GameCentral reviews all 42 games on the Sega Mega Drive Mini and celebrates what is an almost perfect retro mini console.
With streaming set to go mainstream in the next few years there’s increasing doubt as to how long the concept of a video games console – in the sense of a slab of black plastic that sits under your TV — is going to last. But no matter if there are a hundred more generations to come or just one, there will never be a greater console rivalry than between the Mega Drive and the SNES.
Perhaps because there were no grown-ups then to mediate the issue, the arguments over which was best, Sega or Nintendo, were always the most entertaining and the most heated. And they were that way because the simple answer was that both were great systems, offering different enough experiences, and exclusive games, that passionate defences could be made in either’s favour.
In terms of worldwide sales, the clear winner was the SNES, at 49.10 million consoles sold to 30.75 million (plus a few million licensed variants), but in the UK it was Sega that came out on top. The console was so successful that it compounded the limited impact of the original NES and has ensured the UK has remained Nintendo’s weakest major global market ever since.
Sega themselves were never able to take advantage of that fact though, first stumbling into abject failure with the Saturn and then only briefly redeeming themselves with the commercially unsuccessful Dreamcast. And so the Mega Drive stands as their greatest achievement and this mini version, finally, is the tribute it has long deserved.
The Mega Drive Mini is Sega’s answer to the Classic Mini NES and SNES, Nintendo’s extremely successful plug ‘n’ play retro consoles. There have been numerous licensed versions of the Mega Drive before, including portable variants, but this is the first one to be made by Sega themselves, with software emulation by the masters at developer M2. Instead of the usual half-assed effort, that has characterised almost every recent attempt to capitalise on Sega’s glory days, this is the House of Sonic at their very best.
If you’ve seen any other retro mini console (there’s also the disappointing PlayStation Classic, the very promising PC Engine Mini, and various attempts to bring back the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64) then the Mega Drive Mini will be a very familiar concept. It’s just over half the size of the original, so fits in the palm of your hand, but still uses two full-size three-button controllers. You get two included in the package, which is great, or you can buy the Street Fighter-inspired six-button ones separately.
Switching the console on though, there’s a surprising lack of options considering M2 are involved. The emulation is top notch but apart from choosing widescreen or switching on a (rather over-the-top) CRT filter the only other thing you can change is the wallpaper. Each game gets four save slots, so there’s no having to go back to the beginning if you die, but unfortunately there’s no Nintendo style rewind option.
What we only realised a few days ago though is that you can actually switch to the Japanese versions of the games, which can have a fairly major effect on some games – particularly in terms of difficulty. This is achieved by changing the language option but unfortunately that also changes the menus so they’re no longer in English. Even the box art changes on the main menu and we suspect there’s a way to change to the American Genesis versions too, but we’ve no idea how as it’s all an undocumented feature.
Nothing that’s missing from the Mega Drive Mini is a deal-breaking and it’s almost all forgiven just to listen to the glorious menu music, which is a whole new composition by Streets Of Rage maestro Yuzo Koshiro, created using an original Mega Drive sound chip.
That’s a wonderful touch and something we would’ve liked to have seen more of, but the most important thing is that the selection of games is on point. We’ll go over the highlights below but while it’s easy to think of more you would’ve liked to have seen included it’s a very well curated line-up, by someone that obviously knew what they were doing (and no, we’ve no idea why Sonic 3 isn’t there, although it may be something do with Michael Jackson’s alleged involvement in the soundtrack – needless to say Moonwalker also isn’t one of the games included).
Despite a few loose threads the Mega Drive Mini is a must-have for every Sega fan and one of the very best retro consoles so far. It’s so good, in fact, that we can only hope it’s a sign that Sega is finally starting to take its glorious history seriously again. But even if this is just a one off it’s still a perfect homage to the golden age of one of gaming’s most beloved companies.
Sega Mega Drive Mini price and release date
The Mega Drive Mini is released in Europe on 4 October. It came out in America and Japan on 19 September but you really don’t want to import it because, apart from anything else, the American one is called a Sega Genesis Mini (Sega couldn’t get the rights to the Mega Drive name, back in the day).
The UK price for the Mega Drive Mini is £69.99, for which you get the console, two full-size controllers, a USB power cable, and a HDMI cable. Which is very good value considering the build quality and the number of games.
The six-button controllers are sold separately for £17.99 each, which is also surprisingly non-cash grabby.
Sega Mega Drive Mini: The Games
Altered Beast (Sega – 1988*)
One of the reasons the Mega Drive is so beloved is because it came out at a time when Sega was also pumping out classic after classic in the arcades, almost all of which were later turned into home games. Altered Beast was always shallow, even by scrolling beat ‘em-up standards, but that it looked so similar to the arcade version made it an early killer app.
