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Hidden Gems For The Sega Genesis

Have you heard? Sega has given its legal blessing for TecToy to put the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive outside the U.S.) back on shelves in its original glory, which means you can revel in the nostalgia of Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat II, and Castlevania: Bloodlines to your heart's content. But the blockbuster hits weren't the only things the Genesis had going for it. If anything, it was the lesser-known titles that kept the Genesis planted squarely in front of millions of TVs. Now that the Genesis is back on the market, let's give some recognition to the hidden gems that helped make the Sega Genesis one of the best consoles of all time. Which ones have you played?

Mazin Saga: Mutant Fighter

The late '80s and early '90s was the golden age of the side-scroller adventure game. Earlier consoles had already worked out the kinks, giving designers greater freedom than ever before to add their own unique twists to the well-worn format. Contra, Gunstar Heroes, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles firmly grabbed the glory on the Genesis, but one title that fell through the cracks was the immensely fun Mazin Saga: Mutant Fighter.

Released in the U.S. in 1993, Mazin Saga sees the player take control of a suit of armor called Mazinger Z and clobber the pixels out of an endless army of Bio Beasts. The fighting format was fairly standard and sometimes repetitive, but the boss battles were what really stood out about the game. Each level ended with a different, giant boss, at which point the Mazinger Z suit would grow to match their size, leading to epic, city-destroying battles. Despite the crisp control scheme, challenging-yet-satisfying gameplay, and a beautifully 16-bit soundtrack that you'll never get out of your head, Mazin Saga: Mutant Fighter never caught on with general audiences.

Gargoyles

Anybody remember coming home from school in the '90s just in time to catch Gargoyles on TV? It aired right after Darkwing Duck and just before Aladdin, so you got at least two good cartoons before it was more fun to go outside and play secret agents with your neighbor's cat. Most people probably didn't realize Disney unleashed a video game tie-in to Gargoyles in 1995.

Exclusive to the Sega Genesis, Gargoyles was an action platformer that followed roughly the same premise as the show. Basically, ancient stone gargoyles in Manhattan come to life at night to protect the city from crime. And we know. We totally get it. Licensed game adaptations don't have a spotless record. In most cases, they're a load of fluff rushed through production to rake in more money. (You especially, Spider-Man 3.) But for whatever reason, Gargoyles flipped conventional wisdom on its head and turned into a spectacularly imagined game.

More of a puzzler than a brawler, Gargoyles relied heavily on its level designs to make its gameplay fun. Hidden rooms, breakable walls, and a rich, atmospheric color palette turned Gargoyles into an experience on par with any of the more popular platform-based games of the era. Unfortunately, the combat side of Gargoyles leaves a lot to be desired — your character, Goliath, only has three attack moves, and the mechanics of the game can make it frustrating to land hits without taking damage. Combine that with its late-generation release date, and few people gave Gargoyles more than a passing glance. That's a shame, because this overlooked gem was a great addition to the Genesis lineup.

Target Earth

In the year 2201, a race of cyborgs appears in our solar system to destroy Earth and its space colonies. It's up to you and a 12-foot-tall suit of armor to defend the solar system and send that cybernetic scum into the cold grave of deep space. If that sounds awesome and Japanese, you're right on both counts. Target Earth was the American release of the Japanese game Assault Suit Leynos, and it's hard to think of anything that could have gone worse when the title crossed the Pacific.

For starters, Target Earth was released by a company called DreamWorks (not the movie company), which existed solely to bring Japanese games to Western audiences via the cheapest means possible. That meant horrible box art in an era when the decision to choose a new game was based mostly on browsing the titles in a store. The game looked cheap, and for most people that was enough to give it a pass. On top of that, DreamWorks later died in a coffin of red tape, and there was almost no promotional work done for Target Earth.

While the game changed a little bit in its transition from the Japanese Assault Suit Leynos to the American Target Earth, it retained its intricate plot (an amazing feat for a 16-bit, Contra-style run-and-gun) and kept most of the dynamics that made Assault Suit a smashing success in Japan. Game developer Dracue released a modern version of Assault Suit Leynos for PS4 in 2016, which got decent reviews from gamers, so you can at least check out that version of the game if you don't feel like hunting down an old-school Target Earth cartridge.

