The Mega Sg - at this price point and with its hardcore set of tweaking options - can easily be considered a purchase ‘for enthusiasts', but we feel it's potentially got more appeal than that to anyone interested simply in good video games.
It's the perfect modern Mega Drive. It really is.
No library of games or a high-end flash cartridge, expensive.
TO ANYONE WHO TAKES an interest in such things, the phrase "clone Mega Drive" (or Genesis, for the yanks) rings serious alarm bells.
As well as the usual proliferation of system-on-a-chip-based third-party emulation machines, Sega itself has also, bafflingly, sold its own brand down the river on numerous occasions over the past decade or so with cheap, ugly interpretations of the 16-bit classic showing up in all manner of iterations, from full-scale physical representations to tiny keyring-based models.
With very few exceptions, they have nearly all proven tacky and embarrassing. The problem lies with the Mega Drive's hardware - mostly the sound chip - which is almost impossible to emulate with everyday components. Lag, weird system timings, high incompatibility and various other problems are absolutely normal with clone Mega Drives.
Enter Analogue, a company with roughly the same approach to building retro games consoles as Steve Jobs took to building phones and computers: Do it properly, but don't be afraid to make the price reflect that.
Let's tackle the elephant in the room first, then. The Mega Sg costs $189.99. Including $40 shipping, that costs just over £190 in the UK.
It doesn't come with any games - you're meant to provide your own (it has an SD card slot, but that's for firmware upgrades and doesn't work with Mega Drive ROMs). And it doesn't even come with any controllers either.
So is it worth it? To find that out, let's discuss what it does, how it does it, and whether any of it really matters in the long run.
The Mega Sg is undeniably physically beautiful. The high-quality plastic shell is modern and understated, with a nice suitable ‘ring' motif to reflect the original Mega Drive's iconic design. It also comes in any of the three internationally released colour schemes, with the power and reset buttons coloured to denote those. It's small - about a third the size of the OG Mega Drive - slick, and something you'd probably be very happy to have in your lounge when 'normal' friends come over for dinner.
It's also satisfyingly heavy compared to the usual SoC clones. We've not been inside to check (maybe it's just full of rocks), but we suspect that's something to do with the secret sauce which is Analogue's whole 'thing' - the Mega Sg, like the company's NES and SNES efforts before it, is powered with an FPGA. That's a field-programmable gate array and is essentially a hardware chip that can be reprogrammed, via software, after it's been manufactured.
This means the Mega Sg can be tweaked and twiddled with to the programmer's heart's content. It basically turns chip design from engineering into - arguably - something close to an art form, as every hardware routine of the original console is replicated more or less at the metal.
As a result, the Mega Sg is seriously on point - with everything. It's replete with menu options to suit every taste and scenario, but even running in a basic HDMI-out 1080p setup with a 4.5x 4:3 pixel zoom to suit most widescreen HD TVs and no timing or sound twiddles, this thing looks, sounds and behaves like the realest of real Mega Drives. But converting original video output into crisp, glorious SD and sparkling high-quality stereo sound.
It runs every cartridge we threw at it perfectly. Japanese games, modern third-party offerings like Evil Big Corps' excellent Tanglewood, even Sega's original Virtua Racing - a cartridge with so much extra tech inside it was practically a new console in itself, and so the thorn in the side of the vast majority of clone systems. It's flawless on the Mega Sg.
We stuck a Mega Everdrive X7 flash cartridge in to check other, more obscure games, too, and are happy to report the Mega Sg ran the lot. Some games with region protection would require changing the console's emulated region in the slick menu system (it's so detailed there's two NTSC and two PAL modes, just to cover everything) and aside from the odd homebrew demo and outrageous hack, the Mega Sg didn't flinch.
Sounds good to me
Sound-wise, the long-lost car horn works on Micro Machines '96. Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima's dirty industrial-techno-jungle-chiptune mess (or masterpiece?) of a soundtrack for Streets of Rage 3 recovers its nuances and sounds slightly less strange.
There's a heft and a glimmer to everything the emulated Yamaha YM2612 puts out that really takes you back to the first time you may have heard these sounds, and that's probably the most outstanding feature of the Mega Sg - the audio has been absolutely nailed down in a way no clone (even the second version of the original Mega Drive) could produce.
Beyond perfect basic level Mega Drive emulation, there are a few other fairly thoughtful ideas thrown into the mix.
Anyone familiar with emulators will recognise filters. The usual HQ and scalers are all present and correct, as are scanlines, but something new that's - arguably - a little more interesting in interpreting Mega Drive graphics for the HD LCD age is the dither blending option.
Mega Drive graphics are infamous for using dithering effects to produce new colours and shades, and the main difference between displaying on a CRT and an LCD is that this effect becomes pixelated on crisp modern displays. You can chuck as many filters and scanlines over that as you like, but it never replicates the effect properly.
The dithering filter mostly does this brilliantly - and it's amazing to see the graphics gain HD, pixel-perfect sharpness while effects such as cloud transparencies are restored by intelligent filtering for dithered effects. There are other cool ideas like masking the strange coloured borders that sit outside the play area on some games, and horizontal and vertical interpolation toggles, which can change the look of some games subject to blurry or torn graphics when fast scrolling.
The Mega Sg also directly supports the Sega Mega CD - but only if you have an old unit to plug in. There's a spongy 'spacer pad', to sit between the tiny Sg and the mahoosive Mega CD, included in the box, but the setup still looks ridiculous. It'' definitely a bonus if you have the hardware hanging around though.
Also included is a sleek-looking transparent adapter that refits the Mega Sg's cartridge slot into that of a Sega Master System, allowing those carts to be played just flawlessly (the standard Mega Drive was backwards compatible with the Master System, so that feature is of course replicated on by the FPGA).
There's no 32X support yet due to that zany mushroom-shaped attachment requiring analogue video pass-through to get it to work back in the day, but the beauty of FPGA leaves us wondering whether Analogue could crack that someday and provide direct support for Chaotix, Kolibri, and er… there's no reason to play many other 32X games, to be honest.
As mentioned earlier, the console doesn't come with a control pad, but you can use your old Mega Drive ones. Also, as Analogue seems desperate to make 8bitdo's wireless Mega Drive pad the de facto way to go, we're happy to recommend that too. The new 2.4Ghz version syncs with absolutely no fuss, is absolutely lagless, and has that deft combination of chic modernity and faithful retro look and feel that it feels made for the Sg.
The Mega Sg - at this price point and with its hardcore set of tweaking options - can easily be considered a purchase ‘for enthusiasts', but we feel it's potentially got more appeal than that to anyone interested simply in good video games. It works so immediately and so well to catapult old games into 2019, you're spared the hassle of getting it to work and can just concentrate on playing the games.
As a result, you could look at the Mega Sg less as super-powered nostalgia and more a finely-tuned translation system to put you in touch with brilliant games that are either impossible to play through original hardware, or sometimes an awful, off-putting mess in an emulator.
Like remastered editions of old films, perhaps, or buying a fancy record player to chuck old vinyl through a nice new speaker array. The Mega Sg is good because it simply takes niggles and hassles away, and lets you enjoy a whole era of gaming for what it was - but also in HD, with crystal clear chiptunes. It's expensive alright, but so is an iPhone.
It's the perfect modern Mega Drive. It really is.
Without an existing library of games or a high-end flash cartridge, as well as your own controllers, your £180 investment can feel a little stretched. Sega is launching its Mini later this year for $70 - will it compete?
Much has been made of a random unreleased Dice platformer called Ultracore being included on the system (with the firmware update), but it's bland in the extreme and we lost interest after 10 minutes. It feels more like an average old Amiga game.