Monday, July 22, 2019

The Essential Summer Games of the Sega Genesis

Sunshine, 16-bit graphics and glorious, glorious Yamaha YM2612 music … what more could you ask for?

By: Jimbo X

It’s no secret that the Sega Genesis (or, as you Europeans call it, the Mega Drive) is probably my all-time favorite console. There’s just so many great games, across so many different genres, with such an idiosyncratic style — and with such cool fucking audiovisual aesthetics — that I can’t help but smile from ear-to-ear all these years later whenver I think about that lovely, lima bean-shaped control pad. Long story short, the Sega Genesis pretty much WAS my elementary school years, and it holds a special place in the nostalgic longings of my heart that’s pretty much unrivaled by anything that isn’t called Dunkaroos. 

Of course, with so many great, diverse games taking residence in the console library, it’s not hard to assemble a playing setlist for just about any random-ass purpose and/or motif. There’s definitely enough material on the Genesis to stock a “31 Days of Halloween” itinerary, as well as one dedicated to nothing but kick-ass football games, or comic-book inspired games, or boxing games or crappy movies that got translated into way better video games than they probably should’ve been. And with that in mind, you better believe there were enough games on the Genesis to inspire a top ten countdown of quintessential summertime Sega software.

You might be wondering what qualifies a title to meet the summertime game classification. Well, to make things simple, these are the games that just plain carry an air of summeryness within the guts and gore of their 16-bit cartridges. Oftentimes, this is apparent by the inclusion of some archetypical summer aesthetic — you know, beaches, sunny weather, palm trees, basically every sliver of stereotypical synthwave iconography you can think of. But the games also tend to have a steeper difficulty curve (or are just plain longer) than most Genny games, in turn giving gamers a challenge that often takes months to triumph over — which, as fate would have it, is just about long enough to fill the gap in between school-years. And thirdly — and this is a totally unscientific, wholly objective metric on my part — these games just feel like they’re meant to be played in a sweltering living room, with sweat dripping all over your control pad, a bug zapper humming in the background and the ice cubes in your Pepsi liquifying before you can even pop the soda can top. 

So yes, it’s a very precise kind of game but a very imprecise kind of game at the same time, but the same way Oliver Wendell Holmes knew porn when he saw it, I likewise know a summery Sega Genesis game as soon as I lay my peepers on it. And with the most sweltering of seasons (at least in the northern hemisphere, which coincidentally, is the only hemisphere that really matters) upon us, I reckon now is as good a time as any to pay respects to the following, oh-so-fitting seasonally appropriate software ...

Cool Spot (1993)
Developer: Virgin Games USA
Publisher: Virgin Games

Considering the entire first stage of this game takes place on one of the best-rendered beach levels in all of 16-bit gaming, I suppose it’s only natural that when one thinks “summery Sega Genesis games” that this shameless, product-placement-strewn platformer would immediately spring to mind. But even as the backdrops in the title shifted to some weirder (and creepier) aesthetics, like humongous toy chests with vacant-eyed, mongoloid looking baby dolls everywhere, Cool Spot was nonetheless able to retain a certain seasonal vibe, thanks in no small part to its funky-ass, Calypso-inspired soundtrack. That, and the post level-clearing mini-games that take place in giant cans of 7-Up will definitely get you thirstin’ for a tall, foamy, carbonated beverage of your choosing — the jury’s still out, however, on whether or not the code to unlock everything is “FUCK SPRITE,” though.

Crusader of Centy (1994)
Developer: Nextech
Publisher: Atlus Software

It seems like every summer in my youth I immersed myself in at least one epic RPG-style adventure spanning the entire season, and there’s no better game of the sort to be found on the Genesis than Crusader of Centy. While at first glance this game may appear to be a half-hearted Zelda rip-off, it’s actually a pretty damn good top-down action/adventure that, as far as I’m concerned, is every bit as enjoyable as A Link to the Past if not significantly BETTER in several departments. While the game may start of feeling about as original as Mr. Pibb, it doesn’t take long for Crusader of Centy to come into a life of his own, complete with some intense environmental effects (i.e., tornadoes that impede your jumping, quicksand obstacles out the asshole, etc.) and a really cool power-up system that sees your character morph into all sorts of wacky beasts and monsters to defeat certain enemies and unlock particular portions of the game world. Throw in some outstanding level design and some truly awesome boss fights — plus a cameo by a certain iconic Sega mascot or two — and you have yourself the essential summertime action-adventure odyssey for the Genesis; think you can beat it before school starts back, tough guy?

