Sega CD
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Gamers of a certain vintage will keenly recall the days when the words 'Compact Disc' could generate the kind of excitement that's usually reserved for birthdays or three-day weekends.

Once upon a time, these shiny pieces of plastic offered a whole new world of promise; they could hold more data, give us actual music and offer up animated cutscenes and full-motion video that made games more cinematic.

The reality, as we know, was a little more mundane than that. The arrival of the PC Engine CD in the late '80s kickstarted a CD-ROM arms race despite the fact that the technology didn't have an enormous amount to offer at that moment in time. Sega was the first to answer the call with its Sega / Mega CD add-on for the Genesis / Mega Drive; released in 1991, it was seen as a way of combating the threat of the SNES.

Despite waves of hype and some key exclusives – including Sonic CD, Final Fight CD and Snatcher – the bolt-on drive only sold 2.24 million units worldwide, and is considered by many to have been a failure. Nintendo, which was working on its own CD drive with Sony, abandoned the idea when it became clear that such technology was not going to live up to its potential, at least in the 16-bit era.

However, looking beyond pure sales data gives a somewhat different picture. Sure, the Sega CD was perhaps a generation too early and is flooded with poor-quality FMV titles, but that doesn't mean it was lacking in amazing games – and we've picked out a selection of them below.

Sonic CD (SCD)

Acclaimed by many fans as the best of the 2D Sonic titles, Sonic CD was designed to be a killer app for the Sega CD, boasting an amazing soundtrack, loads of levels and an animated introduction sequence.

With sales of 1.5 million copies, it's the most commercially successful game on the system and was remade in 2011 by Christian Whitehead using the Retro Engine. It is also part of the Sonic Origins compilation, which launched in 2022.

It's worth noting that the Japanese and European versions feature a soundtrack composed by Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata, while the North American edition has music composed by Spencer Nilsen, David Young, and Mark Crew.

Snatcher (SCD)

Hideo Kojima's cyberpunk masterpiece was released across a wide range of platforms, including the PC-Engine CD, Saturn and PlayStation, but this Sega CD offering is the only one to have been localised in English.

A gripping mix of Blade Runner and The Terminator, it places you in a world where killer robots are capable of assuming the appearance of the people they murder; it's your job, as Gillian Seed, to track them down.

Snatcher manages to fuse elements of a visual novel with action segments (which can be played using the Konami Justifier light gun, if you're using a CRT) and is easily one of the most memorable Sega CD games of all time.

Sadly, it has never been re-released, and physical copies are now worth a small fortune.

Shining Force CD (SCD)

Shining Force CD isn't an all-new outing for the Sega CD, but is instead a remake of Shining Force Gaiden and Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya, both of which were originally released on the Game Gear handheld.

As was the case in both of those titles, there are no exploration sections between battles – so, if you're a fan of chatting to NPCs, you might be disappointed. However, tactical combat is arguably the reason the Shining Force series is so well-regarded today, and Shining Force CD has plenty of that.

The game is divided into four sections, called Books. The first two are based on the aforementioned Game Gear outings, while the third and fourth are exclusive to this game, and must be unlocked by finishing the first two Books.

Annoyingly, it's only possible to carry over your character from the first two Books if you own a backup RAM cartridge, as the Sega CD's internal storage isn't ample enough for the save data.

Keio Flying Squadron (SCD)

Best described as the Sega CD's answer to Konami's Parodius, Keio Flying Squadron kicks off with an animated introduction which discusses the real-world history of Japan's Keiō era – hardly the most typical starting point for a cute, horizontally scrolling shmup.

You take on the role of bunny girl Rami Nanahikari, who rides atop her dragon, Spot, in an effort to retrieve a key to a secret and powerful treasure. What follows is a wild and wacky blaster packed with imaginative enemies, interesting levels and challenging bosses – not to mention some excellent CD-quality music.

