Sega Genesis Flashback HD review – Polygon

The Sega Genesis Flashback is an attempt to capture a seemingly new, or at least reinvigorated, market while also not being too ambitious. At $80, the same price as the Super Nintendo Classic Edition, the Genesis Flashback struggles to approximate the user experience of Nintendo’s throwback. Instead, it tries to best it with back-of-the-box bullet points that, while impressive sounding, do little to cement its superiority.

Last year’s NES Classic Edition upended the low-end plug ‘n play console market, long dominated by a company called AtGames, which is responsible for the Atari and Genesis consoles littering checkout aisles everywhere. AtGames has been at this for a long time, but the low price is about the only thing easy to recommend on one of its consoles.

Still, the company doesn’t have trouble moving units over the holidays. But when the NES Classic Edition happened, AtGames needed a response.

HARDWARE

The hardware is where the Sega Genesis Flashback gets a few things very right, but each checkmark in the positives column comes with a companion check mark in the negatives column. The Genesis Flashback comes with two 2.4 Ghz wireless controllers, an improvement over the SNES Classic’s short wires … but, while also a step above AtGames’ previous infrared wireless implementation, the wireless latency still isn’t great, and the controllers feel cheap, hardly like exact replicas of classic Genesis controllers.

Some other minor gripes: The battery tray is secured with an obnoxious tiny screw, and the package doesn’t include the controller’s necessary AAA batteries.


Shai Ben-Dor/Vox Media


Shai Ben-Dor/Vox Media


Shai Ben-Dor/Vox Media

The Genesis Flashback wisely includes two DB9 ports so you can BYO Genesis controllers (which we recommend, because the bundled wireless controllers aren’t great).

But the Genesis Flashback also wisely includes the standard DB9 port that the original Genesis had, meaning your old (or eBay-acquired!) controllers will work just fine on the Flashback, a major improvement from the SNES Classic’s bizarre choice to use a Wiimote expansion port. The negative on that one? AtGames throws in not bad, but not excellent, wireless controllers instead of taking the opportunity to offer excellent wired controllers. Another negative: You will have to use the six-button Genesis controller, even though many of the included games don’t require it. No three-button pads allowed.

The wireless controllers do include two notable enhancements on the original Genesis controllers (and the SNES Classic controllers, for that matter): a Menu button, giving players access to the system’s UI from the couch, and a Rewind button, letting them quickly access what is essentially an undo function for video games. If you opt for the six-button Genesis controller, its Mode button serves as the Menu button here, and you can invoke the Rewind feature by pressing Back + Start. This is a thoughtful solution that, strangely, Nintendo still fails to adopt in its offerings.


HDMI on a Genesis, what a world.

Shai Ben-Dor/Vox Media

While Nintendo has wisely opted to use USB power for its miniature consoles, AtGames includes a barrel-plug power supply, removing any opportunity to power the console off your HDTV, or easily replace a missing plug. It’s a minor complaint, but it seems indicative of AtGames’ failure to recognize some of the more clever simplifications its competition has introduced and how audience expectations may have shifted.

In the positive column, the Genesis Flashback actually looks like a Genesis. While AtGames’ previous Genesis consoles were generic plastic boxes, the Flashback is barely “mini” in the Nintendo sense, but a scaled-down Genesis. Here it is next to my classic “High Definition” model 1 Genesis:


Note the plastic on the Flashback is more matte, so it’s not the same fingerpring magnet the original Genesis is.

Shai Ben-Dor/Vox Media

But can I just call your attention to this one thing that feels really unforgivable, in my opinion?


The Sega Genesis Flashback HD is actually pretty great looking, with one notable shortcoming …

Shai Ben-Dor/Vox Media

Do you see it? Here, let me zoom in:


Really, AtGames? Nobody thought this was weird?

Ah, yes. The giant AtGames logo sitting where the Genesis logo should be really brings waves of nostalgia washing over me. And who decided to remove the Genesis’ “High Definition Graphics” label on a Genesis that actually has a high-definition video output? Wild. But seriously, the AtGames logo belongs in fine print on the back of the iconic Genesis design. Ugh.

