Today in Tedium: The Sega Genesis, with its “Blast Processing” and blue mascot (who is getting a questionable movie makeover in the coming months), stood out for a lot of reasons, but one of the most subtle is something that it contained in at least one of its variants that not a lot of its competitors did—a headphone jack that could produce stereo sound. In a way, it was a nod to its sound chips, which were some of the best to be found on a video game console at the time and had more in common with the era’s sound synthesizers. Reliving those sounds in their best form hasn’t been easy in the modern day, however, due to challenges in emulating the console correctly. However, a challenger appears: The Analogue Mega Sg, a field programmable gate array (FPGA)-based console aims to recreate the experience. Today’s Tedium is a review of that console—and a little backstory on the biggest problem it tries to solve. — Ernie @ Tedium
Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, Analogue supplied the review unit for tonight’s issue. Nonetheless, the opinions are my own, and are mixed with some useful context—so it’s part review, part story. Enjoy!
Why sound is such a finicky thing on Sega’s iconic 16-bit console
Whether you call it the Genesis or the Mega Drive, Sega’s 16-bit console became an early ’90s icon, one that went toe-to-toe with Nintendo for more than half a decade and carved out a successful niche for itself.
The sound was a major element of that. Building from the base of the earlier Sega Master System—whose sound chip, the Texas Instruments SN76489, offered three channels of wave tone and a channel of noise modulation—the Genesis added six extra channels through its FM synthesizer, the Yamaha YM2612 (or, depending on your version, the YM3438). The combination of the two chips allowed for a distinctive tone—as well as the sound samples of John Madden’s voice and the well-mocked “rise from your grave” intro you hear at the start of Altered Beast.
In an excerpt of the 2014 book Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works published on the website Polygon, product designer Masami Ishikawa noted that the decision to use multiple sound chips was made to allow backwards compatibility with the company’s prior systems—the same reason the system had both an 8-bit Zilog Z80 CPU and a 16-bit Motorola 68000.
“We already used the Yamaha FM sound chip for arcade games, while the TI sound generator was employed to retain SG-1000 and Mark III compatibility,” Ishikawa explained.
The sound chips, particularly the Yamaha YM2612, gives the Genesis a specific musical timbre, and it’s inspired some to actually plug their music gear into an old Genesis just to be able to use the chip. Something about that tone just screams nostalgia in a way that other console audio simply doesn’t.
But the problem with that sound is that it’s to some degree elusive. Like the graphics of the Super NES, which evolved significantly throughout different variations, the sound of the Genesis remained inconsistent throughout its evolution, and the difference was particularly noticeable in some variants. If you were to base your opinion of the sound of the Genesis on the above clip of audio from Sonic 3 playing on four different console variants, you’d think the Genesis 2 (the most widely used variant) was the worst by far, and either the late-period Genesis 3 or hybrid CDX the best.
But that clip doesn’t actually tell the full story, as the Genesis 2 had multiple versions, and some specific sub-variants had significantly better sound than the rest.
Case in point: The above clip, a direct comparison of the audio feedback on Sonic 3D Blast between the first version of the Genesis Model 1 and the Model 2 VA3 (the specific model number matters here) shows the difference: The output on the first chip is essentially the winner of the “Loudness Wars,” with a bit of distortion giving it a heavier, but more muffled sound. The VA3 is less bassy, but a purer output. That output is the one the inspired the sound design of the Mega Sg, said Analogue founder and CEO Christopher Taber.
“When these systems were originally designed, they are designed as mass produced consumer electronics,” Taber explained to me last fall. “Not HiFi, enthusiast-grade products. We’re here to make Sega look, sound and play better than anyone has ever experienced.”
Another factor that comes into play when talking about audio quality is the use of emulation. Sega consoles are notorious for their fairly complex hardware, and emulators have at times struggled to replicate the nuances of the emulators they mimic. Check out the above clip, dating from 2014, comparing music from Sonic 3 on an original Genesis vs. the sounds from the emulator Sega Fusion. The emulator, with its unfiltered audio, seems to introduce noises to the song.
And given the fairly cheap state of modern retro hardware out there, the problem is getting ever-worse. In 2016, YouTuber David Murray, better known as The 8-Bit Guy, went on a wild goose chase trying to fix the sound on a “system on a chip” Genesis clone; the year ofter that, two console hackers went out of their way to fix the sound errors plaguing officially licensed emulation-based Genesis clones produced by AtGames and Brazil’s TecToy. Sega’s own emulation, on display in its Sega Forever service for mobile devices, leaves a lot to be desired, too.
