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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). So with that out of the way, here we go.



30. Ecco: The Tides of Time (Novotrade, 1993)

Ecco the Dolphin was an odd game for sure, being a mostly non-violent adventure with good music and some gorgeous visuals, but punishing puzzle-driven gameplay; not aided by the fact that mid-level checkpoints were rare and that dying in some levels would force you to repeat the entire previous stage, too.  Its sequel, Tides of Time, is a significant improvement in that regard, though, with significantly less frustrating stages and a lot less pixel-perfect movement required.  The Vortex race returns from the previous game, intent on revenge against Ecco, and the stakes are a lot higher too, with time travel technology being integrated into the mix and a lot more puzzle levels where Ecco transforms into various creatures from seagulls to sharks to schools of fish.  It still requires a lot of patience to complete, but it's an enthralling journey if you can manage it.

29. Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage (Software Creations/Acclaim Black Team, 1994)


In an era when licensed games - comic book games in particular - generally ranged from mediocre to godawful, Maximum Carnage is one that stands out.  A competently made beat-em-up with colorful graphics reminiscent of its source material, good animation, a variety of iconic Marvel characters (only Spider-Man and Venom are playable, but numerous others appear as bosses and can be called in as special attacks), some hidden secrets and alternate paths to encourage replay value, and an impressively-rendered rock soundtrack composed of tracks by Green Jelly and Black Sabbath made it a solid beat-em-up title with a strong presentation and quite a lot of gameplay mileage.  It lacked two-player co-op, but other than that, this was one of the better Marvel titles of its era.

28. 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), rideable 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.

27. Dynamite Headdy (Treasure, 1994)

Treasure was known for making games that melded crazy action and just plain craziness, creating a style that was very much unlike anything else in the industry.  Dynamite Headdy is one of the best examples of this, with a downright surreal atmosphere, plenty of bizarre and absurd boss designs, and fast-paced platforming gameplay with a protagonist that swaps out their own head for a variety of others with their own special effects - a hard-hitting hammer head, a bomb head that explodes, a pig head that fires homing bullets, and a timer head that stops time, just to name a few.  It's not the  most fondly-remembered of their Genesis outings, but if you want a trip into a realm of pure imagination with some fun and polished gameplay beneath, Dynamite Headdy is a game to look into.

26. Shining Force II (Sonic! Software Planning, 1994)

Shining Force (the largest offshoot of the larger Shining series) proved to be one of Sega's most prevalent RPG franchises of the '90s, seeing release across just about every platform they had going, being featured on the Sega CD, Game Gear and Saturn.  The Genesis had two entries of its own, and among them, Shining Force II is considered the stronger of the two, rebalancing the tactical gameplay of the original while adding in some new twists.  The game is no longer a strictly linear experience broken up into "chapters" - instead, you're given opportunity to explore a greater world map and can backtrack to any area as much as you wish.  Many characters also get two upgrade paths - one simply for leveling up, and a second usually accessible via a hidden item.  As per series standards, it looks great, with detailed backdrops and huge, colorful character sprites in battle, and the soundtrack is pretty kickin' too.  A fine turn-based strategy RPG that's gotten pretty hard to find these days, but is thankfully available on a number of compilations and digital platforms.

25. 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 the branding 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 the player experiencing events differently depending on the choices they make at the end of each generation, which lent the game uniqueness and replay value.  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.

24. Gauntlet IV (M2, 1993)

Gauntlet is an arcade classic that continues to get ports, upgrades and iterations even today, and most of them are pretty damn good; even the Atari Lynx had a surprisingly solid version of Gauntlet to play.  The Genesis version is no different there, retaining the four-player co-op gameplay of the arcade but adding in several new game modes.  There's a single-player mode with a password-backed save feature, a deathmatch mode and a surprisingly faithful port of the original arcade game, but the real draw is the Quest mode.  Playing somewhat like an RPG with experience points, levels and upgradable equipment, it's also not a straightforward and linear experience - instead, you have to solve a lot of puzzles spanning numerous floors in between all the enemy bashing, gold collecting and boss fights.  Pretty cool, plus you can still play it with friends.


23. 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...

22. Mega Bomberman (Hudson Soft/Westone, 1994)

A port of the Turbografx-16's Bomberman '94 (which never saw a western release on that platform), and another fine entry in the long running Bomberman franchise.  While there is a single player campaign taking the player across six themed worlds, the real draw once again is the multiplayer mode.  Being one of the few games to support the Sega Team Player Adaptor, up to four players can join in a match as they collect powerups, avoid stage-specific hazards like missile-lobbing penguins, and generally try to be the last Bomberman standing.  Another new addition was "Rooies" (or "Louies", depending on the translation), ridable kangaroo characters that would grant the player abilities like being able to hop over single-square walls, move much more quickly, or kick bombs away.  A blatant attempt to cash in on Yoshi, the ever-popular sidekick character from Super Mario World?  Maybe, but it added some extra charm to the game.

21. 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).

20. Master of Monsters (SystemSoft, 1991)

A cult classic for sure, Master of Monsters is a fantasy-themed turn based RPG where the player, as a wizard, summons monsters and tries to capture towers and conquer the enemy forces on the map.  There are a lot of them, too - dragons, pixies, angels, demons, human soldiers, pegasi and many more are available to control, each with their own strengths and weaknesses that counter other monsters.  The player's "master" is also a part of the gameplay, casting spells to aid their forces and able to fight in their own right (though only as a last resort, since the Master's defeat will instantly end the campaign).  One also has to factor in terrain of all types, which will hinder or help you in a variety of ways, with the most important being towers; in addition to providing great defense, any monsters there will recover HP each turn.  The only thing lacking is a two player mode, but even without it, Master of Monsters is an addictive experience.

