There are only so many ways we can make a best-of list for a fixed event. The Sega Genesis / Mega Drive only lasted X years, and only sported Y games worth talking about. Y, it can be argued, tends to hover suspiciously close to the length of such lists, making the order ragged and repetitive. With a handicap of exclusives-only (or, at the very least, platform-dominance), this should be even more difficult.
Without breaking believability or succumbing to hipster philosophizing, we’ve lovingly crafted a list of the 25 best 16-bit Sega games to sweep players off their feet, with a preference to both hopeful originality and exclusivity. Let’s see how we did.
25. Gain Ground
Developed by Sega (1988 / 1991)
Gain Ground is the first of many oddities on this list. It’s Gauntlet, if Gauntlet‘s levels were designed as a single screen; if Gauntlet‘s levels were meant to be puzzles. Guiding one character a time, up to two players were required to purge the single screen of all enemies, or sneak the members of their team to the EXIT one by one. Thus, in the modern style of From Software’s Souls series (albeit at a drastically reduced scale), enemies become puzzles: Their attack patterns require memorization and careful planning, particularly as the difficulty ramps up. Though innovative on release, Sega’s early arcade puzzler is one of the entries most hampered by age and limited design. Gain Ground is best played with a friend, particularly one you feel no qualms about betraying.
24. ToeJam & Earl
Developed by Johnson Voorsanger Productions (1991)
Look, ToeJam & Earl has not aged well without the nostalgia goggles — it hadn’t particularly aged well by 1995 — but good gosh, it deserves credit for originality, style, and its self-aware coolness. Up to two players take on the roles of two hip-hoppin’ aliens — Fu-Schnickens hip hop, not Wu-Tang Clan — need to collect all the lost pieces of their crashed ship scattered across a randomly-generated Earth, all while dodging the horrors of 1991’s pop culture. Roguelikes and random generation are staples of the indie gaming scene today, but were unheard of on consoles when Johnson and Voorsanger brought ToeJam & Earl to the Genesis / Mega Drive 20 years earlier in ’91. Two players are required to make this a fun journey.
Adult Swim is producing a sequel for this next year, combining the gameplay of roguelike and platformer ToeJam & Earl games.
23. Sega Technical Institute’s OPs
Developed by Sega Technical Institute (1992, 1995, & 1995)
Comix Zone gets all the credit, but, really, most of the games coming from Sega Technical Institute deserve some credit. This includes their co-creations, like Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude! (1992), an underappreciated and forgotten platformer. Kid Chameleon was an early staple of the system, a competitor of Super Mario World — it did a lot of things pretty decently, but wasn’t much more beyond an OK clone that ran on for far too long. (I remember it more for being the system demo in most retailers.)
Comix Zone is a classic brawler mimicking the style of ’90s superhero comics — a down-on-his-luck comic artist is pulled into his own comic creation by the very villain he was writing about. It’s incredibly fun, silly, and perhaps a bit too hard. It’s also one of Sega’s most famous classics, emitting a style that still hasn’t been captured to this day by bringing comic books to life.
The Ooze, on the other hard, is a bizarro twist on Captain Planet‘s kid-friendly environmentalism. A scientist working for an evil, polluting corporation catches on to his bosses’ evil schemes to pollute the world and profit from it. They kill him via pollution — only instead of death, he’s transformed into living ooze: A monster of green slime who comes back to bite his overlords on their greedy, evil butts by spitting and flicking poisonous goop. Like Comix Zone, it’s also incredibly difficult.
Developed by Wonder Amusement Studio (1992)
Twinkle Tale is the Genesis / Mega Drive’s response to Pocky & Rocky. A clever, cute run ‘n’ gun with a sense of RPG mechanics and advancement coupled with bullet-hell moments. You play as an anime witch perpetually filling the screen with one of three elemental projectiles, dodging dangerous environments, screen-flooding enemies, and monstrously massive bosses. It was never released outside of Japan and has no fanbase to speak of. Twinkle Tale is an obscure, lost classic deserving of more fans.
Developed by Sonic Team (1995)
Ristar‘s precise gameplay came too late to stand for Sega. It’s unfortunate, as Sonic Team’s late-era title accomplished all the things Sonic’s games tried and failed to do by simply slowing down and saying it’s OK to be slow. It’s OK to rely on grabby hands instead of incessant speed, which led to a more interactive environments and enemies. Ristar was Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994) by way of Dynamite Headdy (1994) — just more polished and fun than either (sorry, Treasure).
