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Sega Genesis Flashback review: Sega Genesis Flashback made me appreciate the NES Classic even more

This is no SNES Classic. It isn't even a great Sega Genesis.

Scott_Stein.jpg
Scott_Stein.jpg
Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
6 min read

My entire childhood was spent in front of Sega systems. I got the Master System when I was recovering from appendicitis. I had the Genesis, the Sega CD and 32X, and the Saturn and Dreamcast. Even Game Gear. I've owned Genesis game compilations. I've downloaded Sega 3D Classics on the Nintendo 3DS. You get the idea.

Sega Genesis Flashback

Sega Genesis Flashback

The Good

The Sega Genesis Flashback has wireless controllers, save game slots and it works with HDTVs. It comes with dozens of preinstalled games, and even works with original Genesis controllers and old game cartridges.

The Bad

Audio and video quality often falls short of the original, and gameplay can get laggy. Menus and interface get confusing. 28 of the 85 games are random crapware.

The Bottom Line

AtGames' newest Sega Genesis retro console adds HDMI and improved wireless controllers, and even plays original cartridge games, but it ain't no NES Classic.

I was really excited about the Sega Genesis Flashback: it's an HDMI-equipped nostalgia box for Sega games, and on paper it sounds like Sega's answer to the SNES Classic. And, even though it arrives in September -- along with a similar Atari Flashback model -- I got to play an early version of the system over the past week.

If only reality were as good as the fantasy.

AtGames has made many Sega Genesis retro-boxes with preloaded games in the past, and this redesigned, revamped hardware seemed like the answer to my dreams. It comes with two wireless controllers. It has 85 games preinstalled! It can play old Genesis cartridges, too, and use your old controllers.

It also made me realize how good the NES Classic really is.

With that caveat firmly in place, here's what it's like to play with the Sega Genesis Flashback.

Editors' note: We're withholding a rating on this product until we can compare build quality and performance on a second review sample that will be arriving soon. Expect an update in the near future.

It's not 85 games, it's 57 (plus random junk)

57 games is great, especially compared to the mere 21 on the upcoming Super NES Classic, or 30 on the now-gone NES Classic. But you're not getting all the games you'd necessarily expect.

Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2 and Sonic and Knuckles (but not Sonic 3, oddly) are onboard. So are Phantasy Star 2, 3 and 4, all of them great classic RPGs. Also, Golden Axe, Altered Beast, Vectorman, and other games that might be familiar to anyone who's played previous Sega Genesis compilations.

The full list includes 45 Genesis games, plus, weirdly, seven Sega Master System games from the 8-bit console before Genesis (hello, original Phantasy Star!), and five games that were on Sega's short-lived handheld game system, Game Gear. The remaining 28 games are largely a bunch of odd bloatware like "Checker," "Curling 2010," "Mr. Balls" and "Plumbing Contest," of the sort of quality you'd get on the back of an airline seat.

Sega Genesis Flashback

Looks great, but it doesn't feel great.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It doesn't feel durable

Unlike the no longer available NES Classic, Genesis Flashback feels half-baked. The review unit we got was lightweight and flimsy-feeling. The controllers feel like cheap Funcoland knockoffs, with a floppy d-pad and hard-to-press hollow-feeling buttons. They use AAA batteries, and have to be unscrewed to put the batteries in. I'd rather have wires.

The system we used also had some construction issues. The power button, which slides back and forth like the original Genesis, got stuck and slid partway under the housing of this early review unit, bending the case out a bit at the seam. This isn't encouraging.

Sega Genesis Flashback

Everything handles less impressively than you'd expect.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Weird controls

The menu and interface are hard to navigate, too, and the whole design feels more like an emulator box than something that feels actually official. It's all... a little low-rent, especially when compared to the stellar overall feel of the NES Classic. Which is funny, because I didn't even think the NES Classic was all that stellar when I first played it. In comparison, it's a first-class ticket.

In games, pressing the "Menu" button brings up a sub-screen to save games or quit out of games. A separate "Replay" button brings up a built-in game rewind feature that goes back 6 seconds in anything that's played. That's nice for "undying," but it feels like an old Game Genie cheat code baked into the hardware.

Sega Genesis Flashback

You can play it all, if you've got the plastic.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Genesis does what Nintendon't: Cartridges

The Genesis Flashback does have one clever trick up its sleeve that the NES Classic and SNES Classic don't: It can play old Genesis cartridges. That's a fantastic perk for anyone who has a stash of old games. But curb your enthusiasm a bit. The games load slowly, as if they're caching or being copied temporarily to the system's memory (you have to wait for a progress bar to finish). And the system ends up copying what looks like seven folders with the game's name on them. It looks weird. Click on one, and the game begins. Why does this happen? I have no idea.

