Five Games That Defined The SEGA Mega Drive / SEGA Genesis

So many websites, magazines and videos provide endless lists of the best games or the worst games – But what about the ones that truly made these systems what they were? Join me in taking a look at five games that I feel defined the SEGA Mega Drive.
It could be that the SEGA Mega Drive, or SEGA Genesis if you will, is one of SEGA’s most beloved systems. The Master System was only really popular in PAL regions, and the Saturn and Dreamcast had a dedicated cult following, but SEGA’s 16-bit system was the one that seemed to have some real success around the entire world.

It’s a system that I do love, and even so, it’s one I don’t really cover as much on this channel. So let me rectify that, by focusing on the SEGA Mega Drive for the first in what I hope will be a series of video features, looking at what I believe to be the games that defined each of the consoles we loved.

These are the releases that were important enough to be synonymous with a console, or even groundbreaking enough to shape the entire industry.They might not be the best or the worst – But they’re the titles that mattered.

For many people, Altered Beast was the very first Mega Drive game they had laid eyes on, and for even more, it was the very first game they had ever had for their new system, as it was an early pack-in title for the console. Released in Japan in 1988, North America in 1989 and finally in Europe in 1990, this was one of a handful of arcade ports that SEGA deployed in the early years of the console.

At its heart, it was a very rudimentary scrolling brawler, with simple controls consisting of a punch, a kick and a jump. Set in Ancient Greece, you started the game, buried in the ground before being resurrected by the Greek God, Zeus, ready to kick the arse of many a mythical beast. But Altered Beast’s twist is in the ability to morph into various forms, from beefing up into a muscular form that would make Schwarzenegger proud, to turning into one of several beasts that have their own unique abilities.

Unfortunately, it’s a particularly repetitive game, and it’s simplicity and short length didn’t exactly set the world on fire, resulting in a game that’s only gotten more unimpressive with age.

As you can imagine, it’s placement on this list wasn’t exactly earned through quality, but more in terms of what it promised to Mega Drive owners. The company made a name for themselves in delivering some of the best experiences to ever find their way to an amusement arcade, and in translating those popular classics to the Mega Drive, SEGA instantly positioned the system as a way to bring the arcade home. Even if Altered Beast was not the pick of the bunch and it wasn’t even the first of the 16-bit system’s arcade ports, but in packing it with the system, the Mega Drive opened up a whole new world for players who had longed to play the very best arcade games in their bedroom or lounge.

In 1992 and 1993, two words would cause shockwaves throughout amusement arcades and the entire games industry. Mortal Kombat.

Midway’s answer to Capcom’s massively popular Street Fighter II, it differed itself from the Japanese fighter by using digitised fighters instead of hand drawn sprites. The technique had been used previously in fellow arcade games Pitfighter and NARC, but Mortal Kombat took the technology to its most violent conclusion, focusing on over the top violence and shocking brutality in the form of Fatalities – Special moves that would be inputting after defeating an opponent, that would trigger an extremely violent sequence, designed to shock and humiliate the loser.

While lacking the finesse and depth of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat’s shock factor ultimately led to success, and its popularity ensured that home versions would not be far behind. Home ports would find their way onto every console that was able to house one – Game Boy, Amiga, Master System, SNES, Mega Drive and more and it was those last two ports that caused the most controversy.

Both versions shipped with one drastic change from the original arcade port – The removal of the blood and gore that made Mortal Kombat so popular in the first place. The Mega Drive version completely removed the blood, the SNES version changed the colour of it to grey and called it sweat, while both versions completely neutering the Fatalities.

The only difference is that for the SEGA versions, Probe Software not-so-subtly hid a code for the game that would restore Mortal Kombat to its original gory self, helping to spark a controversy that ended up with a lengthy US Congressional hearing on video game violence, directly leading to the creation of the ESRB video game rating board in North America. Meanwhile, various countries around the world either banned the game outright or slapped their own age ratings on the box.

In adding the infamous blood code, the Mega Drive port was instantly the preferred version of the game to buy, and I imagine it sold a lot of consoles for that reason, alone. Not only did Mortal Kombat firmly define Nintendo’s family-friendly policy in the eyes of consumers (at least until Mortal Kombat II’s release, which retained the gore from the original arcade release), but it also ensured that SEGA’s systems were the consoles of choice for older gamers.

