Sega Genesis Mini review (for non-nostalgic newcomers)
If you were a console gamer in the early 90s, you probably picked your side – you were either Sega or Nintendo. Now the console wars are playing out again, in miniature. Two years after Nintendo released a shrunken, plug-and-play version of its SNES, Sega has finally followed suit with the Genesis Mini (or Mega Drive Mini, depending on where you hail from). New Atlas went hands-on with the device ahead of its launch.
I should confess this upfront: I was a Nintendo kid growing up. To me, Sega consoles have always just been those weird “other” machines that my friends had. I’d play some Sonic or Alex Kidd at their houses after school, but I never really sunk any serious time into them.
That means the Sega Genesis Mini isn’t exactly for me, in a sense. But Sega makes a point of saying that the Genesis Mini is a perfect entry point for newcomers, so that’s the angle I’m looking at it from. The internet is already bursting with glowing rose-tinted reviews – instead, this is for those who might be wondering what it’s like to tour the trenches of the other side of the console war for the first time.
In the box
The Sega Genesis Mini nails all the necessary features we’ve come to expect from retro mini-consoles. It’s essentially a big thumb drive preloaded with 42 retro games, wrapped in a plastic shell that looks like the original console – just a bit over half the size.
And the Genesis Mini does pretty much exactly what it promises. It takes cues from Nintendo and other manufacturers on how to do this, avoiding some of their pitfalls but stumbling into new ones.
The two bundled-in controllers are modeled on the original design, and while they felt unfamiliar to me, I have to admit that they’re comfier in the hand than the janky SNES controllers. Point one to Sega. Even better, they’re on fairly long cables so you can sit a decent distance away from the TV – a problem other mini-consoles face. Point two to Sega.
The usual modern concessions are accounted for too. The machine connects to today’s TVs via HDMI, and it’s powered by micro-USB – although, bizarrely, the Australian and European versions of the console don’t include the USB power adapter itself. These aren’t hard to come by, but why it’s not just thrown in the box is a puzzle. After all, the US version does exactly that.
And then there’s the games.
For starters, the library is far more generous than you get on other retro remakes. The Genesis Mini packs 42 games – exactly twice as many as there are on the SNES Mini. We doubt this is a coincidence.
Sega may not have had as many household names as Nintendo, but the lineup here is impressive. Sonic the Hedgehog is obviously well represented, with the first two original platformers plus two weird spinoffs – Sonic Spinball and Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine.
There’s a strong showing of Sega icons like Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, Streets of Rage 2, ToeJam & Earl, Ecco the Dolphin, Road Rash II, Wonder Boy in Monster World, Altered Beast and two Mickey Mouse games.
That’s rounded out by entries in favorite franchises like Street Fighter, Castlevania, Mega Man, Ghouls ’n Ghosts and Earthworm Jim.
But the icing on the cake is the two bonus games. Darius is a newly made port of an arcade game that was never actually available on the original Genesis. The Sega version of Tetris was briefly available, but plagued with licensing issues that forced it off the shelves. It’s rumored that as few as 10 cartridges were ever produced, with one surfacing on eBay a few years ago for the princely sum of a million bucks. So by our calculations, that makes this mini console a steal.
All of these games are arranged in a nice new menu, and can be browsed in alphabetical order or by genre, release date or number of players. It’s topped off with a really catchy new tune, apparently composed by Yuzo Koshiro of Streets of Rage fame, using the exact sound chip found in the original console. That’s some true dedication to authenticity.
Do the games hold up?
The inevitable question for these devices is “do the classic games hold up today?” And that’s kind of hard to answer as someone with no nostalgia for the Sega Genesis. I’ve played bits of some of these games over the decades, either on Sega consoles or others, but never sunk very much time into them.
Now having done so over a few weeks with the Genesis Mini, I have to admit, as a newcomer – most of them don’t. Games have advanced at a mind-boggling pace over 25 years, and these retro relics feel extremely esoteric nowadays.
Invariably the games are difficult, even in early levels, and they’re unforgiving – limited lives and no saving in most means you’ll be replaying the same stuff a lot. This was part of the fun at the time, of course, grinding against the game over and over, slowly improving, getting a little further each time. I loved it as a kid, but as an adult with limited time for games, it just feels frustrating.
Obviously though, that’s not the fault of Sega, or the Genesis Mini – it’s a product of the time, and I had the same feeling playing the SNES Mini. If you’ve got the nostalgia for it, I’m sure you’ll have a blast checking how much of that muscle memory is still there, but for modern noobs like me, we might have missed the boat.
But difficulty alone isn’t the main issue. There’s rarely any kind of tutorial to give you even the basics of controls or abilities in each game. Thankfully, PDFs of the original game manuals are posted on the Genesis Mini website – but I didn’t realize this until a few morale-busting hours into the experience.
In a pre-emptive response to the gripes of spoiled modern gamers like me, the Genesis Mini has a new save system laid over everything. Each game has four slots that can be saved to and reloaded from at any time, which really helps ease the pain of bashing your head against some of those boss battles. They’re entirely optional too, so masochistic purists can ignore them and beat games the “right” way if they want.
That said, it’s not the smoothest of processes. You have to hold down the Start button for a few seconds, or get up and press reset on the console itself, then rummage through the menu to save or load. It feels like that could have been streamlined somewhat, maybe by adding an extra home button to the controller itself. But of course, that might sacrifice some of the authenticity.
Overall, the Sega Genesis Mini (or Mega Drive Mini) is one of the better additions to the retro mini-console lineup. It packs a generous library of games and all the features you’d expect. While it’s a no-brainer for gamers with fond memories of the original, it’s harder to recommend for newcomers.
The Sega Genesis Mini is available from today in the US and Australia for US$79.99 (AU$139.99). European fans will have to wait until October 4.
Product page: Sega Genesis Mini