Disney’s Aladdin (1993)
Developer: Virgin Games
Publisher: Sega

Three games, I wholeheartedly believe, propelled the Sega Genesis over the SNES in the battle for marketplace supremacy: Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Mortal Kombat and this game, which is easily one of the best animated games from any genre on any system from the 16-bit era. While it’s definitely a very, very good game, I’ve always thought it was just mildly overrated, although to its credit, it’s certainly stood the test of time rather well (and needless to say, it wallops the dog shit out of that watered-down version SNES owners received.) I suppose the whole desert thematic makes it a perfect fit for a summertime gaming sojour, but really, this whole thing just reeks of hot weather ephemera. Of course, Aladdin also has a well-earned reputation for being one of the most sphincter-blistering hard games on the Sega Genesis, with most gamers way back when being unable to see anything beyond that infamously brutal lava stage. Aye, if you’re looking for the definition of a quixotic virtual undertaking, attempting to defeat Jafar’s cheap ass at the tail end of this game would make for quite the summertime project — just don’t get mad at me when you end up giving your Genny the old Macho Man Randy Savage elbow out of sheer frustration.

Greendog! The Beached Surfer Dude (1992)
Developer: Sega Technical Institute
Publisher: Sega

In the wake of Sonic’s success, EVERYBODY was trying to create the next, great, super-hip platforming mascot of the 1990s — and that includes Sega themselves. To put it delicately, the suits at Sega certainly didn’t strike lightning twice with Greendog!, a weird, tropical-themed platformer-actioner with some REALLY wonky character designs. Not only does your avatar not have ANY facial features, almost 30 years down the road I’m still not sure if that tuft of yellow on his noggin is supposed to be his hair or a straw hat. Yes, The Beached Surfer Dog (probably best remembered for being a staple on Nick Arcade) has a lot of issues (the jumping mechanics, quite frankly, are utter dookie), but it ALMOST makes up for those core deficiencies with a great soundtrack and some inventively-designed levels that incorporate lots of exploration and challenging platforming components. And come on — how can you not love the scuba diving and gyrocopter stages?

Jurassic Park (1993)
Developer: BlueSky Software
Publisher: Sega

This game just feels like you’re stuck in a hot, sweltering jungle with mosquitoes the size of footballs flying around while you’re sweating liters into your gym socks. Of course, considering the game itself canonically takes place inside a Central American rainforest-turned-dinosaur-theme-park-turned-reptile-apocalypse-simulator, that’s for good reason. While Jurassic Park is clearly a game that has its faults (when I went back and replayed it recently, it was actually astonished by just how bad the collision detection was), on the whole it’s still a fairly fun action-platformer with some really well-designed levels. And, of course, it also has the preposterously fun “raptor mode,” where you get to hop inside the scales of a nine-foot-tall, literally cold-blooded killing machine that can somehow jump 20 feet in the air and kill grown men with machine guns just by kinda’ nudging into ‘em. From an objective standpoint, the Rampage Edition follow-up from a year later is the much better game, but I think this one has a charm and appeal all its own, and certainly, one that lends itself to plenty of late July gaming sessions … and the closer the outdoor temp is to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the better.

MLBPA Sports Talk Baseball (1992)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

Of course, you really can’t have a countdown of the most summery Sega Genesis games without dredging up the digital boys of summer, and for my money there is no better baseball offering on the Genny than this pioneering little cartridge. While running commentary in sports video games now is a total afterthought, the idea of having play-by-play in a home video game back in the day was totally novel, if not technologically astounding. While this isn’t the first Genesis game to feature such pioneering mechanics (that credit goes to Joe Montana: Sports Talk Football, which came out a couple of months earlier), it’s arguable that MLBPA incorporated the feature even better — yes, even if some of Lon Simmons’ commentary is recycled, including the infamously (and unintentionally) hilarious memetic line “he dropped the ball … I can’t believe it.” To be fair, the lack of any official team names, logos or uniforms sucks some of the fun out of the experience, but at least the game includes most of the biggest baseball player names of the early 1990s (you know, as if you’d even think about picking any team besides Glavine and Maddox’s Braves.) Factor in some solid pitching, a fun batting interface and outfield controls that, for a change, don’t suck and you’ve got yourself a 16-bit baseball game well worth going out of your way to experience right here.