19. Monster World IV (Westone, 1994 in Japan)

The Wonder Boy franchise is one that appeared on a number of platforms and spawned a couple of spinoffs, including the Adventure Island series and later the Monster World spinoff (which drew heavy influence from games like Zelda II but also suspiciously inspired elements in later Zeldas, like playing the ocarina to solve puzzles).  The last game in the series wasn't localized until many years after the Genesis was retired, which is a shame as it's undeniably the best it had to offer.  Combat and hit detection was much more smooth, allowing you to attack upward and downward, and the presentation was excellent, with colorful graphics, multiple levels of parallax scrolling in the backgrounds and some smooth animation, as well as new gameplay elements like being able to use your pet Pepelogoo to cross gaps you wouldn't be able to on your own.  A very cool game that was overlooked in its day but is finally getting the recognition it deserves.

18. Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master (Sega, 1993)

Shinobi was one of Sega's most popular early franchises - after all, who doesn't want to play as a badass superninja and mow down evil hordes with kunais, sword and ninja magic?  After a line of games across the arcades, Master System and even two prior entries on the Genesis, Shinobi III was released, and what a game it was.  Graphics, animations and controls were all spot-on, resulting in a game that looked as amazing as it played, with some excellent setpieces like battling ninjas on horseback or even on a mini-surfboard (more than a bit reminiscent of the TMNT games on NES).  The difficulty was also still tough, but fair - unlike the earlier games, you almost never felt like things were just overly cheap or irritating for the sake of it.  The only real downside was that they couldn't get Yuzo Koshiro to do the soundtrack again!

17. 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.

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 acquired 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. Ghouls n' Ghosts (Sega, 1989)

One of the earliest games to be released on the system and programmed in-house by Sega themselves (owing to Capcom being under an exclusivity contract with Nintendo), Ghouls n' Ghosts managed to be a surprisingly faithful port of the arcade classic.  Taking the original arcade game and giving it a major polishing in controls, visuals, sound and overall design, Ghouls n' Ghosts is still a mercilessly tough game, but one that's much less frustrating to make your way through.  There's several new weapons to use, a gold armor that lets you charge up and fire a powerful special attack (varying depending on your weapon) and you can even fire straight up or down, which helps a lot with those annoying Red Arremers.

14. Beyond Oasis (Ancient, 1994)

A game which obviously draws inspiration from Zelda in its overall design, though putting much more emphasis on combat than puzzles and exploration.  That was fine, though, as the game's animations were surprisingly fluid and its sprites very detailed, the music was quite good (composed by the legendary Yuzo Koshiro) and the combat, once you adapted to it, was surprisingly fun - you could crouch, jump, wield a variety of weapons (though all of them break over time save your basic dagger - an odd parallel to Breath of the Wild).  You could also summon a number of spirits to accompany you and cast spells to attack enemies or aid you in various ways (like creating an illusory double to distract enemies).  While Beyond Oasis never achieved anywhere near the same level of success as Zelda (in fact, it had only one sequel on the Sega Saturn before fading into obscurity), it's still a fun adventure that's well worth a look.

13. ToeJam and Earl (Johnson Voorsanger Productions, 1991)

Perhaps the most unique roguelike ever produced, ToeJam 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 ToeJam 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...

12. 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...

11. 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.

10. Yuu Yuu Hakusho: Makyo Toitsusen (Treasure, 1994 in Japan)

Treasure was a rising star on the Sega Genesis, putting out several high-quality titles that combined fluid gameplay with incredible visuals.  This is easily the most obscure of their Genesis titles, only seeing release in Japan during the later days of the system's life (and being exceptionally rare and expensive now as a result).  It's a bit of a pity, too, as Makyo Toitsusen is an amazing experience.  A fighting game featuring eleven characters and up to four players duking it out at the same time, as well as some clever and relatively new mechanics like juggle combos, two tiers to fight between (a la some of the Fatal Fury games), back-dashes to evade attacks and the ability to charge up a special attack, store it with the Block button, then fire it later during a more opportune moment (like during a combo).  While not the deepest fighter out there, it is very well made and tremendously fun.  If you can find a copy, dust off your Team Player Adaptor and give it a go with some friends; it will not disappoint.

9. 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.

8. 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 new features like being able to outfit your landing craft with new equipment that expands its capabilities and generally faster-paced gameplay (not having to load 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 polished free-roaming design remain consistent.

7. Castlevania: Bloodlines (Konami, 1993)

Freed from Nintendo's restrictive platform exclusivity contracts after legal action was taken against them, Konami immediately set out to take advantage, releasing entries in nearly all of their prominent franchises on the Genesis.  Bloodlines was the end result of that, and it certainly was a quality entry in the series.  It may not have had the sound and visual depth of its SNES counterpart, but it took advantage of the Genesis' hardware to deliver a colorful, smoothly-animated experience (and a surprisingly gory one considering its GA rating).  The game also gave you a choice of two characters - John Morris and Eric Lecarde.  The former wields the series' familiar whip, which he can use to latch onto some objects to swing over gaps, while Lecarde wields a spear, which can attack in eight directions; he can also perform a Mario 2 style high jump by holding Down for a moment and then pressing Up.  These allow characters to take slightly different routes through the stages.


6. 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"....

5. 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.

4.  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.  And of course, Sega pumped up their game to 11 to make this a killer Sonic experience, with some truly inspired level design and aesthetics that pushed the system's hardware to their limit, making this one of the best action-platformers ever made to this day.

3. 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...

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...).