The Sega Genesis was a big part of my life. It wasn't my first home console, but when the 16-bit generation rolled around, I ended up getting a Genesis first. When the console war was in full swing, I definitely leaned towards the Sega side of things. I was deep enough in the family that I actually got a Sega CD and a Sega 32X.
Today-August 14, 2019-marks the 30th anniversary of the North American release of the Sega Genesis. It's on this momentous occasion that I'm playing Sega's first official mini-console, enjoying a snapshot of the Genesis experience. It's an odd feeling.
Part of that is because it's just weird playing 16-bit games on massive 4K screens. But there's also the fact that in hindsight, the Sega Genesis' library is a lot weirder than the Super Nintendo's. One main feature of a mini-console is playing to the nostalgia of the original product. Sure companies could fit hundreds of games on their systems, like many bootleg and licensed retro hardware, but the proper mini-console is part game system and part museum. Curation is key.
The Super NES Classic is a cornucopia of hits. Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart, Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Street Fighter 2 Turbo, Mega Man X, Final Fantasy 3; it's just a fantastic collection. The smallest game in the collection is something like Kirby's Dream Course or Super Ghouls'n Ghosts. It's all meat and no fat; you might want some other titles, but the list itself is rock solid. Looking at the games on the Super NES Classic is like having a sigh of contentment, a sunshine memory of a past that probably wasn't all that great when you were living it.
Looking at the collection on the Sega Genesis Mini is a smile, followed by a confused frown. Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequel, Streets of Rage 2, Shining Force, and Phantasy Star 4, Shinobi 3, and Columns are all holding down the fort as excellent titles. There's a few cult favorites too, like Gunstar Heroes, Beyond Oasis, Monster World 4, Strider, and Thunder Force 3.
But the Genesis Mini also has a few confusing additions. Alisia Dragoon isn't a bad game, but there are many Genesis titles I'd put ahead of it. Street Fighter 2: Championship Edition is a fighting game must-have, but then you also have Eternal Champions and the Genesis version of Virtua Fighter 2, neither of which are good. I remember getting Eternal Champions for one Christmas after reading all about this awesome new fighter in magazines like EGM and Diehard GameFan. On Christmas day, I prepared to meet the game full of excitement, only to respond with a sense of ennui a few hours later.
That's an indication of what owning a Sega Genesis was like though. If the Super Nintendo was the valedictorian, the A+ student on the track and field team, the Sega Genesis was the B student trying to look like they were the school rebel; kicking over a single trash can and saying "Look how badass I am," to themselves. The Sega Genesis library of games is much quirkier, more ramshackle than the Super Nintendo. Even when I was younger and trying to tell myself that the Genesis was dunking on the Super Nintendo, I knew this in my dark corners of my heart.
Take Kid Chameleon. This was developed by the Sega Technical Institute, an American studio founded by PlayStation 4 architect Mark Cerny. This platformer has a kid heading into a virtual reality to save others, with a series of helmets giving him different powers. It bleeds faux 90s edge, with a main character in sunglasses, jeans, and a leather jacket (which only appears on the cover and briefly in game). Our hero can turn into different characters: the samurai Red Stealth, the Friday the 13th-inspired Maniaxe, or the hoverboarding Skycutter. Kid Chameleon was known as the War and Peace of Genesis games, with over a 100 levels available. But I wouldn't call it fun.
Kid Chameleon was one of those games I gritted my teeth through as a child, because it was the only game I would have for some time, until my dad started taking me to Blockbuster and Hollywood Video for rentals. And playing it again on the Sega Genesis Mini, I can safely say that I probably shouldn't have wasted my time as a kid. The platforming is only passable, the various powers aren't interesting, and the stages themselves are mostly forgettable. Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle is another classic Genesis game I tried to enjoy in my youth, only to be washed over in a wave of disappointment. On the Mini, the somewhat 8-bit gameplay is still quite recognizably staid, especially compared to a great platformer like Castle of Illusion.
My personal history with the Sega Genesis is littered with this pain. James Pond: Underwater Agent, Ex-Mutants, Sword of Sodan, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters, Global Gladiators, The Immortal; a host of poor titles that are thankfully missing from the Mini. The Genesis didn't corner the market on bad games, but those are just a few of the games I actually played and suffered through.
That eclectic mix was also the Sega Genesis' strength. Playing Light Crusader on the Mini took me back to trying to work my way through the original. It's an intriguing isometric action-adventure game that tried to look more "realistic"; a bit closer to something like Ultima. It's beat by the superior Landstalker and Beyond Oasis, both of which are also on the Sega Genesis Mini roster, but I'm glad for its inclusion here. Road Rash 2 is another game that's still a blast to play, and something that only released on the Sega Genesis at the time. ToeJam & Earl's sequels have never captured the magic of the original for me, but the first game still holds up oddly enough. It's a shame that the Mini won't let me jam with some other unique Genesis titles, like Herzog Zwei, M.U.S.H.A., Mega Turrican, or Target Earth.
There's an odd, almost counter-culture style to the games on the Sega Genesis Mini. It's not entirely the cavalcade of hit after hit that the Super NES Classic was. But this mix of excellent gems, cult favorites, Japanese curios, and misguided entries feels... authentic to me. Playing the Sega Genesis Mini feels like a small window into my entire experience with the Sega Genesis itself. Which is part of the job of any mini-console. Good on you Sega for accurately understanding our shared past.
The Sega Genesis Mini is launching on September 19, 2019.