“SEEEEEEEGAAAAAAA” — it’s a familiar startup chime many of us remember all too well. Accompanying the opening sequence of the iconic Sonic the Hedgehog games on the Sega Genesis, the 16-bit tone would soon become synonymous with the Japanese developer’s claim to fame, an audio landmark for a cartridge-based console that would disappear from shelves a decade later (except in Brazil, apparently). It was the counterpart to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, the ying to the yang, and what many believe to be one of the best gaming systems ever conceived. Its jet-black build housed a Motorola 68000 CPU, along with a Zilog Z80 sub-processor, providing then-gorgeous 16-bit animation and backwards compatibility with Sega Master System. Simply put, it was a fine machine, one bolstered by nearly 1,000 titles from both Sega and renowned third-party developers like EA and Rare.
However, not all Genesis titles were standouts. Whereas the blood-soaked battles of Mortal Kombat II, the science-fiction-infused fanfare of Phantasy Star IV and the rollicking adventures of everyone’s favorite blue hedgehog soared in sales, the system was also laden with downright-terrible platformers like Awesome Possum and the atrocious Slaughter Sport. While the 16-bit era’s games were hit-or-miss, it was still an extraordinary period of growth and maturation for video games, spawning some of the most beloved franchises in the medium’s relatively short history. The Genesis was discontinued in ’97 and succeeded by the high-priced Sega Saturn — $400 was even steeper back then — but a used Genesis console will only set you back $50 or so on the usual second-hand retail outlets. Chinese manufacturer AtGames even makes an updated rendition of the console costing as low as $30 if you’re shopping for a simple taste of nostalgia on a barebones budget. Here are our top picks for the best Sega Genesis games, so you can avoid the duds and revisit only the best the system had to offer.
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25. Madden NFL ’94
U.S. Release Date: February 18, 1994
Developer: Tiburon Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
With more than 20 cross-platform titles donning his name, it’s safe to say John Madden has a good thing going for him. However, Madden NFL ’94 was introduced long before graphics were nearly lifelike and DT staffers started using the franchise to predict real-world outcomes. It was the first game in the series to feature a rotating camera during punts and interceptions, offer a fully-featured regular season, and — get this — official NFL licensing. It was American football simulation at its finest, with game modes to match.
However, being a sports game, Madden NFL ’94 lacked a propulsive storyline. Players can still dabble in a variety of game modes under a myriad of weather conditions, though, whether they want to try a normal exhibition match or even a sudden death overtime game.
24. Herzog Zwei
U.S. Release Date: April, 1990
Publisher: Technosoft, Sega
Before Starcraft and Command and Conquer, there was Herzog Zwei. One of the earliest real-time strategy games, Herzog Zwei put layers in control of a giant mech with which they could engage enemies and purchase units for assistance purposes. You could purchase eight units and victory across the game’s eight levels required knowledge of how to properly utilize them. Each unit featured its own strengths and limitations, too, requiring you to adapt based on the circumstances.
The individual stages also came with their own environmental hazards that players had to contend with. A few levels even include bodies of water, allowing for naval combat. Herzog Zwei may seem a little basic by the RTS standards of today, but it lay the groundwork for the titans that would follow and it’s hectic gameplay renders it one a remarkable experience on the Genesis. The game bears no relation to noted German filmmaker, Werner Herzog.
U.S. Release Date: July 29, 1993
Developer: Novotrade International
Ecco the Dolphin has seemingly been given a second shot in the hands of creator Ed Annunziat, but I doubt a next-gen rendition of Sega’s second-in-command mascot could trump the waterlogged roots of the series’ past. Ecco the Dolphin, the first in the Ecco series, oversaw the time-traveling escapades of a bottlenose dolphin — not to mention his hostile encounters with a group of marine-life-abducting extraterrestrials.
Despite its childlike appearance however, the title was one of the toughest on the console, offering little in the way of clues and helpful tips for spurring the initial storyline or navigating the maze-like crevasses spanning Atlantis to the Atlantic. The 25 stages were tropical and eye-catching upon the game’s debut, the controls novel and innovative given the four-direction mechanics, while additional facets like Ecco’s requirement for air added an even deeper level of difficulty. You can also ram schools of sharks, use sonar to communicate with a massive blue whale and destroy the Vortex Queen on a level named after a cut from Pink Floyd’s seminal 1975 album, Wish You Were Here. Not bad for a title that can be beaten within a mere hour if you know what you’re doing.
22. Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker
U.S. Release Date: August 24, 1990
Developer: Sega AM7
The King of Pop may be dead and gone, but surely his legacy lives on (in Moonwalker nonetheless). Whereas the arcade incarnation of the title focused on beat-em-up mechanics, the home console version was a bit more of a platformer, revolving around Jackson’s dance-fueled journey to save a group of kidnapped children from the clutches of one Mr. Big.
Each of the game’s five levels are interspersed with remnants of the late singer’s career, whether it be his iconic dance moves or notorious vocal shouts, and audibly adorned with hits such “Smooth Criminal,” “Beat It” and other songs culled from Jackson’s resounding back catalog. The animations and backdrops are fluid, spanning colorful clubs and dark caverns, and filled an assortment of baddies which players can punch and kick in a slew of Jackson-stylized hallmark maneuvers. To make matters more strange, shooting stars will even transform the player into an artillery-equipped cyborg — that is, when the player isn’t taunting opponents with crotch grabs and spreading contagious dances moves about the streets. It’s slowly become a cult favorite, even more since the singer’s death in 2009, but don’t let the limelight dissuade you.
21. Comix Zone
U.S. Release Date: August, 1995
Developer: Sega Technical Institute
Eat your heart out Marvel. There’s no doubt comic book-inspired video games have littered the landscape since the beginning, but few of them reveled in the artistic aesthetics of comic books quite like Comix Zone. The quirky title, developed by Sega Technical Institute and introduced during the last wave of Genesis games, revolves around starving artist Sketch Turner and his rat companion, Roadkill. Turner is essentially trapped within his own comic book by the villainous Mortis, thus forcing the would-be writer to battle through six stages of Mortis-sketched enemies and environments to survive.
However, Comix Zone‘s merit doesn’t lie in the storyline or the title’s beat-em-up gameplay; it’s the visuals and overall artistic design making that title a standout, adorned with gorgeous, hand-drawn comic book panels and chat bubbles through which Turner must navigate. Although the game only has two alternate endings, each level features branching paths, providing a higher replay value and variety of gameplay. Like most brawlers of the era, players must perform punch, kick and jump attacks within each panel to proceed, or solve a simple puzzle if they ever hope to move outside the frame. Special moves and inventory items are an additional bonus, along with Roadkill’s innate ability to discover hidden abilities given his keen sense of smell, but it’s still the unique artwork that makes Comix Zone the tour de force that it is.