In the late ’80s and ’90s, Sega enjoyed a golden period of success. The Sega Genesis became a hugely popular console in America and Europe. Although it faced tougher competition in Japan from Nintendo’s Super Nintendo, games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Altered Beast, Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, and a range of licensed sports titles made the Genesis a zeitgeist-grabbing hit in the west.
Yet, while Sonic and several other core hits were responsible for selling a legion of systems, there was also a range of other cracking titles among the Genesis’ hundreds of releases. With apologies if we’ve missed any of your favorites, here’s our selection of 50 Sega Genesis 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 H.P. 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 Genesis, 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. 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 backward hats, chunky sneakers, 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 spaceship.
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 humor, 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 Genesis, 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 aging 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 feature 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 Genesis 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 colorful 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 Genesis. With chunky isometric graphics and some distinctive character animation and design, it really evokes the sense that you’re roaming a fully-realized fantasy world, from its cold dungeons to its peaceful villages set among lush green fields. In many ways, it’s the Zelda game that Genesis 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-groundbreaking isometric action adventures for the ZX Spectrum, such as Knight Lore, then Landstalker‘s an essential 16-bit relic.
42. Toki/JuJu Densetsu
The Genesis 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 colorful 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 tagline for an unusual game, a platformer where you play a thief who sneaks into buildings, steals all the loot, and sneaks 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 Genesis. There are gigantic amalgams of screaming heads, pistons, and arteries. A half-giant, half-train monster. 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. Copies of the Genesis 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 Genesis 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 Genesis 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 reticle.
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 color in some levels make it look more akin to a Master System title than a release for the (then new) 16-bit Genesis.
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 Genesis, 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 Genesis 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 colorful 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 Genesis 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. Decap Attack
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 Genesis. Released to the rest of the world as Magical Hat’s Turbo Flight! Adventure, this game was based on a TV anime that never appeared outside Japan, which is why it was given a visual overhaul and released as Decap Attack 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 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 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 eviler 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 a 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 convocation of raging eagles. (Yes, we did look that collective noun up.)
26. Fatal Labyrinth
Think of RPGs on the Genesis 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 humor. 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.
Flicky’s one of those games you’d happily tap away at on your mobile phone for a few minutes each day. Ported from the ’80s arcade machine of the same name, Flicky was one of the first games available to download from Sega Japan’s short-lived online service – making it an early forerunner of the modern mobile app. Released in the west on a good, old-fashioned cartridge, the game probably seemed laughably backward in the face of the brash, flashier stuff available at the time, but Flicky has a simple, endlessly replayable appeal that makes it just about timeless.
Cast as a mother bird, it’s your aim to rescue your lost chicks from a gang of mischievous cats and take them to the exit. Jump on a chick, and it follows you around as though it’s attached by an invisible wire. The more chicks you collect and take to the exit in one go, the more points you’ll get – but at the greater risk of being captured by those pursuing cats. With an infuriatingly catchy background tune and one of the most addictive bonus stages on the Genesis, Flicky is a modest yet hugely entertaining little game.
24. Gain Ground
The concept behind Gain Ground is simple, but therein lies its appeal: your goal is to get each of your four characters to the exit located somewhere on the screen, all the while avoiding the attacks from topless enemies sprinting around after you. Each of your characters has his own unique weapons, and the game looks and plays a bit like Gauntlet, except all the action takes place on one screen.
Initially very easy, Gain Ground quickly improves as the screens fill up with dozens of enemy sprites and other pitfalls. Markedly less flashy than most other early Genesis releases (like the imposing Altered Beast, with its big, chunky character designs), Gain Ground‘s plain exterior hides hidden depths.
23. Cosmic Spacehead
A refreshingly unusual mix of point-and-click adventure and platformer, Cosmic Spacehead is a colorful, absorbing romp with a great ’60s cartoon look. As youthful alien hero Linus Spacehead (the game’s original name was Linus Spacehead’s Cosmic Crusade on the NES), your aim is to traverse each stage and solve puzzles in order to find a camera and a spaceship – the weird plot has something to do with travelling to Earth and taking pictures of its inhabitants.
