I have fond memories of the console wars of the nineties. We had class, back then. It wasn’t all petty complaining on forums and YouTube comment sections like today. That stuff’s small time. Instead, it was all about not letting Sonic/Mario fans play with you at recess, not inviting them over after school to take a look at your older brother’s Playboys, and making fun of their mama’s weight problems. We had honor and values back then.
As for me, I was definitely a Sega guy. The Genesis was the first game console I owned that was just mine, and first times are always special (usually awkward and over in three minutes, too, but special). The original Genesis model was an ugly-ass slab with hideous slidey dials and such, but the Mega Drive (as the system’s known here in Merry Olde England) 2 was a thing of beauty.
As such, despite the fact that Sega died on their asses as console manufacturers, I can’t help but admire their plucky little Genesis. You don’t argue with top notch, Grade A snark like "Sega Does What Nintendon’t," after all.
Like all consoles, it has one hell of a varied library. It’s got its share of craptacular disasters, which they all get lumbered with, but there are also some fantastic, iconic titles here. Let’s take a look at both ends of the spectrum, then. Settle in for The 8 Best and 7 Worst Games on the Sega Genesis.
15 Best: Comix Zone
Ah, Comix Zone. You are such a relentlessly nineties game. You couldn’t be more nineties. Not even if you played as the Fresh Prince himself, and defeated enemies by throwing Furbies or Pogs at them, while Backstreet Boys sang I Want It That Way on a loop in the background. Which sounds pretty freaking amazing, now that I think of it.
The thing is, though, Comix Zone still manages to rock those sensibilities today. It’s the story of Sketch Turner, a comic book artist who is sucked into his own comic by… some kind of inexplicable voodoo or other. The comic’s villain, a powerful mutant named Mortus, escapes from its pages, and seeks to kill Sketch within the comic so as to take over his body for good in the real world. I don’t know either, let’s just roll with it.
What follows is an action platformer/beat em up presented super faithfully to the comic book format. If cheesy nineties humor and the ZAP! POW! THWOCK! action of the Batman cartoon is your bag, you’ll want to get in on this.
14 Worst: Rise Of The Robots
Meanwhile, over on the woefully craptacular side of life, we have Rise of the Robots. If there’s any genre the Genesis wasn’t really geared up for, it’d be fighters. After all, when it comes to Street Fighter, that three button controller is about as useful as a one-legged man in a butt kicking contest. Capcom’s classic fighter is a little shonky on the system as a result. Rise of the Robots, though? That’s on a whole new level.
This one hit the system in 1995. It’s a brawler set in a Terminator-esque world of super intelligent robots, and there was a lot of bravado post-release that it would have some amazing AI beyond any fighting game before. This seems to have gotten lost in translation, though, as the finished product was a barrel of bullcrap. While the visuals were great (well, I say ‘great’), they seem to have sucked every droplet of juice from the poor Genesis’s engine, leaving no space for trifling details like gameplay and functioning mechanics.
As my papa always told me, a pretty face doesn’t make up for a terrible personality. Which is a little more inspiring than ‘hell, you don’t look at the mantel while you’re poking the fire.’
13 Best: The Lion King
As we all know, one of the golden rules of gaming states that licensed titles have about a 98.7% chance to be molten horsecrap. Remember when Superman 64 cast us as the legendary Man of Steel, but only let us fly through rings like some kind of Baby’s First Craptacular Flight Sim? That was a sad, sad day.
It hasn’t always been this way, though. The Genesis version of The Lion King, released by Westwood Studios in 1994, was among my first experiences of the platformer genre. It looked and sounded fantastic (to me, at any rate), but man oh man was it a brutal mother. The stampede level, for instance, is the sort of thing you can come back to today —as an actual real fully-fledged adult with a job and receding hairline and everything— and still struggle.
There was no casual hand-holding from ‘children’s games’ in these days, that’s for damn sure. Difficult as it may be, though, this is undeniably a quality platformer.
12 Worst: Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition
Now, this is a difficult one. Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition is so brilliantly absurd that you can’t help but love it. It’s like the video game equivalent of an eccentric old drunk uncle who still gives you money when you see him, because he seems to think you’ve been 14 years old since 2002 (true story). As such, it’s really a toss-up whether it belongs in the best or worst countdown.
You play as Doctor Alan Grant, harmless, nerdly, Sam Neil-ish paleontologist from the movies. In this 1994 sidescroller, though, he’s armed with all manner of nutty-ass weapons, from flamethrower to electro-gun and bazooka. You’re back on Isla Nubla to take out the InGen agents, who are intent on bringing dinosaurs to the mainland. Meanwhile, the Costa Rican military are bombing holy hell out of the island, which puts a bit of a downer on things as well. The game’s visuals, music, and dire sound effects were harshly criticized, but I found Rampage Edition to be far too much ridiculous fun to care.
