Top 10 Mega Drive Platformers

Honourable mentions go to: Ecco the Dolphin, ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron, Earthworm Jim, Kid Chameleon, Aladdin, Boogerman, James Pond (series), and QuackShot Starring Donald Duck.

10. Mickey Mania

Mickey Mania is quite different to other platformers in that there isn’t much in terms of a cohesive story; instead, you play through different eras of Mickey Mouse’s history. This makes it quite the nostalgia trip for those that watched the early cartoons and players will instantly recognise the classic cartoons that some of the game’s levels are based on. Disney’s characters were featured in a lot of platformers at this time; and indeed, a lot of great games. There’s no doubt Mickey Mania is among the pick of the bunch.

Similarly to 1990’s Castle of Illusion, Mickey can attack enemies by either bouncing on their heads or throwing items at them. The player can also take several hits before dying, while other platformers may only allow you one or two hits before you die. The gameplay is mixed up every so often from the traditional side-scrolling action you’d expect to see; you’ll travel on runaway trolleys, run around a burning staircase and attempt to escape a rampant moose as Mickey runs towards in the camera in classic Naughty Dog style.

9. Taz in Escape From Mars

Taz in Escape From Mars is a side-scrolling platformer with a difference, combining intricate puzzles with more traditional platforming elements. As you’d expect, it’s perhaps not as well known as other games on this list but we’d undoubtedly consider this one a hidden gem. Taz may not be one of the most popular cartoon characters but this game is well worth your time, given the chance.

The story here, as the title suggests, is that Taz has been taken to Mars as part of an intergalactic zoo and must attempt to escape back to Earth; meeting many familiar faces along the way. Taz must jump and spin to attack, as well as using power-ups and special abilities, including breathing fire and spitting bullets, in order to progress in this highly entertaining quest.

8. The Lion King

Like most, if not all, platformers on the Sega Mega Drive, Disney’s The Lion King is a side-scrolling adventure game. You assume the role of Simba and relive the events of the motion picture; all the way from being a playful cub up to the final battle as an adult. The game’s music, levels and story are closely linked to the source material; making it not only a great platformer but also a great movie tie-in – something which is quite hard to grasp in this generation!

Early on, Simba needs to climb, run and leap between platforms to progess through each level; the gameplay changing when he grows to an adult. Adult Simba is equipped with a more ruthless set of attacks, giving the second half of the game a beat ’em up element which succeeds in making the action feel fresh throughout.

Check out our full review.

7. Ristar

Released only a matter of months before the launch of Sega’s ill-fated Saturn console, it’s fair to say the Sonic Team-developed Ristar was largely overshadowed back in early 1995. That, frankly, is criminal, as it’s without doubt one of the Megadrive’s finest platform adventures.

The game’s titular character actually started life as one of the proposed Sega mascots rejected in favour of Sonic the Hedgehog way back in 1990. Originally designed as a cartoon rabbit whose ears could extent to allow the player to spring around and collect items, the concept eventually evolved into what became Ristar, a humanoid shooting star whose elastic arms afford him the same abilities as the prototype rabbit’s ears.

It’s clear Sonic Team’s design choices were heavily influenced by their work on Sonic, with everything from the beautiful sprite graphics, colourful backgrounds – even the levels’ title cards – seeming overtly familiar here. However, delve into the game for more than a minute or two, and you soon realise this is more than simply another Sonic the Hedgehog clone.

Instead of being set at a frantic pace, Ristar is more of a jaunty adventure, relying on players to solve basic puzzles, and propel themselves in all directions – often retracing their steps – to maneuvre through the levels in search of the evil space pirate, Kaiser Greedy. Players must catapult Ristar across tricky obstacles, clinch enemies to bring them in for a killer headbutt and collect various bonus items; all by using his springy arms.

