Sega has finally, blessedly begun to compete directly with Nintendo’s beloved line of classic console reissues with the Sega Genesis Mini. Come September 19, the other side of the 16-bit console war has a worthy nostalgia piece, at last.
By now, the format should be familiar: The Sega Genesis Mini is a diminutive version of the classic console, but the controllers are full-sized and authentic (enough). The game library, while not exhaustive, is a particularly well-curated survey. What’s unique about the Mini, however, is that for once Sega itself is handling production duties instead of outsourcing to the familiar bargain bin outfit, AtGames. That’s presumably why you’ve read this far, so I won’t keep you in suspense any longer: Whether or not your comparator is the superlative SNES Classic or one of AtGames many disappointing Genesis clones, the Sega Genesis Mini excels at everything it seeks to do.
[Ed. note: This is a preview, timed to the 30th anniversary of the Sega Genesis’ North American launch. The full review embargo is next month, closer to the release of the Sega Genesis Mini. So consider these thoughts preliminary.]
M2 / emulation
When I said Sega was handling the console itself, that was really only half true. The actual hardware and manufacturing and all that stuff is Sega, but it turns out software emulation is super complicated and one need look no further than the atrocities performed on Sega’s classic titles by the entire AtGames lineup for proof of how badly things can go in the wrong hands.
So Sega tapped a long-standing partner that has been successfully adapting its titles across multiple platforms for decades to handle the emulation itself. M2, the storied Japanese game developer best known for its excellent Sega Ages compilations both old and new, is handling the software end of the Sega Genesis mini, and I would encourage you to watch My Life in Gaming’s one-hour history of the developer if you haven’t heard of the studio. Its bonafides in this area are almost excessive.
This is a preview, so I have not spent copious hours comparing the Sega Genesis Mini’s video and audio emulation to carts running on original hardware, or the likes of the Mega SG. Based on what I have played — a sampling of many of the included titles — the emulation is excellent. The goal is to make the games look original, for lack of a better term, and on that note it succeeds.
A major benefit of an emulation-based retro gaming solution are software features like save states and rewind functionality, both of which were featured on the SNES Classic two years ago. Save states offer the ability to save your progress in games where saving isn’t possible, or give you the ability to save before a difficult moment, a feature that makes many older games much more enjoyable.
A rewind feature, like the one found on the SNES Classic or the Nintendo Switch Online NES game library, is becoming something of table stakes for emulators, especially commercial options. The Sega Genesis Mini has the former but, unfortunately, not the latter. That’s not a big deal, but it is disappointing.
Other now-standard features make an appearance here, like 16:9 widescreen stretch (don’t do it!) and CRT “scanline” filters (do it, maybe, if you want). The scanlines deliver alternating black lines meant to simulate the way CRTs drew pixels, and putting them back in is largely a matter of taste.
The system also comes with three backgrounds to fill your widescreen display. There’s the obvious black, which lets the game take the spotlight; there’s the retro-patterned background, which isn’t a terrible look … and then there’s the Sonic-themed background. And look, it’s a lot. But it’s also so pitch perfect for 1990s Sega that I can’t fault it. I just want to share it with everyone.
The Sega Genesis Mini is, well, a mini Sega Genesis, complete with a functioning power switch and non-functioning gewgaws like the volume dial, the cartridge flaps, and the expansion port cover.
The build feels entirely obsessive, as if it had been constructed by a hobby modeler. Power is delivered through a micro-USB port and included USB adapter, while video and audio are sent out over HDMI. The system includes two, three-button USB Genesis controllers. While it would have been nice to see the later six-button controllers — especially since there are fighting games included that could have really used them! — the console does support Retro-Bit’s six-button USB controllers.
In a very welcome departure from Nintendo’s offerings, the Sega Genesis Mini allows you to return to the main menu using the controller. Holding the Start button for three seconds will bring up the menu using the included controllers, while the six-button controller’s Mode button brings it up instantly.
Region coding and other UI thoughts
The box art and the games themselves change when you change the regions.
