Unlike a lot of people who love retro gaming, I took a different path than many of those who are passionate about games of old. I guess in part it’s down to my age. I started out with a colour Pong clone in the 70s even before the advent of the Atari 2600. That console was the Soundic TV Sports SD-TVG-01 (catchy name, eh?) and it offered four variants of Pong. At the time it was state-of-the-art and boasted on the box of being able to not only work on any TV but also working in colour. The system itself was a rebadged 1975 Hanimex 7771 console (even the clones were cloning themselves), so you can get an idea of how old it was…
From that point, my gaming habits moved in a different direction. While I knew kids who went on to own an Atari 2600 and eventually consoles from Nintendo, Sega and so on, I moved down the home computer path. First the Vic 20, then the Commodore 64, Amiga and it wasn’t really until the dawn of the PlayStation when I took my first real steps towards console ownership (I always thought of the CD32 as another Amiga). So really the era of the Master System and NES and later the SNES and Megadrive passed me by completely.
At the time I wasn’t particularly bothered – I was quite happy with all the games that the Amiga had to offer and when I moved onto the PlayStation I was captivated by Sony’s console and I couldn’t have been happier. Even though I’ve picked up other consoles over the decades and dabbled in systems that I missed, It’s only really been in the last few years that I’ve diversified beyond Sony and Commodore originated platforms but the Megadrive still eluded me… until now.
I’m quite active online on a large number of retro gaming groups on Facebook and it was through one of these where I finally took the steps into joining the ranks of Megadrive ownership. One of the other members (one of the group admins in fact), had a console for sale along with a few games so I decided to take the plunge. It wasn’t my first encounter with Megadrive gaming. I’d played some Megadrive titles as part of the Megadrive Collection on the PS3, PSP and PS Vita (running the PSP version under emulation) and enjoyed them (see my review of the PSP version of The Megadrive Collection on Vita Player) so at least from the gaming side of things I knew what to expect.
Getting the console, I felt like a kid with a new toy again. I was coming at the system pretty much with a blank canvas so along with the console itself I needed a few starter games to get me going so I opted for a couple of the Mega Games compilations – collections of some older Megadrive releases, produced to give gamers a kickstart to their collections… ideal for someone like me really new to Megadrive gaming.
In a way I guess I felt lucky approaching the Megadrive in today’s gaming market. While some older games have increased in price dramatically, it’s very easy to pick up bargains and the entire console set-up with my starter games bundle cost me a fraction over £40 giving me with plenty of gaming bang for my dollar! On the second hand market it’s easy to get loose cartridges for a couple of pounds each and boxed games from a fiver if you’re not too fussy – far less than the £30-£40 RRP of games when they first hit the stores in the 90s! As a gamer I’m quite lucky in one way in that I’m not particularly fussy when it comes to retro gaming. For the most part I’m not too concerned about having computers and consoles in pristine boxed condition as I want them in my collection to be used and the same pretty much applies to my games collection. Yes, games on cassette, disk and CD I want fully boxed for protection but when it comes to cartridge based systems like the Megadrive then I’m not fussed. Give me a box of loose cartridges and as long as they work, I honestly don’t mind if it’s a cheap way of giving me a good games collection!
But what about the console? As I said, I had played some Megadrive games before but that was under emulation and as you already know (when I wrote my blog post – “Retro Gaming – Real Or Emulated?“), I’d rather play games on real hardware wherever possible. I had built up a picture in my mind of what to expect from the console though. Definitely a console that could handle arcade games, smooth scrolling, plenty of sprites on screen – similar in most respects to the SNES but I felt with sharper visuals. One thing I found common throughout my gaming experience with the Megadrive prior to taking delivery of mine was the sound – the music on everything I played seemed to sound the same. I know it wasn’t, but it was obviously a design factor. The Megadrive’s soundchip utilised a lot of preset sounds that were dominant in most soundtracks (the same with the SNES really) and it was something that took some getting used to.
Getting to grips with the real hardware was just as easy as I expected. I opted for the original model to make use of the video port rather than the RF output of the latter Megadrive II (so I could actually connect it to my TV!) and I dived head first into Sonic The Hedgehog 2. I’ll be the first to admit that I positively hate that hedgehog! He may be Sega’s iconic character, but to me the game has always left me cold. So I popped the cartridge in, switched it on… and nothing!
Straight away I was faced with one of the joys of retro console ownership – cartridge gaming! “Just blow on ’em!” I hear dozens of you cry out while you read this. A little wiggle here, removing and re-inserting the cartridge here and there and all’s good and ready to go (I think I’m getting the hang of this…) and up pops Sonic raring to go. The music is the first thing that strikes me to be honest. Not because it’s particularly bad, but because of the instruments being used. I guess I was spoiled growing up with the incredible sounds generated by the SID chip in the Commodore 64, or the amazing music that was produced by the Amiga, but I never felt that any other machine released prior to the CD-based console era was able to come close to what the Amiga could offer. It wasn’t just Sonic but across other games as well and was more noticeable when I played games ported from the Amiga – Lotus Turbo Challenge and Cannon Fodder for example, where the difference was quite apparent. It did surprise me considering the fact that the Amiga was the older system, but nevertheless I pressed on with the Megadrive now that it was in my posession…
Sonic was a strange creature. When I played the game in the past on emulators it never quite grabbed me so it wasn’t something I was looking forward to playing. This time around I found it strangely compelling. Despite the relative simplicity of the gameplay, I just found myself drawn into it and loving every minute of it, so much so that one of my early purchases ended up being a compilation cartridge featuring not one but three games in the Sonic series. A convert to the charms of the blue hedgehog? Maybe…!
The Mega Games packs eased me in gently into the sort of variety I was going to expect from future Megadrive gaming and while nothing really stood out as being particularly spectacular (and to be honest World Cup Italia ’90 was downright awful) it did give me a good starting point. My collection quickly grew though and that really gave me a taste for Megadrive gaming. The same Facebook group where I bought the console held regular raffles where members who were selling retro games and consoles could choose to raffle them instead. Over the course of a few weeks I struck lucky and added almost 20 extra games to the collection and this is where my interest in the Megadrive really took off. From the classic Disney cartoon-like platformer Aladdin to the superb platform shooter Robocop Vs Terminator (far better than the name might imply), more and more I was finding some real gems showing not only what the console was capable of technically but what it could do in terms of great gameplay.
It’s certainly a change to play 2D arcade games again having been used to using the PS3 and PS Vita as my primary consoles for so long. Knowing that 3D games are going to be sprite-based is taking a little getting used to again but not in a bad way. Seeing games like this (and on the Commodore 64 that has been pressed back into service) just shows that developers had to be really creative and put more effort into gameplay when not only system resources but storage space were at a premium.
So now that I finally joined the ranks of Megadrive ownership, is it a move I’ve been happy to make. In a nutshell, yes. I don’t know if it’s something I would have rushed to do in my youth, but now the console has managed to captivate me with the games it has to offer. While some have admittedly dated rather badly, others show exactly why retro console gaming is so popular today. There’s a great range of games available to suit all tastes (certainly mine) and despite some of the quirks of the hardware that I did find irksome, I’m really beginning to warm to the Megadrive. It’s got a good solid range of home ports of some of Sega’s arcade classics (which should be a good enough reason for most people to want one), but ample original titles to keep even the most demanding of gamers happy, myself included.
Now where did I put that controller…?