A Week with the Sega Genesis Mini: What We Love So Far

Sega arrived late to the retro console battle, but it may have won the war

For

  • Fantastic value
  • Accurate emulation
  • Lots of display options
  • Great build quality
  • Comes with two controllers
  • Convenient user experience

Against

  • 3-button pads not the best for fighters

If you lost faith that Sega's miniature version of its Genesis (or Mega Drive) would ever see the light of day, well, don't be too hard on yourself. So did we.

Rest assured, though: the Genesis Mini is real. It's arriving Sept. 19 for $79 and it's very much worth your attention. Because while we've endured a long, long road to get here, if our early impressions are any indication, your patience will have been worth the wait.

We just got the adorable little hunk of plastic in the Tom's Guide office, and although you'll have to wait a few weeks for our full verdict, we've been exploring the system's impressive 42-game roster and every feature. Here's how it's shaping up.

What you're getting 

The Genesis Mini library spans eight years of the 16-bit console's life span, from Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle to the curious port of Virtua Fighter 2 that Sega quietly pushed out in 1997 so fans who hadn't yet upgraded to the Saturn wouldn't feel left in the lurch.

But that's not all you're getting here. Sega thoughtfully included the English-translated version of Monster World IV that made its way to the Wii Virtual Console back in 2012. And to round out the roster, there are two new Genesis-style ports of Darius and Tetris, derived from their arcade counterparts.

Break it down in terms of price, and you're paying less than $2 for each game. That's a hell of a bargain, though Sega fans have been burned by retro hardware more than a few times before. The company's previous attempts at licensing heaps of Genesis games for plug-and-play boxes have traditionally wound up in clearance baskets at Walgreens, thanks to an unholy combination of thoughtless software and irredeemably shoddy hardware.

(Image credit: Future)

That makes it all the more special that Sega's turned to retro mavens M2 to oversee the Genesis Mini's development. M2 has, of course, lent its talents to rebuilding a number of titles in Sega's back catalog over the years, so the publisher couldn't have found a better dancing partner to look after its Genesis hits.

So far, what I've seen of the console has been delightful. I played chicken with oncoming traffic in Road Rash II; linked together mad chains in Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine; quickly discovered I'm horrendous at weaving between stalagmites and enemy fire in Darius; and bludgeoned thugs and goons with lead pipes in Streets of Rage 2. Speaking of Streets of Rage, fans will be pleased to know its composer, Yuzo Koshiro, has written a new song for the Genesis Mini's home screen, using the same Yamaha YM2612 sound chip Sega employed in the original hardware.

The game list won't make everyone happy, but then, what retro console's roster ever could? Although I might personally lament the Genesis Mini's lack of timeless Sega racers like Out Run, Super Hang-On and Super Monaco GP, and I can already hear the distant cries mourning Battletoads and Aladdin's absence, this is a pretty good slice of the Genesis experience we're getting here. The PlayStation Classic, this most certainly is not. 

(Image credit: Future)

Polished to perfection

If your 16-bit system of choice is the SNES, there's likely nothing the Genesis Mini could do to persuade you to side with Sonic in any future schoolyard tussles. Plug-and-play consoles are about the games and how well they play, first and foremost. Everything else is secondary.

That said, I'm starting to think Sega may have Nintendo licked when it comes to general convenience and user experience here. The cables on the Genesis Mini's controllers are 6 feet long — 1 foot longer than those on the SNES Classic's pads, and twice as long as what you get with the NES Classic. The reset button on the console pulls up the system start menu as you'd expect, which allows you to save and load up to four states. However, you can also access the same menu by holding the start button on your controller for 5 seconds. Thank heavens.

(Image credit: Future)

My favorite thing about the Genesis Mini by far are the secrets lurking within the 42-game catalog.

Hardcore retro fans will appreciate the inclusion of 4:3 and 16:9 display modes in the Genesis Mini's options, as well as a CRT filter that makes everything look all hazy and scanline-like, if you're into that sort of thing. M2 supposedly designed the 16:9 mode so that it crops into gameplay (rather than horizontally stretching the display field) and repositions HUD elements accordingly to preserve the original graphical proportions of each game. It's an admirable feat demonstrative of the studio's reputation for polish — though I probably never would have noticed had I not been told about it first.

But my favorite thing about the Genesis Mini by far are the secrets lurking within that 42-game catalog. We already knew Sega was building three variants of the console: one for North America and Europe, one for Japan, and one for Korea and China. All regions share some titles, like Gunstar Heroes, for example, though some have exclusives — like Vectorman and ToeJam & Earl, which are only on Western units.

(Image credit: Future)

Hidden in the Genesis Mini's settings menu is a fairly innocuous language option. Changing your system's language to something aside from the default won't give you access to that region's selection of games, though it will change the design of the home screen and, in some cases, even the game ROMs to match.

This is a really cool little trick, because it allows you to experience slightly different versions of titles you may already be familiar with. For example, most European gamers have probably never played the grislier, uncensored version of Castlevania: The New Generation, titled Vampire Killer in Japan. Likewise, if you never cared much for Sonic but happen to love Puyo Puyo, changing the system language to Japanese transforms Mean Bean Machine into its original, hedgehog-free guise. (As for finding a way to play Kirby's Avalanche, you're on your own.)

Hardware your memories deserve

There's not much to say about the Genesis Mini's industrial design  — though in this case, that's not a bad thing. It's literally a shrunken Genesis (approximately 55 percent smaller), with all the proper markings, printed text and logos. In fact, the headphone volume slider moves and the cartridge slot flaps open and shut, even though neither serves any purpose.

The build quality here is on a par with the precedent Nintendo set with its own classic hardware. The attention to detail extends to the Genesis Mini's pair of controllers as well, which look and feel precisely like their original counterparts, yet have USB connectors. (They also work on PC — I've tried.)

(Image credit: Future)

Unfortunately, these controllers are of the 3-button variety, which is quite frustrating when playing Street Fighter II: Champion Edition or Virtua Fighter 2. Fortunately, you can nab one of Retro-Bit's officially licensed pads as a replacement if you wish, and it'll only set you back $20. (In Japan, the Mega Drive Mini actually ships with 6-button controllers. Weird.) 

Outlook

Overall, the Genesis Mini is making the best first impression it could hope to. Start with a large, varied roster of classics, add M2's peerless emulation, toss in a few quality-of-life considerations absent in Nintendo's retro hardware, and stuff it all inside a tiny box any Sega fan would love to keep on their desk; what more could you ask for? 

Analogue's Mega Sg certainly offers a more accurate, comprehensive way to revisit Sega's 16-bit golden era for the most serious retro enthusiasts, but it also costs just shy of $200. Regarding convenience and value, the Genesis Mini looks like a winner — though you'll have to stay tuned until September for our final thoughts.