ToeJam & Earl (MD)

These days, the term ‘rogue-like' is bandied about with true abandon, but back in 1991, the genre was far less famous. It’s amazing to think, then, that Sega was bold enough to publish a title like ToeJam & Earl, which was produced by an external development team and was as oddball as they come. The titular characters are a pair of rapping aliens who crash-land on Earth and must explore randomly-generated levels and rebuild their spacecraft. The game’s two-player mode really opens things up and adds longevity, and the fact that ToeJam & Earl can only defend themselves with tomatoes makes the game stand out as surprisingly non-violent. ToeJam & Earl is unlike any other game on the Mega Drive, and well worth a look, even today.

Contra: Hard Corps (MD)

Alongside Castlevania: Bloodlines and Rocket Knight Adventures, Contra: Hard Corps stands as one of Konami’s greatest achievements on the Mega Drive. Like Bloodlines, it’s very much Contra turned up to the absolute maximum level of insanity; while the visuals and audio can’t quite match the SNES Contra III, the intensity of the on-screen action and sheer craziness of the levels means that this is perhaps a more hair-raising ride for fans of run-and-gun games. Contra: Hard Corps was the last game to be localised in Europe under the ‘Probotector’ name, and that version of the game features robots as the protagonists. All regional variants of the game are extremely expensive these days, but thankfully, the game is available as part of the Contra: Anniversary Collection for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Windows, and it was also included on the Mega Drive Mini – so you don’t need to sell a kidney to play it legally.

Beyond Oasis (MD)

As one of the console’s later releases, Beyond Oasis (The Story of Thor: A Successor of the Light in Japan and Europe) stands out as a technically stunning action RPG. Developed by Yuzo Koshiro’s studio Ancient, the game showcases large, detailed sprites and beautiful locations. The gameplay is of a high standard, too, with various locations to explore and puzzles to solve. While comparisons can be drawn with the Zelda series – and people certainly did so at the time of release – Beyond Oasis places a much stronger emphasis on combat and its world is arguably more alluring and detailed than Hyrule in Zelda: A Link to the Past. A Saturn sequel followed in 1996 under the title The Legend of Oasis (also known as The Story of Thor 2), but, despite the prettier graphics, it’s perhaps not as polished as this title.

Wonder Boy in Monster World (MD)

While series fans generally agree that this Mega Drive outing (which shouldn’t be confused with console stablemate Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, which is a scrolling shooter) isn’t quite as inventive and revolutionary as Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap on the Master System, it’s still one of the high points of the series. Granted, the monster transformations which made the 8-bit entry so unique are gone, but in their place, there’s a much stronger story, notably improved visuals and audio and a lengthy experience that keeps throwing new surprises in your direction. Interestingly, developer Westone also released the game on the PC Engine CD, but without the Wonder Boy branding, which Sega owns. That version is called The Dynastic Hero.

Golden Axe (MD)

While early releases such as Altered Beast and Space Harrier II showed that the Mega Drive was more than up to the task of bringing Sega’s coin-ops home, Golden Axe was perhaps the first port to really show what was possible on the system. Not only is it a near-arcade-perfect replication of the Conan-like arcade original, it includes an entire extra level at the end, as well as a tougher final boss. You can also fight against another player in the competitive duel mode. A Mega Drive exclusive sequel arrived soon afterwards but it’s rather disappointing as it largely recycles the first game with new visuals, while 1993’s Golden Axe III tries some fresh ideas but ultimately feels a little half-baked. The ‘true’ successor to Golden Axe is the arcade-only Revenge of Death Adder, which was recently included on Sega’s Astro City Mini console.

Flashback (MD)

The singular vision of Paul Cuisset, Flashback is an action-platformer that does much to redefine what ‘cinematic video gaming’ means. Via the use of rotoscoped animation and stunning animated cutscenes, the game creates an immersive and compelling world to explore, complete with challenging puzzles, thrilling combat and entertaining platforming action. Released to almost unanimous praise back in 1992, Flashback has become a true cult classic and remains one of the best games of the entire 16-bit era. Utterly essential.

