Sega Mega Drive Mini Preview: The arcade at home

In the last few years, I’ve watched on as friends with happy, Super Nintendo-infused childhoods got to grips with the SNES Mini. The SNES Mini is a recreation of Nintendo’s legendary machine that is as elegant as it is functional — a curatorial showcase of its greatest titles, controllers that were made of the same materials as the originals.

It was great — for my friends. As I wrote in a piece last year, I was a Mega Drive kid (or a Genesis kid, if you lived in the US). I saw the great Sega vs. Nintendo war of ’93 first hand. I held my arcade classics close and watched, green with envy, as my friends told stories of incredible visuals and era-defining games they claimed the Mega Drive couldn’t hold a candle to. Watching them get to spend time with a lovingly crafted device that captured and crystalised their early gaming memories was quite powerful. But I was still only watching them relieve their memories, for a I had no real connection to the SNES until later in my life.

As it did back in its heyday, the Mega Drive Mini makes a strong case for itself as a competitor in the space. Packed with must-have games, the Mega Drive Mini appears, in many respects, to be the micro console answer long-suffering Sega kids like me have been waiting for. It’s not without a few odd omissions, but if it did everything the SNES Mini could do, could you even call it a Mega Drive?

The unit self reflects the boxy, muscular look of the original Mega Drive, along with the same face buttons for power on/off and reset. It has the same volume slider as the original model, which originally connected to a  3.5mm headphone jack (the outline of which still exists on the unit’s plastic shell but doesn’t actually work). Two USB ports adorn the front so that you can plug in your full size Mega Drive controllers and jump right into two player. On the rear is a micro USB power port and an HDMI jack, allowing the unit to output its visuals in 1080p. Finally, the spring-loaded doors that form the dust protector on the top, the spot where a cartridges were inserted, actually open and close if you push on them. I thought they might be moulded shut and would have understood if they were, but I appreciate Sega going to the trouble. The two included controllers are also moulded in the shape of the classic, full size, three-button controller rather than the smaller, six-button version that was later packaged with the Mega Drive II.

The Mega Drive Mini offers a total of 40 existing titles, ranging from obvious picks like Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter II and Streets of Rage, but also includes some hidden gems and community favourites like Comix Zone, Castlevania: The New Generation (Bloodlines in the US), Mega Man: The Wily Wars and Phantasy Star IV. There’s a lot to like in this libarary. The SNES Mini museum curator’s approach to game selection is employed here, by which I mean it isn’t so much about what you think should be on there, it’s about giving you a snapshot of the kind of things you could get on the system in its prime. Taking another cue from the SNES Mini, which launched with the never-released Star Fox 2, the Mega Drive Mini comes with a further two previously unreleased titles — Darius and Tetris.

Yes, Tetris. The Mega Drive version of Tetris is a real get for the system — its a stripped back, barebones version of the puzzler you love. No Next Block preview, no drop shadow. You’re on your own. Despite production of Tetris cartidges being well underway, Sega scrapped the entire project ahead of its April 15, 1989 release date, after hearing Nintendo had closed an exclusivity deal on the property. They ordered any existing Tetris cartidges destroyed and fast tracked development on what became its own best-selling falling block title, Columns (also included in this package). The amount of Tetris carts to survive Sega’s purge is still unknown. To date, only ten original cartridges have surfaced. All of them were snapped up by collectors, are prized among industry historians, and regularly fetch as much USD $20,000 per unit whenever they reappear on the market. I would be interested to know if those same collectors feel its inclusion here devalues their very expensive cart.

Thank you for indulging this short history lesson. I find moves like this utterly fascinating. Given the games industry’s woeful record for preserving its own history, it’s great to see first- and third-party companies working to usher forgotten titles like these into the spotlight.

While the broader array of games on the system is certainly impressive, its also not without its missing pieces. There’s no Sonic 3, arguably the best title in the series before Sonic Mania came along. There’s no Mega Turrican. There’s no Aladdin. Will ROMs be as easy to add to the system as they were on the NES and SNES Mini? We can only hope.

The good news is that the emulation seems very strong. Every game I jumped into played smoothly and without slowdown. The controls were sharp and responsive across the board. The controller feels good in the hand and has the same matte plastic look and feel of the originals. These were issues that hurt the SNES and NES Mini at times and I’m glad to see Sega find a workaround. Additionally, Sega have included a nice UI that changes the layout, branding and region-specific box art depending on which language you choose. It’s a small thing, a touch most users will never see, but I appreciate them going to the trouble.

There were, however, a handful of other oversights I noticed. While it offers built-in save states, which is basic but a blessing, it’s a little lighter on broader usability. It doesn’t seem to have any of the CRT filters so popular in other retro consoles, meaning those who prefer their pixel art with that soft-edged CRT blur may be disappointed. As grievances go, things could be a lot worse — unnofficial knock offs like the Sega Mega Drive Classic Game Console AND the Sega Mega Drive Flashback Classic, plagued by terrible emulation, garish UI, cheap hardware and fragile controllers, are what the worst case scenario actually looks like.

The Mega Drive Mini feels like a really strong entry in the retro console space. It seems to be taking a lot of pages from the Nintendo playbook, but that’s the level of care you hope for when it comes to these machines. It feels well-made, and it’s packed with great games that showcase the arcade-at-home vibe the system always strove for. I’ll be happy to have back in the living room, old friend.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Mega Drive Mini featured no ability to return to the console menu without physically resetting the console. We included this as we were unable to find an obvious Turns out, you can! Which is great! We’ve amended the piece to reflect this.

David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.