Altered Beast may have been one of the first pack-in games for the SEGA Mega Drive, but it’s the arrival of a cute blue hedgehog with an attitude that would be a more beloved bundled release. Mr. Needlemouse probably wouldn’t have set the world alight in his various prototype incarnations, including rejected designs such as a human, wolf, rabbit and a clown. But in his final form as Sonic The Hedgehog, he blew the 16-bit console race wide open and came as close as anyone else did to toppling Super Mario in the eyes of gamers affections.

It was the embodiment of the classic SEGA marketing line “SEGA Does What Nintendo’nt”, a platform game that focused on an edgy character that truly resonated with late Generation X youths and was designed to be everything that Super Mario wasn’t. Sonic The Hedgehog was an adrenaline rush of a game, based entirely on the protagonist’s ability to traverse levels at a breakneck speed, dropping the jaws of gamers worldwide with amazing stylistic aesthetics and a toe-tapping soundtrack.

This was the game that not only defined the Mega Drive, but it defined SEGA as a company and even if he isn’t as relevant as he once was, the mere mention of Sonic’s name brings fond memories to anyone who ever owned a SEGA system.

While a forgotten footnote in gaming’s young history, Populous was an important release for many reasons. It was the game that reversed the fortunes of developers Bullfrog, made Peter Molyneux a known name in the industry and single-handedly created an entirely new genre, the God-sim. But this entry has less to do with the game itself, but more that it had a far greater significance to the system’s success in the long term.

In 1982, Trip Hawkins left Apple and founded Electronics Arts with a focus on developing and publishing high-quality games for the home computer. By the end of the decade, home consoles had returned to prominence and to cut a long story short, SEGA’s 16-bit system just happened to contain a very similar processor to the computers that EA was already developing games for. Hawkins saw an opportunity to get a jump on the competition for the system’s North American release but wasn’t interested in signing any of SEGA’s licensing deals, which would ensure that the hardware manufacturer was in charge of the distribution and costs of EA’s product.

EA’s plan was to reverse engineer the console, find out how it ticked, then port over their existing games to the system and then go ahead with manufacturing these unlicensed releases themselves, without SEGA’s intervention. This was a morally grey practice, but not an illegal one, and as a result, they managed to bypass any security methods employed by the Mega Drive hardware. By June 1990, Hawkins gave SEGA of America an ultimatum – Give Electronic Arts a better licensing deal than anyone else, or they would go ahead and release their unlicensed games anyway. SEGA buckled, and Electronic Arts were given permission to release as many games as they wanted for the system and even manufacture their own games (which is which is why EA cartridges are larger and have the yellow tab).

Populous was the first Electronic Arts game to be released on the SEGA Mega Drive and would be the first in a series of EA-published games that would give the console an incredible head start over Nintendo’s SNES system. It would help the company become one of the largest publishers in the entire industry, and it all started with this version of Populous.

We conclude this list with one of the greatest games to ever grace the SEGA Mega Drive. You should probably know this already, but Streets of Rage was a side-scrolling brawler that was SEGA’s direct answer to Capcom’s Fight Fight, of which was ported to the SNES as an early game for that system.

It impressed with the way it played, looked and sounded, and its success ensured that a sequel would be on the way, and it’s this sequel that stands up as a definitive SEGA Mega Drive release.

Streets of Rage 2 did what every follow-up should do – Keep everything that made the original great and just builds upon it to make a superior game. And it was a far superior game, that’s for sure. It brought a new roster of player-selectable characters featuring two returning characters from the original team of three, and two new brawlers to add some more variety. The graphics were even more colourful and detailed, with larger sprites and brand new environments to fight on that didn’t always revolve around streets.

Then there was of course, the music, as composer Yuzo Koshiro pushed the Mega Drive’s FM synthesis sound chip to new heights to deliver a soundtrack that not only sounded unlike any other Mega Drive game but somehow was a perfect analogue to the early 90’s rave and trance culture that swept Western youth culture at the time.

To play Streets of Rage 2 is to love Streets of Rage 2, and it is absolutely an essential part of any Mega Drive owner’s library. The many re-releases over the years, alongside calls for the series to be resurrected, is purely based on the strength of this game and its predecessor, and it remains as one of the many games that placed the system into the hearts of Mega Drive owners, everywhere.