The top 50 underappreciated Sega Mega Drive games
From shooters to platformers and puzzlers to RPGs, here's our selection of 50 underappreciated games on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis...
In the late 80s and 90s, Sega enjoyed a golden period of success, with the Sega Mega Drive becoming a hugely popular console in America and Europe. Although it faced tougher competition in Japan from Nintendo's Super Famicom, games like Sonic The Hedgehog, Altered Beast, Golden Axe, Streets Of Rage and a range of licensed sports titles made the Mega Drive (or Genesis) a zeitgeist-grabbing hit in the west.
Yet while Sonic and several other core hits were responsible for selling a legion systems, there were also a range of other cracking titles among the Mega Drive's hundreds of releases. With apologies if we've missed off your favourite, here's our selection of 50 Mega Drive games that never quite got the mega-selling attention they deserved...
50. El Viento
Admittedly, the hack-and-slash action in this Wolf Team game is pretty generic, but there's something so batty about El Viento that it's worth recommending despite its flaws. You play Annet, a heroine armed with magic and boomerangs, of all things, who's on a mission to save 1920s America from Al Capone and ancient, evil gods from HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos (yes, really).
Scruffy and slightly generic sprite designs are compensated for by some unusual locations and some absurdly violent explosions - you really haven't seen a man on a motorbike explode until you've played El Viento. Some of the sound effects are truly hideous - dying gangsters sound like quacking ducks - but again, for every technical misstep, there's a clever idea or amusing moment.
El Viento may desperately want to be a Castlevania beater, but it's more akin to a 90s straight-to-video movie, which oddly enough, is actually a recommendation. If you're into collecting things, the box looks great, too.
49. Wani Wani World
In 1991, Japanese studio Kaneko created an arcade game called The Berlin Wall - a revival of the old Space Panic game with better graphics, end-of-world bosses and lots of power-ups. Later ported to the Sega Game Gear by Kaneko itself, Berlin Wall was mysteriously altered for the Mega Drive, where it was given a new title and an entirely different central character - a crocodile ('wani' being the Japanese word for crocodile).
Was Kaneko inspired by the success of Sonic The Hedgehog, and intent on creating an 'animal with attitude' character of its own? Quite possibly. At any rate, the resulting game is a bright, breezy bit of fun, and while the single-screen, trap-the-monsters action may have seemed old hat at a time when Sonic was tearing through levels like lightning, Wani Wani World has aged quite well. The range of power-ups and things to collect keeps things interesting (the crocodile hero appears to have a worrying addiction to fruit machines), and some of the monsters are endearingly strange.
48. ToeJam & Earl
Quite possibly the most 90s game ever made, with its backwards hats, chunky trainers and other period fashion accessories, ToeJam & Earl remains a delightful curio. Essentially a top-down dungeon crawler, it sees a pair of ungainly aliens (the ToeJam and Earl of the title) hunting a surreal landscape for the missing parts of their space ship. Obstacles include ice-cream vans and violent chickens, while the aliens' only available response is to knock them out with tomatoes. It's an example of the game's weird, inventive sense of humour, which extends to an ingenious two-player mode where the screen only splits in half when players head off in different directions. A gaudy relic from a bygone age, ToeJam & Earl still has lots to offer, particularly when played with a friend.
Known as Bio-Hazard Battle outside Japan, this otherwise familiar side-scrolling shooter is livened up by some great weapons and a really ominous atmosphere. Obviously inspired by R-Type, Crying's enemies are all exotic, biological things that look like sea creatures or insects - even the four player ships you can choose from look like something you'd find lurking in a deep part of the ocean. What's most notable about Crying, though, is just how fast and smooth it is; every level offers a constant onslaught of enemies and bullets that swoop and pulsate across the screen in hypnotic and slightly eerie fashion. Although not the most original or strategic shooter on the Mega Drive, Crying is at least one of the most unusual-looking and technically impressive.
46. Bad Omen/Devilish
Bat-and-ball games were already looking antiquated by the early 90s, but Bad Omen brought some really fresh ideas to the ageing format. It gives the player two paddles to control instead of one - the first only able to move left and right, the other able to move forward and back as well as from side to side. With a bit of practice, the system quickly becomes second nature, and as the action progresses up the screen, Bad Omen begins to more closely resemble a scrolling shooter than something like Arkanoid - there are enemies to destroy, obstacles to avoid and area bosses to take out.
