Though there are many things that make the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) one of the greatest consoles ever made, it’s the game’s arcade-like action experiences that arguably age best. Those titles were not just often the showcase for the many things that Sega aspired to do with the Genesis but the kind of purely enjoyable games that remain wonderfully easy to return to after 30+ years.
While I come to celebrate the best of the best of those games today, please note that defining the seemingly simple action genre can be a remarkably challenging experience. For the purposes of this list, I tried to focus on more “pure” action games where the combat was the main draw. Among other things, that meant that Action RPGs and more platforming-heavy Action Platformer titles weren’t really considered for this list. We’ll pay homage to games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Beyond Oasis another day.
15. Comix Zone
Though the internet has effectively “reclaimed” Comix Zone to a degree, the game was considered to be something of a hidden gem for quite some time. To be fair, its hidden gem status can partially be attributed to a few of the game’s slightly rougher edges. It’s certainly not the smoothest beat-em-up in the Genesis library.
However, few console beat-em-ups from this era are perfect, and Comix Zone’s overwhelming style elevates it above some considerable competition. Hearing that Comix Zone emulates the style of a comic book is one thing, but seeing the results of that approach is something else entirely. This game’s commitment to that gimmick is so complete that it even lets you platform between the pages of the fictional comic book it exists in. There’s also something to be said for the “attitude ‘90s” style this game embraces without shame or remorse.
14. Desert Strike – Return to the Gulf
Desert Strike has always been something of an oddity. Its isometric shooter style was somewhat unusual compared to the vertical and horizontal shooters that typically dominated the Genesis’ action lineup. However, what really made this one stand out was its surprisingly open-ended structure. It wasn’t quite an open-world game in the modern sense of the term, but you were afforded a surprising amount of freedom in terms of navigation and how to complete certain objectives.
Despite its many big swings, though, Desert Strike most notably succeeds in offering a fundamentally satisfying action game experience. The game’s movement system aspires to be just “realistic” enough to ensure that you feel a genuine sense of accomplishment for mastering your copter and defeating enemies on the ground and in the sky. Mind you, you’ll need to master your copter’s movements if you’re going to survive this surprisingly tough game’s pleasant variety of objectives and encounters. Honestly, this might still be the best helicopter game ever made.
At the time of its release in 1995, Vectorman was seen as the Genesis’ answer to Donkey Kong Country’s mind-blowing visuals. While I don’t feel that this game’s unique visual style quite replicates the sheer awe of seeing DKC for the first time, that’s ultimately not a big deal. What matters so much more is the quality of Vectorman’s action.
Whereas Donkey Kong Country’s incredible visuals were largely made possible thanks to its slower form of simpler platforming gameplay, Vectorman offers a relentless side-scrolling action experience. It falls somewhere between Contra and Mega Man in terms of the intensity of its action and how it adds variety to that action via character morphing and platforming mechanics. One of the last great games for the Genesis, Vectorman represents so many of the things that made Sega’s greatest console a special system for action experiences.
12. Mega Turrican
Before they really made a mainstream name for themselves through their work on the Rogue Squadron series, developer Factor 5 generated quite a bit of buzz with the Turrican games. Praised for their visuals, fluidity, and creative level design, the Turrican games often endeavored to offer more ambitious action experiences that didn’t sacrifice the pure joys of running and gunning.
Well, Mega Turrican may be the pinnacle of their considerable efforts. Much of your time in the game will gleefully be spent using elaborate weapons to blast your way through a variety of imaginative enemies with the help of nearly perfect multidirectional controls (as it should be). Yet, it’s the ways the game effortlessly weaves in fast-paced navigation through various environmental hazards that make it more than just another great Genesis action title.
11. X-Men 2: Clone Wars
Early X-Men games were…hit-and-miss. Between the exceptional X-Men arcade game and the all-time bad X-Men game for the NES rested a small army of adaptations that often varied wildly in quality (yet typically resembled each other in some way). That created a lot of confusion about which games were actually good and which needed to be avoided. Well, X-Men 2: Clone Wars was the biggest victim of that confusion.
