The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive was my console during the early 90s console wars. Most of my friends had one, and it was the system I played the most. This was the first system I collected for when I started collecting video games in the late 90s.
This was how I experienced many of the arcade games that Sega made in the 80s. These were rental titles that I would play with my friends and games that I would look for when I got older.
When I started putting this list together, I was surprised by the number of excellent beat-em-ups on the system. I love the genre, but I like them more in the arcades. This, along with sports games and arcade games, are some of the best games on the Genesis.
Before we look at the list, let’s go over what qualifies for this list.
TLDR: Sports and Beat-em-ups make up some of the best games on the Sega Genesis.
Let’s talk about what qualifies for this list. This list comes from the games that I own and the games that I’ve played. Of the 878 licensed games released for the system, I own about 450. I own some unlicensed games for the Genesis/Mega Drive, but I don’t own any imported games.
I also don’t own any recently made games for the system. Several good games have been made recently, but I haven’t played any of them. This list is only drawn from the games that I’ve played.
Lastly, I’m leaving off the games for the Sega CD and the 32x. Sega CD games deserve their own list, and I’m not interested in the 32x.
Evander Holyfield’s Boxing
This is the best boxing game on the system. The controls are solid, the graphics are excellent, and the game is a ton of fun to play. I also like it a lot more than Buster Douglas Knockout Boxing.
In this game, you create a boxer and climb the ranks until you face Evander Holyfield. You start relatively weak and must earn money to improve your stats. I like the way that they work it into the game. If you win a match, then you’ll make some money and can purchase a training routine.
This was one of the games that made a big impression on me when I first played it. From a visual standpoint, the game was so far ahead of the other NES boxing games.
Streets of Rage 2
Also known as Bare Knuckle 2, Streets of Rage 2 is the best beat-em-up on the Sega Genesis. In this case, the sequel is better than the first game, like Double Dragon II improving on the first game in every way. This might sound obvious, but many series screw this up.
Streets of Rage 2 takes place shortly after the first game. The evil Mr. X, the bad guy in the first game, is back and taking over the city again. This time, our heroes are joined by Max, who appears to be inspired by Hagar from Final Fight. I found Max an easy character, even though I still prefer to play as Axel.
This is a spectacular beat-em-up! The controls are great, the characters are fun, and it is a great game to play with friends. Whenever I think about the Streets of Rage series, I’m surprised it wasn’t in the arcades. It would have been a fun game to play on an arcade cabinet.
Genre: Tactical RPG
Shining Force is one of the standout RPGs on the Sega Genesis. There aren’t too many of them on the system, but there are a bunch of good to great games. This was a unique style of role-playing game for the time.
Shining Force is a Tactical RPG where you move your party members around a grid-based map. This differs slightly by having you explore a bit instead of moving from battle to battle. It also has less strategy than other games in the genre, like Fire Emblem or Tactics Ogre.
It has a fun story that keeps the player engaged, and it is a somewhat easy game to play until you get to the final boss, where things get annoying.
Once Nintendo’s monopoly on third-party developers was ended, Sega Genesis fans got one of the best games on the system with Castlevania Bloodlines. This game was exclusive to the Sega Genesis and is one of the better Castlevania games. I prefer this one to Castlevania IV.
I like this plot more than gathering his body parts. In Castlevania Bloodline, you choose between two characters in your quest to defeat Dracula and the people who are trying to resurrect him. One character has the traditional whip, and the other uses a spear. I found the spear to be more useful, but the choice of weapon will alter how you go through some levels. It is a nice touch to add some replay value to the game.
This isn’t a long game, and the backgrounds can sometimes be a little boring. Aside from those two things, the controls are good, and the game shows off some of the graphical abilities of the Genesis. It is one of the best Castlevania games.
Toe Jam and Earl
The first game was one of the stranger games I played as a kid. It is a case of liking a game but needing help to explain why it was fun. It might have been the people I played with, but I also enjoyed the game when I got older. Sometimes you need a game that feels like it is giving you a contact high while playing it.
In this game, you control either Toe Jam or Earl. They’re aliens that have crashed on a parody of Earth and have to gather the pieces of a spaceship so they can escape. The enemies in this game are the most memorable! They’re all extremely funny, from the dog in a gerbil ball to the pack of nerd stereotypes! The further you go, the stranger the enemies, become.
