This article originally appeared on The Gamer Social where I am a regular contributor.
Moving on from the ZX Spectrum, my first console was the Sega Master System in 1990 (I know, I was late to the party). It came with a couple of games in the form of Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Afterburner and Super Monaco GP. I quickly started to collect others.
Alex Kidd was the original competitor to Nintendo’s Mario. It wasn’t anywhere near as good but for a nine year old, it was fun. Alex Kidd was a weird-looking character with a huge head and a tiny body whose main skill, aside from jumping was punching walls with a giant fist. The aim of the game was to rescue his brother from an evil boss called Janken. At the end of each stage the player would need to beat one of Janken’s mini bosses in a round of rock, paper, scissors. In a step up from the likes of Ghosts ‘n Ghouls, Alex was able to collect money and power ups throughout levels in order to buy vehicles and more power ups at the end of each area. The vehicles allowed the player to get through areas quicker and reach areas more easily. Although obviously aimed at children, it was tough and unforgiving like many of the games from the 80s. It was bright, colourful and the 8-bit graphics were a huge step up from the Spectrum’s overlapping colours and textures.
Afterburner, was a huge graphical leap forward from the Spectrum version. The colours and scrolling horizon made it much easier to see what was going on while the enemies were much clearer and more recognisable making for a much better all-round experience. This was the first direct comparison of a game I’d seen running on an earlier system. There would be no going back. The 8-bit musical score was exciting and adrenaline-packed, adding to the action in a way that the Spectrum just couldn’t compare. I played this game for hours and hours, perfecting the barrel rolls and learning the spawning locations of enemy aeroplanes and helicopters. I loved every minute of it.
Super Monaco GP was a bit more frustrating. Although I played it quite a bit, I found the Formula 1 cars were difficult to handle, with tons of under steer making the cornering around the tracks awkward. What I did find new and interesting was the ability to play 2-player split screen races. It was also the first driving game I could remember that had a rear view mirror (at least in the single-player game). You could also do some basic tuning to your cars to improve performance, choosing engine, transmission and tyre settings. Unfortunately, the cornering was so tough that I regularly ended up with the d-pad button imprinted on my thumb after every session.
Joe Montana Football (1991) and Slap Shot (1990) were my first forays into American sports gaming. With Montana, although I understood the basics of moving the ball towards the endzone and scoring touchdowns, while stopping the opposition from doing the same, I didn’t really understand the playcalling aspect. With enough play time, even though it was a terrible game, I did begin to learn which plays worked at particular times and it really helped to develop my interest in the sport. The graphics were terrible, not much of a step up from the Spectrum, although it did have cool animations when you scored a touchdown or kicked a field goal. I certainly wouldn’t say I played it for its looks though. This was a game that fed into my burgeoning interest in the NFL after my uncle had bought me a Miami Dolphins shirt while he was holidaying in the USA. Slap Shot was an ice hockey title that had a similar graphical style with the main action being shown from a TV-esque angle to one side of the rink. There was a feeling of being on the ice with players sliding and bouncing off each other and the side of the rink. When you scored a goal you would get a pre-rendered animated “replay” of the goal. It wasn’t ever really very close to looking like the goal you actually scored though. The other great thing about Slap Shot was that you could have fights with the opposition players. Bump into them at the right time and the game would cut to a side on view of the two players who would punch each other repeatedly until one player lost. At that point, the loser would be sent to the sin bin. Before the 3rd period began, you’d get a cutscene of the managers in the dressing rooms laying into their teams about their performances. Again, like Joe Montana Football, it was utterly awful but before I played this game I had no interest in ice hockey and would likely have missed out on the Mega Drive NHL franchise without it.
Another sports title that landed on the Master System came in 1992 in the form of Olympic Gold. This game was launched around the time of the Barcelona Olympics and I absolutely loved it. It had lots of different events such as the 100m sprint, hammer throw, archery, swimming, diving and pole vault. The button bashing required to excel at the sprint and hammer throw was set aside in other events such as the archery and the diving. This meant there was something for everyone. The fact that you could play with and, more importantly, against up to 3 other friends and family made this a great game for gatherings. Each event took a maximum of few minutes to complete meaning that it was easy to set up mini tournaments with friends. I loved this social and competitive gaming and this was an ideal title for it. The graphics were also superb for the system and this obviously helped with the replayability.