Though this game does feature a number of platforming elements, its exceptional action ultimately makes it the best X-Men console game of this era. Developer Headgames really focused on making each mutant feel distinct while ensuring that you are given ample opportunities to utilize their unique abilities in a variety of combat scenarios. Because this game follows the X-Men comic arc of that era so closely, it also perfectly captures a pretty special time for the series with its cast of characters, fantastic visuals, and wonderful sound design. It’s such a shame it didn’t get a little more love in its day.
The arcade version of Strider is rightfully regarded as one of the most influential and exceptional action games ever. Of course, nobody dared to dream that the 1989 arcade game could ever be successfully ported to the home consoles available at that time. Well, against considerable odds, Sega and Capcom managed to deliver a Genesis version of Strider that was nearly arcade-perfect.
The Genesis port of Strider can’t quite replicate the arcade version’s fluidity and visual details, but it is a remarkably accurate translation of a game that really should have never worked on consoles in the first place. More importantly, the Genesis version of Strider is accurate enough to offer that relentless style of movement-based action that made Strider such an absolute arcade joy. Though still technically impressive in the proper context, it’s Strider’s gameplay that hasn’t aged a day.
9. Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
Though part of my heart will always belong to Revenge of Shinobi, that game has aged in ways that are becoming increasingly difficult to overlook. Fortunately, Shinobi 3 has somehow managed to actually improve with age in many ways.
By utilizing a faster style of action that feels more appropriate to the Genesis era of the genre, Shinobi 3 manages to feel infinitely more “playable” than its still impressive predecessors. Whale that increased speed and range of movement does make the game slightly easier than the earlier Shinobi titles, Return of the Ninja Master still offers all the challenges you should expect from a Shinobi game. Crucially, it also offers some of the best bosses, levels, and abilities in the history of this landmark action franchise.
8. The Adventures of Batman and Robin
The SNES version of The Adventures of Batman and Robin tends to get all of the love, and it’s not hard to see why. Rather than simply port that exceptional action platformer to the Genesis, though, developer Clockwork Tortoise decided to make something that felt a little more…appropriate to the Genesis. Essentially, they turned Batman into a run-and-gun shooter hero.
That may sound like blasphemy, but the results are heavenly. Not only is this game dripping with style (its soundtrack is one of the Genesis’ very best), but it offers some of the best pure action on a console clearly not hurting for notable entries in that subgenre. Hell, between its stunning side-scrolling sequence and surprisingly strong vehicular segments, this may be the best Treasure-like action game on the Genesis not made by Treasure. As we’ll discuss later, that is one of the biggest compliments I can pay a Genesis action game.
7. Contra Hard Corps
Though it may seem redundant to put the word “Hard” next to Contra, I can assure you that the seemingly superfluous descriptor is both apt and necessary. With this game, Konami essentially asked “How hard can we make a Contra game while still keeping it technically beatable?” The answer, dear reader, is “Historically fucking hard.”
Push through that part of this game’s deserved reputation, though, and you’ll find Contra at its very best. Through such innovations (relative to this series) as multiple control options, branching paths, a greater variety of level types, and the ability to carry multiple weapons at once, Hard Corps manages to offer the most creatively diverse Contra experience of the franchise’s early era. Though future titles followed a bit more closely in its footsteps, Hard Corps arguably remains the franchise’s finest and toughest hour.
6. Alien Soldier
Given that Alien Soldier’s North American release was limited to the Sega Channel service, there is a very good chance that many people simply never got the chance to play it. If you are among those who never got the chance to play this game back in the day, I implore you to do so now however you are able. It is one of developer Treasure’s finest action games and (as you can see) among the Genesis’ finest action titles.
Released at the very end of the Genesis’ life cycle, Alien Soldier is a showcase of both the lessons Treasure learned in the Genesis era and the console’s technical capabilities. It was made for experienced Genesis gamers, and that philosophy is made abundantly apparent even in the game’s supposedly “easier” difficulty. Challenges aside, though, it’s the sheer spectacle of the experience that makes it truly special. Though structurally little more than an elaborate series of boss fights, the scale of those encounters and the ways you are asked to use all of the abilities at your disposal to overcome them do make this game feel like a mighty flex from an all-time great developer.
