Shortly after NES Classic fever swept the United States in 2016, a series of underwhelming nostalgia systems followed, all designed to emulate classic games through modern TVs’ HDMI ports. None of them, other than Nintendo’s own SNES Classic, reached the same success or quality level. The C64 Mini was a half-baked bummer. The Neo-Geo Mini underwhelmed with a weird form factor and lacking controller. After a remarkably quiet launch, the PlayStation Classic eventually became a solid value… at roughly one-third of its original MSRP.
The ATGames Sega Genesis was arguably the most embarrassing of them all, as it did an utter disservice to its source 16-bit system. The audio, the video, the game selection—they were all trash. Every time we heard whispers that Sega might release another tiny Genesis, I involuntarily twitched, assuming the company’s handlers meant a reskin of the ATGames disaster.
But, lo, the Sega Genesis Mini arrives this month and nails the basics we’ve wanted from so many other nostalgia boxes in the past few years. Eighty dollars gets you a diverse selection of 42 built-in games from the ’90s, with a mix of obvious hits, cult classics, and weird outliers. That’s all rounded out by two nicely molded controllers and an HDMI-connected system that delivers wholly competent emulation on both the sound and visual fronts. I can nitpick this thing plenty (keep scrolling), but as a straightforward holiday or gift list item, this is a pretty easy recommendation. It’s exactly the value-packed ’90s package that Sega needed to stand toe to toe with Nintendo’s SNES Classic.
Something (missing) for everyone
Before diving into the technical details, we should settle the matter of the biggest sales proposition: the pre-installed games. Like other recent retro systems, the Genesis Mini is designed to only play what’s already installed, not to download other games via Wi-Fi or memory cards. With a classic Nintendo system, that sales proposition tends to click more neatly. “Get an old Nintendo” means a guarantee of significant series and their biggest hits: every Super Mario, every Zelda, every Metroid, many Donkey Kong and Kirby games, and so on.
|Sega Genesis Mini game selection|
|Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle||Alisia Dragoon||Altered Beast|
|Beyond Oasis||Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse||Castlevania: Bloodlines|
|Columns||Comix Zone||Contra: Hard Corps|
|Darius†||Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine||Dynamite Headdy|
|Earthworm Jim||Ecco the Dolphin||Eternal Champions|
|Ghouls ‘n Ghosts||Golden Axe||Gunstar Heroes|
|Kid Chameleon||Landstalker||Light Crusader|
|Mega Man: The Wily Wars†||Monster World IV†||Phantasy Star 4|
|Road Rash II||Shining Force||Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master|
|Sonic The Hedgehog||Sonic The Hedgehog 2||Sonic The Hedgehog Spinball|
|Space Harrier II||Street Fighter 2′ Special Champion Edition||Streets of Rage 2|
|Strider||Super Fantasy Zone||Tetris†|
|ToeJam & Earl||Thunder Force 3||Vectorman|
|Virtua Fighter 2||Wonder Boy in Monster World||World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse|
|†: previously unreleased in the USA|
Sega Genesis Mini
What’s the equivalent with a Sega Genesis? Sonic is the obvious entry (and he’s here, mostly), but the rest of your must-have list might vary from the Genesis Mini’s. Bombastic side-scrolling action games? The Genesis Mini says yes to classics like Gunstar Heroes, Earthworm Jim, and Contra: Hard Corps, but not Robocop Vs. The Terminator or Rocket Knight Adventures.
Quirky mascot adventures? The Genesis Mini has some really great ones, particularly the licensing mess of two Mickey Mouse games, but gems like Ristar and Cool Spot didn’t make the cut. And you can absolutely forget about sports on the Sega Genesis Mini—easily the biggest omission on a platform saturated with the likes of Sports Talk Football, Sports Talk Baseball, NBA Jam, branded boxing hits, and the EA Sports onslaught of Madden, NBA, NHL, and FIFA.
Obviously, the era’s biggest sports games would be a licensing nightmare (or would require a bottom-up hack to remove every real-life name), and licenses are easy to blame for other missing games. But the Sega Genesis was a behemoth for third-party games, and their relative absence on the Sega Genesis Mini cannot be understated. (For starters, listing every good EA game missing here, even outside EA Sports, could take forever. Ah, it’s nice to remember EA’s better days.)
