SEGA's quite fond of its legacy, and so it should be. So much so, in fact, that president of SEGA of America, Simon Jeffery recently commented: "We're looking at Game Gear. The interest in digital delivery media and the iPhone has really caused us to look back to the past and the great golden days of SEGA gaming in all formats, not just the Genesis. So absolutely we're looking back there."
So what better time than for the SEGA Mega Drive 20 Games In One handheld to arrive on my desk for review? We can help Jeffery and company do their jobs for them and suss out which of the games in their back catalogue is ripe for a remake, while also giving you a fair idea whether to shell out for this natty little portable gaming system.
But first, let's talk about the system itself.
Licensed from SEGA and developed by ATGames, UK importer Blaze is happily promoting this intriguing piece of hardware for around GBP 29.99. The first thing to note is its size. At roughly 50 per cent smaller than the PSP, it's a dinky little thing and not much bigger than one of your old Mega Drive cartridges.
Of course, this isn't the first time a portable Mega Drive has been attempted. Although never officially released in PAL territories, the ill-fated SEGA Nomad was hardly what you'd call a handheld and guzzled batteries faster than Sonic could gather rings. Tom used to have one and says it didn't work half the time either [Thorough, incontrovertible research. More of this - Ed]. The Mega Drive handheld, by contrast, is light, comfortably fits in your pocket, and houses all the main functionality of a Mega Drive joypad: i.e. a directional pad, and A, B and C buttons, along with a Menu and Start button placed discreetly on the top left and right of the unit.
Mono sound is emitted from a single tiny (and predictably tinny) speaker built-in on the lower right side of the unit, while a headphone socket, positioned on the bottom edge, provides the best audio option. On the top edge, you've got a small volume control wheel, a power on/off switch and a handy TV-out port for those of you wanting to relive the 16-bit 'glory days' on a big screen.
In fact, the TV-out feature is both surprising and impressive. Surprising in that even mainstream handhelds don't generally bother, never mind budget ones made in China, and impressive in that the quality of the output signal is crisp and clear (despite being bog-standard composite), and also transmits fairly fuzzy sounding mono audio via a standard phono cable. Perhaps reflecting the rather cheap build quality, if you happen to move or disturb the cable in any way during play, a significant amount of interference appears on the screen. The trick is to hold the unit steady, but it's not ideal if you're getting in a bit of a flap during a boss encounter.
But perhaps hooking it up to a TV is missing the point. This unit has been designed with on-the-move play in mind, and boasts a decent-sized backlit LCD screen which does the games far more justice than blowing them up onto modern widescreen. Output is crisp and clear, and although some colour combinations of text can be a little difficult to read (unless you tilt the screen at a certain angle), the late '80s graphical grunt of SEGA's once-impressive tech comes across very favourably.
Power-wise, the only option is to unscrew the back panel and whack in three AAA batteries. It's a shame they didn't go for a rechargeable option, but you can't have everything. Happily, unlike the SEGA Nomad, you can actually take this unit on a trip in the knowledge that it won't run out of juice at a crucial stage. [And without bringing a suitcase. - Bitter Nomad-owning Ed]
In terms of the games, you get 20 first party offerings which span the entire lifespan of the console. Switching on the unit presents you with a simple menu system, and you have five games to choose from on each of the four pages. Pressing the Start button takes you to your game of choice, and from there it's a quick trip down memory lane to see how well or how badly these relics stand up to your harsh 21st Century gaze.
Luckily for you lot, we've already played and reviewed most of these on our long-running series of Virtual Console roundups. With most fresh in our minds, we've revisited our recent thoughts on the games so that you don't have to slog your way through our archive to find out.
In summary, most of the games are pretty average fodder, which only the most devoted Mega Drive retro apologist would eke enjoyment out of these days, along with some genuinely interesting forgotten gems like Flicky and Gain Ground. Sadly, some of the game that work best in two-player (such as Golden Axe) are denied that facility due to the inherent limitations of the device.
That said, for the money, you really can't complain. You get a nicely designed piece of hardware (with TV-out) and a stack of old titles to browse through for under thirty quid, and if you grew up with a Mega Drive under your telly, it's worth it for the novelty value alone. And let's not forget - in the context of most (13 to be precise) of these having been released via the Wii's Virtual Console channel individually at eye watering prices, that's not bad value at all.
Enough rambling - here's what we think of the included games...
Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle - 4/10
The verdict: "[An] infantile effort, plagued by horrible floaty jumping movements, imprecise attack moves and abominable collision detection. All of these factors combine to produce a singularly underwhelming experience."
Altered Beast - 4/10
The verdict: "It's a standard, garish side-scrolling brawler with big bold characters with little in the way of animation, and a limited move set consisting of punch, kick and jump. Playing it now inspires the kind of retro horror that we dread."
