The Sega Mega Drive Mini came out around two months ago at the time I’m writing this. It’s been an unexpectedly interesting experience too. While I’ve snapped up and had a great time with the NES Classic and SNES Classic mini consoles, the Sega Mega Drive Mini has presented a unique experience both as a nerdy retro gamer who really enjoys classic games, but also as a Dad and how parenthood has a habit of putting a different spin on things.
An ode to 1993…
I can still remember the day we got our Mega Drive when I was a kid.
In 1992 I entered the console wars with my trusty Sega Master System 2 which I unabashedly adored, emboldened by Sega’s strong presence in Australia at the time. Growing up with two brothers, over the course of eight months we accumulated a handful of great games and had an awesome time with it.
But the 16-bit generation beckoned so on 19 March 1993 (give or take a week!) we came home from school to find our Master System 2 gear had sold and we had a brand new Sega Mega Drive with Sonic 1 packed in and redemption vouchers for Alex Kidd and the Enchanted Castle and Columns!
I still remember manically hooking it up via RF, tuning it in and calling one of my mates over the phone desperate to share the sound of Green Hill Zone through the receiver. I don’t think he cared quite so much, but I was excited enough for both of us.
My obsession with the Mega Drive set me on a tragic course of Sega fanboy behaviour. I paired our Mega Drive with a Mega CD 2 on clearance in October 1995 and still love the damn thing. For a long time I lamented not picking up a 32X for $30 when Big W were clearing them out a few years later, but I ended up adding a Japanese 32X to the nerd room 10 years back which belatedly satiated my curiosity.
In 1996 I worked a huge array of odd jobs at home and at relatives’ places to earn enough cash to pick up a Saturn in September. Then in 1999 it was all about saving for the Dreamcast which I picked up from launch day following the gruelling run of Year 12 exams. While the Dreamcast ultimately gave way to competing consoles from Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft, it was an amazing time to be into gaming.
Unhealthy gaming habits
While the Sega of 2019 is a shadow of what it once was, my love of classic gaming was heavily informed by my habits in the 90s. It has spawned a convoluted collection of consoles, RGB video processing chains, CRTs, import titles, console mods, cartridges and optical media across the spectrum of hardware manufacturers in the years that have followed.
Yes, that even includes plenty of love for Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft these days!
So in this sense I’m an easy sell for the marketing team at Sega with the release of the Mega Drive Mini – to a degree. While Sega have put out a variety of miniature consoles over the years, the quality of the emulation and physical manufacture has always been pretty woeful. I’m passionate about my RGB-driven setup and original hardware, so jumping onto the miniature console movement took some time and needed to be at the right quality despite the novelty factor.
Nintendo really hit it home with the SNES Classic, which in turn lead me to pick up a NES Classic when they re-released them following the silly eBay bubble. In these cases Nintendo set a new standard for the quality of the physical manifestation of their classic consoles and paired them with decent commercial emulators that improved between the NES and SNES mini consoles releases.
In turn, when Sega announced M2 were behind the Sega Mega Drive Mini, they cemented a very enthusiastic pre-order.
M2 are the industry titans when it comes to digital preservation and commercial emulation of retro games – My Life In Gaming’s full doco is an amazing exploration for the uninitiated and is highly recommended given how incredible it is that they were given the opportunity to produce such an amazing film with direct access to the team. True to form, in this case M2 have delivered an amazing product. In terms of emulation quality it’s not up there with the Mega SG, but it’s an entirely different demographic being targeted so it’s not really fair to compare them. Digital Foundry’s John Linneman has an exhaustive overview of the Sega Mega Drive Mini, so I’d recommend checking it out if you’re into the technical nitty gritty. He does a far better job of working through this than I could have!
Instead, I want to focus on something a bit more personal about my journey over the last two months.
Recall how I can still remember that magic Friday in March 1993 when we unboxed our Mega Drive? In all seriousness, there was an uncanny similarity in unboxing the Sega Mega Drive Mini. The packaging is stunning and the replication of the hardware feels eerily familiar. The SNES Classic triggered a similar response, but as my formative love for console gaming in large part harkened back to the Mega Drive, this was something truly special to me.
Even down to the kinda rubbish 3-button pads bundled with it!
Thankfully this was easily rectified with the official 6-button controllers Retro Bit have put out. They’re reasonably priced and performance-wise are incredibly close to the original 6-button controllers I use in the nerd room.
But there’s more behind the nostalgia aside from rose-tinted glasses. For me, the Mega Drive (and old video games in general) are closely tied to my memories as a child and teenager, but they’re also part of so much more than that.
Anime Inferno, for example, probably wouldn’t exist without the Mega Drive.
You see, AI co-founder Inferno and I first became friends in primary school in 1993 after we bonded over our love of playing Street Fighter 2 at the local Timezone and pretty much anything on the Mega Drive. He’d been a Mega Drive gamer since it first launched in Australia, which meant I had plenty to learn!
