The American Sega Genesis and the Japanese Mega Drive are the same machine on the inside, yet their cultural legacies are entirely different.
The Genesis had re-invented itself as the “cool kid” of console gaming in the United States, with an aggressive marketing campaign that thrust Sega into the American mainstream consciousness. School yards were often split down the middle between kids who thought Nintendo was the best system, and kids who swore their allegiance to Sega. It was a divisive time.
But the Mega Drive ran a distant third in Japan’s console race — yes, behind the PC Engine/Turbo Grafx 16! — and was sometimes seen as an offbeat, niche console. As a visual comparison, Sega’s nostalgic character project Sega Hard Girls imagines the Mega Drive as a shy, bespectacled bookworm and the Genesis as a hootin’, hollerin’ cowgirl who calls herself Jenny.
So it’s fitting that the mini-consoles even have different selections of games for different parts of the world. What’s surprising is how different those selections are: the Japanese version has 17 games that don’t appear on the Genesis Mini. International versions of the games are available on all systems, so even if you import, you’ll still be able to play most of the RPGs in English, but more on that in a little bit.
Trading away more recognizable, but readily available games like Altered Beast and Ecco the Dolphin, the Mega Drive Mini buyer gets an even more eclectic selection from a wider range of genres. The curators at developer M2 have prioritized rare gems from the depths of the Mega Drive library over obvious hits. Rare Japanese Mega Drive games frequently shoot to incredible prices, in the hundreds of dollars, in the used market. So many of these exclusives are a big deal for hardcore retro Sega fans who want to play as much as they can without breaking the bank.
Personally, I’ve beaten Altered Beast enough times. Bring on the rare stuff! But even before we get to the games, let’s dive into the differences in hardware between the Japanese and American releases.
Six-button versus three-button controller
I bought the Mega Drive Mini W (read ”Double”) package, which comes with two six-button controllers. This regional difference has torn fans between function and nostalgia since its announcement. The six-button controllers packaged with the Mega Drive Mini feel noticeably smoother and more responsive than those packed with the Genesis Mini, and the extra button for the menu is a lot better than holding Start for three seconds. And of course, playing fighting games without the extra buttons is a special kind of misery.
But the three-button controllers are what most Genesis owners actually used back in the day, and the nostalgic weight they carry is significant. As a fan, I was thrilled to open brand-new three-button Genesis controllers; as a player, I quickly switched to the six button controllers.
For pure function, however, the Japanese release clearly wins out.
Tower of Power
Sega Japan also went the extra mile on this release and created a (non-functioning) model of what they refer to as the “Mega Drive Tower,” which includes the stacked Mega CD and 32X expansions, the Sonic and Knuckles pass-through cartridge, and a copy of the original Sonic cartridge plugged into that.
It’s a completely pointless gag product that sold out the second it was announced, meant for the hardcore fans with a sense of humor. How dedicated is this release? “Comes with the sheet music for the Sega company song” levels of dedicated. But it does prove that Sega is willing to have a sense of humor about itself.
Note that, due to the slight size difference between the Genesis and Mega Drive cartridge slot, you can’t attach a Mega Drive Tower to a Genesis Mini. A Genesis Mini Tower does exist, but exclusively as a giveaway item for online influencers. At least so far.
But now that the hardware is out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the exclusive games on the Japanese hardware.
A sports game, like Fifa, but with drop kicks
Due almost certainly to the high cost of licensing real-life pro sports leagues, the Genesis Mini is lacking a genre that was instrumental in its success in the US: sports games. Electronic Arts’ sports games, most notably the Madden series, got the Genesis into millions of households that had no interest in the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog.
Surprisingly, the Mega Drive Mini has an obscure exclusive that’s pretty darn close to the EA Sports of the 90s: Namco’s Wrestleball (released in the US as Powerball, and omitted on the Mini).
