The 8-bit era was only a warm-up for the brutal console wars of the following generation, pitting a dominant Nintendo against a fresh-faced NEC and their Turbografix-16, but veteran rival Sega's Mega Drive, soon to be known to the Western world as the Genesis, wouldn't be far behind the house that Mario built. "Genesis does what Nintendon't," and "blast processing" would become snappy modern day memes unashamedly touting the perceived superiority of Sega's newest hardware as it did its part in forcing out newcomer NEC and graduating the Genesis as the best-selling console of the storied developer's hardware history.
Perhaps more importantly, the 16-bit battles would lose an explosion of games that only a clash of titanic proportions could deliver into the hands of players everywhere, alongside a series of firsts for any console such as the Sega Channel. Delving deep into Sega's arcade roots, ports such as Altered Beast and Golden Axe arrived to join touted sports titles such as Joe Montana, the start of the "Shining" series of RPGs, and the best (and worst) that both east and west could produce found a welcome home on Sega's upstart. It would also offer an early form of console-based backward compatibility via an add-on, allowing Sega's Master System titles to be played on the console, giving fans a chance to enjoy Phantasy Star in one moment and Phantasy Star II right afterward. And then there was Sonic.
Sonic's rise from a pack-in title to iconic franchise favorite would help put the Genesis on the map and become Sega's Mario, a legacy that would far outlast its creators' hardware aspirations with a merchandising blitzkrieg of cartoons, comics and toys. Despite his recent struggles in recapturing the magic of his past, Sonic is still as recognizable as ever to anyone who hears the name "Sega,", the spike-haired protagonist a constant reminder of his developer's colorful history of bold and daring design work, something that we continue to see glimmers of today, within titles such as the PS3's Valkyria Chronicles and MadWorld for the Wii.
Although Sega may have given up on the hardware race, it continues to produce games for every generation of player. Partnerships with western developers have opened up additional venues, which may come as a surprise to longtime fans, such as Creative Assembly's Empire: Total War , while maintaining a somewhat tenuous grip on the popularity of their oldest properties, such as Golden Axe. Over the years, they haven't forgotten about the era that saw them at a pinnacle of gamesmanship, by re-releasing classics across a wide variety of special packs. Most of these were available only in Japan, but Sega has released the largest collection yet to the west with Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection.
It's not as "Ultimate" as the title may lead fans to believe, however, as it is conspicuously missing a few titles that I felt should have made the cut, such as entries from the Thunder Force series or even Michael Jackson's Moonwalker, but the collection easily includes many of the most groundbreaking examples from Sega's 16-bit legacy. All three entries in the Streets of Rage beat-'em-up saga are included, along with the entire four-chapter arc of the Phantasy Star RPG series (the first chapter from the Master System is an unlockable), bringing in hundreds of potential hours of play alone. Many of these have appeared in previous collections before, such as the Sega Genesis Collection on the PS2 or Sonic Gems on the GameCube, but a few unique titles debut for the first time as part of a collection, and a few Master System and arcade favorites have also made the cut. Alien Storm makes its first appearance in a compilation along with E-Swat, and for RPG fans, a special treat with Shining in the Darkness along with tactical spin-offs Shining Force I and II, offer even more of a reason to never see daylight again.
As hinted before, there are also a number of unlockables, including the arcade version of Altered Beast, the original Shinobi, and even arcade classic Congo Bongo. Interviews with many of the developers, such as Altered Beast's Makoto Uchida and Rieko Kodama, whose Sakaguchi-like career has been credited in titles ranging from the original Phantasy Star to Skies of Arcadia, are also included. Owners of the Sega Genesis Collection on the PS2 will have already seen the interviews, but if this is your first collection of Sega greats, they're interesting snippets of development talk that add to the theme of the release as a whole. Each game also has a museum mode that shows off the original package and cartridge art, along with information introducing the title alongside a handful of trivia facts.
The menu interface has been dolled up using the Genesis as inspiration, with all of the available titles listed alongside a player-scored rating system. Players can tick off dots that indicate whether they like or hate certain titles and then list them in that order. Instructions are in the form of a basic overview in the manual, with a brief on-screen review of what the controls are, but don't expect much more unless you hit up Sega's site on the 'net and download the Player's Guide PDF, which goes into far more detail.
Game visuals default to the standard 4:3 aspect ratio, but that can be adjusted by bringing up the options via the "select" button. Switching the aspect into 16:9 widescreen goodness shows off the 16-bit graphics without much distortion, making it a compelling argument in urging me to free up shelf space by finally unhooking my Genesis. Smoothing is also another option that players can select, rubbing out the rough edges of each pixelized sprite on-screen, which works out very well. As for the music, it's just as you might have remembered it, and if this is your first time with cart-based gaming, don't laugh: You'd be surprised at what they were able to coax from the hardware. Retro gamers have plenty of eye and ear candy to look forward to here.
Getting used to the tiered six-button control scheme of the Genesis translated to the 360's pad took a little getting used to, but Backbone has managed to make it as painless as possible by making it work as well as it does. In minutes, I was back on the streets as Axel Stone or flying through the air in a beefed-up super-chopper in Super Thunderblade, although taking off the rose-tinted nostalgia goggles for a moment reveals that not all of the titles have aged as gracefully, like Super Thunderblade.
New options have also been added to take advantage of platform, such as the ability to save anywhere, even in the middle of the action, making it something of an all-too-easy cheat, but it comes in remarkably handy for those long RPG stretches. Each game categorizes its own saves, too, keeping you from having to scroll through a list of multiple saves just to get to the one you want. Achievements are also plugged into each game, giving players an additional incentive to try for a few interesting challenges, from simply earning a thousand coins in Alex Kidd to reaching the third stage in Alien Storm without dying. Two-player action is also available if you want to team up in titles that support it, although online support for finding a second player will keep retro-minded gamers from being able to hook up with each other around the world.
Since Sonic is on the cover, Sonic aficionados may find umbrage with the fact that the selection of titles featuring their blue-haired hero will have to be played without the "lock-on" feature. To a generation of players that has never had a Genesis or were fans of Sonic in the first place, this might not mean much, but to those who remember Sega's workaround and the fun times that it meant, it's a huge deal. But why?
Hitting reverse here for a moment, the lock-on feature was introduced in only one cartridge: Sonic & Knuckles in 1994. It allowed players to plug their copies of Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 into the game, bringing Knuckles into the games along with a few extra levels, expanding the experience for players. Plugging in any other game would unlock a bonus in the form of "Blue Sphere," a mini-game that had also been released in previous compilations as a separate title. Unfortunately, the Ultimate Collection does not have any of these features or "Blue Sphere,", which longtime fans may find as bizarre omissions. Sega's release blog for the title explained why this wasn't possible, citing that they would have to scrap a few titles from the collection in order to make it all fit on one disc, but Sonic superfans may not be as forgiving.
Despite the omission, Sega's collection amasses enough entertainment to satisfy both fans and newcomers. Those who haven't chosen graphics over gameplay to enjoy the 40 best titles that the Genesis, Master System, and the arcade offered. It heavily favors retro RPGers with the inclusion of the entire Phantasy Star series, along with the roots of the Shining franchise before it went down the path of Diablo. The varied selection in Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection manages to offer enough choices for just about everyone, but if you're not really into RPGs and have all of the previous collections, the Ultimate Collection loses a bit of its luster, since only a handful of the other games haven't been released to western audiences. Even so, this is simply one of the best ways to introduce a new generation of players to a part of gaming history that had helped to inspire an entire generation. As a retro-gaming goldmine, it's a solid find that's filled with hours of fun and celebrates everything Sega.
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