Back in 2016, Nintendo kicked off the mini-console expansion with the NES Classic Edition. It wasn't the first mini-console ever created, but it was officially designed and released by Nintendo, and fans couldn't get enough of it. That was followed by the SNES Classic, which proved even more popular than its predecessor.
Two years later, Sega is getting in on the action, starting with the Sega Genesis Mini. The system was announced at the Tokyo Sega Fes show back in April 2018, but the original iteration was developed by AtGames, the folks behind the rougher Sega Genesis Flashback mini-console. Given the feedback, Sega decided it was time to produce its first hardware since the Sega Dreamcast back in 2001, with Sega Ages developer M2 handling the software ports.
The Sega Genesis was my first 16-bit console; I didn't get a Super Nintendo until 1992, when I returned the Sega CD my dad bought me for Christmas, and put the money towards the SNES. The Genesis still holds a special place in my heart though.
At E3 2019, I had a chance to play around with the new version of the Sega Genesis Mini. From build quality to the user interface, Sega has taken the entire process very seriously, building a little monument to the Genesis console and its software library.
The tiny box looks like less than half the size of the original console, but it still retains nods to the original. The cartridge slot has the opening flaps, despite their being no carts to put in the system. Likewise, there's a cover on the bottom of the system that slides off; this is a reference to the expansion slot for the Sega CD that was on the original Sega Genesis. On the front, there's a power switch, volume control slider (which doesn't do anything as far as I know), and a Reset button.
"The man that designed that Mega Drive 30 years ago still works for Sega Group. We had him design this version too," Sega executive manager Hiroyuki Miyazaki tells me during my demo, via translator. "It's not just the designer. It's also the manufacturers, the packaging designer person, everybody came back for this. It was actually a really nice way to immortalize the history. We are going to be celebrating the 60th anniversary of Sega next year. This is another way of bringing all the memories back."
In terms of controllers, the Sega Genesis Mini actually comes with the original three-button Genesis controller, which I honestly think is a mistake. The six-button pad is far more useful and feels better in the hand. (You will be able to purchase a six-button controller from Retro-Bit for $19.99, and if you already have a Retro-bit controller, they'll work with the Genesis Mini as well.) The replica USB controller does feel quite nice though, and I think the build quality is better than the original; there's a real heft to it. The USB cable is also longer than the original; I believe the original Genesis controllers were only 4ft in length, while the Mini controller I messed with felt like 6ft.
"We did have a few discussions in the marketing department about the length of the cord," admits Sega of America senior communications manager Jacob Nahin, who helped design the Sega Genesis Mini experience on the Western side of the company.
The Reset button on the system is actually tied to the system's user interface, which is equally impressive. Holding down the Reset button or the Start button on any controller, brings you to the Save State menu. This menu offers four save states per game, and you have the ability to lock a save state to prevent from overwriting it. Visually, you have a standard 4:3 presentation with a background, or a stretched viewpoint. There's also a scanline mode, if you want that old CRT feeling.
The user interface is tied to language in system settings: In English, it's all Sega Genesis-themed, including the correct box art and the old Sega ratings. In Japanese, it's all skinned for Mega Drive, and Sega has even correctly sized the box art, so games like Super Fantasy Zone have smaller box art. The menu can either show the front cover of the game library, or the side spines.
According Miyazaki, getting all that classic box art was one of the bigger challenges for Sega's team. "Take the packaging for the PlayStation. They have the digital data. That's saved. But back then, there was no digital data obviously. Thirty years ago, there was no digital data system. The publisher provided photos to the print company; that was the process. Now it is very easy to create this type of digital data for the package, change the colors, and modify something. Thirty years ago, this was very troublesome," Miyazaki explains.
Finding the old photos required a lot more effort that Sega expected, but ultimately, they were able to find the physical archives in an actual filing cabinet. "The people that made the packaging had to go back into the archives and look for the photos to recreate them. There was a cabinet that they remembered they had old photos in. They went to the cabinet and tried to open it, but the keys didn't work," he tells me. According to Miyazaki, no one had the keys to the filing cabinet though, so a locksmith had to be called in to open it. A major part of Sega history, relegated to a random filing cabinet in the back of a Japanese design office for 30 years.
