A glossy ring and textured reset button calls back to the original Mega Drive, while more symmetrical lines and a sleeker finish also evoke the streamlined Mega Drive 2, and of course it’s all in a package much more compact (but, satisfyingly, more solid) than either machine.
I especially love touches like the grid-patterned rubbery grip on the underside that borrows from a similar pattern used by Sega on all of its early box and game case designs, the cleverly updated spec text that mimics the weird boasting printed on the original Japanese console, and the oh-so-Sega 3.5mm headphone jack on the front. It all inspires confidence that this machine was a labour of love.
Once I had connected the Mega Sg via HDMI to my TV and via USB for power, I slotted in Bare Knuckle II (also known as Streets of Rage 2), and was immediately blown away by the results.
It was sharper, smoother and more colour accurate than you get through emulation boxes or Sega’s official modern re-releases. It sounded perfect, unlike those cheap Mega Drive knock-offs made by AtGames.
The biggest advantage is the very low latency, meaning that button-presses register near-instantly. Virtually every method of playing old games on new TVs adds latency, which can make some games totally unplayable, but like the Super NT before it the Mega Sg avoids this with its clever hardware design.
At the heart of the machine sits a special kind of chip called a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), engineered to behave like a supercharged version of the original Mega Drive while accounting for the need to work with a TV displaying at 1080p and 60 frames per second.
You can bring up an options menu at any time to tweak the visuals and audio with an incredible degree of granularity, including altering the shape and resolution of the screen. Australians can also force the console into PAL mode to work properly with our weird 50Hz games.
A smart blending option attempts to mimic the blur of old CRT TVs, which is handy for games where the designers utilised the indistinct display to create transparency and other advanced effects, and you can of course add scanlines or other pixel-hiding scaler techniques, but it all works brilliantly even with all settings on the auto or default settings.
The other main benefit of the FPGA is compatibility; if it works with an old Sega Mega Drive, it should work here. So while official retro game collections contain pretty good versions of the likes of Streets of Rage and Golden Axe, the Mega Sg gives you access to the best HD versions of any cartridge you can find, including masterpieces stuck in licensing hell like Aladdin, Moonwalker and Sonic 3, as well as a huge number of gems that just haven’t managed to make a comeback yet, like Road Rash.
Weird cartridges like Sonic & Knuckles — which has a slot on the top to let you stack games and inject Knuckles into titles he wasn’t usually supposed to be in — also work great here, as do unofficial cheat cartridges and most adapters (sadly the Sega 32X is a no go at the moment, but Analogue is working on it).
Every Mega Sg also comes with a digital copy of Ultracore, a shooter finished in 1994 but never released, developed by the Swedish studio DICE which is now owned by EA and makes endless Battlefield sequels.
If you’re reading all this and thinking it sounds expensive, then you’re right; the Mega Sg goes for around $266, direct from Analogue, with a steep $110 for shipping. Mine shipped on a Friday and arrived three days later on the Monday, which is excellent, but a slower and less expensive option for delivery would have been appreciated.
For many Sega fans it might be a better bet to wait for the promising-sounding Mega Drive Mini — a $140 micro-console with 40 expertly emulated games included — which Sega itself is releasing on September 19. Only 10 of the games have been announced so far, but among them are the rare Gunstar Heroes and Castlevania Bloodlines, which combined would cost you more than a Mega Sg if you tried to track them down on eBay.
But even though there are easier ways to play old Sega games — cartridges are after all old, expensive and often require cleaning or other maintenance — The Mega Sg is the prettiest, fastest, most accurate and most enjoyable way. If you’re a Sega fan with access to cartridges, or are interested in starting a collection, it’s a must have machine.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.