Best Mega Drive / Genesis Games
Image: Time Extension

Released in Japan on October 29th 1988 - that's 35 years ago today - 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.

The Revenge of Shinobi (MD)

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.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (MD)

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 IV (MD)

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.

Streets of Rage 2 (MD)

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.

Gunstar Heroes (MD)

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.

Strider (MD)

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.

Shining Force II: Ancient Sealing (MD)

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.

John Madden Football '93 (MD)

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.

Castlevania: Bloodlines (MD)

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 European version) 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.

Thunder Force IV (MD)

Thunder Force is another of those franchises which didn’t begin life on the Mega Drive, but has become almost synonymous with it. Thunder Force II kicked things off, but it would be the third and fourth instalments that really pushed the console to its limits. Thunder Force IV is arguably the highlight of the three games on Sega’s 16-bit system; its visuals are so incredible that the screen has to scroll up and down to fully showcase them, while the range of weaponry on offer means there’s a tactic for any given situation. Throw in some imaginative stages and a stern (but fair) challenge, and you’ve got one of the best blasters of this period – and the rocking soundtrack is fantastic, too. You can play it as part of the Sega Ages range of Switch.

Yu Yu Hakusho Makyō Tōitsusen (MD)

Fresh from its success with Gunstar Heroes, Treasure would produce this hectic fighting game based on the famous anime and manga series, Yu Yu Hakusho. Up to four players can take part (with a multitap, of course) with the objective being the utter destruction of all opponents. Like Guardian Heroes – a game Treasure would develop for the Mega Drive’s successor, the Saturn – Yu Yu Hakusho Makyō Tōitsusen allows players to leap between planes of movement. It also supports the console’s optional 6-button controller. Sadly, Yu Yu Hakusho Makyō Tōitsusen was never released outside of Japan, although it did get a Brazilian release in 1999.

Crusader of Centy (MD)

Lazy comparisons at the time of release wrote this off as a Zelda clone, but Crusader of Centy (Soleil in Europe, Shin Souseiki Ragnacënty in Japan) is very much its own thing. While it looks and plays similarly to Zelda: A Link to the Past, Crusader of Centy introduces animal helpers who can aid the player character in a wide variety of ways. Throw in a cool cameo appearance from none other than Sonic the Hedgehog and you’ve got a charming action RPG that absolutely deserves your attention, even today.

Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi (MD)

Often overlooked in favour of series stablemates Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, Shadow Dancer is a more colourful and hyperactive take on the series. While it takes its name from the 1989 arcade machine, Shadow Dancer on the Mega Drive is actually an entirely different outing with new sprites, levels and music. ‘One hit’ kills make their return after the life bar of Revenge of Shinobi, which gives Shadow Dancer a tighter, more tense feel, while the levels are packed with bright enemies and unusual bosses. While Yuzo Koshiro wasn’t involved with the game’s music – his soundtrack to the first title is the stuff of legend – it still has some stand-out tracks which stick in your head for hours after you’ve finished playing. This game offers the tight, playable arcade action Sega built its reputation on, and is highly recommended.

Rainbow Islands Extra (MD)

An enhanced port of Taito’s 1987 arcade smash hit, Rainbow Islands Extra was sadly denied a western release back in the day and is now quite an expensive purchase on Japanese import. It’s worth tracking down, however; it’s a fantastic facsimile of the coin-op boasting faithful visuals, sound and controls. The ‘extra’ in the title refers to the fact that this conversion includes ‘Rainbow Islands Extra Version’, which is a modified version of the original coin-op with new enemy and boss placement. You can choose to play the original game or the ‘extra’ version from the title screen.

Virtua Racing (MD)

How do you fit a state-of-the-art 3D graphics arcade machine onto a console which was built around 2D games? Well, you can’t really, but Sega gave it a good go with this port. The coin-op Virtua Racing might look crude now, but back in the early ‘90s it was a tantalising glimpse of the future, and the fact that Sega even attempted to bring it to the Mega Drive is amazing in itself. However, the 16-bit console had some help thanks to the addition of the ‘Sega Virtua Processor’ (SVP) chip, a 3D accelerator not unlike the Super FX chip seen in the SNES game, Star Fox. The result is a game that is still a long way from matching the arcade version, but something that was jaw-dropping for 1994 standards. What really matters is that Sega managed to include the coin-op’s hugely enjoyable gameplay. Coincidentally, you can check out the arcade version as part of the Sega Ages range on Switch.

Steel Empire (MD)

The Mega Drive is home to a lot of shmups, some of which are better than others. What makes Steel Empire really stand out from its contemporaries is the brilliant steampunk setting; clearly inspired by the likes of Studio Ghibli’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the game’s visuals are packed with airships, industrial villages and shattered fortresses. This unique aesthetic really helps the game stand out from the crowd, but it’s the appealing gameplay that makes it all stick together; there’s a reason that Steel Empire has gone on to become something of a cult classic, and has been reissued on both Game Boy Advance and Nintendo 3DS. While the Japanese Mega Drive version is expensive on the second-hand market, the western versions are a lot cheaper and easier to find.

Ranger X (MD)

When the SNES began to really hit its stride with titles like Cybernator and Contra III, Sega hit back with games like Ranger X (Ex-Ranza in Japan), a mech-heavy action platformer developed by GAU Entertainment (later know as Nextech). One of those rare titles which is capable of combining impressive technical achievements with solid, captivating gameplay, Ranger X can be somewhat intimidating at first, but rewards your dedication with exciting gameplay and some of the best visuals seen on the Mega Drive. It also makes excellent use of the Mega Drive’s 6-button control pad, if you have one to hand.

NHL '94 (MD)

The NHL series – also known as EA Hockey in some parts of the world – ranks alongside Madden and FIFA when it comes to essential 16-bit sports series. This sequel is regarded by many fans as the apex of the franchise on the Mega Drive; it builds on the amazing multiplayer experience offered by earlier entries with new animations, abilities and the opportunity to save your records. Considered by some to be one of the best sports video games ever produced, NHL '94 is a must-have if you’re looking for two-player action on your Mega Drive.

Zero Wing (MD)

It’s somewhat cruel that this classic Toaplan shmup is now best known for siring the ‘All your base’ meme, because behind the amusing ‘Engrish’ translation (only seen in the European version of the game, as Zero Wing didn’t get a North American release back in the day) there lies a fantastic example of the genre. Toaplan’s trademark visuals and sound are present and correct, and the ability to grab onto enemies and use them in battle gives the game a unique hook. Zero Wing was recently reissued by Retro-Bit, and you’ll be pleased to learn that it includes the infamous intro sequence.