On a cold, gloomy Saturday 14 years ago, my brother and I went to trade in some old games at our local indie store. I can only guess what I got rid off - I'm betting on a PS2 copy of Yu-Gi-Oh! or something similarly tedious. Once done, though, we walked away with something brand new. Well, kind of new, at least: Midway Arcade Treasures, a new collection of old arcade and console classics from a company that would eventually die a slow death just a few years later.
The success of that compilation led to Midway digging up and re-releasing other games it had stored in the attic, and eventually Capcom and Sega followed suit by selling their own collections to a new crop of gamers. Sega doubled down, in fact, re-releasing their famous classics such as Sonic and Ristar games on the next generation of consoles after that, and the company has now done it again for the latest Xbox and Playstation.
Playing through the collection over the last week, I have mixed feelings about Sega Mega Drive Classics.
So many of the important things are taken care of. Over 50 titles from the late 80s and 90s are featured here and most of Sega's genuine greats are present. The visuals are replicated perfectly, so long as you avoid the CRT-mimicking option, and the music never falters. (It might seem odd to single out this point but the Sega-licensed devices in recent years have never cracked emulation perfectly in this way.)
There's a story to tell, too. Games were much more tightly focused on a handful of central ideas back then - Sonic was all about speed, ToeJam and Earl was about rooooocktskaaaaaates! This makes sense, given the smaller teams and budgets involved at the time. Games were also much more difficult: longevity mattered, and that often meant a real challenge rather than a prolonged slog.
And it's impossible to play these games without memories intruding. You're probably trying to recall your own favourite experiences just reading about this stuff. Mine include working together with my brother to kick ass in the different Streets of Rage games. Or taking turns in Sonic using the "life or level" rule, so everyone would have a chance to run, roll and jump across the small, bulging TV screen. Or watching an older cousin work out the best way to defeat enemies in the Revenge of Shinobi. Some of these games are still more fun to play than the latest, flashiest games being made today.
However, once this latest greatest hits collection loaded on my Xbox One, I felt cheated. This is not just because Sega is releasing these games yet again - my Xbox 360 Mega Drive game collection still works perfectly well but hasn't been (and I suspect won't be) made backwards compatible with the newest Xbox. It's because I want Sega to mean much more than the legacy of the past. This feeling isn't restricted to these specific Mega Drive games either, as I own Jet Set Radio on my PC, tablet and Xbox, Jet Set Radio Future, Crazy Taxi, a Dreamcast collection, the list goes on. Just these few examples show how creative and innovative Sega still was at the turn of the century, even after it had stepped away from making its own consoles. Playing the first two ToeJam & Earl games this week made me remember the only time I played the demo of the super colourful and unique third entry, Mission to Earth, which released on the first Xbox console way back in 2002.
But having experienced the Sega logo appearing in this Mega Drive compilation with the sound of a Windows XP error message, I'd rather the company become bold once again by making new games in the old Sega way.
I recently opened my old copy of Football Manager 2005, the first in the widely popular series published by Sega. Inside was an ad for a unique city-building game called Immortal Cities, a game that's ripe for a genre absent of competition. Along with the Total War series, the company has proved to be a formidable publisher on PC. But as a developer, it's their unique and endless style that allowed them to make their mark so strongly in childhood, from the speed of Sonic to the meditative trance of Rez.
Yet none of this has to be a throwback or a ploy on nostalgia. Sega's massive Japan-only arcade hit Border Break shows the company still has the inventive chops necessary to create a new following. It's a knockout game only available in the east, where you're tasked with controlling giant robots among frantic gunplay. This latest Mega Drive compilation is great for those who've never played some of gaming's great treasures. But for Sega and everyone else, I don't want us to live in a world where only our past is catered for.
There's so much more the company can do and I'm probably not the only one wanting to see its freshest experiments. Just a few years ago, Sega unveiled a trippy sandbox concept game - as in a literal sandbox - that shows why Sega's designers kept the fellow geniuses of Nintendo on their toes in years gone by. This sort of magic is the reason why I'll keep waiting on mine.