"Sega does, what Nintendon’t." Back in the 1990s, this was the rallying cry of the Sega Genesis marketing, as the console wars began in earnest. The Sega Genesis (aka Sega Mega Drive outside of North American markets) is one of the greatest consoles to ever be produced. Much of it is because of the outstanding library of Sega Genesis games.
The Sega Genesis rivalry with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) is the stuff of legend. While console wars between Nintendo, Xbox, and Playstation continue to wage, they have never reached the heights of competitiveness that was Nintendo vs. Sega. While the console hardware was the base of that competition, it really boils down to the games. The 16 bit era of console gaming would not be what it was without the in-house and third party games.
With the passage of time, one thing can be noted is that the listing of the best Sega Genesis games skews more to nostalgia rather than how good the games they actually were. This is a problem, as new retro gamers will have imbalanced assumptions as to what they should actually get. Well, this is an oversight Xfire aims to rectify. So here we present the ACTUAL Greatest Sega Genesis games of all time!
What Do We Base the Sega Genesis Rankings On?
Before we get started, a brief primer on how we gauged our choices:
- First of all, this list is only for Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) games. While it can be argued the Sega CD and Sega 32X are add-ons to the system, they are separate. (But don’t fret. We will be ranking the Sega CD and Sega 32X games, too!)
- We won’t look at the sales records. Sales can be deceiving. A dumpster fire of a game can sell well and still be garbage. Besides, we’re not looking at the best-selling Sega Genesis games of all time.
- We played the games. Oh yeah! We went there. A lot of lists online are just basing on preconceived notions, second-hand opinions, and imperfect childhood memories. So we did our due diligence. No lazy write-ups here. We’re doing it old school and actually played them. With a library of more than 700 Sega Genesis games, that’s a LOT of time spent playing. But if you’re really going after the gems, you’d better be ready to sift through the mines.
- Only one entry per series. This may seem like a cheat, but it’s the same principle that the Retro mini game consoles use. So we chose only the best entry in a game franchise. On that note...
- We kept the list down to 20. This is harder than it seems with the aforementioned 700+ games involved. But if ever we need to look at the 50 greatest Sega Genesis games, we have all our notes tucked away for that in the future.
With these parameters out of the way, let’s get this party started! Here is the no-nonsense 20 Greatest Sega Genesis games of all time!
The Greatest Sega Genesis Games, from 20 to 1
The 1990s was the golden age of beat-’em-up games. But this also means there were many run-of-the-mill clunkers. Comix Zone does not fall into that category.
In Comix Zone, you are Sketch Turner, a comic book artist that has been sucked into a comic book being created by a rival. Now, Sketch must fight his way to survive with his wits and his fists, moving from panel to panel. Familiar comic book tropes like onomatopoeia (i.e. sound effects using text) adds to the immersion and entertainment value.
This unique perspective is done exquisitely, with near flawless animation as Sketch transitions from one panel to the next. You really feel like you’re playing inside a comic book! The pacing is perfect and the controls are smooth. Many mobile games today could learn a thing or two from Sega Genesis’s Comix Zone. It’s only failing is its length. Comix Zone is just too short, especially with today’s standards!
World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck
Disney games were a dime a dozen on every console during the 90’s. But this one had Mickey and Donald. World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck is also the best of the Illusion series of games on the Sega Genesis. Players can play solo as either Mickey or Donald or as a co-op.
The great thing about World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck is how differently you can go through the stages depending on which character you are using. And in co-op, you can help each other. For instance, Mickey can jump on Donald’s shoulders or Mickey can pull Donald through a gap that the latter cannot fit in. Add in charming mechanics using the magic spells and you have a Sega Genesis game that literally feels like a Disney production.
Fans of Disney animated films will also appreciate the nods to different features throughout the game. This is long before this was done in the Kingdom Hearts series of games. The animation is fluid and the gameplay is always fun. But it is also another game that suffers from being too short.
