Friday 20 April 2018

The Rule of 4 or 5: Mega Drive

Continuing my personal rundown of the four or five games that make each console worth keeping in the cupboard, we arrive at the very genesis of my video games affection...

The SEGA Mega Drive (as it was known outside North America) is an emblem of early ‘90s cool, and as everyone knows, there’s no cooler cool than early ‘90s cool. Indeed, it was rad. We’re talking shell suits, double denim and Hypercolor – ‘cool’ has never been so obvious or accessible. Of course, consoles that would follow the Mega Drive/Genesis would advertise their hip credentials, but sleek slabs of hardware like the PS2 were far too understated and classy. SEGA had one foot in the overblown ‘80s, so their machine had vents and buttons and curves like Gordon Gekko’s dashboard. The control pad was an enormous kidney with three chunky buttons; big, bold and black (and very comfortable). The typeface that stood out on the console wasn’t its name, but the embossed and golden ’16-BIT’ below the cartridge slot.
“16-BIT!” it shouts.
“What’s a bit, again?”
“Eat my shorts! It’s more than the last console, and more is more! More numbers! More bits! MORE!!!”

Beyond the Blast Processing and bits, the console looked glossy and technical, and sought to appeal to the technophile with knobs and sliders denoting power and decibels. It blended well with the hi-fi and its coherent design language carried over to the box art (in the EU at least). To begin with, every game carried a signature grey grid over a black background, mirroring the grey-over-white of the Master System boxes. On the shelf, those cases formed a stylish collection that obviously wasn’t for kids.

The first two Sonic games carried the classy grey grid over black design. The third had the balls-out blue box.
The game manuals were landscape format and usually featured eight language columns per double page.

I suppose none of these details matter – it’s the games which are important – but the advertising and image of the Mega Drive stick in the memory. The console and its library looked like they meant business - discreet, sophisticated business. It was entirely a result of marketing, as the games themselves were a kaleidoscope of genres, from gritty futuristic shooters to bouncy mascot platformers. But what marketing! For three or four years, SEGA played against Nintendo’s wholesome family-friendly image to race ahead in the minds of the self-conscious coolkids of the day. Even today, the character of Sonic the Hedgehog retains that ‘hog with 'tude persona, much to the dismay of many fans who grew out of all that nonsense two decades ago. Of course, now that we’ve hit peak ‘90s nostalgia, that earnest, try-hard cool can be appreciated anew with a safety blanket of irony.

Thing is, Sonic wasn’t actually my first platformer on the Mega Drive – it was a pack-in game starring the perennially popular (yet, cringingly uncool) Mickey Mouse.

Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse – SEGA AM7
It turns out that My First Video Game Ever stands up very well in 2018! Of course, it’s a rung down the ladder from Sonic in almost every respect, but it’s as perfect an introduction to the medium as one could hope for: a colourful, jaunty platformer from SEGA with tight controls, playroom music and cracking animation. Along with Quackshot, it quashed the idea early on that licenced games are unanimously crap. It’s storybook, it’s fairy tale, it’s Mickey-fuckin’-Mouse. World of Illusion took the ball and ran with it, but Castle turned me on to games. Even Mum and Dad remember it fondly.

Also available on: Oddly, not very much. It appeared on a Japan-only Sega Saturn compilation with Quackshot in 1998 and it was a pre-order bonus for PlayStation 3 owners who bought the 2013 reimagining, but wasn’t put on the PSN store itself. Disney’s licensing dept. has been working out issues with other games recently (see Capcom’s Disney Afternoons Collection) so perhaps it will make an appearance.

Might actually finish this one day...

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – Sonic Team, Sega Technical Institute
Of all the games on the list, this is perhaps the hardest to justify. Not due to the quality of the game, you understand, rather there are very few consoles since the Mega Drive that you can’t play this on, so is it really essential to own it on original hardware? I’d argue there’s still something magical about that D-pad plus one-button gameplay that feels perfect with the Mega Drive’s chunky controller. STI tweaked every aspect of the original game just so. The character sprite seemed ever so slightly bigger and brighter. The levels felt more assuredly solid. And Masato Nakamura’s soundtrack… well, that pops just as funkily as the original. Sonic 2 showcases perfectly the refinements made in the best video game sequels. The first game is obviously seminal, but it’s the sequel that truly nails the formula, and this was the high watermark that last summer’s Sonic Mania managed to approach for the first time since 1994’s Sonic & Knuckles.

Also available on: everything. Seriously, it’s appeared on nearly every major console in some form or other since its release, barring the original PlayStation. They’re all serviceable but the pick of the ports is the M2-developed SEGA 3D Classics version on 3DS.
And this one. Never sorted out the spikes or the background.

Streets of Rage II - Ancient
Another fine example of taking the original and twisting the Refine-o-meter up to eleventy-stupid, this game makes pummelling repetitive enemies in repetitive ways feel fantastic. The controls seem restrictive by modern standards but there’s something in the balance that makes it work. And I think its not-so secret weapon is the way Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack integrates with and enhances those mechanics. Timing is everything and, with each stage featuring a tailormade track and each enemy requiring a specific strategy, the fights become dance routines – a repertoire of steps recalled and deployed in varying combinations along to the beat. It’s this attention to flow and encounters that makes SORII the best expression of the side-scrolling beat-em-up genre, and it plays just as well today as it did in 1992.

As an aside, this game’s sequel – imaginatively named Streets of Rage 3 – suffered in the West thanks to arriving late in the Mega Drive’s cycle and featuring several questionable alterations from its Japanese counterpart, including a massive hike in difficulty. However, I’d recommend sourcing a copy via whatever means available (now pretty easy via Steam; the Steam Workshop mod community can even furnish you with an English translation of the original Bare Knuckle III.) It’s a wonderful close to the trilogy which stretches the hardware and features a fantastic, though less immediately accessible soundtrack.

Also available on: various platforms. Again, the SEGA 3D Classics version on 3DS is a peach.

Ghostbusters – SEGA/Compile
Another licenced game? But aren’t licenced games universally shite?! Whoever claims so is an eejit, obviously. This platforming shooter featured chunky caricatures of the principle cast and threw them into a world of squelching sprites and cartoon sound effects. In doing so, it captures the accessible comedy spirit of the films without the need for dynamite dialogue. I was obsessed with Egon, Winston, Ray and Peter as a kid and, looking back, I was lucky to have them in such a great game (although Winston was notably and confusingly absent).

Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament – Supersonic Software/Codemasters
SO many hours spent burning around the bathtub. Micro Machines succeeded by turning its limitations into assets – its limited screen space, for example. As you pulled away from the pack your overhead view of the track ahead would shrink to almost nothing and you’d be relying on memory to time a blind 90° turn. This would be infuriating in any other game but here it signified that you were dominating the race and touching the edge of the frame would score you a point. After an opponent crashed and burned, you might gamble and race ahead into certain death, hoping you’d reach the edge of the screen and net your point before they could rematerialise on the track and accelerate. Your fortunes could change in an instant and this constant tug of war between risk and reward, winner and loser made each race a nail-biter. Plus, you had that fantastic J-cart with the two extra controller ports built in. Per-retty cool.

The One That Got Away:
Gunstar Heroes – Everyone loves it, I got the 3DS SEGA Classics remake… and never got around to playing it.

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