Released in 1988, the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're in North America) is arguably the company's most beloved home console – it's certainly the most commercially successful, having shifted a respectable 30.75 million units worldwide.
The first true 16-bit home console, the Mega Drive boasts a library that is absolutely packed full of fast-paced arcade and sports titles, as well as a wide range of platformers, RPGs and fighting games.
Below, you'll find a selection of what we feel are the best games the console has to offer. We've tried to avoid picking several games from the same series where possible, and have aimed to showcase the wide range of titles on the system across the spectrum of genres. It's also worth noting that these games are not presented in any particular ranking.
A very early entry in the Mega Drive library, The Revenge of Shinobi (Super Shinobi in Japan) was one of the first games to really show what the console was capable of. Boasting visuals that massively improve over its arcade forerunner, Revenge of Shinobi combines tight control with excellent level design and inventive enemies, but for many players, the most memorable aspect of the entire game is Yuzo Koshiro's incredible soundtrack. It's worth noting that early versions of the game included Spider-Man and Batman as foes, as well as Godzilla. These were removed from subsequent versions, as was the late Sonny Chiba's likeness on the title screen. Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master (Super Shinobi II in Japan) is also well worth checking out, but Revenge is arguably the better game.
Everyone has their favourite Sonic game, and while the original had an amazing impact on millions of players and finally gave Sega its very own Mario rival, the second is unquestionably a superior outing. The addition of the spin dash makes the gameplay more exciting and engaging, while the visuals and sound are refined in all the right ways. The inclusion of a sidekick might have garnered a few groans at the time of release, but Tails opens up the game’s two-player mode, which adds further to its appeal and longevity. Some might argue that Sonic & Knuckles is the better game, but for us, Sonic 2 hits the sweet spot.
Phantasy Star began life on the 8-bit Master System, but would find global fame on the Mega Drive with three excellent sequels. Phantasy Star IV, released towards the end of the console’s life, is the zenith of the series and offers up a rip-roaring JRPG quest that mixes fantasy elements with sci-fi tropes to amazing effect. Boasting many hours of gameplay, fantastic visuals and a storyline that will keep you glued to your seat, this is one of the best role-playing romps of the 16-bit era.
Considered to be one of the greatest belt-scrolling brawlers of all time, Streets of Rage 2 (Bare Knuckle 2 in Japan) is regularly mentioned when people discuss must-have Mega Drive titles. It improves on its already impressive forerunner by adding more moves, locations and characters, while the visuals represent a massive leap forward, with huge, well-animated sprites and gorgeous backgrounds. The soundtrack – jointly composed by Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima – is equally legendary, and serves as a fine example of what the console’s oft-maligned audio hardware can do when in the right hands. The third Streets of Rage title is decent but perhaps not quite as well-loved, while the recent fourth outing serves as the perfect example of how to update a 16-bit series for the modern era.
Part of Compile’s legendary Aleste series, MUSHA – which, according to the North American version, stands for “Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor” but in fact means ‘Warrior’ in Japanese – is a fantastic blaster that is made all the more remarkable when you consider that it was released in 1990, making it one of the Mega Drive’s earliest shmups. Despite this, it contains some of the most impressive visual effects seen on the system – stage two's ravine being a good example, with the floor literally falling away beneath your ship, opening up layers of stunning parallax scrolling. The gameplay is just as engaging, with a firm challenge and plenty of variety, while the pumping soundtrack does an excellent job of complementing the on-screen carnage.
Formed by a group of ex-Konami staffers, Treasure cut its teeth on Sega hardware, and Gunstar Heroes remains one of the studio’s most acclaimed releases. Even today, the sheer volume of visual effects the game hurls at the player is awe-inspiring; the run-and-gun action is peerless and each level looks and feels totally different. The inventiveness on display is truly stunning, making Gunstar Heroes one of the highlights of the Mega Drive’s library – both in terms of enjoyment and technical prowess. If you don't have access to the original hardware, then you can check it out on the Nintendo 3DS (with fancy 3D effects) and on the Sega Mega Drive Mini micro-console.
Originally released in arcades by Capcom and reprogrammed under licence by Sega itself, Strider is an arcade platformer that never seems to run out of fresh ideas. Its agile protagonist feels athletic and exciting to control, while the ever-changing locations – which include snowy Russia, a floating battleship, the depths of the Amazon rainforest and even the moon – fuel you with the desire to find out what’s up next. This Mega Drive port is amazingly close to the coin-op original and even improves on it in some ways; the main sprite is arguably better-looking here. It’s a shame that some things are missing (the voice samples in between levels, for example), but it seems unfair to pick fault when you consider this was a home port of a cutting-edge arcade machine, released just over a year after the coin-op made its debut.
Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series may get all of the column inches today, but back in the early ‘90s that franchise was still totally exclusive to Japan and it was Sega’s Shining Force that led the way when it came to turn-based tactical RPGs. The original Shining Force was spun out of Shining in the Darkness and boasts hours of gameplay, upgradeable characters and excellent presentation. However, the second game just about edges it when it comes to sheer quality; it offers the player more freedom to explore the world but retains pretty much everything that made the original so compelling. The Shining Force series would also come to the Mega CD and Game Gear, and the third entry would later come to the Sega Saturn.
While all of the John Madden Football games on the Mega Drive are worth a look, this particular entry is perhaps the best starting point if you’re a newcomer, as it builds on the amazing work seen in the previous titles to offer a more rounded gameplay experience. One of Madden’s greatest strengths is its multiplayer appeal, and that’s certainly true here – this is one of the best two-player titles on the console, even if you have no interest whatsoever in the sport of American Football. The simplicity of the controls – combined with the wide selection of available plays and the scope for strategy and skill – make for the perfect social video game, especially if you like trash-talking your opponent when you pull off the perfect move against the run of the game. The lack of a proper NFL licence is the only downer, but this doesn't impact the gameplay.
Konami was late to the party when it came to supporting the Mega Drive, but when it did eventually turn up, it did so in style. Castlevania: Bloodlines (Vampire Killer in Japan, and Castlevania: The New Generation in Europe) is a visual and technical showcase that abandons the laid-back atmosphere of the SNES title Super Castlevania IV and instead adopts a more intense, over-the-top approach; there’s plenty of cartoon gore (some of which was censored for the western versions) but the main hook is the tight control, challenging gameplay and wide range of environments. While many other Castlevania titles focus on Dracula’s titular fortress, Bloodlines takes a whistle-stop tour of Europe, starting in Romania before moving to Greece, France, Italy, Germany and eventually England. Original copies of the game are quite expensive these days, but thankfully Castlevania: Bloodlines is available on the Mega Drive Mini, and on the Castlevania Anniversary Collection on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam and Nintendo Switch.