The Sega Genesis stands as one of the all-time best video game systems. Don’t believe me? IGN ranked it number five in its countdown of the 25 best. PC Mag picked it number four. Only the almighty Nintendo Entertainment System, Sony PlayStation 2, and Atari 2600 outweigh Genesis’ cultural and commercial significance.
Sega Genesis (a.k.a. Sega Mega Drive outside North America) was introduced in 1997 and sold around 40 million units in its lifetime. It even spawned two mildly successful add-ons, Sega CD and 32X, as well as the Sega Nomad handheld player. There was even a Sega Channel offered by some cable TV companies that would download games to your system.
The console is often compared to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System but Nintendo’s 16 bit game was introduced a full two years after the Genesis. Even at the height of the battle between these two legendary systems, Genesis/Mega Drive was able to maintain a lead in most markets.
For me the Genesis will forever be known as the console of my college years. It was a standard sight in most dorm rooms. My friends and I spent a big portion of our free time battling head-to-head in various games like Joe Montana Football, EA’s NHL series, or one of the popular golf games. Because of our sports obsession and competitive drive we really never stepped outside of Genesis’ sports games. Even when I bought a second-hand Genesis off eBay a few years back, I got only the sports games that I had loved.
I recently pulled out my Core System and enjoyed myself once again reliving time on NHL ’94. But it also got me thinking, what games was I missing? Almost assuredly, the sports cartridges didn’t represent the best the console had to offer. That’s when my nerdiness got in the way of my geekiness.
Go-to site for aggregate scores on games and movies, Metacritic was the first destination in my search for Genesis’ best. They do maintain a list of legacy platform games but it only goes back as far as the Sega Dreamcast. Bummer. That means I have to endure all the random best-of lists on retro gaming sites. I quickly realized that candidates vary greatly—no two best-of lists are the same.
Here’s where my nerdy brain stepped in. I thought I should compile these listings into a somewhat definitive Best of the Best. Such a chart would be a great resource as I expand into other Genesis genres. But I also knew it’d take a lot of work. It would mean numerous hours well wasted.
So that’s just what I did.
Surprisingly, the hardest part was just finding ranked lists of Genesis games on the web. I had to draw upon on all of my Google skills to pull just 10 enumerated charts totaling at least 25 games. I fed the lists into a spreadsheet and scored each game based on their rankings. Twenty-five points for a number one, 24 to a game slotted second, and so on. That diligence produced this all-knowing table of Genesis’ best.
|Rank||Game (List Appearances)||Year||Genre||Points|
|1||Gunstar Heroes (10)||1993||Shooter/Side Scroller||175|
|2||Streets of Rage 2 (8)||1992||Fighting||155|
|3||Phantasy Star IV (7)||1993||RPG||142|
|4||Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (8)||1994||Platform||126|
|5||Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (6)||1992||Platform||118|
|6||Shining Force II (8)||1993||Tactical RPG||112|
|7||Sonic the Hedgehog (6)||1991||Platform||106|
|8||Castlevania: Bloodlines (5)||1994||Platform||82|
|9||Earthworm Jim (4)||1994||Shooter/Side Scroller||73|
|10||Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master (5)||1993||Action||72|
|11||NHL ’94 (5)||1993||Sports/Hockey||68|
|12||Beyond Oasis (6)||1994||Action RPG||67|
|13||Kid Chameleon (3)||1992||Platform||63|
|14||Contra: Hard Corps (5)||1994||Shooter/Side Scroller||61|
|15||Golden Axe (5)||1989||Fighting||57|
There you have it. It’s an overwhelming consensus. Gunstar Heroes grabbed top spot by making a lofty appearance on all 10 of the feature lists. It’s quite an accomplishment considering 110 distinct cartridges graced these 10 Best-Of lists.
A few other standouts to note: The tactical RPG game Warsong only made it onto two lists but ranked one and three on them. Landstalker, an action RPG from 1992, appeared on the majority of the lists but averaged just a 18.5 ranking so it didn’t crack the Top 15 above. That game even had sequels on the SNES, Saturn, and Dreamcast.
It’s definitely worth mentioning the individual lists that were combined to make this chart. You can tell these contributors spent a lot of time in front of the Genesis and still love the platform.
- Brad Hates Games Top 50 (#1 game TBD)
- Complex Top 100 (#1 Gunstar Heroes)
- Dorkly Top 25 (#1 Sonic Series)
- Gamer NY on Amazon Top 25 (#1 Warsong)
- GamesRadar Top 25 (#1 Phantasy Star IV)
- Melted Joystick Top 43 (#1 Kid Chameleon)
- Retro Junk Top 40 (#1 NHL ’94)
- Retro Sanctuary Top 100 (#1 Sonic the Hedgehog 3)
- SlappyIndigo’s Listal Top 50 (#1 Sonic the Hedgehog)
- Top 10 Reviews Top 73 (#1 Sonic the Hedgehog)
Again, I only included enumerated lists of 25 or more and only include the best 25 on each. Big thanks to Brad Lawrence of Brad Hates Games. He’s still in the process of counting down his top 50 but was kind enough to divulge the remainder to me so I could compile them here. Be sure to check out his extensive and often funny summaries. I won’t spoil his number one but it is unique amongst the others. Oh, and Dorkly wimped out. That author combined all the Sonic games into one entry which forced me to split those points amongst the four games equally. Boo to you, Dorkly.
Terrific retro gaming site Racketboy doesn’t have an overall best Genesis games list. Rather, it offers a tremendous amount of resources on the format. They’ve got guides for all the best genres as well as a trusty collection of rare and valuable Genesis/Megadrive cartridges. I highly recommend a visit if you have even a passing interest in Genesis, or any older platform for that matter.
But Wait, There’s More
There’s a big reason why I wrote this article’s headline in the present tense. These are the best Genesis games, not were. The system is still worthy of your time. Avenues exist to enjoy these games today. It may seem hokey to say, but I believe a good game platform never dies. They only become more accessible. Older games are dirt cheap and there are lots of different ways to experience a console’s greatest.
As for Genesis, do what I did and buy a console on eBay. You can buy a still-playable unit with a couple of controllers and several games for as little as $30. Once you’ve found Genesis hardware, pick up some of the above used games. Again, eBay is a good resource. So too are local video game stores. Many GameStops no longer carry dormant formats but there are several independent game stores worth browsing. National retailers like Half Priced Books usually has a good assortment of older games, including Genesis, for just a couple bucks each.
If the secondary market isn’t your thing, current consoles provide a means for getting Genesis games as well. The Wii’s Virtual Console is the best source. Of the 15 games above, only Castlevania: Bloodlines, NHL ’94, and Contra: Hard Corps are NOT available for download. Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection is available for both Xbox 360 and PS3. For about $15 you get over 40 Genesis games on one disc—each converted to hi-def 720p. Gunstar Heroes, Streets of Rage, the Sonic games, Golden Axe, Shinobi, and Earthworm Jim can be played on your iOS device for $1-$3 each.
Really there’s no excuse not to re-live your Genesis glory days or try out this all-time-great system for the first time.
If you have a favorite Genesis game or an anecdote to share, please include in the comments. If you’re up to the madness, you can download the Excel Spreadsheet I used to tabulate the lists. I contains all 110 games mentioned.