Space Harrier II (Sega – 1988)
Another benefit of Sega’s arcade division was that they could make console-only sequels to famous arcade games without needing to license the name from anyone else. Like Altered Beast this was a launch title and, like Altered Beat, it’s incredibly shallow, but the on-rails shooting and impressively large 2D sprites were still a selling point.
Alex Kidd In The Enchanted Castle (Sega – 1989)
It’s largely forgotten nowadays but Alex Kidd was Sega’s original pre-Sonic mascot. But despite some much-loved games on the Master System the one and only Mega Drive game was a great disappointment. Slippery controls, uninspired level design, and an irritating rock, paper, scissors mini-game makes it one of the weakest games on the Mini.
Golden Axe (Sega – 1989)
Another iconic Sega scrolling beat ‘em-up, but there was always a little more meat on Golden Axe’s bones compared to other similar games and it’s still a surprise they’ve never managed to figure out a way to update it for the modern era. The Mega Drive version struggles to recapture the full scope of the arcade visuals but it’s still good dumb fun with a friend.
Ghouls ‘N Ghosts (Capcom – 1989)
SNES game Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts is usually the best remembered of the various variants, but the Mega Drive version is much closer to the arcade original and essentially a different game. It illustrates the differences in technical capabilities between the two consoles, with a vastly inferior soundtrack on Sega’s console, but it’s still a fun, if extremely difficult, action platformer.
Thunder Force III (Sega – 1990)
Although it was rare, Sega sometimes even turned its console games into arcade machines, as was the fate of this much-loved entry in the 2D shooter series. Apart from Sonic, most of Sega’s franchises only get one rep on the Mega Drive Mini but they’re usually well chosen and Thunder Force III is still a lot of fun today.
Columns (Sega – 1990)
With Tetris mania in full force during the late 80s Sega was able to come up with a viable puzzle alternative in Columns, a game that has been copied far more times than Tetris itself – largely because the rules are more malleable and the presentation is bland enough that others have been able to change the visuals and actually improve the experience.
Castle Of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (Sega – 1990)
If you were arguing about SNES vs. Mega Drive graphics back in the day this was often exhibit A, with visuals and art design that many considered superior to Super Mario World. It was hard to argue the gameplay was as good, but it was certainly no slouch and remained one of the Mega Drive’s best platformers for its entire lifetime.
Strider (Capcom – 1990)
It wasn’t just Sega arcade conversions that were the lifeblood of the Mega Drive, many of its best games were also originally coin-ops from other hardware manufacturers. Strider was seldom seen in UK arcades but the home version was everywhere, with its wonderfully imaginative mix of Soviet-influenced sci-fi and ninja style action.
Sonic The Hedgehog (Sega – 1991)
The most important video game Sega has ever made and the one without which the Mega Drive would never have succeeded. Like all truly classic games it’s just as playable now as it ever was, with its crisp art design remaining just as appealing. What also impresses is that while Sega were clearly trying to create their own Mario the two franchises play nothing alike and Sonic remains as uniquely imaginative now as it ever did.
ToeJam & Earl (Sega – 1991)
Although it’s usually thought of as a Sega classic, ToeJam & Earl is usually missing from retro compilations because Sega only acted as publisher and don’t own the rights to the characters. Thankfully a deal was struck for the Mega Drive Mini and now you can experience the weird, almost roguelike, action once again, in what is one of the most 90s video games ever made – from the soundtrack to the artwork to the hip hop aliens.
Wonder Boy In Monster World (Sega – 1991)
Although most of these franchises haven’t been touched in years Wonder Boy has recently had both a remake and an official sequel. This isn’t the best entry in the series but it’s more than just a straight action game, but while you do keep wanting for it to veer more into the Metroidvania style territory it keeps skating so close to it never fully commits.
Alisia Dragoon (Sega/Game Arts – 1992)
One of the most obscure inclusions on the Mega Drive Mini, the only obvious reason for its presence is that it’s actually a greatly underrated action platformer, as you make use of lightning powers and various pet dragons. It’s also a rare early example of a female video protagonist, although it’s interesting to note the differences in the Japanese and Western box artwork…
Kid Chameleon (Sega – 1992)
Another game that’s so 90s it almost feels like a time capsule, but the problem with Kid Chameleon is that it had a great premise that it never really delivers on. By using a variety of magical masks you can transform into different characters with different abilities, hence the name, but none of them seem to make as much difference as you’d hope and you quickly lose interest.
Super Fantasy Zone (Sega – 1992)
The Opa-Opa spaceship was also an occasional Sega mascot in the early days, although this was the last entry in the Fantasy Zone series and for some reason was never released in America. It’s a 2D shooter more similar to Defender than traditional Japanese shooters, in that you’re flying around a wrapround area rather than a linear level. But despite that novelty it’s a rather dry and unexciting shooter.
Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (Sega – 1992)
Another milestone release for Sega and Sonic, marking what is arguably the peak of the Mega Drive’s fame and influence. It also happens to be a really good sequel that expands upon the original in terms of scope, characters, and features. The more streamlined original still stands up the best but they didn’t rename a day of the week after the sequel for nothing.
Ecco The Dolphin (Sega – 1992)
Probably the one game that benefits the most from all the save slots, as despite having a non-violent premise, and appealing to more than just the usual teenage boy audience, for some reason Hungarian developer Novotrade decided to make it even harder than was normal at the time. It’s a shame because it’s a fun premise and an interesting game.
Road Rash II (EA – 1992)
EA don’t involve usually themselves with mini consoles, so this is quite the get for the Mega Drive Mini, even if the old motorbike combat feels even more shallow and clunky now than it did at the time. It’s a pity EA couldn’t provide any sports games, like the first ever FIFA, but that’s probably due to licensing issues. You’d think they could’ve managed Desert Strike though.
World Of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse And Donald Duck (Sega – 1992)
Sega probably got this as a job lot with Castle Of Illusion and while it is an even better looking game, with some of the finest animation on the Mega Drive, it’s a considerably less interesting platformer and easy to the point of being boring. Although things do perk up if you’re playing in co-op.
Streets Of Rage II (Sega – 1992)
Like Wonder Boy, Streets Of Rage is actually getting an official sequel, with an amazing-sounding soundtrack by several of the best musicians of the time. For now though this is the pinnacle of the series and arguably the best scrolling beat ‘em-up ever made. It certainly has the best music of any Mega Drive game and is one of the main reasons to make use of the second controller.
Shining Force (Sega – 1992)
Although extremely popular in the West the Mega Drive’s real problem was that it never caught on as a much in Japan and that was primarily due to the lack of role-playing games. You certainly won’t find many here and while Shinning Force is a genuine classic it’s more of a strategy role-player akin to Fire Emblem, so doesn’t quite scratch the same itch as Final Fantasy et al.
Gunstar Heroes (Sega – 1993)
Although largely ignored at the time, Treasure’s superb 2D shooter is now regarded as a cast iron classic and one of the best 2D games of all time. It pushes the Mega Drive to its technical limits, with constantly changing level designs and several of the best boss encounters gaming has ever seen. It’s just a shame Treasure were never able to capitalise on it with any of the attempts at a follow-up.
Shinobi III (Sega – 1993)
We would’ve said predecessor The Revenge of Shinobi was the more iconic entry in the series, but this is another core Sega franchise that has been all but forgotten in the modern era. Each new Shinobi game built on the simple action platformer gameplay of the arcade original, adding more magic, moves, and over-the-top enemies; although none of them featured any real stealth.
Landstalker (Sega – 1993)
The Mega Drive played host to several attempts at a Zelda clone but while this is often described as such that does it a disservice. It’s also not really a role-playing game though, but a fairly unique action adventure whose isometric visuals and mix of platforming and simple combat suggests a more action-orientated take on older 8-bit titles like Knight Lore.
Street Fighter II’ Special Champion Edition (Capcom – 1993)
Although the SNES is always thought of as the home of Street Fighter II the Mega Drive had a perfectly good version of the game itself, although it was delayed to include content from Street Fighter II Turbo and new Hyper mode speed settings. It’s the main reason the six-button controller was created back in the day, and the main reason you’d want one now.
Sonic Spinball (Sega – 1993)
Unlike today, a lot of the initial wave of Sonic The Hedgehog spin-offs were actually pretty interesting, with this pinball game being an obvious idea for expanding the franchise. The flaws are easier to see with hindsight though, with too few levels, awkward controls, sub-par graphics, and very unconvincing pinball physics.
Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (Sega – 1993)
For some the mere fact that this refers to Sonic’s nemesis as Dr. Robotnik, rather than the modern insistence on Eggman, will be the most nostalgic thing on the console. It’s essentially a rebranded Puyo Puyo, a puzzle game similar to Columns but with a more appealing Sonic The Hedgehog sheen.
Eternal Champions (Sega – 1993)
In the 90s every publisher wanted their own beat ‘em-up series to rival Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, with the latter becoming a particularly popular title as many assumed they could just copy the gore and hide the fact that the combat wasn’t up to par. Eternal Champions was always one of the better copies but it has little to offer today.
Phantasy Star IV (Sega – 1993)
Although it’s known nowadays only for Phantasy Star Online, the franchise actually began as a more traditional Japanese role-playing game, albeit with an unusual sci-fi setting. It was Sega’s big attempt to create its own major role-playing franchise and deserved to be more successful than it was, especially given how good this final numbered entry is.
