Sega was always more loved than it was successful. At no point was the maker of the Genesis and Dreamcast the worldwide leader in video games. When it succeeded in America, it fell short in Japan, and vice versa. The Genesis Mini is an encapsulation of that moment when it came closest to victory—a reminder of what the Genesis was, but also what it could have been.

To be released on September 19, the $80 Sega Genesis Mini includes 42 classic games from the 16-bit system’s lifespan. That’s a hefty amount, exactly double that of Nintendo’s SNES Classic. It also includes two of the classic three-button Genesis controllers, an HDMI cable, and a USB cable with AC adapter—in other words, everything you need to play right out of the box.

The hardware is a thing of beauty, a perfect little recreation of the 1989 launch model Genesis. The Genesis Mini goes a step further than other classic mini-hardware with interactive elements. The volume control slides up and down, the spring-loaded dust-cover flaps covering the cartridge slot open and close, and you can even remove the cover for the port that would connect the real Genesis to a Sega CD.

Here’s one of those photos you always have to have in these reviews, with a picture of a Mini on top of the real thing.
Photo: Chris Kohler (Kotaku)

None of these things actually function, of course. You can’t play Genesis cartridges on this machine, nor is there a proportionally-sized Sega CD attachment that will let you play Sewer Shark (although surely we can all agree that we would immediately buy such a product). But they make the Genesis Mini itself into a fun little toy even before you turn it on.

The included controllers feel like exact replicas of the original, massive, croissant-shaped pads that shipped with the first model of the Genesis. This is where you may feel that Sega has made a misstep with the Mini, since it includes these 3-button pads and not the 6-button controllers that were produced later. In Japan, the 6-button pads are included; here, they are an extra $20 purchase. Most of the games only use three buttons anyway, but for the ones that offer 6-button support (most notably Street Fighter II Special Champion Edition), you’ll have to pay up.

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Even though the controllers use USB, you can’t just plug in any old USB controller and have it work on the Mini—you’ll need an officially licensed controller from Retro-Bit. Sega sent samples of the 6-button controllers, which were excellent. They were helpful even for games that don’t need six buttons, since you can press the “Mode” button to open the system menu. To get to the menu with a 3-button pad, you have to hold down the Start button for three seconds, which is annoying.

Shining Force.
Screenshot: Kotaku (Sega)

So was it a mistake to include 3-button pads? I’m leaning toward “no.” The appeal of a mini-console like this isn’t just the gameplay; it’s also having that little replica of the thing itself. Most people who played the Genesis back in the day used these controllers. It completes the nostalgic circle to boot up Sonic the Hedgehog again and feel one of these big chonky bois in your hands just like you remember.

Like Nintendo’s classic systems, the Genesis Mini has original menu-screen music composed in classic chiptune style. Unlike Nintendo’s systems, the tune here is composed by the king of 16-bit music himself, Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage and Actraiser among others). The new music is what the kids today call a “bop.” I enjoy just letting it run and listening to it. They even timed the boot sequence of the Mini to the music. That’s attention to detail!

The Mini is low on software features. It’s got the obvious stuff: You can choose to either view the games in their proper 4:3 aspect ratio or be weird and stretch them out like a wacky carnival mirror across your whole TV. You can turn a “CRT filter” on and off for fake scanlines, and you can apply one of two different wallpapers to the blank space around the 4:3 image. There’s a “save anywhere” feature with four slots per game. And that’s about it. I would have really liked to see a Rewind feature like the SNES Classic’s.

Wonder Boy In Monster World.
Screenshot: Kotaku (Sega)

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But all this would be meaningless without some games to play, and at 42 titles, Genesis has the most of the major minis. When you think about your childhood playing the Genesis, what game do you immediately flash back to? NBA Jam? Joe Montana Football? Aladdin? Mortal Kombat?

Oh. Well, um, none of those are on this.

There’s an obstacle for the Genesis Mini that the SNES Classic doesn’t really have to deal with. If you look at the best-selling games for the SNES, most of the games in the top 20 are on the SNES Classic. But look at the best-selling games for Genesis and you can see the problem: sports licenses, movie licenses, and fighting games that would earn this box a “Mature” rating.

Going hard after hot licenses and pumping out games branded with big-name movies, pro athletes, and sports franchises was all part of Sega’s game plan in the 1990s. And it worked! But it also left modern-day Sega with a library of software that’s practically unreleasable today. This means that if, like many American Sega fans, you did a lot of sports gaming on your Genesis, you won’t find that experience here.

Sega definitely made an attempt to get some games made for Western audiences onto the Mini, like Earthworm Jim, Vectorman, and Road Rash II. But by and large, we’re looking at a lineup of stylish Japanese action games, JRPGs, and shmups. It’s almost like the sort of Genesis collection you’d find in the home of someone who prefers the Super Nintendo. It’s a Genesis collection for me, in other words, so I’m not complaining.