And, because the system's using a six-button controller with a few extra menu buttons added, some button mappings came out stranger than I remembered. Start doesn't necessarily start. Maybe the A button does.

Sega Genesis Flashback

Not a good controller.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It made me angry

I started to become seriously upset by the Genesis Flashback, in a way that no one else at the office seemed to be. I could see the game flaws. I could see frame rate problems. I could hear audio issues.

All of the games felt plagued with slower frame rate and had audio that sometimes sounded crackly or choppy. I played over and over again: not just with the Genesis Flashback, but side by side with an actual original Sega Genesis that a colleague brought into the office. I played next to the NES Classic. And I played some of the amazing Sega Genesis ports available on the Nintendo 3DS under the "3D Classic" label -- Sonic and Sonic 2 in particular.

I could see a difference. The Genesis is fast! It's meant to scroll smoothly. Games like Sonic were all about speed, smooth speed. On the Flashback, graphics look crisp but frame rate feels consistently choppy... choppier than it should have been. Ports shouldn't look like that. But they do here.

Will people be bothered? Most of my coworkers, a pretty nitpicky bunch, weren't tremendously annoyed. Maybe their expectations were low. I expected more. I wanted these to be perfect. They're not perfect. They're flawed. But at least they're playable.

Sega Genesis Flashback

Meh.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sega can do better than this

There's a cruelty to the Sega Genesis Flashback. We're getting all the old Sega games, with HDMI, no less, in one big compilation. But they're botched. A casual eye might not know, or care. But these games aren't running as well as they should. They're slow, plagued by low frame rate. The sound isn't crisp. They feel weak. The controller responses feel laggy. (If you look at user reviews of earlier iterations of these units on Amazon, you'll see a lot of similar complaints, too.)

Sega games were always about performance. To rob them of that speed is robbing them of what made them great in the first place.

Want to know the difference? Play the Sega Genesis Flashback's Sonic the Hedgehog, then play it via the perfect Nintendo 3DS Sega 3D Classics port. The 3DS one smokes it. That's real Sonic.

For $80, the Flashback offers a couple of thrills, and some nostalgia fun. But it feels more like a flea market novelty than a quality holiday product. For half the price, I'd accept that. But not at 80 dollars.

AtGames seems to have slapped HDMI wireless controllers into another version of its old retro box. I can't help wonder what this could have been like with even more loving treatment.

It's not great. It made me feel sad when I played with friends. And I bet that SNES Classic is going to be a lot better. 

Included Games

Genesis games: 45

Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle
Alien Storm
Altered Beast
Arrow Flash
Bonanza Bros.
Chakan: The Forever Man
Columns
Columns 3
Comix Zone
Crack Down
Decap Attack
Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine
ESWAT: City Under Siege
Eternal Champions
Fatal Labyrinth
Flicky
Gain Ground
Golden Axe
Golden Axe 2
Golden Axe 3
Jewel Master
Kid Chameleon
Mortal Kombat
Mortal Kombat 2
Mortal Kombat 3
Phantasy Star 2
Phantasy Star 3
Phantasy Star 4
Ristar
Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi
Shining Force
Shining Force 2
Shining in the Darkness
Shinobi 3
Sonic and Knuckles
Sonic 3D Blast
Sonic Spinball
Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Super Thunder Blade
Sword of Vermilion
The Ooze
Vectorman
Vectorman 2
Virtua Fighter 2

Sega Master System games: 7

Alex Kidd in Miracle World
Alex Kidd: High-Tech World
Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars
Dragon Crystal
Fantasy Zone
Fantasy Zone: The Maze
Phantasy Star

Game Gear games: 5

Baku Baku
Sonic Chaos
Sonic Drift 2
Sonic the Hedgehog Triple Trouble
Tails Adventure

Random games: 28

Adventure in the Park
Air Hockey
Bomber
Bottle Taps Race
Break the Fireline
Bubbles Master
Cannon
Checker
Chess
Cross the Road
Curling 2010
Fight or Lose
Fish Tank Live
Hangman
Hexagonos
Jack's Pea
Jewel Magic
Mahjong Solitaire
Maze 2010
Memory
Mr. Balls
Naval Power
Plumbing Contest
Snake
Snow Boarding
Spider
Wall-Breaking
Warehouse Keeper

Sega Genesis Flashback

Sega Genesis Flashback

Score Breakdown

Design 4Features 8Performance 6