The horror-themed graphics add atmosphere, but it's the speed and variety of the action that makes Bad Omen such an entertaining game. A few technical flaws and design choices knock it back a little (such as the annoying bit where you have to fight your way to an exit after destroying a boss - die and you have to fight the boss again) but it remains a novel, overlooked title. Bad Omen's also one of several 90s games that features a killer tree as an area guardian. We're still trying to figure out what 90s game designers had against trees.
45. Aero Blasters/Air Buster
The sheer volume of shooters available for the Mega Drive meant that a few inevitably slipped under people's radars, and Aero Blasters is perhaps one of the less well known. Like most games of its era, it's inspired by things like Gradius and R-Type, yet it's faster and breezier than either; its colourful graphics and transforming robot enemies provide the atmosphere of a Saturday morning TV anime show, and if you thought bullet hell shooters were the preserve of later consoles like the Saturn, you may be surprised at how much mayhem Aero Blasters manages to throw at you.
Conventional level designs are interspersed by stages where the scrolling speeds up and the player hurtles through a maze of narrow, sharply-angled corridors, injecting a welcome bit of variety and tension. Couple all this with a relatively unusual two-player co-op mode, and you have one of the most exhilarating shooters available for Sega's console.
44. Columns III
The match-three puzzle game Columns was one of Sega's most ubiquitous titles in the early 90s, yet this second sequel didn't even come out in Europe. This is a pity, since Columns III is a great extension of the original. The single-player mode is now a Puyo Puyo-like battle against the computer as opposed to a solo score attack like the first game, while the main draw is arguably its multiplayer mode, which allows up to five players to compete simultaneously. With a big enough television, the latter can offer hours of bickering and cajoling. On a side note, Columns III ditches the weird Greek and baroque themes of the first two games and features lots of cartoon chickens instead. We heartily approve of this alteration.
This action RPG has to be one of the most handsome games of its type available on the Mega Drive. With chunky isometric graphics and some distinctive character animation and design, it really evokes the sense that you're roaming a fully-realised fantasy world, from its cold dungeons to its peaceful villages set among lush green fields. In many ways, it's the Zelda game that Mega Drive owners could otherwise only dream about, with a dash influence possibly taken from the Super Nintendo's Link To The Past, except without its iconic characters and music.
The American and European release was edited a bit for the more risque content present in the Japanese version, but otherwise, it's the same fun and often extremely difficult game, with snappy dialogue and a lengthy, varied quest. If you fondly remember Ultimate: Play the Game's once ground-breaking isometric action adventures for the ZX Spectrum, such as Knight Lore, then Landstalker's an essential 16-bit relic.
42. Toki/JuJu Densetsu
The Mega Drive version of Toki is a bit different from the arcade original, yet it remains a quirky and challenging platformer. The player takes control of an ape whose slow movement is offset by his uncanny ability to spit deadly fireballs at enemies. Understandably less successful than console rivals like Super Mario World or Sonic, Toki's nevertheless a lot of fun - levels are colourful and varied, and some of the bosses take a considerable amount of persistence to defeat.
41. Bonanza Bros
"We're going to collect all of your valuable treasures," reads the flyer for the arcade version of Bonanza Bros. "Here we go, you gang of clowns!!" It's a strange strap line for an unusual game, a platformer where you play one of two thieves who sneak into buildings, steal all the loot and sneak back out again. Or at least, that's the aim - wardens and policemen with riot shields are among the obstacles in your way, and while it's possible to knock them out with your handy stun gun, evasion's the better tactic.
Really coming into its own in two-player mode, Bonanza Bros is simple, brisk and full of welcome comic touches - guards can be knocked out by opening doors on them, Mappy style, while objects like empty cola tins will leave your character slipping and landing flat on his back. A cracking little game, this.
This decent yet unremarkable shooter is livened up by some of the most bizarre and downright brilliant creature designs you'll see on the Mega Drive. There are gigantic amalgams of screaming heads, pistons and arteries. A half giant, half train. Demonic skulls with wings and nautilus-like monsters. Oh, and the player character is a muscle-bound hero with Icarus-like wings.
Comparisons with R-Type are inevitable, but Gynoug succeeds in creating its own nightmare atmosphere - one level's even called Body Manufacturing Factory, which is as grim as it sounds. Fun fact: Gynoug's developer Masaya would later go on to make the Cho Aniki series of homoerotic shooters.
39. Chase HQ II
More of an expanded port of the arcade original than a true sequel, Chase HQ II is a cracking little racing game. The aim is to scream down a highway in a sports car and apprehend fleeing criminals by repeatedly ramming them until their own vehicle finally grinds to a halt - a Jason Statham approach to law enforcement, if you will.