Contra: Hard Corps.
Screenshot: Kotaku (Sega/Konami)

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Here’s the full list of games. I have played each of these games, some of them for hours (Shining Force), some of them for a couple minutes (Earthworm Jim). I will hereby arbitrarily and irrevocably arrange them into four tiers: A Tier, B Tier, C Tier, and Virtua Fighter 2 For The Genesis Tier.

A Tier

  • Castlevania: Bloodlines
  • Shining Force
  • Gunstar Heroes
  • Shinobi 3
  • Contra: Hard Corps
  • Beyond Oasis
  • Phantasy Star 4: The End of the Millennium
  • Wonder Boy in Monster World
  • Strider
  • Monster World 4
  • Alisia Dragoon
  • Dynamite Headdy

B Tier

  • Sonic The Hedgehog
  • Ecco The Dolphin
  • Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine
  • Comix Zone
  • Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse
  • World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck
  • Thunder Force 3
  • Streets of Rage 2
  • Sonic The Hedgehog 2
  • Landstalker
  • Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition
  • Ghouls ’n Ghosts
  • Golden Axe
  • Tetris
  • Darius
  • Columns
  • Super Fantasy Zone

C Tier

  • Space Harrier 2
  • ToeJam & Earl
  • Altered Beast
  • Earthworm Jim
  • Mega Man: The Wily Wars
  • Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle
  • Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball
  • Vectorman
  • Road Rash 2
  • Kid Chameleon
  • Eternal Champions
  • Light Crusader

Virtua Fighter 2 For The Genesis Tier

  • Virtua Fighter 2

As you can see, no matter where you’d personally rank these games, the Genesis Mini has a deep bench. To give the console a wider variety, Sega decided to follow a one-game-per-series rule, with limited exception. While I appreciate the effort at diversity, I don’t think they should have been so strict about it. I would have preferred to play the original Streets of Rage, or Shining Force II, instead of—let me just pull one out of a hat here—the Genesis version of Virtua Fighter 2, a game that probably shouldn’t have ever even existed and really didn’t need to be resurfaced here.

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Darius.
Screenshot: Kotaku (Sega/Taito)

But in general, the lineup is strong. Previous small Genesis consoles didn’t truly represent the best of the best that the platform had to offer. Here, finally, we have top-tier action games like Gunstar Heroes and Castlevania: Bloodlines. We skip to the end of the Wonder Boy in Monster World series to get to the two that are basically side-scrolling JRPGs, underappreciated in their own time but still sharp today.

SNES Classic featured an unreleased game from the 1990s, Star Fox 2, so of course the Genesis Mini had to double that count as well, adding the unreleased Genesis version of Tetris and a hardcore fan’s ported version of the arcade game Darius. Since we’re throwing back to the 1990s here, I’m going to reach back into my turn-of-the-century video game enthusiast magazine vocabulary and pronounce these a “mixed bag.” Darius is lots of fun but this port of Tetris is fairly anemic. SNES Classic wins the “unreleased game” wars, but that’s probably because only Nintendo would have ever shitcanned a perfectly good game in the first place.

There’s one other important bonus feature that exemplifies how the Genesis Mini feels like more of a passionate fan project than a bland marketing tool. You can set the menu to display in many different languages, which changes the entire menu design. The menu’s look will match that region’s Genesis logo and design, switching to the “Mega Drive” name for Europe and Japan. And if applicable, the games themselves will play in that language, using alternate ROM files. Beyond Oasis actually had, for example, a French-language version.

Some games differed in more than just their languages. If you switch the language to Japanese, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine will revert back to its original Japanese version, Puyo Puyo. Other differences are more subtle but still significant, like how the Japanese version of Contra: Hard Corps gives the player a three-bar life meter instead of one-hit kills. Or you could just play the Japanese version of Street Fighter II because you want “M. Bison” to be named “Vega.” I’m not here to judge. This extra-mile approach makes Genesis Mini a much more thorough exploration of the era than competing tiny boxes.

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The Genesis Mini’s menu screen when the language is changed to Japanese.
Screenshot: Kotaku (Sega)

One wonders, on the eve of this very cool device’s release, if Sega has missed the window on the mini-console craze. The market was positively flooded with copycat devices in the wake of the NES Classic’s huge success, and the bad taste of the ill-done PlayStation Classic still hasn’t fully washed out of our collective mouths. Will people line up to buy another tiny console this holiday and reward Sega for its Herculean, if belated, efforts here? Those who do add another Mini to the pile will, at least, not be at all disappointed with this one.