Thursday, August 29, 2013

The 50 Greatest Sega CD Games of All-Time! (PART FIVE -- #010 to #001)

A Five-Part Countdown of the Greatest Games the Sega CD Had to Offer!


Hey You! Looking for the Previous Installments in this Series?

PART ONE, counting down games #050 to #041, can be found right here.
PART TWO, counting down games #040 to #031, can be found right here.
PART THREE, counting down games #030 to #021, can be found right here.
PART FOUR, counting down games #020 to #011, can be found right here.
PART FIVE, counting down games #010 to #01, can be found right here

For what it’s worth the Sega CD (known as the Mega CD in Europe) might just be the single most underrated console in the history of video gaming. Considered a proverbial laughingstock by gamers that have hardly spent any time at all with the system, the Sega CD was actually a pretty damn good little console, stocked with plenty of killer console exclusives, graphically and musically superior special editions of 16-bit classics, and even a couple of standout genre offerings that, sadly, have become outmoded in today’s all-too-familiar virtual world. Come on, you know you miss side scrolling shoot ‘em ups and digital comic books as much as I do…

After tackling a list of the best the Sega Dreamcast had to offer, I thought long and hard about which console I wanted to focus on for my next countdown. Seeing as how the unsung, unheralded Sega CD generally gets about as much recognition and praise as gonorrhea, I figured the criminally underappreciated console was absolutely perfect the “Top 50” treatment. For those of you that had the honor of owning and playing through some of these classic games (many of which remain under-the-radar gems to this day), consider this a fond recollection and celebration of what once was, and for all of you young whippersnappers that equate the console with “pure fail?” Something tells me that’s a tune you’re going to change in a hurry after seeing everything you’ve missed out on.

As for the criteria for the list, I was pretty lax and subjective. Ever the jingoistic American that I am, I decided that only games that were given North American releases, while the Sega CD was still in production, should qualify as candidates, so no obscure-ass Japan-only SHMUPs or home-brew RPGs some dude made in his basement in 2008 are in contention here.

As always, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own, and your list would surely differ. That said, whose ready to take things to THE NEXT LEVEL?

#010 
Earthworm Jim: Special Edition



In a sea of pale Mario and Sonic imitators, “Earthworm Jim” stood out as one of the more remarkable platformers from the 16-bit era. With awesome action that rivaled the likes of “Contra III” and “Gunstar Heroes,” not to mention the title’s trademark irreverent humor, “Earthworm Jim” was easily one of the best cross-platform titles from the era, and if you’re itching to play the absolute best version of the game out there, it appears as if you’re going to need to get yourself a Sega CD ASAP. 

“Earthworm Jim” on the Sega CD truly is a “special edition,” with improved visuals and better animation than its 16-bit precursors. That, and it has an all new soundtrack, which as expected, is freaking marvelous. AND THEN there are the levels, which have been completely redesigned to be longer, more challenging and more secret-packed. Oh, and did I mention that they give you an all new weapon to toy around with, in addition to a completely new, built-from-the-ground up stage that you won’t find on any other console? Not only is the Sega CD iteration of the game the most impressive “Earthworm Jim” out there, it’s also the lengthiest and most fun to blast through.

The only downside here are the load times, which can be a bit excessive. Other than that, you really can’t complain about ANYTHING in the game, be it the terrific visuals, the fantastic music, the hilarious character exchanges, the tremendous controls or the super-memorable boss battles. And the “secret” ending where a narrator runs down a list of “facts” about actual earthworms? It’s a work of post-post-modern genius.

#009
The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin



If you ever owned a Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, you probably played “The Amazing Spider-Man.” It was one of the absolute best Sega Genesis games, and to this day, considered one of the absolute best Spider-Man games ever (hell, in my opinion, it STILL is.) Now, how do you make that already awesome title even more awesome? Well, how about starting by completely beefing up the game with levels that are easily twice (maybe even three times) larger than the game worlds in the previous title? And on top of that, how about adding a hard rocking soundtrack by Mr. Big (yes, THAT Mr. Big!) and atop that, some all new animated cut-scenes, tons of new missions, a couple of new boss fights and redesigned stages? 

