An Ode to Forgotten Worlds, the Giger-esque Fever Dream of a GI Joe

I never owned a Sega Genesis growing up. To me, the console was always something I’d play at friends’ houses — the sleek, alien, slightly menacing counterpart of the Super Nintendo. And nothing epitomized the twangy inscrutability of Sega’s machine better than Forgotten Worlds.

At its core, Forgotten Worlds is a pretty simple 2D space shooter game, with the exception that the players control flying buff army guys instead of the more typical jet fighters. The game’s main innovation in its original arcade format was the use of a dial to control the player’s facing, allowing for a separation between movement and orientation in space. When Forgotten Worlds was ported to consoles, the loss of the dial hurt it, as did the step down to the less-powerful home machines of the time.

Forgotten Worlds

But I didn’t know any of this back when I used to go over to a friend’s house to play it after school. All I knew was that Forgotten Worlds was one of the weirdest games I had ever seen in my young life. The game’s aesthetics are a mishmash of European myth, Ancient Egyptian imagery, and 80s radicool sci-fi. In retrospect, it’s amazing I wasn’t too terrified to play it, considering what an anxious kid I was. I mean, hearing the Game Over music in Mario games caused me such dread that I played everything with the sound turned off until I was into my early teens.

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Forgotten Worlds

Even if I owned a Genesis, I probably wouldn’t dare to play Forgotten Worlds on my own. As an adult it looks pretty tame — bland even — but as a kid, it was unsettling. From the first screen, which confronts you with an ominous skull-embellished title and an eerie tune, the game felt like a vaguely hostile entity daring us to challenge it.

Things only get more bizarre from there. The game’s first area confronts you with flying lizardmen and a giant, reclining dragon who fires blades out of his open chest cavity while spitting the aforementioned lizardmen out of its mouth. After defeating a miniboss, the player character declares that it’ll take more than a “paramecium” to defeat him. I was six years old and had no idea what the fuck a paramecium was, but it sounded bad.

As you move through “Dust World,” “Pyramid World, and “Etherous World,” you fight disembodied heads, Dune-esque sandworms, giant rotting corpses, and a screen-dominating “God of War” whose face melts in agony as you damage him. In between, you make stops at a store run by an anime girl to spend your hand-earned zenny on better weapons, equipment, and tips.

The game’s final boss is the evil god Bios, who appears as a Satanic figure with both horns and angel wings — Nintendo may have had a firm stance against religious imagery back then, but Sega sure didn’t. I’m not sure if we ever made it that far before the game fell out of rotation in favor of newer titles like Mortal Kombat and Sonic & Knuckles.

Forgotten Worlds

Forgotten Worlds is emblematic of a time when media was inscrutable and opaque to me. Back before I really internalized that video games were made by human beings, an encounter with a weird, somewhat mediocre piece of media couldn’t simply be explained as a bad port of an arcade title. Instead, I assumed that was the one lacking, that I couldn’t understand what was being presented.

Back then, the 16-bit canon hadn’t yet been established, and Forgotten Worlds sat comfortably alongside Sonic the Hedgehog. It was just another game. I think it’s worth remembering these — sorry — forgotten titles, because they remind us that the history of video games is much wider and weirder than the accepted versions admit.

I’ll leave you with Forgotten Worlds’ “Shoppin'” theme, which, for me, rivals the Wii Shop Channel for catchiest video game store music of all time.