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David Low
23 Aug, 2007

Virtual Console review round-up: Mega Drive

Wii Feature | Sega now does what Nintendoes.
Previously Nintendo's bitter rivals, Sega's exit from the hardware market and subsequent support of Nintendo consoles has often seemed surreal for anyone who lived through the eight and sixteen bit eras. What once would have seemed like alternate reality has now been made complete, with Sega offering up a huge number of their classic Mega Drive titles on Nintendo's fledgling download service, the Virtual Console. In this weeks' VC round-up, we'll take a look at Sega's offerings on the service.

About Mega Drive games on the Virtual Console

As with that of the NES and SNES, on a technical level the Mega Drive emulation is absolutely fantastic on the Virtual Console, and once again much better than any emulation we've seen on disc-based retro compilations. Games run in true low resolution, and thus look sharp, without any screen tearing or smeared image. Mega Drive games support the 'interrupt' feature, so you can pause a game at any point with the Wii's home button and pick up exactly where you left off later, giving every game a single save state. They also support playing with the Wii Remote turned sideways, making them ideal choices for a quick pick up and play between disc-based Wii games - although for games that use the A button a lot this can be slightly awkward.

PAL conversion issues

The Mega Drive was pretty much the worst ever console in terms of PAL conversions, equaled only by its predecessor the Master System. Ironically, this was primarily because for most of the console's life, its software was region free. For the first few years, the only form of regional lockout between Japan, the USA and PAL was a slightly different cartridge shape. Many carts even contained both English and Japanese text, and would display accordingly depending on which console they were plugged into.

As a result of being the exact same ROM on the cartridge, PAL games featured absolutely no compensation for being run on slower hardware, and so almost all games, first and third party, ran with the full gamut of PAL problems – screen borders, slow gameplay and slow soundtracks. Even after regional variations of games started being produced, Sega still didn't bother to properly convert any more then a handful of games. The borders were not too much of a problem, as they were quite small by PAL conversion standards – the standard PAL Mega Drive borders are about the same size as those of a well converted NES or SNES game on their original hardware. But the slow gameplay and music were real problems, especially for a console who's sole advantage over its rivals was its fast processor and ability to run fast games.

As with the NES games on the Virtual Console, all Mega Drive releases feature exactly the same PAL conversion they received on their original release. However, unlike the NES, where at least first party releases had decent PAL conversions with faster gameplay and soundtracks, from our tests only two Mega Drive games currently available on the VC have received any PAL conversion at all (Sonic 2 and Dynamite Headdy). This is very disappointing, especially given the price of the Mega Drive games

Below is a photographic comparison between three different versions of Sonic The Hegehog. All shots were taken of the same standard definition 4:3 TV using original gaming hardware - respectively a Japanese Sega Saturn (running the version of Sonic on the compilation disc Sonic Jam, a PAL Mega Drive, and a PAL Wii.

NTSC original, PAL original, PAL VC version- click for a larger view

NTSC original, PAL original, PAL VC version- click for a larger view
Close
It's a real shame that all these games are hampered by ancient design flaws, especially since they cost the same as Super Nintendo games (800 points), which all at the very least feature a near full-screen display and full speed music on the PAL Virtual Console. We can only hope a region switch is one day made available, because as it stands, the value of many Mega Drive games has been hurt by the almost universally poor PAL conversions on offer here.

Our Virtual Console ratings system

We've given every game a 'buy' rating of 'Yes', 'Maybe', or 'No'

Yes means this is a very high quality game, and we have no problem recommending it to anyone as long as they like the genre.

Maybe means we think the game is good, but not necessarily for everyone. If you know the game or like the sound of the description, go for it

No means we think that unless you have some nostalgia for this title, it probably isn't worth your time or money today.

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Games listed in order of their release on the download service

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Altered Beast
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1988 (Japan), 1990 (PAL)
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

A compromised conversion of an ancient and clunky arcade 'single plane' brawler. It was the original pack-in game of the Mega Drive, and was initially used to show the system was capable of arcade level graphics. But that was the 80s, and these days it's only a curiosity and will definitely not be worth the points for most people.