Clearly, this game truly lives up to its self-imposed moniker “Amazing,” and then some. While the Genesis version was more or less a linear side-scrolling action game, this title is actually something of a free-roaming title, with a HUGE map of New York City to explore. You traverse from mission to mission, ultimately confronting an all-time classic list of Spidey rogues, including Doctor Octopus, Venom, The Lizard and of course, The Kingpin. Hell, you even get to throw down with some foes that weren’t in the Genesis game, including Bullseye and Typhoid Mary!

Pretty much everything in the game is spectacular. The controls are tremendous, the visuals are outstanding, the animation is top-notch, the music is great, and the gameplay, while challenging as all hell, is still quite accessible. That, and it even throws in a few neat addendums, including a super-addictive pinball mini-game that will suck more hours out of your Sega CD than most full-fledged games. If you ask me, not only is this one of the best Sega CD games ever, it’s far and away the greatest Spider-Man game ever created; if you’re a fan of either Ol’ Webhead or awesome action games in general, this is a game you simply MUST experience.  

#008 
Popful Mail: Magical Fantasy Adventure



“Popful Mail” is a truly wonderful game, a delightful action RPG/platformer hybrid with some of the best cut scenes on the Sega CD, an absolute ton of voice acting, incredible music and of course, utterly fantastic gameplay. Produced by Working Designs -- perhaps the most important developer on the console --“Popful” is, at once, instantly accessible and something completely different from the norm. It truly is one of the best games on the system, and really, one of the most underrated platformer games of the early 1990s. 

The presentation in the game is really well done. At the time, how the game fused dialogue into the actual gameplay was pretty uncommon, and the incorporated role playing game elements -- like selling items for weapon upgrades -- was actually an aberration for contemporary platformers. The title is also one of the lengthier games to be found on the console, and additionally one of the most challenging. Take heed, novice gamers; despite the game’s cutesy animation and character design, this thing is “Ninja Gaiden” levels of difficult. 

There’s a ton of stuff to explore in the game, and as stated earlier, it will probably take you a pretty long time before your skills are advanced enough to fully conquer it. The graphics and music may not be revolutionary, but the solid-as-a-rock gameplay (not to mention the dynamite presentation) is enough to keep you glued to your console for as long as this majestic journey will take you. Copies of the game today are pretty rare (and are likely to cost you more than an arm and a leg online), but if you luck up and find a used copy at a yard sale or a local thrift shop? If you DON’T pick this one up, you’ll be kicking yourself for the rest of your life.

#007 
Silpheed



Forget “Star Fox,” THIS was the best polygonal space-shooter of the 16-bit-era. Game Arts’ “Silpheed” is an absolutely phenomenal pseudo-3D vertically scrolling SHMUP, with tremendous visuals, amazing music, excellent voiceover and controls that are smoother than a well polished ice cube. 

In some ways, I’d be secure in calling “Silpheed” something of a update to “Zaxxon,” aka, the arcade game that put Sega on the map way back when. The effects in this game were completely mind-blowing at the time, with HUGE polygonal spaceships floating by your teeny little fighter while literally hundreds of neon colored bullets swirled around you. The game is just so pretty to look at; odds are, the first couple of times you play it, you’ll end up getting whacked because you can’t keep your eyes off the game’s beautiful backdrops. The vacancy of space isn’t that vacant in “Silpheed” -- even today, some of the levels, including a fantastic, “2001”-esque warp speed level and a concluding dogfight through a Death Star facsimile, are just breathtaking to experience.

There may not be that much variety in the core gameplay mechanics of the title, but trust me, you won’t be complaining about the lack of upgradable weapons by the time you are weaving your spaceship in and out of floating space islands and blasting through a polygonal jungle. All in all, this is just a fantastic, cutting-edge arcade experience  -- a simple, albeit wildly innovative and, most importantly of all, extremely enjoyable space shooting sim that all self-respecting Sega CD owners ought to have in their collections. 

 #006 
Shining Force CD 



What’s better than a hyper-addictive, content-loaded tactical RPG developed by Camelot? How about FOUR hyper-addictive, content-loaded tactical RPGs developed by Camelot! 

