Monday, August 12, 2013

The 50 Greatest Sega CD Games of All-Time! (PART THREE -- #030 to #021)

A five-part countdown celebrating the best games the Sega CD had to offer! 


Hey You! Looking for the Previous Installments in this Series?

PART ONE, counting down games #050 to #041, can be found right here.
PART TWO, counting down games #040 to #031, can be found right here.
PART THREE, counting down games #030 to #021, can be found right here.
PART FOUR, counting down games #020 to #011, can be found right here.
PART FIVE, counting down games #010 to #01, can be found right here.

For what it’s worth the Sega CD (known as the Mega CD in Europe) might just be the single most underrated console in the history of video gaming. Considered a proverbial laughingstock by gamers that have hardly spent any time at all with the system, the Sega CD was actually a pretty damn good little console, stocked with plenty of killer console exclusives, graphically and musically superior special editions of 16-bit classics, and even a couple of standout genre offerings that, sadly, have become outmoded in today’s all-too-familiar virtual world. Come on, you know you miss side scrolling shoot ‘em ups and digital comic books as much as I do…

After tackling a list of the best the Sega Dreamcast had to offer, I thought long and hard about which console I wanted to focus on for my next countdown. Seeing as how the unsung, unheralded Sega CD generally gets about as much recognition and praise as gonorrhea, I figured the criminally underappreciated console was absolutely perfect the “Top 50” treatment. For those of you that had the honor of owning and playing through some of these classic games (many of which remain under-the-radar gems to this day), consider this a fond recollection and celebration of what once was, and for all of you young whippersnappers that equate the console with “pure fail?” Something tells me that’s a tune you’re going to change in a hurry after seeing everything you’ve missed out on.

As for the criteria for the list, I was pretty lax and subjective. Ever the jingoistic American that I am, I decided that only games that were given North American releases, while the Sega CD was still in production, should qualify as candidates, so no obscure-ass Japan-only SHMUPs or home-brew RPGs some dude made in his basement in 2008 are in contention here.

As always, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own, and your list would surely differ. That said, whose ready to take things to THE NEXT LEVEL?

#030
Ecco the Dolphin CD



Superior to the Genesis original in just about every way, I tend to think of “Ecco” on the Sega CD as the “Criterion Collection” iteration of the game. Not only do you get a much-improved soundtrack, the Sega CD version of the game also includes a new checkpoint system (which makes the game infinitely less frustrating than its Genesis progenitor) as well as six new levels to explore.

Of course, “Ecco” is an easy game to discount. When the game first boots up, the objectives are so abstract…and the control scheme so unusual…that it seems like the game is nothing more than a slapdash, weirdo experiment meant to capitalize on the marine biology boom kicked off by “Free Willy.” However, once you get into the meat of the game, you’ll come to discover the game’s enchanting nuances and subtleties. There’s quite a number of side quests to partake of, and you can easily spend hours upgrading your porpoise with different songs, which more or less act as sonic death rays and all-purpose puzzle skeleton keys. Much like the ocean itself, there is a LOT lurking underneath the surface on this one.

The visuals are very good, and the gameplay, while unorthodox, gets pretty comfortable after you spend a few afternoons with the title. The enemies are quite interesting, and I like how the difficulty of the game progresses (although if you level up early, the game actually tends to get easier as it chugs along.) The latter stages get really freaky (be prepared to do battle with trilobites and space aliens), and you might be surprised by just how long the overall experience is (it took me 30 hours to beat the game on my first play through.) Somewhere between “Sonic”, “Metroid” and “The Little Mermaid,” there exists “Ecco”…and if you’ve never played the game before, you might be surprised by what you’ve been missing out on.

#029
Flashback: The Quest for Identity


At the time of its initial release, the graphics in “Flashback” were utterly amazing. Polygonal graphics, on a 16-bit machine? Not only did “Flashback” do it before “Star Fox,” if you ask me, the guys at U.S. Gold actually did it better than Nintendo!

