Mega Drive, Genesis, Nomad, they’re all the same really. They all play the best of what Sega and its friends were offering back in the early to mid 90s. It always felt a little more serious when you were playing the Mega Drive. The graphics felt grittier, the sleek black design of the system felt cool, and the system was a whole lot more violent than what Nintendo was offering at the time.
Of course, the best things that came out of this console would be memories of playing a Sonic the Hedgehog game for the first time, seeing the Streets of Rage series improve with each iteration (I don’t care what anyone says, 3 is better than 2), and watching a NHL hockey player injured on the ice with blood pooling out around him. Glorious days.
So, let’s get a list together of the ESSENTIAL 10 games for the Sega Mega Drive. These 10 games which would see you through a ‘The Long Dark’ winter satisfactorily. Oh, and by the way…
I shall start this selection with a disclaimer; I won’t be grouping Sonic games, Streets of Rage, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Earthworm Jim, Toejam & Earl, Ecco the Dolphin, Phantasy Star, NHL, or Golden Axe. None of em’. I hate lists that only choose the best title of a series and then disregards the others which may still be worthy entrants themselves. So none of that bull here. The best of the best.
10. Super Street Fighter 2
I’m not a big beat-em-up fan. I enjoy playing with others who are just as crap as me, but I watch the top players and it looks more like a chore than fun. However, I know class when I see it, and Super Street Fighter 2 is absolutely worthy of being considered an essential title for the Sega Mega Drive. It introduced the 4 characters who had first shown up in the original arcade version, and tweaked the existing characters to clean up some issues.
While the title didn’t look as good as it did on the SNES, with some stages lacking background scrolling effects and the colours looking muddy in comparison, it did sound a lot better with extra sound bites and better quality audio. Both consoles received their own slightly different versions but the fact of the matter remained; WE the gamers now had possession of the ultimate version of the greatest fighting game that gaming has ever seen. Well, at least until Turbo came out anyway.
As a sidenote, I always found it weird how Ryu’s clothing floated around his body in that opening sequence. You gotta wonder what he washes it in to make it as stiff as that.
9. Earthworm Jim
If you weren’t around for this when it first came out, I can tell you now; it was a revelation. It was everywhere, and became so popular it led to merchandise of all kinds, a sequel nearly just as good, and a terrible cartoon series which took liberties with its source material. We also had to suffer Earthworm Jim 3D, but that’s another article altogether.
The game looked gorgeous with its cartoon-like animation and it had a wicked sense of humour which involved cows being flipped off logs, bungee-jumping with snot monsters, and bosses you could defeat with a single whip of Jim. Using Modeste Mussorgsky’s ‘A Night on Bare Mountain’ whilst Evil the Cat watches on in the distance during the ‘What the Heck’ level was also an absolutely inspired highlight of the game and is the perfect example of what this game stood for; unabashed glorious madcap insanity mixed with the love of a proud developer.
Oh, and if you haven’t played the HD re-release on Xbox 360 and PS3, you owe it to yourself. It’s a wonderful treatment of what is a true classic.
8. Shining Force II
Our first RPG on the list, and it’s a cracker. A tactical RPG which brought more substance to the free-roaming side of things than its predecessor did, it fixed a lot of small issues that SF1 had. Just little things like healers gaining experience when they healed team-mates, the AI being more aggressive so presenting more of a challenge, and I’d also argue that the music sounded better, though some would disagree that point.
The battles maintained their awesome animation sequences when you carried out your attacks looking like a panel lifted from a comic book. The interface had been improved tenfold over SF1 as well as the level system being more useful than it previously was.
The game had some notorious translation errors but don’t let this dissuade you; Shining Force II is for all RPG fans who enjoy putting their thinking caps on as opposed to just bashing a button to get through yet another simple battle like most RPGs were presenting at the time.
7. Castlevania: Bloodlines
For anyone who never played the earlier Castlevania titles; this is no Metroidvania. However, a lot of it will still feel familiar to those of you who maybe prefer the PS1 and DS titles. As the only Castlevania released for the Sega Mega Drive, it has a certain charm about it and feels very special as a result.
Overall, it’s your standard Castlevania fare, travelling through level after level bashing the hell out of monsters which look like they came straight out of the ‘Monster in my Pocket catalogue. There’s some wonderfully unique moments, such as the constantly moving spiral staircase, and the later level which sees the screen slide itself in 4 different ways, and then has you playing upside down. It’s all unexpected but fits in well with the overall Castlevania feel.