Master of Monsters

The Sega Genesis saw a strong surge in RPG titles, with popular games like Ghouls & Ghosts, Phantasy Star, Shining Force, and even a Dungeons & Dragons game that enjoyed a wave of success when it was released in 1992. As always, RPG titles are going to draw a different (usually smaller) crowd than more mainstream genres, but even among the diehard RPG fans, 1991's Master of Monsters found itself lost in a frothy sea of heavyweights.

The game was a turn-based RPG set up much like a board game. Players took turns summoning monsters or casting spells to defeat their enemies (either another player or the computer) and move across the board to take over strategic points. An early innovation that Master of Monsters had was the ability to create multiplayer games using maps from the campaign. That meant that you could play for hours with your friends without getting bored by the same situations over and over again. Admittedly, Master of Monsters never brought much in terms of graphics, but the gameplay alone is still some of the best the RPG world has seen, even today.

General Chaos

Speaking of multiplayer games, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better head-to-head war game than General Chaos, released in 1994 by Game Refuge and Electronic Arts. The premise is pretty simple: two teams of five people go to war with each other, and you win the battle by killing all your enemies. Think of it like playing Halo in a top-down view and you'll have the general idea.

Of course, that's a hugely simplified description of the gameplay itself. In each battle, you control all five people in your army, using the cursor to tell each one where to go and what to shoot. But be careful — you also have to watch out for everything from the other army to the terrain itself. If you send one of your soldiers to cross a river and then forget about him (easier than it sounds), he'll end up drowning. To add to the confusion, there are multiple types of soldiers, from bazooka-wielding commandos to dynamite technicians. Medics run around and heal wounded soldiers. The very air shimmers with the lob of grenades. If you get close enough to another soldier, you can even knock him to the ground and kick him to death. Put all of it on one screen and ... yeah, it's chaos. If you were one of those people who could play Halo: Combat Evolved's pre-Xbox Live multiplayer for hours, you ought to give General Chaos a shot. It's chock-full of violent, addictive fun. And isn't that the best kind of fun?

Atomic Robo-Kid

Atomic Robo-Kid was one of the first waves of games for the Sega Genesis, released in 1988 when the Genesis was still only in Japan (it hit North America in 1989). It's a side-scroller platform game similar to Mega Man — you control a robot that has to blast through other robots and stationary turrets to make it through each level. At the end of each stage is a "governor" boss, some of them so massive that they take up multiple screens.

One of the features that makes Atomic Robo-Kid fun is that, unlike in Mega Man, you can fly. This opens up more overall creativity in the level design, like vertical maps that don't make you hit each platform perfectly to avoid falling all the way back to the bottom. One of the features that makes it a little less fun is being one of the hardest games ever made. Robo-Kid is one shot, one kill, so if you get hit, you lose a life. Lose them all, you start back at the beginning. It can be immensely frustrating at times, but that just makes beating it all the more satisfying.

Rocket Knight Adventures

In the early years of the Sega Genesis, game giant Konami stuck to strictly established titles, rolling out new sequels to fan favorites like Contra and Castlevania. It wasn't a bad strategy by any means, but they were certainly playing it safe. It wasn't until 1993 that Konami finally released a new franchise for the Genesis: Rocket Knight Adventures.

Now considered by some to be one of the best platform games of all time (in the same league as Sonic), Rocket Knight Adventures flew surprisingly low under the radar for a release by one of gaming's biggest developers. If you look at the game climate of the time, though, you'll get a clue as to why that happened: stores were swimming in low-quality games trying to cash in on the Sonic hype, so Rocket Knight Adventures must have been given the cold shoulder more often than not, labeled as another shameless attempt to stand on Sonic's giant blue shoulders. Which makes sense, considering both games featured a vaguely rodent-like antagonist with upgrades. In RKA's case, you just happened to get a possum with a jet pack and a sword instead of a fast, spiky hedgehog. But in the official ranking of injustices perpetrated on mankind, that apathy toward Rocket Knight Adventures sits right up there with pumpkin-flavored beer and the Inquisition. Because the game was fun, dammit. It was everything a platformer should be, and then some. The controls were perfect and the artwork downright tear-inducing, it was so beautiful.

