Ah, the Sega Mega Drive. Sega’s answer to the Super Nintendo had a famously aggressive marketing campaign, claiming that the console (which was called the Genesis in America) “does what Nintendon’t”. Whether you remember this campaign or the infamous “blast processing” that Sega used to promote the Mega Drive, one thing’s for sure: the console had some pretty incredible games to play. Here, presented in no particular order, are the 25 best games you can play on the Mega Drive.
1. Sonic the Hedgehog
The first Sonic the Hedgehog is the game that started it all, so it’s easy to forget that the Blue Blur’s trademark dizzying speed wasn’t quite in place here yet. Instead, what we get is a careful platformer with bursts of speed punctuating each sequence. It’s best to think of Sonic as platforming interspersed with speed as a reward for success, and that’s best encapsulated in the first Sonic.
2. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
We’re going to list each of these games separately, because they all deserve a little something to be said about them. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 introduced Tails, Sonic’s constant companion, and ratcheted up the speed, adding extra level elements that Sonic could zip through. It’s an accomplished, satisfying platformer just like its predecessor, and it would have been the peak of the series if not for our next title.
3. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (& Knuckles)
It doesn’t get much better than this. With Sonic 3, Sega realised what they’d been aiming for this whole time: a sense of style to go with the gameplay’s grace. Sonic 3 is a funky, finger-popping thrill ride with some of the best music in gaming. There were new gameplay elements, too, like extra powerups, but the expansion pack, Sonic & Knuckles, added the ability to play as the red echidna. Sonic Team has never looked back since.
From the high-octane thrills of Sonic, we come down to something entirely more sedate. Columns is a puzzle game akin to Tetris, but with sparkling, twinkling colours and a loose Ancient Greek theme. The puzzling is sublime; it’s addictive, simple, and endlessly rewarding. We challenge you to play this one for even a few minutes and not to get “Clotho” stuck in your head.
5. ToeJam and Earl
The Genesis tried to position itself as the funkier, more edgy cousin to Nintendo’s family-friendly SNES, and ToeJam and Earl was part of that marketing strategy. The game has a distinctive George Clinton-esque funky aesthetic to it; if you took a Parliament-Funkadelic record and turned it into a game, you’d get this quirky isometric adventure, a roguelite before their time.
6. Streets of Rage 2
Unlike Sonic, we’re going to use Streets of Rage 2 to recommend all of the games in the series on the Mega Drive. Streets of Rage 2 is the best of its franchise thanks to the moody, atmospheric backdrops and thumping 90s house soundtrack, but all three games are well worth experiencing. For added fun, grab a friend and play through the campaigns co-op.
7. Golden Axe
If there was one thing the Mega Drive knew how to do, it was side-scrolling beat-’em-ups. Golden Axe had a rich fantasy aesthetic and some seriously well-implemented combat, and although it could feel punishingly difficult at times (a holdover from its arcade roots, no doubt), the game still felt hugely rewarding when you managed to beat its bosses.
8. Altered Beast
“Wise fwom your gwave”…While we’re on side-scrolling beat-’em-ups, let’s give a special shout-out to Altered Beast, a ridiculously campy and fun fight-fest that featured gameplay very similar to the above two games. It also allowed you to transform into a monster, giving you access to new powers and changing the stakes when it came to boss battles.
9. Phantasy Star IV
While the whole Phantasy Star series is worth a look if you’re a JRPG aficionado, Phantasy Star IV arguably represents the apex of the franchise. Its beautiful mixture of bucolic rural settings and space opera make it feel fresh and unique to this day, and its complex, melodramatic anime storytelling is the cherry on the cake. Check this one out if you love Final Fantasy or Breath of Fire.
After Delphine’s impressive Another World, Flashback showed that the French developer wasn’t just a flash in the pan (ha ha). It’s a breathtakingly atmospheric adventure that features so-called “realistic” controls, meaning you’ll have to painstakingly dismount from each jump and make sure not to try and leap across unrealistic gaps. As the sci-fi intrigue unfolds, you’ll feel like you’re really there.
11. Gunstar Heroes
Treasure is a developer that deserves a lot more respect from the community. Thanks to gems like Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga, Treasure is respected, but games like Gunstar Heroes show that it should be a legend. Gunstar Heroes is Metal Slug but turned all the way up to eleven. It’s a chaotic frag-fest that’s just as confusing as it is utterly exhilarating, so try this one if you like mastering your games.
12. Ecco the Dolphin
Ecco the Dolphin is a very odd game indeed. It’s a non-linear exploration-based adventure with echoes (no pun intended) of Metroid and that one water level in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES. If that sounds nightmarish, rest assured Ecco finds a way to make it work thanks to a confidently insane plot and some extremely well-implemented swimming controls.
