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Hands-On: Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection (Xbox 360)

Genre: Compilation Developer: Sega Publisher: Sega Players: 1 Released: 2/12/09

With the coming of new console hardware, publishers scramble to release the freshest versions of their classic collections. Namco has already photocopied its Namco Museum for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, and the Wii Virtual Console is home to a plethora of retro titles that can be purchased for questionable amounts of points. Even Xbox Live Arcade is rumored to be getting back into the mix with new Genesis games coming to the service sometime in the near future. Of course, Sega itself isn’t far behind the curve, and it’s beefed up its Genesis Collection – previously released on the Playstation 2 and PSP – for the two major consoles with the newly-minted Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection. The result is the largest Genesis set ever released, and while the disc is chock-full of 16-bit goodness, fans will most likely find themselves with the distinct feeling that they’ve bought this compilation before, and they have.

Genesis Still Does…

Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection hosts an all-star line up that grabs the attention straight away. At first glance, gamers will be put off by the inclusion of such worn out titles as Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle and Altered Beast, and I agree wholeheartedly that these two were never head-turners and are certainly not deserving of yet another release. Beyond the filler, however, lies many a gem, and the forty-four games included feature all four Phantasy Stars, and all three Shining games, as well as the complete Golden Axe and Streets of Rage trilogies. Most, such as the VectorMan duo, have been seen before but are welcome back, while a few newcomers, like Beyond Oasis, are finally given some much-deserved attention.

Backbone Entertainment has more or less ported all the games intact, meaning that all codes and passwords from the cartridge versions still work. Some might use this as a way to cheat through the achievements/trophies, but given that none are very hard to begin with, there’s really no need. All the games support from 720p to 1080p, meaning they will run fine on anyone’s HDTV, and Sega’s even included a smoothing filter to take away the pixel-ridden look some might experience. There’s even an option to sort games by genre, year, or favorite.

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The quality of the emulation in this type of release is always a bone of contention for many fans, and on that front the UGL doesn’t really disappoint. Regardless of which game you play from the list, they all perform as you’d expect. There isn’t any real flickering or glitching, and the visuals are quite solid. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the audio (more on that later).

The inclusion of achievements/trophies are an added bonus here, and while I was disappointed that leaderboards aren’t supported (how will the world know of my Flicky domination now?), these little bonuses give new incentive to visit each title more than once. Some are a bit simple, such as merely talking to a dolphin in the first Ecco, but others are going to make you work hard. Attaining 80,000 points in Flicky or beating Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, for example, will definitely bring back that rush of controller-bashing frustration we all loved back in the day.

Close but Still not Perfect

Despite all the goodies included, this is far from a perfect collection. As I mentioned earlier, most of the games have no reason to be here again, either because we’ve seen them far too many times already or because they just weren’t that good to begin with. In total, more than half of the game list has been copied off the Sega Genesis Collection, so the overall amount of new titles added is dreadfully small. I’m glad that Shinobi III was given a slot instead of the much-reused Revenge of Shinobi, but I would have actually liked to have seen all three games together for once. Yes, Shadow Dancer can be found on the Sega Genesis Collection, but it would definitely have been preferable to Flicky. I also can’t fathom why anyone at Sega thought we’d be eager to trudge through Fatal Labyrinth again, especially when fans have been clamoring for other RPG classics, like Landstalker or Crusader of Centy to get another chance to shine. Furthermore, where’s ToeJam & Earl? The creators were supposedly contacted about adding their hip hop duo to the mix and agreed, but Sega, no longer enthusiastic with the series, decided to pass. Given how successful ToeJam & Earl were on the Genesis, this is another facepalm-inducing decision by the executives at modern Sega.

My biggest personal gripe with the title list has to be the inclusion of all the Sonic games. I know this compilation bears the famous hedgehog’s name and likeness on the cover, and I know he’s synonymous with Sega itself. However, we’ve seen these games in at least three – THREE – separate collections before, and I doubt there’s anyone old enough to hold a controller that hasn’t played Sonic in some form already. It seems as though Sega tries to counter each mediocre 3D Sonic release with another collection of his 16-bit adventures, almost like some sort of digital apology. I know Sonic. I love Sonic. But please Sega, give these games a rest for a spell, will you?

