Retro Review Slew, The Revenge
Street Fighter II: Special Champion Edition
I get why this game is on here, because Street Fighter II was a titanic presence. It literally kickstarted the entire fighting game scene as we know it today. SNES, Genesis, whatever, it doesn’t matter — you put a version of Street Fighter II on it. But why did it have to be this version? Super Street Fighter II came out on the Genesis too, and you’d expect that would be the version people would want to play. The roster here feels a bit slim, otherwise, given its missing notables like Cammy and… uh, the rest. There’s also the problem where the Genesis Mini comes with a three-button controller, when this game is only really functional with six buttons. When stuck with just three buttons, punches and kicks must be toggled using the start button, which is functional in the same way playing baseball with golf clubs is “functional.” Sure, you’ll figure it out eventually, but why bother?
My fondness for Sonic Spinball begins and ends with its first level, Toxic Caves. If that was the template for the rest of the game, it would be a perfect combination of pinball and platformer. But Spinball’s levels get bigger, and more complex, and even bigger, and even more complex, so on and so forth. Even by the game’s second level, Lava Powerhouse, it starts to feel like too much to keep track of, as you have nested pinball tables stacked within each other three or four deep. There, a single missed shot can invalidate minutes of play as you tumble down, and down, and down, sometimes back to the very beginning of the level. It only gets worse and more tedious from there. So, just do like I do: play until you finish Toxic Caves, then shut the game off and consider it done. It’s just that simple.
Phantasy Star IV
Growing up as a child of the 16-bit console wars, it was always Final Fantasy vs. Phantasy Star. There were plenty of other JRPGs to choose from (though most were on Nintendo’s side), but those were the heaviest hitters. Nintendo had FF, Sega had PS. And for decades, Phantasy Star was a series I always wanted to try, but never had access to. Here, now, finally playing it for myself… it’s good! There’s a very distinct flavor to Phantasy Star that sets it apart from Final Fantasy; it’s got almost kind of a 1980’s Macross vibe to its art direction, and cutscenes are actually more lavish than Final Fantasy’s, thanks to manga-style panels that cut in over the action. This actually strengthens character interactions quite a bit over Final Fantasy scenes of the era, and Phantasy Star has a much stronger sense of humor, too. In terms of gameplay, it’s functionally identical to Final Fantasy. The wallpaper is different, but you’re still moving from town to town, fighting turn-based battles. It’s just now the “Fire” spell is called “Foi.” It’s a tried-and-true formula, so this isn’t necessarily a complaint, and I actually wish newer Final Fantasies would go back to this structure.
I’m definitely more familiar with this game’s Sega Saturn sequel, Legend of Oasis, but I know that neither game gripped me enough that I’ve ever finished them. Which is a shame, because at the same time, I feel inexorably drawn to them. There’s something very appealing about the way characters look in this game, and the relaxing, ambient music is incredibly soothing. But, then, that’s the issue right there; these games lack the immediacy of something like The Legend of Zelda. Their worlds are laid out more organically, but that doesn’t translate to a more engaging game. Inevitably, I get lost or stuck on a puzzle and never follow through from there (and speaking more about the Saturn version, it doesn’t help that the console erases all of your saves once the internal battery dies). One day, though. One day I’ll give these games the attention they deserve, because they seem really cool.
Ghouls ‘N Ghosts
Ghouls ‘N Ghosts was a game I loved to hate when it was on the NES. Its characters and its artwork was super charming, but the NES port was kind of a disaster that barely played like the arcade original. Sega got a much more accurate port of that arcade game here, and it’s still very charming… and I still love to hate it. These games are legendary for their punishing difficulty, and the Genesis version is no different. If you’ve never played one of these before, I don’t just mean that they’re difficult. Lots of games are difficult. But Ghouls ‘N Ghosts will fight you. It will spit in your face. Kick sand in your eyes. It plays dirty. One does not simply finish Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, it must be conquered, because nothing less will suffice. This game hates you, it doesn’t want you to win, and so you must teach it a lesson, or else it will teach one to you. Sound good? If so, best of luck to you. May strongth well up within your body.
Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle
Fans of Alex Kidd, I’m sorry. I’ve never been one for any of these games. I didn’t try any of the Alex Kidd series until around the Playstation 2 Era, and they all seem kind of mediocre. At the very least, intensely dated. It’s no wonder Sega ditched this guy as their mascot. The worst part is, this is probably one of the best Alex Kidd games. But he’s incredibly slow, and fragile, combined with slippery controls. Landing a punch on anything means you have to get so close you can basically kiss it, and if you fumble any part of that, it’s an instant death. You also get a flying kick when you jump, but the hit detection is so finicky that it may as well be useless. It makes for a game where you might get a Game Over from the first enemy. I don’t mean to invalidate the love Alex Kidd fans have for these games, but they also probably played these games in a context that created formative memories for them. I never had that context, Alex Kidd just feels old in the worst ways. Sorry, folks.
Yesterday I was talking about beat’em’ups and how they’re usually too repetitive to be much fun. Not only does Golden Axe fit that description, but it just kind of sucks in general. This is a very old game, and a very simple game. There is no such thing as move variety — you have a single, very basic combo, and a dashing attack, and that’s kind of it. Everything about the way this game plays feels like slow agony, as enemies trap you in attack patterns that are difficult to break free from. There’s a magic system, but you only get to use it maybe twice per level. Even the music is flat, slow, and repetitive. I’m sure it’s probably more fun in co-op, but that’s more to do with the fact you’re hanging out with a friend and less because Golden Axe is actually built from fun mechanics. You can see a pedigree here that probably lead to the creation of something like Streets of Rage, but all that really means is that you should play Streets of Rage instead.
To me, Vectorman deserves more respect than he gets. This first game here is actually really good, once you get past the fiddly second level (protip: mash the shoot button as fast as you can, until your fingers hurt). It was kind of positioned as Sega’s Donkey Kong Country, which is to say it was meant to be a game that pushed the hardware its absolute limits. Vectorman does do this — seeing it in motion is incredible, and there are things it does with animation, and directional lighting, and particle effects that shouldn’t have been possible on the Genesis. It is nothing short of a technical masterpiece, and it’s still a pretty good shooter, too. The problem with Vectorman is his legacy. Sega almost totally abandoned the Genesis after the first Vectorman; though we got a Vectorman 2, it lacks the care and polish of this first game, possibly stemming from theoretical slashed development budgets and shorter release deadlines (it was sent out to die, essentially). After that, the last time anyone heard of Vectorman was an ill-fated PS2 reboot that was such a bad idea it was canceled after Sega released only a single gameplay video. None of that should diminish from the fact that this game right here is still great fun.
Wonder Boy in Monster World
Nintendo had Super Metroid, but what did Sega have that was comparable? Not much, as it turns out. There was Tails Adventures on the Game Gear, but if you were looking for a Metroidvania fix on a console, well… there was Wonder Boy in Monster World, and that was kind of it. Thankfully, the game is pretty decent, though the hyper-cutesy graphics and slow movement speed may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s also a little closer to an RPG than a typical Metroid-style exploratory adventure; there’s dungeons to delve, currency to earn, towns to visit, NPCs to chat up, and shops to… well, shop at. For being one of the only games of its type on the platform, Wonder Boy seems to do alright.
Folks, I’ve got bad news. Despite the fact that this is apparently a brand new port of the arcade version of the so-called “Sega Tetris,” I think it’s… bad. It’s really bad, in fact. I think this is the worst version of Tetris I’ve played to date. It’s simply not responsive, like, at all. You can’t rotate pieces until they’re more than one space down from the top of the well. You can’t rotate pieces if they’re too close too a wall, either. Once they touch the bottom of a surface, they lock into place way too fast, giving you minimal time to correct mistakes. And then there’s the game’s speed. Most versions of Tetris tie drop speed to how many lines you’ve cleared. Not so with Sega Tetris — game speed ramps up independently until it reaches a peak, after which it will suddenly slow back down again, seemingly independent of anything the player may be doing. On paper that sounds like a great idea, because it creates natural pacing. In practice, it means no matter how fast or slow you play, the drop speed feels arbitrary and random. I love me some Tetris, but I found this to be nearly unplayable.
This is another intensely interesting game on this collection, because up to this point, Darius has never been released on the Sega Genesis before. My understanding is that this is actually a homebrew piece of software that M2 and Taito worked out a deal to include in this collection. The original Darius is notable for being a crazy horizontal shooter displayed across multiple televisions, giving it an ultra, ultra wide screen display. Obviously that can’t work here, but the port seems to be solid otherwise, and it even includes an easier mode that lets you keep all of your upgraded weapons after you die.