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (MD)

Capcom enjoyed early success adapting Disney’s famous properties to the world of video games, but for many, it’s this Sega-made effort that really sticks in the memory. Castle of Illusion is a platforming masterpiece; gorgeously presented, supremely playable and instantly accessible, it still ranks as one of the Mega Drive’s finest examples of the genre – which is quite something when you consider it was released so early in the system’s lifespan. The fact that it was remade in 2013 speaks volumes of how highly it is still regarded by gamers all over the world. The game was repackaged alongside Quackshot for the Sega Saturn, but this double-pack sadly never made it to the west.

Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole (MD)

While the SNES was positively drowning in amazing RPGs back in the ‘90s, there was a viewpoint shared by some which felt that Sega’s 16-bit console was sorely lacking in this particular department. Presumably, those same people hadn’t noticed the amazing Landstalker, an isometric action RPG from the same team that co-produced the Shining series with Camelot Software Planning, Climax Entertainment. The perspective meant that the developers could incorporate platforming elements into the gameplay, which makes Landstalker feel very different from other examples of the genre. Combat and puzzle-solving also play a part, while the sumptuous visuals really help the game stand out. A PSP remake was in development at one point, but sadly never saw the light of day. Climax Entertainment sadly shut down around 2014.

Alien Soldier (MD)

If Gunstar Heroes was Treasure showing what it could do on the Mega Drive, Alien Soldier is the studio taking things to the next level in every respect. One of the most technically stunning games ever released on the Mega Drive, this epic run-and-gun title is best described as one long boss rush, with short levels in between. Seen by many as the perfect swansong for the Mega Drive – the ‘hardcore gamer’ console – Alien Soldier is breathtaking in its scope, but hardly the most welcoming of action games for genre newcomers. It was only released physically in Japan and Europe back in 1995 (the North American release was limited to the company’s ‘Sega Channel’ service) so expect to pay high prices if you’re hankering for the original cartridge.

Shining in the Darkness (MD)

While FTL’s 1987 home computer hit Dungeon Master didn’t come up with the idea of a first-person RPG, it certainly did a lot to popularise the approach, and when Sega announced it was working on a thematically similar game, there was much excitement in the air. Ultimately, Shining in the Darkness isn’t really a close match for Dungeon Master. FTL’s game takes place in real-time, while Sega’s game is a turn-based affair with random encounters and the like. Still, it’s incredibly successful at adapting the Final Fantasy-style JRPG style to a first-person adventure and showcases lovely visuals and a decent storyline. A fantastic Saturn sequel – entitled Shining the Holy Ark – would follow in 1997.

Comix Zone (MD)

Developed in the west by Sega Technical Institute, Comix Zone is one of the most inventive fighting games you’ll ever play. As the title hints, the action takes place entirely on the page of a comic book, with the player character literally punching and kicking their way through the borders which separate each panel and moving around the page to progress. Sega was so pleased with itself for coming up with the idea it even patented the concept of a “video game system for creating a simulated comic book game". Comix Zone has a few rough edges, for sure, but it’s such a unique experience that you should definitely seek it out if you’re looking for the best the Mega Drive can offer.

Rocket Knight Adventures (MD)

One of Konami’s early hits on Sega’s 16-bit hardware, Rocket Knight Adventures places you in the metal suit of Sparkster, an opossum who sets out to free his land from the tyranny of an evil army of pigs. Konami’s technical skill is evident from the outset, with the game hurling all kinds of carnage around the screen, while the steampunk-style design has a timeless appeal. Despite two sequels – one for the Mega Drive and one for the SNES – Rocket Knight is a series that has fallen out of favour in recent years. A 2009 reboot by UK-based Climax didn’t really set the world on fire, and it seems that Sparkster is destined to remain in the realm of largely ignored ‘90s animal mascots. Still, at least he had this amazing adventure, right?

Dynamite Headdy (MD)

This manically-paced and stunningly inventive platformer proves that there’s more to Treasure than run-and-gun blasters. Like all of the company’s games, Dynamite Headdy is a technical showcase and really pushes the host hardware to its limits. However, it’s the core gameplay hook – Headdy’s interchangeable heads – which really sticks in the memory with this one. 17 different heads on available in the game, giving the gameplay a truly unique flavour. Another nice touch is that the levels you’re playing through are all set on a theatre stage, and you often catch glimpses of this fact in the backgrounds.