13. Shining Force II
Of all the excellent Shining Force tactical RPG games, only Shining Force II can be considered truly essential. It’s a strategy game in the mould of Fire Emblem, one in which you must direct your troops around the battlefield and figure out how best to use their strengths to achieve victory. There’s also a surprisingly complex story woven around the core gameplay.
14. Contra: Hard Corps
Do you see what they did there? A nation of schoolchildren didn’t; we distinctly remember hearing this game referred to as “Contra Hard Corpse” when we were youngsters. Luckily, that mistake does nothing to diminish the excellent run-and-gun gameplay on offer here. This is the ultimate culmination of everything Contra has ever aspired to be; it’s deep, challenging, and replayable as heck.
15. Earthworm Jim
Combining elements of run-and-gun Contra-style shooting with platforming, Earthworm Jim was one of the most deviously, fiendishly difficult games of its era. This was, in part, thanks to some slightly finicky controls, but was mostly due to excellent design that was as sadistic as it was masterful. Many people are still surprised to learn that Earthworm Jim wasn’t based on an animation, so strong were its visuals and aesthetics.
Now here’s a fascinating little experiment. Can you squeeze the complexity of a PC RPG into a console game? Shadowrun proves that you can, and that gamers are entitled to rich, narratively satisfying, and dense experiences on console as well as on PC. The setting is fairly standard cyberpunk fare, but Shadowrun gets a pass given that it introduced many people to that concept.
17. Beyond Oasis
If you’re not an American gamer, you might remember this game as The Story of Thor, but either way, it’s been unfairly dismissed as a Zelda clone by history. We think Beyond Oasis’ deft exploration, excellent puzzle mechanics, and satisfying combat make it worthy of a revisit, especially in an era where pixel art is looked upon as the crowning achievement of the 16-bit era.
18. Dune: The Battle for Arrakis
Dune II (or The Battle for Arrakis, as it was named for the Mega Drive release) is a hugely influential real-time strategy game. It’s not the first of its genre, but it’s certainly the first to codify a huge number of the tropes that we still think of as integral to the RTS genre today. Naturally, revisiting The Battle for Arrakis today makes it look somewhat primitive, but it’s still a fascinating insight into the birth of a genre.
19. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine
If you’ve played a Puyo Puyo game, then you’ve played Mean Bean Machine, as they’re basically the same game. Mean Bean Machine is a fiendishly addictive little puzzler in which you must match four “beans” of the same colour in order to make them disappear. You can do so in pretty much any configuration, but they have to be grouped together. From this simple foundation comes near-endless fun.
20. Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3
It’s hard to imagine a world in which Mortal Kombat is still controversial, but back in the 90s, every new release of this ultra-violent fighting franchise commanded a huge amount of column inches. Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 is the best of its series, featuring a massive roster of characters with whom to enjoy the bone-crunchingly visceral and accessible combat.
21. Comix Zone
Comix Zone takes fairly standard 2D beat-’em-up gameplay and transposes it into the panels of a comic, creating an incredible aesthetic that still hasn’t been matched to this day (although many have tried). It’s a beautiful experience, and while it won’t trouble your innovation synapses much, just discovering what other visual surprises Comix Zone has in store for you will carry you to its end.
22. Castlevania: Bloodlines
Often overlooked thanks to its Genesis exclusivity, Castlevania: Bloodlines is, in reality, one of the greatest platformers the system has ever produced. It’s a characteristically beautiful and brutal trek through some Gothic locations, taking down Dracula’s minions as you go. You can play as one of two heroes, one of whom uses the iconic Vampire Killer whip while the other gets a far-reaching spear instead.
23. Bonanza Bros
Mixing the cool shenanigans of The Blues Brothers with the wacky antics of Home Alone, Bonanza Bros is all about two slightly hapless criminals breaking into a series of homes and stealing everything in sight. Along the way, they’re hampered by police officers and other hazards. This is a delightfully silly little crime caper, and it’s best enjoyed alongside a friend.
24. Herzog Zwei
Remember when we said that Dune II wasn’t the first real-time strategy game? Herzog Zwei could very well stake a claim to being the first. You pilot a mech, and you must deploy your forces around a series of battlefields, taking outposts so that you can refuel your vehicles and regroup if you’re defeated. It’s extremely difficult, but Herzog Zwei is deep and rewarding nonetheless.
25. Out Run
You might see it as cheating to include Out Run on this list, given that it wasn’t technically a native Mega Drive game, but we love it, so we’re including it. Out Run is a masterpiece of its genre, an atmospheric love letter to hitting the open road in late summer with nothing to do but cruise. Its checkpoint-based gameplay is enjoyable enough, but it’s all about those visuals and that incredible music.