Plenty of obscure home gaming consoles came and went during the tumultuous 2D and early 3D gaming booms of the 1990’s, but the only system to take on the Nintendo giant and really give them a bloody nose was Sega’s revolutionary Genesis system, introduced in 1989.
Known as the Mega Drive outside North America, it featured enhanced resolution, a broader color palette, and meaner processing power than its 8-bit contemporaries.
With a rebellious marketing campaign and a handful of bold, boundary-pushing games, Sega Genesis quickly won over the thumbs of anyone young enough to care about video games.
There were 897 games made for the Genesis. Here’s the best of the best.
30. Road Rash 2
Quite possibly the definitive motorcycle racer of the early 90’s, Road Rash 2 was introduced by EA in 1993.
The defining characteristic of the Road Rash series is the ability to hit your opponents – deal enough blows to the guy next to you and say adios to him. EA recalibrated the damage system for the sequel so fights would last longer.
The biggest change here is the split-screen two-player versus modes.
It turns out that letting players fight head-to-head with their brother / sister / cousin / annoying neighbor is basically a good idea across all genres and generations (especially when they get to punch them off a chopper).
29. NBA Jam
Jam is the game that made basketball on consoles a thing.
Ported from the arcade, the game has several key features that helped it stand out from the rest. Instead of using generic sprites to represent the players, the developers digitized the likenesses of the real NBA athletes.
The decision to use cartoonishly exaggerated physics over realism (allowing players to jump insanely high) amped up the fun factor and made slam dunks feel like a piece of cake.
28. Castlevania: Bloodlines
Castlevania’s debut on a Sega console is far removed from the NES games that popularized the series in many ways.
It’s set in 1917, around the time of World War 1, and doesn’t feature Simon Belmont. Instead the player chooses between two characters, John Morris and Eric Lecarde, each with different abilities.
This time around, the foe is Dracula’s niece, Elizabeth Bartley, who trying to stage a resurrection.
The game was praised almost universally as one of the best titles on the Genesis and one of the best Castlevania games to this date.
27. Contra: Hard Corps
While graphically very similar to Contra III: The Alien Wars, Hard Corps is technically a sequel to that game.
Set years after the Alien Wars events, Hard Corps follows a new task force dedicated to ending a crisis of AI run amok – robots instead of aliens.
A side-scrolling shooter, Hard Corps maintains the familiar Contra formula of crazy weapon drops (literally – guns fall from the sky in Contra), frantic action, and big, ambitious set pieces.
Also along for the ride is Contra’s sometimes brutal and daunting difficulty.
26. Zombies Ate My Neighbors
A campy, overhead-perspective action-adventure, Zombies puts the player (and maybe a friend) into the role of two kids whose town is being invaded by a variety pack of horror movie monsters.
Use ridiculous weapons like weed whackers, bazookas, and soda can grenades to fend off hordes of vampires, demon babies, and giant worms in search of neighbors to rescue.
While Zombies was not an instant hit at the time of its release, it garnered a cult following over time and became a sleeper hit of the console.
Fans love the attention to detail, silly humor, and the strategy of the weapon system.
While not the most technically proficient or aesthetically impressive platformer of its time, X-Men for Genesis gave fans of both Sega and Marvel something no other game could deliver – a chance to step into the boots of their favorite heroes.
The four playable characters (Wolverine, Cyclops, Gambit, and Nightcrawler) each feature unique abilities via their mutant powers, and each is useful in various situations.
The Genesis had a knack (or maybe a habit) of displaying larger character sprites than some of its rivals, and X-Men takes advantage of that, rendering bright spandex unusually large and detailed for anything outside a Street Fighter game.
Semi-permanent death is an interesting feature, in that each individual X-Man could perish and not be used afterward.
Tons of villain cameos and helpful hero fly-bys are great to see, even if they’re brief encounters.
24. ToeJam & Earl
Another Genesis sleeper hit, ToeJam & Earl was one of the first popular games to use random level generation.
A surrealist parody of 80’s and 90’s culture, the titular Aliens are rappers from planet Funkotron who’ve crash-landed on Earth.
Now they need to reassemble the pieces of their ship to make it home. Essentially a silly, colorful dungeon-crawler, the player must traverse the generated landscape of islands, searching for ship parts and avoiding the mostly-unhelpful humans.