Unlike the original, this version offers three different cars to drive rather than the standard-issue black Porsche, and there are additional little touches like ramps that flip your vehicle up on two wheels. Inevitably less smooth and flashy than the arcade version, Chase HQ II nevertheless replicates much of its white-knuckle excitement. Curiously, the game didn't seem to get a particularly wide release in either Japan or the west, since copies of the Mega Drive version are now difficult to come by and, as a result, unusually expensive.
38. Pepenga Pengo
The last first-party game from Sega in Japan, Pengo is now a sought-after collector's item. An update of the 1982 arcade game, Pengo is a simple maze game that involves sliding ice blocks around to crush enemies. Themed worlds with different enemies, catchy music and larger sprites give the game a more 90s feel, even if the gameplay itself is the same as ever. Never released in the West, Pengo is an undemanding yet fun game, and it's a pity that its rarity makes it so difficult to get hold of.
37. Crack Down
The tiny, somewhat bland graphics aren't Crack Down's strongest aspect, but like so many old games, its addictive action more than makes up for the packaging. Although billed as a top-down shooter, the aim of the game goes beyond just firing at things: to complete each level, you have to leave explosive devices in predefined positions on the map, and then get to the exit before the digital timer ticks down to zero. As the maps become more complex and the enemies more numerous, Crack Down becomes increasingly engrossing, and small touches - like being able to lean against a wall to avoid enemy fire - were relatively unusual at the time. The game gets even better when a second player joins in, and although Crack Down wasn't a Mega Drive exclusive, it's this port of the arcade original that's arguably the best.
36. Bio-Ship Paladin/Space Battleship Gomora
As the trickle of shooters crowding onto the Mega Drive quickly turned into a torrent in the early 90s, it became ever more important for developers to introduce their own twists on the genre. Bio-Ship Paladin is one of the better examples, with its typical side-scrolling action spiced up by a Missile Command-like cursor that allows you to shoot accurately at enemies wherever they are on the screen. The system takes a while to get used to, but the effort's worth it: once mastered, Bio-Ship Paladin offers a hint of strategy along with its traditional shooting. There's also a clever two-player option, where one player flies the ship while the other controls the movement of the aiming reticule.
35. Atomic Robo-Kid
A combination of shooter and maze game, Atomic Robo-Kid is unusual in that it actively punishes any attempt at rapid progress; try to rush through a level and you're quickly overwhelmed by enemies and bullets. Learning when to advance and when to retreat or duck for cover becomes the key to success, and once this is mastered, Atomic Robo-Kid really comes into its own. The central character - a diminutive robot with heavy feet and big eyes - is an adorable creation, and the whole game is handsomely designed from beginning to end. Some distractingly repetitive music can grate after a while, but the variety of the levels and sheer challenge makes this shortcoming easy to overlook.
34. Dangerous Seed
This port of Namco's own coin-op - a kind of spiritual successor to Galaxian and Galaga - isn't what you'd call a technical marvel. Its sprites flicker horribly, and the dreary lack of colour in some levels make it look more akin to a Master System title than a release for the (then new) 16-bit Mega Drive. Yet despite all this, Dangerous Seed emerges as a hectic and memorable shooter, thanks in part to its weapon system, which sees three ships interconnect to create one super-powerful craft, a bit like 80s arcade classic, Mooncresta. Throw in some great area bosses - which look like Galaga’s space bees blown up under a photocopier - and some of the catchiest music you’ll hear on the Mega Drive, and you’re left with a real diamond in the rough.
33. Fantastic Dizzy
Better known for his home computer adventures, The Oliver Twins' ovoid hero Dizzy got a rare outing on the Mega Drive in 1991. Like the earlier entries, Fantastic Dizzy's a platform adventure where just about every object provides the key to a puzzle elsewhere on the map. With colourful graphics and appropriately jolly music, Fantastic Dizzy was a great entry in the series, and deserved to sell better than it did - unfortunately, Codemasters' legal tussle with Sega over the sale of the Game Genie delayed its release from Christmas 1990 until early the following year, placing it well outside the festive sales season.
Readers of a certain age may remember Stormlord coming out in the late 1980s. Notable at the time for its large and dubious sprites depicting naked fairies, it was also a supremely playable platformer from British game design ace Raffaele Cecco. The Mega Drive version appeared in 1991, by which point the fairies in the US version had been given a few bits of skimpy clothing to protect their modesty - most likely at the behest of Sega of America.