Herzog Zwei is an RTS action mecha shooter on the Sega Genesis released in 1990. Let that sink in for a moment. The level of innovation in this game is impressive.
You play as the pilot of a transforming air and land mecha unit, but you are also the commander of a strategic base. This base produces other units which can be assigned to patrol, guard from a fixed position, or attack the enemy base. You have to manage your resources (particularly fuel) as you progress.
This level of interaction and micromanagement is virtually unheard of prior to games like Command & Conquer or Warcraft. That Herzog Zwei does it and does it well on the 16-bit Sega Genesis is nothing short of amazing. Perhaps the game’s only failing is being too ambitious. The multi-tasking can be too much at later stages.
Dungeons & Dragons: Warriors of the Eternal Sun
The Dungeons & Dragons brand has a rich history of being translated to video games. The Gold Box Games, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and much more have become classics. But D&D games on the consoles have been a mixed bag. Dungeons & Dragons: Warriors of the Eternal Sun is the Sega Genesis effort from the people of Westwood Studios. And does it deliver!
Based on the basic D&D rules (where races like Dwarf and Elf are treated as Character Classes), you build a party of 4 adventurers. A war between Duke Barrik’s forces and a goblin army is interrupted by a cataclysm. Now, the entire kingdom emerges into an unfamiliar landscape. Your party is tasked to explore this land and find a way home.
This game manages to incorporate both a semi-top down and first person dungeon crawling perspective, while staying true to the D&D RPG ruleset is truly commendable. It features all the familiar elements like stat management, spellcasting, leveling through experience, and gathering gold and magic items to help you on your quest. Although the execution is fairly simplistic, you will find yourself quickly immersed in the plot and exploration worthy of its pedigree.
An action strategy game that debuted in the arcades, Gain Ground one-ups the arcade by having 10 more levels. And the arcade has 40 levels! You start with only 3 characters, but you can rescue more. Up to 20 characters can be gathered, each with varying strengths and weaknesses.
The game takes cues from the classic Gauntlet, but innovates with the aforementioned character selection and recruitment. Broken up into rounds with 10 stages, progress in Gain Ground is accomplished by either wiping out the enemy or getting all characters to the exit. If a character dies, it gets captured but can be rescued again. You have the option of leaving a captured character and move to the next level.
Gain Ground has a frenetic, twitch control action shooter essence while adding sufficient variety. And you can even play on hard mode where you start with all 20 characters, but they die permanently! This level of decision making and strategy incorporated seamlessly is rare for similar games of the time.
Ecco The Dolphin
Developed by Novotrade, Ecco the Dolphin had the audacity of putting players in the role of a dolphin out to save the Earth from alien invasion. By all rights, this should not have worked, but the smooth graphics, interesting game mechanics, and balanced challenges made Ecco The Dolphin one of the surprise greats on the system.
In the game, you play as eponymous dolphin protagonist. Ecco can charge and, eventually, sing vibrations to deal with enemies. Ecco’s song is also your way of interacting with different sea life and glyphs that are necessary to progress. Because Ecco does not actually breathe underwater, you have to periodically go up to the surface for air. If the air meter is used up, Ecco gradually loses health.
While the sequels Ecco: The Tides of Time and Ecco Jr. added new mechanics, the overall presentation and the enjoyment factor of Ecco The Dolphin makes it the best.
The Sega Genesis games library does not have an extensive list of RPGs. But the ones on this 16-bit console are truly entertaining and even revolutionary. One of these is Shadowrun. This game is based on the tabletop roleplaying game produced by FASA. Shadowrun mixed cyberpunk with fantasy races and magic.
This action RPG creates an open world even before the term was coined. Players can select multiple approaches based on 3 archetypes (Street Samurai, Shaman, Decker). Take on missions to build up cash, gear, and even reputation. Hire other Shadowrunners to help you for one job or as permanent henchmen. Get the help of contacts who provide various benefits, such as information or military grade equipment.
