Sega does what Nintendon’t!
-The edgiest catchphrase of all time
Lucky double sevens and the pay off for today’s Day 7 Top 7 list is a two-fold Sega Day day! *whew*
Welcome back, NPCs, for this seventh Day of our Console Challenge. Today I am really pleased to say that we’re hosting a Sega Day. Not one but two articles about Sega will be featured today (so you can take that slander about being a Nintendo tributary somewhere else)! In still another demonstration that fandoms can indeed collide and merge in harmony, we’ve enlisted a true wise man for today’s list (which is not necessarily written in order, according to today’s writer).
The Game Boy Guru is a wonderfully amiable and accomplished member of the retrogaming community whose knowledge of Nintendo’s original handheld is far-reaching and impressive, but today he sheds the monochrome exterior and becomes… a Sega Guru! Here to tell us all about the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive and it’s 7 best games is the Game Boy Guru, whom you can find at his blog, on Twitter, and on YouTube! Give him a follow/subscribe!
You won’t regret meeting nice people, let me tell you. Also, let us know your top 7 Genesis/Mega Drive picks in the comments below!
-The Well-Red Mage
In the 1980’s, in North America, Nintendo was king. Atari had long given up the crown to the Japanese company, despite repeated attempts to “stay in the game” during the second half of the decade. The only other possible contender to Nintendo’s dominance was Sega. Sega had seen some success in the West, with early arcade hits and a string of very popular arcade games in the “Super Scaler” series. Regardless of how influential Space Harrier and Outrun were at the time, it didn’t translate into big sales for Sega’s Master System in America. Thankfully, it fared better in Europe, and especially in Brazil. But in order to compete with Nintendo in America, the largest worldwide market, Sega needed to follow up the 8-bit system with something impressive.
Thankfully, they struck first, coming to the US nearly 2 years before Nintendo followed up their 8-bit wunderkind, with the Mega Drive, re-branded as the Genesis in North America. Boasting 4 times the colors on-screen as the aging NES, stereo sound capability, improved graphics, and a nebulous new concept called “Blast Processing”, Sega kicked off the next console generation with an attractive system that was far sleeker and inviting than Nintendo’s faux-VCR concept. And while the system’s launch didn’t break down the doors, with the solid Altered Beast arcade port as the pack-in game, 1990 saw a giant shift in the fortunes of the company, when the system was repackaged, and sold with a new, original game, to take on Nintendo’s juggernaut Mario mascot: Sonic the Hedgehog. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history. Sega officially stole Nintendo’s thunder in 1990, dominating the sales landscape, and giving Nintendo quite a run for their money, eating up much of the market share Nintendo had enjoyed just a year prior. Nintendo also had to make up a fair bit of ground when they finally released their Super NES in 1991, with a solid, but slightly anemic launch line-up.
By 1991, Sega had a big head start, and Nintendo struggled to catch up, despite greater brand-recognition, and had they not squandered that goodwill by fracturing the user base with upgrades and add-ons, as well as a botching launch for the Saturn, it’s hard to say whether or not we’d have a much different landscape today. That said, the Genesis has a great library of games, and is arguably the strongest single library of any Sega console, game for game. Here are 7 of the best games on the system that every Genesis owner or enthusiast should be on the lookout for, and for anyone who has never dipped their toe in the water, these 7 games should be on your radar post-haste!
#7. Streets of Rage 2
The world was introduced to the side-scrolling beat ‘em up formula in the mid-1980’s with Tecnos releasing Double Dragon, which took arcades by storm. They quickly followed that up with a successor, and other companies began to take notice and copy the formula. Capcom brought out Final Fight in 1989, which began life as a psuedo-sequel to the original Street Fighter, and it was a smash. It also became the template for all future games in the genre. When Sega looked to their 16-bit system to replicate that experience, they created Streets of Rage, a quality game that is arguably as good as the game it copied. When they designed the sequel, however, it was a perfect storm. Streets of Rage 2 took everything in the genre up to that point, and just did it better. The character sprites were big and gorgeously animated, had a fair number of moves and techniques to use, and were unique enough from one another, so that playing as a different character than you used the last time would be a new experience. Yuzo Koshiro’s brilliant soundtrack pulsates and grooves through the whole game, and all the various interesting locales help draw you into the action. The third game in the series could be considered a half-step forward and half-step back, but this game is pure action and loads of fun. A must-buy for anyone who loves classic beat-em-up games.
Racing games evolved quite a bit from their inception in the late 1970’s, from the early top-down racers to something like Namco’s Pole Position, which was revolutionary at the time. It offered a third person, behind-the-car view, that allowed for more precise driving, especially since you could see a reasonable percentage of the road in front of you, as well as oncoming cars. Further improvements came in the year or two that followed, but one of the most important innovations was Sega’s “Super Scaler” hardware, which allowed for robust, early 3D-like experiences, while still using fast drawn pixel art. In addition, Sega’s Outrun took the racing game genre and turned it on its head, by offering a much more zen experience.
Rather than racing against other cars, you were more or less racing against a timer, and the challenge was to reach each successive checkpoint with time to spare, and to get that timer extended so you could keep going. What could have been just another racing game, with fancy new graphical effects and cool cars became a transcendent driving game, with relaxing vistas and groovy music lulling you into a false sense of security, all the while keeping you on your toes to try and reach the next checkpoint. Add to that the fact that the game offered branching paths, so you could go a different way the next time you played, and it offered even more replay value than the typical racing game. The Genesis port of the game might be slightly scaled back from the arcade original, but it still captures the fun of the original, and is handled well on the hardware. It’s essential gaming for racing game fans and casual enthusiasts alike.
