Updated: Jan 28, 2022
In the last article, we investigated the birth of the Sega company. Now we will look at the console they used to enter the home system market – the Sega SG-1000. Let’s dive in.
Full disclosure: This article was originally going to be about the SEGA Master System, however when researching it I realised that SEGA had made an earlier console which should be covered first. I have not seen or had any hands-on experience with any of the machines in this article so I am reliant on second-hand sources, some of which give conflicting info. Please let me know if there are any inaccuracies and I’ll amend accordingly.
The development of the SC-3000 was prompted by the 1982 downturn in the arcade game business. Hayao Nakayama, president of Sega Enterprises Ltd, pressed for the company to move into the home entertainment market, reasoning that SEGA’s hardware experience would enable them to succeed in the then-nascent market.
Upon receiving the go-ahead, development started on the Sega Personal Computer SC-3000 – SEGA’s first and last attempt at a personal computer. During the SC-3000’s development, SEGA became aware that Nintendo was creating a games console. Not to be outdone, SEGA started work on the SG-1000 (short for Sega Computer Video Game 1000.)
Both the SC-3000 and SG-1000 were released to limited success in the Japanese, Australian, New Zealand, French, Italian and Finnish markets on the 15th of July 1983 – the same day Nintendo launched their Famicom. It was not released in America, the UK or Germany, which may account for its relative obscurity.
Strictly speaking, SEGA only released the SG-1000 in Japan, however it was rebranded for several other markets in a move similar to the one Amstrad would take with the Amstrad CPC 464 microcomputer.
In terms of graphics and sound the SG-1000 was roughly comparable to the earlier ColecoVision, with which it shares its Texas Instruments TMS9918 Video Display Controller, and much of its other internal hardware.
This provides the SG-1000 with a 16 colour pallet, all of which could be displayed on screen at once at a resolution of 256 x 192 pixels, with up to 32 on-screen sprites. Connection to a TV was via an RF cable. As with all RF connections, this somewhat limited the clarity of its on-screen image.
Its CPU was an 8-bit Zilog Z80 running at 3.58 MHZ, comparable to the 8-bit Zilog Z80 running at 3.5 MHz on the ZX Spectrum family of home microcomputers. The CPU of the SC-3000 ran slightly faster, at 4MHz.
This resulted in a console that was underpowered compared to the Famicom. Despite this, it sold reasonably well, with 160,000 consoles sold in 1983, which far surpassed SEGA’s own estimates of circa 50,000 units. Some of this early success was likely due to the size of its game library, which was notably larger than that of the NES. For comparison, by the end of 1983, the NES had nine games, whereas the SG-1000 had 21.
Secondly, as we saw earlier, early Famicom cartridges suffered faults, which Nintendo rectified via a comprehensive product recall. This false start by Nintendo allowed SEGA to get an early foothold in the Japanese market. However, once the Famicom had overcome its teething troubles it soon took the lead, in part due to its more impressive visuals, and partly due to the popularity and fame of titles such as Popeye, Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior.
Although cards had some advantages, such as some of them being rewritable (similar to what we saw earlier with the Famicom Disc System), and all of them being smaller and less expensive to produce, they were hampered by their severely limited storage capacity compared to that of ROM cartridges. For comparison, cards had between 4-32KB of ROM whereas carts had between 16-512KB* of ROM. (NB – some sources quote 128K as the maximum).
As a result, the number of games released on cards – around 30 – was much lower than those on carts, which numbered around 76.
The SG-1000, SG1000 II, SC-3000 and the SC-3000H lacked card slots, as their design predated the cards. However, they could run these games via the Card Catcher peripheral, which plugged into the console via its cartridge slot.
The SG-1000’s Joystick (SJ-200) controller was hardwired to the console and featured a small joystick and two buttons located on either side of the controller. As with other hardwired controllers, if it broke there was no easy way to fix it.