Highlights include the game original soundtrack (an eclectic mix of funk, hip-hop, and jazz), and the ridiculous humor, especially when shared between the two main characters during multiplayer.
23. Phantasy Star IV
Genesis fans weren’t in the best of luck with role playing games.
Final Fantasy and most of Squaresoft’s and Enix’s other popular titles were never ported from the Super Nintendo.
Enter Phantasy Star to fill the void, a series of much-loved turn-based JRPGs. Phantasy Star IV is widely regarded as the best of the series due to its anime-like cutscenes, ambitious, futuristic story, and new additions like combo attacks.
While reviews of the time were very mixed, particularly focusing on the graphics quality, retro reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, praising the game as one of the best RPGs ever made.
I suppose hindsight is 20/20.
22. Gunstar Heroes
Another side-scrolling bullet party, Gunstar Heroes shares much in common with Contra.
Like with so many great games, it’s the little things and the interesting touches that make it really worth attention.
The two playable characters are mostly identical, but they represent two noticeably different control schemes.
Red can move while shooting, while Blue can shoot without moving. Weapons can be collected and combined to produce unique and powerful effects.
The game was hailed for its superb graphics and gameplay and is still considered one of the best action games of its time.
An explosion of sci-fi imagination, Strider features inventive settings, sharp, crisp graphics, and fun hack ‘n’ slash gameplay.
The player character, Hiryu, is a high-tech ninja in the year 2048, when the Grandmaster presides over a dystopian Earth.
Featuring a unique and versatile control system wherein the player can perform different jump maneuvers based on direction button combinations, Strider is a platforming / fighting hybrid worth checking out. Capcom strikes again.
20. Streets of Rage
Streets of Rage was Sega’s answer to games like Double Dragon and Final Fight – a street-crawling, fist-brawling rampage against wave after wave of street punks.
Featuring the typical side-view with four-directional walking the genre is known for, Streets was nothing more than good, violent fun.
Graphics, sound, and play control were all well done.
Throw in a two-player mode and you’ve got a hit on your hands. Sometimes simplicity just works.
19. Comix Zone
Comix Zone is all about the art, baby. A comic book artist named Sketch Turner gets sucked into his own creation, leading the player to fight his or her way through the pages of what appears to be an actual comic book onscreen.
Comix Zone is a side-view fighting game in which the player must slash and shred panels of the paper around them to access new areas.
There’s a good balance between the brawling and the puzzle-solving, and lots of neat little comic touches like word bubbles and onomatopoeia (“Pow!” and “Whack!”) put a nice little bow on it.
I wonder if they used Comic Sans…
18. Disney’s Aladdin
A Disney-themed platformer not made by Capcom?
Indeed, but 1993’s Aladdin became one of the best-selling games on the Genesis console, and not just because of its movie tie-in license.
Aladdin reproduces the art and animation style from the Disney film impeccably well for a 16-bit resolution video game. While it certainly doesn’t hold up against similar games made today in the graphics department, it was near-mesmerizing at the time.
Aside from the visuals, the game proved to be a solid platformer, replete with apple-throwing, gem-collecting, and sword-swinging.
Only the Genesis games with a blue hedgehog on the cover managed to outsell it, and it’s considered one of the best of the console.
17. Shining Force II
One of the early tactical RPGs, Shining Force II sees the player moving their units through the battlefield in a turn-based grid.
Individual units can gain experience points, levelling up. Battle actions include movement, attacks, spellcasting, and item usage.
Outside combat, it’s familiar RPG territory – exploring, talking with townspeople, and managing equipment.
Critics opinions were quite mixed at the time, but the fan response and longevity of the game’s popularity have given it a place among the greats.
16. Kid Chameleon
Playing off the success of other platformers with loads of power-ups and form-changing abilities, Kid Chameleon features not three or four outfits the Kid can don, but nine masks granting Casey (the protagonist) different abilities to get through the game’s whopping 103 levels.
Rather than simply granting a single interesting power, different masks have the potential to radically change the gameplay.
Kid Chameleon feels more like nine different platformers for the price of one.
