News Article

Hardware Focus - Sega Master System

Posted by Damien McFerran

When Nintendo announced that the Virtual Console would be supporting the Sega Master System console you can bet that there were a fair few American gamers scratching their heads in a rather quizzical manner.

The console was a complete failure in the US thanks to a combination of poor marketing, terrible distribution, woefully misjudged software choices and the fact that Nintendo’s NES was sitting under the TV in pretty much every American household at that point in time.

So if you happened to be one of those people who uttered, “Master what?” when the news broke, you are forgiven. The console simply didn’t make any kind of discernable impact in America and it wasn’t until Sega released the Genesis/Megadrive that the company staged any kind of concerted effort to wrestle the US videogame market from Nintendo’s clammy paws.

But let’s rewind a bit. To chart the history of the Master System you have to go way back to the start of the ‘80s. Atari remained dominant in the home console market and several other companies had starting to take notice, one of them being Sega. The Japanese arcade manufacturer already had some notable coin-op hits under its belt and quite justifiably entered the home entertainment market with the SG-1000. Although the machine was powerful and the selection of software promising, Sega’s timing was less than ideal – Atari’s dreadful management resulted in the first videogame crash and Sega was very nearly sucked into the abyss. Thankfully, the company was rescued by David Rosen and Hayao Nakayama.

The SG-1000 may have failed but it didn’t stop Sega from having another go. The SG-1000 Mark II was released in 1984 and was a massive improvement on its predecessor. Sega was really beginning to make its mark as an arcade developer now and the new console was the ideal platform with which to put these coin-guzzling titles into people’s living rooms. Sadly, it failed to do so and Sega was forced back to the drawing board once again.

You might assume this was a case of “third time lucky”. It was, in a sense – but initially the new machine, christened the SG-1000 Sega Mark III (or just Mark III for short), flopped in its homeland. It was technically more powerful than the competition, but struggled because Nintendo’s Famicom was simply too strong by this stage and had swallowed up pretty much every third party publisher in Japan. Sega nevertheless went ahead with a US release, renaming the console ‘The Master System’ and giving it a restyled exterior.

You would have thought the company would have been given a break by this stage but it was not to be. Having attempted to break Nintendo’s dominance in Japan, Sega found that it was in the exact same position Stateside. The American version of the Famicom - known as the NES – was astonishingly popular with US gamers. Initially Sega of America assumed that the more powerful hardware combined with its arcade pedigree would be enough to carve out at least a small market share, but consumers ignored the machine completely. Dismal sales figures were enough to convince Sega that the whole idea was a turkey and the company promptly sold US distribution rights to toy manufacturer Tonka. Tonka was even more inept than Sega at marketing the 8-bit console and the Master System remained largely unknown in US gaming circles.

Thankfully, Sega had more luck elsewhere. Teaming up with UK firm Mastertronic, the Japanese company successfully launched the console in Europe and within the space of a year was sitting pretty atop the sales charts. As it turned out, the climate in Europe (and the UK especially) was perfect for the Master System. Home computers like the Sinclair Spectrum and C64 were still influential, but hardcore gamers were becoming disenchanted with sub-par arcade conversions from companies like Ocean and US Gold. They were also getting fed up with having to rely on cheap, but slow-loading cassette tapes as the delivery method for their games. The other vital ingredient was that the Master System didn’t have to contend with the strength of Nintendo in Europe.

The NES was readily available but Nintendo seemed reluctant to really push the machine and as a result it had failed to make the same impact that it had done elsewhere in the world. Therefore the market was ripe for Sega and the company gladly grasped this golden opportunity with both hands. The Master System’s success in Europe would effectively secure the region as a Sega stronghold well into the life of the Genesis/Megadrive. In the meantime, Sega decided to release the Master System in Japan – a somewhat pointless gesture as the console was essentially the same as the Mark III. Unsurprisingly, it met with the same indifference that had befallen its predecessor.

