Remember when you turned on your Sega Genesis, and you heard that computerized metallically voice shout “SEEEGGAAAA?” Of course, you do! This 16-bit game system would soon take center stage as the Japanese developers claim to fame with Sonic the Hedgehog going down in history as one of the most iconic video game figures ever.
We’re taking a deep dive into the wonderful world of Sega and highlighting the best games the system ever had.
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 is 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. It’s available on the Sega Genesis Mini.
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 an 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. The game is available on the Sega Genesis Mini.
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. The game is available on the Sega Genesis Mini.
Ecco the Dolphin has seemingly been given a second shot in the hands of creator Ed Annunziata, 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. The game is available on the Sega Genesis Mini.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
We doubt you’ll see The Lost World: Jurassic Park in many best-of lists. Despite being one of our personal favorites as children and one of the last released on the Genesis, it wasn’t known for pushing the console’s graphical performance or engrossing story, focusing more on top-down gunning and a keen element of exploration. It is loosely based on Spielberg’s ’97 film of the same name, and in turn Michael Crichton’s novel, but it merely serves as supplementary content to both.
The Appaloosa Interactive title follows players through the mysterious, dino-drenched Site B as they journey across the island to reclaim a radiophone to call for help. The gameplay is challenging and well-paced, spliced with a fair amount of strategy reliant upon your use of the tranquilizer, machine gun, rocket launcher and other weapons used in combating the myriad of dinosaurs and hunters constantly working against your survival.
The foliage and environmental hazards, though often comprising small sprites, are lush and detailed, and the boss battles and dynamic token system break up the otherwise straightforward gameplay. Most importantly, it’s the only title on our list where you can play as Jeff Goldblum.
The great fighting game bubble of the ’90s proved to be one of the crassest and obnoxious examples of speculation in the history of the video game industry. Publishers released wave after wave of derivatives and full-price updates, with the nadir being Street Fighter: The Movie (the game), a video game based on a movie based on a video game. In the beginning, however, the fighting game trend produced some truly exciting and inventive titles. Former Capcom rival SNK released Samurai Shodown in 1993, a 2-D title that eschewed the gritty urban environments of popular franchises like Street Fighter and Fatal Fury. Instead, Samurai Shodown set its battles in the storied past of feudal Japan.
Shodown took the core gameplay of the genre — i.e. one vs. one battles on a 2-D plane — and adjusted it to focus on strong, fast attacks, rather than the lengthy combo strings popular at the time. As in a real swordfight, duels in Samurai Shodown tend to end quickly.
The game features a small but diverse roster of characters, including straightforward archetypes such as a wandering ronin and more oddball characters like Galford, an American cowboy turned ninja who can call his trusty canine into battle. Sadly, Samurai Shodown is one of the few classic fighting franchises that has yet to be revived, even if the first installment still holds up as one of the best in the genre.
Super Street Fighter II
The formative fighting game, Street Fighter II established many of the conventions of the genre, particularly the idea of linking combos together to prevent your opponent from being able to react. Street Fighter II also pioneered one of the most notorious trends in fighting game history: releasing several slightly improved iterations of the same game. All told, there are seven main releases of Street Fighter II, one of which was a recent remaster for the PlayStation Store and Xbox Live Arcade. Nonetheless, each iteration of the title introduced new characters and mechanics while tweaking older elements and retaining the core elements of the franchise.
Super Street Fighter II, in particular, introduced four new characters — T. Hawk, Cammy, Fei Long, and Dee Jay — thus further expanding the series’ diverse cast. Each of the new characters had radically different styles of play and all four have become mainstays of the franchise ever since. SSFII also slowed the game speed down from that of the previous version, Hyper Fighting, a decision Capcom would later reverse with the release of Super Street Fighter II: Turbo. The increasingly long names also remain the most ridiculous part of the franchise’s production model.
While it’s not as good as its follow-up, a game so polished they still play it at the most prestigious fighting game tournaments in the world, this version represents the best Street Fighter experience on the Genesis. Super Street Fighter II featured a full cast of SFII characters minus Akuma, improved animations, and introduced a combo scoring system that only brought it closer to perfection.
SNK was one of the most prolific fighting game developers in the ’90s — and Fatal Fury was the game that started it all. It was one of many franchises launched in an attempt to capitalize on the Street Fighter II zeitgeist. Like SF, Fatal Fury has players fight in one-on-one battles, using combos and special attacks to whittle away their opponents’ health.
