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3/18/2016

Top Thirty Sega Genesis Games (That Still Hold Up Two Decades Later)

Having revised a previous iteration of this list (a top 50) more times than I care to admit, as well as coming to the realization that a lot of games just plain don't stand the test of time very well, I decided to do a revision of sorts.  This time, we look at my choices for the 30 best Sega Genesis games which are still fun to play today, twenty years after the platform's time in the limelight had come to a close.

As with the previous iteration, I've also tended to avoid cross-platform games except when they were better on the Genesis (as the SNES had generally superior hardware, which resulted in better ports in most cases), and allowed games for its add-on peripherals, the Sega CD and 32X, to offset that.  So with all that out of the way, here we go.



30. Golden Axe (Sega, 1989)

It may not be the draw it once was, but Golden Axe was one of the big three beat-em-up franchises back in the late '80s alongside Double Dragon and Final Fight.  It certainly brought a unique flair of its own with its dark fantasy setting, giving the player access to magic spells (from calling down lightning to summoning a dragon to breath fire on opponents), ridable mounts and plenty of giants, monsters and skeletons to bash.  The Genesis version certainly didn't disappoint either; delivering a very arcade-authentic experience as one of the platform's first games certainly helped to win gamers over to Sega's 16-bit powerhouse in that era.  It also had two sequels on the platform (with 3 never getting a North American release), but the first one remains the best and most iconic of the franchise.

29. Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom (Sega, 1991)


Widely viewed as the black sheep of the Phantasy Star franchise, and it's not an entirely unfair description as its story doesn't really continue from the previous game, nor does it live up to the previous games' standards for overall design, music or visual quality.  However, those who could put that aside and judge Phantasy Star III on its own merits found a game of considerable worth.  The story follows three generations of a royal family on the alien world of Alisa III, with story events playing out much differently depending upon the player's choices at the end of each, which lends it some replay value and a clever way of seeing just how differently a world's destiny can turn out.  It also had some clever story twists and the same imaginative atmosphere that the series became known for, so in spite of its overall rushed feel, Phantasy Star III was still a good RPG with a lot of innovative ideas for a 1991 release.  Maybe not up to the lofty standards the rest of the series set, but worth checking out regardless.

28. Strider (Sega/Capcom, 1990)

Strider wowed plenty of people in the arcades with its colorful graphics, cool hero and intense gameplay. Sega sought to capitalize on its popularity by purchasing the rights to produce a home port (as a clever way to bypass Nintendo's restrictive platform exclusivity contracts), and they did a bang-up job with it. Despite some slightly muddier colors and a lower resolution, this is a terrific port, keeping the gameplay and sounds pretty much intact aside from some occasional slowdown. Gun traps, falling bombs, gravity-flipping stages and some pretty hectic fights on bouncing vines and helicopters all await, as well as some awesome bosses like a giant robotic centipede and not one, but two metal dinosaurs. Just steer clear of the godawful sequel "Strider Returns" developed by Tiertex...

27. Mortal Kombat (Probe/Midway, 1993)

Ah, Mortal Kombat.  A franchise that became as well known for its fluid fast-paced gameplay as for its violent content, being one of the games that was instrumental in bringing us video game content ratings and, by extension, the Entertainment Software Rating Board.  Of course, there was also a big debate about which was the superior home version; the SNES had cleaner graphics and sound design that was more true to the arcade, while the Genesis retained the blood and gore and generally had smoother controls and gameplay (not to mention some excellent original music thanks to composer Matt Furniss).  In the end, though, I have to vote for the Genesis version, because the one that plays better just has more staying power.

26. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist (Konami, 1992)

At a glance, this appears to a butchered port of Turtles in Time with substantially worse audio and none of the neato scaling effects.  I don't think that's quite fair to it, though, since it's not intended to be a direct port of that game.  Actually, if anything, this is kind of an amalgamation of both of the TMNT arcade games with a few original elements added in, including the only video game appearance of Tatsu (Shredder's underling from the film series).  The game also utilized the Genesis' faster processor to its advantage with more aggressive enemies and faster gameplay, so even the similar stages feel considerably more intense in Hyperstone Heist.  So while many SNES loyals were quick to dismiss it, those that did play Hyperstone Heist did find a quality beat-em-up waiting for them.  It may not be on the level of TMNT3 or Turtles in Time, but it's still a good, solid two player brawl.