#5. Phantasy Star IV
The Sega Genesis was not known for its role-playing games, at least not in comparison to Nintendo’s 16-bit console. However, that doesn’t mean it didn’t have any. Sega helped bolster the library on its own, through several stand-alone RPGs, as well as 2 series that helped bring the genre to some prominence on the console. The first is the Shining series, which saw 3 releases on the base console, and one on the Sega CD add-on. The second is the Phantasy Star series, of which 3 of the 4 primary entries were released on Sega’s 16-bit console. Phantasy Star IV is generally hailed as the best of the bunch, and it’s not hard to see why. The second game dropped the first-person dungeon concept for more open dungeons, but they were apparently quite a grind. The third game broke new ground, with a multi-generational story, but fans complained about the lack of story depth, and bland environments. The fourth game in the series, however, gets back to the sci-fi/fantasy roots and elements that fans liked from the first 2 games, and picks up a millennium after the second game ends. Phantasy Star IV continued to refine the series, and made for a compelling RPG experience, and one that SNES fans couldn’t get on their console.
#4. Gunstar Heroes
The “run and gun” genre started in the arcade days, and gained popularity on the NES due to the Contra series of games. In the 16-bit generation, Konami continued to evolve that series, and both Sega and Nintendo’s consoles saw iterations. The former was a fast-action game with bosses aplenty, and the latter was a slightly more studied affair, with incredible graphical effects and a myriad of interesting things going on. However, neither game could quite stand up to the slightly more lighthearted but no less adrenaline-pumping game that is Gunstar Heroes. While Contra: Hard Corps is filled to the brim with amazing action and pump-you-up music, it can be needlessly brutal to play through. Unless you’re a diehard gamer who likes being pummeled about the face repeatedly, Treasure’s alternative run ‘n gun game was a more measured experience, with a fun soundtrack, colorful graphics, goofy characters, fun game play, and excellent level design. And it still has the fast action and insane gunplay one would expect from a contender to take on a Contra game.
#3. Castlevania: Bloodlines
Any fan of the NES knows that Konami’s flagship Castlevania series is a major part of 8-bit gaming history, with 3 outings each on the NES and Game Boy. While Konami was late to the game on Sega Systems, due to Nintendo’s licensing practices in the US, they certainly didn’t disappoint when it finally happened. Castlevania: Bloodlines is an excellent game, from top to bottom. While it eschews the Belmont clan tie-in for a pair of new characters, it retains that classic series feel, keeping at least one character with the classic whip, but also adding Eric Lecarde, a spear-wielding master bent on the destruction of Dracula. This adds a whole new element to the game, especially with his special jump move where he uses his spear to propel him to new heights. The macabre enemies, grizzly animations, and spooky soundtrack all help make this a fine entry in the series, and a triumph on Sega’s 16-bit powerhouse.
#2. Lightening Force
One of the strengths of the Genesis library was its abundance of shoot-em-ups. During the late 80’s and early 90’s, shmups were a pretty big deal, and the 16-bit generation saw no shortage of these high-energy games. The Sega Genesis was host to a large number of high quality titles, and while some have become infamous for being expensive, such as M.U.S.H.A. or Grind Stormer, there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest, as far as I’m concerned: Lightening Force. Yes, you read that right, it’s not a misspelling. For some reason, the 4th game in the Thunder Force series got renamed in the US, due to some kind of licensing issue, and when Sega published it in the West, it got re-titled somewhat clumsily. Don’t let that dissuade you, however: this is, hands down, the premier shooter on the Genesis. I would go so far to say it’s the best shmup during the entire 16-bit era, at least in terms of cartridge releases. Lightening Force sported absolutely gorgeous graphics, with effects that most people probably didn’t even think were possible on the system. The level designs were impeccable, each with its own distinct look and feel, and the game brought a good balance of challenge and fun. Also, the soundtrack is brilliant, and among the best on the system, with Techno Soft really cranking out some amazing work. The whole exercise felt like they took everything they improved upon with Thunder Force III and cranked it up to 11. If you have even a passing interest in shooters, this needs to be on your radar.
#1. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Sega’s spiky blue mascot set the company on a path to success, after struggling through the 1980’s, but it was the azure mammal’s second appearance on the flagship console that skyrocketed the company to new heights. Essentially a “Sonic the Hedgehog 1.5” plus bells and whistles, the sequel took what was good about the first game, and improved the formula. Everything was bigger here: the game had more levels, there was incredible variety in locales, Sonic sported a new move, the Spin Dash, and he even brought a friend this time around, Miles “Tails” Prower. Who could forget their first experience in the Casino Night Zone, with Sonic being bumped and thrown around like a pinball? The game’s bright, colorful graphics defied critics, who thought everything on the system looked muddy and dark, and once you’ve played the game, good luck getting its soundtrack out of your head. While this game’s follow-up and subsequent lock-on cartridge is no slouch, and I’m still partial to the original, Sonic’s second adventure remains his most venerable, and most enduring, and should be experienced by any platforming game fan.