Favorite Sega Genesis Games
By Damien Wilkens and Aaron Robinson
04 December 2008 — Welcome to Multitap, an innovative new collaboration that explores the rich history of video games. What we're here to do is bring you all the bashful glee that you had as a child, hooking up that first RF adaptor. And what better place for us to start than with a system very near and dear to my heart: the Sega Genesis.
You know that one kid down the street that didn't have a Super Nintendo? You know, the one that only had a Genesis, and was always trying to convince you of the greatness of Blast Processing? Yeah, that was me. To this day I'm still a blatant Sega fanboy, and the Genesis is what started it all.
Aaron: The Genesis (well, Mega Drive on my side of the world) was pretty much my console of choice for about half my childhood. Sure, it was ultimately trumped by the Super Nintendo, but man, it really did end up with a nice library of games. And with the console just recently celebrating its 20th anniversary, now is as good a time as any for us to list our favorite games. The format is simple enough: I'll name one, then Damien will comment, we'll switch roles and repeat until we've named all 10 games.
Aaron's #5: Rocket Knight Adventures
It's kind of surprising how underrated Rocket Knight Adventures is. It came out at a time when mascot-based platformers were all the rage, but for whatever reason it never really caught on (not that Konami didn't try, since they made two sequels). It's a shame, because it's a game that holds up. Whatever it lacked in originality, it made up for with polish and variety — with Sparkster's clever little rocket attack adding icing to the cake.
The story is simple enough: our hero, an enthusiastic and oh-so-cute rocket knight named Sparkster, comes home to his castle one day to find his beloved princess is being taken away by an evil rocket knight named Axel Gear. To make matters worse, Axel has the powerful pig army on his side, and they seem more than happy to bring destruction wherever they go. So off Sparkster goes to take down the pig army, defeat the evil knight and rescue his princess. It's nothing amazing, but it's fun and simplistic, and the cutscenes do a good job of progressing things. It's nice that Sparkster eschews the "cool" vibe that so many mascots from that era had; he's just a cute, clumsy little opossum.
Of course, it would be hard to talk about the game without mentioning his rocket attack. Sparkster isn't particularly adept at jumping, and his regular sword / beam attack can deal a bit of damage from a distance, but is better used up close. So to make up for it, he can use the rocket on his back to blast himself into an enemy. It was a fun idea, and they didn't limit its use just for combat; because Sparkster bounces off walls when in his rocket state, you could use it to reach otherwise unreachable locations, or get to another area quicker. It made for some really clever platforming segments. A few areas actually had Sparkster stay in his rocket state, turning the level into a sort of Gradius-like shooter, something that really helped mix things up.
Damien: This nearly made my list, and I'm surprised by how well the game stands up today. I actually started with the weird SNES spin-off, Sparkster, then went back and played this one. Outside of first-party stuff and the immortal Mega Man, it's hard to think of a platformer that managed to maintain such a level of quality through three games. Not only that, but it managed to be even more awesome than Awesome Possum, which I'm pretty sure breaks some universal laws.
Damien's #5: Mutant League Football
You wanna talk about a series that seriously needs a revival, Mutant League has got to be right up there. Before the days of the realistic Madden installments, there was this. It was stupidly violent, and utterly over-the-top in almost every aspect.
You want story? What story? Nuclear explosions across the planet have turned the population into mutants, but they still haven't lost the desire to toss around the old pigskin. That's it. There are teams of skeletons, zombies, robots, goblins, you name it. Sure, the whole thing borrowed liberally from the tabletop game Blood Bowl, but nothing like it had ever been done before in gaming, and for that it was wildly popular. There was even a cartoon that ran for two seasons!
From a gameplay standpoint, it was absolute chaos; there were hazards all over the field like toxic waste, ice and fire pits. Imagine a football game with fire pits! "He's at the twenty! The ten! Oh shit! He's on fire!" But that's not all! You could bribe the ref to call phony penalties, throw exploding balls and use jet packs — all with the intent of killing the opposing team. A game could actually end if one team had too few living players to continue! There was just an astounding amount of things to do, and made for one hell of a multiplayer game. My absolute favorite feature was at the end of the game, when the MVP was named. In honor of the player's standout performance, he would be put in the Hole of Flame — where he was burned alive!