11 Best: Haunting
I’ve been gaming for quite some damn time. I was born with a chunky-ass original Game Boy in my hands, I guess you could say. I’ve seen gimmicks come and go, I’ve seen the best and worst of the industry, and there’s one thing I can say for sure: I’ve never played anything else quite like Haunting Starring Polterguy.
In this cult classic actioner, you play as an angry little punk ghost who was recently killed in a freak skateboarding accident. The board was manufactured by the Sardini corp, and so Polterguy comes back to haunt mogul Vito Sardini and his family.
Your objective is to scare them enough to make them all leave their home, and the way you go about this is inspired. You can’t interact with the Sardinis directly, but can use anything in the rooms of their home to raise their fear levels. There's a lot of room for creativity. Haunting a toy robot and chasing them around, making the piano come to life a-la Super Mario 64 — you’ve got all kinds of options.
Gamers in the know regard Polterguy highly for its unique blend of horror and humour, and its true uniqueness in the 16-bit era. A must for any Genesis collection.
10 Worst: Altered Beast
Again, I’m conflicted here. On the one hand, I have so many fond memories of Altered Beast. On the other, I wonder how in the name of Hades’ hairy man-plums this oddity came to be the pack-in game for the Genesis. Who did Altered Beast sleep with to get that honour? The world will never know.
What we do know, however, is that this scrolling brawler hit the system in the US in 1989. It centers around an unnamed centurion who has been resurrected by Zeus, charged with rescuing the God’s daughter from the Underworld Demon Neff. The Underworld, naturally, is full of the kinds of lumpen mutant horrors you wouldn’t want to bring home to meet your mama, but our centurion friend has some help: Spirit balls. Collecting these in the levels will power you up. With three, you become that level’s Altered Beast.
If you’ve ever wanted to see a bear that breathes a bizarre paralyzing gas, or a dragon that fires lasers from its eyeballs, you can probably appreciate these transformations. The sad fact is, though, that the Genesis version was an inferior port of an arcade title which is ridiculously clunky today. WISE FROM YOUR GWAVE!
9 Best: Gunstar Heroes
Now, let’s not let the fact that this is my personal favourite game of all time sway anything here. More importantly, it’s just plain really, really freaking good.
Arcade shooters, side-scrollers, and run-and-gunners were ten a penny back in the day. The likes of Metal Slug, Contra and such were a huge hit, both in arcades and on home consoles. Even so, no developer could quite pull these games off with as much style and balls-out bravado as Treasure. In 1993, they dropped Gunstar Heroes, which is still regarded as an all-time great of the run-and-gun genre.
As one of the Gunstar brothers, Red or Blue, you set out to stop the evil Empire from gathering four gems to revive an ancient weapon. The mix-and-match weapon slots, innovative and challenging boss fights (remember Seven Force? Of course you do) and bright and brash visuals make the game as much of a pleasure to play today as it ever was.
8 Worst: Dark Castle
Porting games is a tricky business. On the one hand, a delicate touch can overhaul a title in much-needed areas, even giving a previously horrible title a second chance. On the other hand, a poor porting job can send even the best game barrelling straight down Satan’s u-bend.
Now, I wouldn’t call Dark Castle ‘the best game,’ but it was pretty freaking cutting edge as 1986 Mac titles go (now that’s a high bar to set; a one-legged kitten midget could limbo under that bar). When this fantasy platformer was brought to the Genesis in 1991, it was a festival of washed-out colours and diabolical sound quality, a disgrace to PC nerds everywhere. Was this the way to tell the classic story of Duncan versus the evil Black Knight? WAS IT?
7 Best: Streets Of Rage 2
Another genre that the golden age of gaming had no short supply of was the scrolling beat ‘em up. The Genesis, in particular, was up to its man-plums, with Golden Axe, Altered Beast, and Streets of Rage. Not to mention all of the many sequels some of these series churned out.
For many of us, the pinnacle of the genre came with Streets of Rage 2. It was a real evolution of the first title, adding bigger bolder sprites, more depth, and variety to the fighting system. With new special moves and an expansion of the trance-tastic electro soundtrack… what more could you ask for? The critical acclaim really speaks for itself with this one. Capcom’s Final Fight and other rivals were doing the rounds, but Streets of Rage 2 really was the brawler to beat.