This is a “sport of the future” game, with a late 80s sci-fi look, no famous names, and zero obligation to stick to the rules. Wrestleball pits teams of international stereotypes against each other in a mash-up of soccer and American football. Kick the ball into the goal for one point or run it into the end zone for three, and you can even choose whether to dribble the ball with your feet or carry the ball in your hands. Scrambles, shoving, and “tackles” that are more like pro wrestling moves ensue.
I played a few matches, and Wrestleball is pretty fun, with surprisingly involved controls. Even when you can’t read a lick of Japanese, the full-color, in-depth manuals come in handy. I was at one point able to drop kick the goalie into the net while he held the ball; the game called it a goal, which works for me.
It’s also the only sports game I can think of that has a team deathmatch mode. Wrestleball has zero name recognition, and it isn’t NHL ‘94, but it scratches an itch that a lot of Genesis Mini buyers might have wanted scratched.
Yu Yu Hakusho: four-player demon-fighting battle royale
The biggest surprise among the Japanese Mega Drive Mini exclusives is probably Yu Yu Hakusho: Makyou Toitsuden (Battle To Unite The Demon Plane). Anime licensed games from this era don’t exactly have a sterling reputation, but this experiment from the aces at Treasure is no cheap cash-in product.
Effectively Smash Brothers as it might have looked in 1994, this chaotic four-player fighting game is easily the best of its genre on the system. Contrary to scaled-down arcade ports of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, this game is built for the Mega Drive, and plays to its strengths rather than biting off more than it can chew. Of course, you’ll need four players, and two more controllers, to get the most out of it, but it’s worth the effort.
This necessitates the use of a multitap to expand the system’s two USB controller ports to four. The Genesis Mini simply doesn’t include any four-player games — again, due to the cost of licensing the NBA or NFL — but M2 dug up a few party games for the Mega Drive: Puzzle and Action Tant-R and (five-player!) Party Quiz Mega Q.
The good news is that you can just use a USB hub. The bad news is that the only hub that’s specifically guaranteed to work is one by the Japanese brand Buffalo, which you won’t be finding in the States. I picked the specifically recommended model off Amazon Japan for about $20 shipped. But my cheap, common hub worked too, so you might have some luck with whatever you have lying around.
Good old-fashioned spaceship shooting
2D scrolling shooters were a prolific genre on the Genesis/Mega Drive, and titles in the core Mini game list like Thunder Force III and the new port of Darius are strong representation for the genre, if a bit lonely in the line-up. The Mega Drive Mini takes care of that issue.
It was, in fact, the announcement of Musha Aleste (called M.U.S.H.A. in the US ) as a Japanese exclusive in these mini consoles that convinced me to import. This gorgeous, intense vertical-scrolling shooter by Compile has a unique aesthetic that crosses anime-style sci-fi informed by more classical Japanese designs. It’s stunning.
Players have access to a huge arsenal of weapons, and the relentless gauntlet of foes forces them to use every variation to the fullest. The cherry on top is a killer Genesis metal soundtrack. Musha Aleste is one of the greats in its genre on the system, and should by all rights be on the Genesis Mini.
Slap Fight MD, one of the rarest titles for the system, is a port of a 1986 arcade game by shooter specialists Toaplan (Truxton, Zero Wing). Slap Fight’s gimmick, as you can see in this video, is that you can make your ship verrrry looooong.
In addition to the original game, Slap Fight MD contains a whole new set of levels and redone music courtesy of the legendary Yuzo Koshiro, who also wrote the Mini’s menu music, which is used in both versions.
Masaya’s Assault Suits Leynos (US title Target Earth) is a brutally difficult robot-shooting game with a heavy narrative that unfolds in real time as you try to hold off the enemy army.
This is a good time to mention that the Genesis and Mega Drive Mini both have all international versions of each game, meaning if you switch the Mega Drive Mini’s language to English you can play Target Earth, in English. That should help with all that story stuff.
RPGs, strategy and sims
The Genesis was not the system to buy if you were into role-playing games, especially when you put it next to the Super Nintendo, which was a juggernaut for the genre. There weren’t many releases, even in Japan, and you’d be lucky to get them translated into English in a time when the RPG was still considered a niche, unpopular genre in the United States.