25. Mega Man: The Wily Wars (Minakuchi Engineering, 1994 in Japan, 1995 in Europe)

One of only two Mega Man games to be exclusive to a Sega platform (the other being an odd little Game Gear game simply titled "Mega Man"), Wily Wars features aesthetically-enhanced remakes of the first three Mega Man titles, which are genre-defining classics in their own right.  But the real draw is the bonus game - a new feature called "Wily Tower" that unlocks after the other three games are cleared, and features five exclusive stages and three new bosses that have never appeared in another Mega Man title since.  You even get to face this challenge with your choice of any of the weapons and items you collected from the first three games.  Pretty cool stuff.  Unfortunately this is also a very hard game to come by, only seeing a limited release in Europe and Japan and never being put to the cartridge in North America (though it was briefly available as a Sega Channel exclusive).


24. Knuckles' Chaotix (32X) (Sonic Team, 1995)


One of Sega's last desperate attempts to milk some longevity out of the failing Sega 32X platform was Knuckles' Chaotix, a rebranding of a poorly-received prototype called "Sonic Crackers" that had Sonic and Tails permanently bound together by "rubber band" physics as they would traverse levels.  Honestly, though... I kind of like it.  It lends a nice touch of puzzle-solving to maneuvering the environments in what had become a fairly stale run-forward-and-bop-enemies style of gameplay, and it had some downright creative boss battles and special stages to boot.  Knuckles Chaotix may not be the best game in the Sonic franchise, but considering some of the travesties that franchise has had to its name over the years, it's a piece of gold by comparison.  Not to mention it definitely took advantage of the amazing musical talents of Junko Shiratsu and Mariko Nanba and the color, scaling and 3D capabilities of the 32X to deliver a game at least provides an impressive aesthetic experience if nothing else.

23. Lunar: The Silver Star (Sega CD) (Game Arts/Studio Alex, 1993)

One of the games that put the Sega CD on the map, Lunar: The Silver Star is also a top-notch RPG of the era.  Featuring a unique combat system that takes into account the characters' positions on a wide battlefield, an engrossing story with some great twists, humorous dialog and memorable characters, and one of the first games to truly take advantage of CD-based hardware to enhance the storytelling aspect.  By adding in FMV sequences, voice acting and an excellent soundtrack, complete with a few song numbers, Game Arts made something truly unforgettable in its era, and a trendsetter for all RPGs to come later.  It was also among the earliest games translated by Working Designs, a company as well known for injecting weird jokes and pop culture references into their projects as for their various gameplay tweaks and improvements over the original versions.  Not to mention their elaborate packaging design and bonuses well before virtually every other AAA game on the shelves had such "special editions"...

22. Super Fantasy Zone (Sunsoft, 1992 in Japan, 1993 in Europe)

The last entry in the Fantasy Zone franchise, and strangely the only one to never be given a North American release (until its relatively recent appearance on the Wii Virtual Console, at least).  Not much has changed from its earlier arcade/SMS counterparts, but really, does it need to?  The game sports the same colorful graphics, uniquely surreal environments and bizarre bosses it always did, and that always equates to a good time.  Sunsoft certainly knows not to fix what isn't broken, especially with a classic Sega franchise like Fantasy Zone.



21. Spider-Man VS the Kingpin (Sega CD) (Technopop, 1993)

While the Genesis version of Spider-man was a decent (if overly difficult) game, most people remember Spider-man's foray on the Genesis as an oddly-shoehorned boss in Revenge of Shinobi (alongside numerous other licensed characters, most of which were altered in later versions of the cart).  But not too many people remember the enhanced Sega CD version of Spider-man VS the Kingpin, and it's a shame as it's a vast improvement over its Genesis counterpart.  Not only did it feature surprisingly good cutscenes, music and voice acting (for the time, at least), but the gameplay was vastly streamlined in many ways (no longer having to find money and having a generally faster pace).  The game also provided more nonlinearity (being able to visit stages in almost any order) and even two new levels.  Spidey has had quite a few games over the years that have varied pretty heavily in quality, but this is definitely among the better ones.