Worth buying? No

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Ecco the Dolphin
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Novotrade International
Originally released: 1993
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Planeteer alert! While a product designed to cash in on the 'save the dolphins' media storm of the early nineties, Ecco managed to rise above it and is actually a decent little action/exploration game, where you pay as a dolphin who must rescue his friends. However, the superior sequel is now also available, so go for that one first.

Worth buying? Maybe

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Golden Axe
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1989 (Japan), 1990 (PAL)
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Another ancient arcade game, but at least this one is a shallow but fun medieval themed beat-em-up with catchy music. Pretty plain, but if you want a beat-em-up and like the aesthetic it could do ok.

Worth buying? Maybe

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Sonic The Hedgehog
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1991
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Sonic's first appearance brought some much needed originality to the basic platformer, and gave Sega the kick it needed to make the Mega Drive their most successful system. The speed and multiple paths through levels made Sonic immediately fun to play, as did the colourful, detailed graphics that rivaled most SNES games and put pretty much every other Mega Drive title to shame.

While nowhere near as deep as Super Mario World, the simple and fun mechanics make Sonic a perfect game for the Virtual Console. Unfortunately, the poor PAL conversion really affects this game, and if you've had any contact with the NTSC version (say, by playing one of the other 83 ports available, most of which have been based on the NTSC speed), this one will feel and sound painfully slow. Still worth it, but if you only get one, grab the better converted sequel.

Worth buying? Yes

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Columns
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1990
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

An early Tetris clone brought out by Sega to combat Nintendo's licenced version of the Russian puzzler. Similar to the Puyo games (but not as good), you line up three gems of the same colour to make them disappear, only this time they are delivered in – you guessed it – columns. Not terrible, but terribly basic, and there are much better falling block puzzle games on the VC, including...

Worth buying? No

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Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Compile
Originally released: 1993
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Just as Kirby's Ghost Trap was Nintendo's licenced version of Compile's excellent puzzle game Super Puyo Puyo, Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine is Sega's licenced version of the Japanese Mega Drive Puyo game. Kirby (also available on VC) is the slightly better package, with better graphics and sound, but it requires a Classic controller to play. Robotnik can be played with the Wii Remote turned sideways. If you're after a falling block puzzler, both are good choices, so choose based on your controller and/or graphics and sound preferences.

Worth buying? Maybe

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Gunstar Heroes
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Treasure
Originally released: 1993
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

A fantastic run 'n gun shooter from Treasure, and one of the best games on the Mega Drive. You play as two anime-styled kids, Red and Blue, and must blast your way through hundreds of enemies and awesome bosses with a customisable weapon system.

In our opinion it's not quite as good as the best of the Contra/Probotector or Metal Slug series, but with some great graphics for the Mega Drive, and some fast and intense gameplay experiences, it's right up there. If you're after some fun action, give this a download right away.

Worth buying? Yes

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Ristar
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1995
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

A decent little platformer that turned up late in the Mega Drive's life, Ristar makes use of an interesting grab mechanic to set itself apart from the pack. There are better platformers on the VC, but this one is worth a look if you're after something different.

Worth buying? Maybe

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Space Harrier II
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1988 (Japan), 1990 (PAL)
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

An ancient pseudo-3D arcade space shooter, Space Harrier II showed its age quickly, and these days feels limited and boring. Some iconic 80's arcade game design aside, it's not even worth it for the curiosity value today.

Worth buying? No

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ToeJam & Earl
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Johnson Voorsanger Productions
Originally released: 1991
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

A popular pre-Sonic Mega Drive game, ToeJam & Earl is a very weird title. You play as some aliens with late 80's G-rated 'attitude', who must find parts of their spaceship which has crashed on the planet 'Funkatron.'

Back in the day we didn't quite get what all the fuss was about, and that feeling has been magnified by the passing of time. It's boring, plain looking, often unfair, and the presentation is at best ironically funny. Unless you have some nostalgia for the game, this one is best avoided. The music is a bit funky though.