Even then, these were just photos, not full copies of the artwork. So in some cases, Sega had to scrutinize the art by eye in order to recreate it. It's the kind of painstaking work that goes into creating a proper retro mini-console.
Another part of that work is choosing the right games. Given the limited pull from the Sega Genesis' library of nearly 900 games, picking and choosing the right titles is key, as these mini-consoles cannot be officially expanded. The Sega Genesis Mini has a list of 42 games in its North American iteration. (You can find the full list at the end of this article.) That includes Sega mainstays like Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Shinobi 3, and Streets of Rage 2, alongside smaller fan-favorites like Phantasy Star 4, Beyond Oasis, and Monster World 4. There are also a few special games in the final package. Mega Man: The Wily Wars was previously only available through the subscription-based online Sega Channel. There's also Tetris and Darius, neither of which released on the Sega Genesis. Developer M2, who works with the publisher on the Sega Ages retro re-releases, actually pulled those games from their arcade counterparts.
The teams at Sega of Japan and Sega of America worked together to craft a final list of games that would properly reflect the history of the Sega Genesis.
"We had a lot of candidates. It didn't mean that we had all the games that were in the candidate list, because of licensing and copyright issues. There were also technical issues, like games with bright lights that flash too much; those were not things that were good to include. Taking into consideration those two big points, we worked with [Jacob Nahin] and his team to come up with a list of things to put into the Mini," says Miyazaki.
"We were really looking at video game preservation," explains Nahin. "A lot of those carts here in the West are very expensive. It can be prohibitive to get some of the more rare experiences. With games like Mega Man: The Wily Wars, those are very important to American audiences."
Both gentleman had games that they wanted on the list, but couldn't add, either due to space or licensing issues. For Nahin, the missing spot would've gone to Mortal Kombat 2. "We had to make a decision about how we were going to balance out the genres. We ultimately decided that Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition was the better pick," he says. For Miyazaki, the title was a little more obscure.
"There's an F1 racing game called Ayrton Senna's Super Monaco GP 2. We couldn't figure out who still had the copyright for that game. That racer actually passed away. Ayrton Senna, he was a god," Miyazaki tells me, with a lot of excitement and reverence in his voice.
Miyazaki also says that he wasn't surprised about the excitement surrounding the Sega Genesis Mini, when I asked if Nintendo's success led Sega to think about a mini-console. "We already knew that it was something that the core fans would really want, but I was pretty surprised that non-core fans were interested in it also," he explains. The Sega Genesis Mini could also only be the first step. Miyazaki says the concept of a Dreamcast Mini is above his head, but could happen if the Genesis Mini sells well. "It is a business," he jokes.
In the end, Sega is hoping that this mini-console stands as a nod to its lengthy history. The Sega Genesis Mini will launch on September 19, 2019, a year out from the 30th anniversary of the console. But this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Sega Dreamcast, and next year will be the 60th anniversary of Sega itself.
"I feel like Sega has never been the champion, at the top of all the video game companies, but I feel like a lot of people love Sega because of the underdog image," says Miyazaki when I ask about Sega's long history. "We're always the challenger going against the top brands. The Mini is the personification of that kind of challenger image and the loyalty of all the fans that have been with us for a very long time."
The full list of Sega Genesis Mini Games:
- Sonic the Hedgehog
- Ecco the Dolphin
- Castlevania: Bloodlines
- Space Harrier 2
- Shining Force
- Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine
- ToeJam & Earl
- Comix Zone
- Altered Beast
- Gunstar Heroes
- Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse
- World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck
- Thunder Force 3
- Super Fantasy Zone
- Shinobi 3
- Streets of Rage 2
- Earthworm Jim
- Sonic the Hedgehog 2
- Contra: Hard Corps
- Mega Man: The Wily Wars
- Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition
- Ghouls 'n Ghosts
- Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle
- Beyond Oasis
- Golden Axe
- Phantasy Star 4: The End of the Millennium
- Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball
- Wonder Boy in Monster World
- Road Rash 2
- Virtua Fighter 2
- Alisia Dragoon
- Kid Chameleon
- Monster World 4
- Eternal Champions
- Dynamite Headdy
- Light Crusader