A Smashing Video Game Crossover
December 7, 2018 was a hugely anticipated day for long-time fans of Nintendo like myself. I've now spent about a week with a delightful holiday treat of a year-end video game release. This long-hyped game brings together dozens of beloved video game personalities, as well as associated settings and music. It puts them all together in one convenient package that allows you to explore the history of a gaming giant and some of its third part partners. It's loaded with features and extras, plus more than a few demanding challenges. With multiplayer support and a variety of controller options, who could resist this pinnacle achievement of one of the leaders of video gaming?
I am of course talking about the release of...
Sega Genesis Classics
I had the game on pre-order for months, an early holiday gift from my wife. I have not anticipated a new game as much as this since the release of the Nintendo Wii and Zelda Twilight Princess back in 2006. It's not Smash Brothers Ultimate. It's the Sega Genesis Classics collection for Switch.
By happenstance, I stopped in at an EB games the morning of the 7th just to browse while doing some other shopping. There was a huge line, unusual at 9 in the morning for a gaming store. It took a minute before I realized that no one was holding any products: they were all lined up to claim their copies of Smash Brothers Ultimate for Switch. I decided to make an impulse buy of my own, confidentially assuring the cashier that I was NOT here to get Smash Bros. (I was gonna surprise my wife with Soul Calibur 6, only to learn that she had the same idea and ordered the game just a few days earlier.)
I love the Smash Bros. games, but I don't have much opportunity for local multiplayer anymore. So I passed on this admittedly very exciting new game. The last two installments of Smash Brothers, incidentally, featured Sonic the Hedgehog as a playable character. That was pretty exciting news at the time, though a Mario-Sonic crossover had previously appeared in Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games in 2007.
Productivity, "Welcome to Your Doom!"
A collection of over 50 Sega Genesis Games playable on a Nintendo console presents for me something far more mind blowing than the ultimate Smash Brothers. The release is a godsend for retro gamers who grew up on the Sega Genesis and have the opportunity to relive their childhood favourites. As for me, I was a true Nintendo fanboy. The idea of ever owning a console from a rival company was appalling to me for a long time. I had to think twice about staying with my girlfriend, now wife, when I learned she was a Playstation owner.
Truthfully, I grew up long before then and continue to play a lot of Playstation games. Sega, however, stopped making consoles before I had the money and the will to crossover into non-Nintendo options. Well, my brother did have a Game Gear and I played a few games on it.
The Genesis is not entirely alien territory, anyway, since I played a little bit at friends' houses. Naturally enough, those games I had played, and which are on the Genesis Classics, listed among the games I was most excited to play. The mediocre beat 'em up Golden Axe 2 was THE game I couldn't wait to dive into. So much so that, when presented with the opportunity at a video game cafe, I loaded it up and got almost entirely through. That went a long way to assuaging my Genesis cravings before the big day of the collection's release.
Now, a week in to plumbing the depths of the best Genesis had to offer, I've had some exciting discoveries, but also a smug confirmation of the Nintendo's 16-bit superiority. This is less a review than a series of impressions. I still have much to learn about this huge collection.
This Sega Genesis Classics collection has given me the opportunity to explore the other side of gaming history from my childhood. The dark side of gaming.
Going back in time to a retro console I barely played is embarassingly exciting. I know a lot of SNES games backwards and forwards. There's a ton of nostalgia in early 90s gaming for me, but barely any of it is on the Genesis. What I'm getting with the Classics collection is a sort of nostalgia-adjacent experience. I'd heard of a few of these games and even played a couple (Golden Axe, Comix Zone, Altered Beast, and Sonic, namely). The style of gaming has a nostalgia, particularly the robust set of beat-em-ups, but I have not invested much of my past self into these games, not like I have with older Zeldas, Mario World, Square RPGs, and other big Nintendo titles.
With 53 available games, I did not have time to explore them all in depth. However, I made a real effort to load up every single game, if only to unlock an achievement for doing so - yes, the game has achievements, as well as a challenge mode with game-specific objectives and conditions that earn you medals. The challenges are very cool because you can browse the list and just press Y to launch the challenge, instead of having to load up the game.
