Astro City Mini V
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

While Sega has been happy to give people what they want when it comes to mini console systems via the excellent Genesis / Mega Drive Mini (and its upcoming sequel), the company has also released some pretty left-field offerings in this particular field. The Astro City Mini delivered a delicious deep cut of Sega's coin-op history, while the Japan-only Game Gear Mini was a good idea on paper that was sadly fumbled in its execution, delivering a cramp-inducing portable that needlessly spread its games across multiple SKUs.

The aforementioned Mega Drive Mini 2 proves that Sega is still serious about servicing the needs of its retro-loving fans, but the shiny new Astro City Mini V is evidence that it's just as keen to head off the beaten path and produce something for the fringes of the video game world rather than the mainstream. The Astro City Mini V is unashamedly aimed at hardcore players, boasting a selection of titles that reads like a wish-list for long-suffering arcade-loving otaku – all presented via a vertical screen, hence the 'V' in the title (Taito's Egret II Mini performed a similar trick earlier this year, but hass the added bonus of a display that can be physically alternated between landscape and portrait modes).

Does Sega's latest hardware experiment do enough to earn your cash? Let's find out.

Astro City Mini V Review: The Hardware

Astro City Mini V
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

The Astro City Mini V is essentially the same basic design as the standard Astro City Mini, right down to the controls and ports on the back (it even uses Micro-USB rather than USB-C, just like its forerunner). However, the screen is orientated vertically rather than horizontally, a common sight in the amusement arcades of the '80s and '90s. All of the games included here used this monitor setup in their original coin-op guises, and while there are a few outliers, the majority of the titles on the Astro City Mini V are shmups.

The system's micro-switched stick and buttons are nice and precise, but the layout feels a little cramped for prolonged play; you can use the matching USB joypad or massive arcade stick that came with the original Astro City Mini for a more comfortable experience. The screen is also of decent quality, offering good brightness and contrast, considering it's LCD and not OLED. The speakers are a little weak, though; a 3.5mm headphone socket on the back of the unit allows for a better audio experience. HDMI-out means you can connect the system to your TV and play the games in 720p resolution.

Like its forerunner, the Astro City Mini V offers screen filter options. 'None' is the default, but that's a misleading title as it presents a 'soft' image, with the pixels smoothed out. 'Arcade1' attempts to replicate a scanline effect but makes the image far too dark; 'Arcade2' also has scanlines but it's slightly less oppressive. Both of these filters are ugly and do the games no service whatsoever. The final option, 'Sharpen', is perhaps the best as it offers a clean, unfiltered image – albeit one which can, depending on the game, suffer from some unwelcome shimmering side-effects (a consequence of dealing with different game resolutions).

Astro City Mini V Review: The Games

Astro City Mini V
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

The Astro City Mini V comes with 22 titles preloaded. As previously mentioned, there are a lot of shmups included – some of which have never been made available outside of the arcade before, making this system something of a dream ticket for hardcore fans of the genre.

Here's the full list, presented in chronological order:

  • Moon Cresta (1980) – Nichibutsu
  • Zaxxon (1982) – Sega
  • Terra Cresta (1985) – Nichibutsu
  • Cosmo Police Galvan (1985) – Nichibutsu
  • Action Fighter (1986) – Sega
  • Tatsujin / Truxton (1988) – Toaplan
  • Wrestle War (1989) – Sega
  • Same! Same! Same! / Fire Shark (1989) – Toaplan
  • Raiden (1990) – Seibu Kaihatsu
  • Out Zone (1990) – Toaplan
  • Sonic Wings (1992)
  • Tatsujin Ou / Truxton II (1992) – Toaplan
  • Dogyūn (1992) – Toaplan
  • Desert Breaker (1992) – Sega
  • Batsugun (1993) – Toaplan
  • V・V / Grind Stomer (1993) – Toaplan
  • Sengoku Ace (1993) – Psikyo
  • Kingdom Grand Prix / Shippū Mahō Daisakusen (1994) – Raizing
  • Gunbird (1994) – Psikyo
  • Strikers 1945 (1995) – Psikyo
  • Armed Police Batrider (1998) – Raizing
  • Battle Bakraid (1999) – Raizing

While you could hardly class this as the 'definitive' history of the shmup (you'd need Space Invaders for that), some of the titles included here are rightly venerated by fans. Moon Cresta and Terra Cresta are so iconic that PlatinumGames felt compelled to create a sequel recently, while 1982's Zaxxon was groundbreaking for its use of an isometric perspective. Toaplan's contributions to the Astro City Mini V's library are also notable, with Tatsujin and its sequel still playing like a dream, even today.