Not everyone warmed to the abrupt changes of pace, as the point-and-click problem solving gives way to arcade sections, and admittedly, Spacehead’s inability to attack enemies in the platform segments is quite frustrating. But in terms of visual design and puzzles, Cosmic Spacehead is highly appealing – oh, and as a bonus, there’s also a two-player mode on the cartridge called Pie Slap, which is a top-down competitive shooter. Strange, but lots of fun.
Although described as a tank game, Granada is far brisker than other games of its type from the ’80s and ’90s, like Tengen’s unfathomably slow Vindicators. A top-down shooter, Granada hurtles along at an incredible pace, offering up a maze of futuristic buildings where all kinds of enemy hardware await. The somewhat grey tiled graphics don’t exactly push the Genesis to its limit, but the sheer amount of stuff happening at any one time certainly does – the bosses, like the red and blue bouncing tank-type thing on stage one, fling bullets around the screen like dangerous confetti.
The level designs are varied, too, with the second stage taking place on the back of a gigantic flying fortress. A modest yet hugely entertaining game, Granada deserved to get a lot more attention than it did.
21. Krusty’s Fun House
This Simpsons tie-in is a hybrid of Lemmings and traditional platformer: as Krusty, you have to clear your mansion of rats, which is achieved by placing blocks and leading the zombie-like rodents to a Heath Robinson-esque killing machine operated by Bart Simpson. The music’s absolutely horrible, but the game itself is enjoyable, with each level offering a balanced mix of action and (increasingly difficult) puzzles.
20. Herzog Zwei
This unusual game from Technosoft was one of the earliest attempts to create a real-time strategy game for a console. From the safety of your plane/robot transformer, you deploy your small army of combat vehicles and send them into battle. Clear, icon-based controls make the surprisingly complex process of winning battles easy to get used to, and Herzog Zwei represents a refreshing change of pace from the pure action titles commonly found on ’90s consoles. Considered quite unusual at the time of its release – and a slow seller as a result – Herzog Zwei is now rightly regarded as a milestone in the RTS genre, paving the way for games such as Dune II and Command & Conquer.
19. Marvel Land
Numerous developers attempted to reverse-engineer the brilliance of Super Mario Bros., and Namco succeeded better than most with Marvel Land. Its elfin hero bounds through a vibrant series of fantasy landscapes, collecting things like milkshakes and power-ups while occasionally jumping on the heads of his enemies. The flagpoles from Mario are replaced by paper targets here – but one example of how much inspiration Nintendo’s iconic platformer was to Marvel Land‘s designers.
Lack of originality aside, Marvel Land‘s a lot of fun and competently ported across from the arcade machine. Its handful of fresh ideas really stand out, too. There’s a great stage that takes place on a roller coaster, where you have to jump and duck over obstacles as the car hurtles along a twisting track. Less famous than Sonic, Marvel Land nevertheless holds its own appeal – not least because, with a rapidly rising difficulty level, it takes considerable skill and practice to complete.
18. Virtual Bart
This is surely one of the more unusual Simpsons games yet released. It’s essentially a series of mini-games held together by a story about a VR helmet. The games see Bart Simpson throwing tomatoes at other Simpsons characters, riding down a log flume (a sequence with some surprisingly good pseudo-3D effects), riding a motorbike through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and weirdest of all, beating up clowns while in the form of a pig. Copies for the Genesis are now rather scarce, but Virtual Bart is worth picking up for the humor in its cutscenes and novelty value alone.
