2020 has been a pretty rough year, but one of the things that has given us a little bit of happiness during the past 12 months is the fact that Nintendo's one-time rival Sega is celebrating 60 glorious years in the business. During this period, we've seen prototypes, played games that were considered to be lost and even gotten our hands on a tiny Game Gear (an event which actually left us wanting more, but that's beside the point). Now, Sega is rounding off its 60th birthday with another hardware launch – and one that's perhaps even more niche that a Game Gear you can comfortably slip into your pocket without owning a pair of MC Hammer's old trousers.
The Astro City Mini is, like the Neo Geo Mini before it, a tabletop arcade machine which comes pre-loaded with 37 games. It has a built-in LCD screen, a micro-switched joystick and six action buttons, imitating perfectly the original Astro City arcade cabinet from back in the day. It's powered via a Micro-USB (not USB-C, sadly) port on the back, and boasts HDMI-out so you can connect it to your television for 720p gaming goodness. A 3.5mm headphone socket is also included, as are two USB-A ports so you can connect compatible controllers.
Compared to the Neo Geo Mini, the Astro City Mini is a little larger and its screen is of a higher resolution. Unfortunately, unlike SNK, Sega and has opted to include a screen with a 16:9 ratio, which means during gameplay there are two black borders down either side of the image (you can fill these with wallpaper if you wish). Overall, build quality is superb, with the unit feeling very solid and sturdy. The stick and buttons are also excellent. Such is Sega's attention to detail that the panel on the marquee of the unit lights up bright green during gameplay; above this is a pair of surprisingly powerful and punchy speakers.
Sega's also hawking a special Astro City joypad and arcade stick, and we were lucky enough to get our hands on both. The D-Pad on the controller does feel slightly mushy but the buttons are fine, and the pad looks nice, at the very least. It's something of a needless purchase if you already own a Mega Drive / Genesis Mini, however, as the pad that comes with that works just fine on the Astro City Mini (the 'Mode' button is used for 'Credit') and it arguably has a superior D-Pad.
The arcade stick, on the other hand, is an absolute beast and costs as much as the Astro City Mini itself. Boasting Sanwa-made parts, it has a glorious micro-switched stick and a solid metal base, the latter of which gives it some real heft. It's arguably the best way to play games on the system, but might be out of the price range of most buyers. It has a standard USB-A connection, too, which suggests it can be used with other devices (we haven't had a chance to test this properly as yet, but will update the review when we know for sure).
There's also an entirely optional display stand accessory which makes the unit look like a proper Astro City cabinet – it even comes with a plastic stool and marquee display, onto which you can affix special stickers. It's totally and utterly superfluous, and we love it.
The unit can be configured so all of the menus are in English, but the ROMs themselves are all Japanese versions. These are accessed via a neat carousel-style menu system, from which you can view screenshots for each title (accessing this UI during gameplay is a matter of pressing the 'Credit' and 'Start' buttons simultaneously). Each game has its own landing page which includes a short description and two save state slots. You also have to use the menu to alter the brightness and volume (annoyingly, you have to drop out of your current game to do this), and it's possible to apply a CRT-style scanline filter to the image, which looks pretty bad and isn't really worth bothering with.
The Astro City Mini provides a solid foundation from a hardware perspective, then, but the software is what really matters, and in this respect, the system both pleases and disappoints in (almost) equal measures.
Here's the full list:
- Alien Syndrome
- Alien Storm
- Golden Axe
- Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder
- Columns II
- Dark Edge
- Puzzle & Action: Tant-R
- Virtua Fighter
- Fantasy Zone
- Altered Beast
- Scramble Spirits
- Ninja Princess
- Arabian Fight
- Sonic Boom
- Stack Columns
- Quartet 2
- Puyo Puyo Tsu
- Thunder Force AC
- Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars
- Rad Mobile
- Space Harrier
- Seishun Scandal / My Hero
- Dottori Kun (Dot Race)
- Bonanza Bros
- Crack Down
- Gain Ground
- Puyo Puyo
- Shadow Dancer
- Wonder Boy
- Wonder Boy in Monster Land
- Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair
On the positive side, emulation is solid and everything runs as you'd expect, although there are some odd visual effects due to the fact that some of these games are being crammed into the system's 16:9 display (Gain Ground, for example, ran on a vertically-oriented screen in the arcades). Another massive plus is the fact that the release of the Astro City Mini marks the first time Sega has officially given us access to the utterly amazing Golden Axe: Revenge of Death Adder, the arcade-only sequel to the seminal side-scrolling brawler Golden Axe (which is also included).