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The smoothing filter is another questionable addition. While it looked acceptable in some titles, it was horrible in others. I don’t expect Sega to redraw each of these games for high definition like Capcom did with Super Street Fighter II HD Remix (though it would be nice!), but tacking on such a haphazard solution just screams of laziness. I decided to just shut it off and play with the standard visuals, which actually looked pretty good on my 32” Aquos.

I was also a bit underwhelmed by the unlockable extras. There are about a half dozen interviews to see, but most are by the same designers who spoke on the Sega Genesis Collection, and even some of their answers are the same. For instance, Makoto Uchida tells the EXACT same story about never seeing an Altered Beast Genesis bundle in the wild, and Rieko Kodama spins her typical Phantasy Star yarns for the umpteenth time. Why didn’t anyone interview the people who worked on the Shining games? What about the team behind Comix Zone? Hey, if Sega-16 can interview more than a half dozen former Sega Technical Institute alumni, I think Sega itself should have little trouble finding at least one who’s willing to chat.

The hidden arcade and console games are also a mixed bag. My glee at seeing Congo Bongo and Golden Axe Warrior as extras was balanced out by arcade Altered Beast and Zaxxon, both previously used as unlockables. Sega has a richer arcade heritage than any other company in the world, so why not use it? There’s no Genesis Shadow Dancer here, so why not include the arcade version? It would be a nice compliment to the original Shinobi, which is present. For that matter, it’s sad that no one who worked on this series was even spoken to at all.

As improved over previous outings as the emulation may be, some games still have sound issues, and you’d think that Genesis sound emulation would be perfected by now, given how many times Sega has gone to back to this well. Unfortunately, the sound problems that have plagued these releases since the Sega Smash Pack back on the Dreamcast still rear their ugly heads. The audio is nowhere as bad as that travesty, but the fact that there are still problems at all is quite lamentable. Several games, such as Beyond Oasis and Streets of Rage 3 suffer greatly from it. Again, it’s a real shame that we’re still discussing problems with the audio in a Genesis collection in 2009.

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Undoubtedly, the biggest complaint most Genesis fans will have is the lack of Sonic & Knuckles “lock-on” capabilities. According to producer Ethan Einhorn, it was omitted due to development issues. “To shore up the development time necessary to get ‘Lock-On’ to work in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection,” he explains, “we would have had to drop all of the bonus games from the disc. Faced with an either/or scenario, we chose to retain our title lineup in its entirety.” Now, I’m not going to presume myself more knowledgeable than the game’s producer, but wasn’t the “lock-on” capability already included in previous Sega compilations, such as Sonic Jam, way back on the Saturn? How could Sega suddenly find it difficult to emulate this, when it has already done so before years ago?

16-Bit Lives On

When you take into account the fact that twenty-four of the twenty-eight games from the Sega Genesis Collection return for this set, along with the multiple flaws in emulation and the lackluster extras, Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection is truly a bittersweet release. It’s probably only a definite purchase for those two souls who never got the chance to buy these games in some form before and for those looking to trade up from their PS2 collections. True, there are plenty of things to unlock, and players will most likely spend more time with the two hidden RPGs than with most of the main games, but everything else has been recycled from previous compilations.

On the positive side, it’s nice to see that the Genesis still gets the love, and while I’d love to eventually see a similar collection of Master System or Saturn games, I hope that Sega continues to delve into its catalogue of Genesis hits for a new generation of gamers to appreciate and see on store shelves. I want to someday see Crusader of Centy, Landstalker, Super Monaco GP, and a slew of other games that have never been given a slot on a release of this kind. Still, this disc has a lot of quality Sega titles to offer, and we can at least take heart in the knowledge that there is still a demand for these classic games.

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