1992 also saw the release of Ninja Gaiden. A game that didn’t see a release in Japan or North America due to falling Master System sales, it was a massive hit in Europe. In the game you play as Ryu Hayabusa who you might recognise from other titles… Ryu comes home from his travels to find his ninja village destroyed and the sacred Bushido scroll stolen. Ryu must fight his way through various stages and bosses to recover the scroll. Having played Megaman on the NES at a friend’s house, this felt like the answer from Sega. Ryu could run, jump, wall jump, hang from platforms and swing up to platforms above while swiping enemies with his sword or blasting them with fireballs, ninja stars and other power ups. While some of the bosses were a bit more pathetic than others, there was a good variety of enemies and the game was generally really good fun. The whole game only took around an hour to complete but I did find myself replaying it on numerous occasions.
There were other games I first sampled on the Master System. Games like Populous, Lemmings, Sensible Soccer, Speedball, Streets of Rage and Zool were all in my library but my head was turned by the arrival of the Sega Mega Drive.
The 16-bit Mega Drive was an absolute wonder. It came with Sonic The Hedgehog which was a system seller in its own right. It was brash, fast and colourful. The speed of the game was like nothing we’d had up to that point. It was a massive commercial success for Sega and the battle between Sonic and Mario was symptomatic of the battle between Sega and Nintendo. While I had a lot of love for Super Mario World on the SNES, Sonic felt faster and the enemies and level design were more interesting for me (I appreciate I might get some heat for this statement). That first Green Hill Zone alone was enough to win me over.
I’d had some great times with Nintendo at friend’s houses. Tecmo Wrestling, Megaman, Mario Bros, Duck Hunt were all superb fun. When the SNES came with Super Mario World and Final Fight, there was a large part of me that was tugged towards that console but the Mega Drive had been out longer and had loads more games available for it at that point.
By the time I picked up the Mega Drive it had already seen the release of games like John Madden Football ‘92, Ecco The Dolphin, ToeJam & Earl, Road Rash and Desert Strike. Desert Strike, like a 16-bit Operation Gunship, was an obvious hit with me. As were the follow ups, Jungle Strike and Urban Strike. Madden was a huge improvement on Joe Montana Football and my love of the NFL continued apace with the annual releases that followed it.
Ecco The Dolphin was one of those weird titles. It was more famous for the ingenuity of its design than it was for gameplay, story or its characters. It was a massively popular title but it wasn’t a huge amount of fun. This was possibly the first “big name” title that ever really disappointed me. This was a new experience and something that today’s gamers find on an all too frequent basis. The characters were dull, the story was boring, the gameplay was lacking any kind of fun. I was so bitterly disappointed by it that I ended up trading it to a friend for ToeJam & Earl. Now this was a game that could only have happened in the 90s. Two alien rappers crash land on planet earth and have to piece together the parts of their ship in order to get back to their home planet. It looked pretty crappy but it had a charm that was missing from Ecco. It’s hard to describe this game as it didn’t seem to fit preconceived notions of genre. It seemed to be something all of its own, a unique experience. It kept unveiling little touches the more I played it, for example the two player co-op revealed a whole other side to the characters you didn’t see in the single-player game. In co-op the characters had a whole other level of dialogue that made it a different experience playing it with a friend. It was touches like this that makes this title stand out in my mind as something out of the ordinary and far better than the utterly pedestrian Ecco The Dolphin. If I remember rightly, there was next to no combat in it, the only way you could fend off enemies was by pelting them with tomatoes which was a pretty rare thing following the all-action games of the time.
Violence was definitely not in short supply in Road Rash, another of my favourite titles. I actually preferred Road Rash 2, just because it was smoother than the first and the combat worked better but what a game. Here you raced motorbikes across the USA with the winner taking home prize money that could allow them to upgrade to faster and better handling vehicles. There were no rules on how you finished first, the idea was to win by any means possible. This meant taking clubs and chains to other riders and the police who tried to stop you. It was fast, violent and fun. It was kind of a Deathrace 2000 with motorbikes. What I absolutely loved about Road Rash 2 was the little 8-bit animated shorts that played out at the end of each race depending on how you did. These ranged from smashing into the back of vehicles, falling out of ambulances, being stuffed into the boot of police cars and all kinds of other stuff. It brought some levity to the end of races, even when you failed. These little cartoons (with tons of cartoon violence) were perfect to lighten the tone of the game which could otherwise have taken itself way too seriously. It also helped to lighten the frustration of getting knocked off your bike a few yards from the finish line. This ability for games to not take themselves too seriously seems largely lost in today’s market of ultra-realistic graphics.