Players can choose from one of three characters (Terry Bogard, Andy Bogard, and Joe Higashi) and battle through a series of opponents, ultimately facing off against Geese Howard, the oddly named nemesis and aikido master. The three protagonists would become some of the most famous characters in the fighting game genre, appearing in subsequent Fatal Fury games as well as SNK’s mammoth King of Fighters franchise.
FF made one big change to the fighting game formula by splitting stages into a front row and a back row. Whereas in many fighting games players battle on a purely 2D plane, FF allowed them to move back and forth between the two rows. This also enabled the game to have hectic two-vs-two battles, a novel idea at the time. While the rows didn’t alter movement in fights dramatically, Fatal Fury can be seen as a precursor to the 3D fighters that would eventually be made for subsequent console generations, which now often include eight-way movement.
Mortal Kombat II
The game that sparked an explosion of parental outrage in the ’90s while consuming the quarters of many a teenager in the process, Mortal Kombat took the fighting game formula and infused it with the gore-drenched mentality of grindhouse movies. The sequel picked up the torch and rammed it down the throat of polite society. MKII added new moves to the combat system and expanded the roster of characters, each with a unique style of play. The result is one of the most exciting fighting games of the ’90s.
The series’ trademark finishing moves, aka Fatalities, also got a facelift, becoming far more cartoonish and violent. Additionally, the game introduced new, comical finishers such as Babalities, which turn the opponent into a baby and stage-specific fatalities. MKII ultimately presented a fiendish spectacle when it was first released, showcasing the power of the Genesis.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Sega’s plucky mascot has had a rough few years. For nearly a decade, every new Sonic game has been a disaster, an unending parade of goofy characters, bad camera angles, and attempts at “hip” theme songs. It’s almost hard to even recall the halcyon days of Sonic when Sega took the standard platforming formula of the era and threw some N2O in the engine.
Sonic’s big selling point was speed. Players could move fast, and environments were designed to emphasize this, with intricate systems of vertical loops to travel through and enemies to dispatch. Sonic 2 introduced Sonic’s sidekick, Miles “Tails” Prower, allowing a second player to join the game. The addition of a spin-dash move gave players another option for dispatching enemies, allowing them to better traverse a series of levels that each culminated in a battle against archvillain Dr. Robotnik.
Sonic 2 feature some of the lushest environments of any platformer and the expansive, colorful environments are still a joy to zoom around in. Sonic 2 represents the zenith of the franchise in nearly every way, making it the perfect distillation of high-speed platforming. The game is available on the Sega Genesis Mini.
Earthworm Jim put players in control of one of the most iconic characters of the 16-bit era, the titular earthworm-turned-superhero. The game is a platformer – much like half the games in those days — but a number of tweaks to the formula really set Jim apart. The player has a gun at their disposal, and can also use Jim’s head as a whip to either attack or swing from hooks. These abilities give players some flexibility in navigating the treacherous levels.
The level design in Earthworm Jim was also radically inventive for the time period. Levels have additional objectives that go beyond simply reaching an endpoint, often requiring you to complete objectives such as guiding a large dog through a myriad of environmental hazards. Jim remains a challenging and clever title, not to mention one of the brightest on the Genesis. The game is available on the Sega Genesis Mini.
Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine
Originally called Puyo Puyo in Japan, Mean Bean Machine received a name-change as well as new art direction, being remade as a Sonic-themed game for the Western release. It is a tile-matching puzzle game in which players control grids into which various colored beans will fall. Players must move the beans around, trying to group at least four of one color together to cause the beans to disappear. If a player’s grid fills with beans, they lose. The goal is thus to continue clearing your side of beans for as long as you can.
Mean Bean Machine includes a few different modes to play. Scenario Mode pits players against a variety of enemies accessible via 13 individual stages, which eventually culminate in a battle with Sonic villain Dr. Robotnik. Exercise Mode is a sort of endurance test, gradually increasing the speed the beans fall as time goes on. Last but not least, Vs. Mode allows two players to battle one another, much like the original Tetris. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Machine is a rapid and addictive puzzle game, simple and timeless. The game is available on the Sega Genesis Mini.