6. Pulseman

Pulseman may not have been released outside of Japan, but it is undoubtedly one of the finest 16-bit platformers to have been produced for home consoles. Created by Pokémon developers Game Freak, the game particularly excels in its innovative gameplay and futuristic level design.

While Pulseman’s stages are ostensibly based on real-world locations such as the USA, India and Thailand, if you’re expecting a realistic portrayal of these countries, think again. Combining (Pulseman’s version of) reality and virtual reality seamlessly, to say the game’s stages are psychedelic is an understatement; they feature up there amongst the most abstract designs seen on the Megadrive.

Channeling electricity through his body both as a means of traversing the game’s world at high speeds and as a weapon to fight a gang of cyber-terrorists, Pulseman is forced to stand up against his own mad-scientist father for the sake of the free world in a hugely entertaining and unique adventure.

5. Dynamite Headdy

The premise sounds simple enough. You assume the role of Headdy, a puppet with a detachable head. This head must be used both as a weapon to defeat swathes of enemies, and to assist him in navigating the game’s levels; catapulting him to higher plains where jumping simply won’t do. Why? In order to defeat the evil king Dark Demon, of course, who is intent on converting the inhabitants of North Town into his evil minions. Okay, okay; not that simple then.

In a frenetic adventure through charmingly well-animated levels, Headdy’s interchangeable head can be used in a variety of fun and innovative ways: from using it as a bomb and to shoot homing missiles, to allowing him to go into macro mode in order to reach otherwise inacessible areas; it’s like the Swiss Army knife of heads (did we really just write that?).

This Treasure-developed adventure combines intricate puzzles and side-scrolling shooting elements with traditional platforming action, and its pacing is varied enough to keep you entertained for hours.

4. Toy Story

Not only a great movie tie-in, Toy Story is right up there as one of the first games that comes to mind when asked about our favourite platformers. It may because it was one of the first games we owned on our Megadrives. It may be because we love the movie and know every word to the script. Whatever the reason, this game is amongst our favourite Genesis games, let alone platformers.

The player controls Woody for the entirety of the game through 18 levels, and events closely follow the plot of the movie. Although the stages are similar to the locations featured in the film – unlike The Lion King, for example – some of them take a quick detour from the movie for the sake of being a more entertaining video game experience. Boss battles, for example, are a neat and worthwhile addition.

Woody’s attack comprises of throwing his pullstring and using it like a whip to “tie up” enemies momentarily. The pullstring can also be used to swing between hooks, which adds a more traditional platforming element to the game.

3. Rocket Knight Adventures

We ummed and ahhed about the inclusion of this one in our top ten platformers list. Not that it’s unworthy of consideration, you understand (in fact, it’s a fantastic game), but because we had initially endeavoured to include only ‘pure’ platform games, with run ‘n’ gun titles and the like set aside for selection in a future feature (Gunstar Heroes fans, take a collective sigh of relief). However, Konami’s Rocket Knight Adventures is so unique and genre-defying, it’d have been a disservice to the game for it not to have made the cut here.

Rocket Knight Adventures stars Sparkster, an opossum (yeah, we had to look it up too) knight who must fight against hordes of robots and a pig army as he valiantly attempts to rescue Princess Sherry from the evil Devotindos Empire. The game combines side-scrolling shooting, hack-and-slash/beat ’em up-style action and classic platforming seamlessly, with players being required to make full use of the sword and jet pack they’re equipped with.

The game’s visuals are vibrant and colourful, and although the characters may appear cutesy, the game plays as anything but immature. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for its sequel…

2. Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse

Known in Japan as I Love Mickey Mouse: Great Mysterious Castle Adventure, Castle of Illusion was released on November 22, 1990. It has a basic story: boy wants to save girl from wicked witch. In order to do so, the player must explore many different environments in classic side-scrolling platformer fashion. Throughout the game, Mickey needs to obtain seven gems. Why? To create a magical rainbow bridge to the castle, of course!

