Note: Originally published on 08/01/2019 00:00. I'm bumping this in honor of the release of the Genesis Mini on (09/19/19).
This August, the Mega Drive celebrates its 30th birthday in North America and at this point, its trajectory is well documented. But its relationship with Brazil is special. Not only it was never discontinued, but it also played a leading role in defining the videogame market as we know today. The console may have been born in Japan, but its home was, and will always be Brazil. Here’s how it all happened.
The story begins with a company whom my readers (man that sounds so fancy) will probably remember from the Zeebo blog: TecToy. Founded in 1987 with the goal of exploring the (at the time) untapped market of cutting edge toys, their very first product was a commercial success and the foundation of their relationship with SEGA: the Zillion pistol, a laser tag toy based on the anime of the same name. It was also inspired by the Master System Light Phaser, which makes sense since the anime was developed in a partnership between SEGA and Tatsunoko Production. No one had ever seen a toy like that before and the success of the anime itself over here in Brazil boosted sales tremendously.
A year later, TecToy was trying to acquire the rights to produce the Master System over these parts. But there was a problem: a rival by the name of Gradiente. They are a big company in the electronics market, making everything from TVs to sound players. It’s important to note that at the time, SEGA was still a relatively small company, and Tonka’s failure in selling the Master System in the USA left them wary of making businesses overseas. Ultimately, TecToy won, because TecToy’s president convinced SEGA that their games would be the primary focus, instead of something to supplement profits. This really resonated with SEGA and they decided to take this gamble. As for Gradiente, they would later distribute Nintendo consoles for the next ten years (something I failed to mention in the Zeebo article. Whoops!) and with the deal sealed, TecToy got to work. And that gamble paid off big.
The Master System was another hit, and since its release sold five million units in Brazil alone and it was only discontinued in 2018, to be replaced by the Master System Plug and Play. The reason for that everlasting success was TecToy’s heavy investment on the product: they wanted their consumers to live the console, not just consume it. Starting with a two million dollar marketing campaign lasting four months—all the way up to Christmas— the Master was showcased to us as the future of entertainment, with the Light Phaser and 3D Glasses heavily featured, although that last one I’ve never seen outside of museums. And to achieve that goal TecToy created all sorts of services. There was the Hot Line, that was basically that scene from The Wizard where the kid calls asking for help on how to beat Super Mario (I think it was Super Mario? I don’t remember the movie very well). The service was cheap too, so kids could make a lot of calls, much to the displeasure of their parents. There was also the Master Club—where you would receive tips, tricks and see the current record holders of various games, all by mail—that would guarantee you’d be the kid with the coolest knowledge in the schoolyard. And if you didn’t want to call, there was also the Master Tips, a short program dedicated to tips and tricks for various games, that aired during the commercial breaks for a kids show. Funny enough, some people recorded the show in VHS, a testament to their popularity. The Master wasn’t the first console to arrive in Brazil— we had bootleg versions of the Atari for example— but it was the one that showed to us what gaming really was all about.
With that established base, my country was in a privileged position: we had an official console being produced locally, sold at an accessible price, with full support and we even got simultaneous game releases! For a third world country in the 90’s, this was huge! Its only real “competition” was bootleg or pirated versions of the NES. And with that strong presence, in December 1990, the Mega Drive arrived.
And it did so with a bang.
Third verse, same as the first! The Mega Drive built upon everything the Master System had established and went on to become an instant classic. This time, besides the marketing, the console came with the advantage of being able to play the Master System library with the aid of an adaptor—making the transition as natural as possible— the Master Club and Master Tips became the SEGA Club and SEGA Tips respectively and continued to be popular services. It was at this time that TecToy doubled down on its efforts to really appeal to the Brazilian gamer, and this is where the magic really starts.
Most people take localization for granted these days. It isn’t always the case (Looking at you, Ace Attorney Investigations 2) but in Brazil, it was TecToy that really got the ball rolling. But rather than trying to localize every single game out there, they chose to focus on some very specific titles. For example, Sonic doesn’t need to be in Portuguese to work. We know to go right, go fast and jump on anything that moves. RPGs are a different story. They live and die by the quality of their writing first and foremost, and since the majority of kids had zero understanding of the English language, the genre wasn’t exactly popular in Brazil. So when the Phantasy Star series arrived fully localized for us (with the exception of IV), minds were blown and suddenly the RPG genre was on the radar. Shining In The Darkness was another notable translation and so were two Carmen Sandiego games. And following the success of the anime we got Yu Yu Hakusho Sunset Fighters, a game only ever released here and in Japan.
But that was just the start. TecToy would then partner up with several other companies to bring versions of their games that appealed to our market, mostly by making some changes in sprites and plot. For example, Wonder Boy In Monster Land became Monica no Castelo do Dragão (Monica in The Dragon’s Castle), starring the titular character Monica from the Monica’s Gang comics, and a version of Ghost House starring Chapulin Colorado (or the Red Grasshopper, as he is known in English) called Chapulin x Dracula - Um Duelo Assutador (A Scary Duel in free translation), based on the TV show of the same name that, to this day, is hugely popular in Brazil.
From those partnerships also came two very peculiar ports: Street Fighter II for the Master System and Duke Nukem 3D for the Mega Drive. No seriously. They weren’t that fancy looking and didn’t play that great, but the fact they pulled it off is an achievement in and of itself! They also ended up developing a game based on the Woodpecker called Ferias Frustradas do Pica-Pau (Woodpecker’s Frustrated Vacation) because wouldn’t you know, he was also hugely popular in Brazil. Probably because of the laugh or the fact he always tries to screw over someone, but who knows for sure. Last but certainly not least, they also suggested many games to SEGA, but the only one to ever see the light of the day was Ayrton Senna’s Super Monaco GP II, and to be honest I’m okay with that. It wasn’t as popular as Top Gear for example, but it was still a great game and it was actually popular with the Japanese.