A second joystick controller could be connected via the then ubiquitous 9-pin port, also found on the 8-bit home microcomputers. However, I suspect it differed from the home micros in its implementation, with each button used for separate inputs, obviating the need for ‘up-for-jump’.
(NB – I’m basing this assumption on the later Master System which used a 9-pin connector but had separate ‘jump’ and ‘fire’ buttons. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong)
Later, an extension cable was released that replaced the hard-wired controller. This allowed the use of plug-in controllers.
Allegedly, the SJ-200 was unresponsive and suffered from build quality issues. To rectify this SEGA went on to release the much improved and more conventionally designed SJ-300.
SG-1000 MK II
SEGA released the updated SG-1000MK II in July 1984. Its chip-set remained the same, however, its form factor was changed significantly. The expansion port was moved to the front of the unit for a more convenient connection to the SK-1100 keyboard, and both controllers were now detachable.
The controllers - the SJ-150 and SJ-151 - were radically different from the SJ-200 and resembled the controls of the Nintendo Game and Watch. The D-Pad featured optional screw-in joystick nubs and was just different enough from the Nintendo D-Pad to avoid copyright infringement.
As with the SG-1000, the controllers can be attached to the side of the console for storage. Unfortunately, this means the cable had to project out the side of the controller, which was not ideal ergonomically.
SEGA produced several peripherals for the SG-1000 series. Some were intended to enhance the player's gameplay experience, whilst others sought to increase the console's non-gaming abilities.
Steering Wheels and Bike Handles
The oddly named Handle Controller SH-400 Steering Wheel was designed to be used with racing games, most notably Safari Race and GP World.
The BH-400 SEGA Bike Handle used the same base and was designed for bike bracing games such as Hang-On II.
Keyboards, Printers and Tape Decks
By plugging in the Sega Keyboard SK-1100 via the expansion slot, the SG-1000 and SG-1000 II could be turned into an ersatz SC-3000, although presumably with a slightly slower CPU clock speed than the SC-3000.
Attaching the keyboard enabled the SC-1000/II to use some – but not all – of the programs for the SC-3000. Examples of incompatible programs were the BASIC carts. To remedy this SEGA created the BASIC SK-III cart, designed to be used with the SK-1100.
A four colour printer and the Data Recorder SR-1000 could also be attached. The latter - when used with the keyboard - would enable the SC-1000/II to run software released on cassette tape. It is unclear if this was ever used for gaming.
Gaming on the SC-1000 Series
Since the SC-1000 series shared much of its internal hardware with the ColecoVision, it played similarly. The games were generally simplistic, arcade-like and the platform lacked any ‘big name games’ or a true 'killer app'.
This was in part due to Nintendo’s insistence on platform exclusivity, which tied many publishers and developers to the Famicom, and later to the NES. To ensure the SG-1000 series had a plentiful library of games, SEGA made many in-house, the quality of which was allegedly somewhat varied.
That said, one of the platform’s standout games - Girls’ Garden - was created in house by Yuji Naka, who would go on to create SEGA’s mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog.
All 80 SG-1000 Games
Video by Virtual Gaming Library - VGL
I have heard it said that SEGA refused to work with developers that were direct competitors in the arcades. If true, this would explain the relative lack of arcade conversions on the platform. It has also been said that earlier games had English translations, however, later titles did not due to the system’s lack of success in most English speaking markets.
The last game released via cart was 1987’s Portrait of Loretta. The last game released via Sega My Card was The Black Onyx, released in the same year. In the end, the relatively underpowered SG-1000 series could not compete with the Famicom, NES or Famicom Disk System. These platforms were more powerful systems that went on to have a larger and qualitatively better library of highly recognisable ‘big name’ games.
Although the SG-1000 saw only limited success in Japan, and was not released at all in much of the western markets, its success emboldened SEGA to press forwards in the console business. The lessons learnt from the SG-1000 series would be put to good use when SEGA released their next console, the considerably more powerful, and far more successful SEGA MK III, the topic of the next article. See you all there.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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