Astro City Mini review — hardware perfect, software mixed
Sega Toys, 2020 ($140)
Nobody has put quite so much into the recent “mini-console” trend as Sega. Nintendo certainly started the resurgence with its replicas, but the Genesis/Mega Drive Mini went a step further with obsessive attention to hardware detail and a quirky curated list of games that revealed hidden gems as well as established favorites.
The ideas have only gotten stranger and more passionate since then. The Game Gear Micro, which shrinks Sega’s handheld to a toy small enough to fit in a wallet, is a singular and bizarre novelty. The Astro City Mini takes the concept to its largest scale; a toy desktop arcade modeled after the workhorse of Japanese arcades all through the 90s, Sega’s Astro City generic cabinet.
Sega Toys was clearly inspired by SNK’s Neo Geo Mini, a similar replica of the adorable Neo 19 cabinet. That particular effort came tantalizingly close to getting it right, with a quality screen and arcade style controls in a squat, cute form factor. But the Neo Geo Mini was just a little bit *too* small: it was too hard to see tiny, deadly bullets in shooting games, and the controls were a bit cramped for the complex movements of SNK’s signature fighting games.
Sega Toys seems to have taken notes on all this, because the Astro City Mini is gigantic. It’s a desktop arcade, alright, and it will be taking up quite a bit of space up there. The screen is spacious and bright, and the controls are authentic sized-down arcade parts of the exact type you’d play with on a real Astro City. These are top-quality controls, essential to replicating the experience the way that many of these games were originally designed to be played.
The size of this “mini” is really not excessive, as it turns out; it’s the difference that makes the experience. Playing the Mini in desktop mode is a pleasure rather than a hand/eye strain, and it’s been a major desktop distraction that I love to pop on and off for just a few minutes at a time. The $140 price tag makes the Astro City Mini one costly novelty, but the experience proves that that’s what it costs to get it right.
(Of course, you can connect the Mini to a TV via HDMI for longer sessions.)
Like the other Sega minis, the makers of the Astro City Mini are obsessive about fidelity to the original hardware, even its physical appearance. Every detail of the cabinet — its form, the artwork, the LED lighting, the air vents on the back — is obsessively replicated with a degree of faithfulness that can only be described as fanatical. An accessory set complete with marquee and mini stool completes your full model of an Astro City cabinet.
Game List — Good games? Yes. Familiar games? Not so much
When the Astro City Mini was announced, my mind snapped to mid-90s Sega arcade at its best. Virtua Fighter 2, Die Hard Arcade, Daytona USA. As the actual names of the games were announced, I realized I was shooting too high, and that the curators were going for a completely different era in Sega’s arcade history.
The Astro City Mini’s game catalog goes from 1984 to 1994, with an emphasis on how Sega arcade games advanced in the typical arcade genres over those ten years. This collection reflects Sega — and only Sega — in the era of Shinobi and Golden Axe, not so much Sonic. It actually *ends* around when the Astro City rolled out in Japan. Instead, this is mostly an Aero City-era collection. (Now an Aero City Mini, that wouldn’t have sold at all.)
The only 3D game in the bunch is the original Virtua Fighter, and the selection is further limited to games that were specifically used in generic cabinets like the Astro City. This means major titles like OutRun and Hang-On — which used unique custom cabinets — are out as well. (But I mean if you’re gonna put in Rad Mobile could you maybe break this rule?) You’d think this would leave slim pickings… but you’d be forgetting just how prolific Sega was in the arcades.
The games are listed in chronological order, and the curators likely intended for us to follow the maturation of Sega’s games in the classic arcade action genres (platform, shooting, beat-em-up, puzzle) over the years. Starting from the bottom we might look at 1984’s rudimentary and cruelly difficult My Hero (Seishun Scandal), move on to the Shinobi team’s run of classics in the late 80s (Shinobi, Altered Beast, Alien Storm), and finally land upon the beat-em-up in full 90s bloom in the rare, superb Golden Axe: Revenge of Death Adder.
There’s wide representation in the other genres as well. Puzzle players get both Puyo Puyos — you only really need Puyo Puyo 2, but hey, might as well — and Columns with two of its odd sequels. Columns II is unreasonably difficult puzzling where a single wrong drop means death at all times. Stack Columns is a half-baked versus game, but also features an ending in which you accidentally destroy the world by making a child cry. Dropping blocks work as well today as they ever did, and these are prime games for those quick sessions.
Shooters fare well here too, with the caveat that the two vertical-screen shooters appear too small on the desktop to be readable; you’ll probably need to plug the system in for those. The gorgeous and cute Cotton is a standout.
There are not a lot of big-name games that you might already know, nor a lot of rare exclusives you can’t play elsewhere. Early Sega masterpieces like Space Harrier and Fantasy Zone are about as famous as the games on the Astro City Mini get. About a third of these games have perfect, even superior, ports on the Switch.
