Happy birthday to the Sega Genesis! 25 years ago today, Sega launched its 16-bit behemoth in Japan under the name Mega Drive, and the rest of the world followed over the next year or so.
But amidst reliving memories of console wars gone by -- as you argue about whether or not "blast processing" was cooler than "Mode 7" or whatever -- always remember that in the end, it's all about the games. And wow, did Sega Genesis have some great games. Don't take our word for it, though! Take your own.
We've compiled a list of the most beloved Sega Genesis games based on your feedback. Of course, the USgamer staff weighed in as well, but the following 10 Sega Genesis and five Sega CD games really represent your picks. Well, OK, it's more than 10 and five... there were a bunch of ties for the tenth and fifth spots on the lists, and rather than placing those games in some kind of grim retrospective deathmatch to determine the winner, we just included them all. After all, this is a celebration of games. The more, the merrier.
(And no, we didn't include 32X games. We couldn't think of five worth including.)
Not happy with your peers' picks? Cranky to see a personal favorite slighted? Let us know what should have made the cut!
1. Gunstar Heroes
The easy winner, Sega's most beloved 16-bit game almost didn't see release in the U.S. -- and what a tragedy that would have been. Created by Treasure, a group of hyper-talented programmers and designers who got fed up making sequels to NES games, Gunstar Heroes set the high-water mark for Genesis technology. Each and every stage featured an insane gimmick that by all rights should have been impossible on the system, from a punch-up on the wings of a wildly tilting airplane to the infamous Seven Force, a running stage-long boss fight against a bizarre conglomerate creature that constantly changed shapes to challenge you with new battles. In one level, there's even a board game to master. Endlessly inventive, technically dazzling, and sophisticated like no one's business, Gunstar Heroes remains the gold standard for 2D action games.
2. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Nipping at Gunstar Heroes' heels was the second and -- indisputably -- best Sonic the Hedgehog game, Sonic 2. The perfect balance of substance and simplicity, Sonic 2 expanded considerably on its predecessor's arcade action, but hadn't yet become so bogged down in extra features that it sacrificed the series' essential focus on momentum and movement. The asymmetrical multiplayer design wasn't just a technical tour-de-force (the split-screen presentation is really something to behold when both players are going full guns), it also gave younger siblings a way to join in the action without crimping their more capable older brother or sister's style. Colorful, challenging, and packed with countless secrets, Sonic 2 is still the game Sonic Team should be aiming to beat even after all these years.
3. Phantasy Star IV
The Genesis may not have been known for its role-playing games, but the handful that it offered stood on par with anything that Super NES fans enjoyed. Phantasy Star IV brought the long-running RPG series to a rousing finale, featuring callbacks to the story explored in the first two games but greatly toning down the awkward unfriendliness of Phantasy Star II's design. Meanwhile, its manga-style cutscenes helped bring the story to life in a way that wobbling sprites alone could never have accomplished. The game was impossibly pricey for its time, but as the dozens of fans who named it as a favorite in our poll can attest, it was worth every cent.
4. Streets of Rage 2
Final Fight may have been the 800-pound gorilla of arcade brawling games, but Sega humbled Capcom at home with the Streets of Rage series. Well, really, it was Streets of Rage 2 that set the standard; the first and third games had some serious shortcomings. But in between Sega absolutely nailed it. Cool characters, vivid and varied settings, killer moves, and amazing music that can only be described as "aural sex" -- Streets of Rage 2 remains the best reason to walk from left to right and punch endless armies of identical-looking goons.
5. Shining Force II
Camelot's Shining Force games, spun off from the old-school dungeon-crawler Shining in the Darkness, were basically just a big rip-off of Nintendo's Fire Emblem series. But Shining Force had two huge advantages: One, the presentation was miles better, with bold graphics and a framing setup reminiscent of a more traditional RPG. And two, the series didn't take 15 freaking years to leave Japan. While Nintendo-allied strategy buffs had to make do with staring at pictures of Fire Emblem and Tactics Ogre in the import sections of their favorite magazines, Sega fans enjoyed several Shining Force games... and of them all, the second was definitely the best, with an engrossing story to give welcome context to all those turn-based battles.
6. Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
Living proof of the old maxim "delays are temporary, mediocrity is forever," Shinobi III left fans in the lurch for a year as Sega reworked the original version of the game to uphold the series' high standards. And they nailed it, too -- Joe Musashi's third adventure spanned a huge varieties of settings and formats, ranging from ancient Japan to bizarre futuristic sci-fi. But binding it all together were virtuosic visuals and a great soundtrack -- not to mention some fantastic boss designs.