17. Midnight Resistance
This side-scrolling run-and-gun game was ported to numerous computers and consoles, including a great version for the ZX Spectrum. None could quite find a way to replicate the arcade original’s dual stick control system, but this caveat aside, the Genesis version of Midnight Resistance is a thoroughly decent adaptation. Like Konami’s Contra, you play as a battle-hardened soldier fighting a lone war against an array of bad guys, tanks, and armored gun emplacements. To help you along, there’s a broad arsenal of weapons (including a great flamethrower and a gun that fires deadly beachball-type things ). The agile hero can shoot in all directions and even crawl while doing so.
A less familiar name than Contra, Midnight Resistance’s release on the Genesis appeared to be relatively low-key, especially in the west. Despite this, it’s a shooter well worth seeking out.
16. World of Illusion
Castle of Illusion was an early hit on the Genesis, yet 1992’s World of Illusion failed to gain the same kind of attention – maybe because it had to compete with the all-conquering Sonic the Hedgehog 2, released around the same time. The timing of World of Illusion‘s release was unfortunate because it remains a brilliant platform game – among the very best available for the Genesis, in fact.
This time, Mickey’ brought Donald Duck with him, and in two-player mode, the pair traverse the platform landscape together, assisting each other with ropes or standing on each other’s shoulders. It’s a more conventional experience in single-player, but remains colorful and is, by the standards of the time, exquisitely animated.
15. Dick Tracy
Dick Tracy shakes up the predictability of the Rolling Thunder/Shinobi platform shooter with a brilliantly-realized machine gun mechanic. As well as dealing with the bad guys waiting for you on your journey across each level, there are more enemies lurking in the windows and doors further in the distance. To get rid of them, you have to shoot them with an aiming reticle, a bit like TAD’s arcade machine, Cabal.
A considerable amount of focus is required to switch between these two perspectives since Dick Tracy’s vulnerable to attack from enemies in the foreground while he’s shooting those in the distance and vice versa. Couple the varied and relentless gameplay with some great, cartoonlike graphics and meaty 16-bit gunshot sound effects and you’re left with one of the best action games on the Genesis.
14. The Ooze
A kind of cross between the old arcade game Snake and an action adventure, The Ooze casts the player as an amorphous blob who’s on the hunt for 50 DNA helices that will turn him back into a human. The way the player’s gooey sprite is animated is extremely clever, considering the era the game was made in, and the character’s design means you can see at a glance how close you are to death: each hit you take reduces the size of the blob, while absorbing other blobs around the landscape will make the mass increase again. You can also spit blobs of your own goo at enemies, but again at the expense of your overall mass.
The maze-like levels offer a range of imaginative enemies to contend with as well as puzzles to solve, and while The Ooze isn’t the most attractive game on the Genesis – its graphics are green and muddy brown for the most part – it’s an endearingly sludgy, original title that still has much to offer even today.
13. Mega Turrican
Free-roaming platform shooter Turrican received a brilliant port in 1991, and like its computer counterparts, was a superbly designed and slick game in a similar vein to Metroid. Oddly, Turrican II was rebranded as Universal Soldier on the Genesis (tying it into the Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren action movie), though the quality of its gameplay was still high.
The best game in the series had to be Mega Turrican, which did little to shake up the free-roaming, aggressive format but built on the quality of the first game’s graphics and sheer mayhem. The weapons are more satisfying to play with and devastating than ever, swinging across chasms using the character’s sci-fi rope ability feels natural and precise, and the look of the thing is really something to behold: the number of enemies and explosions Mega Turrican‘s designers have smuggled into the game is often mind-boggling.
Unfortunately, all those sprites come at a price if you’re after a physical copy from eBay – the going rate appears to be somewhere around the $50 to $70 for a cart in a box with instructions. By way of consolation, you can download Mega Turrican from the Wii Virtual Console for just a few bucks.
12. Rainbow Islands Extra
Although hardly an obscure title in gaming terms – Rainbow Islands was ported to just about every system you could think of in the ’90s – this Genesis port was, mystifyingly, never picked up for release outside of Japan. A perfectly respectable version for the Master System came out in North America and Europe in 1993, yet the Genesis edition failed to follow suit.
