A bit like the original 'console wars’ of the 1990s, Sega has again copied something Nintendo did, and done it at least as well, possibly better. A gorgeous mini replica console and controllers, great selection of games and polished level of presentation brings the complete Mega Drive package into 2019.
It's as lovely to look at as to play, and there's something in the 42 games provided to interest almost anyone.
The d-pad can be a bit spongy, the save menus are laggy, and the emulation still isn’t absolutely perfect, but only under forensic testing.
SEGA'S ONLY GONE and done what Nintendo did. Hot(ish) on the heels of the House of Mario's NES Mini and SNES Mini, a bijou version of the Sega Mega Drive has arrived, and well in time for Christmas.
The highly successful tiny console concept has been lifted unashamedly, but with gusto. It's a perfectly-recreated miniature representation of the 1988 16-bit Sega classic, with 40 games (and two "bonus titles") lurking on the system-on-a-chip within. The two supplied Mega Drive reproduction control pads plug in through USB slots, it outputs in HDMI, you can't add extra games to it digitally (until the inevitable modders arrive), and although the cartridge slot - adorably - opens, you obviously can't fit any real game cartridges in as it's far too small.
In essence, what you see is what you get - a cute little Mega Drive, 42 games, and the pads to play them with. Sega's dabbled with this mini console way of doing things a few times before, in fact, resulting in a long history of memorable Mega Drive-shaped disasters, but this time the company has actually put some thought into.
For £69.99, the Mega Drive mini delivers exceptional build quality and a fairly thoughtfully curated collection of games.
Your world will never be the same
Hardware-wise, there's some serious attention to detail going on with the Mega Drive Mini. As you can see from our side-by-side photo (below), the Mini is the perfect facsimile of its dusty old parent. Every 80s-cool grille is intact, even underneath the machine, the power and reset switches actually work, and the volume slider, aforementioned cartridge slot and even the Mega CD expansion open - even though they don't do anything. It's crazy, but it's cute.
You can actually buy miniature cartridges and expansion hardware (which also don't do anything, but look nice) from Japan to deck out your Mini, so there's at least some wider aesthetic point to all the silliness.
Even the box and manual are as authentic as can be - with the obvious concessions to modernity (and much, much smaller).
The control pads plug into two USB slots where the original Mega Drive's serial ports were, and they are excellent. While to our addled muscle memory the d-pads don't quite rock in the same way as the originals - they are a little spongier? - they really are a class act and, more importantly, have nice, long cables.
These are excellent for catching on the leg of your coffee table and dragging the Mega Drive mini off the TV stand because, to be honest, once you've connected two full-size USB pads, an HDMI cable and the USB power cable, the ultra-lightweight Mega Drive is easily dragged around any which way by all the cabling. We'd have appreciated it being weighed down inside, perhaps.
Still, overall, the build quality is absolutely immaculate and is sure to give you 'the feels', as well as Wagon Wheelitis, as you complain it was 'bigger when I was a kid' (except in this case, it actually was).
But it's with the games where things get really good. Sega Mega Drive emulation is fairly simple to a point, but doing it properly requires a little bit more effort, particularly when getting the machine's celebrated Yamaha YM2612 chip to sound right, avoiding grating sound effects and weird, honking interpretations of the synth. Analogue, who produced the excellent, retro nerd-courting Mega Sg, tackled the issue by using FPGA technology to emulate the precise hardware of the Mega Drive from the ground up, but that, of course, cost a fortune.
For the more mainstream fan, Sega did the next best thing - it went to a tried and true outsourcer.
M2 has worked on Sega ports across several modern consoles - mostly Nintendo ones - and tend to take a bespoke approach to its work. And it really shows with the Mega Drive Mini.
Crystal clear pixels, minimal scroll flicker, spot-on aspect ratios and extremely authentic sound recreates the Mega Drive almost perfectly. Most of the time we forgot we weren't playing on the Mega Sg. There's the odd bit of shimmer, and weirdly some games seem to prefer you switching into the supplied (quite ugly) widescreen mode to run smoother, but we are seriously splitting hairs here. Every game runs pretty much perfectly.
There was the odd incident, such as the underground section of Castlevania: Bloodlines slowing almost to a crawl, and the English version of Sonic Spinball's music playing way, way too fast that didn't chime with our memories, or experiences on other consoles, but these are niche and isolated issues.
As for the selection themselves, we're so tired of countless YouTubers moaning about what should and shouldn't have been on the Mega Drive Mini, we won't dwell. The games are good and showcase the console in terms of fun and technological brilliance. It has Sonic and Sonic 2, which are of course essential. It doesn't have Sonic 3, probably because of Michael Jackson. It has Altered Beast, Golden Axe and Streets of Rage 2 for scrolling fighter fans, Strider, Ghouls ‘n' Ghosts and Earthworm Jim to cover platformers, Phantasy Star and Shining Force for RPGs, and Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy AND Light Crusader to hopefully shut up the Treasure mafia.
There's a good showing from Konami, the underrated Sonic Spinball is present and correct, and niche, 'forgotten classics' territory is covered by Comix Zone, Story of Thor and Disney's World of Illusion, which is one of the cutest co-op platformers ever made.
For the real beards, there's even the absolutely mad 'extra' inclusion of Tetris, which was produced but never released after Nintendo picked up the license at the last minute in 1989, and a brand new port of 1987 spaceship shooter Darius - which we found quite boring, to be honest. There's also the questionable inclusion of 16-bit ports of the first three Mega Man games from the NES but - again - that's some serious geek point-scoring. You were never going to get any EA Sports games on here, because EA. Come on.
It's a considered collection, overall, showing off the Mega Drive's best moments in gameplay (Sonic), music (Streets of Rage II) and technical backflippery (the Konami games).
Our only real gripe is the inclusion of the unnecessary 2D Mega Drive version of celebrated polygonal fighting marvel Virtua Fighter 2, which always shows up on these sorts of collections, and feels more pointless by the decade.
Welcome to the next level
Overall, it's a classy package, dripping with enthusiasm. The games are browsed by box art as the menu plays a catchy ditty composed by Streets of Rage composer Yuzo Koshiro - dragged back into the Sega fold and handed a Yamaha chip. It's a beautiful mashup of sound-alikes of all the games on the machine, and we could listen to it for hours.
And most cutely, we were fiddling in the language menu, changed it to Japanese, and the entire UX refreshed in new colours, with Japanese boxart and - most importantly - the Japanese versions of the games. Castlevania gets its blood back, Dynamite Headdy gets even weirder, and that weird fast music glitch in Sonic Spinball seems to fix itself. It's just quite annoying all the menus are in Japanese and it's hard to remember what does what.
Speaking of the menus, save states can be accessed by holding down the Start button on the pad, but it takes several seconds to kick in, and that proved quite annoying. If you're trying to get past a tricky part of game, you'll probably be twitch-reloading time and again, and a four-second windup to load your save state isn't what you want.
That said, the physical reset button on the machine brings the menu up instantly, and we don't mind reminding you that you couldn't save your game at all in 1988. That said, you could also buy a three-bedroom house in London for £80k. So it's horses for courses, really.
It's small, light, looks great, feels great, plays great and is a genuine, fairly completest love letter to a whole era of gaming.
It's sometimes too light, the save state menu is rubbish, there's the odd emulation quirk here and there.
Virtua Fighter 2, basically. Oh and don't bother with Columns, either. It's not as fun as you remember.