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The Greatest Game: Phantasy Star (1987)
Before getting even the original Phantasy Star for Christmas way back in 1988, the excitement was pre-loaded: the cartridge was a whole 4 MEGABITS and cost $70. We’re talking 1988 dollars. Still, the game surpassed the hype. It had first-person “3D” dungeons that scrolled smoothly, which blew our 10-year-old minds into space. It came out before Final Fantasy, yet spanned an epic three planets and had far superior graphics. It had a friggin’ cat in your party, equipped with fang weapons, as well as floating cities and a final boss called Darkfalz that was about the scariest shit you’d ever seen in your 8-bit life.
The game was insanely difficult - the lowliest enemies were capable of wiping out your entire party near the beginning. The aforementioned dungeons were labyrinths devious, so much so that we often got lost to the point of needing to restart the game. Still, once you overcame the hardcore ass-and-mind kickings, the game became immensely satisfying and seriously epic in scope.
The second greatest: Alex Kidd in Miracle World (1986)
Designed as a direct competitor to Super Mario Bros., Alex Kidd stood up well to the imposing task. It had standard platforming, punching enemies with a huge fist as your main attack. Notable were creative end battles done in rock-paper-scissors style - the bosses’ heads were shaped like actual hands performing the gestures.
The Greatest Game: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)
Expanding on the framework that made the first Sonic a viable contender to the 1990s platforming crown, this sequel was like a Godsend for Genesis owners. Proving to be the reason to own Sega’s system, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 sold a crazy number of copies and stood tall against the Super Nintendo and its mega popular Mario franchise.
Everyone knows Sonic is fast, but what time has seemed to erase in most people’s minds is just how methodical the gameplay could be. Sonic 2 contained better platforming mechanics than its predecessor, which was reflected in the inventive level design. With each themed zone came an equally inventive and catchy musical score as well. Equal parts rewarding and addictive.
While Part 1 may have kicked off the console wars and Part 3 may have expanded the technology, the second entry will forever be remembered as the Genesis’s greatest game and the best excuse for choosing Sega over Nintendo.
The second greatest: John Madden Football ’93 (1992)
You don’t immediately think of a sports game when picturing the greatest games for every system, but Genesis was the console to play for your athletic fix. Even though actual team and player names didn’t hit the franchise until 1994, ’93 was a milestone. The co-op/competitive play has resonated to this day, recently being updated for Madden ‘09’s Collector’s Edition.
The Greatest Game: Sonic CD (1993)
What a shame this edition in the Sonic series hasn’t been experienced by more people. If we had to blame anything, it’d be its exclusive appearance on a console/peripheral no one wanted... and possibly the first appearance of Amy Rose. Either way, Sonic CD retains the lightening-fast, spin-tastic formula we all look back fondly upon, with some subtle processing pop that predates the hedgehog’s current state of three dimensional ruin we see trotted out year after year.
In what should be cited as an example to Sonic Team today, Sonic CD managed to find a distinguishing cachet that didn’t harm the core gameplay one bit. Our favorite rodent could become “unstuck” in time, as each level took place during three temporal zones - past, future and the other one we forget. Blast processing clashed with the Butterfly Effect as your actions in the past affected events in the future, and quite anachronistically, vice versa. Whatever, Einstein was a total Nintendo fanboy anyway.
It’s true that there are certain pseudo 3D elements and advanced sprite work that couldn’t have been done on the Genesis, but the rest of it probably could’ve been (especially since CD levels were shown off as part of Sonic 2). What the disc format did bring, though, was anime style FMVs, audible upgrades and the throwback butt-rock that’s synonymous with Sonic to this day.
The second greatest: Lunar: The Silver Star (1993)
Hopefully, time hasn’t forgotten our favorite planet ever to orbit the big Blue Star, nor the endearing characters and story-based objectives that call it home. For one, it’s said the original Lunar sold nearly as many copies in Japan as the Sega CD itself! Add to that a lovingly handled English translation, plus one of the greatest / cheesiest songs in gaming history, and you’ve got all the elements for an RPG to remember.
The Greatest Game: Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998)
While most Saturn owners would’ve been happy to receive another pre-determined, laser-breathing portrait of dragon based bliss, Sega buckled to the cries of the “on-rails” detractors and unleashed their winged steed in all directions… and into a full blown RPG, no less!
Every direction was yours to take, both in air and - in yet another series first - on foot. Luckily, hoofing it through Saga’s post-apocalyptic, bio-organic setting never felt like a drag, thanks to a deeply enriched world of hidden wonders populated by NPCs who had something more to say than “I miss my Grandpa, please find my sword.”
Airborne dragon riding fared even better, with every plane of movement finally opened up to the player’s whim. The battle system kept pace with the cinematic scope by carrying out midair skirmishes in real-time, with replenishing action gauges that let players attack, heal or go “Berserk” at strategic will on a shifting 360 degree field.
Remember that kickass scene in The Never Ending Story, where Bastian takes revenge on those bullies while riding a talking Terrier? That’s what playing Saga was like... with eerily similar music come to think of it. Unfortunately, by the time the good word hit Western ears, it was too late. The Saturn went bust, a scant 30,000 copies were sent to retailers, and Panzer Dragoon Saga would become the greatest game few would ever get to play.
The second greatest: NiGHTs into Dreams… (1996)
Come the mid-90s, it was becoming clear that 3D console gaming was the unavoidable leap from which there’d be no return. Once Sega embraced polygons and that extra dimension, there was nowhere to go but quite literally up. NiGHTs simultaneously realized our childhood hallucinations of soaring through imaginative dreamscapes and justified the need for analog controls with loop based goals and freestyle flights of fancy.
The Greatest Game: SoulCalibur (1999)
You kiddies may never have to read the phrase “near arcade-perfect” in a preview ever again, but back in The Day, it was something every gamer wanted, nay, needed to hear. So we’d like to invite you to imagine our supple teenage heads exploding in unison when Namco ported over its coin-op exclusively to the Dreamcast with improved visuals and all new modes.
Whatever the cosmic forces at work, it’s hard to think of a deal more mutually beneficial than the one struck between Sega and Namco. Compared with its Edge/Blade predecessor, the second edition in the Soul series experienced a lukewarm reception during its initial arcade run. Not only did the Dreamcast version greatly expand SoulCalibur’s fanbase well into the foreseeable future, it convinced scores of gamers to climb aboard Sega’s ailing console, with over one million customers served. Suck on that, Blue Stinger!
Whereas most 3D fighters were burdened by constrictive movement and twitch precision, the OG SoulCal’s weapon-centric combos were easier for newcomers to pull off, plus the eight-way run added more defensive depth than a simple sidestep could ever hope for. If the Dreamcast can lay claim to one thing, it’s introducing the world to the ever-expanding Ivy… and for that it stands tall.
The second greatest: Phantasy Star Online (2000)
Unlike the PS2 of a year later, the Dreamcast offered online play right out of the box. Few developers would take advantage of it in any meaningful way, so Sega built its own online world featuring essential group-based play, rudimentary player chat, and yes, monthly subscriber fees. You’re welcome?
Next up: Crusty old Atari winners and the best PC titles by decade...