5. Castlevania: Bloodlines
Though the early Castlevania games always emphasized pure action more than many of the post-Symphony of the Night titles did, Bloodlines is something else entirely. In some ways, it is a Castlevania experience re-imagined as a Genesis-style, arcade-like action game. Yes, it is also just as awesome as that description would lead you to believe.
Like many of the games on this list, Bloodlines boasts the exceptional soundtrack, wonderful visuals, and responsive controls you should expect from a top-tier Genesis action game. What makes this particular title so special, though, is the ways it retains the spirit of an NES Castlevania game while expanding that era of the franchise in exciting new directions. There is a greater variety of enemies, the levels are more complex, and while this game is certainly challenging, it is balanced in a way that ensures it never feels truly frustrating.
4. Ranger X
Though your mileage on this subject may vary, I’ve always found something inherently fun in the opportunity to play as an exoskeleton-empowered futuristic operative with access to a jet pack, motorcycle, and array of powerful futuristic weaponry. Crazy, I know, but if you happen to suffer from the same affliction, I think you’re going to like what Ranger X has to offer.
First off, Ranger X may just be the most visually impressive Sega Genesis title ever made. This list certainly isn’t hurting for lookers, but this game pushes the console to its limits in ways that are both subtle and wonderfully obvious. More importantly, that impressive tech is used to fuel a sublime form of action gameplay that allows you to enjoy various modes of play that all feel like pieces of a much greater whole. The fact that a game like this could fly relatively under the radar speaks to the quality of this era’s action experiences.
3. Thunder Force IV
Though I feel somewhat bad only featuring one proper SHMUP game on this list, Thunder Force 4 just happens to represent so many of the things that made the best Genesis titles in that genre so special.
Also known as Lightning Force, Thunder Force 4 is an absolute masterpiece of the genre. Though this game deserves all the praise it will ever receive for its exceptional weapon system (which requires you to carefully consider both the drawbacks and benefits of various power-ups), you can only talk about this game for so long without praising its visuals. Through various technical innovations, developer Technosoft was able to craft a series of levels that feel as alive as the nearly constant action. It’s a work of art that we’re fortunate enough to be able to interact with.
2. Streets of Rage 2
You can heap quite a bit of praise upon Streets of Rage 2 before you risk going too far. The best beat-em-up on the Genesis? Almost certainly. The best beat-em-up of its era? I’d have a hard time arguing against you. One of the best action games ever made? Honestly, I think there is a case to be made.
Streets of Rage 2 certainly doesn’t lack innovations, but it’s the game’s many refinements that often make it so historically noteworthy. At their core, beat-em-ups offered the kind of pure gaming experience that turned arcades into destinations. It turns out that grabbing a friend and beating up waves of enemies across gorgeous environments is just a really good time. Well, Streets of Rage 2 treats every element of that experience with the necessary level of creative respect. From the levels to the soundtrack and the feel of taking down even lesser enemies, every aspect of this experience is designed to offer an optimized version of the fundamentals of this genre. It’s one of the best pure gaming experiences out there, but it’s when you stop and appreciate the little details along the way that you really begin to understand the game’s masterpiece status.
1. Gunstar Heroes
As I’ve suggested a few times throughout this article, Treasure really is one of (if not the) greatest action game developers ever. Founded in the early ‘90s by a group of Konami developers who desired to pursue more elaborate and original ideas, Treasure effectively used the Genesis hardware as a radio designed to broadcast what the future of action gaming was going to look, sound, and play like. Though their body of work during that time remains impressive, there is a strong argument to be made that their first effort, Gunstar Heroes, remains their masterpiece.
Gunstar Heroes builds upon the action gaming foundation laid by Contra 3 in ways that make it hard to look at that game in the same way. Gunstar Heroes is faster, allows for more creative attack and movement possibilities, and generally feels smoother in every meaningful way possible. It’s the details that make the whole thing special, though. Treasure put a lot of care into things that other studios were content on overlooking such as enemy animations and background designs. The result is a game bursting with creativity, craft, and personality in every frame and pixel. It was more than arcade-perfect; it was better than what you could find at the arcades.