I have an ongoing love affair with developer M2, the small Japanese studio that almost singlehandedly carries the banner for better-than-perfect preservation of classic games. I appreciate that Digital Eclipse aspires to do something similar with the likes of Mega Man Legacy Collection, but with all respect, M2 has years of experience under their belts; their work is untouchable.
When you see M2's name attached to a classic game reissue, you know it's going to be immaculate... even if the original material in question was fairly lackluster. Did Altered Beast deserve the same comprehensive reworking as, say, Sonic the Hedgehog? Absolutely not. But M2 understands that video game history matters, that every game — no matter how terrible — was somebody's favorite, and that preservationists can strive not only to archive the content of a classic game but to recreate the experience of playing it as well. As a developer, M2 has popped up all over the place, from providing the Game Boy Advance emulation wrapper on Wii U Virtual Console (by far the best Wii U VC category) to producing "original" material such as Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth. By far, though, their best work has come with the 3DS-exclusive SEGA 3D Classics series.
We've had nothing but good to say about their work in our many reviews of their work, but I can summarize here. M2 takes a craftsman approach to classic game reissues, not only building custom emulators to be as accurate and error-free as possible, but also giving careful consideration to the specific circumstances and needs of each individual project. Their Sonic the Hedgehog conversion offers pixel-perfect visuals, but it also lets you apply a filter that makes the game look quite convincingly like you're playing on the worst CRT television ever sold back in the day. Meanwhile, M2's Super Hang-On features a gyroscopic mode to simulate the rare and expensive sit-down arcade cabinet's marvelously physical control scheme. All of this on top of reverse-engineering the games to add 3D depth effects that never existed in the original code. Each and every one of these releases has been a gem. (Yes, even Altered Beast.)
SEGA 3D Classics Collection compiles 10 of these games into a single $30 cartridge or download, and in one sense it represents one of the biggest no-brainer purchases I've ever seen. Sure, other anthologies have included a larger number of titles or a better price-per-title ratio — SEGA's own Sonic Genesis Collection, for example, crammed something like 50 games onto a single disc — but you absolutely won't find a collection of games packaged with this much affection for this price anywhere. Until now, SEGA has been selling its 3D Ages releases individually as $8 [edit: $6] downloads, so in that context the 3D Classics Collection represents a relative bargain — not only do the games here weigh in at half the cost of the individual releases, they're finally available in physical form rather than as strict downloads.
At the same time, though, 3D Classics Collection does come with its share of caveats. Of the 10 games included here, more than half have already been issued as individual releases. For anyone sitting on a fence over the past few years about whether to grab these reworked classics, that's no big deal; yet for anyone who's been keeping up with M2's 3D Ages releases — the audience most likely to take an interest in this compilation — the fact that 3D Classics Collection contains a lot of material they've already bought (at a higher cost, collectively, than this anthology release is priced at) will undoubtedly chafe. For them, the question becomes a matter of which titles on this collection they don't already own, and unfortunately once the overall list of games is pared down to the new issues, the package starts to look less impressive.
Only three games appear for the first time here: Maze Walker, Puyo Puyo 2, and Power Drift. Of these, Maze Walker is the slightest. Its inclusion makes sense — it was one of the few games released to take advantage of the SegaScope 3D glasses for Master System and thus already had pop-out visual design in its DNA — but in truth there's just not much to the game. It's kind of like a very simplistic labyrinth game in which the only real impediment along rather obvious route to the end comes less from the wandering bad guys than the clunky controls.
I do love that M2 has taken the time to emulate not only the Master System, but also its 3D glasses, and also its Japan-only FM synthesis audio add-on module (an option that appears in this collection through Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa). That said, though, not every old game merits the "classic" designation, and Maze Walker really strains at the meaning of the word. I'm grateful this adaptation exists, in all its bizarre improbability, but at the same time it's not exactly something I'm in a hurry to return to now that my review is done.