Developed by Game Freak (1994)
Before becoming a vehicle for Pokémon, Game Freak released quite a few solid platformers like Smart Ball (1992) and Pulseman. Pulseman is unusual in seeming to make appeals to both adult and younger audiences, with its story dealing with complex cyberpunk themes (cyberterrorism, questions of humanity and AIs) amid an artstyle reminiscent of Sonic 3 (1994) and Mega Man: The Wily Wars (1994). The gameplay itself was both a slowed-down platformer while inviting the speed of the Sonic franchise (along with the same issues that speed brought). Still, Pulseman was an inviting and challenging platformer, deserving of a (re-)visit.
19. Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
Developed by Sega (1993)
Both the Revenge of Shinobi (1989) and Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi (1990) lacked the crisp gameplay of the Sega Master System original, instead favoring slow-paced, sluggish platforming and combat that seemed contradictory to the setting. Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master mostly remedied these issues, polishing slow moments to feel more like Sega’s classic brawlers and puzzlers, while adding more fast-paced levels that seemed to play off of beautiful setpieces while rightfully sacrificing difficulty.
18. Rocket Knight Adventures
Developed by Konami (1993)
Sparkster’s Konami adventures were something between Contra and Gunstar Heroes; the design ethos (and designer) of the former, and the colorful style of the latter. Like much of Konami’s 16-bit run — before they became synonymous with gang activity, abusing employees, and driving Kojima into independence — Rocket Knight Adventures represented the best of the era’s platforming. Slick visuals, even slicker gameplay (including shmup sections), and likable heroes and villains — Rocket Knight Adventures is a game worth remembering. The game earned two good sequels, each exclusive to the Genesis / Mega Drive and SNES, and each titled Sparkster (1994), as well as a mediocre 2010 reboot — outsourced, in typical Konami fashion by this time — titled Rocket Knight.
17. Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole
Developed by Climax Entertainment (1992)
Landstalker was the closest the Genesis / Mega Drive got to a comparable achievement to the Legend of Zelda — just isometric., and with a focus on simple puzzles we’d later see with Square’s Super Mario RPG (1996). Landstalker is a sprawling adventure: The dungeons, the action, the plot, the silly subtitle — all sprawling for the period.
16. Sega’s Disney Trilogy
Developed by Sega (1990, 1991, & 1992)
Castle of Illusion is remembered for its imaginative level design, and a recent 2.5D remake; World of Illusion is remembered for it’s co-operative gameplay (while the rest of the game suffers in comparison). QuackShot, nestled between the two Mickey Mouse titans, takes the best of both’s level design to create an easy and imaginative platformer.
All of Sega’s Disney-themed platformers are worth checking out, but QuackShot is the best of them, offering a globetrotting adventure to far-away worlds and far-away treasures, where the only means of defense is, oddly, an upgradable plunger. There were also two spin-offs for the Sega Master System and Game Gear — the Lucky Dime Caper (1991) and Deep Duck Trouble (1993). (I never played the latter, but the former was a childhood favorite, and provides a similarly-excellent experience.)
Developed by BlueSky Software (1994)
Before Harebrained Schemes revived the pen ‘n’ paper franchise for PC, there existed two 16-bit console RPGs for the SNES (1993) and Genesis / Mega Drive (1994). While Beam Software made the SNES RPG, still lingering as a classic in the memories of fans, BlueSky’s Genesis counterpart has unfairly faded into memory a bit. It’s faulty — the story is barely there compared to Beam Software’s game, but the dialogue well-written (despite the main character being an empty mass of muscle); grinding becomes necessary, and side missions frequently come down to randomization; the real-time combat occasionally induces headaches — but its faults also make it much closer to the original RPG’s style.
Someday I’ll beat it.
14. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
Developed by Capcom (1988 / 1989)
The SNES Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (1991) may be the prettiest and most challenging between the 16-bit Capcom classics, but the Genesis / Mega Drive version, with its cartoon-like monsters and more moderate challenge, is the most fun and replayable in the series. The prototypical video-game plot, knight Arthur once again travels across a grotesquely-detailed medieval world of butchered Christian mythology in his underwear, ultimately coming against Lucifer himself in order to save his princess.
(It’s also the hardest game to call an exclusive here with its many iterations across many obscure platforms, but it’s still platform-dominant with the Genesis.)
Developed by BlueSky Software (1991), based on the PC game by Binary Systems (1986)
A console port of a complex PC game that surprisingly retained the original’s complexity while adding to it, Starflight is one of the earliest champions of emergent gameplay. Scratch linearity, Starflight dumps the player into a galaxy to explore; with random generation and random events, the player’s in charge of their own ship and crew and the individual stories that drive them. Modern-day classics like Mass Effect owe a lot to the pioneering design and sense of choice in Starflight.
Starflight is a masterpiece. I, unfortunately, haven’t played the Genesis version, but I often hear it’s surprisingly comparable or even superior to the PC classic. If true, this could easily be at the top of this list.