It's also marvellous to see the original coin-op versions of titles like Virtua Fighter, Alien Storm, Alien Syndrome, Altered Beast, Spacer Harrier, Shadow Dancer and Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair. If you frequented arcades back in the late '80s and early '90s, these titles should be instantly familiar, giving the Astro City Mini a potent nostalgic allure. While we've seen home conversions for these games over the decades, there's nothing quite like playing the coin-op. Cotton, while not a Sega property, also makes the cut thanks to the fact that it was created for the System-16 arcade board and was published by Sega.
However, as is practically always the case with this kind of thing, it's almost impossible to concoct a lineup that's going to please absolutely everyone, and there are a few bum notes in the Astro City Mini's library. Take My Hero (known as Seishun Scandal in Japan) for example; this Vigilante-style side-scrolling fighter has an odd time-travelling premise but isn't very good at all. Then there's Sonic Boom (sadly no relation to the blue hedgehog) and Scramble Spirits, two entirely unremarkable vertically-scrolling shmups which were largely ignored at the time of release and hold little importance in 2020, beyond illustrating that Sega wasn't particularly adept at this genre. Yu Suzuki's Rad Mobile – the sole racing title on the machine – is also something of a letdown; it's nice enough, but nowhere near as entertaining as Out Run (it's perhaps most famous for marking the official debut of Sonic, who appears as an ornament which swings from your rear-view mirror).
Even titles like Arabian Fight and Dark Edge – true historical oddities which showcase how Sega was relentlessly pushing the limits of 2D hardware to create 3D-style games – are only really worth booting up once or twice because, despite their interest on a technical level, they play absolutely terribly. Why include these dead-end experiments over genuinely entertaining titles like Outrunners, Aurail or Dynamite Dux, all of which would have been more worthy replacements?
1990's Dottori-Kun (Dot Race) is perhaps the oddest inclusion here, but it does have some neat historical importance. When a new regulation came into force in Japan which stated that arcade cabinets could not be sold bare, Sega, like its rivals, developed a simple game that could ship with the cabinets. Dottori-Kun – which is a simplified version of another Sega title called Head-On – was essentially created to overcome this legal problem, as well as serve as a means of testing the cabinet's functions before the PCB was replaced by another game once it was in situ. While it's good for some short-burst play, it's hardly a classic – but the story behind its creation is interesting, at least.
There's another issue here which, for many arcade fans, won't be an issue. These games are obviously made with the coin-op market in mind, and, as such, they're focused on getting you to insert as many credits as possible, thereby making the operator revenue. The end result is a series of games which, more often than not, are balanced in a way which encourages you to keep on paying money – but, because you're not playing in an actual arcade, you can happily credit-feed to your heart's content. This unbalances a lot of the games because even when you fail you can just continue regardless; if you're keen to extract maximum value for money you'll want to set yourself strict credit targets. It is possible to "git gud" and "one-credit complete" some of these games, but it's amazing how many of them resort to cheap tactics to kill you. Suffice to say, the art of balancing games for arcade play is totally different from balancing them for domestic use (take the arcade ESWAT as an example; it's a painfully cheap experience built around feeding credits, while the totally different Mega Drive version is more forgiving and rewards skilful play).
Still, despite our grumbles, the selection of games included here should please ardent Sega fans. Sure, it would have been nice to see a little more variety (as much as we love Shinobi, Fantasy Zone and Thunder Force AC, they're all available on the Switch eShop, and who really needs three versions of Columns?) the highlights definitely outweigh the poorer choices. Virtua Fighter – a game which was once seen as the absolute pinnacle of arcade gaming – still plays like a dream, and having it on a system which is small enough to sit on your desk feels like a revelation. Alien Storm, Golden Axe and Revenge of Death Adder are three amazing belt-scrolling brawlers, and it's neat to play titles like Crack Down and Bonanza Bros. in their original, purebred coin-op forms, as the home conversions from the early '90s left much to be desired.
Even so, it's hard to shake the impression that the Astro City Mini is a pretty niche way to mark 60 years in the video game business. Like the Game Gear Micro, it appears this unit will remain exclusive to Japan, which is sure to limit its appeal. However, it would seem that this is a genuine attempt to connect with hardcore fans of the company, rather than a mainstream stocking filler, like the NES or SNES Classic Editions were. Yes, the selection of games could be better, but it does at least give you a snapshot of Sega's history in the arcade business, mixing 2D classics with Super Scaler spectacles before finishing off with the paradigm-shifting Virtua Fighter – the game which arguably ushered in 3D gaming more than any other coin-op release.
This article was originally published by nintendolife.com on Wed 23rd December, 2020.