An exceptionally faithful rendition of the arcade original, Rainbow Islands Extra retains the bouncy, deceptively punishing action of the coin-op. Your main weapon is a rainbow, which you can throw out in front of your character to either kill enemies or use as a kind of escalator to help you reach high platforms.
A steadily-rising water level adds a layer of tension, as one slip from a platform or fading rainbow can leave you falling to your doom. With dozens of items to collect and other secrets to find, Rainbow Islands Extra is a classic entry in Taito’s ’80s cycle of unforgettable platform games.
The Genesis version comes with the Extra mode – essentially a set of remixed levels – plus it retains the original arcade theme music, which was altered in subsequent ports when its similarity to “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz was noted as being potentially copyright infringing.
11. Road Blasters
EA’s not-dissimilar Road Rash series was better known and technically superior, but this adaptation of Atari’s action driving game is still weirdly addictive. Driving down a post-apocalyptic road to nowhere, you have to shoot oncoming vehicles and collect the fuel orbs within, all while staying on the tarmac long enough to reach the finish line before your petrol runs out.
It’s hard to pin down what makes the Genesis port of Road Blasters so effective, despite your inability to brake or accelerate. Maybe it’s thanks to the deliciously crunchy sound effects, which makes shooting enemy vehicles so satisfying. Perhaps it’s because your constantly dwindling tank of fuel constantly gives you a reason to keep shooting and collecting, shooting and collecting. Or it could just be the feeling of exhilaration you get from reaching the finish line with one tiny drop of fuel left – or the delicious agony of stopping mere inches away from victory.
10. Musha Aleste
Released in America as M.U.S.H.A, this later entry in the series from Compile is among the very best vertical shooters available for the Genesis. Its creators use its Tenryaku-era setting as a springboard for some truly inspiring creations, such as ancient Japanese temples that transform into tanks, or huge flying cannons topped with eerie Noh theatre masks.
There’s also a great sequence where the floor gradually falls away tile by tile, revealing a gaping chasm of rock and lava beneath. It’s moments like these that make Musha Aleste worth the hefty price tag often attached to it on eBay: every single level introduces something new and visually arresting.
9. Dynamite Headdy
Japanese developer Treasure excelled itself with this adorable and typically strange platform game. You control a slightly ungainly-looking puppet hero, who storms a colorful series of levels in a quest to save his town from an evil demon king. Generic plot aside, it’s Dynamite Headdy‘s design that makes it truly special: each level speeds by at a sprint, with backgrounds designed to look as though they’re the set pieces in a demented theatrical production.
Then there’s the hero himself, whose various heads give him different powers, such as the Kirby-like ability to suck up enemies like a vacuum cleaner. Headdy may lack the outright charisma of Sonic the Hedgehog – which is perhaps why the game wasn’t a big hit, despite a global release – but Treasure’s almost supernatural ability to stretch the Genesis’ possibilities makes Dynamite Headdy one of the best games of its type on the system. With its hectic pace, dozens of mini-games, and surreal sense of humor, this is about as close as we’ll get to a 16-bit video game designed by Terry Gilliam.
8. Monster World IV
This platform adventure game deserved to be a big hit, but the timing of Monster World IV‘s release (it arrived as the Genesis was nearing the end of its life) meant that it wasn’t even released outside Japan until it was finally translated and made available on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Introducing a new lead character – the heroine, Asha – and a fantasy Arabian theme, Monster World IV nevertheless has the same sprawling maps and light RPG elements as its predecessor, Wonder Boy V: Monster World III.
The usual action-adventure trappings apply: you traverse the environment looking for four elemental spirits, and see off a series of area bosses in the process. Monster World IV’s main twist is Pepelogoo, a little blue sidekick who assists Asha wherever she goes. Once he’s grown to his full size, Pepelogoo can be used to hit switches far out of reach, fly Asha across wide chasms, and protect her from lava drops and other projectiles falling from above. Both characters are adorable creations, and there are some great (and sometimes quite tricky) bosses to fight, too.
