Was the Sega CD a perfect peripheral? It was a Sega device made in the ‘90s, so no. It had some obvious problems—some self-inflicted—to contend with. However, 30 years after its debut, it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t get enough credit for what it did do well: even as Sega releases a second version of the Sega Genesis Mini in late October 2022—this time with Sega CD games in the lineup—they’re missing some obvious titles that should have been included, ranging from good for the system to just flat-out great.
Now, not all of that is necessarily on Sega, since rights have to be negotiated with various publishers, but regardless of the why, let’s talk about Sega CD games that should be re-released somewhere, whether it’s on the various modern consoles’ digital shops or as part of some compilation release. We always get Genesis Collections each gen, but where’s the Sega CD one? Don’t make us wait for a Sega Genesis Mini 3, either.
Only a few thousand English language copies of Snatcher ever existed. The graphic adventure game—an early-career Hideo Kojima title—was released on the PC-8801, the MSX2, the PC Engine Super CD-ROM, Mega CD, Sony Playstation, and Sega Saturn in Japan between 1988 and 1996, but only the Sega CD edition ended up in North America. It’s a shame, too, because it’s best described as the film school version of Kojima: he hadn’t fully developed into the game designer he would become just yet, but you could see all the little bits there, rough edges and all. The humor, the connected worlds—Snatcher takes place in the same universe as Metal Gear, just far into its future—and the love for film are all present. Snatcher is Blade Runner meets Terminator in a noir-tinted graphic adventure form, and it’s an excellent slice of cyberpunk that deserves a better stateside reputation than it has.
Earlier releases of Snatcher were a bit more basic: the Sega CD iteration leaned on the CD-ROM for high-quality audio that the fantastic soundtrack deserved to be heard in, and for voice acting that didn’t appear in the original release. These changes (and expanded plot) were also in the PC Engine CD-ROM version—which is included in the Turbografx-16 Mini—but you need to be able to read and understand Japanese in order to play that one. For the rest of us, there is just the question of why Snatcher hasn’t seen a re-release in English in a post-Metal Gear Solid world.
Strategy RPGs started to release left and right in the early ‘90s between the rise of Fire Emblem, Shining Force, and plenty of others, and they, for the most part, had battles that took place on square grids. Dark Wizard, on the other hand, is hex-based, like Hudson’s sci-fi strategy game, Military Madness. But it’s not just the hexes that separate Dark Wizard from its fantasy brethren: it also utilized the extra space on the CD format of its platform to put in voiced, animated cutscenes, and an actual orchestral soundtrack at a time when the best you could get in that realm was whatever (admittedly brilliant) magic Yuzo Koshiro could pull off with a synthesizer.
Dark Wizard has more to offer than just some sound that was ahead of its time and hexes, however. The basic story is that the king has died, and a new ruler must be selected, who will then lead their armies against your typical forces of darkness. In this case, the forces of the titular Dark Wizard. You have four different choices for ruler, all with their own personal backstory and reason to want to both lead and defeat evil outside of it just being the right thing to do, and the story will play out differently depending on which of the four—a prince, a horse girl, a sorceress, or a vampire—you select. Each also has their own kind of units that follow them into battle, as well: Sega CD games would often use the extra space that the CD-ROM format allowed to utilize additional animation and audio options, but here, you see Sega using that space to go the extra mile with the scope of the game itself.
Keio Flying Squadron
If you’re into Parodius-style shoot-em-ups and the kind of very Japanese aesthetic you’d find in Pocky & Rocky, you’ll dig Keio Flying Squadron. It’s not an STG that does anything particularly unique, but you don’t need to be wholly original to be a good time, and Keio Flying Squadron manages the latter.
There’s a quality Red Book audio soundtrack here, but the best use of the Sega CD’s format is the opening cutscene, which goes through a very detailed fake history of the United States, Europe, and Japan and the blending together of Native American magics with cold, hard technology to create the most powerful assault force in the world, one Japan learns from in order to better defend itself as a nation caught between a broader worldwide conflict… which does not feature in the game at all outside of this cutscene. It’s not an oversight, it’s just Victor Entertainment being funny. Keio Flying Squadron is about a young girl who can, for some reason, magically change into the same bunny outfits hostesses in Dragon Quest games would wear, and then ride a small fire-breathing dragon around. The antagonist is a raccoon who is also a doctor with an IQ of 1400, and he has stolen the key Keio and her family are supposed to be protecting that opens a secret treasure no one knows the contents of. Good gags, all around.