Madden was still in its infancy, and didn't even have the NFL rights when Mutant League was more worried about getting the best decapitations possible than an accurate Strong I formation. The industry is missing games like this nowadays. Everything is some three-part epic that has the movie rights signed off before the game is even released. Sometimes you just want to pick up a controller, turn your brain off and destroy shit. This was the perfect game for that, and it still can be today.
Aaron: As awesome as the concept is, I admit I skipped this game entirely when it first came out. But when I first tackled someone so hard they broke into a bunch of lifeless limbs, I knew I was going to enjoy it.
Aaron's #4: Phantasy Star IV
If someone was to ask me for an RPG on the Genesis that could compare to the best RPGs the SNES had to offer, I'd say Phantasy Star IV without hesitation. Whilst the series was known for being ahead of its time, I think the fourth and final entry is the one that holds up the best. It toned down the difficulty and dungeon crawling of its predecessors and concentrated on making a more accessible, streamlined experience. Gone were difficult random battles, vague directions and epically long dungeons. In their place came a better battle system, anime-styled cutscenes and a fun story with a colorful cast.
The story puts you in the shoes of the young Chaz, an apprentice of world-renowned bounty hunter Alys Bragwyn. The planet they live on, Motavia, has become a barren and scary place over the past thousand years, and it's only been made worse by the recent appearance of the deformed and aggressive biomonsters. Because of these creatures, there's an increase in demand of hunters like Alys and Chaz, but even the best hunters are starting to struggle. When a routine investigation reveals more about the influx of biomonsters, they head off to investigate, setting forward events that will take them all over the galaxy. Whilst I wouldn't say it's a great story, it's fun and the cast is absolutely wonderful.
Of course, while the graphics are a vast improvement over the previous entries, they're nowhere near the best of what the SNES had to offer. During battles, characters and enemies are big and detailed. Outside, however, their sprites were tiny. To make up for this, Phantasy Star IV uses anime-styled cutscenes to forward the plot. It might not seem like a whole lot today, but I've always thought the combined visuals of text and pictures moving across the screen helped to add drama to the story. It was a clever idea that helped set a precedent for games like Final Fantasy VII.
I think it's the gameplay that's really stuck with me after all these years. It's a fairly traditional turn-based RPG, but the little additions are great; you can use two characters to perform combo attacks, there's a bit of variation on characters depending on their type (it's interesting that androids can't be healed by regular means, yet are also far more durable) and there's a nice array of magic and abilities. The addition of Macros, which let you program a round of moves that could be used during combat, make random battles go by a lot quicker. There's even some vehicle combat to be had. It helps that the dungeons feel just right length wise, and that the game never gets too challenging, yet is never a cakewalk either.
Phantasy Star IV is a well-rounded RPG and is easily one of the best turn-based RPGs to come out of the 16-bit generation.
Damien: I don't think I could have put it any better myself. Phantasy Star is, without a doubt, the most overlooked RPG franchise of all time. The games themselves are about as old school as you can get, and as such have been pretty well ignored by this generation. Part two is nothing to scoff at either, and I'm one of the few people that actually enjoyed part three. But four was the magnum opus of the series. If you'd played through the previous three, this was in many ways a thank you from the developers, as they snuck so many cool little call backs that only the devotees would have noticed. Most Sega nerds consider this the true end to the series, and don't count those others that came later. For this alone, I'd upgrade Aaron's rating of the story and confirm that it is great. This is on the Sega Genesis Collection, along with the previous two in the series, so you guys have no excuse not to give it a look.
Damien's #4: Eternal Champions
There is no bigger representation of my blatant fanboyism for Sega than this. The mutated love child of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, Eternal Champions wasn't just a surprisingly well-constructed game, but it was also one of the few that worked with the Sega Activator (bonus points if you remember that thing). I've always had a bit of an affection for fighters, and this is one of the few games that really worked on the system.
There's some such story about a group of fighters that died, and are being given another chance at life by fighting. I'll be honest; I've probably dropped a good 100 hours in this game and really couldn't tell you much more than that. What really mattered here was the game itself. Not only were the characters large and animated well, but there was a shocking amount of depth to the gameplay. Mind you, it wasn't the most balanced game around, as Trident could plow through pretty much everyone, but that's why this is a "favorites" list and not a "best" one. There were a ton of combos to be found, not to mention some really cheap infinites that you could often catch the CPU with. There was also a special attack meter that offered a level of strategy that is still pretty unique even by today's standards.
