I've never seen it as a console that offered longevity, not least because it cannot save games. To return to Sonic now is to be met with the culture shock that you have to complete the game in one sitting, or never see the end at all. Which probably explains why I'm always surprised when I realise there are Sonic levels that aren't green. My cousin would never let me play for that long.
To play something as slow, as sedate as a turn-based RPG on the machine is revelatory to me. I bought the Mega Drive about eight years ago simply so I could play NHL 95 some more, having missed bouts with friends in the mid-nineties. And that's the purpose it's served, along with some Flashback and the first three levels of Sonic. I've probably spent more time using it this week than in the last few years added together.
Saving is hilarious. Because, of course, there's no local memory, and the game is really very huge, it's not possible for your progress to get stored in any usual way. So instead the game generates a password for you that when re-entered will recall most of your progress.
A 56-character password. My preferred method: taking a photograph of the screen on my phone, rather than writing it all out and making a mistake. Entering it, however, requires painstakingly moving the cursor around with the Mega Drive's baby-rattle controller.
Now, I'm no expert (in anything), but I'm guessing that code contains all the key information about your progression. However, it would presumably have to be a 2684-character code to be able to remember which parts of each continent's maps you'd uncovered, and which wandering gangs of enemies you'd previously killed. Islands get repopulated, and useful filled-in maps are all wiped. But then, going back in with a giant army of uber-bads to re-clear the first continent (the inspiringly named Continentia) is a quick way to make a ton of cash.
My goodness, it's good. It's such a solid, deep game. It has a bright sense of humour (although it's absolutely nothing compared to the inspired lunacy of the remakes), and is utterly compelling.
Oh - and it has one of the most horrendously severe losing screens I've ever seen. Despite having found the location of the map for the sceptre, I'd been unable to find the stick itself in the allotted time, and I was told this:
"Oh Mad Mohan,
You have failed to recover the Sceptre of Order in time to save the land! Beloved King Maximus has died and the Demon King Urthrax Killspite rules in his place. The Four Continents lay in ruin about you, its people doomed to a life of misery and oppression because you could not find the Sceptre."
Although, you've got to feel sorry for the Demon King Urthrax Killspite. It's not as if the name gave him much choice about what role he'd play. Sitting with his careers advice officer must have been a demoralising moment.
"So, Urthrax... Urthrax Killspite, yes?"
"I see you're showing some aptitude for maths, woodwork, and eschatology. Have you any particular field you'd like to work in?"
"I WOULD LIKE TO BE A MILKMAN."
"Well, I'm sure you would. But I think you'd be better off thinking about something in world domination."
Well, the Four Continents are his now. Sorry about that.
Despite playing this on the Mega Drive (and I'd recommend anyone do the same should they want to dust off the clunky black box), it occurs to me how perfect a game this would be on a netbook, and especially the DS. The netbook is of course possible, with a DOS version out there. The DS version remains a dream.
It really is brilliant. The time limit, the escalating size of your army and ability to cope with the rising challenge, and the constant sense of useful progression, all make it a really rare treat. And I've learned an important lesson about how great the Mega Drive was.