For simpler games that launch you right in to the action, I played just enough to get a feel for the basic gameplay and look of the game. Easy enough when most of the collection's games are beat-em-ups, run-and-guns, platformers, and arcade style games.
When it came to RPGs, action adventure, and strategy games, I did not get much past the title screens since I did not have the time to sit through lengthy introductions. That's ok because I love these kinds of games and I know I'll come back to each one of them.
In addition to this tasting menu of gameplay, I have put in more considerable time into a few games and have a decent idea of what I will enjoy and what I won't.
The Good - Beat 'Em Ups
Genesis clearly had the upper hand over SNES here. The standout Streets of Rage series has three installments, as does the somewhat less impressive Golden Axe. Beat 'em ups are notoriously repetitive and with so many to choose from, they can feel tired and familiar from the moment you start. The truly good ones offered something different. Generally, the larger the move set, character options, and power ups, the better the game.
Beyond the simple beat 'em up are run-and-gun games and other sorts of side-scrollers with minimal platforming and a lot of taking down enemies. I've only spent a few minutes with the Shinobi series of games, but I'm looking forward to putting some time into them.
There's also Altered Beast, featuring a comically over-muscled hero who transforms into a different beast in each level before taking on a bizarre looking boss. This game fixes what is probably the most annoying feature of the genre - lengthy levels of repetitive baddies. Speedruns of the game last under 7 minutes due to a streamlined approach. Instead of slogging through a gauntlet of easy fights that defeat you mainly through attrition, this game has a pretty good challenge that quickly rewards your ability to learn patterns. Once you've mastered a level, you can clear it in a minute or two before gearing up for the next challenge. That said, I had so much trouble with the second boss that I gave up and watched the speedrun instead. But this is a game I'll come back to because it is pure, simple fun.
There are some other interesting, looking games, like ESWAT: City Under Siege, which reverses the Contra formula of super fast chaotic run-and-gun action. This one seems beatable with patient judgement of the scenario as you slowly walk through the zones. I kept dying, and I really wanted to move on to the RPGs, so I have a lot to get back to in these games. The inclusion of fast-forward and rewind buttons, as well as save states and quick-save will make sure I don’t sink more time than necessary either.
The Bad - Platformers
Before Sonic the Hedgehog was synonymous with the Sega name and became the greatest rival to Mario, Sega traded on the popularity of the Alex Kidd franchise. The nail in the coffin for young Mr. Kidd was Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle. Alex is some sort of monkey boy who can kick, punch and jump his way through uninspired platforming landscapes with loose controls. He can ride a variety of vehicles, which is cool, though I didn't want to play long enough to even discover how they work. The real exciting element of the game is its Rock-Paper-Scissors gameplay! That's right, you collect money and defeat bosses by besting them in completely random bouts of the classic game. It's about half as exciting as it sounds!
Alex Kidd is just the bottom of the barrel for Genesis platformers.
Sonic himself is promising, but I've always been sort of mystified by the popularity of his games. I've played a couple of the Game Gear versions, and they were fine. As far as I can tell, they lack the solid design of Mario games, and the absence of saved progress and the allure of a world map with secret exits a-la-Mario World has me leaving Sonic by the wayside for now.
Like the SNES, Genesis has a slew of lazy, visually unappealing platformers with forgettable mascot characters and cheap lincencing tie-ins. I was nevertheless intrigued by Dynamite Heady. Its world is off-putting for its colour and the size of background elements. But the gameplay has some promise. The title character can whip his head at enemies, and the head can be swapped out for others with unique abilities. The game begins with a tutorial level, which is very odd for a platformer, so hopefully that's an indication of some real depth to come.
Another platformer that doesn't look all bad is Ristar. The anthropomorphic star whom you control lives in yet another generic world of colour, but the game has another mechanic with potential. This little guy can grab and climb by extending out his arms. Let's see if there's any more to the game than that.
Vectorman is a combo platformer-shooter, and it had a sequel, so maybe that's worth playing too.
The collection's got a few Faux-3D space shooters, where you fire toward the screen and dodge bullets. I regretted the few seconds I spent on each of Space Harrier 2 and Super Thunder Blade. The side-scrolling space shooters, however, are a little more playable. Bio-Hazard Battle may be a weak Gradius clone, but you play as one of four weird dragonfly things, and that's pretty neat.
