The SEGA Mega Drive Mini Is Solid-Gold Nostalgia For Retro Gamers Everywhere
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Featured Image Credit: SEGA
If you lived through the console wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, you'll have likely picked one side and not strayed from it. In playgrounds around the country, across the world, you were either SEGA or Nintendo, Mega Drive or SNES.
Or at least, that's the romanticised impression of the 16-bit era, exaggerated to support the idea that, beyond the boardrooms and marketing campaigns, the battle between SEGA and Nintendo was a deeply bitter one.
At times it certainly was, in a business sense - but for gamers, both the Super Nintendo and Mega Drive were amazing consoles full of classic titles. You could safely own both without getting splinters up your backside.
And now you can own them both in 2019, as SEGA's new Mega Drive Mini joins the Super Nintendo Classic in the mini-console market. Nintendo's shrunken versions of the NES and SNES have made the company millions, so it's no surprise to see SEGA following their famous rivals with a small but perfectly formed system of their own.
What might come as a surprise, though, is just how good the Mega Drive Mini is. After years of third-party efforts coming up short, most notably AtGames' range of systems, this is a stunner of a mini-console with fantastic emulation courtesy of M2. This is the best these games have ever looked, basically.
Out of the box you get the Mega Drive itself, leads to attach it to the TV and power the console, and two three-button pads with decent-length leads - but more on those later. Turn the Mini on, and you're presented with 42 built-in games from across the console's lifespan, each with information on their release, control instructions and the option of four seperate save slots.
From 1988 we get Altered Beast, and from 1989 Ghouls 'n Ghosts. Fast-forward to the mid-1990s and the Mini features 1994's Monster World IV, originally a Japan-only release, and from 1995 comes the still graphically impressive Comix Zone.
The Mega Drive Mini really does span SEGA's 16-bit period, packing in a solid selection of evergreen essentials. Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequel are here, still as eye-poppingly bright and effortlessly playable as they ever were. Ecco the Dolphin and Earthworm Jim, Streets of Rage 2 and Shining Force, Gunstar Heroes and Story of Thor - there really are some all-timers packed inside this black bundle of joy.
There are some fascinating curveballs, too. Castlevania: Bloodlines - also known as Castlevania: The New Generation and Vampire Killer - is the one and only game from its series designed for a SEGA system, and it's a pleasure to see it here. Alisia Dragoon was always something of a curio in the Mega Drive catalogue, a critical hit that didn't sell, but the magical platformer is present and correct. The incredibly hard to find Mega Drive version of Tetris is featured, in a slightly revised and refined form, and the Mini includes a port of the 1987 shooter Darius, never before seen on the console.
2017's Super Nintendo Classic featured 21 games, one of which was the all-new Star Fox 2. There's nothing quite so headline-grabbing on the Mega Drive Mini, but it does double Nintendo's game count, with a total of 42 titles squeezed in. And much like the SNES Classic, the best games on here remain as brilliant as they ever were, and there's a healthy handful of them. Two handfuls, even.
Some of the 42 games (which you can read about in detail here) won't eat up much of your time - while Altered Beast was bundled with Mega Drives in the years before Sonic's arrival, it doesn't hold up well some 30 years later, and the same can be said of Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, Space Harrier 2 and the woeful 16-bit version of the otherwise incredible Virtua Fighter 2.
But stripping away the less-than-amazing stuff still leaves you with an astounding collection of Mega Drive classics, including much more than just first-party SEGA titles. There's Road Rash 2 from EA, Street Fighter 2 and Strider from Capcom, Konami's Probotector, and Climax's Landstalker.
The latter role-player is particularly notable, both for its isometric graphics and for starring a hero called Nigel. Nigel. It just wouldn't happen nowadays, would it.
The control pads feel good in the hands, and despite our advancements in ergonomics over the intervening 31 years, they're still comfortable a good three hours into a session. It's a shame, though, that the European and American releases of the Mega Drive Mini only come with three-button pads, given that Street Fighter 2, Comix Zone and Eternal Champions are all designed to be played with a six-button model. The Japanese Mini ships with the six-button pads, but the rest of us have to buy them separately.
That's the biggest misstep this mini console makes - but it's also worth appreciating that SEGA's six-button pads aren't quite so iconic, as immediately recognisable, as the three-button versions. They don't stir nostalgia in quite the same way, so perhaps their inclusion can be forgiven.
To return to the 1990s, it's fair to say that Nintendo was the winner. Between 29 and 39 million Mega Drives were sold, compared to close to 50 million Super Nintendos. And, of course, before the Mega Drive Mini, SEGA's last console was the Dreamcast, discontinued in 2001; whereas Nintendo has, via a few bumps in the road, enjoyed great success since the 16-bit era.
But in 2019, with the Mega Drive Mini and Super Nintendo Classic before us, it's apparent that these are both fantastic time machines, diminutive treasure chests of video gaming history, with experiences of everlasting appeal.
If you want an accurate picture of what gaming was like 25 to 30 years ago, get both systems and book yourself a week off work - you'll have a ton of fun, you'll learn a lot, and you'll appreciate just how much could be achieved with incredibly limited hardware.
In and of itself, the Mega Drive Mini is a terrific bit of kit, looking, sounding and feeling the part like few other mini-consoles out there. It's absolutely on a level with the high quality offered by the SNES Classic. So when it comes to SEGA versus Nintendo in the here and now, let's call it a draw and get on with the fun stuff.