Retro Review Slew
How well does the library contained in the Sega Genesis Mini REALLY hold up? I’ve taken it upon myself to write little blurbs about each of the 42 included games.
Ecco the Dolphin
Ecco was flat out, straight up unlike anything else available at the time, something that’s still true even today. This is a slow, relaxing, sometimes even haunting game where you play as… well, a dolphin. Mind you, Ecco is a very special dolphin, as you’ll learn throughout the course of his adventure. But if you come to this looking for anything even slightly resembling traditional gameplay, you’ll be very confused by its slower pace, new-age soundscape, and puzzle-centric levels (though the challenge and the action do eventually ramp up towards the end). This is definitely worth looking into at least once, just to see how unique it is.
Konami’s Sega Genesis output had a very distinct flavor separate from their SNES output. Harsher tones, sharper edges, and never more clearly demonstrated by Bloodlines. At its core it’s a somewhat standard game for this franchise, but it was also the first Castlevania I remember featuring actual blood. In the pantheon of classic action-Castlevania, it’s notable for being a technical showcase and having a pop-gothic FM synth soundtrack, but to tell the truth, I think I still prefer the Nintendo-Vanias. Bloodlines is no slouch, but it exists in its own dimension, perpetually trapped as one of the series’ black sheep. Honestly, maybe that’s the best reason to check it out.
Space Harrier II
Famously, the original Space Harrier arcade game proudly advertises that “many more battle scenes will soon be available” — even though none ever actually did. Presumably, I guess, they ended up in Space Harrier II for the Sega Genesis, which is literally just… Space Harrier, but more of it. More enemy variety, more bosses, and so on. And for its part, it provides a surprisingly authentic Space Harrier experience, with beautifully large sprites and a faux-3D environment. Unfortunately, it’s hamstrung by the Genesis hardware. No analog stick means movement is stiff, and those impressive visuals tank performance. This game is practically a slide show in the framerate department, because the Genesis just isn’t capable of replicating arcade-perfect Space Harrier. It tries, it really does, but it’s just not up to snuff.
This is a genre of games I’ve never really clicked with. Turn-based strategy games are always way too slow for my tastes. A single battle scene can take upwards of 10-20 minutes to complete, often several minutes before you can even finish walking up to an enemy so you can make the first attack. I’m also poor at planning too far ahead in a battle, so there usually comes a point where the game outsmarts me and I give up. As such, I don’t think I have anything especially intelligent to say about Shining Force’s quality. But they’re good games! Lots of people have a great deal of love for this genre, and this franchise. If I was the sort of person who was in to these games, it seems like it’d be worth giving a shot, even though a friend (who is a fan of the series) informs me they probably should have included Shining Force II instead.
Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine
In the mid-2000’s, the developers of Puyo Puyo, Compile, were having trouble staying afloat, so Sonic Team bought them and absorbed the Puyo IP. I often wonder if this was the game that lead to that decision, being a retooled port of the original Puyo Puyo (which is also available in this collection if you change your language to Japanese). As such, Mean Bean Machine is a very good puzzle game, and probably the best one on this collection. It’s also before modern Puyo Puyo games, many of which have proven incredibly difficult for me. These games are meant to be multiplayer games, and even when you play them alone, you’re likely still fighting against a CPU player. Later games expect you to have a good grasp on the mechanics of making chains, which is how you launch counter attacks on your opponent. If you’re still a novice at that kind of stuff, as I am, you’ll get your head handed to you on a silver platter. Thankfully, Mean Bean Machine is still pretty manageable in that department, so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to clear the game without having to be much of a Puyo savant.
Toe Jam & Earl
Though I haven’t played the newest game in this series (“Back in the Groove”), I think it’s fair to say this is probably the best Toe Jam & Earl game. Now, I’m one of those weirdos that actually kind of liked Panic on Funkotron, (the sequel to this game that’s more of a platformer) but it’s also a completely different type of game. TJ&E1 is the rare game that essentially perfected everything on the first try. It’s a console roguelike with an irreverent 90’s sense of humor. What sets it apart from more common roguelikes is the fact that combat largely is not an option; though some weapons do exist, you’re largely working your way up through areas while avoiding enemies, not confronting them. But neither is it a stealth game. It’s just a weird game to mess around in for a while. Depending on how you come at it, you’ll either find that super boring or pleasantly chill.
Comix Zone is one of those games where I’m never really sure if I like it or not. The concept is fantastic — a comic book artist gets trapped within his own book and must escape before the villain he created takes over the real world. Levels are broken up into a series of panels that you can jump through, occasionally offering alternate pathways depending on which panels you jump to next. I guess my issue is that the combat feels really repetitive. They were probably trying to channel fighting games, given you usually fight enemies one at a time, and they all have tons of health. But with such a limited set of moves, combat gets old. It’s also weirdly difficult, where a single death means instant game over, no second chances. It’s probably to hide just how short the game is — Comix Zone can be cleared in as little as 30 minutes or less if you play your cards right. Still, it’s terrifically creative, and it’s worth seeing the comic book gimmick at least once.