Phantasy Star IV
Conclusions rarely end this sweetly — I mean, we all saw Matrix Revolutions and The Godfather: Part III. Yet, despite a somewhat lumbering third installment in Sega’s flagship RPG saga, Phantasy Star IV was an excellent return to form, one deeply enveloped in its own story while tying together loose ends from the series’ past in the process. It was the culmination of the series’ core and not one easily forgotten.
With PSIV, players take on the role of Chaz Ashley, a bounty hunter unknowingly charged with the task of saving the Algol solar system and restoring the computer systems maintaining the crumbling Motavia. Although the traditional RPG formula was more-or-less established by the time the fourth installment in the series hit shelves, it still sported slew of new developments.
The battle system, though still grounded in genre standard random encounters and stats, added greater depth with combination attacks to be discovered with different characters and programmable macros to automate frequent sequences of actions. Manga-styled cutscenes strengthened the game’s appearance alongside other graphical enhancements. It’s also lengthy, though less challenging than PSII, and features a cast just as memorable nearly 20 years later. That driving, opening theme also sounded extremely badass at the time. The game is available on the Sega Genesis Mini.
Sword of Vermilion
“Genesis does what Nintendon’t” was the popular campaign slogan from the early days of Sega’s flagship console. Whether or not the claim was accurate will always be open for dispute, but there’s no denying Sega’s Sword of Vermilion was one of the first exclusive offerings of its kind on the console, and as such, a 30-hour romp worthy of our roundup. The gameplay and animation, reminiscent of the 8-bit fluidity of NES titles, may have seemed underwhelming even then, but such is the case with many early console titles.
Centered on the son of a murdered king, hellbent on avenging his father’s death, SOV has players traversing the fantasy world of Excalabria in a hunt to recover eight rings of power and reclaim the thrown from the maniacal Tsarkon. The title’s patchwork of varying perspectives and random enemy encounters can be cumbersome — along with the tedious dungeon crawling — but an excellent soundtrack, decent plotline, and sheer nostalgia are often enough. However, I wouldn’t recommend following Phantasy Star IV with the stripped nuances of SOV.
Try to imagine a desolate, cyberpunk, 2058 version of Seattle where tyrannical mega corporations rule and a computer network known as the Matrix allows users to enter cyberspace. The developers brought this world from tabletop roleplaying to consoles with Shadowrun, expertly crafting a game in which players don the role of the hot-headed Joshua in his quest to avenge his brother’s death through a series of mission-based shadowruns and side quests.
Although there have been similar titles since Shadowrun featuring the kind of immersive complexities for which the game is known — Cyberpunk 2077 is due out this year — the title was a pioneer in many regards, grounded in a third-person perspective and highly-detailed sandbox world where cybernetics and fantasy clash. The gameplay and leveling mechanics — heavily focused on stat-boosting karma points and open-ended dialogue — were touchstones, while the featured combat was quick, dirty, and abetted to the title’s wide arsenal of available spells and firearms. The interaction between NPCs and during cinematics is even solid, with a future-techno soundtrack designed to match, giving the Emerald city a very Marlowe-meets-Bladerunner noir persona.
To fondly remember a console by its waning twilight years can be tough, but titles such as Ancient’s Beyond Oasis made it a bit easier. Often mentioned alongside the classic Secret of Mana and touted as a superficial Zelda clone, Beyond Oasis followed the royal Prince Ali on his quest to recover and restore power to a golden armlet and save the kingdom of Oasis.
The controls were incredibly well-designed, ingrained with a keen sense of timing and capitalizing on the Genesis controller’s three-button layout, while the fluid visuals rendered every blade stroke and spirit summon a thing of 16-bit beauty. It was also one of the more lengthy action RPGs to hit the market, too, and one steeped in clever puzzle mechanics reliant on which environmental factors are available for summoning elemental sprites.
The cutscenes are kitschy, yet enjoyable, and renowned Japanese composer Yuzo Koshiro even helmed the soundtrack. Sure, the Prince Ali thing could be misconstrued for some blatant Aladdin reference, but really, was Disney’s rendition of the classic Arab folktale that bad? The game is available on the Sega Genesis Mini.
Phantasy Star II
Sega’s Phantasy Star II is not something to scoff at, even now. As the first video game to utilize a 16-MB cartridge and the first 16-bit RPG released in the West, the title was a benchmark for all JRPGs to come. The sci-fi game unfolds in traditional RPG style, whirling around government agent Rolf and his journey to uncover the truth about the protector of the planet Mota, Mother Brain. Despite its capabilities, it wasn’t the iconic visual flair or excellent turn-based combat that made PS II incredible.
