Eighteen years have passed since SEGA stopped manufacturing its own consoles. Several consoles generations have passed since the Dreamcast died an ignominious death, but nostalgia is a strong force, and SEGA is hoping it will be a powerful enough draw to lure in old-school fans with the release of the Mega Drive Mini.
SEGA dodged a bullet by distancing itself from At Games, the company originally tipped to make the Mega Drive Mini. At Games has a reputation for terrible build quality and slapdash software, but thankfully none of that is in evidence with the Mega Drive Mini, possibly thanks to SEGA choosing to work with emulation experts M2.
In fact, the build quality of the hardware is excellent. The main unit feels very solid and includes a number of nice little touches, such as the cartridge port doors that actually move, and the Mega CD expansion port. These, of course, can be utilised with cosmetic items such as tiny cartridges and a mock Mega CD, though at the time of writing those items are only available in Japan. The included controllers are also near-perfect recreations of the originals, though the bundled controllers are only of the three-button variety instead of the later six-button versions.
A great deal of care has clearly been put into the unit, from the various cosmetic touches on the hardware to the amazing game music remixes that greet the player upon entering the main menu. These tracks were created by legendary composer Yuzo Koshiro, who worked on such classics as Streets of Rage and The Revenge of Shinobi. Despite sounding like many different songs, the music is actually a single tune played using a mixture of seven different sound fonts.
The main menu itself is slickly designed, demonstrating attention to detail. Each game shows its full front cover art, though, pleasingly, the game box spines can also be displayed, as if the games were sitting on a virtual shelf. The game selection has been met with some controversy, with many arguments in the fan community over what should, or should not, have been included. The only game that feels really out of place is Virtua Fighter, since its Mega Drive port is far from being the definitive home console version. The inclusion of two previously unavailable games, Sega Tetris and Darius are also welcome additions, since they are interesting historical curiosities that appeal to collectors and those interested in gaming history.
For those who are accustomed to the conveniences of emulation, a number of features seem to be absent. These include options such as a rewind feature, and the single ‘CRT Filter’ option is not particularly impressive. Players can choose to capture up to three save states, and this is also lacking compared to many other emulated offerings.
The Mega Drive Mini largely makes up for its deficiencies by providing excellent quality for that that it does provide—including the sound. For some reason, Mega Drive sound has been notoriously difficult to properly reproduce. SEGA game collections have frequently been criticised for sound that was ‘off’ in a number of ways, being too tinny or muddy sounding. The Mega Drive Mini, however, gets the sound just right, and it is just as crisp and sharp as it was on the original hardware.
Any device that uses HDMI on a modern HD TV is going to run into issues with input lag, but SEGA and M2 have seemingly gone to some effort to make this as imperceptible as possible. The input lag does exist, but it is minimal.
Players who are confident in their knowledge of the Japanese language can switch over to the Japanese language setting to enjoy the slightly different game selection for that region. This selection comes with an aesthetic as well as functional change, as the main menu background changes to the traditional white-and-back square pattern, all the game box art transforms into its Japanese equivalent, and Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine becomes Puyo Puyo. Such a change is a small thing, but those small touches are what make the Mega Drive Mini so pleasing.
One can find a lot to like about the Mega Drive Mini. The system is not without flaws, such as the lacklustre CRT filter, controversial game selection, and lack of emulation functions, but its charm and attention to detail mostly overcomes the problems.