The Mega Drive Mini Is A Console Worthy Of The Sega Name

The SEGA Mega Drive Mini isn’t the first time a mini SEGA console has gone on the market, but it’s the first one that’s worth your money.

Previous iterations of SEGA emulators and games were often riddled with flaws: inaccurate sound, poor emulation, average build quality at best, and a game library that sometimes featured more shovelware than genuine SEGA titles.

This story has been retimed to coincide with the Mega Drive Mini’s release tomorrow.

The SEGA Mega Drive Mini, which SEGA based on the Model 1 Mega Drive that launched down under in November 1990, rectifies all of that. In conjunction with porting studio M2, which worked on the SEGA 3D Classics Collection and SEGA AGES titles, and to help justify the $139.95 premium, the publisher has jammed 42 games onto the console. The full library includes some special gems, like the exceedingly rare version of Tetris that SEGA made before Nintendo legally blocked sales of the game in Japan. There’s also version of Darius that uses a 32-megabit ROM, something the internet quickly discovered (and Sega later officially confirmed) was the work of a hobbyist programmer called Hidecade.

For reference, here’s the full library:

  1. Sonic The Hedgehog

  2. Ecco the Dolphin

  3. Castlevania: The New Generation

  4. Space Harrier 2

  5. Shining Force

  6. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine

  7. ToeJam & Earl

  8. Comix Zone

  9. Altered Beast

  10. Gunstar Heroes

  11. Earthworm Jim

  12. Sonic The Hedgehog 2

  13. Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse

  14. World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck

  15. Probotector

  16. Thunder Force III

  17. Super Fantasy Zone

  18. Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master

  19. Streets of Rage 2

  20. Landstalker

  21. Mega Man: The Wily Wars

  22. Street Fighter II: Special Champion Edition

  23. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts

  24. Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle

  25. The Story of Thor

  26. Golden Axe

  27. Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium

  28. Sonic The Hedgehog Spinball

  29. Vectorman

  30. Wonder Boy in Monster World

  31. Tetris

  32. Darius

  33. Road Rash II

  34. Strider

  35. Virtua Fighter 2

  36. Alisia Dragoon

  37. Kid Chameleon

  38. Monster World IV

  39. Eternal Champions

  40. Columns

  41. Dynamite Headdy

  42. Light Crusader

The Mega Drive Mini has other fun quirks too. Want to see what the Mega Drive was like in Japan? Flip the language in the menu settings and the whole UI flips, the box art for each of the games changes to their Japanese variants, and the game versions change as well. Change to French or Korean and everything flips again. It’s an awesome touch, and all of this plays to the backing of a fresh tune made with YM2612 sound chip — the same chip within the original Mega Drive — from Streets of Rage composer Yuzo Koshiro. The sound effect is from Streets of Rage 2 as well, which is a nice touch.

There isn’t a huge amount of options in the menu beyond that, however. There’s 4:3 and 16:9 screen settings available for games, with an optional CRT filter if you want it. There’s three options for backgrounds (which you’ll only see on the main menu and if you’re playing games in their traditional 4:3 format), but no extra shaders or pixel smoothing options available. It’s not necessary, but retro fans that care a lot about this stuff should know beforehand. You’ve got four save states available, on top of any in-game saves if that’s an option (like in Phantasy Star IV).

It’s also worth pointing out that the sound, while pretty good for the most part, isn’t completely perfect. The Mega Drive Mini doesn’t have quite the same level of bass as the original console, so a lot of games ten to sound a bit weak and flat, especially titles that feature a lot of repetitive effects with strong bass (think rapid gunfire).

It’s still infinitely better than the AtGames consoles of years past, and for people who didn’t grow up with a Mega Drive or these games, you won’t know you’re missing anything. Sound is notoriously hard to emulate properly, so I’m not surprised that the Mini is slightly off. There’s also a few games where you’ll see a little bit of shimmering because they were a lower resolution originally than most Mega Drive games, like Street Fighter 2 (which you won’t want to play much, but I’ll explain why in a second) and Shining Force, which were 256 pixels wide instead of 320 pixels wide like most Mega Drive games.

All of this would be for moot, of course, if the games were a chore to play. Thankfully, the Mega Drive Mini suffers from none of the problems that crippled the PlayStation Classic. Rectifying problems with the lower-quality SEGA knock-offs from years past, all of the emulation I’ve seen on about three quarters of the library so far — I haven’t properly played through the entirety of the game library, owing to time — has been largely trouble-free, colour inaccuracies, and the crippling drops in performance that the PS Classic in particular couldn’t avoid.

And the controllers are good! The cables aren’t offensively short, as people discovered with the Mini SNES, and the controllers themselves are large, as you’d expect from a remake of the original Mega Drive controllers. The size means you won’t have any cramping issues over longer periods, which is great because there are plenty of games here that, genuinely, still hold up over longer sessions. The cords are decently long, although I would have preferred an extra 30 centimetres, only because that’s a comfortable distance between the TV and couch in most Australian living rooms (at least those living in apartments or units).

Some of the library is beset by the cruel reality that they weren’t the best experiences on the Mega Drive. When most people hear Virtua Fighter 2, they probably think of the 3D polygonal Sega Saturn version. The Mega Drive variant doesn’t have the same heart or soul, and similarly, only having half the buttons for Street Fighter 2 or Eternal Champions isn’t a lot of fun. Retro-Bit’s 6 button controllers are compatible with the mini console, but you’ll have to fork out $29.95 a pop.

Even with that major asterisk hanging over the controller, there’s still plenty of games that play fantastically well. Replaying Golden Axe gives me slight PTSD, if only because it is still leagues and bounds beyond that horrendously butchered Xbox 360 remake. Gunstar Heroes is a ton of fun and a smashing co-op game to rip out at any point. Castlevania: Bloodlines remains an all-time classic. Sonic is as good as you’d expect, and Ecco the Dolphin will revive many happy memories for people. Most importantly, I didn’t run into any noticeable frame rate drops or performance issues that ruined the experience.

But the library is consistently good from top to bottom, which is what ultimately makes the Mega Drive Mini worthwhile at its price point. There’s Contra, Wonder Boy, Phantasy Star IV, Toejam & Earl, and if you still have a soft spot for it, Earthworm Jim. Strider and Road Rash 2 will always hold their own. Disney platformers. Two of them, even.

There’s something for everyone here, as you’d expect from a lineup of 42 games this good. It’ll be even better to see what the community can do once the console is torn down and the power of the internals is put to use emulating all sorts of games. So far, it does the Mega Drive justice. It’s not perfect, sure, but it’s the mini console Sega fans deserve after years of shovelware-ridden imitators.

The Sega Mega Drive Mini will retail for $139.95 when it goes on sale nationwide from September 19 in Australia.

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