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Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

For many, the Super Nintendo remains the absolute pinnacle of gaming hardware. The is 16-bit powerhouse was home to some amazing games, and via titles like Super Mario World, Zelda: Link to the Past and Street Fighter II, did much to expand the interactive entertainment market and turn an entire generation into diehard Nintendo fans. However, it's almost impossible to talk about the SNES without also referencing its biggest rival: the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis, as it was known in North America). After failing to make a dent in Nintendo's market share with the 8-bit Master System (outside of Europe, at least), Sega bet everything on its 16-bit successor, and thanks in no small part to some amazing arcade conversions, EA-made sports titles and a certain blue Erinaceinae, it managed to challenge Nintendo on even terms, doing the unthinkable and actually rivalling (and, at points, outselling) the creator of the SNES on North American soil – something that had been utterly unthinkable during the NES era.

The famous 'Console Wars' of the '90s have gone down in legend, and those old enough to recall this period will no doubt have expressed a preference for one of these two video game titans, but in 2019, it's easy to admit that if you wanted to sample the best the industry had to offer, you needed both in your life. That's why the release of the Analogue Mega Sg is such a noteworthy event, even in the world of Nintendo; it's the perfect opportunity to reacquaint yourself with the console that fought the SNES tooth and nail for living room supremacy.

We've already reviewed Analogue's other systems – such as the brilliant Nt Mini and Super Nt – both of which are based on Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) technology which uses configurable logic blocks to replicate the performance of vintage systems on a hardware rather than software level. The Mega Sg adopts an identical approach, even using the same versatile and powerful Altera Cyclone V FPGA chipset. This chip can be programmed to behave exactly like an original Sega Mega Drive in hardware terms, thus avoiding the usual issues and inconsistencies that are introduced by software emulation. Because of this, the Mega Sg boasts complete compatibility with not just the entire Mega Drive / Genesis library (and that includes all regions, as you can toggle the console's region encoding in its settings), but also the whole 8-bit Master System range, thanks to the fact that the machine comes bundled with a special adapter that allows you to load up 8-bit Sega games, too.

The Mega Sg is roughly the same size as the Super Nt, which means it's compact enough to fit under your TV without swallowing up too much room. The top of the console has a power button and reset button, the former of which is home to an LED which glows in a range of different colours, configurable by the user in console's settings menu. On the back, you'll find a standard-sized HDMI-out port and a Micro USB port for power. The left-hand edge has an SD card slot for firmware updates, while the opposite side has an expansion port so the Mega Sg can be fitted to a Mega CD (both the Mk1 and Mk2 models are supported). Due to a slight difference in height between the Mega Sg and the original Mega Drive, a square foam pad is included which fits neatly beneath the console, raising it slightly so it slots snugly into the CD add-on's interface port.

Update: During the process of writing this review, we found that our trusty Japanese Mega CD Mk1 – which works flawlessly with our original Mega Drive console – refused to play nice with the Mega Sg. It would boot, but certain visuals – such as the famous spinning logos during the console's opening sequence – were replaced by corrupted visuals. When we tested the Mega Sg with another Mega CD (a PAL Mk1 variant), these issues did not exist and games played as normal. Therefore, we can be pretty certain that the Mega Sg is not at fault here, but you may find certain models of the Mega CD don't work as expected – a perhaps predictable consequence of marrying decades-old tech with a modern FPGA system. Our friends over at My Life in Gaming noticed similar performance quirks with their Mega CD unit.

Meanwhile, the front edge of the system is home to a 3.5mm headphone socket and two 9-pin joystick ports – just like the ones seen on the original hardware. This means that you can plug in your existing Mega Drive controllers, which is a good thing as the Mega Sg doesn't actually come with any pads in the box. Analogue has teamed up with accessory maker 8BitDo to create an utterly superb clone of the 6-button Mega Drive pad, and it's possible to order this – along with the wireless receiver that plugs into the 9-pin port – both as part of a bundle and separately. It's worth noting that Krikzz's excellent Joyzz controller also works perfectly with the Mega Sg, and tests indicate that in terms of latency, it's the preferred wireless option right now.