Virtua Fighter 2
I am continually baffled that somebody at Sega thinks this is the version of Virtua Fighter 2 that needs to be the most easily playable. It’s the port that just doesn’t want to go away, turning up on collections for years in spite of the fact I can’t find anyone that actually wants to play it. I mean, technically it’s not unplayable or anything like that, but it’s far away from what Virtua Fighter 2 should be. Just like nobody’s out there playing the SNES version of Street Fighter Alpha 2, or the Playstation 1 version of Marvel vs. Capcom, nobody who cares about Virtua Fighter 2 is playing it on the Sega Genesis. Not when it came out, and definitely not in the modern era. And yet, here it is, like a horror movie monster you can’t escape from. The sad part is, this is probably the best-playing fighting game in this collection, because it’s the only one that still works well on a three-button controller.
Alisia Dragoon is a game I’ve only ever heard of by name; until this point, I’ve never actually seen it in motion. And… folks, I just don’t know how to describe this game. I guess it’s a shooter, but aiming doesn’t matter, because your one attack is a lightning bolt that automatically homes in on enemies. There’s a kind of RPG-style leveling up system, where you can power your lightning up, and can pick from one of around five different familiars/animal buddies that act, in shooter terms, sort of as your “option.” (aka an orbiting satellite that helps you shoot) Familiars can be powered up, too. And since all your shots automatically home in, the game has no qualms constantly flooding screens with 12+ enemies in endless wave after wave. It’s different, and complex, and has really nice sprites. An interesting curiosity, and unlike anything else I’ve ever played.
Monster World IV
Famously, this game wasn’t released in America originally, despite being among the best of the Monster World franchise. It’s not really known why, but sometime during the Wii Virtual Console, Sega went through and gave the game a proper English localization. It also found its way to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, but this is the first time Sega’s put out a new version of this game in over six years. Much like Wonder Boy in Monster World, this is a charming little Metroidvania, but instead of a knight, you play as a girl, Asha. The vibe of this game seems considerably more relaxed this time around. At least in the game’s early hours, as long as you’re paying attention, it’s not an especially hard game. But given how warm and inviting its characters and world are, that might be exactly what you’re looking for. It never fails to endear me, that’s for sure.
Kid Chameleon is a window into an early era of Sega, when they were desperate for any kind of success whatsoever… including trying to copy the success of other companies, here obviously being Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. Now that’s not entirely fair to Kid Chameleon, which feels a little more in the spectrum of The Great Giana Sisters, which was notable for being… a clone of Super Mario Bros. released for the Commodore 64. Hm. It also has a little bit of the weirdo DNA from the Super Mario Land series for the Gameboy, but obviously by now you should take note I’ve only spoken of this game in relation to other games it feels like. Kid Chameleon was kind of every game back then, and not exactly Sega’s most creative output at the time. You could do worse than Kid Chameleon, I guess, but you should definitely do better.
Road Rash II
I have to wonder how many people today even know what Road Rash is. In retrospect, I’m not even sure, but there was a bright flash in the 90’s where this was one of the coolest games available on any system. Consider it the descendant of Outrun and the progenitor of Need for Speed, I guess. You race motorcycles, and avoid being caught by the cops. The bit that made you feel really naughty when you were 9 or 10 years old is the addition of being able to punch and kick other racers until they fall off their bikes. There are even weapons, like clubs and chain whips. Honestly, it’s great fun even now, weaving in and out of traffic, knocking rivals off their bikes with a well timed thwack. The only bummer is the framerate — Road Rash II hovers somewhere in the range of 10-15fps, which is a slide show, largely thanks to its pseudo-3D race tracks. Now, this could have been fixed; if you use an emulator like RetroArch, it’s possible to overclock the Sega Genesis CPU, which can help improve the performance of Road Rash II. Doing so does introduce new quirks in to the animation and control, given the game wasn’t made to run at higher framerates, so I guess M2 opted to present this game faithfully. Fair enough, I suppose.