I think it was 1993 when I got Flashback and Streetfighter II.* Flashback was a Sci-Fi platform-puzzler. I remember it having the most iconic animated cutscenes and the coolest player character animations of any game I’d ever seen up to that point. They’d used an early form of motion capture to get the 2D character’s movements to look realistic so he climbed, dropped, rolled, ran, ducked and shot like a real person. I loved this game with a passion. It was dark, difficult and utterly dystopian. It was so cool! This was the game that really made me love Sci-fi as a genre. If you’ve never played it, go and get yourself a copy or find it on an emulator. It still holds up amazingly well to this day. I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who has never played it but I thought it was brilliant. My mind may be clouded by nostalgia but I remember this game having a plot straight out of a Philip K. Dick novel. It was utterly amazing. It still ranks in my top gaming experiences of all time.
Speaking of which… Streetfighter II. What. A. Game. For me, the greatest fighting game of all time. While there have been technical improvements in the series over the years, this game stands alone as one of the best designed and perfectly balanced games ever created. My embarrassing secret? I sucked at it. I wanted to be great at it and poured God knows how many hours into it but I absolutely sucked at it. I became so embarrassed at how bad I was at it, that I actually hid it when friends came round in case they wanted to play against me. Yup, I was that bad. I think this game being so amazing and me sucking at it so utterly, completely ruined the fighting genre for me.
* There are also honourable mentions for Disney’s Aladdin, Streets of Rage and Gunstar Heroes which also launched in 1993. I credit Aladdin with the spiritual predecessor of the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time series while Gunstar Heroes was possibly the most fun run and gun game ever produced.
1993 also saw the release of FIFA International Soccer and NHL ’94. This was the first year of FIFA, back when they were cutting edge, had no official team licensing and only contained international teams. They were both stunning games and provided simulated sporting experiences better than anything I’d experienced to date. They were both massively successful games and deservedly so, they were just so much fun. FIFA came at the right time for me, with the Keegan era underway in Newcastle kindling my love of the beautiful game. If you can remember names like Dieter Myer, then you knew FIFA when it was a truly great game.
1994 saw the release of FIFA ’95 (with club teams), Cannon Fodder, Earthworm Jim, Urban Strike and Mega Bomberman. This would probably be one of my favourite years for gaming.
Cannon Fodder, for anyone who was unlucky enough never to have played it, was a military strategy game from the makers of Sensible Soccer. It had a similar top-down, cartoony style with a real sense of humour to it. You controlled a squad of up to five (I think) soldiers who had to go behind enemy lines to undertake progressively tougher missions. The beauty of this game, aside from the anti-war message it promoted, was that it made you care for your squad in a way that no game had ever managed before. As your squad members would suffer permadeath if killed, you were genuinely heartbroken when you lost a soldier who had been through numerous missions with you. This feature may not sound so groundbreaking to our younger followers but this was the first game to make me really care for its characters. I’m not sure any game has managed to do this quite so well since.
Earthworm Jim was one of those bizarre titles where you wonder how the concept got off the ground at all. A super powered suit falls to earth where an ordinary earthworm, Jim, crawls into it and takes on its special abilities to become a super powered hero. I couldn’t remember the aim of the game but, after a quick Google search, I was reminded that it was to rescue a princess called What’s Her Name. The facial animations of Jim were funny, the level design was superb and the situations Jim was put in were often hilarious. This also translated to the enemies and bosses who were some of the most bizarre characters ever designed. This kind of carefree humour ran throughout the game with Jim being a quick-witted and comedic hero who often broke the fourth wall when he died or when he was left idle for too long. The concept was daft but it was done with such good humour and comic style that it worked really well. It was a huge hit at the time and is another title which holds up pretty well today.
Mega Bomberman was the Mega Drive version of Super Bomberman. If I’m honest, I preferred the SNES version which I played at friends houses whenever I got the chance. It makes my list because it was so addictive. Not for the single player game, which was actually pretty dull, but for the multiplayer which was incredible fun. I’d get ridiculously competitive with this game. The main aim of the multiplayer was to be the last player standing from up to 6 players or CPU controlled Bombermen. The idea was to kill your enemies by trapping them between blocked off areas and your bomb blasts. Power ups could change the kinds of explosions your bombs caused, extending their reach or firing them over walls, etc. It was quite tactical, requiring thought as well as good reactions to be really good at it. For me, this would’ve been my ideal E-Sport title. Someone make it happen!
Again, there could’ve been a hundred more games on this list but these titles were the ones that stuck out most when I looked back. I’ll give honourable mention to Theme Park, Castlevania, Mortal Kombat 2, James Pond: Underwater Agent and Micro Machines which were also amazing titles that I could’ve written about at length too. How about you? Which games stick in your memory from these days? Any glaring omissions from the Mega Drive / Genesis days that I should’ve played?