The SEGA Master System. A console where its name says it all. In terms of 8-Bit home consoles, it was a masterpiece. Cool design, wonderful graphics, and most of all; amazing games – a unit with very little drawbacks, especially in context with its rivals of the time.
Depending on your age, if you lived in western Europe; the Master System was impossible to ignore. With the biggest install base of any video game console, eating well into the mid-90’s; it was huge. A feat that can never be overlooked. In Brazil alone (many thanks to TecToy) the Master System is more akin to a religion. A monolith that has survived and stood tall since its initial release in the region in 1989. For these reasons it is always unfortunate that North American (mainly USA, as Canada also had a reasonably active install base) points of view tend to sway in favour of the Master System being a failure, at least commercially, which is both unfair and largely untrue – mostly thanks to Nintendo’s often questionable, occasionally illegal methods to ensure a crippling monopoly in the region.
Initially released as the Sega Mark III on October 20th 1985 – the Mark III arrived to little fanfare nor did it manage to create a dent in the market of Japan that was already being eaten up by the Nintendo Famicom and other comparative home computer options. The Mark III was Sega’s successor console to the SG-1000, which was the basis of the later Master System and Sega’s first cartridge-based foray into the home video game console realm after having much success in the arcade’s. The SG-1000, for history sakes; was originally test-marketed in Japan as early as 1981 before having a wider release in 1983. It did have some success throughout Asia (especially in Taiwan) as well as New Zealand and releases in Italy, Spain and South Africa. Though not officially released in North America, the SG-1000 game library could be played through a 2-in-1 clone console through the Telegames mail order service (the Personal Arcade). The Mark II version of the SG-1000, much like the later Master System II; was essentially a redesign, with a home computer version available (with built in keyboard) known as the SC-3000 (which actually outsold the SG-1000 in Japan). Keynote: Sega got there before Nintendo. As usual. Jus’ Sayin’.
Sega took all they learnt from the original SG/SC-releases and both upgraded/redesign everything, including having the Card Catcher built in as opposed to optional add-on, right into the 8-Bit powerhouse that was the Mark III. The Master System name originates from the North American redesign of the Mark III (different pin-outs between the two spate consoles, however). With Nintendo having “got their first” with their “scared to call it a games console” Nintendo Entertainment System post-Atari induced video games crash – they commanded a ridiculous 83% market share by the time Sega’s system hit American shores.
The Master System was technically superior in practically every way to the NES. Running off an 8-Bit Zilog Z80 CPU (max. 64kb), a Texas Instruments TMS9918A derived VDP, an altered SN76489A PSG with additional Yamaha YM2413 FM chip in original Japanese models (Mk.1 Master System models can be easily modified to include the chip if so fancy – which we here at RetroGameGeeks certainly recommend!) with a Boot ROM dependent on built-in game (something NES didn’t have; can vary between 8-256KB), 8KB main RAM and 16KB Video RAM. Did any of that tech-talk make sense? If it didn’t to you, no worry. What it basically means is the Master System was a beast. A beastly beast of awesome!
So with all the above mentioned, history and specs; you’re probably thinking – what about the games, man!? Well, to know the games is to know what 8-Bit systems were/are truly capable of. Arriving on shelves with their gloriously 80’s graph-paper style covers and mostly minimalist art work, the Master System’s games stood out while remaining a constant uniformity. Whether you’re a fan or not of the packaging, it is a testament to Sega that they thought ahead of time for collector folk by releasing in plastic cases as opposed to Nintendo’s cardboard boxes (that Nintendo continued until the GameCube). Certainly a safer way to keep and display your Master System collection, for sure!
Sega were wise to bring over practically every original IP from the arcade to the home with the Master System. Blockbuster titles such as OutRun, Action Fighter, Shinobi, Enduro Racer, Space Harrier – the list is practically endless. The Master System was also the widely-available home to Sega’s original unofficial mascots. Firstly Opa-Opa, with the Master Systems port of Fantasy Zone alongside its sequel and The Maze; secondly with Alex Kidd with the likes of Miracle World, The Lost Stars, High-Tech World, the homage-laden Shinobi World and exclusively for the Japanese market: Alex Kidd BMX Trial. The console was also home to the highly-successful and critically-acclaimed Wonder Boy franchise which continues to thrive in fan communities to this day with continued ports on most modern consoles via download.