If I had to guess, this exists because they probably wanted Mortal Kombat, but couldn’t get it (either because of its rating, or licensing trouble). Sega owns Eternal Champions, so it was considered to be the next best thing. And I guess it kind of is. There’s nothing really wrong with Eternal Champions, outside of some very grainy graphics. Well, that and the fact it’s in the exact same boat as Street Fighter II, where it pretty much demands a six-button controller to be considered playable. But it seems to play well enough, at first glance. It’s just… look around, y’know? There was never an Eternal Champions 2, not really (Sega CD Special Edition aside). There’s probably a reason for that, right? This came out on the very dawn of the fighting game over-saturation point, so it’s not like it really got washed out in the flood. Surely that conveys some greater, more long-term meaning than anything I could glean about this game’s balance, mechanics, or character design. But, honestly, it’s really not that bad. It’s no Shaq-Fu, or anything like that. So if you still hold a torch for Eternal Champions, you do you, I suppose. But I went 20+ years without thinking about this game until now.
To me, Columns always felt like Sega desperately trying to prove that they, too, could have cool non-Tetris puzzle games. These days, Columns is barely even an atom compared to the thousands of mobile puzzle games, and all of them have way more robust gameplay. Columns is kind of just a weird gimmick forced to become a whole game. Imagine this: a match-three puzzle game where you can’t rotate the falling pieces, you can only shuffle their vertical order. That’s it. That’s all Columns is. There are worse puzzle games, probably, but I usually get bored of matching shapes in grandma’s candy dish before the game actually approaches anything resembling a challenge, because there’s not enough here to really learn or do.
Playing the Genesis Mini has lead me to something of a revelation regarding Treasure, the developer of Dynamite Headdy (and Gunstar Heroes, etc.) Treasure was, essentially, the original Platinum Games. A lot of their games carry similar hallmarks — high energy gameplay, wildly creative output, and masterful action. And just like Platinum is now, their efforts were under-appreciated. Treasure’s output began to falter as they tried and failed to raise money for original projects by doing licensed games. Eventually they were bought out by a bigger publisher (Sega) and slowly slipped quietly into the total irrelevancy. That last part has yet to come to pass for Platinum, but if the timeline works out, that makes Dynamite Headdy the equivalent to Platinum’s Vanquish, or something like that. It’s a game I struggled to appreciate because I can feel that I’m not playing it right, and there’s little indication from the game itself of what the “right way” even looks like. Watching someone else beat the first boss on Youtube helped a bit, though, and playing it on the Genesis Mini is probably the first time I’ve ever seen past the second level. Now I’m bummed out that I let myself sleep on this game for so long. (Update: after doing a little more research, it would appear Sega does not own Treasure. It certainly looks that way from the outside, given how often Sega has republished Treasure’s Genesis and Saturn games over the years. Apologies for any confusion, though really, this just adds more confusion, if you ask me.)
Sega’s whole pitch for the Genesis originally was that it brought the arcade home better than any console to come before it, and it did that with top-shelf ports of most of Sega’s greatest arcade games. That’s partially why the Genesis Mini so stuffed full of games like Altered Beast and Golden Axe, because those games being so accurate to their arcade machines was considered a strength of the platform. Sega also personally handled this port of Capcom’s Strider, and unless you look at the two side-by-side, you’d never know this was anything less than arcade perfect. The NES version of Strider was some kind of a weird pseudo-Metroidvania, but this is a pure, classic, arcade-style action game, and it’s just as tough as one, too. No part of this game was sanded down or smoothed out for its console conversion; even though it contains a brand new “Easy” difficulty, it really isn’t that much easier than the base game, so be prepared to put up a fight with this one.
It’s hard to believe this is a game developed by Treasure, of all people. In addition to genre-defining action, they were known for their technical prowess, as well. Being an RPG, even an action-RPG, Light Crusader is a much slower experience than you’d typically get from them. Still, they do try to flex their technical muscle, with impressive spell effects, massive boss fights, and something approaching a basic physics system. Unfortunately, all it’s ever really used for is pushing boxes and exploding barrels around, so there’s nothing new on that front. It’s probably not fair to call it a bad game; it has decent graphics and it controls somewhat okay, but it’s one that you’ll probably have to play with a guide next to you, because it honestly doesn’t tell you anything about how to play. Presumably it came with a very detailed instruction booklet that outlined some basic info, but without that, you’re doubly in the dark. Good luck.