Britain’s favourite console is a quarter of a century old, but from Streets Of Rage 2 to Micro Machines, which are its greatest games?
The Mega Drive was originally released in Japan on October 29, 1988. It then launched in North America, as the Sega Genesis, on April 14, 1989. As was common back in those days we in the UK had to wait two years for the console to be released here. But when November 30, 1990 finally rolled around Europe turned out to be the Mega Drive’s biggest fan. Certainly in the UK, where the NES had never had much of a foothold and the Sega Master System was already more popular, the Mega Drive’s 16-bit blast processing was welcomed with open arms.
Although less powerful than Nintendo’s SNES, in terms of both graphics and sound, the Mega Drive was released first and made good use of Sega’s predominance in the arcades. But what really sold the console in the UK was the alternative Sega offered to Nintendo’s family friendly image.
It wasn’t just that the games tended to feature more overt violence (many multiformat games on the SNES included green blood and other forms of censorship – most infamously in the original Mortal Kombat) but that Sega’s marketing tended to be more edgy and aggressive.
In fact although the 16-bit era was still dominated by Japanese companies, the foundations of the modern games market were clearly laid down during Sega’s watch. Western publishers found it much easier to get on with Sega rather than Nintendo, which saw the introduction of more realistic sports games and titles that pushed the envelope in terms of what kind of adult material was acceptable in a console game.
It’s not an irony that the Mega Drive’s biggest hit was still the family-friendly Sonic The Hedgehog, but more an example of how the Mega Drive was able to appeal to a wider demographic of gamer. But unfortunately Sega squandered its early lead and, hampered by a lack of success in Japan, the Mega Drive was handily outsold by the SNES worldwide.
It definitely won the console war in the UK, but that never really helped Sega who, despite rallying again with the Dreamcast, eventually gave up making consoles – and have now almost given up making console games entirely. As a result many of the games in the list below are part of what are essentially dead franchises, which seems horribly unfair.
These 12 games are our personal favourites, but we’re sure you’ve got your own preference – so let us know what they are in the comments or at the usual email address.

1. Sonic The Hedgehog 3 (1994)

If it wasn’t for Sonic then the Mega Drive probably wouldn’t have been more than a footnote in gaming history. It was the ultimate killer app, in that not only did it sell the console but Sonic himself become the mascot for the whole of Sega. It’s impossible not to include Sonic in any list like this, so the question only becomes which one is the best. Some prefer the second, and the first is still the most iconic, but the size and complexity of the levels in number three makes it our favourite. Especially with the improved co-op options and the ability to connect it to Sonic & Knuckles for the complete experience. One it’s become increasingly obvious is never going to be bettered by any subsequent games.

2. Gunstar Heroes (1993)

There are mountains of great action platformers on the Mega Drive, but Gunstar Heroes stands above them all. One of several classics by cult developer Treasure (Dynamite Headdy and Alien Soldier are also excellent, as well as the import-only Yu Yu Hakusho: Makyo Toitsusen) the imagination and variety of the gameplay and set pieces make it an all-time classic to this very day. A 2D platform shooter, its non-stop action is gloriously inventive, but as is true of all Treasure games there’s a surprising complexity in the controls and weapons for those that chose to explore them. And its made even better by the superb two-player co-op option.

3. Streets of Rage II (1993)

Acclaiming Streets Of Rage II as the best scrolling beat ’em-up of all time doesn’t mean as much as it might, given that they don’t really make this sort of game any more. But it’s hard to understand why when you consider just how much fun Streets Of Rage II still is. One of the best-looking games on the Mega Drive, and with one of the best soundtracks of the entire 16-bit era, the surprisingly varied combat and enemies are a joy to slash, punch, and explode your way through. Especially with another friend playing co-op.

4. Micro Machines: Turbo Tournament 96 (1995)

Another game for which there is almost no modern day equivalent (although Toybox Turbos by original publisher Codemasters comes relatively close) this was the definitive multiplayer game of the Mega Drive era. It’s a top-down racer that elegantly solved the problem of what happens when players start falling behind, and off the screen, by making that part of the scoring system. Equally clever is that the ‘J-Cart’ came with two extra ports to plug in more controllers, so you could have four players straight off the bat or even eight players if two people share a joypad. This version of the game was a minor update on Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament, with extra courses and a track editor.