Available in colour variants which reflect the original regional designs (red and grey power and reset buttons for North America, white and grey for Europe and red and blue for Japan) as well as an all-white option, the Mega Sg certainly looks the part from a purely aesthetic perspective. However, even the most attractive casing can't prepare you for the sheer volume of options available once you actually turn it on. Venezuelan DJ Arca – real name Alejandro Ghersi – has produced the dream-like boot music, which is accompanied by the Analogue logo, as seen through the retro-infused lens of Phil 'Fez' Fish.

Once the slick boot sequence is complete, you can select from a range of options to get the experience you desire. A truly dazzling range of graphical filters and options are available; you can pick your resolution (480p, 720p and 1080p are all supported), scaler, scanline intensity and screen ratio; there's even the option to apply a 'dither' effect which simulates the blending of pixels you'd get from running a Mega Drive over an RF connection on an old-school CRT television set. It might seem like an odd feature to include, but when you consider that many developers harnessed this limitation to create transparency effects and concoct 'new' colours not normally available in the console's standard palette, it's a vital element which makes the whole experience even more authentic.

The team at Analogue – spearheaded by the legendary Kevin 'Kevtris' Horton – have worked tirelessly to solve other oddball issues relating to Sega's 16-bit hardware, such as the fact that the console's native frame rate is 59.92275fps (NTSC) and 49.70146fps (PAL). Modern flatscreen TVs don't play nice with these kinds of rates – another legacy issue which arises from the fact that the Mega Drive was designed to work on CRTs sets which could handle this kind of inconsistency with ease – and so Analogue has included three different modes which give you the power to tackle the issue in the way you personally see fit.

'Fully Buffered' mode buffers full frames to maintain the original timing of the frame rate using only 60fps. Tearing is avoided at the cost of latency, and the hardware has to render at least 1 frame ahead of the game’s internal speed to maintain this mode. 'Zero Delay' mode – the default setting – speeds things up to hit that all-important 60fps, creating a speed difference of 0.13%. While there's no latency hit here, the side effect is that the Mega Sg speeds up 1 second every 10 minutes, compared to the original system. Finally, we have 'Single Buffer' mode, which is a halfway house between the two modes outlined above. Like 'Full Buffer', the original timing is present and correct but only a portion of the next frame is being pre-rendered. The side effect of this mode is that a 'retrace line' is visible every few seconds.

This might sound like overkill, and to be honest, most players will probably boot up the Mega Sg, stick with the default setting and not notice any difference at all – but it's indicative of the kind of effort the team at Analogue is willing to go through in order to offer a truly faithful experience. This desire extends to the audio settings, which are even more complex and detailed. If you're a fan of fine-tuning hardware to find that 'sweet' setup, then you'll be as happy as a pig in muck with the Mega Sg. The settings even allow you to change how the UI menu behaves (we found the default font a little hard to read so switched to an alternative early on, but you can even load up your own custom font using the SD card slot) and how it handles regional lock-outs in certain titles. Heck, you can even input cheat codes. There's also an option which allows you to 'force' the system into thinking you've got a 3-button pad, as some games refuse to run correctly with a 6-button controller connected.

All of these settings would mean little if the performance of the console was lacking, but that's thankfully not the case. Games run impeccably on the Mega Sg, and while we certainly weren't in a position to test every title in the Mega Drive and Master System libraries (something Analogue assures us it has done already), nothing we threw at the console caused it any issues. Even the SVP-powered Virtua Racing runs without a single hitch, and flash carts – like the Mega Everdrive – also work perfectly (and allow you to boot Master System and SG-1000 titles). Visual and audio performance is 100% perfect, too; this is just like running games on an original system, only this one offers crystal-clear HD output and a dazzling degree of control over how things look and sound.