The Deal-Makers - RPGs and the Like
In our age of deep story-telling and complex gameplay, no 16-bit beat 'em up or comparably simple game will justify a purchase. The best games of the era were ones that pushed gaming to its limits, that moved beyond quarter-swallowing arcade difficulties and games so thin you'd feel cheated spending a dollar on them today.
It was the role playing games and the action-adventure hybrids that showed off gaming's potential for storytelling. It was the creative design that made gaming an experience to challenge your wits as well as your reflexes. The Sega Genesis Classics collection sticks mainly to simple games - dime-a-dozen platformers, shooters, and beat-em-ups. But it has some outliers: games I had not been aware of until very recently. RPGS that did not take off the way Final Fantasy did, and Legend of Zelda clones that came up with some interesting ideas. Amazingly, there are about a dozen of these.
One title I have spent a fair bit of time on is Beyond Oasis. It's not an excellent game, but it has a unique approach to the Zelda formula. It takes the top-down exploration, dungeon crawling gameplay in an interesting direction by incorporating a little beat 'em up style combat. But what's really interesting is how the rip off got ripped off. The game is obviously inspired by Zelda. But, it includes a mechanism that has been stolen by Zelda much more recently. The main character can collect limited-use weapons, like swords that break after hitting enemies 15 times. This mechanic should sound familiar to Zelda: Breath of the Wild players.
I've also sunk some time into Phantasy Star II, part of Sega's most prominent RPG series. Phantasy Star can be hyped as Sega's answer to Final Fantasy, but that description may be just for lack of any other better options. IV is supposed to be great, but II is merely passable. It's a fine run of the mill turn-based RPG, but it would have been completely forgotten had it been in direct competition with SNES heavyweights like Chrono Trigger, or even Breath of Fire.
There are also 3 Shining Force games, which are supposed to have some deep strategic combat like Final Fantasy Tactics or Ogre Battle. We'll see whether I enjoy that, cause I'm hit and miss with that style of game. Another somewhat unique game is Fatal Labyrinth, a sort of roguelike with very simple combat and randomized dungeons. It runs on the same design as Dragon Crystal for Game Gear, a game I remember liking quite a bit.
What's Left and What's Missing
There are some arcade-style games, like Flicky, which is a fine pick-up-and-play reflex-tester. You've also got some puzzle games. Columns, a Tetris rival, is plenty of fun, as are Columns III and Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine that offer further variations on the block-stacking puzzle genre. Sonic Spinball, of course, is a super-fun hybrid of platforming and pinball.
The biggest frustration of the collection is the absence of the Echo the Dolphin games! I never played any of them, and they seemed like they'd be terrible. At the time, I remember seeing ads for them and thinking that it was nuts to develop a game of entirely water-immersed gameplay. All oldschool gamers know that swimming levels are the worst. Apparently, these games beat the odds and were quite good. I wish I had the opportunity to find out.
It would also have been nice to get some of the major 3rd party releases like Konami's Castlevania: Bloodlines, Midway's NBA Jam, and Capcom's Strider.
Browsing the games list for the Sega Genesis Collection, I saw a very unique title: ToeJam and Earl. This game brings back a very strong memory. I used to watch a Canadian show on YTV called Video and Arcade Top Ten. Among other things, they did video game reviews.
I remember clearly watching them (or maybe a similar show) review ToeJam and Earl and thinking that I had to play this game. The episode included a pretty significant error. They said the game was for SNES, not Genesis. I went in to my local rental store for weeks after that hoping to finally find the SNES version. They only ever had the Genesis one. It took a while, but I accepted that the show must have made a mistake and that I would probably never ever get to play ToeJam and Earl.
Well here we are. It took like 25 years, but I finally have another chance.
I played a few minutes of it as soon as I loaded the collection for the first time. It has some unique gameplay and I didn't know what was going on. I decided I'd come back to it once I was willing to commit more time.
To be continued...
As for the rest of the collection, at $30, it would be worth it for the RPGs alone.