(All illustrations by Stephen Maurice Graham)
Depending on where you live in the world, Sega's 16-bit success story the Mega Drive – or the Genesis, for American readers – is either 24, 25 or 26 this year. Brits didn't get their hands on the system until November 1990 – but US gamers could play the likes of Altered Beast, Space Harrier II and Super Thunder Blade the summer before, while the Japanese market was a full two years ahead of Europe.
Splitting the difference and considering the system's massive stateside sales – over half of its total global units were shifted in North America – we're celebrating the Mega Drive's 25th birthday by highlighting 25 of its games that you can enjoy today without feeling like you might as well be playing with a hand-painted ball in a cup.
Yeah, they've all aged in some respects, but they're still great. So park your frame rate arguments for a day or two, put your PS4 pad on recharge and get retro. You might just like it. (And no, not all of these are platform-exclusive. You can play a lot of them today via XBLA, PSN, Virtual Console or on various disc-based compilations, which will probably save you a lot of money. Hooray!)
Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (1992)
The first Sonic is the best-selling game for the Mega Drive, with this sequel second to it, with six million copies sold. Commercial performance is never indicative of classic status, of course, but Sonic 2 is a challenging, colourful platformer that's eminently playable today. With just the one button used to jump and spin, it's easy for kids to pick up, too, should the 12-year-old you who played this the first time now be 34 and a parent of two.
The Ooze (1995)
In this relatively late release for the system, you play as a puddle of slime. I don't see how this can, even in 2014, be anything other than amazing. In spite of the game's gooey protagonist, it's pretty bloody tough, and looks like someone sneezed on a copy of The Chaos Engine.
Gunstar Heroes (1993)
Tokyo-based Treasure's reputation for action games is near unsurpassable, and their debut game was a real precedent-setter. You run, you gun, you die – it's tougher than enjoying a night out in Milton Keynes. There's great creativity at work in the array of customisable weaponry available, but the great speed of the game means only the most nimble-thumbed will get everything out of their arsenal. Decent-condition original copies of Gunstar Heroes go for silly money, but it can be downloaded for a variety of platforms these days, including your iPhone.
A still from "Earthworm Jim"
Earthworm Jim (1994)
Gameplay wise, this is similar to Gunstar Heroes – you run, you gun, left to right usually. Where it differs is in its difficulty – Earthworm Jim isn't especially hard, and can be polished off in a couple of hours by a first-timer – and its madcap humour. Its spacesuited central character is the result of a collaboration between animator and writer Doug TenNapel, who's since worked on Adventure Time and SpongeBob SquarePants, and developer David Perry, who made quite a lot of money when he sold cloud-gaming company Gaikai to Sony in 2012. Earthworm Jim spawned its own cartoon series, comics and toys, but they're all a bit shit compared to the original game. What's not is its 1995 sequel, which comes just as recommended.
Disney's Aladdin (1993)
Before Earthworm Jim, Perry was on the design team for this excellent adaptation of Disney's Aladdin movie. Big and bold sprites with fluid animation, great chiptune versions of the songs from the film, and a casual difficulty comprise a suitable-for-all experience that really deserves to be experienced by everyone, even 21 years on. A rare example of a movie tie-in done right, this is a gem among the typical cinema-complementing crap.
Micro Machines (1991)
This top-down racer remains a quality quick-fix today. Simple controls and frantic action, its formula was perfect at the time and hasn't dulled. If you've a few friends coming around on the regular though, best get the sequel: developer Codemasters pioneered the J-Cart, featuring two additional controller ports. The result: up to eight simultaneous players across four pads. You're gonna have to get friendly, or move somewhere with a bigger lounge.
NBA Jam TE (1994)
Like NBA Jam, but better, and thus proving that it is possible to improve on perfection. TE is one for when the pub's kicked out and the wife's away – easy to pick up and play against mates, but tough enough to master when the CPU is on its game. It's too easy to lose hours to TE, with its just-one-more-match hook digging in deep from the first tip.
Streets Of Rage 2 (1992)
The greatest side-scrolling beat 'em up of any 16-bit system. I appreciate it's a rip-off of Final Fight – but what Capcom's arcade classic did brilliantly, Sega's sequel to its original bareknuckle brawler of 1991 did better. It's forever best in show for me, and Yuzo Koshiro's influential house and techno soundtrack has found its way to the iPods of several of today's artists and producers, including Ikonika and Labrinth.