If you’ve ever played “Out of this World” or “Heart of the Alien” before, you know what to expect with “Flashback.” With a solid storyline (or at least, a fairly solid storyline compared to “Donkey Kong Country” or “Streets of Rage”), excellent animation and satisfying trial-and-error gameplay, “Flashback” was the kind of game that was both a cerebral joy and a cerebral headache to experience. As one of the most intellectual side-scrolling platform-action titles of the early 1990s, there’s no denying that “Flashback” is a watershed genre title…and without question, the Sega CD version of the game is the highest quality console iteration of the offering out there.

As expected, the Sega CD version gets an all-new soundtrack, and since the hardware allows FMV, we end up getting a completely re-done opening cinematic that kicks the crap out of what SNES and Genesis owners were given. The gameplay and level layout, however, remains quite similar to the cartridge iterations of the title, although a slight visual upgrade can be detected in the CD-ROM version. The title is every bit as challenging as its cart-based forerunners, with mind-bending death traps on literally every screen…and old school game through and through, you might want to keep a notepad handy to aid you in your adventures. Despite being pretty difficult at times, it’s a rather short experience, sadly -- I say I’d take most grizzled gamers a week, two weeks tops to conquer it -- but for those of you that had never had the privilege of playing “Flashback” before? This Sega-CD version is DEFINITELY your best way to experience it.

#028  
Heart of the Alien


In tenth grade English class, you probably had to read “Of Mice and Men.” Well, “Heart of the Alien” is more or less the exact same story, only Lennie is now a nine foot tall pink alien that can pick up boulders. And also, it takes place on an alien world, with laser whips and death traps galore. OK, so in retrospect, maybe the game has more in common with “Enemy Mine” than Steinbeck’s classic novel, but what isn’t debatable is just how awesome this game is.

“Heart of the Alien” is a sequel to “Out of this World,” a super-popular, highly-influential action-platformer that was among the first console games to deliver gamers both cinematic cut scenes and polygonal graphics. What makes “Heart of the Alien” unique is that it’s a Sega-CD exclusive, so if you never owned the add-on, you never got a chance to play the game otherwise (emulators don’t count, of course.)

The game is more or less a role reversal of the original game, with the player taking control of the alien assist character from the “Out of this World” (and if you never played that game before? No problemo, because it’s actually included, in its entirety, on this disc!) The visuals are outstanding, the soundtrack is fantastic and the way the story is so seamlessly merged within the gameplay though brief cut scenes clearly paved the way for titles like “Metal Gear Solid” and “Oddworld.” Of course, the big drawback here is the insanely unforgiving trial and error gameplay, which results in deaths a plenty; that said, the overall experience of the title -- with its impressive, cinematic atmospherics and engrossing gameplay, not to mention the two-for-one deal --makes it an absolute must-play for Sega CD owners.

#027 
Vay


When it came to third party support, there’s no denying that Working Designs was one of the Sega CD’s MVPs (most valuable publishers.) For the architects behind several of the console’s classic titles (several of which you’ll be seeing later on in the countdown), “Vay” seems to be the publisher’s forgotten Sega CD gem…a major disappointment, considering just how solid the game turned out.

On the surface, “Vay” is your standard JRPG. You play a somewhat stereotypical anime-styled hero, and you spend the first few levels of the game slaying enemies over and over. Of course, as the game progresses, more characters join your party, and you go from being a weak-ass sprite to a walking death machine, loaded with all sorts of cool weapons and magical abilities. So yeah, as stated earlier -- it’s your basic JRPG, through and through.

What makes “Vay” stand out from the fray are a few things. First and foremost, it’s a high-quality, traditional RPG on the Sega CD -- a console that really didn’t have that many high-caliber genre offerings to choose from. Secondly, both the animation and the sound design are terrific -- there’s a really simplistic, albeit distinct, style to both the graphics and the music that’s quite enchanting, without being too extravagant. And lastly, the game is both SUPER long -- be prepared to sink in about 20 hours on a blind play through, at the minimum -- and extraordinarily challenging, with a final boss fight that is among the toughest I’ve ever experienced. Needless to say, if you’re a hardcore RPG fan in need of something to tide you over on the Sega CD, “Vay” ought to be more than enough to keep you occupied for some time.