And I can’t let go of this point: I would have really liked to have seen a few more mid-90s games, especially as the Astro City is mid-90s hardware. I assume that the kind of low-end, low-cost hardware inside the Astro City Mini just isn’t enough to emulate hardware like the Model 2 or ST-V (Saturn-based) arcade platforms, the ones that would have really completed the Sega arcade lineup of the era.
But even if we stick to the pre-Virtua Fighter era, I can think of a few worthy Sega arcade titles that didn’t make the cut. (Offhand: Dynamite Dux, Aurail, Burning Rival?) We’ve also got quite a few games here chosen for historical significance, technical advances, or sheer unavailability over their quality. Arabian Fight is a beautifully animated but otherwise crappy beat-em-up which, tellingly, has no staff credits. And a couple of these games are just bad, like Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars.
Furthermore, it does show that M2, the usual retro maniacs who worked on the Mega Drive and PC Engine Mini, were not involved here. (In fact, there are no credits at all; ouch.) There are some noticeable emulation glitches in some of the games, and notably you can’t beat Quartet 2 due to an emulation bug. Months after release, it’s safe to say there won’t be a patch.
The Astro City Mini nails the “desktop toy arcade” on the hardware front, but the game selection isn’t quite the encyclopedic Sega selection I’d have hoped for. Definitely a purchase for diehards only. I hope that modders and hackers will be looking into it with interest. Who knows? Maybe it *can* run Virtua Fighter 2.
As with the Game Gear Micro, there will probably not be a Western release of the Astro City Mini, but it does feature English text in the menus. However, all games are Japanese version with no option to switch. Text is pretty limited in these games — and many are in English anyway — but you should probably know that regardless. I bought mine on Amazon.jp for around $140.
I went in all the way on the Astro City Mini, which I admit is kind of insane (about 350 bucks worth of crazy) and probably not something I would have done out of lockdown, where, honestly, this kind of delayed gratification every couple of months is keeping me sane.
The accessory set consists of a hollow “bottom” onto which to latch the Mini, turning your system into a full-size replica of a real sit-down Astro City cabinet. It’s even got a coin slot, and following that gimmick to its logical conclusion, you can use it as a coin bank. For extra realism, you get a small chair like you’d see in a Japanese arcade, and a marquee you can attach to the top of the Mini. You complete the marquee with a sticker of your choice; like most of the people who are buying this, I went with Virtua Fighter.
The Mini plugs into your TV via HDMI and of course takes only certain custom controllers from Sega… so I bought those.
The Astro City pad is very nice. Sega Toys took the Mega Drive Mini pad and elected not to fix what wasn’t broke. You get six nice clicky buttons, a cozy ergonomic grip, and the same D-pad as the MD Mini. It’s not arcade equipment, but it’s designed to evoke it, and it succeeds. I didn’t expect to get a lot of use out of this controller, but I’ve started using it off the Mini as my controller for retro games in emulators and such.
The stick, on the other hand, is for completists and arcade stick nerds, of which I am the latter. I saw a lot of fighting game players pick up the stick all by itself, expressly intending to mod it for other platforms. Sega Toys again looks to past successes: this is effectively the same unit as the classic Virtua Stick High Grade, but with the same parts that a real Astro City uses. I don’t intend to crack mine open right now, but I do have an actual Astro City cabinet for comparison, and they feel the same to me.
Unfortunately, the stick only has eight buttons (6 main + select and start) and won’t work on consoles without some kind of converter. (Early photos showed it with a “PS” button, but it looks like that fell through.) For PC use, I got the stick (and the pad) working using 360 Controller Emulator. For consoles, you probably need to mod it. Keep in mind that though this is a normal arcade stick price, the stick costs about as much as the actual Mini at $140. It’s the real deal, but it’s definitely overkill if you only use it for the Mini.
A Word On Virtua Fighter (1993)
The world’s first true 3D fighting game, a genuine historical milestone for the medium. The proof of concept that set the rules for every 3D fighting game to come. Even today the low-polygon “block” look, rarely emulated, is distinctive.
For a world first, Virtua Fighter does quite a bit more than make two 3D marionettes punch each other to prove that it can be done. The game is surprisingly complete, with a genuinely well-rounded cast of eight relatively down-to-earth martial artists that represent a major turn from the anime-influenced fighting games of the time. (The move list is strongly advised if you want to get more out of this game than punch, punch, punch, kick.)
Even in this early state we can see the characters’ “personalities” being established via their moves and mechanics. Akira pushes slow and steady, Sarah is a relentless speedy attacker, Jeffry relies on all-or-nothing big swings and a throw for all occasions. Pai can even grab her opponent’s punches! It’s still in its earliest stage, but this game’s more than just a tech demo; it creates the form and then some.
I’m pretty sure the failed 3D experiment Dark Edge is included in this collection solely so that players can compare it against Virtua Fighter and see just how much further along it is.
Of course, the next year AM2 would top itself with Virtua Fighter 2, the all-time genre masterpiece that makes a generational leap and a half past the original. VF2 and the Astro City were synonymous in their day, and I was really disappointed this game in particular isn’t on the Mini. VF1 is a landmark, and pretty fun to play for a little while, but VF2 is the one that you’d actually want to play against another person.