7. Castlevania: Bloodlines
Perhaps the single most overlooked game in the entire Castlevania franchise, Bloodlines felt a bit like a throwback at the time, sticking more to the style of the NES games than of the more recent Super Castlevania IV and Rondo of Blood. But taken on those terms -- that is, a ripping arcade-style outing for the series -- it totally delivers. Sending players around the world to battle the undead in all sorts of famous locations, Bloodlines features two fairly different playable protagonists from the start and abandons the Belmont clan in an attempt to take the franchise into the modern era (and tie it in with Bram Stoker's Dracula). Solid fun, and don't forget the classic tunes (penned by composer Michiru Yamane in her Castlevania debut).
8. Sonic & Knuckles
I fudged a little bit on tallying this one, because votes were split between Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic 3 & Knuckles. But the great thing is, they're kind of the same game. Thanks to the gimmicky but cool "lock-on" cartridge concept, Sonic & Knuckles could attach to other Sonic carts and change up the experience. Admittedly, this worked best with Sonic 3 (since unlike the first two games it was designed with lock-on mods in mind), but nevertheless it's a creative enough concept to merit a mention simply for breathing new life into old, discarded games.
9. Phantasy Star II
While nowhere near as timeless as its more beloved sequel, the second chapter in the Phantasy Star series made quite an impression on American fans -- it arrived over here somewhere between the original Dragon Quest and the first Final Fantasy. By comparison, PSII felt absolutely massive... not to mention gloriously futuristic with its lavish cut scenes and intricate plot. Time has not treated its monotonous dungeons and sometimes inscrutable gameplay kindly, but in its day nothing could compare to PSII.
10. Toejam & Earl (tie)
Groovy, weird, esoteric: You can pull a lot of words at random from thin air and chances are pretty good they'll still describe Toejam & Earl. Kind of an action game, vaguely inspired by roguelike RPGs, offering cooperative action in the days when such things seemed curiously novel, TJ&E's quirkiness of play was matched only by the bizarreness of its style. Misshapen aliens wandered around surreal landscapes, fighting mundane enemies and gathering random treasures from gift boxes. Inexplicable, but loads of fun.
10. Beyond Oasis (tie)
If the Genesis had an answer to The Legend of Zelda, it was this gorgeous action-adventure game. Set in an Arabian Nights-inspired world and loaded with absolutely eye-popping artwork, Beyond Oasis felt a lot more no-frills than its direct competition on the Nintendo side of things, but that was no bad thing. Plus, Dytto was kind of like Navi years before there was a Navi, yet she managed to be infinitely cooler.
10. Monster World IV (tie)
Although it didn't come to the U.S. until very late (as in, last year), Monster World IV brought the Wonder Boy series to a rousing finale. Despite not actually starring Wonder Boy. A bold, colorful adventure with a smattering of exploration and spot-on controls, Monster World IV showed off the Genesis hardware at its best. If you haven't downloaded it for PS3 or Xbox 360 yet, you should do so immediately to avoid being cast out of your community as a pariah.
Back when he was allowed to work on games not called "Metal Gear," Hideo Kojima spent some time exploring the world of graphical adventures. Of his two projects, only Snatcher made its way overseas... and unfortunately, it was only produced for Sega CD, which means tiny quantities and high demand have pushed the aftermarket price of this classic into the stratosphere. But it's kind of worth it, as you can see Kojima's predilection for borrowing from Hollywood and his fondness for making clever use of the nature of video games all in one grand adventure that comes about as close as possible to being Blade Runner without Ridley Scott tapping you angrily on the shoulder.
2. Sonic CD
Yes, there's another Sonic game on this list. What I say? Kids love their Sonic. And this adventure in particular felt wonderfully ambitious, sending Sonic hurtling backward and forward in time to affect the nature and appearance of each stage. Although there used to be some degree of controversy over the soundtrack -- it was given a "butt rock" makeover for the U.S. -- I think by and large the consensus is to get the hell over it and just enjoy the game.
3. Lunar: The Silver Star & Lunar: Eternal Blue
These two actually placed consecutively on the list in third and fourth place, but whatever. Both games represent parts of a whole: A quaint role-playing adventure with a strong emphasis on characters followed by a sequel that explored the ramifications of the first game's outcome. Not only did the Lunar series add some serious RPG credibility to Sega's lineup, it also gave publisher Working Designs a major breakthrough, catching fans' attention with its witty localization methodology and lavish packaging.
4. Popful Mail
Another winner from Working Designs, Popful Mail is an exploratory action RPG in the Zelda II vein with a decidedly humorous vibe. In fact, this is the company's crowning achievement on Sega CD: They added a punchy script that made a slightly wacky tale downright hilarious. (It certainly didn't hurt that the underlying adventure was quite excellent to begin with.)
5. Keio Flying Squadron
This whimsical shooter flew under the radar for years, only really catching wide notice after its sequel (a platformer for Sega Saturn) failed to make its way to the U.S. One of the rarer and more expensive titles for Sega CD, Keio Flying Squadron concerns the adventures of a young girl named Rami, who lives in a non-existent period of Japanese history and fights evil creatures of folklore while riding a baby dragon and wearing a Playboy bunny outfit. Look, OK, it's weird... but it's really good, honest.