Golden Axe - 6/10
The verdict: "With the choice over a dwarf, barbarian or an Amazonian female, the gameplay was a relentless succession of encounters against even bigger enemies, and despite its horrible simplicity, it still has an inescapable charm that endures."
Alien Storm - 2/10
The verdict: "Superficially similar to Golden Axe, you trundle across the screen in one of three guises - bloke, girl, robot - clobbering small groups of generic alien creatures as they shuffle amiably towards you. Occasionally you can dip inside a building to take part in atrocious shooting gallery stages...It is, quite frankly, a bland, flavourless slog."
Arrow Flash - 5/10
The verdict: "Back in the days when the Gradius series was the height of arcade innovation, me-too efforts like Arrow Flash were a welcome addition to consoles back in the day. Nowadays, it's very hard to muster enthusiasm for what is a solid but very generic side-scrolling twitch shooter."
Crack Down - 6/10
The verdict: "There's the kernel of a good idea in here, and the focus on sneaking probably seemed fairly clever and groundbreaking at the time (assuming you hadn't played the Metal Gear games) but today it feels too clunky and fiddly and the meagre gameplay amusement on offer isn't enough to compensate."
ESWAT - 5/10
The verdict: "ESWAT is smooth and playable in that bland sort of way that generic 80s games often are. It's also quite easy, with five hits before you die and enemies that blindly shoot at nothing in the hope that you'll stray into their path. Undemanding retro fans will probably find enough to amuse them."
Decap Attack - 6/10
The verdict: "Certainly one of the most obscure first party games on the Mega Drive, Decap Attack is a jolly if garish side-scrolling platform romp, distinguished for its utterly bonkers lead character and off-the-wall humour. In gameplay terms, it's pretty by-the-numbers stuff, though."
Flicky - 8/10
The verdict: "Interestingly, a port of an excellent SEGA platform arcade game from 1984 where you must save the 'chirps' from rabid house cats. Similar in concept to Namco's equally overlooked Mappy, this is one of those great lost games from the golden era of classic arcade games that's a joy to stumble across even now."
Gain Ground - 7/10
The verdict: "If Gauntlet, Robotron and Dead Rising all fell into Jeff Goldblum's teleportation pod, this is the inside-out baboon of a game that would emerge."
Jewel Master - 4/10
The verdict: "Much like every other side-scrolling platform-brawlers of the era, it's another relentless march from left to right, biffing an endless succession of enemies with a limited move set. Pretty poor even then, and utterly generic now."
Shadow Dancer - 6/10
The verdict: "This port of the 1989 arcade sequel to Shinobi is your typical side-scrolling platform brawler/shooter. In a genre as saturated as this one became, it's hardly surprising to find it hasn't aged particularly well, but if you were a massive Shinobi fan this does the job nicely."
Kid Chameleon - 6/10
The verdict: "Very much trying desperately to ape Super Mario Bros. While the mask gimmick is cute, it's really no different to the way Mario changed his form by collecting mushrooms and feathers."
Columns 3 - Revenge of Columns - 5/10
The verdict: "Clearing the screen of coloured blobs is the inevitable aim of the game, though in this variation on the theme the blobs descend in vertical groups of three. You can scroll the blobs up and down to change their position, but there's no way of rotating them sideways. Form lines of three - up, down or diagonally - and they vanish. That's pretty much it."
Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine - 6/10
The verdict: "A fairly unapologetic reskin of Puyo Pop...it's simple, solid, addictive, timeless fun that hasn't really dated like so many of the games you'll find in retroland."
Ecco The Dolphin - 6/10
The verdict: "Many expected it to be a twee little game for kids, but they couldn't have been more wrong, with a dark and difficult title with a convoluted storyline to leave the nippers crying themselves to sleep."
Shinobi 3 - 8/10
The verdict: "Slick visuals and intuitive gameplay lure you in, and retro wimps will be pleased to learn that the difficulty curve is relatively tame for a game of this genre and vintage."
Sonic Spinball: 4/10
The verdict: "Clumsy in the extreme, chalk this one up alongside all the other failed attempts to crowbar Sonic into ill-fitting spin-off titles. The Sonic-obsessed among you might squeeze some amusement from its obscure oddity factor."
Sonic and Knuckles - 8/10
The verdict: "The fourth in the Sonic lineage is every bit as good-looking, hyper and brutal as the others, but by this point the law of diminishing returns was starting to kick in."
Ecco JR - 6/10
The verdict: "Coming very late in the Mega Drive's life-span, this third Ecco title was very much targeted at kids. Still a great showcase for the console's technical prowess, but hardly a highlight of its software range."