Mega SG Is An Amazing HDMI Sega Genesis For The Hardcore Retro Nerd

The Mega SG. (Photo: Chris Kohler, Kotaku)

The Sega Genesis has had by far the longest shelf life of any of the 16-bit systems. You could buy Sega’s final “Genesis 3" model in stores until the early 2000s, and just a few years later, the AtGames released licensed plug-and-play machines, some with Genesis cartridge slots. For the last 30 years, you’d likely be able to find a Genesis-compatible console on a store shelf. So do you need one that costs $190? Maybe you do.

The hardware maker Analogue has just released its latest high-end, high-definition, high-priced retro console, the Mega SG. Like its earlier NES- and SNES-compatible machines, the Mega SG is a cartridge-based, HDMI-enabled Sega Genesis clone that aims for nothing less than perfection, which means running games exactly as they would on the original, or as close to exact as is possible.

Its method for accomplishing this is the reason for its premium price tag and also is what makes the Mega SG different from nearly every other retro console on the market. Instead of a cheap computer running a software emulator, Analogue’s systems use a device called a “field-programmable gate array,” or FPGA.

This means that the Mega SG recreates the designs of the chips on the original Genesis board. It’s not a computer running an emulator that lets it interpret ROM files. For all intents and purposes, it is a Genesis.

Sonic The Hedgehog running on the Mega SG using default settings. (Screenshot: Kotaku)

That results in near-total, near-perfect compatibility with any Genesis-compatible cartridge or device you throw at the Mega SG. I tried everything I could think of from of my collection, and it handled everything, no sweat. That includes American Genesis cartridges, of course, but also Japanese imports, European PAL games, modern releases like Pier Solar, unlicensed games, unlicensed religious games, weird 4-in-1 bootlegs from Taiwan that require you to press the “Reset” button to swap between the games… everything.

Compare this to the $80 Sega Genesis Flashback HD. Besides the fact that its emulation is imperfect, it doesn’t have very high compatibility with cartridges outside of Sega’s own standard licensed products. If you want something that runs original cartridges and uses original controllers, and you don’t mind paying over $200 after shipping for the privilege, this system is the way to do it.

Street Fighter 2 for the Sega Master System running on the Mega SG. (Yes, that’s actually a Master System game!) (Screenshot: Kotaku)

An adaptor included in the box lets the system play 8-bit Sega Master System cartridges (though not the smaller, credit card-sized card games). Again, I threw some wacky stuff at it, like the Brazilian version of Street Fighter 2 released in 1997, and the Mega SG handled them with aplomb. More adapters, to be sold for $10 each when they are released later this year, will let you plug in Master System cards, Game Gear games, and games from Sega’s Japanese SG-1000 and SG-3000 systems.

It was often the case that games I inserted didn’t work on the first try, giving me a glitchy error screen. In all cases, this meant that the cartridge had to be cleaned. I used a lot of Q-Tips and a lot of rubbing alcohol that day. The place smelled like I was giving out free flu shots. All of the Analogue devices are pretty fastidious about wanting the carts you put inside them to be clean as a whistle before they work, so keep that in mind.

Just one of the Mega SG’s many, many options menu screens. (Screenshot: Kotaku)

Turn on the Mega SG and you’ll get a great-looking picture and sound, but if you want to tweak any of that stuff, you can dive into the panoply of different sliders and checkboxes in its menu to fully customise the experience. Want to turn on different shaders to smooth out the pixels, or customise the faux CRT filters until the image looks exactly like the Trinitrons of your youth? Go nuts. You can even select from different waveforms to use for the Genesis’ FM sound output, which will change the timbre of the music.

There are some limitations. While you can hook up a Sega CD to the unit, you can’t use that other Genesis add-on, the 32X. The reason for this is that the 32X uses analogue video mixing, and the Mega SG only supports HDMI. That’s also something to bear in mind if you were considering hooking this up to an analogue television set, because out of the box, you can’t. You also can’t use light guns, but that’s because vintage light guns don’t work with HDTVs. So, abandon those dreams of breaking out your old Sega Menacer.

Mega SG even includes a brand new game pre-loaded into its firmware: Ultracore, a Genesis game developed, but never before released, by DICE. (Screenshot: Kotaku)

Also, the Mega SG doesn’t run ROM files. You know, those things you download off the Inter… uh, I mean, copy legally from the cartridges you already own? Out of the box, the system will only play actual cartridges, although if you own an Everdrive flash cart for the Genesis, that’ll work just fine, too. That said, Analogue’s previous machines have gotten unofficial “jailbreak” firmware very shortly after their releases that allows you to dump cartridges and run ROMs, so it’s highly likely that you’ll be able to bust this open and do more with it soon enough.

The 8Bitdo M30 wireless controller. (Photo: Chris Kohler, Kotaku)

While the Mega SG includes the aforementioned Master System adaptor, an HDMI cable, and a USB power cable, it does not include a controller. You can use any Genesis-compatible pad, but if you want your controller to be as slick and fancy as your console, Analogue recommends you grab the 8Bitdo M30 wireless controller. (It sent one along with our review unit, and it’s quite nice.)

