Sega's Mega Drive Mini Is A Retro Masterpiece

Image: SMH/Tim Biggs

With perfect retro looks, easy HD output and an incredible lineup of 42 built-in games, Sega's Mega Drive Mini is a loving tribute to the company's revered 16-bit machine, and an excellent way to experience the system if you don't want to get your hands dirty with emulators or expensive hardware.

While Nintendo popularised the plug-and-play retro microconsole with its NES Classic in 2016, and its SNES Classic the year after, tiny Mega Drive machines have actually abounded for quite a bit longer. The only problem was they all sucked. Usually made by AtGames, which paid Sega for the licenses, they were underpowered, slow-running machines which mangled the games' soundtracks and usually came with awful controllers.

The Mega Drive Mini, which launches today for $140, has none of those problems. With meticulous miniature hardware created by Sega and the games themselves adapted by industry legends M2, this is the nerdiest and most thoughtful microconsole yet. Even the menu music is a brand new jam by famed composer Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage, Revenge of Shinobi), inspired by some of the system's greatest musical hits.

What Games Does The Sega Mega Drive Mini Come With? (Full list)

  • Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle
  • Alisia Dragoon
  • Altered Beast
  • Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse
  • Castlevania: The New Generation
  • Columns
  • Comix Zone
  • Darius
  • Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine
  • Dynamite Headdy
  • Earthworm Jim
  • Ecco the Dolphin
  • Eternal Champions
  • Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
  • Golden Axe
  • Gunstar Heroes
  • Kid Chameleon
  • Landstalker
  • Light Crusader
  • Mega Man: The Wily Wars
  • Monster World IV
  • Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium
  • Probotector
  • Road Rash II
  • Shining Force
  • Shinobi III
  • Sonic the Hedgehog
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 2
  • Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball
  • Space Harrier 2
  • Street Fighter II’: Special Champion Edition
  • Streets of Rage 2
  • Strider
  • Super Fantasy Zone
  • Tetris
  • The Story of Thor
  • Thunder Force III
  • ToeJam & Earl
  • Vectorman
  • Virtua Fighter 2
  • Wonder Boy in Monster World
  • World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck

The adorable plastic box has all the details of the first generation Mega Drive released in Europe and Australia in 1990, including working power switch and reset button, a red LED and tiny text bragging of "high definition graphics". You can even open the cartridge port flaps, slide the headphone volume control and remove the expansion slot cover, though none of this does anything.

The controller is a little less impressive, but it gets the job done. A good reproduction of the original 1990 three-button pad (not the more popular six-button version), it looks the part but the d-pad feels a bit rigid to my hands. There are two included in the box, and the cord length is decent, but those looking to play Street Fighter II will want to track down one of Retro-Bit's officially licensed 6-button USB controllers, which Sega says is compatible.

As is common with micro systems you get HDMI and microUSB cables in the box, but you need to find a USB port (say on your TV or from a phone charger) to power it.

The system comes with two full-sized replicas of the original three-button controller (Image: SMH/Tim Biggs)

As soon as you switch the machine on you'll see the care that's been put into this compilation. Catchy tune aside, region-accurate replicas of the games' full covers are arranged in a grid and can be sorted as you like, and you can even choose to display them spine-out so they all fit on the screen at once.

Retro nerds in Australia and Europe (the so-called "PAL" regions) will be well aware that our old games don't tend to hold up as well as the American and Japanese variants, with ugly borders and lower frame rates owing to regional differences in how TVs used to work.

Thankfully M2 has done a fantastic job optimising the originals here, addressing the most obvious downsides by dropping coloured borders, correcting frame rate and speeding up music where necessary. While Nintendo took the nuclear option of binning the PAL releases of old games and including US versions on its microconsoles, Sega's strategy shows it really cares about maintaining players' childhood memories.

And speaking of regions, perhaps the coolest feature of the Mega Drive Mini is that changing the language in the settings lets you play the games as they appeared in other countries. Changing to Japanese for example lets you see the different (generally much nicer) artwork on the cases, and experience the games without the censorship or added difficulty that came with a surprising number of the Western versions of these games.

Or you could switch to Chinese or Korea to see the weird mix of Japanese and American games released there (sadly there's no option to change to "US English" and get all the American versions). Just make sure you're familiar enough with the system to make it back to the language menu and switch it back to English before you do this.

In the Japanese version of Sonic 2, Sonic's friend Tails is called Miles. Doesn't make a difference to the game but it's fun trivia. (Image: Supplied)

And then of course there's the games themselves, which are the primary reason to buy a microconsole like this. See the bottom of this article for a full list, but in short it's a list of 39 excellent games (plus Altered Beast and two bonus titles), the bulk of which come from Sega itself.

There are entries from most of the notable franchises, like the first two Sonic games, Streets of Rage II, Shinobi III and Golden Axe, and classics like The Story of Thor, Gunstar Heroes and the two Mickey Mouse Illusion games. But then there are also lesser-seen cult favourites like Alisia Dragoon, Strider and Kight Crusader. Of special note is Monster World IV, which includes the English translation that wasn't actually released until 2012.

From other publishers, Konami has contributed the brilliant Castlevania: Bloodlines (also known as The New Generation) and Probotector (or Contra: Hard Corps), while from EA you get Road Rash II, and Capcom's supplied Street Fighter II: Special Champion Edition and the incredibly rare Mega Man: The Wily Wars, which contains updated versions of the series' first three games.

The two bonus games are interesting from a historical point of view, even though you would never have played them on a Mega Drive back in the day: the Sega version of Tetris, of which there is said to only be 10 cartridge copies in existence, and a new Mega Drive conversion of the arcade game Darius.

Mega Man 1–3 originally appeared on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The Sega versions feature updated graphics and sound. (Image: Supplied)

Games are displayed in 720p resolution and your choice of original 4:3 or stretched widescreen. There are a couple of options for backgrounds, a very blurry CRT-style filter (I'd suggest leaving it off), and a menu you can open mid-game lets you return to the game select or save and load states so you can avoid those pesky game overs.

As with practically all emulator boxes there is some input lag here and an additional sound lag, meaning games might not feel as responsive as you remember them. But then this is a $140 plug-and-play box. To get better performance you'd need an original machine or a reference-quality clone like the Analogue Mega Sg, which would cost you a lot more considering you need to supply your own games.

The reason Nintendo's microconsoles took off was that they looked great on a shelf and gave instant access to good versions of amazing games without the need for any consoles or fiddling, and now there's finally a Sega device that does it all as well or better. Representing an excellent value at around $3.30 per game, the Mega Drive Mini is a fitting revival for an iconic '90s machine.

You can buy it on eBay and Amazon for $139.99 and $139, respectively. Click here and here.


This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.


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