Keio Flying Squadron would get a sequel on Saturn, but it's more of an action platformer than a shooter. In 1998, a third title – Rami-chan no Ōedo Sugoroku: Keiō Yūgekitai Gaiden – would be launched in Japan. It's a party game, and totally different from the previous two entries.

Lunar: The Silver Star (SCD)

When Sega launched the Sega CD in Japan, it knew it needed a title which would demonstrate the amazing power of the format. Thankfully, it had Game Arts to help on that score; Lunar: The Silver Star was one of the first big-budget JRPGs to arrive on the system, and offered anime-style cutscenes, an amazing soundtrack (composed by Noriyuki Iwadare, Hiroshi Fujioka and Isao Mizoguchi) and hours of gameplay.

Working Designs would localise the game for a North American release in 1993, and the game has gone down as one of the finest Sega CD titles. A sequel followed in 1994, and the game has been remade three times: as Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete (Saturn, PlayStation) in 1996, Lunar Legend (GBA) in 2002, and Lunar: Silver Star Harmony (PSP) in 2009.

Final Fight CD (SCD)

When Nintendo secured the first home console port of Capcom's Final Fight for its SNES, it came as quite depressing news to many Sega fans who had been hoping it might come to the Mega Drive / Genesis.

Thankfully, a few years later, Sega secured the rights to bring the game to the Sega CD, giving fans what was, for the longest time, the best domestic version of the belt-scrolling brawler.

Elements which were missing from the SNES port (Guy, the two-player mode and one entire level) were reinstated here, alongside a 'time attack' mode. Final Fight CD also benefits from an improved soundtrack and an opening introduction with full voice acting. It may no longer be the best home version of the game, but it's still a fun time.

Android Assault: The Revenge of Bari-Arm (SCD)

When you consider how inundated the Genesis / Mega Drive is when it comes to shmups, it's amazing that there aren't more on the Sega CD. Titles like Sol-Feace promised much but ultimately failed to deliver, and it fell to titles like Keio Flying Squadron, Robo Aleste, and Android Assault: The Revenge of Bari-Arm (released in Japan as Bari-Arm) to carry the torch.

Developed by Human Entertainment, this horizontally scrolling shooter has impressive visuals and a killer soundtrack, making it one of the best examples of the genre on the system.

Batman Returns (SCD)

Batman Returns was one of many titles which appeared on both the Genesis / Mega Drive and the Sega CD, with the CD version benefitting from bonus features.

In this case, players got to sample driving sections, which made excellent use of the Sega CD's scaling capabilities, as well as improved music. However, the action platforming sections are largely the same between both versions – which led some critics to brand the Sega CD version as little more than a cash-in. Even so, Batman Returns is a wonderful game, and the Sega CD iteration is arguably the best of the pair.

It's worth noting that the beloved SNES version of Batman Returns is an entirely different game, developed by Konami.

Vay (SCD)

Another JRPG which leverages the storage power of the Sega CD to offer loads of cutscenes and CD-quality music, Vay isn't as well known as Lunar, but is still worth a look.

The story begins when a death-dealing robot crash-lands on the planet of Vay and is subdued by the combined might of five mighty wizards. The hero, Prince Sandor, finds his wedding day ruined by an invading army of mechs and sets out on a quest for revenge.

Working Designs translated the game for a North American release, giving Sega CD owners another epic adventure to get lost in. While it isn't as famous as many other '90s role-players, it was deemed enough of a cult hit to be re-released on iOS in 2008 by SoMoGa, Inc.

Silpheed (SCD)

Released around the same time as Star Fox on the SNES, Game Arts' Silpheed was positioned as Sega's answer to Nintendo's 3D epic – and, in screenshots, it certainly looked more impressive.

What wasn't immediately clear was that Silpheed's 3D environments were being streamed directly from the CD, and weren't real-time. This technological oversight aside, it remains a solid vertically-scrolling shooter.

It's actually the second game in a series that began in 1986 on Japanese home computers; further sequels would follow on PS2, Xbox 360 and smartphones.