The Sega Mascot History Tour

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

People have given a lot of stick to AtGames’ recent Sega Mega Drive Flashback HD model. AtGames have produced emulation-driven handheld and TV-hookup consoles under licence from Sega for a while now, and the most recent Flashback which hooks up to your TV with an HDMI cable to allow for mild upscaling to 720p quality has come in for a barrage of criticism. AtGames claimed that the bad early reviewers were down to a bad production batch and the issues were corrected in the retail version; since the product is pretty cheap and cheerful I decided to give it a go and I’m actually inclined to believe them. I can spot small but important distinctions between the menu presentation on mine and in the reviews, for instance, which suggests that these got an urgent firmware update.

Yes, there’s a bunch of shovelware non-Mega Drive games on here which AtGames could have happily left off without complaints from everyone, and yes the main menu system is a bit off – but Sonic the Hedgehog feels like it plays like it always did for me, and the controller feels close enough to my recollections of the Mega Drive controller that I have no complaints there (though I didn’t have a Mega Drive myself – ours was a SNES house, I only occasionally got to play with friends’ Sega consoles). I hadn’t noticed either the wireless controller lag or the emulation issues others have flagged, and I suspect part of the enduring animosity towards the product hails from the fact that emulation geeks can get incredibly fussy about stuff like dropped frames which no human being would actually notice by themselves unless you drew attention to them or analysed the output from the emulator.

In general, the box feels like it accomplishes what these retro consoles are supposed to accomplish – giving you the experience of playing a cross-section of classic games from the console in question, in something which feels like the original hardware without taking up a bunch of space with a stack of cartridges. (That said, a nice touch is the inclusion of a cartridge slot, which means that many – but not all – Mega Drive cartridges can work on the system.)

One of the nice things about Sega was that they were a bit friendlier about backwards compatibility – one of the first peripherals they put out for the Mega Drive (and perhaps one of the few which actually constituted a good idea) was an adapter that let you play Master System games on it, and because the Game Gear shared enough of its guts with the Master System that it could run its games, some Game Gear titles are included here too. That’s a really nice touch – in particular, it’s nice to have a collection with all four of the original Phantasy Star games in the first place. (Though Sega have put out numerous compilations of their games over the years, many irritatingly don’t include the full run of Phantasy Star I to IV.)

There’s some frankly odd gaps in the collection – why include Sonic & Knuckles without also including Sonic 3? Why leave out Alex Kidd In Shinobi World when it was considered to be one of the better Alex Kidd games? Still, there’s enough here that you can actually use the flashback to explore a fascinating cross-section of Sega’s history – and in particular, their multiple attempts at producing a corporate mascot who could compete with a certain rotund plumber who was drawing lots of dimes for Nintendo at the time.

Continue reading “The Sega Mascot History Tour”

I’m a Phan of Their Old Stuff…

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

During the console wars of the 1980s and 1990s, different companies soon developed different specialisations, based in part on the limitations of the hardware they produced, in part on the developers they could lure to work for them, and in part on the way they wanted to target the marketing of the console. Perhaps this so many of the console RPGs of the era we remember fondly hailed from the NES or SNES – Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger, Shin Megami Tensei, all the major series from the major developers were Nintendo-exclusives.

The major exception was the Phantasy Star series, the most famous CRPG to appear on Sega systems. In particular, the first four games in the series craft a saga telling the long-term history of a particular star system which in terms of its plot was as ambitious as anything other CRPG series were producing at the time, if not more so – and also had a science fantasy aesthetic that set it apart. Thankfully, in these days of widespread emulation and companies cashing in on their back catalogues by releasing cheap downloads or compilations of their old games, it’s now eminently possible to experience the early Phantasy Star series again – but is it worth it?

Phantasy Star

Released on the Sega Master System at the end of 1987, Phantasy Star was amongst the first clutch of JRPGs developed in response to the first Dragon Quest game launched the genre – it came out in the same month as the first Final Fantasy game, and a few months after the first Megami Tensei game, and like all of them it draws a lot on the Dragon Quest formula but also updates it in its own fashion.

The setting for the game is the Algol star system, the habitable planets of which are the verdant world of Palma, the ice world Dezoris, and the desert world of Motavia (yes, you do get to fight sandworms on Motavia). Palma and its colonies on Dezoris and Motavia is ruled by King Lassic, a formerly benevolent ruler who has become more and more tyrannical as the years have passed after coming under the influence of a sinister cult who promise immortality to their followers. At the start of the game Nero, who’s the brother of the protagonist Alis, is murdered by Lassic’s goons (who are, of course, dressed like Imperial Stormtroopers) as a warning to others not to meddle in Lassic’s affairs. Enraged by the death of her brother, Alis takes up his sword and vows bloody revenge against Lassic, a quest she is soon joined on by the warrior Odin, the psyker Noah, and the cuddly cat thingy Myah.

Continue reading “I’m a Phan of Their Old Stuff…”