Worth buying? No

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Bonanza Bros.
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1990
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Another early Mega Drive release, Bonanza Bros is a primitive 'stealth' game where you must sneak into buildings and steal stuff. May be worth it for old fans, but even though it looks ok (if a bit dinky), it's probably too clunky for many people to enjoy it for the first time these days.

Worth buying? Maybe

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Comix Zone
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1995
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Released very late in the system's life, Comix Zone is a great beat-em-up about a comic book artist who gets sucked into the world he has drawn. Great style and gameplay, but also incredibly difficult, so be warned you'll have to dedicate yourself to get the most out of it.

Worth buying? Yes

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Gain Ground
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1991
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

A slow, boring Guantlet clone, don't bother with this one unless you're desperate for some overhead dungeon crawling.

Worth buying? No

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Bio-Hazard Battle
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1992
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

An old looking but still pretty good scrolling shooter, with biologically themed bad guys. While it's not bad, there are many better shooters in the VC's Turbografix selection, and they're 200 points cheaper to boot.

Worth buying? Maybe

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Streets of Rage
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1991
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Sega's answer to Final Fight, Streets of Rage was a decent alternative on the Mega Drive back in the day. While the graphics and animation were a bit simple, it played ok and had pretty good music for the system. These days it would only be worth it for beat-em-up nuts who've already exhausted the many other options on the VC, including its superior sequel.

Worth buying? Maybe

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Sword of Vermilion
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1989 (Japan), 1990 (PAL)
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Sword of Vermilion was one of the early works of Sega legend Yu Suzuki, but nowadays it's just a generic and ancient RPG, with decent music but basic graphics and gameplay. You'd be much better off sticking to the Zelda games or the recently released Breath of Fire II for your fix of world saving heroes.

Worth buying? No

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The Story of Thor
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Ancient
Originally released: 1994
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

On the other hand, the oddly named The Story of Thor (the game is more Arabian then Norse) is a great little action RPG. You play as an Aladdin rip-off named Ali and must traverse the very Zelda-like world, solve Zelda-like puzzles and fight Zelda-like battles.

But it has a great graphical style, and the combat is very enjoyable. A little too short, but a great download nonetheless.

Worth buying? Yes

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Sonic Spinball
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1993
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

The first of many Sonic cash-ins by Sega, this one came only two years after the original game was released. While the concept of mixing Sonic and pinball seems like a no-brainer, Sonic Spinball is less then the sum of its parts, as it's neither a satisfying pinball experience or Sonic game. Grab Alien Crush on the Turbografx instead for your VC pinball needs.

Worth buying? No

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Vectorman
Price: 800 Points
Developer: BlueSky Software
Originally released: 1995
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

A product of the same school of thought that produced Rayman (ie “Hey it's easy to animate a character without limbs!"), and also Sega's answer to the pre-rendering of Donkey Kong Country, Vectorman is a generic looking but sometimes impressive action platformer, where you must take down a bunch of crazy robots. But it's only really worth a look if you've played all the similar (and better) games on the VC.

Worth buying? Maybe

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Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1989 (Japan), 1990 (PAL)
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

For a warmly remembered former Sega mascot, Alex Kidd sure was in a bunch of crappy games. The only truly good Alex Kidd game was the original Miracle World on the Master System, and until this, his only Mega Drive outing, the sequels bore little resemblance to the original in either graphics or gameplay.

This final game in the series attempted to take 'The Kidd' back to his roots, but it ended up being the type of game that while beefed up for the next generation, missed what made the original a good game in the first place. Poor controls, simplistic gameplay and level design, and weak graphics made this a sad end to the franchise.

Worth buying? No

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Virtua Fighter 2
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1995 (Japan), 1996 (PAL)
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Not really worth bothering with, Virtua Fighter 2 on Mega Drive was Sega's 2D version of the original 3D fighting classic. Surprisingly it doesn't play too badly, but you're really much better off grabbing a Saturn and the 3D version if you want to play this classic fighter.