#026 
The Masked Rider: Kamen Rider Zero


When I say “Masked Rider,” you probably think about that one “Power Rangers”-esque show that used to come on back in the mid-90s, which had that little alien dude in it that was more or less a “Furby” before “Furbies” were even released (shit, the name of the character was “Ferbus,” for crying aloud!) Well, that show was actually based on the long-running “Kamen Rider” series, which was kinda’ like “Ultraman,” and in 1994, the iconic Japanese superhero got his own Sega CD game (which I am almost certain predates that Americanized kids show, too.)

As far as FMV games go, I think this has to be the best live-action offering on the console. While the “gameplay” is limited mostly to quick time events, the overall presentation in “The Masked Rider” is simply fantastic, doing what pretty much every other FMV game on the console wished it could do. “The Masked Rider,” as such, is more or less an interactive, awesomely cheesy B-Movie, and if you can’t enjoy yourself while kung-fu-ing giant bug monsters…while dressed as a dude in a plastic mantis costume…you, good sir or madam, need a listen or two on what this whole “living” thing is all about.

The game, while super-short and super-easy, is pretty damn fun while it lasts. It may sound weird, but I think “The Masked Rider” makes for a perfect social gathering experience -- you pour back some brews, crank up the volume on your CRT-TV, and “play” what is essentially an hour long episode of “Power Rangers.” (And yes, I know there actually was a “Power Rangers” game on the Sega CD, but trust me…this one is WAY better.) There’s not a lot of longevity to be found here, but as a singular “gaming” experience? This is a game I would highly recommend playing once or twice, if only for the sheer novelty (and nostalgia) of it all.

#025 
Panic!


Data-East’s “Panic!” (called “Switch!” in Japan) is the sort of game that Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali would really have appreciated. Years before games like “WarioWare” and “Katamari Damacy” got all the credit for kicking off the “abstract surrealist” movement in video game, this unsung (and at the time, quite despised) Sega CD title was weirding everybody out way before it was cool to be self-reflexive and intentionally indecipherable.

“Panic!”, at its core, is a very simplistic puzzle game, anchored entirely around trial-and-error gameplay. In the title, you control a young boy and his dog, who get sucked inside a Sega CD in order to combat a worldwide computer virus pandemic that’s threatening the whole of civility (and keep in mind, this game came out a good six years before the Y2K brouhaha.) Gameplay consists almost entirely of pressing buttons on a virtual keypad -- one option allows you to “complete” a puzzle and move on to the next stage, while the others halt you dead in your tracks. It’s extraordinarily simple, I know, but the presentation and humor of the title makes it an obscure offering well worth exploring.

So what sort of madcap antics does “Panic!” entail, you may be wondering? How about a room filled with snow that turns to poop, a vomiting Frankenstein monster, a killer toilet, and a puzzle involving trophies that come alive and literally start shaking their asses at you? Believe it or not, those are actually some of the more reserved elements of the game; and if my description of the title hasn’t piqued your curiosity yet, I’m not quite sure what you’re doing reading this countdown to begin with.

#024 
The Secret of Monkey Island


For kids in the early ‘90s that didn’t have high end computers, the Sega CD was pretty much our only means of experiencing PC-titles like “The Secret of Monkey Island,” a seminal LucasArts offering that stands out as one of the decade’s finest classical adventure titles.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave since 1989, you’ll know that Lucas Arts (at the time of this game’s release, named LucasFilm Games) was responsible for some of the finest point-and-click personal computer games ever. Simply put, “The Secret of Monkey Island” is the kind of title that just wasn’t doable on the Genesis or SNES, due to the extremely high-quality music and sound effects. Granted, the graphics and animations were quite substandard compared to the PC iteration of the game (not to mention there’s a ton of lacking content), but on the whole? “Monkey Island” is a fun, challenging and immersive adventure title that’s at least worth a playthrough or two.