Definitely an overlooked entry in the Castlevania canon, it now commands some tasty prices on eBay due to its rarity. I just wish the Mega Drive didn’t have such a bland colour palette as this could have looked really amazing on the SNES. And that password screen…
6. Sonic the Hedgehog
Our first entrant for the little blue daredevil, and it’s a classic that remains warm in all of our hearts. I still remember being 8 years old and playing this for the first time, and marvelling at the speed of the damn thing. It was SOOOO fast, and I was only playing the PAL version which was running at 50Hz!!! The Americans had it at roughly 20% faster, so they certainly got the better deal on the gameplay side of things. The faster soundtrack SUCKS though.
Sonic came in at a time when Mario was seemingly ruling the roost where platform games were concerned. In comparison, Mario’s games had some puzzling involved, you could take your time a little more, and there were a lot more levels to plod through. Sonic didn’t give a toss, it was all about speed here and trying to race to the end as fast as you can. But slow down there Chad. Take in the scenery, there’s a few beautiful worlds out there in Sonic 1 and if you do take the time, you’ll be able to appreciate the parallax scrolling in the background, the super-addictive soundtrack, the well thought out level design, it’s really a great all-round package that I’m sure very few people could have a problem with. It’s fantastic.
Also, has any other game been ported as many times as this one has?
5. Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millenium
Playing a different form of RPG to Shining Force II, I know this game holds a special place in a lot of RPG fans hearts. An RPG considered by many to be the absolute best on the Mega Drive, the game was the last in the core series of Phantasy Star. Very easily accessible, with a good balance in its difficulty and top-notch sound and graphics to boot.
For its time, it was a very unique RPG. You were able to use macros for starters. They’re taken for granted these days in the world of MMORPGs, but it was a fairly original concept back then which was used very sparingly in console titles. The game used a comic book style presentation to carry its story forward and it looks really cool, though not quite as vibrant as you might like due to the Mega Drive’s colour palette. You could also come across special combo moves, depending on the order that your characters fought in battle. You might not see it often due to enemies breaking the flow of your fight order up, but when it happens, it’s a great moment in a game that’s full of them.
The story-line is a little weak mind you, but at least it’s not overly convoluted. On a console that was starved of truly stand-out RPGs, this stands head and shoulders tall above the rest. One major bugbear however, is the names used in the game. Items, spells, enemy names, there’s a lot that flat out don’t make sense in the game. Maybe it was due to my not having played the earlier titles in the series, but fyi: monomate is used to heal you. Remember that.
4. Gunstar Heroes
Mayhem, absolute mayhem. Everything feels chaotic in this game, from the manic audio which accompanies the weapon select screen to the seemingly endless onslaught of enemies you’ll come across in each level. It’s no bullet-hell title, don’t get me wrong, but it still gets very packed.
Visually, it’s wonderfully detailed with some very unique bosses to boot. Take Bravoo Man for instance. A boss made out of what looks like 20 cardboard boxes who flies around trying to end your life. It’s hard to say what he actually is but he’s there to cause pain. And the bosses seem to show up every 30 seconds, the game is relentless. Play it with 2 players, and it becomes an absolute insane asylum. It’s amazing at times that the game doesn’t grind to a halt with slowdown but it just seems to be such a rare occurrence.
It felt perfect for the more serious Mega Drive. There wasn’t much on the SNES that comes to mind as being similar to Gunstar Heroes, and it effectively made the Mega Drive a must-have console if you wanted to play this at the time. Don’t forget; we didn’t have ROMS back then. If you wanted to play this bad boy, you were either renting it, or paying for it with your parents hard earned cash. A truly unique experience with a whole lot of character, that’s Gunstar Heroes for you.
3. Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Apt that this title comes in at no. 3 and this really is a one of a kind deal. Sonic 3 on its own was a great title but felt like it was missing something. Sonic & Knuckles came out later which carried the second half of the Sonic 3 story-line. Now how to bring the two together… Lock-on technology. Sega had the novel idea of releasing the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge with its own version of a cart slot at the top of itself, which effectively meant you could place the Sonic 3 or 2 cartridge into the top of the S&K cart, and you could mash the two games up into one. In Sonic 2s case, you got to play as Knuckles in the classic sequel but it was what happened when you joined it with Sonic 3 which really set it apart from anything else out there at the time.