The power-ups are also hilarious. They come as presents, and you never know what you’ll get. Occasionally, you’ll get one that hurts you more than it helps, but that is all part of the craziness of this game.
This is a game that I played with my friend Eric. He owned this game and the sequel. I don’t think we ever beat the game, but that wasn’t the point. We always had fun trying to get as far as we could in it.
If you were wondering what an open-world RPG might look like on the Sega Genesis, this is the game you’re looking for. Based on the cyberpunk tabletop game, Shadowrun is an open-ended RPG with you trying to avenge your brother’s murder. Shadowrun is its own thing but has many similarities to Dungeon and Dragons. Some fantasy elements in the game were carried over from Dungeons and Dragons.
The game is set in a futuristic Seattle where fantasy races and magic exist alongside cybernetics. It isn’t an easy game at all, but the story is good, and the supporting characters are a lot of fun. The game has a top-down view and somewhat awkward controls.
The Sega Genesis isn’t known for having RPGs, but this one stands out. It isn’t just a good RPG but one of the best games on the system.
Phantasy Star II
The first Phantasy Star on the Genesis/Mega Drive is one of the best RPGs of the early 90s. The story was more mature than its contemporaries, and the graphics were much better than the other console RPGs of the time.
Phantasy Star II picks up long after the events of the first game. The Agol system has changed significantly since Dark Force was defeated, but it has returned. One of the game’s central themes is humans being an invasive species and our technology trying to eliminate us. It isn’t a perfect game, but it is a spectacular JRPG.
This was a game that I hadn’t tried until the late 2010s. Once I started playing, I found it hard to put down. While it isn’t my favorite game in the series, Phantasy Star II is better than most other RPGs on the Genesis/Mega Drive.
The Sega Genesis is often known for having great sports games and great shooters. However, it has some of the best beat-em-ups. I think this is one of the areas in the system that surpasses the SNES. While there are several awesome beat-em-ups on the SNES, I think the Genesis has a better selection.
The Punisher game that was ported to the Sega Genesis is excellent! The graphics are not on par with the arcade, but they’re close enough. The controls are very good on the console. It is a great game that can stand out by bringing the arcade experience home.
This is a game that isn’t talked about much. It is one of the better beat-em-ups on the Sega Genesis and is one of the better superhero games made in the 90s.
Golden Axe II
The ports on the Sega Genesis bring the arcade experience home, which was what Sega wanted. Early on, they were banking on their own library of arcade games to draw people to the system. The Golden Axe series are some of the best arcade games from the late 80s.
Golden Axe II is a wonderful beat-em-up game. It has a fantasy setting instead of an urban one, which was more popular then. You play as one of three characters. There are some magical attacks and creatures that you can ride. I love this type of game, and Golden Axe II is one of the best!
Most of my memories of Golden Axe II came from the late 90s when I collected games. It was fun to play with my friends when we were all into retro games. It is a lot of fun to go back to and revisit every once in a while.
Genre: Arcade Sports
This is an iconic game. The game has so many secret characters and simple gameplay that is easy to learn. The rubber band AI also allows the games to be more competitive.
NBA Jam is a two-on-two arcade basketball game. The game also does away with most of the rules and allows you to play more aggressively. The one rule that remains in the game is goaltending. I remember a friend of my mine never understanding how that foul worked. It was a little frustrating.
The gameplay and graphics are both outstanding, but the iconic sounds make this game stand out from the other sports games. I wish I had heard them in the arcade, but I only played this game on the Sega Genesis.
What I remember most about playing this game is the Blockbuster World Championships. I played the two games for the NBA Jam and Judge Dredd. I can’t remember the year I competed, but I remember going to my friend’s house to play this because I didn’t own a Genesis then.
NBA Jam is one of the best games on the system. It manages to stand out by being different from the others. The Genesis has plenty of great sports games, but NBA is a spectacular game that is much better than those that try to be true simulations.
Phantasy Star IV
This is the best RPG on the Genesis and one of the best RPGs from the 90s. This was my entry point to the series and a game that I have many memories of. It was a game that a friend of mine rented, and we spent a weekend trying to beat it.
Phantasy Star IV is the last game in the mainline series. It tries to link the other games together in a cohesive story and gives closure to all of the plot threads that have been going on. It even ties Phantasy Star III into the series, which was desperately needed.