Worth buying? No

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Wonder Boy in Monster World
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Westone
Originally released: 1991 (Japan), 1992 (PAL)
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Sega's other other former mascot Wonder Boy fared much better in his later games, as they gained in complexity and quality admirably as they went along. Monster World is probably the best of the lot, even beating out the Master System classic Wonderboy III: Dragon's Trap (available on Virtual Console as Dragon's Curse on the Turbografx). With a nicely detailed sprawling world, catchy tunes, and a long, involved quest (you even go to space!), Monster World would be a great choice if you're after a side-scrolling action adventure.

Worth buying? Yes

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Kid Chameleon
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1992
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

A strange platformer where you play as a kid who can change into a variety of other forms, like a samaurai or a knight. It looks and plays pretty badly, so save your money for the dozens of better platformers on the VC.

Worth buying? No

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Streets of Rage 2
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Ancient
Originally released: 1993
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Much better then the original, Streets of Rage 2 is one of the best beat-em-ups on the VC. It has better graphics (although still spotty animation), pretty good music for the Mega Drive, and a decent variety of moves, enemies and levels. The beat-em-up genre is one of the most shallow, but at least this one is quite enjoyable in that 'dumb' kinda way.

Worth buying? Yes

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ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Johnson Voorsanger Productions
Originally released: 1993
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

The platforming sequel to the overhead original, Panic on Funkotron isn't really directly comparable to the first game in the way most sequels are. One of the few two-player platformers around, it retains the lame 'attitude', wacky look, and funky music of the original, but this time it's a generic, under-animated side-scroller. Hopefully Earthworm Jim turns up on the VC - it's the same basic concept done 500% better.

Worth buying? No

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Ecco: The Tides of Time
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Novotrade International
Originally released: 1994
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Pretty similar to the first Ecco, The Tides of Time is what a sequel should be – it improves on pretty much every element or the original while maintaining everything that was good to begin with. Fantastic graphics for the Mega Drive, a decent soundtrack, and tightly designed levels make this a great download if you're after something a bit different.

Worth buying? Yes

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Golden Axe II
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1991 (Japan), 1992 (PAL)
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Yet another sequel, yet another beat-em-up, Sega spammed them out back in the day and is doing it all over again on the Virtual Console, just in fast forward. Golden Axe II is only a slight improvement over the original – these days it would probably be called an expansion pack. All these beat-em-ups are ok games, but we'd suggest you only buy one or two, as combined they'd be a cure for insomnia.

Worth buying? Maybe

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Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1992
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, correct speed gameplay and soundtrack

  

A pretty straightforward sequel, Sonic 2 added little to the successful formula, but refined it well, adding in a two player mode and better bonus round, and it is generally considered the best in the series. What's more, the much better PAL conversion means the gameplay and music run at full speed, making it the far better purchase on the Virtual Console. While still a shallow game compared to most of Nintendo's platformers, it's still a classy one, and should be near the top of any side-scroller fan's download list.

Worth buying? Yes

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Dynamite Headdy
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Treasure
Originally released: 1994
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, correct speed gameplay and soundtrack

  

Another inventive platformer from Treasure, Dynamite Headdy isn't quite in Gunstar Heroes' league, but remains a good looking and fun little game, if a bit weird and overcomplicated. Headdy is a puppet that attacks enemies with his head, and he can also change heads to gain a variety of Kirby-like power-ups. Definitely worth a look, but will require some patience to get the most from it.

Worth buying? Maybe

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Shining Force
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Climax Entertainment
Originally released: 1992 (Japan), 1993 (PAL)
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

A high quality strategy RPG along the lines of the Fire Emblem games, Shining Force has decent (if slightly dated) strategy gameplay, a well written script for the era, and a great visual style. The only game of its type on the VC, Shining Force is also a good example of the genre, and worth a look if you're after something that will last a while.

