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Long-lost Mega Fun

The Mega Sg comes with a pre-installed game—a lost title from Digital Illusions, the studio today we know as EA DICE. PC and console gamers alike are no doubt familiar with the studio's Battlefield franchise. This unreleased game was originally called Hardcore before it was canceled in 1994, and it was recovered from a single dead hard drive. Now Hardcore is called Ultracore, and it's playable sans cartridge straight from the Mega Sg's menu. Analogue has some footage on YouTube so you can get a taste of the action.

Ultracore is pretty fun, and could be unflatteringly called a Turrican clone (Analogue included Super Turrican Director's Cut and Super Turrican 2 with the Super Nt). In short, it's one part run 'n gun action like Contra and another part non-linear Doom-style key hunting. You'll need to work your way through maze-like levels to find keys and shoot anything that moves. Ultracore has a good variety of enemies and some big bosses, all presented without a hint of flicker or slowdown. Graphics and music are both good examples of what the Genesis could do. The difficulty level is appropriately high, but the controls are tight and responsive. As a result, I didn't find myself throwing my controller across the room too much.

While I've yet to complete Ultracore, I've enjoyed my time with it. For now, the Mega Sg is the only way to play it, but the rest of the world will have their shot soon. Ultracore is scheduled to get a modern release later this year from Strictly Limited Games.

Caveat emptor

The Mega Sg's hardware and software compatibility is close to perfect (and superior to any of its competitors), with a couple minor caveats. After all, we're trying to mate 30-year-old technology with the modern world, and as a result there are a couple of casualties. Fortunately, the few incompatibilities inherent to the Mega Sg won't leave too many games in the past.

The first minor problem is that the Genesis 32X add-on is not compatible. The 32X uses RGB video from the Genesis and adds its own layer of pixels on top of that, and since the Analogue console lacks any kind of analog video output, there's no way to combine the image from the core system and the add-on. The 32X's library wasn't particularly strong, though, so buyers won't be missing out on much. Who wants to play Knuckles Chaotix again?

Light gun games aren't compatible, either, but that's not Analogue's fault. Those peripherals won't work with modern display technology because the games blank out the display to get a reading from the gun. Since all modern HDTVs have at least a little bit of lag to them, the light guns can't get a proper reading. Enterprising ROM hackers have worked around this problem with NES games like this patched version of Duck Hunt, but there's no workaround for Sega titles right now.

Out of the box, there were a couple of temporary incompatibilities to deal with. A small sticker on the box warns users to update the firmware in order to use Master System games. Speaking of firmware updates, Ultracore was also missing from the menu when I first powered up the unit. That means right out of the box, the first order of business for me was installing the latest update. Having said that, that's par for the course with any piece of hardware these days.

The firmware update process is simple. Download the update from Analogue's support site and extract it to the root of an SD card, put the card in the unit, and power on the Mega Sg. Firmware updates take a while to install and the screen of your TV will be blank while the update is being applied, so just hang tight.

Renegade

Console cartridges store the software on read-only memory chips, or ROMs. Original Genesis hardware (or Nintendo or NEC hardware, for that matter) accessed those ROMs at specific memory addresses to read sprites, background tiles, game logic, and  audio through a pin connector in the system that takes in the row of gold contacts on the cartridge. Software emulators, on the other hand, take byte-by-byte images of the original chips (also, confusingly, casually referred to as ROMs).


Some Sega game PCBs. Left: Sonic the Hedgehog. Right: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Shortly after release, Mega Sg learned a new trick: playing games without cartridges. YouTuber and jailbreak caretaker SmokeMonster hosts a jailbroken Mega Sg firmware on his Github repository. This unofficial firmware can handle Genesis, Master System, Game Gear, and ColecoVision ROMs. Folks may recoil at the idea of flashing an unofficial firmware on their brand new $190 device, but this has been an annual tradition with Analogue consoles since the Nt Mini.

I love and own a good number of cartridges, but many of them are pushing 30 years old. They're creaky electronic devices and swapping cartridges introduces some wear and tear over time. Those gold contacts get rubbed, and cartridges can just wear out. Thanks to ROM images, that's not a problem. I copy the contents of those cartridges to an SD card and swap games with a touch of the menu button.

If there wasn't a jailbroken firmware available, I could alternatively use a flash cartridge—those fit the original cartridge form factor but contain an FPGA and a microSD slot, letting users load ROM images that way. The flash cart that comes closest to matching the Mega Sg's jailbreak feature set is the Mega Everdrive X7. This $185 cart can load Genesis, Master System, and SG-1000 games, has an in-game menu, and adds support for Master System FM sound enhancement. It can also act as a memory card for the Sega CD, so you don't have to wedge all your save games on that system's paltry 32 Kb of storage. Unless you absolutely have to have save states, the Mega Sg with jailbroken firmware roasts the flash cart. There are cheaper Everdrive variants like the X5 and X3, but the farther down the price chart you go, the more features you give up.

I had no problems with loading images on the jailbroken system. ColecoVision support in the unofficial firmware is a little weird since Genesis controllers lack the original console's numeric keypad. Buttons 0 and 1 are mapped to A and B, but to press buttons 2 through 9, you need a combination of Y or Z along with a direction on the directional pad.

The jailbreak increased the utility of the system for me, too. Because of the Mega Sg's diminutive dimensions, I found the system handy on a recent business trip. I could toss the Mega Sg into my bag with its cords, a controller, and an SD card with my games collection. During my downtime on my hotel room TV, I had more than 100 games at my disposal without needing to carry or switch cartridges.

I only ever play software copies of cartridges I own, but not everyone does. The unauthorized use of ROM images is explicitly piracy—something The Tech Report doesn't condone—though forums all over the internet are full of arguments about whether that matters for 30 year old software. No matter the legal case, we live in a wonderful time. There are multiple ways to get licensed ROMs that work perfectly with the jailbreak. The Sega Genesis Classics Collection on Steam is a great way to get your mitts on a whole lot of really great Genesis games as ROM images, though you might want to use SmokeMonster's ROM renaming scripts to make the file list readable. Some homebrew games like BigEvilCorp's excellent Tanglewood and several games from Piko Interactive are also available on Steam.