Nostalgia has become big business for the games industry in recent years: Nintendo’s recent mini-versions of the NES and Super NES sold as quickly as they could be manufactured, Bandai Namco resurrected Pac-Man surprisingly convincingly and most publishers with a retro back-catalogue have released compilations for the current crop of consoles. Now it’s Sega’s turn, and few back-catalogues are more impressive than that of its 16-bit console, the Mega Drive, which first appeared in 1988.
The UK public, in particular, took to the Mega Drive far more enthusiastically than it did to its great rival, Nintendo’s Super NES. Its success bred what was then an untouchable portfolio of games, no fewer than 50 of which feature in Sega Mega Drive Classics. A large proportion of those do live up to the “Classics” tag: four Sonic** games, three Golden Axe games, three Phantasy Star iterations, three Streets of Rage instalments, Virtua Fighter 2, Space Harrier II and arcade favourite Altered Beast* are all present and correct.
So scrolling shooters, RPGs, platform games and beat-em-ups are well represented. One of the joys of a retro classics compilation is its archaeological element, enabling you to see the green shoots from which familiar games genres developed. Sega Mega Drive Classics is particularly good in that regard since its 16-bit, pixelated contents look laughable ancient compared to today’s 3D, 4K efforts.
Gameplay-wise, however, it’s often a different story: in that regard, there’s plenty to marvel at. Such as the frenetic, responsive pace of the Sonic The Hedgehog games, Space Harrier II’s pseudo-3D, fully formed third-person shooting, the burgeoning sophistication of the Phantasy Star games and Golden Axe’s surprisingly familiar fantasy-action vibe — plus the sheer satisfaction and addictiveness of the Streets of Rage games.
The sheer breadth of the games in Sega Mega Drive Classics should cater for all tastes, and the games mentioned above are the ones which should make everyone happy. However, if you delve around among the less heralded titles, there are plenty of unexpected gems (along with a few absolute duffers). Comix Zone, for example, not only looks more magnificent than anything so pixelated really ought to, but feels genuinely innovative, thanks to its clever device of sending you through a comic-book, frame by frame.
Action-brawler Alien Storm is hilarious, thanks to its Mars Attacks! vibe and comically constructed aliens – plus it’s surprisingly good to play thanks to frenetic top-down shooting interludes. The turn-based Shining Force RPGs offer surprisingly deep gameplay. Beyond Oasis is very reminiscent of early Zelda games. The two Shinobi titles are packed with ninja atmosphere, although Shinobi III’s controls are an order of magnitude smoother than those of The Revenge of Shinobi.
Some of the games do leave you thinking: “Is that it?” though. Most notably the two Toejam and Earl instalments, which have lovely, quirky, funky-alien vibes, but precious little gameplay to speak of. The same applies to Alex Kidd In The Enchanted Castle, which just feels hopelessly clunky.
Sega Mega Drive Classics deserves plaudits for its general presentation, dropping you into a loving facsimile of a late-1980s bedroom, including a neatly stacked games library. Select a game and its cartridge is slipped into a virtual Mega Drive sitting under an old CRT television. All the games which supported two players – and there are lots – can be played either locally or via the web, and you can even mess around with emulation settings for the virtual Mega Drive.
If we had a criticism, it would be that the vast majority of our favourite third-party titles that came out for the Mega Drive are absent – the emphasis is very much on Sega games, presumably for licensing reasons. Sure, Sega was a massive player in games publishing at the time, but it would have been so nice to have been able to play the likes of Cannon Fodder, Micro Machines, Sensible Soccer, Desert Strike and OutRun again.
However, if you’re sufficiently interested in games to want to find out more about their origins, and to trace lines between the games of 30 years ago and those we have today, you couldn’t really do better than to acquire a copy of Sega Mega Drive Classics. It contains a laudable mix of stone-cold classics and intriguing curiosities. It would take you months to work through its 50-game library, and in doing so, you’d be likely to find yourself musing about the refreshing simplicity of gameplay in the early days of videogames, and how having to overcome the limitations of the technology that was around in the late 1980s bred a surprising level of inventiveness. If you fancy yourself as something of a gaming archaeologist, Sega Mega Drive Classics is a must-buy.