“Shining Force CD” has a fairly strange pedigree. The first two game included on the set are actually high-gloss “ports” of two really awesome Game Gear titles, (“Shining Force Gaiden”,which never got a release in the U.S., and “Shining Force: The Sword of Hayja” if you really need the specifics.) The inclusion of those two games -- given the obvious graphical and audio upgrades -- would probably be enough to earn this game a spot in the top ten, but it’s the inclusion of two additional games -- a full fledged, feature-length sequel to “The Sword of Hayja" and an entertaining bookend that allows you to re-fight some of the series’ most memorable foes -- that really makes this game worth going out of one’s way to experience. 

This is just a remarkable title, all around. The graphics are terrific (although the limited animation may turn off some) and the music is positively stellar. Of course, the meat and potatoes here is the solid turn-based strategy combat and involving storyline -- and I assure you, what “Shining Force CD” gives you in both categories is MORE than enough to satisfy any hardcore RPG fan. To conclude? On a console loaded with some stellar RPG experiences  (a fact that is strangely overlooked in the gaming media), this is perhaps the absolute best of the best of what the Sega CD had to offer. 

#005
Robo Aleste


If you ever owned a Sega Genesis or Nintendo Entertainment System, at some point, you probably played a game developed by Compile. That’s the company responsible for some of the absolute best SHMUPS and SHMUP hybrids on the NES (games like “Gun-Nac,” “Zanac” and “The Guardian Legend,” among them) and what is routinely considered the absolute best SHMUP on the Genesis, “M.U.S.H.A.”  Calling “Robo Aleste” a special edition version of “M.U.S.H.A.” is both appropriate and a little misleading, but if that notion doesn’t get your trigger fingers itching a bit, you my friend, are probably lacking a pulse (or else, you don’t know shit about shoot ‘em ups. One or the other, I suppose.)

Simply put, “Robo Aleste” is 2D, 16-bit, horizontal-scrolling action at its finest. Personally, I still tend to view “M.U.S.H.A.” as a better overall experience, but as a stand alone offering? There’s no denying that “Robo Aleste” is the best of the best when it comes to Sega CD genre offerings, and next to “M.U.S.H.A.,” it probably is the best overall SHMUP from the timeframe. 

The visuals are crisp and clear while the sprites are detailed and well-animated. The soundtrack, this weird-ass techno-grocery-store-stock-audio-sounding stuff, if a little unorthodox, but it actually gels quite well with the gameplay. The gameplay is more or less identical to “M.U.S.H.A.,” with a few tweaks here and there; clearly, Compile didn’t really have to reinvent the wheel when it came to gameplay, and they wisely stuck with what works here. Unlike “M.U.S.H.A.,” however, the game actually has a bona-fide story, and I believe the “cruel” difficulty setting is much, much more challenging than the highest difficulty setting on the Genesis forerunner. Without question, this is one of the best titles to be found on the Sega CD, and for SHMUP fans? It’s probably reason enough to own the console. 

#004 
Snatcher



Even gamers that have never laid eyes on a Sega CD console are quite fond of “Snatcher,” if just for the fact that it was Hideo Kojima’s first opportunity to bring his wild-ass, semi-cinematic story-telling ideas to a home console. While clearly laying the groundwork for more narrative-heavy games like “Metal Gear Solid,” “Snatcher” is really an entirely different beast in terms of gameplay, more or less serving as  a “digital comic” ala “Rise of the Dragon.” And alike “Rise of the Dragon,” this game, ahem, borrows quite a bit from “Blade Runner,” albeit with that unique, Kojima-style kookiness turning the title into a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s pretty much incontestable; there isn’t a better narrative to be found on the Sega CD, and really, early '90s gaming, than this game right here. 

“Snatcher” is something of an adventure title, with your character (the semi-iconic Gillian Seed) roaming around a futuristic metropolis, alongside his trusty robotic companion, “Metal Gear.” Yeah, I have no idea where that namesake came from, either. As far as basic gameplay goes, it’s quite familiar material; option boxes pop up on screen that allot certain actions (look, drive, open, etc.), and triggering the right “clues” allows you to advance the storyline. And for those of you looking for a meaty experience, there is A LOT of story in “Snatcher,” making this one of the longest experiences to be found on the Sega CD. If you’re looking for the anathema of the 40 minute long FMV game, “Snatcher” is probably about as diametrically polar as you can get. 

