SEGA surprised everybody a couple of weeks ago by announcing a feature-packed free update to most of its existing Steam Mega Drive/Genesis repertoire. Not only does the update allow compatible games to be launched via a fully 3D overworld of sorts based on the bedroom of an early ‘90s SEGA fan, but also offers support for ‘mods’, or custom ROM hacks as they’re more commonly known
SEGA’s attitude to the ROM sharing community has been quite accommodating in recent years, even going so far as to allow licensed hardware clones to run any Mega Drive ROM regardless of the legality of the source. It’s worth noting that SEGA are not providing any additional modding tools themselves, acutely aware, no doubt, that hardcore tinkerers have flourished well enough over the years without a first party solution, so there’s little point investing time and effort in deploying one now.
The bedroom hub itself is nice, replete with all manner of SEGA-related paraphernalia, from discarded Sonic comics strewn across the floor to Shinobi posters to an actual golden axe. In the centre of the room is a cute little CRT TV perched atop a classic model Mega Drive, and to the left a shelf for your game collection and a very dated looking sound system. Clicking on each of these elements allows you to tweak various settings, load games, reset the emulator and such. It’s a quaint, pleasing tribute to the bygone days of 16-bit gaming, and certainly more interesting than the sterile lists and menus we’ve seen before.
That said, If you want to bypass all of the above you can use the ‘Simple Launcher’ to eschew all of the visual gravy while still retaining access to much the same feature set. Yes, this detracts from the fun somewhat, but if you’re playing on a low spec machine you may find yourself with no choice; should your computer be struggling to maintain 60 frames per second in the bedroom scene, problems with the emulation itself will ensue unless you switch to fullscreen mode.
Otherwise, though, the quality of the emulation is solid even if its extra features, such as various video filters filters, aren’t anything particularly new or exciting. 32X and Mega CD support would have been a dream come true, but given how historically reluctant SEGA have been to re-release anything exclusive to one or both of these two add-ons, was perhaps too much to hope for. Indeed, this is very much the vanilla Mega Drive experience and there’s little reason to believe it’ll ever be anything but.
Now onto Mods. The Steam Workshop is quickly filling up with all sorts of creations that have, truth be told, been around and perfectly playable on third party emulators for many years. Some, such as Sonic 3 Complete, greatly enhance the original source material, others such as Ring the Ring, are purely for giggles, while more still are oddball ports, bootlegs or mashups, many of which flaunt copyright law quite blatantly.
There’s more than a little ambiguity about the rules here. At the time of writing, it seems perfectly possible to upload any ROM plucked from the darkest corners of the Internet and arbitrarily label it as a mod for a totally unrelated game. In other words, there don’t seem to be any checks in place to ensure that what you’re downloading is a legitimate modification for a game in your library. Examples of this include the bizarre homebrew creation Super Donkey Kong ‘99 being filed under Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle despite having no connection to it whatsoever. Tellingly, the uploader, who goes by the handle ҠƗ₱ƊЄҠƗ₱, notes that “Modded cartridges of other games in the “SEGA Mega Drive Classics Hub” can be made available via request”.
Because mods are submitted as individual, self-contained ROM files with no separate assets, it’s unclear just how SEGA are planning to ensure the system isn’t abused. Both SEGA of America and SEGA of Europe have not responded to requests for comment on this at the time of writing. We’ll update if they do.
It’s hard not to like what SEGA have put together with this lovingly crafted new interface, and mod support is a great bonus even if, at the time of writing, the spirit of the idea behind it is being violated in some corners. The best thing is, you get to enjoy all of this for free if you own any compatible title on Steam already. Given the first person point of view and ability to look around feely with the mouse, VR headset support seems like a logical next step for this new way of enjoying classic SEGA games. Should that happen at some point in the future, it’ll make an already generous, and highly recommended, free update even better.