Sega Genesis Flashback is an attempt to capture a seemingly new, or at least reinvigorated, market while also not being too ambitious. At $80, the same price as the Super Nintendo Classic Edition, the Genesis Flashback struggles to approximate the user experience of Nintendo’s throwback. Instead, it tries to best it with back-of-the-box bullet points that, while impressive sounding, do little to cement its superiority.
Last year’s NES Classic Edition upended the low-end plug ‘n play console market, long dominated by a company called AtGames, which is responsible for the Atari and Genesis consoles littering checkout aisles everywhere. AtGames has been at this for a long time, but the low price is about the only thing easy to recommend on one of its consoles.
Still, the company doesn’t have trouble moving units over the holidays. But when the NES Classic Edition happened, AtGames needed a response.
The hardware is where the Sega Genesis Flashback gets a few things very right, but each checkmark in the positives column comes with a companion check mark in the negatives column. The Genesis Flashback comes with two 2.4 Ghz wireless controllers, an improvement over the SNES Classic’s short wires … but, while also a step above AtGames’ previous infrared wireless implementation, the wireless latency still isn’t great, and the controllers feel cheap, hardly like exact replicas of classic Genesis controllers.
Some other minor gripes: The battery tray is secured with an obnoxious tiny screw, and the package doesn’t include the controller’s necessary AAA batteries.
But the Genesis Flashback also wisely includes the standard DB9 port that the original Genesis had, meaning your old (or eBay-acquired!) controllers will work just fine on the Flashback, a major improvement from the SNES Classic’s bizarre choice to use a Wiimote expansion port. The negative on that one? AtGames throws in not bad, but not excellent, wireless controllers instead of taking the opportunity to offer excellent wired controllers. Another negative: You will have to use the six-button Genesis controller, even though many of the included games don’t require it. No three-button pads allowed.
The wireless controllers do include two notable enhancements on the original Genesis controllers (and the SNES Classic controllers, for that matter): a Menu button, giving players access to the system’s UI from the couch, and a Rewind button, letting them quickly access what is essentially an undo function for video games. If you opt for the six-button Genesis controller, its Mode button serves as the Menu button here, and you can invoke the Rewind feature by pressing Back + Start. This is a thoughtful solution that, strangely, Nintendo still fails to adopt in its offerings.
While Nintendo has wisely opted to use USB power for its miniature consoles, AtGames includes a barrel-plug power supply, removing any opportunity to power the console off your HDTV, or easily replace a missing plug. It’s a minor complaint, but it seems indicative of AtGames’ failure to recognize some of the more clever simplifications its competition has introduced and how audience expectations may have shifted.
In the positive column, the Genesis Flashback actually looks like a Genesis. While AtGames’ previous Genesis consoles were generic plastic boxes, the Flashback is barely “mini” in the Nintendo sense, but a scaled-down Genesis. Here it is next to my classic “High Definition” model 1 Genesis:
The games run badly. In fact, they ran so badly on the first unit AtGames sent me — the same unit that other outlets reviewed back in July (!) — that the company told me it had an issue with the emulation software and asked me to not review it, in order to give them a chance to send me an updated unit. A reasonable request, considering the product wouldn’t be released until late October, albeit curious why a subpar product was sent to reviewers that far in advance of release in the first place.
Nevertheless, I waited … and waited … and waited. I sent emails. Finally, the new unit was shipped and, curiously, it had a new embargo, a strange request given it was for a review of the same product they shipped to myself and other reviewers months ago. Even more curious: While some other issues were corrected in this updated unit, as best I can tell it similarly suffers from framerate issues, just like the July unit. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Now, let’s talk about the user interface because … well, it’s something else. While Nintendo pairs its Classic consoles with a charming — and fast! — UI that makes navigating your library a charm, AtGames has created what is arguably the world’s least-intuitive interface.
The sad thing about the Sega Genesis Flashback is that, while it may be enough to satisfy the under-the-tree urge in the absence of alternatives, every unit purchased represents a lost future customer for a good Genesis throwback console. AtGames has been selling the composite video variant — the so-called Firecore — since 2009, blanketing the impulse-buy aisles at Bed Bath & Beyond stores nationwide. Each one of those is a bulwark against a future good Genesis release.
Sega has done meaningful, arguably irreparable harm to the consumer proposition of purchasing its classic games, while Nintendo has elevated 30-year-old products to must-have status. As a one-time Genesis kid whose nostalgic sweet spot is a Sega Genesis, I feel qualified to say that the Genesis deserves better from its owner. But as long as Sega is willing to license out its platform instead of making its own hardware, it seems unlikely to get better than this, the most declarative console war victory imaginable.
In my opinion, the Genesis was the best console of the 16-bit era. But if you want to purchase the best 16-bit plug ‘n play system this holiday, get the SNES Classic Edition.