Back in the nineties, you either had a Super Nintendo or a Mega Drive. And because whichever one you had was the one you were stuck with, you defended it tooth and nail. It’s been twenty years now, and while the Super Nintendo seems to have the old console war ; at least sales wise ; the Mega Drive remains vastly popular in the hearts of those who were blessed with owning one. With the upcoming release of the Mega Drive Mini in October, we look back on five of the games which made the system special…
All five of these games are available on the Mega Drive Mini.
#1 – Shining Force, Camelot Software Planning & Climax Entertainment, 1992
When one thinks of the Mega Drive, one rarely thinks of strategy games ; yet the system was home to some of the best strategy games of the generation, like the Shining Force series. Starting in 1991 with Shining in the Darkness, a dungeon crawl with a charming 16-bit cartoon style, the series eventually took a more tactical turn in 1992 with the first installment of Shining Force, arguably culminating with its sequel the next year. What’s beautiful about Shining Force is how accessible it is. It’s never needlessly complex, and the game is beautifully designed. As a player, you never feel like you’re learning, yet the situations that the game pits you against forces you to expand on resources you had never considered, or to approach situations in a way you had not thought of previously. The game becomes more and more addictive as your characters level up and acquire new classes, becoming more powerful and more dangerous in your process, and expanding on your battle possibilities. The story is fairly classic ; you play as a knight in training caught up in a war against an empire of evil which threatens to overtake the world, and your journey takes you across the world to fight bigger, stronger, more threatening creatures. All in all, Shining Force‘s accessibility is perhaps its greatest strength, as it is welcoming even to those who find strategy games difficult to get into.
#2 – Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sega, 1992
It would be shameful – perhaps even somewhat blasphemous – to play the Mega Drive and ignore their mascot, Sonic the blue supersonic hedgehog, who once, believe it or not, gave Mario a run for his money. Then there is the fact that Sonic 2 is easily one of the top ten titles in the Mega Drive’s library. It’s accessible, it’s gorgeous, it’s fun, and most importantly, it’s crazy fast, and it has the addictive quality of becoming faster and faster the more you play. In this installment of the classic series, Sonic dashes through a chemical plant, an oil field, a casino (where you can actually play slots), all the way to a space-set face-off with Dr. Robotnik. There are a few flaws here and there (including an incredibly frustrating water level where Sonic is in constant danger of drowning), but overall, Sonic 2 is an absolute blast which ends far too quickly, as is fitting for a title where speed is essentially the name of the game. On top of all that, the game has aged beautifully : the controls are easy to pick, very responsive, the graphics remain sheer 16-bit gloriousness, and the music is excellent, carrying with it both the sense of speed associated with the series and brilliant atmospheres for each of the game’s carefully designed levels. Play this one without moderation.
#3 – Streets of Rage II, Sega, 1992
Quite possibly one of the best beat ’em up of all times, Streets of Rage II has an enduring quality which many games of the genre lack : it offers endless replayability. While the premise is paper thin (a group of vigilante cops are on a mission to repeatedly punch a crime lord), Streets of Rage II’s eight levels are filled with creativity and mayhem. As the genre dictates, you advance through a number of levels while punching and kicking everything that moves (which includes everything from random knife-wielding thugs to bikers, ninjas, and fire-breathing obese people), but in Streets of Rage II, everything is perfectly balanced. The entire game moves at brisk pace smoothly, its biggest exploit being perhaps that in spite of how limited the gameplay is it never truly feels repetitive. This is down not only to the incredibly diverse level design which takes you across a great variety of settings, but also to the superb soundtrack, which fills the game with atmosphere and makes you truly want to spend more time in that world, busting heads and taking names. The game also offers four playable characters, which offers an enormous amount of replayibility, and the multiplayer mode guarantees hours upon hours of mindless fun smacking thugs across the face with pipes and katanas with your friends and siblings. Definitely one of the best games on the system.
#4 – Castlevania : Bloodlines, Konami, 1994
The Castlevania series is not known for being kind on new players. They are relentlessly difficult, with its early games offering some of the steepest challenges of the NES (which was filled to the brim with maddeningly difficult games). A word of warning : prepare to die, die, die, die, die, and die again and again. Yet perhaps the greatest quality of Castlevania : Bloodlines is that in spite of its difficulty it will engross you and trap you for hours and hours. You may never see the final boss ; you may never even see the final stage ; but you will play this game for hours and hours because it is just that good. The controls are spotless, easy to pick up and comfortable to spend time with ; the graphics and art direction are glorious (this installment of Castlevania takes you all across Europe from the classic gothic settings of the series to a WWI munitions factory), the music is catchy and alluring, and the gameplay, while the same old Castlevania, is as good as it ever was. Bloodlines was a big deal in 1994 as it was Mega Drive exclusive ; an odd thing for a franchise which had always been Nintendo-only. Konami did the right move : killing monsters and hunting vampires has never felt quite so good as on the Sega Mega Drive. The game also marked a departure for the series as you get to pick between two characters ; one of them wields a whip while the other uses a spear. Both offer different play styles, and both give the game more replayability. But even without all that, it just feels great hanging out in the world that Konami has created, and in spite of its difficulty, this one comes highly recommended.
#5 – Gunstar Heroes, Treasure, 1993
Not many games can claim to get much crazier than Gunstar Heroes. It’s a simple concept, brilliantly executed : you pick a weapon, and then make your way through seven levels while shooting everything that moves. The beauty of the Mega Drive was that its hardware allowed for much more frantic and relentless action than the Super Nintendo, and 16-bit action doesn’t get much more frantic than Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes (which, incidentally, was their first game). The game feels like one gigantic, hour-long series of shootouts and explosions as enemies endlessly come at you in swarms. It’s difficult to put in words just how manic Gunstar Heroes is – playing this game is like taking a gunfight to an army while another army that’s constantly on fire is chasing you. The whole adventure is exhilarating, taking you through a variety of situations which take advantage of the four weapons (which you can swap on the battlefield) available to you. And as usual for a Treasure game, Gunstar Heroes takes exceptional advantage of the Mega Drive hardware. The game hasn’t aged a bit, and what’s more its 16-bit visual glory feels miles ahead of anything else the Mega Drive produced. There really isn’t much more to say ; you have to play that game to truly believe the amount of mayhem, chaos and destruction Treasure could fit into a single game.