With all of my talk about FPGAs and hardware perfection, don’t think I believe that software emulation is bad, or inferior. It’s not! It’s a perfectly valid way of preserving and playing old games. It also costs zero dollars to get an emulator up and running on your existing device. From there, the more impressive options scale up in terms of price, complexity, and accuracy until you get to the Mega SG on the far opposite end of the scale. Yes, it’s for hardcore retrophiles, but it’s also such a beautiful, elegant solution that playing it might turn you into one.


Comments

    Missed opportunity for the unit to come as base with 4 controller ports (multitap) and 32x support, or even with the whole lot to form a retro Sega Neptune.

    As is in its current state, its good for people without access to a scaler like a Retrotink or CRT, but for me, I'll be giving this a miss (and especially since MiSTer FPGA unit can handle much of the same duties)

    Last edited 27/03/19 5:13 pm

    Listen, child... we say Mega Drive in this house!

    I'll say it again: there's no particular reason why a software emulator running on today's CPUs shouldn't be able to offer as good an emulation as this console (even mobile oriented CPUs).

    There are definitely jobs where FPGAs are a better choice over conventional CPUs, but it is not at all clear that emulating an ancient 7.6 MHz CPU and associated support chips fits that bill.

      I'd say this is exactly the situation for which a FPGA fits the bill.
      This isn't a mass-market retro-nostalgia device, it's a hardware device for those who want to keep playing their cartridges and use the system as it originally existed, with some adaptations for modern life [HDMI].

      With all of the earlier consoles, there are a LOT of little hacks and tweaks within games which take advantage of knowing the properties of the actual hardware. I'm not saying you *couldn't* achieve it in software, but frankly I think having the hardware recreated in FPGA removes a lot of the edge cases which would pop up, and is going to be a lot more robust regardless of what cartridge or peripheral you throw at it.

      Keep in mind that with a soft emulator, you've generally also got an OS to package up with it, and all sorts of complexity which accompanies it. Going pure hardware removes a lot of uncertainty.

        So why do you think an FPGA helps here? Implementation bugs can just as easily creep into a Verilog reimplementation of a piece of hardware as for C/assembler code emulating that hardware.

        If there are games depending on undocumented hardware behaviour, then you're going to need to understand that undocumented behaviour whether you're going the software or FPGA route for recreation.

        I don't doubt that Analogue has produced a decent recreation of the Mega Drive: just that the FPGA is the reason for their success.

          I'm not talking about bugs in the implementation though. And if the hardware is correctly implemented on the FPGA, then no, you don't need to worry about undocumented *behaviour*. Perhaps there's a unique timing in the way data registers are moved to memory after interrupt, or a way to get some weird effects from the yamaha sound chip, or there's this one title which does bank switching in an odd way. There's also the hardware addons like the SVP chip in virtua racing. Up until recently no one had even worked software emulation support out for it. Perhaps someone wants to release a new title with some funky addon chips?

          Keep in mind, this thing is also designed to interact with actual hardware [cartridges, controllers, whatever else people want to put in the controller ports], you're going to need hardware still to talk to this, or else you're going to need to bit-bang it all out and hope that your OS keeps up and doesn't wait on a stray interrupt somewhere.

          If you've copied the hardware adequately in FPGA, then you don't have to worry about all of the crazy edge cases because for all intents and purposes what you have created is a copy of the original sega hardware. When you put in a cartridge and hit the power button, you want that thing to come up straight away. You can't do that with software emulation if you're first waiting for the OS to boot.

          Given the demographic they are targeting, I absolutely think it is the correct decision.

            How do you think they are going to "correctly" implement the hardware on the FPGA? They're working off architecture manuals and observations about instruction timing of the original chips. This is the same information you'd use to produce a software emulator.

              Sure. But how do you boot up a software emulator at the press of a button? By writing low level ARM or x86 assembly or C code to run without an OS and initialise all of the hardware?
              I'm sure it's worth the effort to basically create an entire motherboard with UEFI boot code just to run the thing. You'd arguably spend more time getting the underlying modern hardware running than you would emulating the original hardware. And again, talking to external hardware with a software emulator is completely non-trivial.

              I'm sorry, but it just seems like the kind of sentiment which resulted in Sony's recent retro PS1. "Ahh, just chuck in an ARM SBC with a soft emulator and some roms. /brushes hands".
              If you're wanting to give people a quick nostalgia trip, sure. This isn't for those people. This is for people who want hardware near-identical to the original.

                (1) Why do you think an operating system would be slow to boot up? If there isn't much hardware to manage/initialise, then there's no reason for it to take a long time. PC hardware isn't a great indicator on how fast an OS can boot on embedded hardware.

                (2) What makes you so sure there isn't an operating system buried in the Mega Sg? The FPGA they chose (Altera Cyclone V) has an embedded ARM CPU, and I wouldn't be surprised if it is used to drive some of the options UI shown on the website. It would be difficult to do stuff like that via the M68K CPU in a way that would be transparent to the game.

                It's possible that they implemented some other FPGA based hardware to run the UI, but if you've got an ARM CPU sharing the bus, why not use that? It's possible that they could try to run without an OS on that chip, but it sounds like a lot of work. Especially if people have already brought up Linux on the chip.

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