With all of that, by the time Gradiente brought the SNES to Brazil in 1993, it was too late. Pirated or bootleg versions of the NES were too prevalent and the very established following the Mega Drive acquired made damn sure that Nintendo would play catch up for the remainder of the 90’s, a period that ended with TecToy owning 80% of the console market, making Brazil one of the countries where SEGA won that war.
The partnership with SEGA continued. TecToy had their full blessing to keep producing and selling their consoles and games, including the Game Gear (the first-ever portable console produced in national land) and the 32X, that failed here too. Because of that blessing, TecToy was able to apply some of that lovely Brazilian ingenuity to their products, a lot of which SEGA didn’t really like. For example, our Master System was modified to have an internal power source, something that the higher-ups at Sega never really approved but never actually said “hey stop that” either. And I can’t forget the Master System Compact, a version of the console that used RF waves to connect to a TV and was exclusively released in Brazil. And that wouldn’t be the only exclusivity we would get
Our version of the Mega Drive II was actually the original Mega Drive bundled with Sonic 1 so that doesn’t really count. Later in ‘93, we got the actual Mega Drive II under the name of Mega Drive III because I guess we’re using the Final Fantasy naming convention now. This one has the biggest number of versions since it came bundled with different games (Sonic 2, Mortal Kombat 3, Virtua Racing, just to name a few) making for a total of 10 editions.
When the Saturn was released in 1995, the Mega Drive was discontinued in Japan. But TecToy had no reason to drop a console so beloved and with such an established base. So they never did. Starting that year, the console was repacked and re-released as an alternative to the next generation that was just starting. Make no mistake, these versions aren’t emulators, these are legitimate, SEGA endorsed consoles that, while different in design, still used parts and circuits from the original. The result was the Super Mega Drive 3 and boy did we get a lot of them! They were still compatible with cartridges and the numerous versions came with an ever-increasing amount of games in the memory with the last of them having 71 games! The most notable edition was released in 2001 and had a new game: the Show Do Milhão, a game based on our version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Unfortunately, this version would be the last one fabricated with original hardware, since the components were no longer fabricated since ‘95.
And it would be remiss of me not to mention that TecToy brought to us the Sega Meganet service! For those who don’t know, this was a special cartridge that had a cable you connected to the phone line, allowing for internet usage. You could send email, faxes and read TecToys news blog, all for the low low price of 5 Reais (2 dollars today, give or take) every month. The Meganet 2 was even better, as it had an entrance for cartridges on top (think the Sonic & Knuckles Lock-On Technology) allowing for online play! Imagine that in ‘96! Truly, a technology ahead of its time.
The many versions of the Super Mega 3 lasted until 2007 when it was released the Mega Drive Portable. It came with 20 games and that was it: no way to run cartridges or add new games through an SD card—that came later, in 2009 with the MD Play. In 2008, came the Mega Drive 3, yes with a non-roman number, I checked. This bad boy packed 81 games but no cartridge slot, and came with a marker pen to paint the console? Strange choice. But even stranger was the second edition: a pretty significant redesign, this edition could stand up (similar to the Wii), also didn’t have a cartridge slot, came with 86 games, including mobile versions of EA titles such as The Sims 2 and FIFA 08. This version is weird, yes, and dear Lord did people hated this glorified cellphone.
We’re not done yet Snake! In 2009 there was also the Mega Drive 4! With yet another redesign, this edition came in two versions: one with 87 games and the other with a 100, but its big selling point was Guitar Idol—an obvious spin on Guitar Hero, with more than 50 songs that included both national and international hits. And yes, the console comes bundled with a plastic guitar for maximum immersion.
Finally, this long journey brings us to 2017, when for all intents and purposes, the Mega Drive was resurrected. TecToy released a version that in my eyes, it’s almost definitive. It rocks the classic Japanese design, comes with 22 games in the memory, an SD slot for adding games (that you can do from the comfort of the internet) and a cartridge slot. Where this version differs from something like the SNES Classic, for example, is that this isn’t emulation: sure the inner workings aren’t identical to those of 30 years ago—thanks to the fact most of those pieces aren’t fabricated anymore— but the integrated circuits are similar to the original and with some exceptions, as long as the cartridge slot fits, you can play your games no problem. And even then, you have the SD slot. Really my only nitpick is that it has no HDMI connection, a deliberate choice to keep the price as low as possible and the fact that it doesn’t run some games like the Virtua series.
I don’t think anyone can dispute the legacy the Mega Drive left. It was the console that really kicked off the 16-bit era, it challenged Nintendo’s rule, it showed the world how innovative Sega can be, it gave us the first global launch ever and in Brazil, raised and still raises generations of videogame fans. Hell, in 2012, the Mega and Master combined sold as much as the PS4 in Brazil. Like soccer or the Carnival, it’s an inseparable part of our culture, and if the past is any indication, it will probably outlive us all.
With the Mega Drive Mini looming on the horizon, there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be loved by a new generation, and I sincerely hope they have as much fun discovering its wonders as we did. Although it’s still in the air if TecToy will bring us the Mini, I’d argue we don’t really need it. For us, the Mega Drive never left, 30 years later, its story is still being written, right here in Brazil.
So here’s to 30 more. Long live the king!