Gaming as an entertainment medium has only gained relevance in recent years. It’s hard for many to grasp this, but video games are a relatively new medium. The first video game, Pong, made its debut in 1972, only 45 years ago. For reference, movies got their start in the 1890s and television was first tinkered with in 1927. Gaming is a young medium that spent its first years labeled as a kids’ toy. Nowadays it’s considered a serious medium.
With its growth as a legitimate form of entertainment, interest in its past has grown. Many gamers my age harken back to the old days when Pong consoles were the only home gaming experiences available. Later consoles, like the Atari 2600 and NES, are spoken of with reverence. Retro gaming has become big business, evidenced by the absolute hysteria caused when Nintendo announced the NES Classic Edition.
The system, a miniature version of the venerable NES with 30 built-in games, wasn’t the first system to exploit gamers’ love for retro gaming. Atari dabbled with the idea first, releasing the Atari Flashback in 2004. The Flashback was a miniaturized 2600, and it also sported a library of built-in games. The first couple of Flashback consoles were distributed and marketed by Atari, Inc. In 2011, distribution and marketing of the Flashback were given to AtGames, a Taiwanese manufacturer. Though not as popular as the NES Classic Mini, the Atari Flashback line has seen some success.
AtGames is also responsible for the latest entry into the retro console market, the SEGA Genesis Flashback. This is not their first attempt at a Genesis/Mega Drive clone; their first attempt was the Firecore, a knockoff of Majesco’s Sega Genesis 3. Their newest version mimics the style of the original Mk. 1 Genesis. Its trump card is a cartridge slot that allows users to play original Genesis/Mega Drive cartridges. That’s a feature the NES Classic Edition and its successor, the upcoming Mini SNES Classic Edition, omit. AtGames’s hope is that the addition of the functional cartridge slot will attract fans of SEGA’s 16-bit console.
Truth be told, it is a wonderful feature. Too bad many of its core features are shit.
The $80 Flashback Genesis includes many of the features I’ve come to expect from today’s clone consoles. The only available video connector is HDMI, which outputs at 720p. The console comes with two 2.4Ghz wireless 6-button controllers which include a Rewind button that allows more difficult sections to be retried.
Like all previous clone consoles, the Genesis Flashback sports a library of built-in games. There are 85 titles baked into the console’s silicon, a vast increase over the NES Classic Edition’s 30 and Mini SNES Classic Edition’s 21 The onboard games include classics like Altered Beast, Columns, Sonic the Hedgehog, Shining Force, and Phantasy Star IV. The games are accessed through an interface menu somewhat similar to the NES Classic Edition’s interface. That’s a pretty impressive roster, right?
Except that not all of the games are from the Genesis. In an effort to pad the game total, games from the Master System and Game Gear have been added. That in itself may not be so egregious. What is definitely egregious is the inclusion of bootleg games that never appeared on a SEGA console. Such titles include Curling 2010, Maze 2010, and Memory. Of the 85 games packed in, only 45 are actual Genesis games. And there are real gems missing, like the Streets of Rage series, Toejam & Earl, and Sonic 3. I’m willing to believe licensing issues caused the omission of Sonic 3 (the late Michael Jackson – yes, THAT Michael Jackson – penned some of the game’s soundtrack). That could also explain away Genesis staples like TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist, Castlevania Bloodlines, and Contra: Hard Corps being missing. You know, because FUCK KONAMI! The console does have all three Mortal Kombat games, with blood code and all. But how can Ecco the Dolphin be missing?
Still, 45 games is more than the mini Nintendo consoles. Yea, but of the 30 NES Classic and 21 SNES Classic games, none of them are true stinkers. Sure, not everyone loves Balloon Fight or Kirby’s Dream Course, but they are much better than the shoehorned Space Invaders and Pong clones in the Genesis Flashback.
Okay, but owners of original Genesis cartridges can pop them in and play like an original Genesis, right?
Herein lies the greatest fault with the Genesis Flashback: it’s not a good Genesis console.
Like its competition from Nintendo and its Flashback stable mates from Atari, the built-in games are emulated. That in and of itself is no big deal. Emulation for the Genesis/Mega Drive has been solid for a generation on PC. The Flashback hardware, however, has a real hard time emulating the original console properly. Framerate skips are fairly common, especially in fast games like Sonic the Hedgehog 2. It doesn’t get better when you use original cartridges. Overall, this hardware has a hard time keeping up with Genesis games.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with the sound emulation. I’ve harped enough about my love for chiptune music. The original Genesis/Mega Drive hardware sported a Yamaha YM2612 FM synthesizer and a Texas Instruments SN76489 Programmable Sound Generator. While this audio hardware was vastly inferior to the Sony-developed S-SMP audio coprocessor in the SNES, it was still capable of some great sound and music. AtGames seems to have replaced the Yamaha/TI combo in the Genesis with a rusty pot and the cat whiskers Uncle Pecos yanked off Tom’s face.
(Sorry. I just had to include Uncle Pecos in an article. I LOVE TOM & JERRY!)
Nothing will yank a gamer out of the nostalgia of playing retro classics faster than poor sound. The tunes and sound effects sound muffled and almost out of tune in certain spots. Playing Sonic the Hedgehog’s first level, which sports a great theme, is painful on this console. I would call its audio performance to be beyond sub par.
Further examination reveals some more rough patches. The controllers do not navigate the interface very well. During gameplay, the framerate hiccups and spotty control inputs make navigating more difficult stretches of games like Chakan: The Forever Man difficult. The console’s build quality is also suspect, feeling more like a hollowed-out plastic toy than a piece of electronics.
To be fair, AtGames recently stated that review units of the Genesis Flashback consoles are faulty. They pin the blame on faulty firmware and promise an update on production units. Time will only tell if these issues get ironed out.
For now, however, there is no way I can recommend the Genesis Flashback. SEGA fans who don’t want to mess with emulation can get a much better experience with Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection. The compilation, available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, contains only 40 games and omits the Mortal Kombat trilogy. But the Streets of Rage and Golden Axe trilogies are included. Plus, they all work flawlessly. Of course, emulation via PC or a Raspberry Pi remains viable options for those who wish to go that route. Either way, SEGA fans will have a much better time than with the Flashback.