Make your peace with this fact, especially if you like Sega’s first-party Genesis output, and you’re still in pretty good hands. A very good Street Fighter II port tops the SGM’s third-party selection, while Earthworm Jim, Contra: Hard Corps, and Mega Man: The Wily Wars each represent different high points in the 16-bit side-scrolling pantheon.
Four-upping the SNES Classic’s “never-before-seen” selection
MM:TWW is doubly interesting as a game previously trapped on the Sega Channel network. Sega and Capcom’s effort to get this rare gem back into circulation in 2019 is admirable, and it, along with a few other rarities, might be the best reasons to buy this system. The SNES Classic came with only one such “previously unreleased” gem: its world premiere of Star Fox 2. The SGM has three more long-lost rarities on top of MM:TWW, in the form of Monster World 4 (whose English port is brand new), Darius (a fan-made homebrew port that was licensed by series handlers Taito for SGM inclusion), and Tetris (a Sega-made port of the puzzle classic that was shelved after a notorious Nintendo lawsuit).
Meanwhile, on the first-party front, I admit that it’s easy to look at the above list and wish Sega had swapped a few choices. Why’d we get Golden Axe 1 instead of Golden Axe 2? Why not sneak Revenge of Shinobi in, arguably a better game than its Shinobi III sequel? If we’re going to have the system’s earliest arcade ports, why Space Harrier II instead of the more thrilling option of After Burner? Where the heck is Sonic 3? And couldn’t one of the lesser included games have been dumped in favor of the phenomenal Herzog Zwei?
But that’s all pretty moot. Nintendo charged the same $80 price for its Super Nintendo remake with only 21 games. You can easily pick through the above SGM list and pump your fist at half of the options.
What’s more, don’t worry about the set’s T-for-Teen rating if you want to hand this system to a kid. A few games push the violence envelope: the bike-combat racing of Road Rash II, the orange-blood fighting weirdness of Eternal Champions, and a range of beat-’em-up and fighting games. But what pushed the T-for-Teen threshold of old seems genuinely quaint in a Fortnite world, and there’s nothing comparable to Mortal Kombat here (since Eternal Champions‘ “fatalities” were already milquetoast in the ’90s, let alone today).
Nitpicks can’t ruin some incredible emulation
With all of that said, the programmers at esteemed Japanese company M2 deserve all the kudos in the world for shepherding this system’s emulation core. That’s mostly because Genesis emulation has often been dogged by struggles to nail the original console’s iconic Yamaha FM synthesis chip (which itself had multiple hardware revisions over the years). There’s really not much to complain about with M2’s implementation. The frequency treatment and lowpass filter are in the right range to make Streets of Rage 2‘s bangin’ tunes sound just right. Music and sounds throughout the 42 games are more accurate across the board than even Nintendo’s own emulation efforts, which themselves have suffered from surprising squeaks and imperfections.
But M2’s work is not perfect, and the most obvious baggage attached to the Sega Genesis Mini is a sound emulation delay, to the tune of about three to four frames of animation between an on-screen action and its sound effect playing. This comes on top of another latency issue inherent with emulation. My tests of the Sega Genesis Mini next to the Analogue Mega Sg confirm that Sega’s new system adds an extra three to four frames of delay between a button press and the action happening on-screen.
By themselves, neither issue is all that terrible, but they have a combined effect of making the constant “blooop” sound of Sonic jumping or “pew!” of Mega Man shooting a gun seem a little funny in action, when they don’t quite sync up. But this is the only nitpick I have about the system’s core emulation, and the resulting collection is thus so much easier to recommend than the Sega Genesis Classics collection sold on modern consoles and PCs. (In fact, M2 went and fixed at least one obnoxious issue with original Genesis hardware: the messy interpolation in Sonic 2‘s two-player mode. Now, it runs like a dream. Thanks, M2!)