It is worth highlighting here that this console does support 720p, highdefinition graphics. For all its other faults, it does deliver on that promise. While AtGames continues to sell the composite-only Genesis models, which literally won’t function properly on many new television sets, the inclusion of HDMI here is worth celebrating. Yes, Nintendo’s consoles have HDMI, and yes, the goalposts have most certainly moved. Yes, a $30 Raspberry Pi has enough horsepower to run Genesis games and also comes with an HDMI port. Yes, this should really be table stakes, but it hasn’t been an option for AtGames’ offerings until this model, so it’s worth highlighting here.

Enough about HDMI support and the stupid logo — let me draw your attention to what’s just above it. The Flashback includes an actual cartridge slot, meaning that in addition to playing all the games that come pre-installed in the unit, it also supports any Genesis cartridge you already have. That’s a big one for the old positives column … but whether you’re playing a game off a cartridge or off the system’s built-in library, the actual experience is the same: disappointing. While AtGames has earned a bad reputation for its cheap plug ‘n play systems, this year’s HDMI-enabled Flashback series was supposed to be a mea culpa of sorts for the brand; a recognition that mass producing shitty boxes that can barely reproduce the games they ostensibly contain won’t cut it in a post-Nintendo Classics lineup world. Unfortunately …

SOFTWARE

The games run badly. In fact, they ran so badly on the first unit AtGames sent me — the same unit that other outlets reviewed back in July (!) — that the company told me it had an issue with the emulation software and asked me to not review it, in order to give them a chance to send me an updated unit. A reasonable request, considering the product wouldn’t be released until late October, albeit curious why a subpar product was sent to reviewers that far in advance of release in the first place.

Nevertheless, I waited … and waited … and waited. I sent emails. Finally, the new unit was shipped and, curiously, it had a new embargo, a strange request given it was for a review of the same product they shipped to myself and other reviewers months ago. Even more curious: While some other issues were corrected in this updated unit, as best I can tell it similarly suffers from framerate issues, just like the July unit. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Now, let’s talk about the user interface because … well, it’s something else. While Nintendo pairs its Classic consoles with a charming — and fast! — UI that makes navigating your library a charm, AtGames has created what is arguably the world’s least-intuitive interface. Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look:


This would be where I saved the Streets of Rage games, if they were included.

Seems easy enough, right? You probably navigate with the D-pad and … wait, what’s this? Enhance:


This is definitely intuitive.

Trust me: You could spend a lifetime trying to come up with a less thoughtful solution for how to navigate a library of games using a controller with an eight-way directional pad and nine (nine!) face buttons, and you would never match this disaster. It’s actually art, maybe.

But you will need to do a lot of navigating, because the Genesis Flashback is full of incredible, classic video games from my personal favorite console of all time … but it’s also full of actual garbage.

GAMES

The box proclaims, in gold-foiled exuberance, 85 BUILT-IN GAMES, and while that’s technically true, it’s more than a little misleading. There are not 85 built-in Sega Genesis games; in fact, there are only 45. To get to that impressive 85 number, you’ve got to add in these 28 junkers:

  1. Adventure in the Park
  2. Air Hockey
  3. Bomber
  4. Bottle Taps Race
  5. Break the Fireline
  6. Bubbles Master
  7. Cannon
  8. Checker
  9. Chess
  10. Cross the road
  11. Curling 2010
  12. Fight or Lose
  13. Fish Tank Live
  14. Hangman
  15. Hexagonos
  16. Jack’s Pea
  17. Jewel Magic
  18. Mahjong Solitaire
  19. Maze 2010
  20. Memory
  21. Mr. Balls
  22. Naval Power
  23. Plumbing Contest
  24. Snake
  25. Snowboarding
  26. Spider
  27. Wall-Breaking
  28. Warehouse Keeper

Ah, Mr. Balls. Less offensive is the inclusion of these seven classic Sega Master System games (let’s just pretend the system has a built-in Power Base Converter, OK?):

  1. Alex Kidd in Miracle World
  2. Alex Kidd in High Tech World
  3. Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars
  4. Dragon Crystal
  5. Fantasy Zone
  6. Fantasy Zone: The Maze
  7. Phantasy Star

And where there’s a Sega Master System, you might as well include some Game Gear games while you’re at it, considering they basically have the same hardware inside.