A truly charming game, Monster World IV could have served as a reboot for the series, and we’d have loved more adventures featuring Asha and Pepelogoo on other systems. Instead, Monster World IV stands alone as a delightful and all-too-rare one-off.
7. Gunstar Heroes
The first title from the now legendary developer Treasure, Gunstar Heroes contains everything the studio’s fans associate with its output: a quirky sense of humor, frantic action, and graphics that push its host platform to the breaking point. On paper, Gunstar Heroes is just another run-and-gun game, but that’s a bit like saying that The Raid is just another martial arts movie.
Treasure pitches the player headlong into one bizarre encounter after another. One minute you’re fighting a gigantic boss called Curry and Rice, the next your hurtling through a mine shaft on the top of an out-of-control cart, and the next you’re fighting bad guys on an airborne zeppelin. The running, jumping, and shooting is time-worn stuff, but Treasure injects the game with so much energy and sheer invention that it never feels anything less than fresh.
6. Contra: Hard Corps
Konami brought its long-running, consistently excellent run-and-gun series to the Genesis in 1994, and the results are spectacular. Like Castlevania: Bloodlines (see later), Hard Corpsshakes up the platform shooter gameplay with some stunning visual ideas. The first level alone brings with it the arresting sight of a giant robot silhouetted against a burning cityscape, only for the mecha to leap into the foreground and begin menacing the player with its superior firepower.
Konami really was on form at this point in its history, and Hard Corps is one of its many 16-bit masterpieces. Be warned, though – Hard Corps really does live up to its title and offers up some of the toughest challenges in any Contra game. Tune in to its brutal pace, however, and you’ll be treated to one of the very best platform shooters on any ’90s system.
5. Yu Yu Hakusho: Makyo Toitsusen
If you were into one-on-one brawlers in the ’90s, you were probably playing one of the many flavors of Street Fighter II doing the rounds at the time. If you were very, very lucky, you may have stumbled on this eminently playable fighting game, which remained almost unknown outside Japan. Based on the hit anime and manga series Yu Yu Hakusho, it’s a lightning-fast game, with combos and light/strong attacks akin to Street Fighter II, except with the ability to leap in and out of the screen to avoid attacks.
The busy, polished visuals and anarchic action make sense when you consider that Makyo Toitsusen was handled by Treasure – this being one of several underrated gems from the studio to make this list. And just to spice things up even more, Genesis owners with a multi-tap could indulge in a blistering four-player multiplayer brawl – something unheard of in fighting games at the time. Only released in Japan and Brazil, Makyo Toitsusen is the very definition of a cult item and is now highly sought after by collectors.
4. Castlevania: Bloodlines
Konami has made Castlevania games for a multitude of systems since the series began in 1986, but only one for the Sega Genesis – Bloodlines, which is arguably among the best of the 2D entries. Visually stunning by Genesis standards, Bloodlines is a fast-paced action-adventure in the ’80s and ’90s Castlevania tradition. With the power of the console’s 16-bit processor behind it, the game’s an addictive and hugely atmospheric experience, too.
Its beefed-up heroes traverse landscapes full of traps and imaginative monsters, including a gigantic wolf boss whose howl is powerful enough to shatter windows. Then there’s an Atlantis-themed stage with the action reflected in ebbing waters or a stage where you have to head up a huge, rotating tower. Considering the technical limitations of the ’90s, the imagination and ambition of Bloodlines is sometimes startling.
By the standards of the Castlevania franchise, Bloodlines is one of the lesser-known entries, and increasingly difficult to get hold of in its original cartridge form. True fans of the series should go for the full-blooded Japanese release rather than the US or European versions, which were censored.