Exploring the Matrix (Shadowrun’s version of cyberspace) is presented effectively, yet simple to learn. In fact, it does this better than the SNES Shadowrun (which is another classic in its own right). With so many layers done well within the limits of the Sega Genesis hardware, Shadowrun deserves its spot on this list of the greatest Sega Genesis games of all time.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors
With a simple premise, excellent controls, and entertaining graphic design, Zombies Ate My Neighbors is one of the best run and gun titles on the Sega Genesis. Developed by LucasArts and released on both the Sega Genesis and the SNES, the 1993 game puts you in the role of Zeke and Julie, two teenagers who have the unenviable task of rescuing innocents as a zombie apocalypse runs rampant around their neighborhood.
The game features many of the standard tropes in run and gun games. You can play it solor or as a 2-player co-op. A standard ranged weapon (in the form of a water pistol), upgraded weapons and useful items to collect, platforming and map exploration, a wide variety of enemies and 48 stages with different themes.
What makes Zombies Ate My Neighbors unique is its tongue-in-cheek humor. Similar to other LucasArts games like Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, the game handles the horror and scifi elements like a self-aware B-movie. This helps keep the game’s entertainment value high and never a dull moment.
Toejam & Earl
An alien rap duo that has to work together to repair their ship to head to Planet Funkotron. That is the snazzy and oddball premise behind one of the surprisingly enduring Sega Genesis games.
Similar to World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Toejam & Earl works best as a co-op, enabling the two protagonists to solve levels in unique ways. Another innovation is that every level is randomly generated, so no two games are ever the same. This comes from the fact that the game was inspired by the classic Rogue dungeon crawler.
It is also noteworthy for being relatively nonviolent, opening it to a wider variety of audience. The power-up system is also interesting as the presents that contain them are largely random. Identifying what the power-up does is critical to the various challenges presented. Many mobile games today use a similar mechanic, which makes Toejam & Earl a game that is ahead of its time.
Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine/Puyo-Puyo
Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine is simply the classic Puyo-Puyo game with Sonic’s main bad guy as the central figure. Despite being little more than a westernized translation of Puyo-Puyo, this does not take away the game’s merits.
Puo-Puyo itself is a fun puzzle and falling block elimination game. More than just a Tetris clone, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine/Puyo-Puyo offers a flavor on its own. Mechanically, it is similar to the Columns series of puzzle games. Match 4 beans of the same color and it vanishes, adding to the player’s score. If you chain a combo of block removals, it sends greyed-out beans to the opponent’s board. Unlike the regular beans, these can only be removed by matching beans that are adjacent. This then becomes a competitive race, as you cannot focus only on clearing your board but also chaining combos.
A simple to learn but difficult to master puzzle game, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine or Puyo-Puyo deserves its spot as one of the greatest on the Sega Genesis system.
A 2D action platformer, Vectorman is like a mashup of Megaman X and Donkey Kong Country. The story itself is nothing to write home about. Robots (called orbots) are left by mankind to care for the Earth. One orbot named Raster goes off the reservation and becomes a tyrant. Vectorman, a cleaner orbot, returns from his duties to find the chaos caused by Raster. He decides to restore order before the humans return to the Earth.
While the story is fairly simplistic, the gameplay and visuals in Vectorman is something else. Vectorman borrows something of the Megaman concept of using different weapons and power-ups that affect the hero’s function. Unlike Megaman, Vectorman literally transforms into things like a drill or a bomb.
Meanwhile, the visual design of the game follows a similar principle to Donkey Kong Country, creating a style that makes it look 3D, but is actually pre-rendered 2D. And don’t forget the funky techno soundtrack. Sadly, it came near the end of the console’s life and the sequel did not add enough innovations to be superior to this first outing.
One part Legend of Zelda and one part Brainlord. Beyond Oasis is that in a nutshell. You play as Prince Ali in an Arabian Nights-inspired adventure. Aside from your trusty short sword (called a "knife"), you also wield the silver armlet that allows you to summon 4 different elemental spirits, each with unique powers and abilities.
