15 years ago, I couldn’t have cared less about my Sega CD. I owned one because it was an add-on to one of the most popular and iconic consoles of the 1990s. I had a few FMV games, a standard shooter, and a point and click adventure. Not much to really impress an already skeptical gamer. I figured the Sega CD was just one of those weird CD-ROM experiments, like the Jaguar CD, or the 3DO, and offered very little in terms of quality or fun. Thankfully, I was wrong and now I have a very nice collection of Sega CD games due to some research and a serendipitous meeting with a certain hard to find “Blade Runner” influenced Konami title.
With this post, I set about trying to come up with a list of my Top 10 favorite Sega CD games in my collection. This is about as good of a list as I could produce considering I have not played all of my games all the way through, but most I’ve played them enough to know which ones I like a lot and which games are just….ok. That’s the thing about the Sega CD, at least from my perspective and with my personal collection. The upper tier of Sega CD games are some of the best games available in the 16-bit era. Arguably the best versions of games that could be found on the Genesis or SNES (e.g. “Ecco the Dolphin”, “Final Fight”, “Earthworm Jim”, “NHL ’94”) were available here in all their CD-ROM glory. It was also very heavy on FMV titles, most of which were average at best, and odd-ball strategy or point and click adventures. What this means is that the Sega CD is a very top-heavy console in terms of software. It’s possible to own 25-40 games and have all of the “must own” titles, but some of those “must own” titles might very well be some of the best games you’ve ever played…on any console…any generation. Here’s my “must own” titles for the Sega CD.
This Hertz developed, Working Designs localized JRPG isn’t the most fun or the best looking or has the best musical score or has the most original plot or the best gameplay design….ok, so if this game seems so average, why is it even in my top 10? I’m grading “Vay” on a Sega CD RPG curve and when compared to the “Lunar” franchise, or from what I hear, “Shining Force CD”, “Vay” doesn’t quite measure up. At the end of the day, this is still a fun game in its own right and earns a spot on most Sega CD fan’s lists.
9. Final Fight CD
This amped up Capcom beat ’em up retains much of the charm of its arcade forefather, but by 1994, it was a little long in the tooth. What sets this version apart are the huge sprites and kick-ass musical score. Sure, its a bit repetitive and sometimes the hit detection is just ‘meh, but I have a lot of fun with “Final Fight CD” and I think most beat ’em up fans do too.
8. NHL ’94
In 1993, this game was released for all of the major 16 bit players but the Sega CD version is considered the superior version among many discerning hockey game aficionados, myself included. Thanks to the CD format’s advanced sound capabilities, “NHL ’94” on the Sega CD features team specific organ music that would typically be played between periods and during home team goals. The game also features all of the NHL franchises from 1993 and is endorsed by the NHLPA which means players like Gretzky, Hull & Lemieux are available to control. I appreciate “NHL ’94” for the superior hockey experience it provides and I am truly in agreement that the Sega CD version of this game is the way to go if you had to pick one version to own.
7. Earthworm Jim Special Edition
This is the iconic side-scrolling platformer starring….you guessed it, an Earthworm with a surreal sense of humor. The gameplay of “Earthworm Jim” was already top notch on the Genesis & SNES but then adding that killer soundtrack on top of new levels made this “Special Edition” port stand out as one of the best platform/run & guns on the system.
6. Road Avenger
I probably have “Road Avenger” higher on my list than it likely deserves to be, but honestly, I had a blast with this this animated FMV tale of revenge and chaos behind the wheel of a souped up sports car. This quick-time event based game contains extreme scenes of (PG-rated) violence, non-stop action and a plot that sometimes fools you into thinking you’re watching an Saturday morning “Mad Max” cartoon instead of playing a video game. I love the atmosphere and general mayhem of this title. I go into more detail why I love it so much on my “Road Avenger” review here.
5. Sonic CD
Man, that intro theme song (“Sonic Boom”) for “Sonic CD” is extremely catchy as is all of the music for the Sega CD’s official “Sonic the Hedgehog” entry. The FMV intro really looks good too and is sharp and eye catching. It’s “Sonic” on a CD-ROM format….this should be slam dunk right? Right, this game is awesome. There are no let downs for the “Sonic” franchise moving from the Genesis to the Sega CD in terms of gameplay, graphics and of course, music. In my opinion, the music in “Sonic CD” should be considered iconic and one of the best video game soundtracks of all time (and yes, I know there is a completely different Japanese soundtrack that is equally awesome).
“Sonic CD” is a 2D platformer not unlike the 3 Genesis “Sonic” titles and Dr. Robotnik is still up to his usual tricks and attempts at world/universal domination. The key plot line that differentiates “Sonic CD” from the rest of the franchise games is the time travel aspect. In “Sonic CD” you start in the present but there are transporters that take you to different zones such as “past”, “good future” and “bad future”. The goal is to earn a good future in all worlds and ultimately defeat Dr. Robotnik again. The time travel plot provides an interesting twist to the typical straightforward “Sonic” adventure and makes this one unique & memorable. Definitely one of the best games for the Sega CD but I also acknowledge that this is a pretty polarizing “Sonic” title with its fair share of detractors.
