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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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SEGA Mega Drive Collection

Sweet 16.

Normally with a retro compilation the first thing you want to do is rant about how rubbish everything is. There's bound to be something wrong with the graphics - they'll be flickering, slowed, stretched, bordered, upside down, whatever - and the menus will be awful, too. The controls will be mapped to the wrong buttons, or the disc will be the wrong colour, and sometimes when you stand on the 50th pixel from the left the collision detection's different to how it was 48 years ago. And of course that's only half the legitimate stuff (and only half legitimate stuff, as you'll note).

So from my perspective this new SEGA Mega Drive Collection is a complete disaster. I really have no idea what to complain about. You can play games at the original size, stretch the 4:3 image to fit the screen or blur them across a 16:9 fill if you prefer. You can eliminate borders, and play at 50 or 60Hz, and in prog-scan. Everything's full-speed. You can use the analogue or the d-pad, and play around with the buttons. You can save and load anywhere you are, which is so completely alien to 16-bit that I sort of genetically disapprove of it even though it's excellent. You can switch back to the game-select menu easily, too - the menus themselves are sturdy, logical and inconspicuous - and there's even ad-hoc wireless multiplayer fun to be had on the PSP.

Sonic. Before the dark times. Before Tails.

Things start to look up when you analyse the list of games. There may 30 or so, but there's still quite a lot of fluff. Does anyone really care about Golden Axe 3? Can't we just please forget about Alex Kidd? Surely his insipid brand of sub-Sonic one-hit-kill platforming hasn't just had its day, but needs to have an actual day appointed so that we can all gather together and beat sticks on the floor to drive remnants out into the open where they can be thoroughly stamped upon? And while I admire the resolve of the programmers who converted Virtua Fighter 2 to the Mega Drive, isn't its inclusion here just a matter of reliving their irrelevance? Like putting highlights of a Man United reserve team game on the TV would be? (Or, come to think of it, is?)

Except that's completely disingenuous. Like dismissing 24 just because Kim Bauer continues to draw breath. SEGA Mega Drive Collection has some stuff in it you probably won't bother with (Flicky may have survived the above paragraph, but it'll be lucky if I don't devote a screenshot caption to its rancidness), but for once there's a lot to praise. Sonic the Hedgehog and his sequel are in, as is Ristar - and that's a solid core of platforming, upon which the conversionists at Digital Eclipse have added the likes of Altered Beast and the original (good) Golden Axe. Hard to complain about getting three Phantasy Star RPGs, too. They might not have aged all that gracefully, but patient gamers will lose entire lifetimes to their completion. Sword of Vermillion's a thoughtful inclusion as well, dovetailing into the Phantasies, and "graphics whores" will probably enjoy the VectorMan games. You've even got Columns, for people who like puzzling on the train, although the last time I went near one (a train, not a column), I found myself bewitched by Comix Zone. That looks gorgeous on the shiny PSP screen, its vibrant comic colouring inviting all sorts of interest from the drunk tramp sat next to me.

Altered Beast - like that one out of Hollyoaks, but with a typo. Although, actually...

A select-button menu allows you to adjust video options for each as you play, "reset" the game or return to the main menu, and each entry on the start screen comes with a little "Museum" prompt, so you can read about how, for example, 1990 first saw Robo and Mobo fighting to bring justice back to Badville, "a city with a high crime rate and an extremely unfortunate name". Which is certainly more fun than playing Bonanza Bros., anyway. The same being true of the "Extras" - interviews with a range of SEGA programmers including Rieko Kodama, Kataoka and Katagiri, and additional unlockable games like Astro Blaster and Super Zaxxon. It even spells out what you need to do to unlock each bonus, which is more than can be said for a lot of these compilations. The requirements aren't ridiculous either - the last compilation game I covered seemed to want me to play for 48 hours before I could set eyes on Yuji Naka's favourite tie, or something. Here it's mostly trying games out or achieving particular feats of gaming skill, rather than endurance.

Which leaves very little to criticise. Even the price is reasonable. There's the inescapable spectre of a second volume hanging over the main menu screen when you suddenly realise there's no Streets of Rage, and that latter-day Sonics are absent, but, for once, it took a while to notice, because instead of thinking up nasty ways to stick daggers in its eyes, what I actually did with SEGA Mega Drive Collection was have fun playing it. In these days of paying over the odds to download crippled Virtual Console games, and pretending not to notice how many Microsoft points are on your credit card, this latest compilation takes on an even greater value and may even - whisper it - encourage a few of us to finally take the original boxes out from under the bed, and consider putting them lovingly in the attic.

8 / 10