20. Mortal Kombat II (32X) (Probe, 1994)
While the SNES version may have had the stronger graphics, the original Mortal Kombat won out on the Genesis largely on the merits of the fact that Sega didn't shy away from showing blood and decapitations.  This all kept in tune with Sega's promotion of their platform as "the big kids' game console" (along with its large library of sports titles and, more infamously, pushing Sonic as the more "badass" mascot character than Mario).  That all turned around two years later when Mortal Kombat II was released on both platforms, with the SNES not only having all the gore of the arcade counterpart, but a rock solid visual and audio presentation as well (save for some excessively loud sound effects).  But Sega flipped the table once again with the launch of the 32X, bringing a port that touched up the muddy graphics of the Genesis version and added in some more audio samples while retaining the faster gameplay.  The music is pretty much the same, but that aside, this was the definitive home port of Mortal Kombat II at the time of its release.  It may not hold up as well in an era where we have emulated ports of the original arcade version readily available for download, but it's still a pretty fun game!

19. Heart of the Alien (Sega CD) (Interplay, 1994)

Out of this World was an example of a game that was ported to both the SNES and Genesis platforms, with each having their own pluses and minuses; as was generally expected, the Genesis featured smoother gameplay and animations and less loading screens while the SNES version had more graphic detail and stronger audio.  The definitive release, however, came out on the Sega CD as one half of the "Heart of the Alien" compilation.  This contained not only the original game, but an Interplay-produced sequel where you play as the alien from the original game and set out on an entirely new adventure, with the alien having a distinct gameplay mechanic in the form of a "Laser Whip" that allows swinging between platforms.  It doesn't feel quite as well constructed as the original, but the same trial-and-error gameplay and appealing vectorized graphic style is there, complete with some surprisingly grisly death scenes for the time.  It also once again manages to tell a good story without a single word of dialog, which is something you almost never see in modern games...

18. Final Fight CD (Sega CD) (Sega, 1993)


The SNES port of Final Fight suffered from many technical issues, being limited to one player gameplay, missing a stage and having only two of the playable characters from the arcade game.  As with Strider, Sega saw an opportunity to capitalize and licensed the game to produce their own version on the Sega CD, delivering an experience that was much more faithful to the original.  Of course, being on the Sega CD, it also featured a retooled soundtrack and some bits of voice acting in the intro and ending, both of which are pretty forgettable.  But the gameplay is what matters most, and Final Fight CD was as close to the authentic arcade experience as you could get at the time.

17. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sonic Team/Sega Technical Institute, 1992)

A fairly standard sequel, but when the original game was so awesome, is that really a bad thing?  Sonic 2 has more of what you'd expect and then some - more levels, a wider variety of stage layouts (including a large casino stage, a polluted ocean, a chemical plant and an underwater ruin) and the ability to "spin dash" from a standstill in order to quickly build up speed and clear obstacles.  Perhaps most significantly, though, this was the debut of Sonic's sidekick Tails, which allowed a second player to join in the action as a nearly invincible sidekick character or compete with Sonic in two-player races.  Oh, and there was even a hidden "Super Sonic" form if you managed to finish all seven of the bonus stages in one playthrough, which was no easy feat...

16. Crusader of Centy (Nextech, 1994)

An attempt by Nextech to compete with the Legend of Zelda, and quite a good one at that.  A charming adventure seemingly geared toward a younger audience with its cute graphical style, Crusader of Centy also features some inventive gameplay elements.  Rather than Zelda's item system, here you have animal companions with varying abilities - a cheetah that increases your running speed, a penguin that coats your sword in ice (giving it the power to freeze enemies and objects) and a raccoon that can draw enemy fire away from your character just to name a few.  The only real sin surrounding this one is that so few people got a chance to play it - the game was published by Atlus, you see, and before they achieved mainstream success outside of Japan, they achieved infamy among gamers for publishing their titles in extremely limited quantities (see also - Ogre Battle on the SNES).  As a result, this is among the rarest games on the platform...

15. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 / Sonic and Knuckles (Sonic Team/Sega Technical Institute, 1994)


A lot of people ended up somewhat disappointed with Sonic the Hedgehog 3.  While it did make substantial improvements over Sonic 2 in stage variety, aesthetics and gameplay mechanics, it felt like a bit of a gyp in the longevity department, having roughly half as many stages as Sonic 2 did.  Well, there was a reason for that, and that's because the game was about half as long as originally intended.  The latter half was later released as "Sonic and Knuckles" and featured a unique double-ended cartridge with "Lock On technology" that would allow both games to be combined together into one big adventure.  Kind of the contemporary equivalent of full-priced DLC.  But hey, having a game cart stack on top of another cart to create one mega-game was an awesome concept at the time, and they added a couple bonuses as well; you could play as Knuckles in Sonic 2 by locking on with that game or play endlessly generated levels of the Blue Sphere minigame by locking on to Sonic 1, so it didn't feel too much like we were getting short-changed in content.

14. Toe Jam and Earl (Johnson Voorsanger Productions, 1991)

Perhaps the most unique roguelike ever produced, Toe Jam and Earl isn't about trying to escape some medieval dungeon or tower or something in an attempt to secure your freedom.  No sir.  Instead, we have two aliens crash-landed on Earth (the titular Toe Jam and Earl) trying to collect the scattered pieces of their ship, avoid hostile earthlings and return home to Planet Funkotron. As you'd expect of the genre, the game features randomly generated levels, a slew of enemies to encounter (this time in the form of things like killer ice cream trucks, mad scientists and chickens with mortars), and randomly generated items in the form of gift boxes.  These can be good things, ranging from items that help you get around quicker and avoid enemies (spring shoes, rocket shoes, inflatable decoys), weapons (tomatoes, boom boxes that stun enemies).  Or they can be bad things, like the "Total Bummer" (instantly lose a life), Rain cloud (depletes your health) or the Randomizer (which scrambles the effects of all gift boxes, forcing you to start from scratch on figuring out what all of them are).

Also of note is that the game features a two player mode with a split-screen view when both players are in different areas, which wasn't thought to be possible given the hardware limitations of the Sega Genesis...

13. M.U.S.H.A. (Compile, 1990)

A smash hit top-down shooter on the Genesis that's only gotten more popular over the years, resulting in this game's rapid ascent into rarity and high prices on the secondhand market.  Fortunately it's also on the Wii Virtual Console, so those without deep pockets can experience it as well.  And they should, as it's a fantastic experience.  Fluid, fast-paced, colorful and with a huge variety of weapons and strategies to employ as per Compile standards.  The setting is also unique, being something of a cyberpunk feudal Japan with pagodas on tank treads and giant robots flying through the skies blowing up everything.  Top that off with a delightful soundtrack and you have some weird, wild, fast-paced shoot-em-up fun.


12. Space Harrier (32x) (Sega, 1994)

Sega touted the 32X as an upgrade that would turn the Genesis into a "home arcade system."  While that claim was met with ports of varying quality (mostly falling on the "average to bad" end of the scale), Space Harrier managed to deliver a truly arcade-perfect experience.  Buttery-smooth, sprite-based action in a surreal universe that combined flying stone heads, dragons, robots and vast fields and caves full of stone pillars and spinning orbs for you to crash into and blow up with your giant flying cannon-rocket.  One of the few truly worthwhile games for the ill-fated addon.




11. Phantasy Star II (Sega, 1990)

The followup to the groundbreaking Sega Master System RPG, and quite an impressive title in its own right.  Moving the franchise ahead with more complex enemy encounters and dungeons, it was also a trendsetter in terms of its storytelling, with a grim setting and some surprisingly dark elements (including on-screen murder and the death of a prominent party member - practically cliches now, but pretty shocking in 1990).  It's also among the first RPGs I recall that add a slight bit of automation to battles to make them less tedious - you can simply hit "Fight" and your characters will automatically attack until you press a button to pause at the beginning of the next turn and redefine your strategies.

10. Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega, 1991)

In the early 90s, Nintendo was still ruling the video game market with a legion of strong third party developers and a memorable mascot character in the form of Mario.  Sega AM8 (later known as Sonic Team) raced to think of a way to combat the unstoppable plumber, eventually coming up with a winning gimmick in the form of a hedgehog with an irreverent attitude that would roll into a ball and blaze across the landscape at high speeds.  Thus Sonic was born, and with him the Sega Genesis had a massive surge in popularity - enough to surpass the NES in sales and lead the Genesis into a rivalry with the SNES that continues to spur fan debate even to this day.  While it didn't quite have as much variety as the Mario games, it did sport some creative and surreal stage design, stylish and colorful graphics, smooth animations and impressive music, as well as a more puzzle-based approach to some stages and even multiple routes through each level.  There was even a hidden ending in store for those few who managed to collect all six chaos emeralds before the end of the game, which was no small feat considering the difficulty of some of those bonus levels.

9. Starflight (Binary Systems/BlueSky Software, 1991)

Starflight was an incredible and ambitious game for its era, combining space travel, interaction with alien species, resource farming and even a surprisingly good storyline together into a grandiose experience; for a game that shipped on floppy disks in 1986, it was nothing short of incredible.  The Sega Genesis version upped the ante even further by taking advantage of the new hardware to provide some strong visuals, as well as some new features like being able to outfit your landing craft with new equipment that expands its capabilities and generally faster-paced gameplay (no loading from floppy disks anymore will do that for you).  The gameplay is also somewhat more "arcadey" than its computer counterparts, but the underlying storyline and excellent free-roaming design remain consistent.


8. Snatcher (Sega CD) (Konami, 1994)


One of many acclaimed games from legendary developer Hideo Kojima, Snatcher was a memorable take on the graphic adventure genre. The plot was something akin to Terminator meets Blade Runner, complete with all the gory deaths and intense shootout scenes that descriptor implies. Stack that up with strong visuals (including some clever technical tricks to display 128 colors onscreen at a time - double the number the Sega CD was normally capable of), an excellent soundtrack and the Kojima standard of a large cast of surprisingly complex and well-written characters, Snatcher was definitely something to behold. Even the voice acting was surprisingly good for the time and holds up quite well today. Well alright, you can tell they're not professional actors, but at least they're trying to make it sound good. The real tease here, though, is that it ends on a cliffhanger for a sequel, which they still hadn't delivered on twenty years later (and given the current state of Konami, probably never will)...

7. Streets of Rage 2 (Sega/Ancient/HIC/Shout! Designworks, 1992)

With that many companies working on the game, it has to be good right?  Well yes, it is.  In fact, Streets of Rage 2 is considered to be one of the best beat-em-ups of all time, featuring not only some heavily detailed graphics and inventive music for the era, but a massive variety of foes to fight (even including robots, bikers and guys with jetpacks) and four playable characters, each with their own distinct special moves and abilities.  Not to mention yet another dynamite soundtrack by the great Yuzo Koshiro.  Weird, wacky fun that makes for some great two player co-op.  Just a shame they couldn't keep that flow going with Streets of Rage 3, which inexplicably features downgraded graphics, gameplay drawn out to the point of inanity and a droning soundtrack that could aptly be described as "Yuzo Koshiro at his worst"....

6. Gunstar Heroes (Treasure, 1994)

The world's introduction to Treasure, a company comprised of former Konami alumni known for making some of the craziest action games ever released and for making even the most die-hard Nintendo fans just a little green with envy.  Gunstar Heroes was certainly a great way for them to start things off, with some wild, fast-paced gameplay and visual effects that were downright amazing for the time.  Huge bosses, dozens of explosions occurring without even a smidge of slowdown, crazy rotation and warping effects, and even some inventive melee combat mechanics to set it apart from games like Contra - punching, slide-kicking, and and throwing enemies into each other were just as common a sight as hosing them down with lasers and flamethrowers.  The game also sported an innovative weapon system - there were only four distinct kinds of weapon pick-ups, but each character could carry two at a time, and could utilize either one or combine both together into a new form with extra effects.  Giant bullets, homing lasers, fireballs that could be steered around the screen, and other such madness awaits.

