Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection

What are we going to be nostalgic for 15 or 20 years from now? Will Gears of War 2 and Call of Duty 4 remain watershed moments in their respective series or will they simply be just another example of respected, long-running franchises? Will Super Mario Galaxy still be seen as a high water mark for the series, or will it one day reside in the shadow of its lesser-appreciated predecessor Super Mario Sunshine? Will Brain Age be remembered as a fun, head-taxing diversion or a laughable attempt at self-improvement through video gaming?

The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have recently seen the release of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, which, as its title indicates, is a tremendous collection of Sega Genesis games with a couple of Master System and arcade classics thrown in for good measure. The sheer scope of this collection — and the wide variety of genres and franchises represented by it — is enough to prompt questions like the ones in the previous paragraph. The realization of which games have held up as shining examples of their respective genres and which ones have fallen by the wayside by being relegated to trivia questions and nostalgia is fascinating.

Example: Golden Axe. There are three Golden Axe games to be found in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, at least one of which will be played for the first time by most American players given that Golden Axe III was to this point only released in Japan. When I bought my Genesis way back in ’89, Golden Axe was one of the games I bought with it (the other being Tommy Lasorda Baseball… I’ll never forget that giant zoomed baseball on home runs), and let me tell you, it was AWESOME. The graphics were great, the huge characters moved like nothing we’d played on a console to that point, the simultaneous cooperative play was great, and man was the sixth-level magic of Tyris Flare worth the trouble of knocking around all of those silly gnomes for their potions. Altered Beast (also on this compilation) was fun enough, Tommy Lasorda was great to scratch my baseball itch, but Golden Axe was where it was at.

The emphasis, of course, is on was.

Playing any of the Golden Axe games today is enough to make one wonder what we ever saw in these games. They’re sluggish, the hit detection is terrible, the magic system repetitive, and once you discover the running attack, doing anything else seems like an invitation to disaster. Contributing to the apparent lack of quality in Golden Axe is just how well the Streets of Rage series, all three entries of which are also in this collection, holds up. The excellent music, a hallmark of the series, still sticks out The brawling is well-thought-out, and there are lots of moves that keep it from getting too tiresome. While it’s true that Golden Axe came out a couple of years before Streets of Rage, the disparity in quality is striking.

Also worth looking at is Phantasy Star II, a game that at the time was deemed so complex that it actually came with the strategy guide included right in the game’s box (and really, it might as well have come with the strategy guide given its $79.99 sticker price). Play it now and it’s still a pain to get through, but one finds that it falls victim to so many of the standard tropes of JRPG gaming: grinding to buy equipment and gaining levels takes up at least as much time as mastering the many dungeons, towers, and caves that the game throws at you, and the uneven character set makes picking a team less of a decision than maybe we thought when we were first playing the game. It’s not bad as far as old-school RPGs go, but it doesn’t hold up to the SNES Square RPGs the way that I once thought it did. There was a time when Phantasy Star II felt like the be-all, end-all of the genre; now, it’s just another example. Nice as it is that the first four volumes of Phantasy Star are all on this one disc, it’s a shame that their presence results in something like disappointment rather than bliss.

What does hold up are a number of games that are surprisingly deep. Kid Chameleon, a mostly forgotten platformer, makes you search for secrets and find paths through levels, resulting in the sort of complexity that almost requires a flowchart (similar to the NES version of Section Z in a way). Ecco the Dolphin was Zen gaming a decade and a half before Flower, and Shining Force II somehow feels just as masterful and deep a turn-based strategy game as it ever did. Of course, it is hard not to mention the inclusion of the entire Sega Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog collection, the most perfect platformers ever made this side of Mario.

The interface and extras in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection are adequate if a little bit lacking. It’s nice to be able to rate each game on a scale of 1-5 so that you have some idea of the games you still want to play after you’ve given them all a try, but chances are that heartfelt nostalgia will drive you toward those decisions more than some pseudo-objective evaluation will anyway. There’s an “art gallery” that lets you look at the covers and cartridge art for each game, which is good for a browse, but there’s nothing in it that you’ll care to look at more than once. The best of the extras are the smattering of arcade and Sega Master System titles thrown in, like the aforementioned Phantasy Star and the arcade version of Altered Beast, which allow true Sega aficionados to play things they may long have forgotten about. I mean, Zaxxon is in here! This is a good thing!

The pull of nostalgia may be fickle and sometimes even cruel in its treatment of player expectations, but it’s impossible to fault a collection that offers so much of it. Some of the old Sonic collections that were released for the previous generation’s systems were adequate for a budget price and the expectation that we were getting a pile of Sonic games, but the lack of contrast between the games made them ultimately tiresome. There is no shortage of representatives from any genre to be found here, and that’s what makes it a fantastic collection. Once you get tired of running and jumping at high speed, you can go save a kangaroo from the clutches of evil (Streets of Rage 3) or partake in a good old first-person dungeon crawl (the highly underrated Shining in the Darkness).

Whether you’re yearning for the good old days or you’re just an SNES owner wondering what the fuss was about from the other side, Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection is the best way to get a Sega Genesis fix on the market. And, at a mere $29.99 list price, it won’t even cost you that much.

RATING 8 / 10