12. Contra: Hard Corps
Developed by Konami (1994)
Any Contra game is a classic run ‘n’ gun mess of chaos and platforming and giant robots and blazing fires and mountains of bullets. Contra: Hard Corps is the best of them, and one of Konami’s crowning achievements during their 16-bit run, when they were one of the most consistently high-quality developers in the console market. The game features the series’ best bosses, co-op play, and even branching storylines with multiple endings to add to its replayability. What happened to you, Konami?
11. Monster World IV
Developed by Westone (1994)
The Wonder Boy / Monster World series was once one of Sega’s best-sellers, before the sassy hedgehog overtook the company’s advertising. Monster World IV is the final entry in the series, and was never translated or released outside of Japan until 2012. It’s also the most polished of them, though some of the Metroidvania aspects that had been building up in the previous games were cut back in favor of linearity. It’s a beautiful game with a lot of style, and has been unfortunately on the way towards being forgotten.
10. Shining Force II: The Ancient Seal
Developed by Sonic! Software Planning (1993)
Often regarded as one of the greatest RPGs of the 16-bit era, Shining Force II was an improvement on the already-wonderful first’s tactical RPG mechanics. The game added a new open world to explore without any narrative limitations, new character classes for combat, and a slew of secrets to uncover in a massive quest extending over 30 hours. Few JRPGs could offer as much freedom and content as Shining Force II did. It was also one of the rare cases where the Genesis / Mega Drive genre library was without question superior to Nintendo’s offering (e.g., Breath of Fire).
09. Gunstar Heroes
Developed by Treasure (1993)
Gunstar Heroes one of the first retro games to get a resurgence of popularity in modern day thanks to getting official emulation via Nintendo’s virtual console. Like Sonic, Gunstar Heroes is synonymous with the Genesis / Mega Drive platform, offering one of the most iconic run ‘n’ gun co-operative platformers of its era. Treasure set themselves apart early with a unique and colorful artstyle, slight forays into pseudo-3D graphics, and nonstop action. With their games — and especially with two players — the screen would often be taken up with nothing but bullets of all colors as players danced around each other taking on an onslaught of expendable enemies and big bosses.
08. BlueSky Software’s Platformers
Developed by BlueSky Software (1993 – 1996)
BlueSky Software were an underdog for Sega’s 16-bit system. They developed many of the cult classic games we remember the system for, but their absolute best work has to come from their platformers — all of which carry a similar design ethic and playstyle, despite often drastic differences in tone. Vectorman (1995) and Vectorman 2 (1996) are often the most remembered by system fans, both of which oozed coolness on release due to the pseudo-3D graphics, gritty art style, and hectic gameplay.
The Ren & Stimpy Show Presents Stimpy’s Invention (1993) is a forgotten classic, and one of the best and most beautiful games to come from Nickelodeon’s properties — it was also far better than any of the Nickelodeon and Ren & Stimpy games on the SNES.
The confusingly-titled Jurassic Park (1993) and its sequel, Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition (1994), were also shockingly good tie-in video games that beat out the SNES counterparts with ease. The overhead gameplay was nowhere in sight, and players instead got to play two different campaigns, either as Alan Grant or a velociraptor. The velociraptor campaigns were why these games were such coveted experiences in the ’90s — everyone wanted to play as those brilliant and deadly critters after the ’93 movie.
BlueSky Software also developed one of the very few worthwhile games for the Sega 32X in 1996 — Spider-Man: Web of Fire.
07. Alien Soldier
Developed by Treasure (1995)
Alien Soldier was the swansong for Sega’s 16-bit console, released at the end of its life from one of its most treasured developers — and to only a fraction of its market until a virtual console release in 2007. Alien Soldier took the hectic gameplay and art style of Gunstar Heroes and cranked up all its best parts, only losing the co-operative play in turn. Treasure’s 2D masterpiece is almost exclusively dedicated to bosses, featuring a whopping 31 bosses over tiny levels only serving to give the incoming bosses a handicap.
06. Beyond Oasis
Developed by Ancient (1994)
Barring Crusader of Centy (1994), and perhaps even Landstalker (1992), Ancient’s Beyond Oasis was the closest Sega fans got to capturing the magic of Nintendo’s Zelda series. The result is a beautiful experience themed after Arabian mythology — likely why the game isn’t remembered nearly as well — where the players explore a large island, gathering control over four elemental spirits in order to stop a corrupt wizard from similarly harnessing the power of spirits.
05. [insert shmup here]
Developed by Compile, Masaya, Renovation Products, Sega, Sunsoft, Technosoft, Telenet Japan, Vic Tokai, Wolf Team, Zyrinx et al.