Sonic the Hedgehog
With the benefit of retrospect on our side, I think it’s okay to say that the original Sonic the Hedgehog is, at this point, only the best of the worst 16-bit Sonic games. It was a landmark title and a welcome breath of fresh air for its era, but Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 added so much to these games that going back to Sonic 1 feels like more of a courtesy than anything. The difficulty pacing is all out of whack, with spikes in difficulty popping up in odd places. The level themes themselves also aren’t super memorable — we all love Green Hill Zone, but there’s a lot less affection for Marble Zone or Spring Yard. It’s good to learn your history, but don’t feel too bad if you don’t get around to seeing the credits roll on this one.
Altered Beast is another one of those historic games that you feel like you “need” on a collection like this, but you don’t really enjoy playing. It’s not terrible, I guess, I mean it’s not like Golden Axe or anything, but it’s a very old, very simple arcade game. Still, as long as you’re in the right mindset, you’ll find some enjoyment here. And I’d even argue that the Genesis port of Altered Beast is better than the arcade, considering it was rebalanced to be more fair for playing it at home, away from the environment of stealing a kid’s lunch money. That’s… good? I guess?
If you were to ask me which one of Treasure’s games I would consider a masterpiece, I’d probably say this game right here. Now, granted, I haven’t played Radiant Silvergun, Guardian Heroes or Silhouette Mirage, but there’s something about Gunstar Heroes that exudes a fun energy. The colorful graphics, the weapon combo system, the crazy bosses like Seven Force, stage gimmicks like the weird board game level, it’s all just pitch perfect. If you for some reason haven’t played Gunstar Heroes yet, you really need to rectify that, and maybe grab a friend for some co-op action while you’re at it.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
I don’t have to tell you that Sonic 2 is good. You know what this game is. It’s been getting re-released on the Sega Saturn, Dreamcast, PC, Playstation 2, Gamecube, Xbox, it got re-released multiple times on the 360 and PS3, it’s been on the DS, 3DS, mobile phones, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and has been a feature on those terrible AtGames plug-and-play TV consoles for ages. You aren’t buying this thing for Sonic 2, because you probably already own Sonic 2, because Sonic 2 is a great game. It’s no Sonic 3, but there are likely legal reasons preventing that game from appearing here. Sonic 2 is fine, too.
To me, Earthworm Jim is exemplary reference material for what happens in the pursuit of shiny graphics above all else. Here is a game that broke new ground in game animation, after its development team figured out a way to digitize traditional hand-drawn cartoon cels. Even now, it still looks really good in motion… but because the game prioritizes its beautiful animation over all else, it’s not always that fun to play. It can be hard to tell what piece of the artwork is a solid platform, or difficult to suss out the angle of your whip, for example. Sometimes it’s just mean on purpose, as some developers have admitted they would intentionally put absurd difficulty spikes in to their games to deter people from finishing them on a rental. Combined with the game’s wacky, manic sense of humor, it can be a little tough coming to grips with what’s going on, especially as the game progresses. Just be careful with this one, as your nostalgia might get spoiled.
Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse
I’ll admit, when I originally wrote my review for the HD remastered version of Castle of Illusion, I hadn’t put very much time in to the original game. In the early days of the Sega Genesis, before Sonic the Hedgehog, licensed games like this were how Sega made a name for themselves. Given I got my Genesis for Sonic, and the state of most other licensed games, I paid zero attention to Castle of Illusion. To me, it always seemed weird and awkward to play, which it is, but once you figure out the game’s rhythm it’s honestly pretty well made, considering the era. The main problems the game faces today are its controls — the whole game feels like it’s trapped perpetually underwater, with sluggish forward momentum and a terribly floaty jump. Master those and you’ll find a charmingly retro platformer.
World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck
When people mention Castle of Illusion, this is more often than not the game I think of, as it’s the one I’ve put the most time into. World of Illusion is graphically superior to Castle, but I’d say that causes some problems for the game, as the sluggish physics feel even worse here. The addition of a run button was probably meant to help, but even that feels way too slow — like running inside of a dream, where no matter how fast you run, it’s always slow motion. I also don’t like the fact they replaced bouncing on enemies with an inscrutable magic cape attack that forces you to stop moving in order to use it. Maybe that’s a nitpick, but it spoils what little flow this game has and isn’t very fun. That being said, a number have people have told me this game completely transforms when you play it in co-op — levels get modified to accommodate two players, and there’s a bunch of co-op exclusive mechanics, so maybe it’s not all bad.