This is where the advantage of the field programmable gate array comes in. By effectively rebuilding an entire console in reprogrammable hardware, the Mega Sg can get closer to the intentions of the original creators way back when. That’s the idea, anyway.
On the Mega Sg, the headphone jack is right out front, just like on the original Genesis. And it’s welcomed. Testing it with my Sennheiser PXC 550 headphones—generally a pair of Bluetooth cans, but also quite adept with wired listening too—I was able to make out every reverberation clearly, including many I didn’t catch as a kid. I won’t go so far as to say it’s a revelation, but there are distinct details that the preservation-minded hardware goes a long way to replicate. It’s nice to be able to relive these games with the correct audio and video quality that keeps up with what’s on the TV screen.
So with all that background out of the way, let’s talk about the rest of the system.
Review: The Mega Sg is a careful evolution of what already makes Analogue’s systems great
Getting a high-end console like the Mega Sg isn’t cheap (it’ll put you back $189.99, with corresponding controller extra), and you have to really like games to be willing to pay for it.
But I’m a retro gaming nut who has been following the scene in some shape or form for more than 20 years, and this isn’t my first go-around with an Analogue console. In a review last year, I found the Super NES-riffing Analogue Super Nt to strike good balance between premium and accessible, and gives Analogue a good template to work with for future releases—one that’s largely followed through on with the Mega Sg.
One of the things that really stood out for me about the Super Nt was its heft—it was weighted with metal, which made it feel like a premium product and helped make its bright plastic casing designs feel even more elegant. (The frosted-clear design, in particular, was a stunner and gave the device distinction beyond its Nintendo roots.) As I remarked in my review of that device last year, it felt like the first retro console that deserved a spot in the living room.
The Mega Sg deserves one, too, even if it’s a little bit lighter and hews a little closer to Sega’s designs than the Super Nt did Nintendo’s. Roughly the same size as Analogue’s last system, you lose some of the more outré styles of the Super Nt in favor of lighter, more subtle coloring that matches the different Mega Drive console variants used globally. And while the device doesn’t have quite the authoritative literal weight of last year’s model, the reason for that is understandable: Some of the real estate of the console is taken up by the addition of a port to plug the device into a Sega CD. Perhaps less splashy, but still plenty to like.
One place where the system punches above its weight class, however, is the controller, produced by partner 8BitDo and available separately. While it borrows to some degree from the late-era 6-button Genesis design, it’s actually more of a direct descendant in style to the Model 2 controller on the Sega Saturn, a system this platform doesn’t support. (Maybe next time! FPGAs aren’t easy to make, and the Saturn is a notably complex beast.) However, that controller may arguably have been the best part of the Saturn, so its appearance is most certainly welcomed.
The Super Nt’s corresponding 8BitDo controller is great, but this has the clear advantage for multiple reasons: The polish feels just a little bit better and the hand feel is just about perfect, reflecting its later-gen inspirations. Plus, it connects via a superior 2.4GHz wireless connection, rather than Bluetooth, meaning that control is buttery smooth and lag is basically nonexistent.
Let’s talk about the games already!
Another commonality the Mega Sg shares with the Super Nt is the addition of previously unreleased content—that system had a “director’s cut” of Super Turrican, a run-and-gun platformer that highlights both the sound and the speed of the FPGA, along with its relatively hard-to-find sequel. The Mega Sg, meanwhile, gets Ultracore, an unreleased game for the system (originally known as Hardcore) that is also a run-and-gun platfomer. Both have compelling backstories—in the case of the former, a cartridge size change left a lot of details on the cutting-room floor; in the latter, it was cancelled and recovered off of a broken hard drive.
These parallel tracks invite direct comparisons: On their own terms, both games are fun to play, loaded with action, and should keep you busy for hours; if my arm was twisted, I’d say the Super Turrican games are better. Nonetheless, each makes a perfect showcase for its respective console. (When you pause Ultracore, for example, you can hear reverberations in your headset—a level of subtlety Analogue’s target audience will notice.)
Of course, the real reason Mega Sg is worth people’s time is as a respite from bad emulation-driven knockoffs—something the market is flooded with at the moment, especially at mass-market big-box stores.