Castlevania: The New Generation (Konami – 1994)
Known as Castlevania: Bloodlines elsewhere in the world this was the only entry released on the Mega Drive and is not a Metroidvania. Instead it’s a straight action platformer like Super Castlevania IV, but with a unique story and some very impressive graphical effects for the Mega Drive – as well as an equally good soundtrack.
Dynamite Headdy (Sega – 1994)
One of three Treasure games on the Mega Drive Mini, along with Gunstar Heroes, this has similarities with Kid Chameleon, in that you’re playing as a character with a detachable head that can use it to hit enemies or hook onto platforms. You can also find new craniums to give you a range of power-ups, allowing for an impressive amount of variety and innovation in typical Treasure style.
Mega Man: The Wily Wars (Capcom – 1994)
The Blue Bomber has never been very popular in Europe, but in America the inclusion of this rare remake compilation was treated with some excitement, as it contains 16-bit remakes of the first three Mega Man NES games. That does mean it’s only likely to be of interest to existing fans but technically it also increases the Mega Drive Mini’s game count from 42 to 44.
Earthworm Jim (Interplay – 1994)
As well as Mortal Kombat clones the Mega Drive was also inundated with platform games trying to turn their characters in major mascots. Earthworm Jim, with his own TV show, was one of the most successful and certainly had the best graphics, with some superb animation and a keen sense of humour – although the gameplay itself was a little shallow.
Probotector (Konami – 1994)
Better known to the world as Contra: Hard Corps, the whole Contra series was censored and sanitised in Europe so that it featured robots instead of human protagonists. That means it’s much better to play the Japanese version of what is genuinely one of the best entries in the famous run ‘n’ gun series, not least because it downgrades the vicious difficulty of the U.S. edition.
The Story Of Thor (Sega – 1994)
Unlike Landstalker this was a much more blatant attempt to create a Mega Drive equivalent to The Legend Of Zelda, although it arrived a bit late in the day to make any real impact and was, inevitably, nowhere near as involved as Nintendo’s classic. Known as Beyond Oasis in the U.S., it’s still a good game though and certainly bears comparison with Secret Of Mana at least.
Light Crusader (Sega – 1994)
The final Treasure game on the console is a curious inclusion as it’s not normally considered one of their best and is very similar to Landstalker and The Story Of Thor. It’s interesting to see Treasure tackling something that’s closer to being a role-playing game, but it’s obvious why they mostly kept to straight action games afterwards.
Monster World IV (Sega – 1994)
The final Wonder Boy game to be published by Sega, this was only ever released in Japan so is another welcome curio for the Mega Drive Mini. As with the other Monster World games it’s an interesting mix of platformer and role-player and it now seems a shame the games were ever associated with Wonder Boy as that’s probably been the main reason they’ve been forgotten until recently.
Comix Zone (Sega – 1995)
By the mid-90s the graphics on the Mega Drive were a world away from many of the launch titles, with this not only looking great in it is own right but featuring a clever use of comic book style panels that you could break through as you fight. Unfortunately though it was never as interesting to play as it was to look at.
Vectorman (Sega – 1995)
Even more so than Comix Zone, Vectorman is more tech demo than game, although it’s still a reasonably entertaining platformer. It may seem unlikely today but the pre-rendered 3D models that the various characters are made out of were state-of-the-art at the time and a response to the highly successful Donkey Kong Country series on the SNES.
Virtua Fighter 2 (Sega – 1996)
Many might not even have realised that Virtua Fighter 2 was released on the Mega Drive at all, given its inability to display 3D graphics. Turning everyone into 2D sprites works better than you’d think but it still misses the whole point of the original coin-op. Especially given the Saturn version, which came out the year before, was actually very good.
Just as the Classic Mini SNES includes the unreleased Star Fox 2, the Sega Mega Drive Mini has its own holy grail of retro collecting: the Mega Drive version of Tetris. After being caught up in a legal battle over who owned the rights only a handful of cartridges were ever made and go for a literal fortune on the collector’s market. But now it’s just another game in the Mega Drive Mini collection and… it’s really not a very good version of Tetris. But that’s not really the point.
This is an even stranger inclusion than Tetris because there never was a version of 2D shooter Darius on the Mega Drive. What seems to have happened (and we’re not entirely sure because the manual isn’t online yet) is that a fan made their own conversion of the old Taito coin-op and Sega agreed to include it on the mini console. And we’re glad they did because it’s an excellent conversion and would’ve been one of the best 2D shooters on the system if it’d actually come out in the 90s.
*All dates based on original Japanese or American release
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