Thunder Force III
I’ve never been one for shooters like this, not after playing Gradius III on the SNES and nearly popping a blood vessel over how difficult it was. Thunder Force III is no different, which incredibly fast action and nary a safety net between you and instant death. Over the years I’ve come to at least appreciate these kinds of games from afar, and Thunder Force III is definitely worth appreciating, with lots of complex moving sprites and a huge variety of environments and weapons. Plus, even if you’re bad at the game (like me), it opens with a stage select menu so you can at least see what everything looks like, even if you don’t survive to fight the boss.
Super Fantasy Zone
Contrary to Thunder Force III, Super Fantasy Zone isn’t your average shooter. Instead of forcing you down an automatically scrolling pathway, you’re given free reign to turn around and back off when things are getting too intense. As long as you destroy all of the things you’re tasked with destroying, it’s all good. There’s also a bit less of a focus on dodging impossible bullet patterns, and power-ups like the Wide Beam help you clear screens with ease. I still wouldn’t classify it as an easy game, but it’s definitely more approachable than the other shooters on this collection.
Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
Simply put, Shinobi III is one of the greatest action games ever made. For me, it’s all about the fidelity of control. Though you only have three buttons to work with (two, given the third isn’t used very often) your range of abilities far exceeds those limitations thanks to smart design and a focus on contextual actions. For example, though you can jump, timing a second jump press at the right moment gives you a double jump, and from a double jump you can unleash an extra powerful kunai attack. There’s also wall jumps, dive kicks, melee strikes, and more. It makes for an incredibly elegant game, backed up by fantastic level design, art direction, and tough boss fights.
Streets of Rage 2
I always like beat’em’ups more in theory than in execution, if for no other reason than how mind-numbingly repetitive they can get. A game like Turtles in Time is great fun right up until you realize you’ve been fighting the same four recolored enemies for the last 20 minutes. What sets Streets of Rage 2 apart, and what makes it one of the best beat’em’ups out there, is how it breaks up the monotony by constantly giving you new minibosses to defeat. It’s just another thug to beat up in a game about beating up thugs, but treating them like checkpoints and giving them bigger-than-usual health bars makes Streets of Rage 2 feel a little more goal-oriented than its brethren, because you have greater milestones to mark forward progress. A top-shelf soundtrack and solid controls help a lot, too, and it’s even better in co-op.
Contra Hard Corps
Konami was responsible for some of the meanest games of the 8 and 16-bit eras, I think. Many hours of gritted teeth and nearly-snapped controllers were spent behind games like Castlevania III, and other games of theirs would mock you for trying to take the easy way out. Sitting at the top is Contra Hard Corps, a game that I think rates as one of the most difficult things Konami ever released. To this day, I’m not entirely sure if I’ve ever made it to the end of the first stage. Enemies are endless, move very quickly, and the screen is so flooded with explosion effects that it’s easy to lose track of where you are amidst the chaos. As I’ve matured, I’ve grown to appreciate these games even if I’m not very good at them, but just be warned: if this is your first time playing Hard Corps, it will mop the floor with you. Though, here’s a big pro tip: if you switch to the Japanese version, its difficulty is rebalanced to be a little easier.
People often talk of the days of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, where all the side-scrolling games of yore were expected to adapt to the third dimension. It was an awkward time of maturation for the industry, like a weird technological puberty full of just as many Super Mario 64’s as Bubsy 3D’s. Landstalker beat them all to the punch, though. Though this game is constructed with sprites, its isometric perspective brings to mind 3D environments. There’s just one problem: it tries to retain the control of a 2D game. What this means is that it tries to maintain the specific input of going “forward” or “backward” even though you have four directions available. To move in a different direction, you must rotate your character, done by pushing one of the diagonals. So, sometimes you push up on the d-pad, and your character walks to the left, and other times, pushing up causes your character to walk to the right. Nothing feels relative to natural 3D movement as we know it today, making the game nearly impossible to penetrate. Which is a shame, because visually it’s great and the dialog seems charming. But if you can’t play it, you can’t play it.
Mega Man: The Wily Wars
If we’re being honest, a lot of my excitement for the Genesis Mini comes things like this. Wily Wars, if you’ve never heard of it, is a 16-bit remaster of the first three 8-bit Mega Man games, with an extra, exclusive side story tacked on at the end after you finish the trilogy. It’s special largely because America sort of never officially got this game — it came out on a cartridge in Europe and Japan, but was exclusive to the Sega Channel in the west, meaning it was only VERY temporarily available. Now I guess SOME version of Wily Wars has turned up on one of those plug-n-play AtGames consoles, but this appears to be the first time the real, actual, North American version of the game has ever been released, hot off the Sega Channel in 1994. In the move from NES to Genesis, certain elements have been tweaked, however — Robot Master patterns seem to be slightly different, some weapons do different amounts of damage, controls are a little more sticky, and Mega Man 2 is missing its “Normal” difficulty, for example. If you’re a Mega Man obsessive who hasn’t played this yet, those are things to keep in mind; but it’s nice to have such a rare game (or collection of games) in any format.