In a strange twist of fate, Sega-fever swept the US when the 16-bit Genesis was launched in the States in the early ‘90s. To capitalize on this newfound fame, Sega decided to purchase back the US distribution rights for the Master System from the bumbling Tonka; the thinking was that if people were going mad for the Genesis they might also be interested in its 8-bit little brother. A redesigned Master System II was introduced but it failed to gain a foothold and the last game to be officially released in the US was Sonic the Hedgehog. Predictably, the new-look Master System was a massive success in Europe and games continued to appear on the machine well into the ‘90s.

So what can we expect from the Master System when it comes to the Virtual Console? Sega’s former mascot Alex Kidd is likely to figure in several releases, but we should also see games like Shinobi, Outrun, Alien Syndrome, After Burner, Space Harrier and many other hit Sega arcade franchises. The fact that the console was so poorly supported by third party publishers (thanks mainly to Nintendo’s shady business practices) should actually work in our favour – it means that 99% of the Master System back catalogue remains in Sega’s hands as far as licensing is concerned, so most games should be ripe for release on the Wii download service.

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User Comments (65)



Dazza said:

I have fond memories of the master system as my first ever real console. I got it one Christmas with the light phaser and Rambo III game which I loved. I also got 'Hang-On' bundled into the deal which was a card based game, not a regular cartridge. When I got bored of all that I then played the built-in snail maze game

Great memories



Bass_X0 said:

My friend used to have a Master System II as a kid. I'm planning on downloading the original Alex Kidd and the original Sonic game for this . A pity we won't see Asterix and Castle of Illusion as these were the other two games he had.

Going through lists of Master System games, a lot seem to be licensed games meaning they won't be on Virtual Console. It will be interesting to see which games Sega give us first other than the two known ones.



AchubaNanoia said:

Master System, now there's a great, great videogame system, very popular here in Brazil! I remember going to my friend's home to play those crazy 3-D games, and several memorable games like Castle of Illusion, Sonic and Alex Kidd, but also After Burner, Keisseinden (something like that), Gauntletand a several many others.
I really hope we see good games for it! Though to be honest, I'm not sure how well the Master System games are gonna hold up to today standards. Guess we'll have to wait and see!



Adamant said:

It wasn't really popular in "Europe", it was popular in the "UK". There's a difference.



Kelvin said:

I wouldn't say that third-party support was too bad, in Europe at least. Towards the end of the MS's life, there were a fair number of third-party titles released from companies like Probe and Domark; I remember them as the ones with the blue and white labels on the carts, as opposed to the Sega dark red.

I think that just as Nintendo ignored the European audience, it also ignored the European developers, neglecting to sign them up for the same agreements as their US counterparts, and so they were free to develop for any system they liked, including the MS. These were in the days before three big companies owned everyone, of course.

I'm really looking forward to seeing the MS games arrive!



Ragnor said:

I had a Master system 2 as a kid, and it was my first ever console. Too bad it seemed to just vanish. I wonder what happened to it?



Tim said:

I would rather have the 16bit Sega Genesis version of Outrun than the 8bit Master System. Noooooooooooooooo : (



Kelvin said:

Ugly? That's top 1980's design!

Tim, in some cases, such as Out Run, I would also prefer the MD versions, but there are some titles (like the Sonic series), where the MS versions were completely different, but just as good in their own way. But yeah, Out Run wasn't one of them.



Dazza said:

Mickey Mouse: Castle of Illusion was one such interesting contrast. First it has to be said that the 16-bit Genesis version is superb in every way - but the Master System version was an excellent game in its own right also. Graphically it was much more basic, like a nice looking NES game but the gameplay was outstanding and even managed to give the 16-bit version a run for its money in some ways.

Games like Out Run and Golden Axe were easily surpassed by their 16-bit rivals but that is hardly the point. The Master System was much more affordable and maintained a niche with younger kids for years to come into the 16-bit era.



Storyteller said:

I like to think of myself as someone who knows quite a lot about video games. I don't consider myself an expert yet by any means but I would say I know far more than the average gamer and yet I do have to admit that at the time the Master System was announced for the Virtual Console I was only vaguely aware the MS even existed. I have a profound love for older games and as such am a massive fan of the VC so I do try to learn as much as I can. I suppose most people will just chalk up my ingnorance to the flag next to my name but to be honest part of me is glad that my whole life I've known next to nothing about Sega's 8-bit machine and I'll tell you why, I get to experience a whole catalouge of games that have the same charm you find in playing many older titles but I'll playing them as if they were new becuase for me they are. Like I said I knew I was no expert but last week I realized just how much there was out there that I might not know and it exited me. I can't wait to dive into all of these games I was never even aware of. Thanks to you guys at VC-reviews for keeping us informed.