Olympic Gold: Barcelona ‘92 (1992)
Developer: Tiertex
Publisher: U.S. Gold

Well, it don’t make much sense to do a countdown like this and gloss over the Summer Olympics, does it? Even if you’re not a fan of the Olympiads, there’s probably at least one or two mini-games contained in Olympic Gold: Barcelona ‘92 that you’ll enjoy in short intervals. While some of the mini-events in the game are pretty much your expected fare (i.e., the track and field events where you have to give yourself carpal tunnel syndrome to come in first place), a couple of the other attractions are surprisingly addictive — I mean, who would have ever found virtual pole vaulting to be this fun? I’ve played a lot of compilation games like this over the years, and I can safely say this one has one of the better high diving mini-events, and the hammer toss actually does turn out to be a shockingly fun multiplayer activity. Alas, the REAL reason to check out this game is for the archery event, which has to be one of the funnest micro-games you’ll find in any 16-bit sports comp. Grab you a sixer of your favorite frothy beverage and link up that dusty old Team Player — I think you’ll be agog over just how much fun it is playing virtual bow-and-arrows against your friends when all over your in-game avatars have shakier grips than Michael J. Fox after a caffeine drip enema.

Taz-Mania (1992)
Developer: Recreational Brainware
Publisher: Sega

Now here’s a game that I’ve always thought did WAY more to move Genesis units than people have given it credit for. If you grew up in the 1990s and didn’t live in an abusive household with strict fundamentalist leanings, odds are you were quite keen on the Saturday morning Fox Kids line-up. And while we, lamentably, never got a 16-bit Super Dave Osborne video game, Sega was deft enough to license a game based on Taz-Mania, which I think we can all agree had the single catchiest theme song of anything ever. Well, although I was never that big of a fan of the cartoon, as soon as I saw this fucker being demoed at Toys R Us I was besotted. The beautiful, pastel visuals made it look just like the TV show, and the animations just beat the dogshit out of anything going on with the SNES at the time frame. While one could argue that Taz-Mania is an example of a game looking much better than it plays (a valid criticism, considering the game often controls like a way too slippery Sonic the Hedgehog), the game still has plenty of aesthetic and nostalgia appeal, and the level design — especially on that one arctic tundra stage — just scream “play this shit in the middle of July for no real reason whatsoever.” That said, allow me to speak on behalf of everybody who were between the ages of 6 and 14 between the years 1992-1995 in the United States when I say “motherfuck whoever designed that one minecart level, and hard.”

Turbo Outrun (1992)
Developer: Tiertex
Publisher: Sega

I’d be an irredeemable crackhead if I told you this was the best version of Outrun on the Genesis — hell, I’d be an irredeemable crackhead if I told you this was a “good game,” period. But what Turbo Outrun — which, for the record, was never officially released in the United States — offers that the other franchise game doesn’t, I reckon, is a pronounced sense of early ‘90s ephemera. The original Outrun felt like a product of the Reagan years, while Outrun 2019 had more of a chintzy cyberpunk vibe going on; meanwhile, Turbo Outrun comes off as something of a poor man’s Cruis'n' USA, which is pretty ironic, considering the arcade version of Turbo Outrun actually came out HALF A DECADE before that far more famous (and more beloved) coin-op racer hit the market. Of course, the thing that makes this game really appealing is just how unrealistic the landscapes are; apparently, the Japanese think Atlanta is an arctic tundra, while the Indianapolis skyline is dotted by lava-spewing calderas. Aye, if you can overlook the tinny-sounding music and screeching sound effects, you might actually be able to enjoy the holistic experience — although to be honest with you, fam, you might need a couple of chemical stimulants to get you through the repetitive tracks, especially since this one, inexplicably, is sans branching paths OR a multiplayer mode.

X-Men (1993)
Developer: Western Technologies, Inc.
Publisher: Sega

This game just feels like it was meant to be played when the temperature is above 90 degrees and the air conditioner is half broken and you can literally smell the ice cubes in your Diet Pepsi liquifying due to the humidity. That the game’s first stage takes place in a sweltering, bug-ridden jungle (which, canonically, is in the middle of Antarctica, but that’s an aside) only makes the summery bent all the more pronounced, and since so much of the core gameplay is exploration-based you can definitely lose yourself just wandering to and fro the game’s spacious levels. Of course, this is a game with some pretty big flaws — there’s a LOT of flickering, and the boss fights against the likes of Mojo and Apocalypse are extremely frustrating — but the controls are decent, the music is just so idiosyncratically Genesis and it’s such a hoot seeing absurd baddies like Zeldane and Ahab that the cartridge keeps sucking you in, no matter how many times it makes you want to call your TV set the n-word. In short? It’s precisely the kind of game tailor-made for a short-lived, summertime digital dailance — that is, if the final fight against Magneto doesn’t goad you into launching your control pad through the CRT screen.


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