Depending on your affiliation with the shmup genre, such a top 25 list could either include none, or be made up of almost nothing but. Between 1989 and 1992, the amount of high-quality shmups being released on Sega’s console neared a literal plethora, and they were all classics of the genre, with a few perhaps standing above the rest. If there really was a single best among them, it was one we could determine by covers alone.
Gaiares, released by Telenet Japan in 1990, is the reigning champ of Sega shmups. Arrow Flash, Battle Mania, Bio-Hazard Battle, Elemental Master, Fire Shark, Gley Lancer, Wings of Wor, Lightening Force (sic), M.U.S.H.A., Sagaia, the Steel Empire, Sub-Terrania, Super Fantasy Zone, Thunder Force II & III, Truxton, Whip Rush — the list goes on.
04. Castlevania: Bloodlines
Developed by Konami (1994)
It’s bound to be a fight between Castlevania and Contra. I’m a Castlevania fan, through and through, and the classic linear format of the 8- and 16-bit Castlevanias is the reigning champ for my tastes. Simple, dark, and twisted, Bloodlines was the last of an era before ‘Metroidvania’ existed in anyone’s mind, and diminishing returns became the norm under a drastically-degrading studio like Konami. While admittedly a step down in from the SNES’ Super Castlevania IV (1991), Bloodlines, coming a whole three years later, felt closer to the original NES trilogy in comparison — just with the gorgeous and creative visuals of a later generation.
03. Streets of Rage Trilogy
Developed by Sega (1991, 1992, & 1994)
Streets of Rage 2 was and still is the pinnacle of the beat-’em-up genre, coming, in my mind, before the genre was diluted under button-mashing, boredom, and the grossest corners of masculinity (e.g., God of War). Sega’s original trilogy, however, deserves credit for its whole. The whole series features some of the best music on the console, coming primarily from mastermind Yuzo Koshiro in an attempt to capture the style of the ’90s club scene. (The second’s, especially, is worth tracking down and listening to on its own.) The third featured more complex, 6-button combat that, to some, was a step down rather than an improvement, though, for me, the changes made it a personal favorite. One thing is certain, this trilogy has still not been matched by any other series or individual game in the beat-’em-up genre.
02. Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium
Developed by Sega (1993)
While the original Phantasy Star (1987) for the Sega Master System is something of a quirky, lost classic, both II (1989) and III: Generations of Doom (1990) for the Genesis / Mega Drive failed to match the quality of Nintendo’s JRPGs. Either through absurd difficulty (II) or unfinished, rushed gameplay (III), neither lived up to the genre or the original sci-fi settings like this final outing did. Unfortunately, IV: The End of the Millennium also came too late outside of Japan, sported a typically-crummy translation, and was seen as dated and uninteresting compared to other genre offerings on release. It’s reputation has since flipped, and it’s included among the best of the generation’s JRPGs.
01. Ranger X
Developed by GAU Entertainment (1993)
Ranger X, not Sonic the Hedgehog 2, is the best Genesis / Mega Drive game of all time. GAU Entertainment — otherwise known as Nextech, creators of Crusader of Centy (1994) — created the perfect hybrid of action genres. Part run-‘n’-gun platformer a la Contra: Hard Corps (1994), and a masterful shmup a la M.U.S.H.A. (1990), Ranger X used all six buttons on the Genesis controller to direct both the flying mech of the title, and its motored counterpart on the ground. As the player becomes more comfortable with the complex controls, simultaneously controlling two different mechs to perform vastly different functions and attack different units in different ways made for one of the most thrilling and satisfying feelings of the era.
Ranger X is a masterpiece, and you need to play it.
Are there games we missed? Of course, there always will be. Evaluations are always rife with biases, faults, and missed experiences. Games like Disney’s Aladdin (1993), Crusader of Centy (1994), Herzog Zwei (1989), and Mega Man: The Wily Wars (1994) barely missed the cut with all their good-but-not-great qualities.
Centy played the Zelda formula too safe, however great it was; the Sonic the Hedgehog series was always style over substance, even going out of the way to punish players for using the games’ central mechanic — speed; Herzog Zwei, a masterpiece of its time, is dated by massive advancements in the RTS genre; General Chaos (1994) is great only for its local multiplayer, and is otherwise also eclipsed by modern offerings; et cetera; et cetera.
There’s only so much that can be covered in a list of 25, and we’ve cheated enough as it is.
Did your favorite Sega title make the list? Did Sonic deserve a place on the list, or should he be left with the undercooked chili dogs where he belongs? Is your favorite Sega game Ranger X, or are you one of the unlucky gamers yet to play Ranger X? Let us know in the comments.