That being said, M2 digs deep to present an intriguingly off-kilter selection of RPGs and RPG-adjacent games. Madou Monogatari I, one of the last Mega Drive releases, is an old school first-person dungeon crawl with unconventional magic-based combat and all the numbers hidden from the player. You’re forced to judge how you’re doing by the heroine’s facial expression alone, which becomes weirdly intuitive as you play. It’s a neat game!
Rent-A-Hero is a traditional JRPG that trades fantasy for a satirical modern American superhero setting. The player is an average Joe, renting a hero suit and taking freelance gigs from the public to turn a profit on the investment. Fights with kaiju and gangsters take place in real-time action battles, kind of like an ancient Yakuza. Pretty relatable for a nearly 30-year-old game!
There are also two in-depth strategic war campaigns, one cyberpunk (The Hybrid Front) and the other fantasy (Langrisser II).
Really toeing the RPG line, Lord Monarch is an early real-time strategy kingdom-building game from Falcom.
There’s even a god game! In Dyna Brothers 2 you raise and feed a dinosaur army in order to fight alien invaders.
A couple of these games have been translated into English unofficially, if you look into it… but that’s unofficial, so unfortunately you can’t play any of them in English on the Mini, making them a significant challenge for importers.
A collection within a collection
One of these titles actually contains 12 more games for your enjoyment. Game no Kanzume: Otokuyou (Cheap Games In A Can) was exclusive to the Japanese Sega Channel games-over-cable TV service, so that makes it lost to time in many respects.
But it also compiles the very small, very simple, and mostly very janky games originally created for download on Sega’s short-lived 1990 online service Meganet, which were themselves lost to time. This is important for game preservation, but it also means that you can play blackjack on the Mega Drive Mini whenever you want. As curiosities go, this is yet another release that almost makes the import worth it by itself.
Snow Bros is a rare entry in the “Bubble Bobble-like” platform action genre. There aren’t a lot of single-screen platformers like Bubble Bobble to begin with, so Snow Bros is a more than adequate “close enough” for fans of that game.
Puyo Puyo 2 is to this day the preferred, perfected version of Compile’s “easy to learn, hard to master” puzzle masterpiece.
Puzzle and Action Tant-R is an early entry into (possibly the inventor of?) the party mini-game genre, not as minimalist as the Wario Ware series, but similar in nature and a blast in multiplayer.
Even without any Japanese language knowledge, it’s possible to poke around in the Japanese RPGs on the Mega Drive Mini and figure out a thing or two. But in order to play the campy TV game show simulation Party Quiz Mega Q, you’re going to need to be fluent in Japanese and familiar with general knowledge about the year 1993.
Hopefully you’re a speed reader, because you’ve got five clicks to answer the questions and the computer opponents are really fast on the draw. Also, you’re not really getting the full experience without four other people who are similarly qualified. Did I mention the game does things like write the questions on the screen backwards?
Sometimes the importer must give up, and friends, I gave up.
Do you need this in your life?
If you’re a Genesis fan considering the import, read this list of exclusives for each region and ask yourself: Am I deeply sentimentally attached to one of the Genesis Mini-exclusive titles? There are a couple of big ones in there. Even though you have a million other ways to play it, the Japanese Mega Drive Mini chops off the first (not the second) Sonic the Hedgehog.
If you can live without those games, then I’d recommend the Japanese or Asian Mega Drive Mini, the latter of which has most of the obscure choices without the text-heavy Japanese RPGs (and Yu Yu Hakusho, which was a deal-breaker for me). Particularly with the ability to change the system language and play English versions, you really don’t lose a lot.
I double-dipped because I wanted four controllers, and I wanted the old classic Genesis controller. But when my Mega Drive Mini showed up over the weekend, I put the Genesis Mini back in the box and I haven’t looked back.
Photography by David Cabrera for Polygon