Seibu Kaihatsu's seminal Raiden occupies a notable place in the development of the shmup and is well worth a look, even if it does feel a little too familiar these days thanks to the numerous ports over the years. Kingdom Grand Prix from Raizing is unique in that it's part racing game, part shmup, and is blessed with a fantasy setting which makes it stand out from the crowd. Psikyo's thematically similar Gunbird is also decent, although we'd liked to have seen the much better sequel make the cut. Sonic Wings, Same! Same! Same! / Fire Shark and Strikers 1945 are available elsewhere but make solid additions to the roster, and it's nice to be able to experience the original arcade version of Toaplan's V・V / Grind Stormer, as the Mega Drive / Genesis port was something of a pale imitation.

The non-shmup offerings are interesting, too; Wrestle War got a Mega Drive port back in the day but the coin-op original is far better. Likewise, Cosmo Police Galivan recieved a NES conversion but the arcade edition is leagues ahead; it's a mix of platforming action and shooting that isn't always helped by its vertical orientation but is still worthy of your attention. Desert Breaker is Sega's take on Commando and Mercs, and was never ported to any home system.

Keeping with that theme, there are several very important titles here which, via the Astro City Mini V, are getting a domestic release for the first time ever. Toaplan's incredible Dogyūn was one of the games which arguably contributed to the company's commercial fall from grace; it came at a time when one-on-one fighters were all the rage and unfortunately sank almost without trace – despite the fact that, at one point, you gain control of a massive robot in one of the coolest set-pieces ever seen in a shmup. Due to this fact – and the issue that home hardware of the period couldn't possibly hope to replicate its lush 2D visuals – Dogyūn was never ported. Raizing's stunning Armed Police Batrider and Battle Bakraid were more successful in arcades but also never got domestic conversations (Bakraid's predecessor, Battle Garegga, got a Japan-only Saturn port), so their inclusion here is likely to get many fans reaching for their credit cards.

Taking this into account – and the fact that games such as Batsugun, Kingdom Grand Prix and Tatsujin Ou have home ports which are worth a small fortune today – the Astro City Mini V represents astonishing value for money, even at $180. It would cost you many, many times more to own these games in their original forms (home ports or PCBs), so it's encouraging to see a company like Sega seek out genuine hidden gems for this project, rather than recycling games we've already seen multiple times elsewhere.

Sadly, the issue that prevents the Astro City Mini V from being a cast-iron recommendation is input latency. Before we tackle this thorny issue and how it relates to this new mini console, it's worth noting that input lag is something which impacts every video game, and video game system. There will always be a tiny delay between you pressing a button and the action unfolding on-screen, for many reasons; latency exists even in wired connections, and the screen you're playing on will most likely add lag as well – but most of the time, it's almost imperceptible. The problem with the Astro City Mini V is that the latency is so extreme it actually becomes noticeable during play, and when you're playing 'twitch' genre like shooters, even the smallest amount of lag can prove fatal.

Reports online suggest that the lag on the Astro City Mini V ranges from 6 to 10 frames, depending on the game you're playing (as a general rule, the older titles suffer from less latency). Even when compared to other mini consoles on the market – which have often been criticised by purists for their input latency – this is an extreme case. Contrary to some reports, using a beefy power supply does not solve the latency issue; we tried the Astro City Mini V with a Storm 2 Liquid, but the most juice the system would demand was around 3.18W.

Does this render the Astro City Mini V unplayable? No, of course not. It's still possible to enjoy the games included here, despite the presence of input lag. However, a good analogy to use here is what happened in Europe in the '80s and '90s; European players had to endure PAL conversions which ran slower than their NTSC counterparts and were saddled with ugly black borders at the top and bottom of the display. Did this stop millions of players from enjoying the likes of Sonic, Mario and Zelda? Of course it didn't, but the moment a PAL gamer saw a game running at its true speed in full-screen via NTSC, there was no going back. Likewise, if you play any of these titles elsewhere (some are even supported by the excellent FPGA MiSTer platform now), the difference in responsiveness is like night and day, which is a crying shame.

Astro City Mini V Review: The Verdict

Astro City Mini V
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

We can't quite bring ourselves to declare the Astro City Mini V a complete disaster, as much as we'd like to based on the almost unforgivable amount of input latency. Granted, the lag does make the experience feel a little floaty and indistinct – especially on the more technically demanding games – but they're still playable and enjoyable, and for shmup fans, there's a definite thrill to finally being able to play arcade exclusives like Out Zone, Dogyūn and the utterly sublime Armed Police Batrider at home. If you've dreamt of experiencing these titles from the comfort of your living room, then we'd still recommend you at least consider picking one of these up. If you feel like you simply cannot accept the extreme levels of latency, we'd suggest you wait because the fact that these games have finally been relicensed could mean we'll see them on other systems in the very near future.

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