3. Comix Zone
Like several other games on this list, Comix Zone came out relatively late in the Genesis’ life, which ultimately proved to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, the timing meant that its designers were well positioned to get the most out of an aging system (just as Team Ico did with Shadow of the Colossus on the PlayStation 2), but on the other, the game came out when many players were already thinking about the next generation of consoles.
As a result, this wonderful-looking action game may have passed some people by, even though it’s one of the most enjoyable and downright novel games on the system. As the name implies, it’s about a hero fighting his way through the pages of a graphic novel – and its scrolling brawler gameplay is enriched by some brilliant flourishes, as protagonist Sketch Turner leaps and tears his way through one comic book panel after another.
Games like Batman: The Caped Crusader hadtoyed with similar ideas years earlier, but Comix Zone does things that could only be dreamt about on the ZX Spectrum, like the sequences where Sketch rips through the white space between panels to get to the next scene. Every moment of Comix Zone is full of personality and thought, from the little speech bubbles that keep the story going on the fly, to the stunning animation on even the most incidental creature, such as the little rats whose eyes glint in the darkness of a sewer.
“Man, I’m glad this panel is over,” the hero thinks aloud as he fends off another round of bad guys. With Comix Zone‘s challenge being intense yet relatively short, we can only lament that its creators couldn’t have squeezed in a few more levels or, alternatively, made a sequel or two instead.
In 1996, the then little-known Japanese developer Game Freak released Pokemon Red and Blue on the Game Boy, resulting in a multimedia, multi-million-dollar phenomenon. Before that, the studio created a string of adorable little platform and puzzle games, among them Quinty for the NES, Jerry Boy (also known as Smart Ball) for the Super Nintendo, and Pulseman for the Genesis.
In terms of attention to detail and unique touches, Pulseman is stunning. The title hero is a half human, half digital being who can enter the digital realm. Although clearly modeled after the template established by Astro Boy and Mega Man, Pulseman has his own style and personality, thanks in large part to Game Freak’s brilliant character animation. Pulseman has much of the speed and agility of Sonic, coupled with the ability to fire bolts of energy like Mega Man and a kind of boost jump akin to Sega’s Rocket Knight.
Eschewing the usual elemental themed worlds of most platform games of the time, Pulseman is instead set in distinctive electronic landscapes, futuristic cities, or behind the scenes of a TV news show. There’s even a brilliantly post-modern moment where Pulseman zaps himself into an arcade shooter called Galaxy Gang and fights across a Gradius-like curtain of stars and boulders. It’s an idea you’ll often see in modern indie games, but still felt new and daring back in 1994.
Fast, exciting, and full of surreal moments, Pulseman is a superb, often overlooked moment in Genesis gaming. It’s sad to note, in fact, that the success of the Pokemon franchise has left Game Freak either unwilling or simply unable to make another platform game like this one.
1. Alien Soldier
For some, this run-and-gun game from Treasure is the holy grail of Genesis rarities. But unlike some collectible games for the console, Alien Soldier is a masterpiece of design rather than merely a low-print-run cult oddity. Treasure yet again pushed the Genesis to its technical limit, somehow producing a game that wouldn’t have looked out of place on later systems like the Saturn. There are gigantic bosses that almost fill the screen, explosions all over the place, and an agile, brilliantly animated lead character.
In line with the studio’s irreverent approach to gaming convention, Alien Soldier‘s levels are intentionally brief, essentially fast-forwarding the ten-minute breather you’d typically get between boss battles. The result is a game where the boss battles take center stage, and it’s here that the quality of the level design comes to the fore. One boss is a giant toad that lays explosives. Another takes the form of a colossal, steam-powered ED-209 robot that fires rockets. There are a total of 31 bosses to fight against, each more curious and surprising than the last. A scene where you fight a colossal alien-helicopter hybrid on the roof of a moving train has to rank among the most spectacular boss moments in any Genesis game.
Even when played today, Alien Soldier feels refreshingly modern and slick. Its 25th birthday may be fast approaching, but Alien Soldier‘s ferocious, addictive action remains undiminished by time.