Being able to join up both halves of one narrative by combining the Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles cartridges was a truly innovative experience, and one that Rare couldn’t replicate years later with its failed Banjo Kazooie / Tooie experiment, ‘Stop ‘n’ Swop’. The lock-on technology effectively took both games sets of levels and combined them so you were now able to enjoy the full Sonic 3 story-line in its complete splendor. And you got to play as Knuckles! Not the greatest of characters to use mind you, what with his low jump height and awkward glide move, he’s more of a novelty at this stage of the Sonic timeline.
Aside from the awesome technological ideas on hand here, this was yet another glorious 16-bit Sonic title, with a great play-length, gorgeous looking visuals, and yet another ear-loving soundtrack. Not the best Mega Drive Sonic game still, but a true classic in more ways than one. By this stage, it really felt like Sega couldn’t go wrong with the little fella. We weren’t at his 3D era yet, but let’s not talk about that.
2. Streets of Rage II
Now, I think Streets of Rage III is the best in the trilogy. It felt more responsive, I appreciated the level design more, and the harder levels weren’t as cruel as the ones in SoR2. But I know for a fact that I’m in a minority on this one, and this IS an essential collection, so I will go with the masses and put forward SoR2 for your consideration.
(Bonus points if noticing this guy on the front of the box ruined your life!)
I still love this first sequel. The difference between this and its predecessor is just massive. Everything looks and sounds better. The character models especially seem like superheroes in comparison to the tiny ones in SoR1. It no longer sounds tinny, with tracks that are so good they ended up being released on an official vinyl release a few years back. There’s a huge variety in enemy models now and the bosses are all so unique, especially R. Bear, the bare-footed overweight bald boxer. Man he was hard, my wife and I HATED him. And Mr. X… what a guy. Legend. Not as much of an asshole in the sequel as he was in SoR1, he still always looked cool wielding that machine gun.
And that’s what’s great about this game. It’s the kind of game that anyone can slide right into. My wife isn’t a big gamer, but she loves games which involve her kicking ass, and she’s especially good at the SoR series. If we’re having a hard time of it in later levels, we’ve got each-other to rely on. Just don’t pick up that food when your partner really needs it, it’s not worth the threat of divorce!!!
1. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Sonic Two-sday. I was there for it. 9 years old, I was in junior school on this day, and my mum had promised it would be there for me at the end of the school day. I don’t know how I concentrated on anything that day. This was easily the first time I was excited for a new release in my life. I got home, mum gives me the game, I ran upstairs to play it, and I did. And I loved it. It felt like the greatest game I’d ever played at that time.
The introduction of Tails was fantastic, him being all cute and adorable. It was a great idea to reduce all the zones level counts by 1 each, meaning we got to see more unique zones to play in. The soundtrack was as good as ever, as was the level designs, and that last boss! WOW. Mario had never dealt with anything so big, Robotnik was truly DA BOSS here. I don’t think my young self managed to beat this monstrosity on my first time meeting him, but that didn’t phase me, it just meant I got to play through the entirety of this glorious title once more. And when I did finally beat him? That ending sequence was just like heaven to me. I’d never experienced anything like it in gaming.
Now, I get to see my 5 year old son enjoying Sonic games as I once did, and it’s great to see the wonder in his eyes as he’s playing. He calls Robotnik ‘The Boss’, he doesn’t understand me when I tell him the real name. He gets so scared when he ends up in any water section, and many a time has he passed me the pad because he’s getting upset at not being able to get through Chemical Plant Zone, he HATES those levels.
Sonic 2 is the perfect game to introduce an outsider to the series. It’s the best Sonic game we’ve ever had the pleasure of playing, and it has that ‘pick-up and go’ charm about it where you don’t need to faff about with tutorials and intro sequence. Just no nonsense, straight into it, action packed thrills. It was great to see Sonic Mania return to its roots in the classic feel it presented, and judging by the critical response it received, Sega would do well to listen and give us more of the 2D experiences going forward.
And there you have it! Sure, there were no inclusions of Toejam & Earl, Ecco the Dolphin, Zombies Ate My Neighbours… The list isn’t even a list of my own faves, otherwise at least 8 of those titles would not appear. However, I genuinely believe few would disagree that, outside of personal bias, any other Sega title could replace any of that top 10.
Or maybe i’m just talking absolute bollocks.
Other honorable Mentions that didn’t make the list: Mega Man: The Wily Wars, Mortal Kombat II, Streets of Rage 1, Micro Machines: Turbo Tournament, Aladdin, Phantasy Star III, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, NBA Jam, and the 2nd greatest sports title of all time, NHL 94.
Catch me blading ice hockey players @Auto2112