Zombies Ate My Neighbours (1993)
It's more than just zombies that you have to worry about in this fun action-puzzler – werewolves, vampires, aliens, dwarfs with axes, chainsaw-wielding Jason Voorhees-alikes and more will try to lower the property value in your area by munching through its residents. You just dash about, rescuing your helpless neighbours by walking into them before a meanie does. Sounds simple, is simple. But like Earthworm Jim, there's some wicked humour at play here. How many other games feature an end boss that's a giant, dismembered head, firing tongues at you?
Rocket Knight Adventures (1993)
The Mega Drive wasn't short on decent platform games, and Rocket Knight Adventures was one of the best around at the time. Its main marsupial, Sparkster the Opossum, wasn't a franchise-starting mascot like Sonic, but he was much better armed than his hedgehog peer, packing a laser sword and a rocket pack – the latter of which comes in handy during horizontal shooting sections. Like Gunstar Heroes, the action's pretty breathless – but unlike Treasure's title, this Konami hit is unlikely to send too many controllers flying across a room in a rage.
The Story Of Thor (1994)
This Zelda-ish affair is an action-RPG of great aesthetic appeal, and features a pretty compelling story, too. Known as Beyond Oasis in the US, its considerate difficulty curve means that even role-play novices can approach its mean boss battles with confidence. And if the music sounds familiar? It's more excellent work by Yuzo Koshiro.
Alien Soldier (1995)
Another Treasure run-and-gunner, ostensibly, Alien Soldier is not only tough to beat, but almost impossible (on cartridge) to find for sensible money, with PAL versions going for £70 and more on eBay. It might seem a breeze to begin with, as the first-timer can reach the emergency siren, beckoning stage one's snaky boss, without breaking a sweat – but that's where the fun begins. Alien Soldier is all about the bosses. They come seconds apart, near enough, turning this into a one-on-one battler for most of its run time.
Castlevania: Bloodlines (1994)
It's the only Castlevania game for the Mega Drive, so it's automatically on this list. Not that British fans got the game in its purest form, as it was in the States. Instead, it was subtitled The New Generation in the UK, because the word "blood" was just that shocking, and various graphic aspects of the game were altered or removed completely. The creepy music comes from Michiru Yamane, at the time in-house at developer Konami, and whose work also features in Rocket Knight Adventures.
"Comic Spacehead" screenshot
Cosmic Spacehead (1993)
A curious little number, this remake of Linus Spacehead's Cosmic Crusade, a NES title of 1992, is a Monkey Island-like point-and-clicker mixed with some platforming sections. Its cute visuals and quirky story – Linus wants to prove the existence of Earth to his alien mates, so naturally needs a camera – make it a pleasant way to pass an hour or so. At one point, Linus pretends to be "Larry Flint" in order to enter a bumper car race – a bizarrely placed nod to the phonetically identical porn publisher, perhaps?
Whereas Sonic was all about speed, and Rocket Knight Adventures placed an emphasis on combat, this brightly presented platformer focuses on the stretchy limbs of its five-pointed protagonist, and how they can best be used to traverse the environments. Attacks come as head-butts: out stretch the arms to grab an enemy, who's whipped back into Ristar's (presumably pretty thick) skull/body. There's some story hokum about space pirates, but really, it doesn't matter: this is all about the methodical manoeuvring of an unlikely hero through some craftily constructed stages.
Comix Zone (1995)
Another late arrival on an outgoing system, Comix Zone's original setting – inside the frames of a comic book – made it a great-looking addition to a sizeable software library. Time hasn't made the game any easier – with just a single life, it's easy enough to be floored on the very first stage. But persevere and there's a great little beat 'em up here. It's no Streets Of Rage 2, but for those who like their fists of fury rendered in just two dimensions, Comix Zone is distracting enough.
World Of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse And Donald Duck (1992)
More Disney, done excellently. World Of Illusion is a classic platformer, with elemental gameplay that doesn't date and lovely, bold visuals. It's a bit slow, but that's the price you pay for it looking so sweet – like a cartoon come to life, which is precisely what these characters demand. It's called I Love Mickey And Donald – The Mysterious Magic Box in Japan, and if that's not reason enough to adore this game, I don't know what is.
Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers (1994)
The best one-on-one fighter on the Mega Drive, this is a superlative arcade port that comes on a whopping 40mb cartridge. Like most games in the Street Fighter II sub-series, it plays as crisply today as it did 20 years ago. Just make sure you've a suitable six-button pad, because using the start button to switch between punches and kicks is exactly no fun.
Sensible Soccer. Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham.
Sensible Soccer International Edition (1993)
The only Mega Drive football game worth playing today, Sensi went through various iterations over the years, but this was about as pure as it got. Super slick and satisfyingly swift, it's a very arcade-y take on the beautiful game – but when going head-to-head with a mate, over swears and sweat, its lack of nuances never matter. This version offers three buttons of control, but you only need the one – just like the Amiga original.
Landstalker: The Treasure Of King Nole (1992)
Like The Story Of Thor, this is an action RPG rather than anything more strategic. If it's slower and more methodical fare you're after, turn-based options that have aged well enough include Phantasy Star IV (1993) and Shining Force II (1993). Landstalker developer Climax had worked alongside Sega subsidiary Sonic! Software Planning on Shining Force II, but struck out alone in some style with this isometric oddity. Get over the D-pad awkwardness, and its large world and fiendish dungeons make this a decent Zelda substitute for kids who never turned to the dark side of Nintendo. Except your character's called Nigel, and not even the biggest village idiot in all of Hyrule would name their kid that.
Another great Capcom arcade conversion, the Mega Drive version of Strider is undoubtedly its definitive home port, with large, colourful sprites that look almost as good as their coin-op equivalents. Each stage is against the clock, so while the sword-swinging Hiryu doesn't move like Sonic, this is another Mega Drive game where time is of the essence. The game was recently remade by Californian company Double Helix, and released for multiple platforms in February 2014, and Hiryu has appeared in several franchise-crossover fighting games.
Shinobi III: Return Of The Ninja Master (1993)
If you only play one Shinobi game for the Mega Drive, make it the best. It might have been different. Initially slated for a 1992 release, Shinobi III was made available to the press, and previews soon enough followed. But Sega was dissatisfied with what they were seeing, and pushed the game back, allowing time for some radical changes. I don't know if the delay encouraged developers to make sure that every enemy in the game explodes when attacked, but I'm glad that feature made the cut. Like Strider, there's a whole lot of dashing, slicing and dicing, but this ninja adventure lasts a lot longer than Capcom's offering.
ToeJam and Earl (1991)
This introduction to Sega's "highly funky aliens" didn't exactly set the world alight on release, but its slow-burn success has seen it latterly regarded as one of the Mega Drive's most original and best enduring classics. Satirical, full of stateside slang and nerds to throw tomatoes at, and featuring a bass-slappy soundtrack, it's like someone beamed Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince into space and brought them back as digitised extra-terrestrials. The premise is simple: find all of the pieces of the pair's wrecked spaceship, spread across randomly generated levels, to win the game. But the execution is wonderful, and played with a friend reveals fun dialogue unseen in solo mode. One for when co-op Portal 2 becomes a ball-ache.
Dynamite Headdy (1994)
Another Treasure treat for Sega's 16-bit system, Dynamite Headdy sees the player control a puppet with swappable heads, each with its own special ability – a gameplay set-up recently revived, ish, by the PS3-exclusive Puppeteer. One of the best platformers available on a console hardly lacking in them, it remains a lot of fun to play through today, with a horizontal shooter sequence reminiscent of that found late on in Gunstar Heroes. It's a lot cuter than its studio's debut though, and easier on the nerves.
EA Hockey (1991)
EA made a shed load more ice hockey games, but this was the first, and one I played for hours and hours against a mate of mine who lived over the road. I'm pretty sure we spent most of that time trying to get the players to fight each other, while occasionally attempting to deduce what this "icing" whistle was all about. Probably should have read the manual. Like Sensi, EA Hockey's gameplay was so refined at the first time of asking that it remains a mightily enjoyable sports "simulation". My copy had (has, it's not like I've got rid of it) John Madden Football on it, too, which I think I played for a grand total of 15 minutes.
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