5. Shining Force II (1994)

Although the Mega Drive didn’t have much in the way of traditional role-playing games it did excel at more unique variations on the genre. This tactical role-player is the equal of any of the Fire Emblem games, with impressive freedom of movement, likeable characters, and complex but fast-paced combat. The presentation and music is excellent too, making the game more accessible than even most similar games released today. The old school, first person role-playing of sister series Shining In The Darkness was also great, and it’s real shame Sega hasn’t treated the franchise better in modern times.

6. Thunder Force IV (1993)

Easily the greatest 2D shooter on the Mega Drive, this is still one of the very best games in the entire genre. The level design, set pieces, and bosses are absolutely top notch, and supported by some of the most impressive graphics and music on the console. Known in America as Lightening Force: Quest For The Darkstar, this is arguably better than any similar game on the SNES or PC Engine (which was particularly known for its 2D shooters). Again, it’s just a shame that the series no longer lives on today.

7. Shinobi III: Return Of The Ninja Master (1993)

The Revenge Of Shinobi tends to be the one most people remember, but it’s the sequel that we regard as the pinnacle of the franchise. It has better graphics, a bigger range of moves, and a fine disregard for any sort of plausibility or causality in its plotline. More than any of Sega’s other coin-op franchises Shinboi really blossomed on the Mega Drive, adding enough depth and variety to keep your interest while still maintaining the original’s simple charms. It’s just a real shame Sega was never able to successfully transition it into a 3D game.

8. Probotector (1994)

Europe really got the short end of the stick when it came to Contra in the 16-bit era. Because of concerns over its violence all its red-blooded human protagonists, and even some of the enemies, were changed to robots and the franchise renamed to Probotector (and before that Gryzor). Thankfully they were the same games underneath, because Hard Corps is arguably the best game in the series and one of the best 2D action platformers of all time. The wonderfully inventive set pieces and gloriously over-the-top bosses are another example of a franchise at the peak of its achievements.

9. Herzog Zwei (1990)

It may not be what it’s best remembered for but the Mega Drive played a surprising role in the genesis (some pun intended) of the real-time strategy game. Before hosting a version of Dune II there was the little known Herzog Zwei, which is now widely regarded as the progenitor of the entire genre – and by association MOBAs as well. Although you control a transforming robot you’re also able to purchase and airlift ground units and issue them orders, just like a modern RTS. The multiplayer is particularly good and it’s a real shame the game never really got the recognition it deserved, either then or now.

10. Phantasy Star IV (1995)

The Mega Drive wasn’t very successful in Japan and there’s one simple reason for that: a lack of role-playing games, although the few it did have tended to be very good – such as as LandStalker and The Story Of Thor (aka Beyond Oasis). But it never had a franchise to go up against giants such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. The closest contender was this final entry in Sega’s epic sci-fi series, before it was transformed into the online action games you might be more familiar with today. The original four games were excellent old school role-players, with deep but accessible gameplay, a decent story, and great graphics and sound.

11. Jungle Strike (1993)

As you’d expect for the era most of the games on this list are Japanese-developed, but the early to mid-nineties is when EA first emerged as a major publishing force. They never really supported Nintendo platforms even back then, but their officially-licensed sports games, such as Madden and FIFA, were hugely important milestones in the history of gaming. The Strike series has since fallen by the wayside but isometric shooter Desert Strike, and its sequel, were no less important to EA’s emergence as a gaming power. More importantly they were great games, with a tactical element that gave them an edge over other more brainless shooters.

12. Strider (1991)

One of Sega’s major leverages with the Mega Drive was its dominance in the arcades at the time. But in truth very few of its coin-op conversions worked particularly well. Either because the Mega Drive couldn’t replicate them properly (OutRun and Power Drift) or they just didn’t stand up to repeated play at home (Altered Beast and Golden Axe). Capcom’s Strider though was more authentic than any of Sega’s own titles, and the coin-op’s unusual depth and variety meant it worked great as a home game.The Mega Drive version even had a better soundtrack than the original.





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