4. The Terminator
“The Terminator” is at its heart, a side-scrolling platform shooter and the plot mirrors that of the original 1984 film, not the 1991 sequel. Regardless, this version is action packed with great graphics depicting a war-torn urban wasteland, smooth gameplay and outstanding music (courtesy of Tommy Tallarico, who also worked on “Earthworm Jim SE”) and sound effects while providing the right amount of challenge. This version of “The Terminator” is superior to the Genesis, NES, SNES & DOS versions in my opinion for all the reasons I’ve already cited. This is a very good game for the Sega CD that provides system owners with a run and gun platformer experience that you can’t really get anywhere else.
3. Lunar: The Silver Star & Lunar: Eternal Blue
I honestly couldn’t say that one of these games belonged in my top 10 while the other one didn’t so I put them both at #3. The “Lunar” titles aren’t Sega CD exclusives anymore (they were remade for the Playstation in the late 90s), but at the time of their release, first on the Japanese Mega Drive and in North America in ’93 and ’95 respectively, this was the only means to enjoy them. These two Working Designs titles were localized with all the love, care, and expertise that was standard for the team in the 90s AND they were two key reasons to own a Sega CD. JRPG gameplay mechanics aren’t for everyone, but the full motion video, CD quality soundtrack, story and dialogue for these two titles make them special, memorable and worthy of being placed this high on the list.
I had a difficult time deciding between this title and the game I ended up placing at #1 to determine my favorite Sega CD game, but I ended up putting Konami’s “Snatcher” at #2 simply because the style of gameplay felt a little less “video game” and more “interactive film”. For an interactive film, “Snatcher” is perfection. The story is impressively compelling and intriguing, which is the most important aspect for a game of this style. The dialogue is smart and funny, the voice acting goes above and beyond competent, which is the backhanded “praise” given to most voice acting in 90s video games. “Snatcher” has so much going for it in terms of storytelling and adventure, you can overlook the fact that you spend much of the game just talking to others and letting the game sort of guide you in the direction you need to go next. I went into much greater detail on the game’s positive attributes in my “Snatcher” review, so check that out if you want a bit more information on why I think this game is so great.
1. Popful Mail
The game that I ended up choosing as my favorite Sega CD title in my collection is yet another Working Designs action RPG (all 4 titles they worked on for the Sega CD made my top 10), this time developed by Falcom. The game’s main character, Mail, is a female human-elfin bounty hunter that may not be the best at her craft but she certainly possesses a lot of determination. I honestly don’t know what “popful” means since it appears to be an adjective that Falcom made up for the purpose of this game (if anyone knows, please comment), but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment one gets from exploring this unusually titled game’s different environments (e.g. trees, caves, ice), while defeating intriguing enemies, earning gold, buying upgraded weapons/armor and meeting new characters, two of which you will eventually be able to play as.
These two characters, Tatt (a magician with impeccable manners) and Gaw (a smart aleck miniature blue dragon), add some much needed variety once they become available and offer additional skills that Mail does not possess. Each of the game’s three playable characters has their own personality, as do the enemies (e.g. Nuts Cracker, Muttonhead, Sven T. Uncommon) and “allies” such as Slick, the irritating troublemaker always getting himself in a jam and Glug, the simple-minded dwarf with a poor memory. These personalities, especially Gaw’s, lends a lot of humor to this already light-hearted game. “Popful Mail” periodically, mostly during the opening cinematic and in between levels, provides animated cut scenes to advance the plot, but more commonly, voice actors can be heard reading through the vast pages of dialogue contained on this disc. Despite not containing Red Book audio, the “Popful Mail” soundtrack is second to none on the Sega CD and it contains a variety of upbeat tunes to keep your energy going throughout this adventure.
“Popful Mail” gameplay relies heavily on boss (and mini-boss and mini-mini boss) fights as most of the routine monsters are easy to dispatch and serve as simply means to collect gold. However, the game at times feels like only a series of boss fights loosely connected by a plot. Luckily for “Popful Mail”, these boss fights are just about the perfect combination of difficultly yet not frustratingly so. Most bosses are tough to beat the first two or three times you play them, but after repeated attempts, either patterns start to emerge or through trial and error, you discover which of the 3 characters is best suited to fight them based on their specific weapons, speed and agility.
“Popful Mail” is a fairly straightforward game and unlike many RPGs, you won’t be leveling up your characters or utilizing magic spells. The gameplay has more in common with games like “Crystalis” on the NES or “Ys III” for the Turbografx-CD. Its played as a side-scroller with platforming elements. You have a life meter that goes down as you get hurt by enemies or environmental dangers. You can upgrade weapons and armor but only as you progress through the game, preventing you from ever being too strong to make the game challenging. There will also be items you can buy or earn by defeating bosses. Some must be obtained in order to progress through the game, while others are optional. Fruit is purchased or found to help replenish your life meter and you can save anywhere! I love games that allow you to save anywhere and anytime, so this was a huge plus for me.
“Popful Mail” is MY kind of game. Not too long, not too short. Not too hard, not too easy. Humorous but not kiddie. Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy to find game and if you can find one, it’s not cheap. That shouldn’t keep anyone from trying it out for themselves, however you can.
Honorable Mentions: Android Assault, Batman Returns, Silpheed, Sol Feace
Games High On My Wish List: Shining Force CD, Robo Aleste, Time Gal, Ecco the Dolphin, Battlecorps