While I’m a bit annoyed that M2 didn’t include a “pixel perfect” option for its classic games, the standard 4:3 mode scales every pixel up in a “4.5x” fashion to fill the top and bottom of a standard 1080p panel. Just like on the Analogue Mega Sg, the resulting visuals look crisp and solid, again without obnoxious interpolation or fuzzy pixel scaling getting in the way of that embiggening. You can also toggle a full-screen zoom or a “CRT effect,” but don’t. The former crops pixels out of the live gameplay (though M2 apparently forces specific zoom ratios to minimize this impact), while the latter needed a second pass of brightness adjustment before going live. This blurry scanline system makes games look criminally dark and unclear. Don’t touch it.
Good controllers, funny decision
In great news, the pair of included three-button Genesis pads are clear reminders of how killer Sega’s 1989 pass at controller design really was. No other “large” gamepad has ever felt as good—hitting the sweet spot for teenaged-and-up hands without getting into original-Xbox “Duke” territory, while striking the comfy balance between spongy and twitchy for both its d-pad and its huge action buttons. For most of the SGM’s games, your hands are in good hands.
But a few of the included games, particularly Street Fighter II’:Special Champion Edition and Eternal Champions, were specifically built in the ’90s to advertise Sega’s later six-button Genesis pads. As of press time, you’ll have to buy an “approved” six-button USB controller to access this option on the SGM as opposed to plugging in an extra USB controller and remapping its buttons. (We’ve seen every retro console get a usability hack or two from enterprising hackers, and I’m hopeful the SGM is no exception to at least enable wider controller support.)
In the meantime, if you want to derp your way through Street Fighter II with a three-button controller, you’re in for a bad time because of one fatal SGM flaw. With a three-button controller, SF2 asks Genesis players to hold down the start button to flip the three buttons from punches to kicks (and thus disables pausing mid-match). Fair enough. It’s an awkward way to claw your fingers, but it’s still doable if your ’90s parents wouldn’t pony up for the new gamepads.
The problem in 2019, however, is that the SGM includes a “reset menu” shortcut, toggled by holding the start button for five seconds.
Imagine playing SF2 as Guile. You’re eager to prep a tide-turning Flash Kick, holding down the start button as you descend from one jump to have your attack charged and ready to rock as soon as your foe enters a vulnerability frame. And then… bzzzzt. The SGM’s menu sound effect blares, the game freezes, and you’ve paused the whole thing. SGM does not let users disable this “five-second-hold” option for accessing the menu system (which can also be toggled at any time with a tap of the hardware’s physical reset button).
Why Sega didn’t bundle at least one six-button pad as a default option for its two-controller SKU is beyond me. To Sega’s credit, most of SGM’s 42-game selection doesn’t support extra buttons, but once you drop Street Fighter into a collection, it changes the whole proposition, as far as I’m concerned.
Bottom line: Not perfect, but quite good
Unlike the SNES Classic, the SGM does not support a “rewind” feature. Still, all of the SGM games come with four save-state slots so that you can freeze any game at any point you’d like and pick it up later—which is crucial for a system like the Genesis, whose best action games famously lacked backup save batteries.
The menu interface is functional enough, complete with options to organize games by alphabetical order, release year, genre, or number of players. It also includes a cute option to turn the game’s covers into spines, as if filed into a bookshelf.
In one move sure to please serious Mega Drive fans (as in, the console’s name in other territories), the interface transforms if you change the American system’s language to Japanese or other languages to reflect other territories’ games, and it will serve those regions’ translated ROMs as well. It even goes so far as to convert the English language puzzle game Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine to its Japanese counterpart, Puyo Puyo. (Sadly, this doesn’t turn the game into the superior Japanese sequel Puyo Puyo 2.)
As far as retro game consoles are concerned, I’m breathing easily about most of these caveats. Anybody who scoffs at any of the listed issues can upgrade to Analogue’s Mega Sg, a $190 hardware-emulation platform that demands original controllers and original cartridges to deliver an even more pristine HDTV dive into all things Sega Genesis. But $80 for this many classic games and a pair of nicely constructed controllers, all floating on a remarkable emulation base, is arguably the smarter way to go for anybody who can be patient with the SGM’s slight flaws. It’s damned good.