Many levels feature multiple exits, acting like warp pipes leading to unexpected places further in the game’s progression.
In this way, the game also takes on a Gauntlet-like sense of exploration, never knowing exactly where one will end up, and seeming like each play though has its own unique path.
A hit on the Super Nintendo as well, Battletoads is a colorful street fighter with exaggerated, cartoony animations starring a trio of hard-hitting frogs versus an army of space mutants.
One of the highlights of the game are its variety of stages and gameplay, from isometric, beat-em-up levels a’ la Double Dragon to flat 2D levels with more platforming-like gameplay, to levels featuring hoverbikes, underwater sections, climbing, long, vertical drops, mazes, and obstacle courses.
Fans are still waiting for this franchise to come back from the dead for a modern-day revival.
14. The Revenge of Shinobi
The first Shinobi game to appear on Genesis / Mega Drive, Revenge of Shinobi features Sega’s typically large and detailed character sprites in a side-scrolling action-platformer.
The ninja Joe Musashi has an arsenal of ninjutsu moves at his disposal, including shuriken-throwing, swordplay, somersalts, and magical attacks like lightning strikes.
The Shinobi series is still looked back on fondly for its intelligent, thoughtful gameplay.
13. Golden Axe II
A fantasy-themed, isometric, side-scrolling fighter, Golden Axe II puts the player in the role of one of three ancient fighters – barbarian, dwarf, or amazon.
The first Golden Axe game to be a Genesis exclusive, much of the great gameplay from the first entry is reproduced here, but with a few improvements to attacking, throwing, and the magic system.
There’s not much to be said about Golden Axe.
Like the Streets of Rage series, it’s just a solid, fun, fighting game.
12. Castle of Illusion
One of the earlier releases for the Genesis, Castle of Illusion did a great job showing off the power of the console over its primary rival (at the time), the original NES.
As Mickey Mouse, the player must navigate the castle’s many side-scrolling platform environments in search of Minnie, another gaming victim of kidnapping.
Why can’t these mascots hang onto their girlfriends?
Multilayer backgrounds and fluid, cartoon animations gave the game a mesmerizing appeal, and Castle of Illusion was praised for not only its visuals, but the superb music, play control, and level design.
11. Ecco the Dolphin
Not many games feature an aquatic animal as the main protagonist or take place completely underwater, but Ecco made a big splash (see what I did there?) for its novel ideas and interesting approach.
It’s a side-scrolling adventure in which the player can attack enemies by ramming them at high swimming speeds and must periodically surface for air.
Ecco is on a quest to save the Earth from hostile aliens (what else would a dolphin be fighting?) and his journey takes him from the Arctic to deep caverns, and finally, alien spacecraft.
10. Sonic & Knuckles
The first (and only) game Sega developed with “lock-on technology”, Sonic & Knuckles was actually a special hardware cartridge that would allow the user to plug the Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 cartridges into Sonic & Knuckles.
While the game featured a brand-new single player campaign in its own right, using the lock-on would allow Sonic fans to play as Knuckles, the series’ newest character in the existing Sonic 2 and 3 games.
Not only did Sonic & Knuckles prove to be a great game in its own right, but it breathed new life into those existing hits, letting the player utilize Knuckles’ new object-breaking and climbing abilities in familiar territory.
9. X-Men II: The Clone Wars
New game, new developer. While the original X-Men was a commercial hit, reviews of the game were largely mixed.
X-Men 2 aimed to improve that record with seven playable characters (the most from an X-Men platformer), unlimited mutant powers, and a shared life system.
Each character (Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast, Psylocke, Nightcrawler, Gambit, and, believe it or not, Magneto) has different abilities that affect not only combat behavior, but which areas of the level are accessible to them.
The graphics are generally improved much over the first game, but fans and critics are still split on opinions of the music, sound effects, and two-player mode.
8. Streets of Rage 2
While the original Streets of Rage is a great game, the sequel (as often happens with games) is widely regarded as the best in the series.
Introducing two new, playable fighters, everything about the formula of the first game is reproduced but fine-tuned here.
Enemies have been upgraded with life meters and a wider variety of moves they can perform.
Weapons are upgraded and improved. In addition to all the original moves from the first game, each of the three playable characters now has a powerful, semi-special move.
