Saturn, Sega’s true effort at a successful 32-bit home console. While the console was another failure for Sega in the west, it was indeed quite popular with Japanese players.
The Saturn even outsold the N64 in Japan, but with a system that was once again difficult to program for, and the dizzying momentum the Sony PlayStation was building up, the system never hit its full potential. For North American gamers alone, the fact that the overwhelming majority of Sega Saturn releases were exclusive to Japan didn’t help a market still trying to make sense of the 32X. The Sega Saturn deserved better than mismanagement and other woes.
When you talk about the best games for the Sega Saturn, you’re talking about some of the best games in the history of Sega’s entire run with home consoles. Even if you cut out the games that never left Japan (and there’s several classics in that category alone), you’re left with NiGHTS Into Dreams, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Shining Force III, Virtua Fighter 2, Burning Rangers and many more.
Don’t let sales fool you into thinking this isn’t one of the best consoles of the 90s. The Sega Saturn didn’t fail because of lousy games or a poorly designed system.
Release Date: October 29, 1988
Units Sold: 30.75 million
The Genesis (also known as the Mega Drive outside of the United States) put Nintendo on notice, even helping Sega to briefly surpass their rivals. The system gave us the now legendary Sonic the Hedgehog and a host of other iconic Sega characters. It was in every possible way a formidable home video game system, but it was also an uphill battle for not only the Genesis, which was not the first 16-bit system released (that was the PC Engine from NEC), but for Sega as a whole.
Released in 1988 in Japan and in U.S. markets by 1989 (it wouldn’t get to Europe and elsewhere until a little after that), the system made a strong impression on U.S. gamers quickly. While the system did well for itself in its home country, the Genesis would prove to be the wedge Sega needed to get their foot in the door with North American consumers, which was ultimately where the company saw their greatest potential success. Sega positioned the Genesis as a cooler and edgier alternative to the family friendly fare of Nintendo, and for a time, it worked beautifully.
The Sega Genesis saw dozens of good-to-great games released in its lifetime. Several of those, including Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Streets of Rage 2, Phantasy Star IV, incredible Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat ports, Shinobi III, are considered to be some of the best 16-bit games ever made.
The Genesis would be the one time Sega could line up their formidable console effort with a massive audience. That alone makes it the best console that Sega ever released.
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