The presentation in the game is simply fantastic. The cutscene animation is outstanding, and the voice acting is perhaps the absolute finest to be found on the console. The controls are quite fluid (although the sometimes static gameplay may put off some of the ADD gamers out there), and once again, you really can’t argue about the inherent greatness of the game’s plotline. Simply put, “Snatcher” was a game that was at least one console generation ahead of its time, and a comprehensively awesome experience that all serious Sega aficionados would be wise to explore. Trust me; there’s a reason why 20 years later, hardcore fans are STILL clamoring for a “Snatcher” sequel…

#003 
Sonic the Hedgehog CD


A lot of people consider Sonic’s only foray on the Sega CD to be the absolute best “Sonic the Hedgehog” game ever. While I tend to disagree (“Sonic 3” FOREVER rules this world), there’s no denying that it’s one of the best Sonic games ever, and easily the best platform game to be released on the criminally neglected console.

If you don’t know how “Sonic” games wok by now, you’ve probably been a prisoner of war since Grenada. The gameplay here is about as simplistic as it gets -- you hop, bop, run and occasionally tear through enemies like a power saw -- on a quest to save your girlfriend, who, in this scenario, is a bright pink rodent. Yeah, the game probably won’t win any points for an original premise, but the execution is so goddamn incredible that you really can’t criticize any aspect of the game. It’s just a straight-up, through-and-through excellent platformer, with terrific music (even if most fan boys agree that the Japanese/European version had the superior soundtrack) and terrific visuals, especially when you hop into the pseudo 3D bonus road race stages.

The stages are very well designed and the game incorporates a lot of neat effects -- for example, when you run through a loop-de-loop, the camera shifts to a second person, Sonic’s-Eye-View and towards the final stage, your character can actually be shrunken down to near microscopic levels (thus, making the platforming terrain appear downright ginormous.) While most of the stages are more or less rehashes of previous Sonic locales, there are so many cool addendums to the level layout that just walking around in the game is a sheer delight. All in all, this is a downright beautiful game, with virtually pitch-perfect gameplay and visuals that, to this day, are absolutely breathtaking. Not only is this a highwater mark for the Sega CD, it truly is one of the absolute best platforming experiences in the annals of video gaming. 

#002  
Championship Soccer ‘94



I was real late to the party on this one, and trust me: if you’re a hardcore gamer, especially a footy fanatic, this is one hidden gem you absolutely NEED to experience.

While this game is virtually unheard of in America, if you’re a European reader, you no doubt know all there is to know about this game, which was called “Sensible Soccer” over in the PAL region. A universally beloved offering in the Common Market nations, most U.S. gamers have never heard of “Championship Soccer ‘94,” which is a downright shame: not only is this a solid candidate for absolute best soccer game ever, it might just be one of the top ten video games to be released throughout the 1990s altogether. 

“Championship Soccer ‘94,” on the surface, looks pretty minimalist. The sprites are nowhere near as detailed as they are in some of the 16-bit FIFA games, but what the game lacks in aesthetics it MORE than makes up for in solid gameplay. Contemporary gamers will likely be astounded by just how much the game offers you, from the staggering number of teams, coaching options and game modes. What “Tecmo Super Bowl” is to American football, this game is to, uh, non-American football, I suppose -- an infinitely enjoyable, simplistic-yet-irresistibly addictive sports sim that’s nigh impossible to put down. For North American gamers, this is definitely the best iteration of the title out there…a pretty penny, it may cost you, but I assure you, this is a game you will be playing A LOT as the years chug along. 