Additional weapons and items can be collected in the course of the game, including swords, crossbows, bombs, and health restorations. But unlike the knife, these have a limited number of uses. Finding the right weapon and spirits to win against your foes is key to your success!
Beyond Oasis accomplishes being more than just the sum of its parts. The action is fast-paced and the combinations of weapons and spirit use give it a unique feel. Furthermore, the graphics of Beyond Oasis pushes the Sega Genesis to its utmost. Big, bold, and vibrant, the sprite work in this game is beautiful to behold.
Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
The white ninja Joe Musashi’s third outing on the Sega Genesis is also the best of the Shinobi games. Although it has the infamous reputation of being one of the games that delayed release for a very long time, it was certainly worth the wait.
A side-scrolling action adventure, Shinobi III takes Joe to confront his arch-enemy, the Neo Zeed, across a globetrotting journey. New features include brand new attacks like a running slash, a spread attack for his shuriken, and the ability to jump and scale walls. There are also new ninjutsu specials that give Joe anything from a lightning shield to a self-explosion that damages all enemies on the screen.
Shinobi III offers a fast-paced thrill ride with huge but smooth graphics. Many innovations in Shinobi III would appear in other top-notch games, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time.
Streets of Rage 2
Streets of Rage did something special. It beat its rival SNES to the punch in developing a truly great beat ‘em up for its parent system. The SNES had Final Fight, but it was a mediocre port of the arcade version. And one of the biggest factors is the inclusion of two player co-op. And it was able to do that while also implementing unique traits to each selectable character.
But as good as Streets of Rage was, Streets of Rage 2 just takes what was good about it and amped up the dial to 11. Axel and Blaze return with updated designs and movesets, while two new characters, Max Thunder and Skate, add to the variety. New grabs, holds, and throws are added, as well as individual special attacks replacing the simpler area attack of the previous game.
Streets of Rage 2 continues to be so popular that remakes and sequels have been created as recent as 2020’s Streets of Rage 4. Truly, the sidescrolling beat ’em up genre would never be the same without this game. That Streets of Rage 2 was able to beat Capcom at its own game is what seals this Sega Genesis masterpiece as one of the greatest.
The sole entry of the venerable Castlevania series to the Sega Genesis system is also one of the best ever. As 1993 ended Castlevania’s exclusivity, Konami produced this one-off. Konami’s Castlevania Bloodlines does the series justice with its classic gameplay, visual impact, and interesting design choices.
Taking a page from NES’s Castlevania 3, Bloodlines casts the players into the role of more than one protagonist. This time around, whip-wielder John Morris and spearmaster Eric Lecarde aim to thwart Dracula’s niece Elizabeth Bartley from resurrecting Vlad once more. The two heroes have different ways of getting to places as John can swing around while Eric vaults with his spear. This adds to the replay value, as each character will have a different path to choose in order to progress.
Castlevania: Bloodlines also takes the franchise to new directions, as it tries to tie in closer to the Bram Stoker version of Dracula. The gothic and visceral designs and the moody soundtrack are all spot on, many of which would be referenced in later iterations such as Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night. Castlevania games are often standouts during this era (minus misfires like Castlevania64). Bloodlines is definitely one of the winners.
Shining Force 2
Gacha games have become standard fare that gets players coming back for more. The achievement of getting every character in the game and building them up from novice to powerhouse is just gratifying. And the Shining Force series did this before this was the trend.
Shining Force is not the first to do the fantasy turn based, tactical RPG. But it did so in a way that blends the RPG elements of character, story, and background with newbie friendly strategic gameplay mechanics. Shining Force was great, but Shining Force 2 successfully builds on the original by having a more satisfying plot, a slicker visual presentation, while offering more challenges which hardcore fans of the genre can appreciate.
In addition, Shining Force 2 has a lot of replay value. If you successfully finish the game with one set of heroes, try it again with a different group. And with 10 secret characters to find and recruit, you have a wide array of play styles to explore on your own. Tactical RPGs can be tricky to execute, but Shining Force 2 does it with flying colors.