Android Assault: The Revenge of Bari Arm leans heavily on a few things that set it apart from otherwise similar STGs. Your charge shot only powers up when you aren’t firing, and has three levels—figuring out when to charge and when to fire will end up guiding most of your play. The game has some real verticality to it that’s reminiscent of the more open portions of Gradius II, except it also leans heavily into that verticality sometimes to have you moving a horizontally-guided ship through vertically-oriented stages, avoiding oncoming obstacles and enemies.
You start out controlling a pretty standard ship, but by collecting power-ups, you will instead be piloting a large mech. Or, at least, what seems like a large mech, until you take on much, much larger mechs. Like with Keio Flying Squadron, there’s nothing genre-defining or wildly innovative in Android Assault, but it’s just a good game that more people should have an opportunity to play. Instead, it’s been trapped on the mostly forgotten Sega CD for decades now.
Here’s a classic Nihon Falcom action RPG in the Metroid-y Wonder Boy in Monster World vein, only with voiced cutscenes and a whole lot more verticality in the platforming. The North American Sega CD version is, regrettably, worse than the Japanese edition, as it’s marred by typical Working Designs liberties taken with the game’s balance and design. It was never meant to be a difficult game, but Working Designs decided to make it one, with health lost far more easily and now more difficult to recover, and enemies much more resilient, too. Listen, there’s a reason there is an entire unofficial translation line of patches titled “Un-Working Designs” for a slew of ‘90s releases. Still, even with these unnecessary aggravations in place, Popful Mail is an action RPG originally developed by Falcom (and then reprogrammed by Sega in partnership with Falcom), so you know you’re getting a certain level of quality there.
There might be something going on between Sega and Working Designs (or its successor, Gaijinworks, which was founded by former Working Designs’ president Victor Ireland after its dissolution) these days, in terms of disputes over publishing rights. Popful Mail, the Mega CD version of which was published in Japan by Sega, is appearing on the Japanese Mega Drive Mini 2, but not on the Genesis Mini 2 in North America. The same goes for the two Lunar games published by Working Designs in North America—maybe the two sides are in dispute as to what relicensing should cost, and Sega will just have to figure out a way to get their own Un-Working Designs localizations of the trio out on their own someday if that’s not resolved. Regardless of the why, they’re not being made available again just yet, but should be.
Lunar: The Silver Star Story and Lunar: Eternal Blue
While we’re on the subject. Sure, there are roughly 400 versions of Game Arts’ Lunar: The Silver Star Story in existence, but each one is different from the last. The Sega CD version was the original, and then it was modified to take advantage of the Saturn’s 32-bit technology, and then the Playstation got its version, and so on down the line for decades—sometimes for the better, and sometimes for worse. Seeing the very first edition of the game that has historically refused to not be re-released again would be something, especially in order to compare it to the others that followed—and Sega clearly agrees in the value in that, since they put both Lunar: The Silver Star Story and its sequel, Eternal Blue, on the Mega Drive Mini 2 in Japan.
In North America, though, as said, Working Designs also localized and published these games in the ‘90s, and they’re also missing from the Genesis Mini 2. So there’s probably, regrettably, a legal reason for them not being on both minis, rather than Sega just forgetting about two of the most acclaimed titles on the platform in the part of the world that actually bought the Sega Genesis and CD add-on when they were out.
Lords of Thunder
Lords of Thunder isn’t a game lost to time like some of the others here, but the Sega CD version has historically been re-released less than its Turbografx-CD predecessor, and that edition is scheduled to vanish from the Wii U eShop in the spring of 2023, along with the rest of the store. The gameplay from version to version of this classic STG is similar, but the heavy metal soundtrack is different, with the TG-CD version sounding a bit rawer—which is better is very much up to preference, but either way, it’s one of the best STG soundtracks going, in a game that still rules decades later. All that would need to be done for the Sega CD version to get a perfect re-release is for the audio bug that causes some skipping in one stage to be fixed.
