COME with us now on a journey through time and space, to the magical world of the 1990s.
It was a time of parachute pants, of Hypercolour T-shirts, the end of the Cold War, the release of iconic movies such as Jurassic Park and ahead-of-their-time shows like Parker Lewis Can’t Lose – and a seminal time in gaming.
Computers were starting to become affordable to the average person, the internet existed if you knew were to look for it (libraries and universities in particular), and one of the most iconic games consoles of all time made its debut: The Sega Mega Drive.
A 16 bit console, the Mega Drive (known as the Genesis in America) had a 256×240 display resolution capable of showing 61 colours on screen drawn from a 512 colour palette. At the time, it was a huge advance over other systems and throughout the 1990s a series of add-ons were developed for the console, including the Mega CD (allowing the unit to play games on CD-ROM, which had just become established) and the Mega Drive 32X, which was designed to fit into the cartridge slot to run 32-bit games but was not a commercial success, coming as it did shortly before the Nintendo 64, and the Sony PlayStation.
Something in the region of 700 games were released for the Mega Drive, and I reviewed a number of them in the 1990s when I got my start as a games and tech reviewer.
This is important for two reasons: Firstly, I have very clear memories of how Mega Drive games should play, and secondly, it gives me an excuse to put on that leather-elbowed tweed jacket again to bring you on a diverting ramble through time.
Back before the advent of digital TV broadcasting, there were three video standards in use for analogue TV displays. In North America and parts of Asia (including Japan and South Korea) they used a format known as NTSC – officially National Television Standards Committee, but jokingly called “Never Twice The Same Colour”, while most of the rest of the planet (including Australia) used the PAL system (Phase Alternating Line) or the SECAM (Sequential Colour With Memory), that latter of which was popular in France, its former African colonies, and the Soviet Union.
What has this got to do with a gaming console? Quite a bit. NTSC displayed images with 486 visible scan lines at 30 frames per second and a 60hz refresh, while PAL 576 scan lines and 25 frames per second with a 50hz refresh. What this means, in practical terms, is that games designed for NTSC consoles would not work on PAL consoles, and vice versa – NTSC games would run a lot slower and with less screen display used on a PAL system, among other issues.
It also means that when curating a library of games decades later, you have to make sure care is taken to optimise them for their intended market – so that the games will run properly on modern displays and systems. Sega have done exactly that, and every game in the Mega Drive Mini library looks and plays flawlessly (at least from a technical standpoint). The images are in 720p, and the upscaling is excellent, and the overall experience is very good indeed.
I played the Sega Mega Drive Mini on a 4K TV and it worked flawlessly – the colours were vibrant and clear, the images easy to see, everything moved smoothly, and overall it was the closest I’ve come to experiencing the magic of being 13 again.
Unlike today, when hooking up a console involves plugging an HDMI cable from the console in to your TV, back in the 1990s consoles connected to the TV via an RF cable – the same one as plugs into the antenna socket. You then had to turn the console on, the manually tune an unused channel. Fortunately, the Sega Mega Drive Mini uses the HDMI approach, so it’s very easy to set up.
There’s no AC adaptor in the box, but it uses the same one as pretty much any mobile phone so you’ve almost certainly got one at home somewhere anyway.
The Sega Mega Drive Mini is a miniature replica of the 1990 version of the PAL Mega Drive, rather than the later Mega Drive 2 (which had a six-button controller) and the attention to detail on the miniature unit is great – the headphone volume control slides up and down (but doesn’t affect the volume, since the TV handles that) and the cartridge slot flaps open and close too – although again, the effect is purely decorative since you can’t fit a cartridge in there.
What impressed me is that of the 42 games included on-board with it, quite a few of them are big titles I actually remember playing when they came out – including things like Road Rash II, ToeJam & Earl, Earthworm Jim, Streetfighter II and the various Sonic The Hedgehog games – as well as several other heavy hitters of the era including Ecco The Dolphin, Streets of Rage II, and Castlevania: The New Generation.
Obviously not every game is going to be a rolled gold winner, but Sega have done a good job curating a cross-section of titles so it feels like there’s something here for everyone.
While I wish the unit came with the six-button controllers of the Mega Drive 2, the included controllers are solid and felt like the originals – a hard thing to quantify, but the buttons were responsive and it fit nicely in my hands.
One thing that might throw newer gamers off: Standardised controls weren’t really a thing back in the 90s so pretty much the only way to work out what each button does for a given game is to try it – in some of them, “A” is attack and “B” is jump, while in others it’s the other way around, while in others the “C” button might be a special attack or it might open the inventory. Games used to come with instruction books back then which explained all these things (and often had lots of story details etc in them), but unless you feel like doing to internet searching, trial and error will work just as well for the most part.
While I had a great time with the Sega Mega Drive Mini from a nostalgic standpoint, my primary-school aged son and daughter absolutely loved it from a pure gaming standpoint. The system comes with two controllers so they could both play, and they had a lot of fun with the two-player split-screen games. The simple controls (a D-pad and three buttons) appealed to them, and the games – by today’s standards – are all family-friendly so I didn’t have to worry about them dealing with anything inappropriate or unsuitable; none of the games have more than an M rating.
At this stage I’m told there are no plans to expand the range of games available in the Mega Drive Mini, which is a bit of a shame – I’d love to be able to play Jungle Strike, NBA Jam: Tournament Edition and Skitchin’ again.
The Mega Drive Mini comes highly recommended from me – it is, as we used to say in the 1990s, a wicked piece of gear that is radical in extreme. Or something like that, it’s been a while.
If you are looking for a nostalgia hit, or want to get an understanding of what gaming was like in the early-mid 1990s, you really can’t go past the Sega Mega Drive Mini. It’s got a great selection of games, it looks good, plays well, and doesn’t take up a lot of space. In short, you’re going to want to get one.