Back when the Mega Drive was beginning to peak, Sega was renowned for its great platforming games. As a result, Disney gave the Japanese giant the rights to use its Mickey Mouse likeness in what would become known as the Illusion franchise. Castle of Illusion was the first game in the series and is arguably the best. The series also included Land of Illusion and Legend of Illusion, both starring Mickey Mouse, as well as World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Sega Ages: I Love Mickey Mouse; all of which were decent games in their own right.

Check out our full review.

(On a side note, you’ve probably noticed that the majority of games I’ve inducted here feature Disney characters. As we touched on above, the animation studio lent the image rights to many of its franchises to publishers in the years of the Megadrive, and for the most part the games which resulted all followed a similar, winning formula. Combine this with me being young when I had the Sega and you’ve probably got an understanding of why these games bring back fond memories to me. That’s not to say they’re easy or childish though; some of them are extremely difficult and give little help to the player during the game.)

1. Sonic the Hedgehog (series)

With Nintendo’s NES and SNES consoles both outselling the Megadrive at a rate as high as 14:1 in the first two years of the console’s existence, Sega tasked its designers with creating a new mascot and killer app to boost the Megadrive’s relatively poor sales and to compete with Nintendo’s hugely-popular Super Mario franchise. Initial designs proposed included an armadillo, a dog, and a rabbit, but it was Naoto Ōshima’s hedgehog character that was soon established as the stand-out winner. With the hedgehog design being shortly thereafter named Sonic, a group of fifteen Sega Japan design and developmental staff formed what was to become known as Sonic Team to begin work on the first game in the series, Sonic The Hedgehog.

Sonic’s key differentiator is its emphasis on speed – with springs, loops, and power-ups allowing the blue hedgehog to traverse through the levels as quickly as possible – something missing from the vast majority of its competitors, and indeed, other games on this list. In order to increase the difficulty (and avoid players simply "holding right to win"), the proportion of enemies, traps, and pitfalls is significantly higher as compared to other platformers.

The series’ gameplay is formulaic but varied at the same time, with each game in the trilogy featuring a progressive difficulty level; early tropical zones like Emerald Hill, Green Hill and Angel Island introduce gamers to Sonic’s simple yet intuitive gameplay, while subsequent zones become more and more difficult; docile enemies giving way to more fierce and challenging badniks.

As something of a side quest from the main game, innovative Special Stages allow players to collect rings (or in Sonic 3’s case, blue spheres) in order to harness the power of the seven Chaos Emeralds required in order to truly defeat the series’ antagonist, Dr Robotnik. Sonic 1’s Special Stages are fun and engaging puzzles, while the latter games introduce stunning pseudo-3D worlds to Megadrive players.

Featuring colourful sprites and vibrant levels which feel like they could have been pulled straight from a cartoon, Sonic’s visuals were something to behold back in the early 1990s; genuinely stretching the Megadrive’s technical capabilities to its limits.

It would remiss to write about the original Sonic series without paying tribute to the music featured in all of the games. Composed by Masato Nakamura (and, as is believed in the case of Sonic 3, King of Pop Michael Jackson), Sonic’s soundtracks bring its zones to life in some style; setting the pace for the action and creating an atmosphere right out of a fantasy epic.

Sonic 1’s sequels built on the successful formula of the first game, with new features being added with each subsequent release. A revolutionary ability was implemented in Sonic 2 – the spin-dash – which allows Sonic to rev up before rolling at fast speeds in a ball; increasing the speed of the game, and players’ enjoyment, more than ever before. The game also features the introduction of Sonic’s side-kick, Miles ‘Tails’ Prower; who brought flying and swimming capabilities to the series with the release of Sonic 3.

The release of Sonic was a truly watershed moment for Sega: gone was their unimaginative former mascot Alex Kidd, in favour of the little blue hedgehog with one hell of an attitude. The true challenger to Mario had arrived in style.

Agree or disagree with our selection? Have your say below!

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