For a few years there, tiny retro game consoles were a big deal. Nintendo kicked off the trend with its miniature NES, and it wasn’t too long before the likes of Sega and PlayStation jumped in. The idea of plug-and-play consoles wasn’t entirely new, of course, but with a combination of great game selection and high-quality hardware, Nintendo elevated the concept from cheap impulse buy to sought-after collector’s item. Like all fads, excitement over the tiny consoles seems to have largely slowed down — that is, unless you ask Sega. The company has released two new devices to keep the trend alive. Both are slightly more niche than their predecessors, but they also show why these little plastic boxes can be so fun.
First off, we have the Genesis Mini 2, which, as the name implies, is a direct sequel to the excellent Genesis Mini from 2019. This time around, the console is based on the redesigned second-generation Genesis, which has a somewhat sleeker design, and it (thankfully) comes with a six-button gamepad in the box. As with the original, it’s a simple plug-and-play device: you connect the HDMI cable, plug in the power, and you’re good to go. It doesn’t connect to the internet, and there are few settings to fuss about with.
The big difference with the new device is the game selection. The original Genesis Mini had 40 included games, and they mostly covered the hits. That means plenty of Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, and other classics like Comix Zone and Virtua Fighter 2. For the most part, they were the kinds of releases you’d find in other Sega collections. The Genesis Mini 2, meanwhile, has not only more games, with a total of 60, but also a greater variety. That’s because, in addition to a whole bunch of Genesis games, the device also includes 12 Sega CD titles and a handful of “bonus” titles. These include games that were never released outside of Japan before now, like the train-driving sim Super Locomotive, as well as titles that were never released at all, like the action game Devi & Pii. It’s a bit like how Nintendo included the unreleased Star Fox 2 to spice up the SNES Classic.
The result is an eclectic mix of historical oddities and straight-up classics. There are the core games that stand up well. Sonic CD, Streets of Rage 3, and Phantasy Star II are all still excellent decades after they first launched. And some even have some modern touches; when you boot up Phantasy Star, you have the option of playing an “easy” mode. (This is on top of console-level quality-of-life tweaks, like multiple save slots and the ability to pause anywhere with the menu button.)
Plenty of other included titles don’t hold up all that well — but they’re still fascinating. This is especially true for many of the Sega CD games that utilize FMV-style visuals. At the time, they were extremely cool; I remember being jealous of anyone who had a Sega CD and the ability to play Sewer Shark. Now that I’ve played a bunch of it, I’m not so jealous anymore. The acting is embarrassingly bad, the gameplay is somehow both simple and confusing, and in general, it’s just not much fun to play anymore. The same is true of the infamous Night Trap. I had to dig up an old instruction manual PDF just to figure out how to actually play.
But I’m still glad to finally have an easy way to try them, and the process also helped me discover some new (to me) Sega CD games I’m really into. The cyberpunk shooter Night Striker has some incredibly messy graphics, but it’s still a blast to fly around the retrofuturistic cityscape. I’ve especially been enjoying the quiet, contemplative Mansion of Hidden Souls, which is a bit like Myst, only set in a house full of ghosts that are also butterflies. Whereas the original Genesis Mini gave me things I knew I wanted to play already, the sequel is introducing me to older games I never had the opportunity to play at all, which is a big part of the appeal of retro game collections.
And speaking of being introduced to obscure games, we have the Astro City Mini V. Last year, Sega released the original Astro City Mini, which was a celebration of the company’s arcade roots. It was literally a tiny arcade cabinet, complete with an excellent joystick and six clacky buttons. Hardware-wise, the City Mini V is largely the same as the original, but with one big difference: the built-in 4.6-inch LCD screen is vertical. Because of this, the new device only features vertically oriented arcade games. This means it actually has fewer included titles compared to the original, despite being more expensive. (The original Astro City Mini has 37 included games for $129.99, while the V has 23 games for $159.99.)
That might sound like a regression, and it definitely will be for some users. But the Astro City Mini V is designed to appeal to one very specific type of retro game fan: people who love shmups. The machine is basically a curated playlist of excellent shoot ‘em ups that span different styles and tones. Many of them were previously exclusive to Japanese arcades, like my personal favorites, Armed Police Batrider, in which you fight through a crime-ridden Manhattan on a hoverbike in the far-off future of 2014, and Kingdom Grand Prix, a fantasy shooter that’s also a racing game somehow.
Shmups can often look very similar to the untrained eye, with pixelated spaceships flying through worlds of unending bullets and preposterously large bosses. But having so many of them together in one place like this makes it much easier to appreciate the more subtle differences that help define these games. This is especially true because they’re so much more accessible here than in an arcade; on the Astro City Mini V, you have unlimited credits and the ability to pause and save at any time. If I walked into an arcade right now, I’d be incredibly intimidated walking up to a Batsugun cabinet, which would eat up so many quarters very quickly. But here, I have the opportunity to play the bullet hell shooter at something resembling my own pace, letting me learn the intricacies of its gameplay much more comfortably.
I have noticed a little bit of lag in some games, which can be frustrating for a genre where split-second timing is key, but this has been rare. I should also note that it isn’t just shmups on this thing. There’s also an oddball side-scrolling action game called Cosmo Police Galivan and Wrestling War, a fighter that features some of the biggest, most detailed 2D character sprites I’ve ever seen. For the most part, though, the Astro City Mini V is a shoot ‘em up machine, one that feels carefully designed and curated to guide players through the genre.
Both of these Sega devices are more niche than their predecessors. The Astro City Mini V is focused almost entirely on one genre, while Sega has warned that it’s making fewer of the Genesis Mini 2s than it did with the original. But that niche focus might just be the future of these consoles. Both Sony and Nintendo have largely moved on to offering retro games through subscription services (unless you count the occasional retro handheld), which leaves the field wide open for Sega, a company with a lot more history to dig into with theoretical future mini consoles. Maybe this time next year, I’ll be writing about how I was finally able to play Doom on the 32x like I always dreamed as a kid.