This game manages to tie the series together and bring closure to the story. It even manages to explain the third game’s place in the series. This is one of the best RPGs of all time, and its way of storytelling would have a big impact on the genre.
Everything about this game is spectacular. The graphics are great, the story and setting are awesome, and the gameplay is wonderful! For me, Phantasy Star IV ranks up with Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger.
Mutant League Hockey
Developer: Electronic Arts
Genre: Arcade Sports
Arcade sports is one of my favorite genres. It includes games like Tecmo Bowl and NFL Blitz. However, EA published two of the best games in the genre. Remember when EA used to be awesome? Well, trust me, it used to be!
Mutant League Hockey is an over-the-top simulation of ice hockey. Your team is made up of Skeletons, Robots, and Mutants. The players and teams have parody names that are close to NHL teams but reflect the style of the game. The crowd will occasionally toss weapons onto the ice for you to use. There are also holes in the ice that you can fall into. There are two ways to win. You can score more goals or kill all of the other team’s players.
This is one of my favorite games on the system. I have many memories of playing it with my friends and arguing with people over how many games were in the series. Mutant League Football got a remake, and I hope we can get a modern version of the hockey game.
Mutant League Football
Developer: Electronic Arts
Genre: Arcade Sports
Much like Mutant League Hockey, Mutant League Football is an over-the-top football simulation. It doesn’t try to be realistic. It feels like the developers tried to jam everything that a teenage kid might be into. This game was trying to be ridiculously fun.
The teams comprise mutants, skeletons, aliens, and robots. The players and teams have parody names that are close to NFL teams but reflect the style of the game. It is awesome! By default, the defense is faster than the offense, and at times can feel unfair, especially if you pick one of the weaker teams.
Instead of weapons, Mutant League Football uses more environmental hazards and lets you bribe the referee. It doesn’t add as much to the game as Mutant League Hockey, but it is still fun!
Developer: Electronic Arts
In the early 90s, there weren’t many horror games on home consoles. There also wasn’t a survival horror genre yet. Games from this era relied on the atmosphere for the most part.
Then there was The Haunting starring Poltryguy! The whole point of this game was to scare the hell out of a family. There is a backstory about how your character was killed by a defective skateboard that the family’s company made. The story isn’t all that important.
The way that you scare people is to interact with the furniture in the house. Some of these are passive scares, and others are interactive. The passive scares are activated when one of the family members wanders near it, and the player controls the interactive ones. However, you have to keep your eyes on your ectoplasm level.
Once this meter is depleted, you’ll be sent to an underworld to gather more. You can also get a little when you scare the family.
This was a game that I didn’t play growing up. I discovered it later on when I was collecting games. I’m pretty sure that I first heard about it on YouTube.
Developer: Electronic Arts
Genre: Arcade Strategy
General Chaos is one of those unique games that EA published when they used to care about games. It stands out from the other games by combining Arcade and a Real Time Strategy. It is something that probably shouldn’t work but manages to do so quite well.
The game has a story, which isn’t all that necessary. It simply sets up why the two sides are fighting each other. It tells you that the two generals have been lifelong rivals.
The battles occur on a single screen where you control between 2 and 5 soldiers. Each of the soldiers has a specific weapon and will attack automatically. You can control where they move and call medical support when knocked down. Each map is different and can force you to change your strategy.
A friend of mine introduced me to this General Chaos. It was in the late 90s, and my friends and I were all collecting retro games at the time. He picked up this one, and we played it on a camping trip. It was so much fun that I went out and tried to find it for myself.
Best of the Rest
Unfortunately, only some games could make this list, and I had to leave many games off of this list. I also didn’t want to overload it with one genre. Here are ten other games that I would have liked to include if this was going to be a top 25.
- Bio-Hazard Battle
- Saturday Night Slammasters
- Shining Force II
- NHL 94
- Splatterhouse 2
- Toe Jam and Earl: Panic on Funkatron
- Sonic 2
- Alien Storm
- Steel Empire
- Streets of Rage 3
Many more games on the Genesis/Mega Drive could have been on this list. I was limiting myself to the games that I owned or rented. I haven’t played hundreds of games for the system yet. However, looking at the games I own, these fifteen games are the best on the system.
I’m unsure if I will try to play every game on the system. With the way that prices have risen, I’m priced out of some of the rarer games. Still, I doubt that the list would change much if I could access every game on the system.