So we’ve been mates ever since, though he had the good sense to be a little more agnostic with his choice of consoles over the years than I.
But there’s also the anime connection.
As the two of us delved deeper into gaming we started working out that we both really liked games developed in Japan, became obsessed with JRPGs and then we both seemed to stumble hard into the anime and manga scene around 1995/1996.
When we personally entered the 32-bit era later in ‘96 it started becoming all about games with cut scenes and character designs that echoed back to this crazy new obsession with anime and manga that was slowly becoming more of a thing in Australia at this time. Soon enough we were looking into region lockout hacks and started importing games from Japan and the US. The importing of games flowed through to importing anime, manga and merch from all over the world, and so the spiral continued until today.
So when I fired up the Mega Drive Mini, I couldn’t help but smile as I walked through all these titles we played together which fostered a lifelong obsession with gaming and anime. But it goes beyond this, too. As one of three siblings, since virtually forever my brothers and I have enjoyed playing games together. While the Atari and Commodore 64 were a foundational part of this, as we got older and started becoming more proficient at gaming and playing together (instead of fighting!), we spent hours playing Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, Streets of Rage 2, Toejam and Earl and Gunstar Heroes together.
My love of RPGs, something that isn’t really practical these days as a family man, goes back to my older brother. First by watching him play the Gold Box D&D games on the C64 and then by learning how to play them properly with the heavily anime-inspired Phantasy Star 2. My obsession became complete with the likes of Story of Thor in 1995 and then Phantasy Star 4 in 1996.
So for me, video games aren’t just about nerding out in front of a TV – so much of my love of classic games is wrapped up in the amazing memories playing games with my brothers and mates.
In this sense the Sega Mega Drive Mini hits every notch – the physical manifestation is beautiful, the game selection collects a number of the essentials with some above and beyond inclusions, such as the translated version Monster World IV that debuted on the Wii Virtual Console and the M2-developed PS3 and Xbox 360 releases 10 years ago. Critically, the emulation quality is excellent given the base hardware. Having HDMI-output and powered over a convenient USB connection makes it dead easy to quickly connect to the AV setup in the lounge and pack away afterwards.
Which leads to the other side of my unexpected reaction to the Sega Mega Drive Mini.
I love being a Dad. Sure, it’s exhausting, expensive and it can drive you a little mad, but it’s awesome.
As a parent, your natural response is to share with your kids what you love, what you’re passionate about, to keep building on those connections in the hopes that they too can get those happy feels that were so essential to your childhood.
The first video game I ever played with my son was, of all things, the first level of Road Avenger on the Mega CD. At that age my son liked cars and cartoons and I wanted to play some video games. It was a good mix. I remember him sitting on my lap and mashing the d-pad having very little concept of what the cause and effect was, but it was tremendous fun. Until the bit where you need to quickly quit the game because level 2 starts with a crazy dude jumping on the bonnet of your car and smacks it with an axe. I quickly learned a reset to the main menu helped manage my paranoia despite triggering some pretty bemusing tanties!
Going back to more recent times, my son and I have had a great time playing the NES Classic and SNES Classic too, and the short length of the controller meant it was the perfect excuse to recreate my childhood experience of sitting in front of the telly on the floor to play video games.
But the Sega Mega Drive Mini was different.
Well, it was a physically different experience because the controller cables weren’t rubbish so we could sit on the couch because sitting on the floor gives you a numb bum.
But I’m not talking about that.
For me, those waves of nostalgia transcended to something else by sitting down and playing those same Mega Drive games together.
Watching him learn the mechanics in Sonic 2 and take control of the game to leave me playing support as Tails.
Getting frustrated with the shitty power ups in Toejam and Earl when you really wanted ikarus wings and you fly off the edge with your rocket shoes.
Being mesmerised by the beauty of Monster World IV (not surprising since he loves Monster Boy on the PS4!).
And having an amazing time connecting with him over games he doesn’t realise are in some cases 30 or more years old, have primitive graphics compared to everything else he’ll be exposed to and use what must seem to be a pretty weird controller given where the industry’s found itself at.
It’s been an incredible and amazing experience.
So a huge thank you to Sega for giving myself, as a bit of an awkward kid, a kick-arse gaming console back in the 90s to have fun with and build lifelong connections with my brothers (both blood-related and not) that we’ll always hold onto.
To M2, thank you for so perfectly encapsulating that amazing period of time that pays a loving homage to the past while marrying it with the convenience of the present.
And most importantly, thank you to my family for giving me the most amazing Father’s Day gift this year. Not only does it satiate my unhealthy love of all things Sega, but it’s created an amazing opportunity to share something special with those I love.
… that most importantly is small enough to pack away so it doesn’t clutter the usual array of toys and children’s books already taking over the lounge room!