Critics hailed this one as one of the best fighting games of not only the Genesis, but of its generation.
7. Mortal Kombat
While Street Fighter II may have invented the tournament fighter genre, Mortal Kombat became its rowdy, rebellious younger brother.
An arcade hit, the Genesis version was the one to own, with its more faithful recreation of the arcade violence and the ability to turn on blood and gore with a secret code.
Choose from seven unique fighters to rip each other apart with in one-on-one fights versus the computer or in two-player mode.
While the fighting system is more susceptible to wins through cheap shots and button mashing than its contemporaries, the biggest draw is the large character sprites based off digital photos of actual actors combined with the gruesome fatality animations (not to mention the mind-frying sequences of button presses players need to memorize to pull them off).
6. Altered Beast
Before there was Sonic, there was Altered Beast, the original free game included with the console.
A greek-themed horror fighter, Altered Beast allowed the player to transform into various creature forms with special abilities, including a werewolf, bear, tiger, and dragon.
To achieve the transformation, the player must pick up a total of three power orbs, each increasing the player’s size and strength, and each dropped by a special blue wolf enemy on defeat.
The final boss of each level would only appear after transformation (or if the player took too long to transform, meaning they were probably screwed).
In this way, completing stages becomes less about reaching some pre-defined end point and more about overall performance and item gathering.
5. Sonic the Hedgehog
Every game console in the 1990’s needed a colorful mascot, and Sega knew it.
It takes more than some attitude and red sneakers to make a popular game, though.
Sonic delivers with a colorful world full of bouncy graphics, creative monsters, catchy music, and lots of small, interesting details to the environment.
While fans of Mario games will take a while getting used to the controls, Sonic can move incredibly fast once he gets going, even transforming in a spherical shape to zoom over hills, through loops, and off jump ramps.
This game is all about speed. That fact that it came bundled with new Genesis consoles after its release didn’t hurt its popularity, either.
4. Super Street Fighter II
The game that started the tournament fighter craze, Street Fighter II was finally ported to the Genesis in 1993 as The Championship Edition.
SFII was the first one-on-one fighting game that allowed each player to choose their own fighter from a wide assortment, all with different moves and abilities.
Throw in Capcom’s penchant for great graphics, music, sound, and play control, and it was an instant hit.
The definitive version came a year later, however, as Super Street Fighter II features completely redrawn and updated graphics.
The two biggest changes are the addition of four completely new fighters to the roster and a new combo system that rewards the player for successive hits.
3. Earthworm Jim
Jim is a worm that wears a robotic suit to give himself limbs for running, jumping, and shooting.
An incredibly offbeat platformer with a ridiculous sense of humor, the original Earthworm Jim game was popular in its time and remains a cult classic today.
The main draws are the cartoonish graphics and fluid animation sequences. Watching Jim artfully slide and bounce his way across the terrain is a sight to behold, and certain objects in the game had an unusually three-dimensional look to them that predates Donkey Kong Country.
Rife with silly backgrounds, absurd villains, and wacky situations, Jim is worth checking out if you haven’t already.
2. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
While the original Sonic might owe a lot of its sales to console purchases, the same can’t be said about Sonic 2, the second-best-selling Genesis game ever.
Sonic 2 features a new sidekick, Tails, a double-tailed fox who would speed behind Sonic, following all of his runs and jumps.
Player 2 could jump in at any time and control Tails for a split-screen mode.
Sonic 2 took everything about the first game and amplified it, including the crazy ball tracks the player could send Sonic rolling through, particularly the casino and pinball-themed areas in the Night Zone.
1. Mortal Kombat II
As popular as the original MK was, few games can top the success of its sequel, Mortal Kombat II.
With twelve fighters to choose from, tons of moves, and a bevy of hidden easter eggs to stumble across, MKII was the definitive two-player versus game and crowd-drawing party game of the early-to-mid 90’s.
While the fighting system isn’t particularly deep, lots of little touches really make the game, like the ability to perform arena-specific fatalities, unlock hidden opponents like Jade, Smoke, and Noob Saibot, and perform ridiculous Babality and Friendship finishers.
The “Toasty!” in-joke alone has lived on in social media and gaming culture.