More or less, this title is “The Princess Bride: The Game.” You take control of  a wisecracking pirate, who finds himself in all sorts of wacky adventures. The gameplay is pretty diverse, but for the most part, you’ll be exploring rooms for certain objects and engaging in discourse with non-playable-characters. And, of course, you have plenty of dialogue options to choose from, which are frequently quite humorous and self-parodying. Overall, the gameplay, while somewhat rudimentary, is quite enjoyable, and the plotline is an absolute hoot and a half to play through. Even the visuals aren’t that shabby; for adventure game fans, it’s definitely one of the best offerings to be found on the system.

#023 
Dark Wizard


“Dark Wizard” is, unmistakably, a primitive looking game. The opening animations are very crude, and the game’s sprites are almost laughably minimalist. While the game may not be much to look at, “Dark Wizard” does, however, manage to bring the goods in the form of a fantastic soundtrack and super-complex, highly satisfying hexagonal strategy action, with one of the richest narratives of any game on the console.

If you’ve played games like “Final Fantasy Tactics” or “Ogre Battle 64” before, you know what to expect here. While the gameplay is fairly slow compared to more modern strategy offerings, there’s no denying the depth of the experience; unlike “pop-strategy” games ala “Advance Wars,” this is a title that’s built from the ground up to satisfy the most hardcore of the hardcore.

One of the things I really dug about the game was its’ “Rashomon”-like storyline, in which four separate plotlines merge into a single narrative towards the end of the game. As before, the visuals may be uninspiring, but the addictive, bare-bones gameplay certainly makes up for the title’s aesthetic shortcomings. The replay value on this one is much higher than most Sega CD offerings, and of course, you can always go back and revisit battles, applying different techniques and approaches…should we use the serpents by sea and then pound the enemies with a rock monster onslaught, or vice versa? For Sega CD owners eyeing a more cerebral challenge than the norm, “Dark Wizard” is a title well worth tracking down.

#022 
Road Rash CD


Every console has that “a-ha!” moment where you become a believer in the new hardware. Seeing “Castle of Illusion’s” graphics for the first time sold me on the Genesis, and running around with the analog controller in “Super Mario 64” sold me on Nintendo’s last cartridge-based home console. For me, the moment that absolutely MADE the Sega CD worth owning was seeing this game boot up for the first time, and hearing Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” start blaring over the opening cinematic. Hearing actual, ass-kicking music on a video game console instead of your standard bleeps and bloops? Yeah, that “Sega CD” hardware got added to my Christmas list, and in a hurry.

“Road Rash CD” is more or less a port of a 3DO version of “Road Rash” released the same year as the Sega CD iteration. While the title doesn’t look as crisp as that iteration, the game is certainly an improvement -- aesthetically and visually -- over the Sega Genesis series of racing games. With a soundtrack featuring such alt-rock titans as Monster Magnet and Therapy?, the title was sheer, white-knuckle arcade fun; but beyond the thrills and chills, the game also had a substantial amount of depth underneath its hood.

#021 
Batman Returns 



There was a “Batman Returns” tie-in on virtually every console out there back in 1992, and pretty much all of them were great. What makes the Sega CD game different from the others is that it’s more or less two games in one -- a really good platform-action title (think, the first “Batman” game released on the NES) and a really, really good arcade-driving game. 

The platform stages are pretty straightforward. You have all of the standard Bat-gadgets to play around with, and the combat is quite enjoyable. Ultimately, the levels could have been a little more diverse, but as a basic side scrolling action title, it’s more than acceptable. Where the game truly shines, however, are the driving stages, which almost play out alike EA’s “Burnout” series of games…only intensified with machine gun turrets and rocket launchers. The controls here are very, very smooth, and the vehicular combat aspects are expertly designed. Imagine a combination of “Top Gear” and “Spy Hunter,” and you pretty much have the idea here. And that final “driving” sequence, in the sewer system? That, my friends, is reason ENOUGH to give this game a play. 

The music is really good (although it doesn’t utilize the Danny Elfman score from the movie to any capacity), and while a little blurry, the visuals, especially during the driving sequences, are a bit better than the console’s norm. Way back when, this was one of the titles that really made the Sega CD stand out from the SNES and Genesis; and as a testament to the game’s quality, it’s still pretty damn fun to this day.

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