  1. Baku Baku
  2. Sonic Chaos
  3. Sonic Drift II
  4. Sonic Triple Trouble
  5. Tails Adventure

And now, finally, we’re left with the actual Sega Genesis games, of which there is a whopping 45. That’s 100 percent more than the SNES Classic’s 21 games, so why include the garbage to inflate the back-of-the-box boasting? Scan this list and be assured that, for all of its myriad flaws, the Genesis Flashback is just chock full of classic Genesis games.

  1. Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle
  2. Alien Storm
  3. Altered Beast
  4. Arrow Flash
  5. Bonanza Bros.
  6. Chakan: The Forever Man
  7. Columns
  8. Columns III
  9. Comix Zone
  10. Crack Down
  11. Decap Attack
  12. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine
  13. ESWAT: City Under Siege
  14. Eternal Champions
  15. Fatal Labyrinth
  16. Flicky
  17. Gain Ground
  18. Golden Axe
  19. Golden Axe II
  20. Golden Axe III
  21. Jewel Master
  22. Kid Chameleon
  23. Mortal Kombat
  24. Mortal Kombat II
  25. Mortal Kombat 3
  26. Phantasy Star II
  27. Phantasy Star III: Generations Of Doom
  28. Phantasy Star IV
  29. Ristar
  30. Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi
  31. Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention
  32. Shining Force II: The Ancient Seal
  33. Shining in the Darkness
  34. Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
  35. Sonic & Knuckles
  36. Sonic 3D Blast
  37. Sonic Spinball
  38. Sonic the Hedgehog
  39. Sonic the Hedgehog II
  40. Super Thunder Blade
  41. Sword of Vermilion
  42. The Ooze
  43. Vectorman
  44. Vectorman II
  45. Virtua Fighter 2

Though, you’ll note, these are almost entirely Sega-published games, with the exception of the Mortal Kombat titles. And even then, we’re missing a lot of Sega classics, like ToeJam & Earl, all of the Streets of Rage titles (!) and Sega’s sports titles. And since there are no other third-party titles, that means no iconic Genesis titles like Aladdin, Earthworm Jim, Gunstar Heroes, Castlevania: Bloodlines and Contra Hard Corps. Also, no NBA Jam.

OK, so while it has a lot of games, the Genesis Flashback is missing enough Genesis classics that it’s hard to call this a definitive collection. Sure, you can bring the cartridges, but Nintendo managed to make far more comprehensive portfolios of its consoles using fewer games.

As for performance, while some of these games run just fine, the more demanding titles — like the Sonic the Hedgehog games — perform poorly with an inconsistent framerate. That said, the emulation here is a marked improvement from AtGames previous offerings, whose sound emulation specifically earned an appropriate amount of internet ridicule and scorn.

To check, I played a handful of titles on my original Genesis, running through a Framemeister XRGB Mini upscaler into an HDTV. This solution also introduces a small amount of input latency, which I’ve always found negligible. While playing Sonic the Hedgehog on the Flashback may feel mushy compared to an actual Genesis — thanks to a combination of dropped frames and laggy wireless controller — many other Genesis classics feel great, like the Phantasy Star games. But if your product is a recreation of the Sega Genesis, I’d suggest accurate Sonic emulation is like … the most basic of expectations. Considering stable Genesis emulators have existed for literally 20 years, this failure above all others is the most damning.

CONCLUSION

The sad thing about the Sega Genesis Flashback is that, while it may be enough to satisfy the under-the-tree urge in the absence of alternatives, every unit purchased represents a lost future customer for a good Genesis throwback console. AtGames has been selling the composite video variant — the so-called Firecore — since 2009, blanketing the impulse-buy aisles at Bed Bath & Beyond stores nationwide. Each one of those is a bulwark against a future good Genesis release.

Sega has done meaningful, arguably irreparable harm to the consumer proposition of purchasing its classic games, while Nintendo has elevated 30-year-old products to must-have status. As a one-time Genesis kid whose nostalgic sweet spot is a Sega Genesis, I feel qualified to say that the Genesis deserves better from its owner. But as long as Sega is willing to license out its platform instead of making its own hardware, it seems unlikely to get better than this, the most declarative console war victory imaginable.

In my opinion, the Genesis was the best console of the 16-bit era. But if you want to purchase the best 16-bit plug ‘n play system this holiday, get the SNES Classic Edition.

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