Best of all, Rocket Knight Adventures was quirky and funny. Konami knew exactly where they stood in the maelstrom of platformers, and they created something in RKA that reveled in the cliches of the genre yet somehow rose above it all to become brighter than the light of all those other games' pixels burning at once. It was the Genesis' Cabin in the Woods, the 16-bit Animal Farm that George Orwell died before he could write. It was ... well, you get the point. It was good, is what we're saying.

The Ooze

The Ooze wasn't the best game ever made for the Genesis. It wasn't even in the top 50. But man, was it original. The story of The Ooze goes something like this: you play as Dr. Daniel Caine, a scientist who's been transformed into a sentient green puddle with one last shot at revenge on his former corporate bosses before they destroy the world. If he fails, he will be trapped forever in (drumroll) a lava lamp. Your goal is to navigate the wasteland of Earth collecting pieces of your DNA so you can become human again and stop the evil corporation once and for all.

Be honest with yourself — you'd play that game at least once, wouldn't you? Reviews of The Ooze at the time called out the often unwieldy controls and the erratic pacing of the gameplay as its main downfalls, but its originality, style, and graphics definitely make the game worth playing. Another interesting feature of The Ooze is that there are two endings. Even if you make it all the way through the game, you can still lose by getting imprisoned in the aforementioned lava lamp (owned by the director of the evil corporation). The only way to truly win is to finish all the levels and collect all the helices of your DNA along the way.

Crusader of Centy

Even in 1995, there were few developers who tried to seriously take on the success of 1991's The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES). There were clones, of course — clones aplenty — but there weren't a lot of games that had legitimately tried to upstage Nintendo's flagship action RPG. Then Nextech's Crusader of Centy came along and showed everybody that there was more to look forward to in RPGs than Link's next encounter with Ganondorf.

Crusader of Centy feels a lot like The Legend of Zelda, from the top-down viewpoint to your interactions with the world (which didn't help its status as a Zelda clone one bit), but at the same time, that crisp, immersive style of gameplay was one of the main selling features of the Zelda franchise, and it worked very well for Crusader of Centy. The story follows Corona, a 14-year-old boy who collects animal familiars to help him defeat the world's monsters. As Corona learns more about the war between humans and monsters, he begins to question whether the monsters are really as evil as he's been raised to believe. Story-wise, Crusader of Centy is a real treat, and it's definitely fun enough to keep you playing for hours. Electronic Gaming Monthly even called it "on par with the Zelda series" in 1995. That's high praise for a game that few people ever played. If you can track down a Crusader of Centy cartridge on eBay, it's well worth the couple of bucks you'll pay for it.

Twinkle Tale

If you've never heard of Twinkle Tale, you aren't alone. Unlike a lot of Japanese titles at the time, this obscure action game never made the voyage to North America. It came out exclusively for the Japanese market in 1992 and then died quietly when the Genesis gave way to the consoles of the future. Which is all a crying shame, since Twinkle Tale is without a doubt the best Genesis game you've never heard of.

Twinkle Tale may conjure images of a childish romp through a Teletubby fantasy land, but don't let the title fool you — the game is relentless from start to finish. Like Mercs, your character runs up the screen, mowing down everything in her path. That's right — her path. The agent of destruction in Twinkle Tale is a young magician girl named Saria, complete with a tiny, pointed witch's hat. It's as far as you can get from the grizzled commandos of Mercs and Contra and every other shoot-'em-up game, but the change is uniquely awesome, like what Kiki's Delivery Service would be if Kiki spent the whole movie killing endless hordes of bad guys.

If you're a fan of Japanese imports, Twinkle Tale should be one of your collection's centerpieces. It's definitely worth hunting down, and even better, you'll enjoy the pants off playing it.