The Sega Genesis Mini loses some points on the user interface, shown above. While it’s better than the UI crime we saw on the AtGames Sega Genesis Flashback HD console, the menu certainly lacks the charm and design of Nintendo’s offerings. It’s spartan, sometimes to a fault.
While the menu is mostly charmless, there are a few exceptions: the menu and box art change based on what region the console is set to, giving you an excellent chance to experience what the console’s branding and identity looked like to players around the globe. And the menu soundtrack — by legendary video game music composer Yuzo Koshiro — is great. Enjoy!
The games themselves
Curating a list of games for a “mini” console like this has to be one of the most challenging jobs in gaming. And look, 42 games is a good variety. It’s 100 percent more games than the SNES Classic’s 21 game selection, and that’s probably not an accident. It’s also, somehow, not quite enough.
But seriously, look at this list! Strider! Gunstar Heroes! Even deep cuts like the SegaNet-exclusive Mega Man: The Wily Wars.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Ecco the Dolphin
Space Harrier 2
Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine
ToeJam & Earl
Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse
World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck
Thunder Force 3
Super Fantasy Zone
Streets of Rage 2
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Contra: Hard Corps
Mega Man: The Wily Wars
Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition
Ghouls ’n Ghosts
Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle
Phantasy Star 4: The End of the Millennium
Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball
Wonder Boy in Monster World
Road Rash 2
Virtua Fighter 2
Monster World 4
I’d like to highlight two undersung classics from some of gaming’s biggest properties that, despite being excellent entries in their respective canon, didn’t get the same attention as their Super NES-based counterparts: Castlevania: Bloodlines and Contra: Hard Corps. These two Konami titles command a premium on eBay, and it’s great that interested players can pick up an entire Sega Genesis Mini for less than the price of one of these games used.
The rest of the games will either grab you, or they won’t. What people want in these collections is often a very personal thing.
One thing I’d like to highlight here, which is both a testament to M2’s dedication to preservation and, less flatteringly, a design shortcoming: Switching the game’s region not only modifies the menu, but also the games themselves. Take Contra: Hard Corps for instance. The US release was famously modified from the Japanese original, replacing the life bar with one-hit kills and offering only five continues instead of an infinite number. Needless to say, you should play the Japanese version and, since you have a choice on the Sega Genesis Mini, you can.
It’s unfortunate this choice isn’t more obvious in the game’s details page. It’s such a cool detail, and it’s a shame most people probably won’t ever see it. I wish this part of the experience was clearly communicated to the player so everyone knows to enjoy multiple versions of their favorite games.
We can also quickly discuss what’s not on this console. Besides the perennially absent Sonic the Hedgehog 3 — rumors have long pointed to Michael Jackson’s alleged involvement as a reason for its continued omission — there are other games that probably should have been here. There are no sports games on the Sega Genesis Mini, despite sports games dominating much of the 16-bit landscape. NBA Jam? Not here. Any Madden titles? Nope. The legendary NHL ’94? It’s not here.
It’s not also anywhere else due to licensing issues, but it remains a bummer that the best way to play these games is to track down original carts on eBay or Google.
Redemption for Sega’s past
“Sega has done meaningful, arguably irreparable harm to the consumer proposition of purchasing its classic games, while Nintendo has elevated 30-year-old products to must-have status,” I wrote in my review of the last AtGames release. “As a one-time Genesis kid whose nostalgic sweet spot is a Sega Genesis, I feel qualified to say that the Genesis deserves better from its owner. But as long as Sega is willing to license out its platform instead of making its own hardware, it seems unlikely to get better than this, the most declarative console war victory imaginable.”
And now, two years later, Sega has done it. It’s made a best-in-class retro console with excellent games, excellent emulation, original controllers, and a price tag that seems fair. Will it be enough to undo a decade of damage done by poorly made Genesis clone consoles? Who knows! But today, on the 30th anniversary of the original console’s release, it’s enough to say that Sega has accepted the challenge of living up to its own legacy.
The Sega Genesis Mini will be available on Sept. 19 for $79.99.
Photography by Christopher Grant