Clothing matters aside, Stormlord's an absorbing, strangely claustrophobic game, in which you control a bearded chap intent on rescuing the motionless fairies dotted around the landscape. It's not unlike Capcom's Ghosts N Goblins, but less frenetic and far, far more forgiving.
31. Techno Cop
Seemingly inspired by RoboCop, this British action game was notable for its unusual amount of violence. Play switches between driving sections, where your sci-fi law enforcer speeds to his next crime scene in a red sports car, and a side-scrolling platform section, where Techno Cop can either capture villains in a net, or blast them into a crimson mist with his gun. You can probably guess which option is the most entertaining - not to mention controversial at the time.
Ropey from a visual standpoint, Techno Cop is the video game equivalent of a B-movie - it's solid, trashy fun, with some unintentionally funny sprite designs. Are those guard dogs, foxes, or giant rats?
30. Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure
The Japanese developer Vic Tokai got an unusual amount of mileage from this platformer, which appeared in different guises on the Nintendo Entertainment System (as Kid Cool), Sega Master System (as Psycho Fox) and finally the Mega Drive. Magical Flying Turbo Adventure’s based on a TV anime that never appeared outside Japan, which is why it was given a visual overhaul and released as Decapattack in America. But it’s the original version that holds the most appeal for us, with its strangely beguiling central character (essentially a small boy in a turban and cape), curious weapon system (you can throw a smiling, apparently sentient egg at enemies) and bizarre power-ups (you can turn into a giant mechanical gorilla). Although intent on bombarding you with extra lives, Magical Flying Hat emanates a certain care-free charm, with its hum-along music and expansive - and occasionally devious - level designs.
29. Devil Crash MD
One of a several pinball games that appeared for 16-bit consoles in the 90s, Devil Crash was perhaps the most playable and best designed. A kind of companion piece to the similarly demon-themed Bad Omen, Devil Crash is a digital recreation of a traditional pinball machine, albeit with sundry marching demons, bats, and a huge female face that gradually becomes more evil as the points build up. With catchy music and timeless gameplay, Devil Crash MD is the very definition of quick-fix gaming.
28. Elemental Master
Opening with a brilliantly melodramatic cut scene ("Is this really what has become of my brother?"), Elemental Master's really just another up-the-screen shooter, but it also happens to be a really good one. With a shadowy fantasy theme, Elemental Master sees you control a cloaked figure who can fire powerful blue streaks of lightning - a handy ability, given the hordes of giant bats, fleshy plants and other critters waiting for you as you advance up the battlefield.
Background graphics are a bit on the muddy and drab side, but the range of weapons and power-ups available keeps the screen covered in dazzling blue and red balls of fire, so you don't notice too much. The enemies, on the other hand, look terrific - the bosses are a truly exotic bunch, and include giant flying sea serpent, and a demonic hedgehog. The games industry needs more demonic hedgehogs.
This curious side-scrolling brawler responded to the topic of animal welfare in the same way Eugene Jarvis’ Narc dealt with the drug trade: with rocket launchers and extreme violence. As one of a small band of Indiana Jones-like heroes, you batter and shoot your way through a landscape of ivory poachers and other cruel villains, and every so often, a few animals will join in to deliver their own spot of retribution. Growl lacks the polish (not to mention fame) of the Streets Of Rage series, but it’s still thoroughly entertaining, and nowhere else will you see bad guys pummelled by elephants, or pecked into oblivion by a convocationof raging eagles. (Yes, we did look that collective noun up.)
26. Fatal Labyrinth
Think of RPGs on the Mega Drive, and series like Phantasy Star or Shining (Shining Force, Shining In The Darkness) will probably spring to mind. Fatal Labyrinth is, in many ways, a fairly generic 2D dungeon crawler, where you navigate your hero across 30 randomly-generated floors of nasties and treasure chests in search of a mystical trinket guarded by a dragon. What separates Fatal Labyrinth from other RPGs of the period is its quirky sense of humour; you can collect all the gold you like, but it serves no particular use in the game itself - instead, you're simply treated to a more lavish funeral when you eventually die. You'll probably die quite a lot, as well, because the enemies are legion and highly aggressive, and in a further twist, you can also die from over-eating.
Yes, as well as keeling over from sheer hunger if you don't pick up enough food, your hapless hero will also exclaim "I'm stuffed!" if he's given too much to eat - and then promptly expire. He must be a nightmare in all-you-can-eat restaurants. Such details aside, Fatal Labyrinth is an entertaining and endearing little game, with a great sense of progression as your hero builds himself up from a humble beginner to a hero in a winged metal helmet.