The lengthy title was unprecedented because it featured a memorable cast of unique characters at a time when generic characters with little backstory were all the rage. It was also challenging, strewn with sprawling environments, random battles, and clever dungeon mechanics, and allowed players to simultaneously command up to four party members out of the eight acquired throughout the journey. Each was different and engaging, basking in their own upgradable attributes and specific job classes, with comprehensive story tie-ins that showed interactive storytelling in its finest form. Oh, and did I mention it was also bundled with a 100-page user manual?
Shining Force II
The Genesis’ answer to Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, the Shining franchise began as a quirky dungeon crawler before expanding into one of the best tactical RPGs available on the Genesis. Shining Force II builds upon its predecessor’s gameplay, offering a more expansive world to explore and different promotion paths for characters.
Players explore towns and castles, interacting with characters, finding treasure, and battling hordes of enemies. Combat takes place on a square grid, and characters take turns moving and performing actions. There are also numerous classes, each with their own unique abilities. Victory depends on making the best use of the various weapons at your disposal.
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. 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.
The ’90s was in many ways the birth of the modern NBA. Yes, the Bird-Magic rivalry of the ’80s revived the league after a slump in the ’70s, but it was the ascendancy of Michael Jordan and other superstar players who made the NBA an international brand. In addition to the rise of some of the biggest names in basketball, the ’90s also marked the beginning of NBA video games. NBA Jam, released by Midway in 1993, was the first game to really capture the speed and glamour of the league, kicking off an era of fast-paced sports games.
Jam is a two-on-two game, so sadly there is no chance to run the triangle. All the teams in the NBA at the time are represented by two of their most famous players — though, Michael Jordan does not appear for the Bulls due to rights issues — and players revel in physics-defying abilities that make every match exciting and cartoonish. Recent NBA games have tried to simulate real-life basketball as much as possible, while NBA Jam just tried to make things as fun as possible.
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 and Baby Yoda hater, Werner Herzog.
Dune: Battle for Arrakis
While Herzog Zwei may have been one of the games to set the foundation for the RTS genre, Dune: The Battle for Arrakis (re-titled from Dune II for the Genesis release) built the frame. Dune II gives players the option to choose from three different noble houses (Atreides, Harkonnen, or Ordos), each of which must then fight with the other two for control of the planet Arrakis and its coveted natural resource, spice. Spice fields are scattered around the terrain and controlling those areas is crucial to victory. In addition to enemy factions, players must also contend with the harsh environment of Arrakis, including sandstorms that will gradually destroy buildings and godlike sandworms that can devour entire vehicles.
In addition to the three faction model that remains popular in RTS games, Dune II established many other standards for the genre, including resource gathering, branching tech trees, building construction, and a world map where you choose your mission. The Genesis version of the game has a menu and control interface streamlined for gamepad use, and frankly, remains one of the best entries in the short list of great RTS games that have come to consoles.
ToeJam & Earl
Johnson Voorsanger Productions’ ToeJam & Earl is kind of like Pikmin, without the whole cutesy, enslaved flower people thing. It’s centered on the “three-legged red alien” ToeJam and “fat orange alien” Earl, two out-of-this-world, tubular rappers seeking to reclaim the pieces of their shattered spaceship so they can return to their home planet of Funkotron.
The game’s psychedelic setting is supposedly on planet Earth — though I don’t recall ever seeing floating isles over California or Oregon — and each zone randomly generates to give players a unique experience and layout every time they play, channeling roguelikes decades before that genre’s mechanics proliferated in the mainstream. It’s not a graphical powerhouse, nor does it move at a particularly fast pace, but it’s colorful and full of quirky characterization in true ’90s style.
Although players will spend most of the time walking about the stages, temporary power-ups allow you to attack giant hamsters and packs of nerds with tomatoes and increase your movement speed, in addition to other random perks obtained through collecting various packages. There is a leveling system comprising levels from Wiener to Funklord, but the bodacious bread-and-butter of the title will always be the co-op mode and funky, Herbie Hancock-inspired soundtrack. The game is available on the Sega Genesis Mini.
- The best Sega Dreamcast games of all time
- The best retro gaming console for 2020
- The best SNES games of all time
- The best PS1 games of all time
- Best Nintendo Switch games (March 2020)