Where the game really shined, of course, were in the ways you could dispose of your defeated enemies. Overkills, as they were called, were the over-the-top finishers that made most Fatalities look run-of-the-mill by comparison. While they didn't get too bloody or graphic until the Sega CD sequel, they were definitely more innovative and fun to watch than the static motion captured demises of Mortal Kombat's roster. Who can forget the giant exhaust fan in Blade's level or getting burned at the stake in Xavier's?
Outside of Street Fighter III, there's not another fighter that took up more of my time, and for that reason alone, it makes my list.
Aaron: Unlike Damien, I really did get invested in the story. A group of fighters who were unjustly killed, fighting for a second chance at life? I was captivated! In hindsight it was all a bit silly, but even today I still have a blast with the combat. And those Overkills were great fun to pull off. Besides, who could hate a game that lets you pit a wizard against a trident-wielding Atlantean?
Aaron's #3: Shinobi III
When the higher-ups at Sega were presented with the original release of Shinobi III, they weren't happy, and sent the game back to be completely changed. It's no surprise that the final product really feels like it's been heavily revised. Even today, I'm amazed at how much work Sega put into it, and how much of an improvement it was over its already great predecessor. Whilst most of Musashi's attacks are the same as those in Shinobi II, the little additions they made were perfect. For the first time Musashi could run across the screen to deliver a quick and powerful running attack, and he could jump off walls to reach higher areas. He essentially controlled exactly like how my child self assumed ninjas should control: fast and deadly.
I think the thing I like most about Shinobi III is its pacing. Despite being largely combat orientated, it doesn't throw a constant barrage of enemies at you. Instead, you'll get little groups here and there, with the occasional bigger group or boss to deal with to make things more exciting. It makes the first few levels great, because you're given plenty of time to figure out enemy patterns and react accordingly, rather than being forced to throw shurikens everywhere. The boss designs are great too, and require quite a bit of strategy in order to get through, especially on the harder difficulties.
Much like Rocket Knight Adventures, there was a nice variety of levels in this one. Outside of the standard platforming levels, Musashi has to pursue enemies on horseback, on a surfboard (which was more than a little reminiscent of Turtles in Time) and while freefalling down the side of a cliff (jumping from rock to rock to prevent yourself from falling too fast). It's the combination of great graphics, controls, level design and variety that really solidifies Shinobi III as one of the best games the Genesis had.
Damien: I'll always been a tad more partial to Revenge of Shinobi, simply for the inclusion of Batman and Spider-Man as bosses, but I can clearly recognize this as the better game. And it had surfboarding ninjas, so I can't complain.
Damien's #3: Castlevania: Bloodlines
Konami only ever released one Castlevania game on the Genesis, and they made it a doozy. The appropriately titled Bloodlines was the first to feature the red stuff, and there was something deeply satisfying in watching enemies explode into a pile of mushy innards.
Now, the story is pretty disputed in terms of its continuity, so we won't go too far into that. A crazy lady is trying to resurrect Dracula and you have to stop her. That's really all that you need to know. The important feature here was the inclusion of two distinctly different characters. John Morris was your standard whip-using avatar, and Eric Lecarde was armed with a spear. Both were actually pretty balanced, and offered a different perspective on the way the game should be played. The level design was allowed to branch out a bit more, as players weren't limited to the castle this time around. The first time I saw the Atlantis level I freaked out. It might sound silly now, but seeing reflections in the water was something of a huge deal back then. There was even a section of the game that you had to play upside with reverse controls, which actually made my preteen mind think that my game was broken.
Other than that, what else is there to say? It took everything the previous games did well and polished it, offering some of the best bosses and music of the series.
The PAL regions actually got shafted on this one when they were given a censored version known as Castlevania: The New Generation. But if I'm not mistaken, the Aussie version was mostly uncensored anyway.
Aaron: Yeah, I'm still surprised we managed to get a more faithful port of the original. I didn't get around to this until recently (despite being mesmerized by the advertisements), but it's a solid addition to the series. I'm amazed at some of the stuff they were able to pull off on the Genesis.
Aaron's #2: Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Of course, it wouldn't be much of a Genesis list without Sonic making his way on there somewhere. My favorite of the series is still Sonic 2. It added a lot to the series, and was epic on its own merits; it didn't need to be attached to another game before it really showed its true potential — unlike Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles which needed to be combined for the full experience.