While the Mega Sg is compatible with the Mega CD and can run Master System games (not to mention Game Gear and SG-1000 software, the latter two becoming available when new adapters launch), it's not currently capable of running Sega 32X games. Sega's ill-fated add-on was something of a disaster in both commercial and critical terms, but it's understandable that many fans will want it to function with the Mega Sg. Sadly, the complex nature of multi-link cables which pair the device to the original Mega Drive hardware make this a tall order, although Analogue has insisted that it is trying everything it can to achieve this goal; it may be that 32X support is added by tinkering further with the system's FPGA – after all, custom Mini Nt firmware was eventually released by Analogue that allowed it to replicate several other retro systems – so only a cartridge adapter would be required (the ideal solution, as 32Xs are rising in value all of the time). Time will tell if this is possible, but Kevtris is a man of considerable talent.

When Analogue released the Super Nt, it made the cool move of including the unreleased Super Turrican: The Director's Cut as well as its sequel, Super Turrican 2. This time around, the company has only been able to include a single game, but it's quite an offering. Originally set for release on the Mega Drive, Amiga and Mega CD back in 1994, the DICE-developed Hardcore is a run-and-gun shooter not entirely dissimilar to Turrican. Renamed 'Ultracore' here for licencing reasons, it's something of a technical showcase for Sega's 16-bit system. While the gameplay is relatively familiar – you run around each stage blowing away enemies and unlocking doors – it boasts silky-smooth animation, loads of sprites on-screen at once and an excellent chiptune soundtrack. While it's perhaps not worth buying the Mega Sg for alone (it's coming to the PS4 and PS Vita as well), Ultracore is without a doubt a fantastic bonus and further proof that the team at Analogue is deadly serious about preserving and celebrating video gaming's past.

Analogue Mega Sg: The Conclusion

So, should you buy Analogue's Mega Sg? If you've been keenly following the progress of this remarkable company then the answer is probably already blindingly obvious; this is the most accurate and feature-rich Sega 'clone' system yet released, and while there will be those who swear by original hardware, the sheer volume of options and features makes this a very appealing proposition to anyone who has a large Mega Drive collection and wants to play those games in perfect HD.

So what of the alternatives? Well, we're supremely confident that Analogue's machine will trounce the upcoming Mega Drive Mini, especially if AtGames is still involved with its production. Sure, the company produces perfectly serviceable clone hardware for the less demanding sector of the retro gaming market but its reputation isn't the best with connoisseurs, and barring a minor miracle, we'd imagine the Mega Sg is more accurate and faithful to the original hardware than this forthcoming officially-licenced effort. As for AtGames' Mega Drive clones already available on store shelves, there really is no competition. If you happen to already own a Mega Drive (as well as many other retro systems) then the excellent OSSC offers a similar kind of visual brilliance (we actually prefer the way it generates scanlines) and works with all of your RGB-enabled systems, but it's not quite as elegant a solution as the Mega Sg, and – if you have to invest in an original console and a decent RGB cable, it could end up being a more expensive route.

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Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Analogue's mission has always been to create reference-level hardware which not only grants access to the full library of a machine but offers additional features to elevate the experience beyond what's possible on 'the real thing'. Having performed that feat already with the Nt Mini and Super Nt, it has once again achieved this goal with the Mega Sg; while at $190 / £145 it can hardly be considered a 'casual' purchase, in our opinion that price is a steal when you consider not only the level of accuracy on display, but the high compatibility and raft of additional features – as well as the hitherto unreleased Ultracore from Digital Illusions / DICE. Don't hold your breath for the Mega Drive Mini; this is the ultimate way to experience, enjoy and appreciate Sega's 16-bit library in the HD era, just as the Mini Nt and Super Nt were for their respective systems.

Thanks to Analogue for supplying the unit used in this review. You can order one direct from Analogue's site.

This article was originally published by on Mon 25th March, 2019.