Monster World IV (MD)

It’s puzzling that Sega didn’t feel confident enough to release Monster World IV in the west back in 1994, given that the Wonder Boy series had been commercially successful across its Master System, Mega Drive and Game Gear platforms. Whatever the reason for the reluctance, western players missed out on one of the best platform RPGs of the 16-bit era; Monster World IV – which has a female rather than male protagonist – is a sprawling Metroidvania-style adventure with colourful visuals and captivating gameplay. It would be 2012 before Sega localised the game – it got a release on digital platforms – and it was more recently included on the Sega Mega Drive Mini. A full remake arrived in 2021 on modern systems.

James Pond 2: Codename: RoboCod (MD)

The first James Pond was an underwater adventure that gained a sizeable audience on home computers before it was ported to the Mega Drive, but it's the character’s second outing that has gone down in history as a solid gold classic. Hailed as ‘better than Sonic’ by many publications at the time of release, RoboCod certainly has its own unique take on the plaforming genre. It’s packed with British humour, enjoyable action and appealing visuals, and the fact that it has been reissued on pretty much every console since tells you everything you need to know about how highly it is regarded. A third outing – which also came to Sega’s 16-bit system – didn’t quite reach the same heights, but the character is long overdue a resurrection if you ask us.

Alisia Dragoon (MD)

Developed by Game Arts (Silpheed, Lunar), Alisia Dragoon distinguished itself in 1992 by offering sumptuous, anime-style graphics (thanks to the involvement of Japanese animation studio Gainax) and an engaging female protagonist. It’s an action platformer at heart – and a fairly traditional one at that – but the inclusion of four monsters that aid the player makes it stand apart. Sadly, when Alisia Dragoon was localised by Sega for its western release, the anime artwork on the packaging was replaced by standard-issue western fantasy art and much of the Japanese charm was lost. As you might expect, the Japanese version of the game commands high prices today, but if you’re not looking to drop a large helping of cash, then you’ll be pleased to know the game is included on the Mega Drive Mini.

Herzog Zwei (MD)

Considered by many to be the first true ‘Real-Time Strategy’ title, Herzog Zwei is one of the best two-player games on the Mega Drive. Sure, it takes a bit of getting used to, but once you do, it’s likely to be the cause of many a late-night multiplayer session as you and a friend fight it out for domination of the battlefield. You control a transforming robot that can pick up manufactured units and distribute them around the map, with the ultimate aim being the destruction of your opponent’s HQ. Smaller outposts can be claimed and used as staging posts, and the more you ‘own’ of these, the faster the cash rolls in. It’s a deliciously simply concept which offers months (if not years) of gameplay, and the recent Switch version even adds in online multiplayer, taking things to the next level.

Xeno Crisis (MD)

Released in 2019, Xeno Crisis is a Smash TV-style shooter where you must work your way through an alien-infested base saving hostages and fragging anything even remotely hostile. Developer Bitmap Bureau does an excellent job of pushing the hardware to its absolute limit both visually and sonically, while the two-player mode keeps things interesting. Xeno Crisis was also released on modern systems like the Switch and PS4, as well as the Neo Geo AES and Neo-Geo CD.

Gley Lancer (MD)

One of the many Mega Drive shmups that today commands astonishing prices on the secondary market, Gley Lancer is a horizontal blaster with a unique weapons system, striking visuals (including anime-style cutscenes which look so good you’d think this was a Mega CD game) and an excellent soundtrack. It was denied a release outside of Japan back in the day, a fact which no doubt contributes to its high resale value, but thankfully it was recently re-issued by Colombus Circle, a Japanese company that specialises in resurrecting old and unreleased video games. The price of this reprint is steadily rising in value, too, so if you fancy checking it out you might want to pull the trigger sooner rather than later. Mercifully, it's also available as a digital download.

Devil Crash MD (MD)

Pinball games are very much a fixed concept, but Devil Crash MD – known in the west as Dragon’s Fury – tries its hardest to bend the rules. For starters, the table you’re playing on is packed with demonic imagery, from shambling monks to fire-breathing dragons. This satanic theme runs through the entire game, and even extends to various ‘side tables’ which serve as bonus areas where you can increase your points score. The glorious soundtrack rounds off what is a true classic of the genre, and one which recently inspired the equally excellent Demon’s Tilt on modern consoles.