I must confess I’ve never owned a Mega Drive. It might have been the most popular UK home console of the generation, but the only Sega machine I ever felt compelled to buy was the Game Gear. Mostly because something about that portable version of Shinobi really hooked me. While I was growing up I did have several friends who owned Mega Drives and I even got to borrow one for an extended period of time in exchange for the loan of the Atari Lynx I had before I sold it to purchase the Game Gear. I remember having fun with it, especially Sonic and the various Strike games, but at no point did I ever think, ‘Man, I’ve got to get me one of these!’ It seemed like an OK machine, but it just didn’t click as a must have for me.

The SNES had me interested from the start though. Having a next-door neighbour with an NES, I was already well aware of the kind of gameplay hooks Nintendo had at their disposal. When it’s successor finally came out it didn’t take long for me to want to give them my money. Yes, the Mega Drive looked all mean and moody and had a slick marketing campaign throughout its life, but the second I saw that vibrant, iconic SNES pad I wanted to pick one up and play. When I did, it felt great to hold and the shoulder buttons instantly felt like a thing that should always have been, and were so natural to use. The console itself felt solid. Reliable. Chunky. Even the cartridge eject button was fun!

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And then there were the games. So many sweet, sweet games.

Super Mario World was a gameplay benchmark many developers would struggle to hit today. For my money, F-Zero and Super Mario Kart made mincemeat out of stuff like Outrun and Road Rash. Sure, bashing motorbike riders with tire irons was a violent and edgy concept, but to actually play? I never really saw it as a contest. Anyone who truly believes that 150cc Special Cup or anything above the first tournament in F-Zero aren’t the defining hardcore racing experiences of the 16-bit era are, are… well, deluding themselves, aren’t they?

As far as games specifically developed with a home console audience in mind nothing I ever saw on the Mega Drive held a candle to the likes of Zelda, Super Metroid, Secret Of Mana or the SNES version of Shadowrun. Yeah, Streets Of Rage and Golden Axe were good, but I didn’t feel exactly feel cheated while I was playing Final Fight or Turtles In Time.

Then there is the arcade conversion comparison. Obviously, Sega had their own mountain of exclusive properties, but it’s impossible not to go straight for the era’s obvious titan in the field and again I strongly feel Nintendo come out on top. To me, any SNES iteration of Street Fighter II looked and played better than the johnny-come-lately Mega Drive equivalents. Plus, you didn’t need to buy a whole new control pad to play them properly. Everything about them was brighter, more vibrant, felt chunkier, and more substantial. Things which I always found true of every SNES version of every multiformat game I ever got to play both versions of.

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One particular time I was passing by a demo console in what I think must have been a Comet or a Currys and the game on display was Mortal Kombat. At the time I loved Mortal Kombat, it and its superior sequel were my favourite arcade machines so I couldn’t resist a go, especially as this was the uncensored version Nintendo didn’t want you to see. I couldn’t believe how poor it was though. Slow, sluggish movement. Small, grubby-looking character models. Weedy music and effects. I remember being struck by how little impact any of the moves felt like they were having. It felt like playing with action figures made of sponge. In the bath. Compared to the admittedly visually sanitised SNES version, with its brutal, bone-crunching hit detection and virtually arcade perfect handling and sound, there was no contest in my mind which machine had the cajones in the power and gameplay departments and which was just all style and substantially less… well, substance.

I know it’s all personal preference and I’m sure many will disagree passionately but, outside of an arcade, I don’t think I’ve ever played a home grown Sega game that I’ve truly felt stood up to any equivalent Nintendo output. Yes, the Mega Drive had a direct hotline to Sega’s exclusive AAA arcade properties, but given the technological gulf between what cutting edge arcade tech was capable of in the 90s and what you could get out of a home console, even the most spirited and inventive conversions always seemed a bit meh to me. Almost like wanting an album by your favourite band, but getting a CD of covers by a well0intentioned, part-time tribute act instead.

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Having said all that, although I’ve never got to play them, YouTube videos make that Virtua Fighter 2 port looks seriously gutsy and the Virtua Racing conversion deserves huge respect for effort. Reading this back, it really sounds like I’m some rampant Sega hater/rabid Nintendo fanboy. I’m kinda not. There’s plenty Nintendo have done I’ve thought was rubbish (I really didn’t like almost anything about the N64 for starters) and there are definitely things about Sega I wish I could own forever (*cough* Star Wars Trilogy Arcade *cough*).

I’ve been sad watching Sega fall and continue to fail to make the most of themselves over the years. The Dreamcast was a lovely thing and seemed to have a lot of promise, but by then it was too late for them and Sony took their scalp almost like it was nothing on their unstoppable march to the top. I’m glad Sega still exist and also hope they somehow find their way back to making awesome arcade-style experiences that modern home machines can finally cope with. But when it comes to the golden age of the 16-bit video game console wars, it will always be Nintendo who get my vote for king of the hill.
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