Typically speaking the Master System was the king of ports during its initial period (ie: pre-16-Bit era). Games available on the NES performed (graphically and gameplay-wise) far superior on the Master System. With better resolution, less flicker and all-round smoother play. Perfect examples lay with some of the more obvious titles: Rampage, Gauntlet, Bubble-Bobble, Chase HQ, New Zealand Story, Operation Wolf…This list, again, could continue til this page is full. The point being? Master System was the master here.
Sega backed these wonderful titles with other ways to play. Of course, this means accessories. Every great console needs ‘em, right? Sega took all the necessary steps to out-do Nintendo, even in the regions in which they weren’t out-selling them. After all, Sega called themselves the experts in the arcade, so they had something to prove. Many of these peripherals whether official or not had equivalents on the NES: Nintendo had the Zapper, Sega had the Light Phaser; Nintendo did 3D, so Sega did, too. The Sega Light Phaser had a much wider-accepted support on the Master System than the Zapper did on the NES, it was also the more accurate and sturdy of the two (the aforementioned Operation: Wolf, Safari Hunt, Gangster Town, Rambo III, etc.). The SegaScope 3D glasses were LCD shutter-type that are much more akin to the 3D of today than the red and blue alternative on the Nintendo and again featured a wider-variety with many more desirable titles.
But what about the standard controller? Okay, this is where my opinion (Olly023) differs to many in the ‘retro community’. Personally, I find the Master System controller to be a great little thing. Granted, it only has the two buttons (labelled START/1 and 2, respectively) with the D-Pad. Unlike Nintendo’s D-Pad, Sega’s equivalent was a square-like 8-way. It was smooth, easy-to-use, although prone to breakage. Smooth is the word with the controller overall though – while side-by-side there is not much difference between the NES pad and the Master Systems; the SMS feature rounded corners, raised buttons, etc. which while not the ergonomically design of the later MegaDrive standard did indeed make it more comfortable for longer periods of play. The response was always there, while working – so one should never have a real issue with that. The beauty of Sega is that the MegaDrive 3-button happily works with the majority of the SMS’ library if you so wish to go that route.
The Master System reigned way into its successors time in the spotlight. With a 9-year cycle in Europe and continuing strong in Brazil to this day (alongside its 16-bit family member), the system had a many significant version and redesign. The Master System II, originally released in the USA; was a much smaller, more compact console – continuing the built-in game tradition (most famous being Alex Kidd and Sonic variations) it lacked some of the features such as the card-slot and an RF-only output. But the cut-price was inticing to many and the console continues to have its fans throughout the years. In Brazil there is near enough far too many versions to count, let alone real off here. The most significant and obvious overall is surprisingly to some the technology that powered Sega’s entry into the handheld market with the fabled Game Gear, which was in fact an enhanced, portable SMS with more colours and larger sprites. But that’s for another section! Yet the legacy should be clear as is. The other obvious mention is the MegaDrive/Genesis, which contained the SMS chipset and ability to play any/all Master System games with the relevant cart converter, something Nintendo didn’t choose to do with the Super Nintendo, but breathed new life into all those old carts for those Sega loyalists in the 1990’s and beyond.
We here at Retro Game Geeks love the Sega Master System. Though I myself am classed the ‘Sega guy’, so a bias may be implied here – it really can’t be understated just what a class little machine Sega unleashed on the home console market for all gamers to lap up and enjoy. Being from the United Kingdom it was near impossible in early childhood to avoid the Master System, as previously mentioned. It appeared as if everyone had one. It was affordable, it had a great library and best of all it was just plain awesome. Sure, you had to use your toe to pause a game due to the button being built onto the console instead of the controller. But as we all know, real gamers don’t pause! Arcade origins taught us that!
Master System was the first and only console to feature the landmark side-scrolling shooter known as Transbot. Whether the Astro Flash card in Japan, the Nuclear Creature cart in Brazil – the point is Transbot is/was/forever will be Transbot. A title that has since become a widely-used verbitage. Transbot is a game and word you will frequently hear, or rather; read here at Retro Game Geeks, a key to its impact on us all.
The bottom-line and/or conclusion to all of this is simple. If you’re on this site and haven’t played Master System? What are you doing with your life!? Get on it and go play Sega’s 8-Bit masterpiece! If you’re disappointed, you just don’t get games.