6 Worst: Sonic 3D Blast
As we’ve said, Sonic’s career has been a hell of a mixed bag. It’s been proceeding in a general down-the-crapper direction of late, and it’s not hard to see why. We’ve seen terrible motion-sensey controls (Sonic and the Secret Rings), werehog transformations, that darn talking sword again, all manner of weirdness. While the Genesis plays host to some of the best and brightest titles to bear the ‘hog’s name, it’s not exempt from some of his more questionable games either.
1996’s Sonic 3D Blast isn’t straight up disastrous like some of the horrors we’ve looked at here, but in my eyes, it was totally misguided. An odd pseudo-3D isometric platformer, it took away all the speedier-than-Usain-Bolt-off-to-the-toilet-after-an-undercooked-curry action that is Sonic’s whole identity. An interesting curio for sure.
5 Best: Sonic The Hedgehog 2
I know. I feel your pain, friends. I got as far as I could through a rundown of some of the Genesis’s best games without the blue dude with the dumbass nineties ‘tude making an appearance. It was inevitable, really, so let’s just embrace it. Where would the Genesis be without Sonic?
There’s a lot of talk nowadays that Sonic just can’t cut it any more. He’s had a run of craptacular games with talking swords and/or half-assed motion controls (have you ever wanted to ‘steer’ him around like a car? Because I sure as hell haven’t), and it’s taken a toll on fans. For many of us, though, like Streets of Rage 2, the second outing was the best. The introducing of Miles ‘Tails’ Prower went a long way.
4 Worst: Fatal Labyrinth
Fatal Labyrinth is a super simplistic RPG which was coughed out early in the Genesis’s lifespan. Its story has a beautiful, third-grade English class quality to it: A lone heroic warrior cruises on into Castle Dragonia to slay its big ol’ angry reptilian master and retrieve the stolen Holy Goblet. That’s it.
As we’ve established, the nineties wasn’t a time for in-depth, convoluted video game storytelling. You can be cliched out the wazzoo, I’m fine with that. The issue here is with the appalling visuals which will make you want to punch your own eyeballs in the face, as well as the ‘music’ consisting of thirty-second long tracks looped endlessly. Not forgetting the woeful combat. Or just about any other aspect of the title.
On the plus size, gold you collect has absolutely no purpose at all other than changing the game over screen (your character can afford a fancier tombstone, and more mourners, with more gold). I find this hilarious.
3 Best: Revenge Of Shinobi
Revenge of Shinobi was the first entry in the franchise (it followed Shadow Dancer and the original Shinobi) to hit the Genesis. It continues the story of Joe Musashi, one of Sega’s b-list mascots and all-around ninja badass.
The games are super challenging action platformers, centered around the sword-swingin’, kunai-throwin’ combat you’d probably expect. In Revenge of Shinobi, Joe’s master has been murdered, and his wife Naoko kidnapped by the dastardly and bastardly Neo Zeed corporation. Joe, for his part, isn’t amused by the whole situation, and so sets off in pursuit, leaving a trail of decapitated, disemboweled —and other distinctly painful-sounding D words—foes in his wake. Revenge’s presentation and gameplay are top notch, and it’s notoriously difficult even by the standards of the time. Another essential for any Genesis library.
There’s also, as you see here, a gigantic enemy dinosaur skeleton. It inexplicably has all of its internal organs intact and inside, and it shoots fireballs. I don’t see how you could possibly get any more insta-Game of the Year than that.
2 Worst: Shaq Fu
Another inevitability. When it comes to awful Genesis games, there’s no fish-in-a-barrel shot quite like Shaq Fu. Remember when celebrities had dignity, and honour? When they wouldn’t hawk any old crap? I don’t either. Neither does Shaquille O’Neal, whose existence is solely to blame for this diabolical dreck.
You know how it is. You walk into a mysterious dojo on your way to play in a charity basketball game, and are sucked into another dimension dubbed The Second World. There, you must do battle with the evil mummy Sett Ra to save a boy named Nezu. It happens to me all the damn time.
For its screwy plot, dumb spammy gameplay and other crimes against gaming, Shaq Fu is generally regarded as among the worst games ever.
1 Best: Earthworm Jim
Now, I’m going, to be frank here, man to reader: I can’t get enough dirty humour. Give me a cheeky double entendre or cheap wang joke, and I’ll be giggling away like Beavis and Butthead. I am what I am, I’ve made my peace with it, and I’m way too old to try to be anything else now.
With that said, you can understand how Earthworm Jim would continue to appeal to me. Professor Slug-For-A-Butt? A bizarre boss battle featuring bungee jumping on long mucus cords in a level dubbed Snot A Problem? We’re in my wheelhouse right here, friends.
That aside, though, this 1994 Genesis platformer had much more going for it. Its creativity, in terms of level variety and design, as well as its quality hand-drawn animation, made Earthworm Jim a favourite.