“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 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.
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. You can also pick up one of the various Genesis retro consoles such as this one, which has 81 pre-installed games for $60. 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.
Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker
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.
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.
Most people who recognize the name Game Freak only know it as the company behind the Pokemon franchise. That’s hardly surprising given Pokemon is a global media empire and Game Freak seems to produce new entries in the franchise every year or so. Long before Pokemon, however, Game Freak made its name with a little-known platformer called Pulseman for the Genesis.
Pulseman puts players in control of the titular character, a small cyborg who can use various electrical powers to navigate levels and fight enemies. The protagonist must progress through seven stages, each culminating in a boss fight, before finally taking down Pulseman’s nemesis, Doc Waruyama.
In many ways, Pulseman seems derivative of the much more popular Mega Man, right down to the core conflict between a robot boy and evil doctor. Despite all the similarities, Pulseman sets itself apart with a greater focus on acrobatic maneuvers and unique level designs that transition between futuristic cities and cyberspace.
Streets of Rage II
Today, beat ‘em up games are an endangered species. In the heyday of the Genesis, however, they were everywhere, and Streets of Rage 2 was one of the best. Similar to a fighting game SoR2 gives players an assortment of characters to choose from, each with a unique set of moves that can be executed. Players battle through a city overrun with criminals, using their fighting skills to bludgeon crime. The enemies are varied, and the different types have their own abilities that players must deal with.
In addition to the knock-down, drag-out gameplay, Streets of Rage 2 has some of the best presentation ever on the Genesis. The character sprites are all detailed and stand out well against the grimy environments of the city. The real treat, however, is the soundtrack, which draws inspiration from house and trance music, filtering it through the Genesis’ sound chip to create an incredibly dirty, energetic score.
An interesting quirk that separates video games from other modes of expression is that the limits of technology can render some games obsolete. No one can knock Hemingway or Citizen Kane despite their age, but some games that seemed great in the ’80s or ’90s are a chore to get through today, whether due to graphics, design choices, or facets. The truly timeless games blend a clean art style with easy-to-grasp mechanics, and Gunstar Heroes is the perfect example of this.
Yet another side-scrolling shooter in the long-forgotten “run ‘n gun” genre, Gunstar Heroes tasks players with progressing through levels full of numerous enemies and massive bosses. The controls are responsive, which is good because the pacing is quick and any mistake can immediately result in death. To conquer the many difficult challenges, the game provides players with different weapons that can be combined to create more powerful attacks.