During the 90s, I spent more time with the Sega Genesis than the Super Nintendo. I’ve grown to appreciate the SNES’ stable of classic games, though this wouldn’t happen until much later in life. Of course, I’ve messed around with ROMs and emulators, but I haven’t devoted much time to these machines since their heyday. Thankfully, with the release of Sega Genesis Classics for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC, those of us who spent our childhoods roaming the House of Sonic’s glorious 16-bit worlds can experience those wonders all over again. The question remains: How well do these classic titles hold up? Are they as engaging as they were years ago? For this aging gamer, the answer is yes… and no. They’re still quite good, mind you, but the lure of pixelated nostalgia isn’t as strong as it once was, I’m afraid.
Instead of stuffing these games into a tidy, well-designed retro console, Sega has crammed them into one downloadable bundle. Which is fine; I really don’t need another box sitting on my entertainment shelf. In fact, dropping $29 to download more than 50 retro games for my current-gen console of choice suits me just as well. But if we’re being completely honest, I don’t know how often I’ll return to these titles given the constant stream of modern games released on a weekly basis. Killing some time with, say, Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, or Revenge of Shinboi feels more like a brief excursion than a multi-hour marathon. I’d no doubt spend more time with these titles if Sega had offered them on the Switch, but that’s not in the cards right now. Maybe they’ll rethink that questionable decision. Maybe. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.
If you picked up the 2009 version of this collection (Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection), then you’re pretty much getting the same thing in different, shinier packaging. For this bundle, Sega has bumped up the presentation considerably. The experience takes place inside a lovely recreation of a kid’s bedroom sometime during the 1990s, complete with an old-school television, a Sonic floor mat, and nifty retro Sega posters. You can even change the time of day, altering the lighting in the entire room. And instead of selecting your games from a menu, you pull them off a shelf, where they reside in alphabetical order. Okay, so maybe it’s not an exact recreation of a 90s kid’s bedroom, but it comes pretty close. And the icing on the cake: You can play these games in full-screen with a backdrop, stretched to fill the screen of modern televisions, or, my personal favorite, from the perspective of a kid sitting inches away from his TV. Mom and Dad can’t stop me now.
Sega Genesis Classics features several iconic titles that made the console so appealing. For example, although Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles are missing from this collection, you still get just enough Sonic-oriented action to scratch that particular itch. And if you’re a Golden Axe and/or Streets of Rage fan (two personal favorites), you’ve got the original game and two sequels of each franchise to while away the hours. And, unlike the AtGame’s atrocious Sega Genesis Flashback, these titles play just like you remember. They’re incredibly smooth, very responsive, and look great on a big 4K television. If you feel the graphics look a little too dated, you can mess around with some filter settings to give them a modern sheen, but I found these changes a little too distracting. No, watching Axel Stone mop up the streets in a vengeful rage looks better when it’s presented as-is. Your mileage will vary, of course, so figure out what works best for you.
Although I’m more than a little irritated that squishy actioner Alien Syndrome didn’t make the cut (you can find it in the 2009 version), Sega makes up for this heartbreaking oversight with some surprising choices. Phantasy Star II, III, and IV could consume a lot of my free time in the coming months, as could Shining Force I and II. My brief time with Shining in the Dark, an RPG I’d always wanted to play, didn’t fare too well. While I appreciated it’s old-school aesthetic, something about it rubbed me the wrong way. Sadly, I felt the same way about Galaxy Force II, Light Crusader, and Kid Chameleon. I don’t see myself getting to know some of these titles, whether it’s because of time limitations/life obligations or the fact that they haven’t aged very well. Kid Chameleon, in particular, feels dated to the point of irrelevance, but that might have more to do with my distaste for old-school platformers with dodgy controls than anything else. Again, mileage varies by gamer.
And don’t think I’m giving Kid Chameleon flak because simply I don’t like it; some of my all-time favorites have tarnished with age. ESWAT, a game I spent countless hours playing as a kid, now feels horribly dated. While some games still feel great (Streets of Rage remains as fresh today as it did decades ago), ESWAT comes across as clunky, underwhelming, and, yes, a bit boring. I’ve also grown to deeply dislike games that immediately respawn enemies to bump up the difficulty/pad out the experience. If I’m not grinding experience points by repeatedly killing the same guys over and over again, I don’t have the patience for that stuff. Since I had fond memories of the game as a frustrated middle-schooler who adored RoboCop, ESWAT was the first game I fired up as soon as the Genesis collection finished downloading. Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll go back to it anytime soon. Not even the musty magic of nostalgia can make this one shine again.
Obviously, there are several quality titles to choose from in this collection, so much so that you might not know where to start. If you’re looking to avoid the more popular titles for something a bit more obscure or underrated, here are a few recommendations to get you started. If you’re into side-scrollers, Alien Soldier and Ristar are definite go-tos, as are Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, Wonder Boy III, and Wonder Boy in Monster World. Jonesing for a roguelike experience on the Genesis? Fatal Labyrinth has you covered, though you shouldn’t expect anything too involved or mind-blowing. It’s pretty standard stuff, but it’s still a blast if you’re a roguelike junkie. Other standouts include Space Harrier II, Gunstar Heroes, Gain Ground, and Comix Zone. Regardless of how you game, there’s something in here to keep you occupied.
However, if you buy this collection and discover you only have time for one game, my choice is simple: Bonanza Bros. I’ve never owned this game — I rented it from Blockbuster to the point of near obsession — so I’m jazzed to finally have it. It’s a stealth/platformer/2D side-scroller hybrid that features two criminal brothers who break into various establishments looking for goodies. In-between taking whatever isn’t nailed down, they’ll have to avoid guards (or shoot ’em) and escape via rooftop. It’s simple, colorful, light-hearted, and addictive as hell. What’s more, it’s aged very well; the game plays as well today as it did years ago. I don’t buy classic games piecemeal, but I’d gladly make an exception for Bonanza Bros. It’s one of my all-time favorite video games, one that isn’t centered around pure nostalgia. No joke: This is a genuinely good arcade game. And just like that, I’m like a middle-schooler passionately recommending this to my friends.
I could sit here for hours discussing which games should and shouldn’t have made the cut for Sega Genesis Classics. Obviously, Sega chose the titles that appeal to the widest possible demographic, which means some of the smaller, more obscure games fell through the cracks. I get that. I don’t agree with all the selections, but I get why they’re included. What I don’t understand is why Sega hasn’t released this snazzy bundle for the Switch. Did Nintendo turn it down? Did Sega decide to give the proverbial middle finger to its one-time rival? Who knows. But its absence on the portal console makes no sense. These games would work well on the Switch, especially since I tend to the use it more for bite-sized gaming sessions than all-night adventures. Beyond that, I don’t have any complaints about the collection. The presentation feels great, the games play like they should, and the number of games you get for the price is unbeatable. Oh, and no Ecco the Dolphin.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game. A copy was provided by Sega.