While the original Sonic was more than happy to demonstrate how the in-game physics worked, it spent a lot of time concentrating on careful platforming. So Sonic 2 improves upon its predecessor by concentrating more on showing off Sonic's speed, and less on slower platforming segments. It was also the first time they gave you a true reward for finding all the Chaos Emeralds, giving you the ability to transform into Super Sonic. Collect 50 rings, and Sonic would turn into a golden, invincible, faster version of himself. It's just a shame that the last couple of levels really require precision rather than speed and strength, making Super Sonic's abilities almost completely null and void.
But what I think stood out most for me was just how great the levels were structured. Annoying water stages aside, there's a nice flow from level to level. The first couple of levels were all about running around finding alternate paths; it wasn't until late in the game that you needed to be precise when it came to platforming. But it was the final boss stage that really impressed me. After losing Tales towards the end, the final level had no rings and no platforming, just two fairly tough boss fights. In hindsight it was a little cheap, but the sense of satisfaction I got when I finally defeated both bosses, carefully making sure I didn't make a single mistake, has yet to be beat.
It's probably not quite as polished as the later games, but I've always felt like it offered the best challenge of the series.
Damien: Sega's legacy, most specifically that of the Genesis, begins and ends with Sonic. Like he said, you can't have a list like this without it. I hated those water levels with a passion, but I kept coming back for more. In terms of precise and challenging platforming, the Sonic games have the Mario franchise beat in a lot of ways.
Damien's #2: Gunstar Heroes
The concept was simple: take everything Contra did right and do it even better. After an M. Bison lookalike decides to start some trouble, it's up to the aptly named Red and Blue Gunstars to stop him.
What made it so great was that no two levels felt the same. While the frantic gameplay didn't really deviate much from level to level, sometimes you would be riding on a cart while taking on enemies from all sides, and sometimes you'd be rapidly sliding down a pyramid. One level even has you controlling your character as the bad guys watch you on a giant screen. If that wasn't enough, the game can also turn into a space shooter, becoming a whole new experience in the process.
Oh, and it's hard. You get one life. There are continues, of course, but it's worth noting that you will die a lot. The game boasts an incredible number of enemies on the screen at once (with no slowdown to speak of), and the resulting explosions can oftentimes cover the entire screen. Thankfully, you had the ability to combine the various weapons, and it was fun seeing the different ways each one worked. The music was great, the bosses were epic and the sense of accomplishment made you feel like the greatest gamer in the world.
Treasure really hit it out of the park with this one. If it wasn't for this game, we likely would have never seen the Metal Slug series, or a lot of the advancements that Contra itself seemed to embrace with later installments. It's a travesty that we never got a true sequel, instead settling for the quasi-remake Gunstar Super Heroes.
Aaron: One thing I've always liked about Gunstar Heroes is the ability to choose your level at the start. The game was pretty damn hard, but even if you got frustrated with a level, you could always just try your hand at another one. And seriously, running around, blasting everything in sight, throwing robots into each other, trying not to be overcome by all the bullets, explosions and enemies that could fill the screen, was just awesome.
Aaron's #1: Another World / Out of this World
This might seem like an odd choice to some, but I'm a massive fan of Another World (known as Out this World in the States). Maybe it's nostalgia, maybe it's my love for puzzle platformers, but something about Another World has stuck with me for well over a decade. It's just so clever and great to look at, and I love the way it delivers a fun, quirky story without using any real vocals or text. It's enough to make me look past how brutally hard and obtuse it can be.
Another World puts you in the shoes of a young professor named Lester. Rolling into work late one night, Lester decides it would be as good a time as any to start conducting some experiments. But midway through, a lightning bolt strikes the laboratory, interfering with the experiment and causing a surge in the equipment. Within seconds, Lester is engulfed in light and transported into another world. After an initial attempt to talk to the alien inhabitants ends with him being thrown into a cell, Lester decides the best course of action is to steal a ship and get the hell out of there. But he'll need to get past a powerful and violent alien army in order to do it.