And the moment of truth arrives! Of the 200 or so games that were released on the Sega CD in the U.S. region, if you’re looking for the absolute BEST the console had to offer, there is absolutely NO denying which piece of software you should have permanently wedged into your disc drive. Ladies and gents, I present to you the GREATEST SEGA CD GAME OF ALL-TIME…

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#001 
NHL ‘94



For my money, "NHL '94" on the Sega CD is the single greatest video game ever made, on any platform. If I was exiled to a desert island -- which, for reasons we don't really need to get into, has electricity -- with just a CRT-TV, a home console of my choosing, and one video game to play for all eternity, THIS is the game I'd take with me. It's not just 16-bit, old-school sim-hockey greatness, its interactive entertainment at its absolute zenith. Yeah, that seems mildly hyperbolic, but if you've ever played the game -- and you love yourself some early '90s hockey -- than you'll know its an utterance made in anything but jest. 

When you look at a list of games commonly cited as the "best ever," you'll usually note a recurring pattern; that those games, as great as they are, are the same experience every time you play them. As good as "Ocarina of Time" and "Super Mario Bros. 3" and "Super Metroid" may be, the games are virtually identical every time you play them. The sprites will always be in the same places, and the bosses will always follow the same attack patterns, and the special items will always be hidden in the exact same place. What makes games like "Tecmo Super Bowl," "Sensible Soccer" and, most certainly, "NHL '94" so fantastic is that they are entirely different experiences every time you play them. Thanks to snappy AI -- not to mention the factor of human err -- no two games of "NHL '94" ever play out identically.

If you never played "NHL '94" on the Genesis -- a game already considered godlike by most 16-bit gaming aficionado -- the Sega CD iteration is more or less the same game in terms of visuals and gameplay. Trust me, that is a HUGE positive, seeing as how the graphics were already quite crisp and the game mechanics nigh perfect in cartridge form. What makes "NHL '94" on the Sega CD the superior version, and again, the greatest game of all-time IMO, is the beefed up audio, complete with an all new theme song and full on voice acting from Ron Barr (who spends literally six minutes doing pre-game comparisons before every match-up). The goal sounds, the roar of the crowd, the on-ice grunts; the improved sound design makes the game that much more enjoyable and intense, turning what is already an all-time masterpiece into a game that can easily be considered THE all-time masterpiece in terms of virtual ice hockey. Granted, the loading times can be a bit pesky, but trust me; considering the high production values and presentation in this game, it's well worth the minuscule waiting periods.

In many ways, "NHL '94" embodies everything that was great about the Sega CD. While neither really did anything that new -- and there are much more similarities with each's 16-bit forerunner than there are differences -- there's no denying that the hardware and software in question took full advantage of the miniature upgrade in terms of audio and graphical horsepower, turning what were already legendary 16-bit experiences into awesome, special-featured-loaded collector's editions of some of the best games ever produced. All in all, the wheel may have not been re-invented with either the hardware or the software, but at the same time? You can say that this version of"NHL 94", and the Sega CD itself to some extent, no doubt perfected an already exquisite 16-bit experience.

And what a pity it was that so few people ever got to experience that perfection, either...

It's still loading...in our hearts. 

6 comments:

  1. This was an awesome list, man... I'm a defender of the Sega CD, too. While it wasn't the revolution that Sega advertised at the time, it did enhance the Genesis experience. Sonic CD and Snatcher are reason enough alone to hunt one down!

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  2. Before I got hooked to online games after subscribing to an Australian broadband service provider, I first got addicted to old sega games. =)

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  3. Sonic is the best and you know it!!!

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  4. Overall great list! This brings back memories and I looking to replay the amazing Sega CD library! Although I disagree with the top two games lol. I still have my trusty Sega CD, but only currently own three damn games for it.

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  5. I don't know man, you have 2 sports games as the best 2 games on the system? That is CRAZY TALK! Overall a nice selection of games but I must say you snubbed a few quality titles. No Time Gal, no Dungeon Explorer, no Lords of Thunder, no Jurassic Park, no Revenge of the Ninja, no Shadow of the Beast 2. How did none of these games crack the top 50? I could understand if you left 2 or 3 off the list maybe, but then again you have some really questionable games to round out the 50 mark.

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    1. NHL '94 and Sensible Soccer are routinely considered the best hockey and soccer games of all time, and for me, the Sega CD iterations are pretty much the definitive versions of each, with the replay value alone worthy of the top spots (in my humblest o' opinions.) That said, Lords of Thunder is a huge oversight. It might even crack my top ten, if I were to re-do the list.

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