Another thing in its favor: The Genesis market, while still sporting plenty of expensive titles, is much less expensive to collect for than other systems of its era, with roughly half its library generally available to purchase below $10 without a box, according to PriceCharting. (It helps that Sega generally sold them in hard-plastic boxes that likely have helped the games hold up over time. It doesn’t help that there are many more sports games than on the Super NES.) Many Super NES Mario games will put you back $20 or more if you buy them loose; Sonic games, meanwhile, go for a lot less than that. And don’t get me started on the TurboGrafx-16. You get a lot of bang for your buck.
The cost picture really comes into play, however, with accessories, particularly the Sega CD, which sells for prices comparable to the cost of the Mega Sg—but at least, unlike those emulated consoles, it actually supports it! (Alas, I didn’t have access to a Sega CD for purposes of the review, but it was not for lack of trying.)
Whatever the case, the games I tested—including the requisite pack-in titles Sonic 2 and Altered Beast, the six-button-supporting Street Fighter II: Special Championship Edition, the impressive-for-its-time vector-drawn adventure game Out of This World, and late-period hits like Vectorman and Madden ’96—all worked great, with no visual glitches, and the result shined on both my 4K TV and a HDMI monitor. Sonic & Knuckles passed though to Sonic 2 like a champ, too. The settings game, a high point of the Super Nt, is strong here as well, with video and audio settings to your heart’s content. Best part: No Game Genie is needed; a cheat code screen is built-in.
Quirks, added features, and quibbles
Also supported by the Mega Sg and somewhat inexpensive to collect for is the Master System. With the included adapter, I was able to test the early pack-in title Hang On/Safari Hunt. No light gun for Safari Hunt, unfortunately (not that I would have been able to use it on a flat-screen), but Hang On worked without a hitch, even if the button layout took a second to figure out on the included controller.
The sound on the SMS is nothing to write home about—the Master System didn’t have the audio quality of its successor—but it lived up to what you might have been expecting nonetheless.
If you want to run a little deeper, Analogue is offering support for basically every Sega console released before 1994. Feel like pulling out those old SG-1000 games that you picked up on that last trip to Japan? Wanna play some Game Gear games without going through so many batteries? The Mega Sg has you covered, with adapters planned for sale for most of Sega’s early systems.
This does have its limits: There’s no support for the 32X, the ill-fated late-period Genesis add-on that for some reason accidentally competed with the Saturn. The problem? The console (somewhat ironically) does not natively support analog video, which is required for the 32X passthrough adapter. (The company is working on it, and has in the past implied that the solution would either come in the form of native FPGA support or an adapter.) But the 32X library is quite small, so you’re honestly not missing much beyond requisite ports of Doom and Virtua Fighter, which can both be found in better forms elsewhere. (Likewise, the Sega CD is fascinating with some great titles, but not essential for enjoying this little machine.)
I do, of course, have some quibbles: Like the Super Nt, the FPGA in the Mega Sg isn’t built for save states, meaning that you can’t freeze your game in place like you might with an emulator, which is really a function of the technology, though it might be missed.
And unlike the Super Nt, the device tends to be somewhat finicky about reading carts, and a dirty cart may not load on the first try or may, as in the case of Out of This World, introduce some visual errors. It’s probably imperative that you pull out the rubbing alcohol and give your carts a good cleaning before putting them in the system. But that’s small—and if you’re buying a machine like this, you should be doing that anyway!
Nonetheless, if you’re serious about your Sega games looking better than you remember, this is probably what you want—because the other options simply don’t do Sega’s classic consoles justice.
With a review like this, it’s always worth asking: Who is this for?
The short answer is that it’s for people who would worry about the differences between sound quality on different versions of a single console.
The shorter answer is that there are more Mega Drive audio aficionados than you think.
It’s helpful to consider Analogue’s consoles on a continuum—it started out premium and expensive, and stayed premium, but now it’s started to hew closer to impulse-buy territory, though not too close. ($189.99 is not cheap, but it also ensures you’re buying it because you know you’ll use it.) These systems provide an attractive alternative to modern systems for folks who would rather play Shining Force instead of Fortnite, because they grew up with Shining Force.
Analogue knows its audience, and it’s cut the costs of their consoles over the years to better reach that audience. Their first Nintendo console sold for more than twice the price of both the Mega Sg and Super Nt. The company seems to have found its sweet spot—and it’s not the kind of person who would buy a cheap Genesis remake at Walmart.
In an age where it seems like streaming is going to take over the world, the Mega Sg is a line in the sand in favor of something tangible—and something worth preserving, sound and all.
FInd this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And see you next time!