Worth buying? Yes

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Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
Price: 800 Points
Developer: Sega
Originally released: 1993
PAL conversion issues: Medium sized screen borders, slow gameplay, slow soundtrack

  

Quite a good 'slash and dash' action platformer, Shinobi III also has great graphics and sound for the system. The controls seem slow and restrictive at first, and take some getting used to, but once you're there you'll be able to pull off all the moves to make you feel like a real ninja (sort of). Some strange levels and lame American design tendencies aside (a jet ski level?), Shinobi III is a great game, and is only equaled for ninja action on the VC by the Turbografx game Ninja Spirit.

Worth buying? Yes

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That's it for this week. Next week we'll finish up this series with a look at the Turbografx titles on the VC.

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13 Comments
6 years ago
What? Where's the love for one of the most diverse console Rogue-a-likes? Not to mention it's sequel that practically invented the Rhythm Action genre. Toe Jam & Earl was a great series.

Shame about the poor PAL ports, hadn't ever noticed - just thought emulators were running too quickly. Dread to think what Gunstar Heroes plays like 17.5% slower.

Good article, shame our opinion on TJ&E differs.
6 years ago
The release of an arcade prefect Golden Axe and good port of Sonic on the 360 made me a very bitter boy buying these on VC. I don't plan on buying another megadrive game for the VC cause no doubt Sega will bring all their classic games to Live Arcade.

I ain't shelling out cash for dodgy PAL converisons.
6 years ago
Damn, Shining Force sounds right up my alley, but has the dreaded conversion issues.
6 years ago
Monsterworld gets a yes +1.

TJ&E 1 and 2 really aren't that bad for some accessable 2 player fun. There's loads to do in the sequel, and laughs to be had - co-op games should be forgiven for being a little loose.
6 years ago
You must never of found the secret level 0. Spending your time in a hot tub with hoola girls drinking home made lemonde is why Toe Jam and Earl (the first one) is the best game there. (As Earth Worm Jim isn't there.)

I'm dissappointed you've put it as a no, I think anyone that enjoys a bit of silliness would enjoy this game.
6 years ago
Cerebral wrote
Damn, Shining Force sounds right up my alley, but has the dreaded conversion issues.
It's a turn based RPG. Out of all the games, I don't think the convsersion issues will matter that much for Shining Force.
6 years ago
Yeah I say show some love for Toejam and Earl.

In the 90's I liked Columns more than Tetris. Still do to tell you the truth.

The Mega Drive lineup is pretty sweet and we still have Sonic 3 and Landstalker to look forward to soon.
6 years ago
These guides have become my bible to virtual console purchases. It's great to get these covered from a proper PAL perspective.
6 years ago
LeonJ wrote
The release of an arcade prefect Golden Axe and good port of Sonic on the 360 made me a very bitter boy buying these on VC. I don't plan on buying another megadrive game for the VC cause no doubt Sega will bring all their classic games to Live Arcade.

I ain't shelling out cash for dodgy PAL converisons.
Hey would you know if the PSN would be getting any Megadrive games?

The power supply for my Megadrive II died icon_cry.gif

Shinobi III, Streets of Rage, Golden Axe etc etc good times.
6 years ago
Space Harrier II, as bad as it might be at times. I simply couldn't resist...

Get Ready!
6 years ago
Nicely summarised, and spot on with the reccommendations.

And yeah, the PAL conversion issues are a serious kick in the teeth. I've only bought 3 VC titles so far (Mario 64, Lylat Wars and Dragon's Curse), and these issues are the main reason I won't be buying any more. That plus the fact that the better NES and SNES games I already have, and the best ever 64 game (Ocarina of Time) is sitting quite comfortably in my Wind Waker case.
6 years ago
Nev wrote
and the best ever 64 game (Ocarina of Time) is sitting quite comfortably in my Wind Waker case.
And there it will stay - it hasn't aged well.
6 years ago
^i strongly disagree......oot has held up incredibly well?I don't want to come across as fanboyish, but besides some low poly counts for characters/enemies, and hyrule field looking decidely barren, it is still a very good looking game.

I'm honestly sitting here trying to think of where else it has lost it's lustre, but i truly can't.
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