While Lords of Thunder wasn’t originally a Sega hardware game, it retroactively feels like it’s always been one. That’s because it was developed by Red Company—specifically, a team within it that was made up of former Technosoft staff. Technosoft, of course, was responsible for the series of Thunder Force games that primarily appeared on the Genesis/Mega Drive, and later, the Saturn, but as of 2016 Sega now owns the rights to those, as well as the rest of the Technosoft library.
You have to want to play FMV-style games to even want to try Time Gal, but it’s one of the quality cinematic, Quick Time Event-style titles of its time, and is also a bit more historic than others, since it released in 1985 and features one of the first woman protagonists in arcade games that wasn’t just like, “what if we made a new Pac-Man who was instead a Pac-Woman?”
It’ll only take you about 30 minutes to play through all of Time Gal, but it will take you longer than that to actually get from start to finish unless you have reflexes that border on prescience. Expect, instead, to get stepped on or chewed on by a dinosaur quite a bit before you get the hang of the timing of it all and can start traveling around to different eras: you press in one of the four cardinal directions on the directional pad, whichever one briefly flashes on screen, and then hope you did it while the window was open. While the original arcade version was on Laserdisc, which was the style at the time, the Sega CD edition of Time Gal is obviously on CD, and has some additional content within it, too, that you won’t find in the mobile version of the arcade original that’s floating around these days.
While the original arcade version was a Taito production with animation by Toei, the Sega CD conversion was handled by Wolf Team, and scored by now-famed composer Motoi Sakuraba. Wolf Team, which was owned by Telenet at the time, would eventually develop a little game called Tales of Phantasia, published by Namco, and eventually be renamed Namco Tales Studio Inc. after they were outright acquired by the publisher. See? Time Gal really is a little piece of history.
I’m still not sure if Soulstar is good, to be honest, but it is at least interesting and different, in the sense that it answered the question of what an entire game based on the vehicle levels from Super Star Wars would be like. It’s on a Sega system, but it feels very Mode 7 just the same—you’ll occasionally see comparisons to a Star Fox-esque title or even a Galaxy Force II successor given the hardware it released on, but those aren’t really accurate comparisons. No, Soulstar is basically the Super Star Wars trilogy vehicle levels where you are sort of on rails but also have some stop-and-go freedom depending on the stage, only the entire game is made out of those.
The same positives (pretty simple and fun space battles with plenty of enemies!) and drawbacks (oh my God how did that thing hit me I can see it actively not hitting me) of those Super Star Wars levels exist within Soulstar, but this does have the benefit of more clarity in the voicework than those SNES titles managed, as well as a robust CD-ROM-assisted soundtrack to make everything feel as big and worthy of space as the game wants you to feel it is.
Soulstar was developed by Core Design, a studio you surely know for much more famous games than this one. There’s Chuck Rock, yes, but also a little thing known as Tomb Raider.
Phantasy Star II Text Adventure
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Phantasy Star series had a bunch of spin-offs, all Japan-exclusive and almost universally bad for one reason or another. They felt like real cash-in titles that were conceived or executed poorly, or sometimes both! Phantasy Star II Text Adventure, however, is a little different, in that it was Sega deciding to go back to the Phantasy Star II well after Phantasy Star III was not nearly as critically lauded. Rather than a new JRPG set in the same universe and time period, they developed a series of visual novels featuring the characters people enjoyed from Phantasy Star II, which served to further flesh out those characters and the world they inhabited.
These weren’t originally Sega CD games, but instead were downloadable titles on the Sega Meganet service of the very early ‘90s, which required a modem and appropriate cartridge in order to work. They ended up re-released on the Mega CD as part of a compilation, and, eventually, unofficial translators got to work getting them into English so people outside of Japan could see what was up with this spin-off series of visual novels.
Nothing will stop me from playing the unofficial translation, of course, but wouldn’t it just be lovely if Sega decided to include localized versions of these visual novels within a Sega Ages edition of Phantasy Star II in the future? Again, just recruit or pay the translators who already put in the time for that effort. It worked for NIS America and Trails from Zero.
Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.