The other two new offerings fortunately offer more substance. Power Drift is one I've been looking forward to in particular, a fairly obscure SEGA racer that uses that awesome mid ’80s Super Scaler sprite technology to create dynamic kart racing tracks. Think Out Run meets Super Mario Kart meets Hard Drivin'; it's a fusion of several great racers from the era, and it plays exactly as well as you'd expect a SEGA racer of this vintage to: Brilliantly. It's fast, frantic, with tiny tracks that twist and buckle unexpectedly. It's also quite tough — gotta keep up those quarter drop rates! — but that's only to be expected.
Naturally, M2 has lavished Power Drift with a ton of display options. You can play the game with original screen proportions in a 1:1 ratio, with newly added widescreen graphics, with the visuals scaled up to fit the screen, or with the graphics scaled down to frame the screen with an arcade cabinet. The latter option results in some ungainly pixelization on the 3DS's low-resolution screen, but with the 3D slider turned on you barely notice — the zippy action fits nicely with 3D visualization, and the added depth and context of the faux cabinet frame sucks you in. Sometimes that tiny 3DS screen can surprise you with its ability to create immersive visuals, and Power Drift is one of those cases; it's probably my favorite 3D Classics adaptation since Super Hang-On, and I don't even like racing games.
Finally, there's Puyo Puyo 2, which is the oddity here. Until this point, all of M2's SEGA 3D Ages conversions have revolved around fast-paced, intense action games. Puyo Puyo, of course, is a static single-screen color-matching puzzle game. The 3D slider here simply causes the active frame to "float" against the background, which doesn't particularly add anything to the experience. On the contrary, activating 3D feels more like a drawback than a boon, as (in my experience) certain foreground elements have a tendency to drift out of focus when moved to specific "depths." This odd graphical defect, combined with the lack of any other presentation options (not even an arcade cabinet frame!), makes this conversion feel curiously slipshod compared to M2's usual. Which is not to say that it's a poor conversion — it plays perfectly — but this series of remakes has set the bar incredibly high, and Puyo Puyo 2 doesn't quite clear it.
While it does contain a few grade-A releases (Sonic the Hedgehog, Galaxy Force II), the overall selection of games in this compilation feels a bit like a collection of also-rans... quite likely because it is. 3D Classics Collection is actually the U.S. version of the second of two retails releases the series saw in Japan, and volume one picked up the lion's share of white-hot hits. I have to assume that version didn't come to the U.S. due to the fact that it consisted entirely of titles that have already appeared singly as downloads, but it does feel like a case of... well, not sloppy seconds. M2's work is far too polished for that. But definitely the B-tier releases.
All of this leaves SEGA 3D Classics Collection in a strange place. On one hand, it collects 10 games rendered with nearly impeccable precision; it stands proudly as a work of video game archaeology and interactive museum curation. On the other hand, the collection's core audience quite likely already owns half (or more!) of the material gathered here; the new material is hit-or-miss; and the overall list of titles has a somewhat lukewarm quality to it. While I would unreservedly recommend just about any of M2's SEGA remakes to fans of classic gaming, this compilation doesn't come without a few caveats.
A little cumbersome, but those menus harbor a wealth of options and features.
SEGA tended to go for quick fixes of gameplay, so your mileage will vary according to how much you love twitching your way toward high scores.
Basically perfect — these games sound just like they did on the original hardware. M2 even emulated the Master System FM module. Impressive!
Arcade-perfect, and impressively robust considering the limitations of the 3DS. Only a handful of games fail to offer a wide variety of display options to suit players' preferences.
SEGA 3D Classics Collection a great effort in the annals of archiving game history, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum, and anyone who's already dropped $40-50 on the bulk of the games on this cart may not be so keen to spend another $30 on three titles of wildly varying quality. Still, Maze Walker may not be much fun, but it's never looked this nice. Of course, if you haven't already picked up these games individually, there's no question — this is a must-have compilation.