5. Sonic the Hedgehog CD (Sega CD) (Sonic Team, 1993)


I know I've put a lot of Sonic games on this list, but it really was a standout franchise for its time; smooth animations, fast-paced gameplay, crazy and imaginative stages and some of the best music in any video games to date.  But of all the classic Sonic games, Sonic CD has to be my pick for the best.  It combines all my favorite elements of both the first and later Sonic games into one solid package with its complex stages (each with four different layouts representing the past, present and a "good" and "bad" future), puzzle-solving elements and numerous routes, and its presentation is fantastic thanks to some colorful visuals, fluid animations and a soundtrack that manages to be very mellow and mesmerizing (and yes, I prefer the reworked US soundtrack to the peppier Japanese one).  It brought so many innovations to the formula while losing none of the fun.  The series may be a target of ridicule these days, but Sonic CD will always be one of the greats in my book.

4. Rocket Knight Adventures (Konami, 1993)

Sonic the Hedgehog's runaway success in the 90s had many companies trying to cash in with their own animal mascot characters, resulting in some that were decent (Jazz Jackrabbit) and many that were downright terrible (Awesome Possum, Alfred Chicken, Mr. Nutz and the crowning achievement of awful, Bubsy).  In between them all, however, one dared to be even better than the character that inspired him.  That character's name was Sparkster, an opossum in knight's armor who utilized a jetpack to propel himself around the screen, execute highly damaging spinning attacks and occasionally blast into a sidescrolling shooter stage, all with blazing fast graphics and gameplay and a surprising amount of variety and challenge.  Honestly, the only real crime with this game is that it wasn't more widely recognized.  And that it could never manage to spawn a decent sequel, I suppose...


3. Lunar 2: Eternal Blue (Sega CD) (Game Arts/Studio Alex, 1995)

The sequel to Game Arts' legendary Lunar: The Silver Star, and it's a logical step forward in almost every respect.  It still sports the same unique combat system, but the dialog and cutscenes have been expanded to an unprecedented 50+ minutes apiece, and were remarkably well produced and acted for the era (albeit with some of Working Designs, erm, "colorful" accents added). Working Designs also implemented some changes to the original release, toning down the difficulty for some extremely difficult battles and implementing a unique save system that required a certain number of points to be earned (as they saw little challenge in letting the player save at any time).  It later received wider recognition and some substantially refined gameplay and presentation on the Playstation, but the original Sega CD release is still a standout title for the platform, as well as one of the games that helped to revolutionize the way stories were told in games.

2. Alien Soldier (Treasure, 1995 in Japan and Europe)


Another Treasure game makes the list, and honestly it's among the best games on the Sega Genesis and one of the best games they ever created, period.  Taking the same wild action of Gunstar Heroes and adding several new mechanics on top, this is a boss rush game with an incredible amount of depth and strategy.  Not only do you have six selectable weapons to choose from, you also have the ability to swap between stationary and moving firing modes on the fly, block enemy bullets to receive health powerups, evade enemy attacks by jetting across the screen with an invincible dash, and even utilize a super move at full health that allows you to dash through an enemy, inflicting heavy damage and possibly even a one hit kill if timed well.  You'll need to master these mechanics too, as you're usually on a strict time limit for each boss fight.  Equal parts strategy, twitch reflexes and timing, this game is an absolute gem, and an inspiration to later top-notch action games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta.  Sadly it never got a cartridge release in North America, but it has since shown up there in several different formats including Steam and the Wii Virtual Console.

1. Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millennium (Sega, 1995)


This right here?  My favorite Sega title of all time.  Not only that, one of the best RPGs ever released to this very day, unforgettable in its era for its fantastic manga-styled presentation and top notch visual effects and music for the Genesis, as well as its engrossing story and memorable characters.  Even the gameplay was pretty innovative for the time, introducing a "macro" system that greatly expedited punching in menu commands and some innovative combo attacks that allowed two or more characters to combine their skills together into one larger, more powerful attack (before Chrono Trigger, I might add).  But on top of everything, this was also an excellent conclusion to a classic Sega franchise; it never once tried to overstep its bounds or felt like it was trying too hard, it just set out to conclude the epic tale the first two games set up, and did so in a way that was satisfying and effective.  For once, it also seems a company knows when to leave well enough alone, as no other game has attempted to continue the story and drag the franchise out until everyone's sick of it and it loses all the magic it once held.  A lesson a lot of other companies could learn from with their own long-running franchises (naming no names...).