The first thing you'll probably notice about Another World is how easy it is to die. The game begins the instant Lester is zapped into the new world. You appear in the middle of a lake, your desk and lab equipment sinking beside you, as a tentacle reaches up from down below. If you don't take control and swim to the surface straight away, the tentacle will pull you down to a watery grave. Even after you swim to the surface, staying near the water long enough would allow the tentacle to come to the surface and grab you, killing you instantly. In fact, the majority of the creatures can both outrun and overpower you, and misjudged jumps or enemy patterns can end up leaving you as a bloody carcass. So in order to progress and get better, you needed to plan ahead and look around, thinking about how you might tackle things differently each time you died. Most enemies can be trapped or tricked into killing themselves, or at least require a bit of forethought in order to defeat. It all makes a lot of sense really, considering that Lester was supposed to be a scientist, not a soldier. Thinking about how to handle each situation rather than muscling through just felt right.
It also stands out as one of the first games I played with full motion video. Sure, it looks dated by today's standards, but even now it impresses me how much detail was put into creating a dark and foreboding atmosphere. There are so many great little details in each level. Take, for example, the start of the game: shortly before you come face-to-face with a beastly creature that tries to chase you down, you'll be able see him stalking you in the background. And the neat little tricks you'll have to perform to kill or get past some of the enemies are really clever, even if they're not as telegraphed as they should be.
Despite being a little rough around the edges, Another World still remains one of my favorite games ever!
Damien: Another World managed to be different in an era when no one was. Right from the cover alone, you knew you were in for an experience, and perhaps that's the best way to describe this game. It was one of the first to transcend simple gameplay and become an experience. It sucked you in and didn't let go until you were completely finished. It was in development for over two years, and it show. Gaming as an art form has its roots here; if not for this game, we may have never seen Ico and the games it inspired.
Damien's #1: Pulseman
Alright, confession time: I had the Sega Channel. While my friends were playing six-button Street Fighter down the block, I was paying $15 a month for demos and antiquated versions of games I already owned. I lamented my position as a Sega owner until one fateful day; there was a new game — a "Sega Channel exclusive" they called it — entitled Pulseman, and for one short month I was in platforming heaven.
Then it disappeared.
The hooks this game had in me were so deep that I later downloaded an emulator just to play it again, and I don't download emulators. Until I learned of the beauty of imports, however, it was the only way for me to play it, as this was never released outside of Japan.
Our story begins with a mad scientist named Dr. Waruyama. After creating an advanced AI, he falls in love with it. They somehow — in a manner it's best not to think about — make love, and the result is an android named Pulseman. After having sex with a robot, the Doc starts to lose the plot and decides he wants to takeover the world, his son being the only one who can stop him.
Since a vast majority of the people reading this have probably never even heard of this game, I'll try my best to explain. Pulseman is what would happen if Mega Man and Sonic got really drunk one night and had an evening they didn't want to talk about the next day. Take the innovative level design of the Blue Bomber's games, and throw in the sense of speed you get from the hedgehog, and you still have only a fraction of what this game offers. Pulseman is a constantly moving whirlwind of energy that has more attacks than both mascots combined, along with the ability to turn himself into an electrical current to travel along wires and bounce off of walls to reach higher ground. To cap it off, skilled players can bounce around the screen, beating certain stages in a matter of seconds if they know what they're doing.
Along the way our hero traverses stages so bright and colorful that some may fall into epileptic fits at the sheer sight of it all. We're talking bushes made of crystals that look like Christmas ornaments dipped in crystal meth. Everything is constantly, for lack of a better term, pulsing, and there's an energy that flows through every aspect of the game — from the music, to the levels, to Pulseman himself. It is everything that's right with video games: it's responsive, has infinite replay value and, most of all, it's fun.
I know this is going to come off like Mr. Hardcore Gaming Snob busting out his ultra-obscure pick, but I legit think this is the best game on the system. It's that damn good. Pray we get this on the Virtual Console at some point, as it's one of gaming's greatest hidden gems.
Aaron: I can't disagree with this one either. Much like Rocket Knight Adventures, this took a really clever mechanic and just made it work. Dashing from wire to wire as an electric current while the background shifts shape and color is just mesmerizing. It's something I'd probably have to spend a bit more time on to really get the hang of, but it doesn't take long to come to grips with the basics.
Damien: Well, there you have it folks. Looking back, it's kind of sad that only two of these franchises are still going today, one of which is just a shell of its former self. But we shouldn't end this on a somber note, as the life of the Genesis was a complex and difficult one at times. No, instead, we should celebrate the lasting appeal of such a console, and take solace in the fact that we're still talking about it today.