Monster World IV
A lot of older gamers will look at this entry and not have any recollection of this game. That is because it was a) not released outside of Japan and b) did not get released until the point the Sega Genesis was at its end of its lifespan.
Monster World is a series of platform adventure games, also known as Wonder Boy. A platform adventure game with lite RPG elements, Monster World IV has a visual style and presentation that is similar to Legend of Zelda: The Adventure of Link or the later Maple Story games. Interestingly, this is the first entry that features a female protagonist, Asha.
The game is surprisingly deep with its variety of attack methods (Asha can swing her sword in different directions), pet interaction (Pepelogoo can assist Asha with jumping, gliding, blow out fires, bridge gaps, etc.), and lite RPG elements such as town shops and purchasable gear.
No doubt, Gunstar Heroes is the best run and gun game on the Sega Genesis. And arguably, it is one of the greatest run and gun games of all time. Consistently appearing in the lists of the best Sega Genesis games, Gunstar Heroes is no doubt a top tier game.
While Gunstar Heroes is clearly inspired by the Contra style games, it takes the familiar tropes and runs away with it. One of the unique elements Gunstar Heroes features is the option to choose either a fixed or free mobile firing stance. Another great option is to choose the starting weapon. Where games like Contra sets a default weapon, Gunstar Heroes lets you select between four. Each weapon has its own advantages and disadvantages, as well as combos. And if that is not enough, the characters can perform different jumping, sliding, and melee moves.
Many of the run and gun games of later years such as Metal Slug and Cuphead were inspired by Gunstar Heroes. That is a testament to how good this game is and its place in this list of greatest Sega Genesis games of all time.
Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium
Standing the test of time is one thing. Remaining relevant after decades is another thing. The Phantasy Star RPG series embodies these and more.
Where the SNES had Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Chrono Trigger, the Sega Genesis had Phantasy Star. Unlike the Final Fantasy series which had a different world and underlying story with each entry, Phantasy Star is a sprawling epic told in different points in time. It also blends the fantasy and scifi elements worthy of its Star Wars and Manga/Anime inspirations. And where the previous entries lacked in graphic detail, Phantasy Star IV finally delivers on the art both during the gameplay and with the cut scenes.
As for the gameplay itself, Phantasy Star IV delivers with gusto, with customizations for every item, technique, skill, and even macro scripting, the latter being something their SNES rivals would not have. The ambition and execution of Phantasy Star IV’s features continue to influence other RPGs, not the least of which Phantasy Star Online 2, one of the longest running MMORPGs.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
No other Sega Genesis game has ever encapsulated what makes Sega Genesis stand out. Out of all the Sonic games on the console, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 just flat out demonstrates why the Sega Genesis was and is still one of the greatest video game consoles in history.
To those who know, the mere mention of "Blast processing" conjures up images of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 game being played. The game is simplicity itself. Run and jump from beginning to end to get to the next stage. But that running and jumping part is difficult to master. Building up and controlling momentum, timing your jumps just right, the twitch controls to estimate your speed and target. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 just delivers on all these with a style that is second to none on the system. Add in new features like Sonic’s loyal sidekick Tails and 3D bonus stages, and you know why this game is a revered classic to this day.
Sonic the Hedgehog inspired much later games as Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride. Indie developers continue to attempt to replicate the perfect combination of simplicity and satisfying gameplay that the Sonic games on Sega Genesis established. Where other games have their proponents and naysayers, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is universally beloved. It is not only the greatest Sonic game on the Sega Genesis. It is the greatest game on the system, period.
Some games just missed the cutoff. Alien Soldier, Mega Turrican, Disney’s Aladdin, Golden Axe II, Super Street Fighter II, Road Rash 3, and other games were omissions that almost physically hurt our reviewers. Certainly, broke a few hearts in the process.
But what do you think? Which game do you think should have made the cut in the greatest Sega Genesis games of all time? Let us know!