KoKoO_Psy said:

Master what, that was me up until about 2 moths ago, i had actually never heard of it. it was only when i wanted to find out about what Phantasy Star Games VC would get i realised, and now i am actually looking forward to more MS games like Alien Syndrome.



Jogurt_the_Yogurt said:

I'm one of those crazy North Americans who had a Master System (as well as a NES), and I'm glad to see it coming to the VC. I've always thought the MS version of Altered Beast was better than the Genesis version...



Damo said:

For the record, the Genesis/Megadrive version of Outrun is terrible.



Kelvin said:

Heh, true, but the MS is hardly better. Was there a good home version of Out Run on any format? I have vague memories that the C64 and Amiga ports were quite good, but it was never really a game I had much interest in, so I didn't follow it in any detail. Good soundtrack though!



Dazza said:

As a young un I was quite fond of the ZX Spectrum port of Out Run. Sure the graphics were all monochrome but it played decently! If you had a 128k Spectrum you could load all the levels in one go so no multi-load.

Once it was all loaded up you could flip the tape over and listen to the music recorded directly from the arcade Out Run. Can't beat a bit of Splash Wave can you?

Moving back on topic its true the Master System version was pretty dire and the promising Megadrive version was a let down mostly because on all difficulty settings it was a pushover.

If I had to choose I would go for the PC Engine / TurboGrafx version of Out Run.



Damo said:

Aye, the PCE port is pretty amazing. For the best home experience you've gotta pick the Sega Ages Saturn version.



JaredJ said:

I agree 100% with Storyteller. Since I'm from the U.S. I don't have much experience with the master system library and from what everyone is saying the MS had some pretty good games. The only game I can recall playing was double dragon. I can't wait to get a crack at Golden Axe Warrior!



sseb22 said:

From what I recall, in France, the NES was more successful than the SMS but the latter had its success nonetheless.



Morbid said:

The master system was my first console! The ZX Spectrum was my first computer but Sega introduced me to the console market (my parents wouldn't get me an Atari at the time - swines!). I thought it rather ace at the time. I rather enjoyed The Ninja, California Games and RC Grand Prix. I also enjoyed Populous but it was a tad hard to play on my black and white TV (hard to tell the different followers apart!).



AchubaNanoia said:

For the people who don't know about the Master System, you should look for a few classics on the Youtube. From the top of my head:

  • Phantasy Star : AWESOME Rpg, at least in it's time.
  • Golden Axe Warrior: Think Zelda, but with Golden Axe. Sure, Zelda is better, but this is pretty good too.
  • Afterburner: Yes, the Genesis port is better, but I played this to death on the Master System, it's pretty addictive.
  • Zillion: Now this is a gem of 8-bit game! Somewhat like Metroid, but also based on one of the best animes that I've watched when I was a kid!
  • R-Type: Yes, the TG-16 port is much better than this, but this just shows that the Master System was quite powerful for arcade conversions.
    Also, there are the classics like Sonic, Shinobi, Outrun, Hang-On, Alex Kidd and many others.


Kawaiipikachu said:

I found out about the SMS several months ago while looking up video game console history on wikipedia (for personal intrest) & wondering why Sega not licencing sms games for the VC .
Now im looking forward to them & hopefully a title or 2 catch my attention .
Then again could be like the Neo Gio & nothing catches me .
But still im looking forward more fun in juggling files between Wii & SD card .



E-dawg said:

I wasnt born when this was released, but i doubt it was ever popular in Australia...



Monmoya said:

Hey E-dawg: I remember the SMS being pretty popular in AUS but not as much as the NES. It was def a lot more popular in AUS than in the US but didn't quite take off like it did the UK.



Tim said:

Wow Morbid! You had a black and white TV in the 80s for your gaming rig? I thought colour became the norm by the 70s. Than again I was born in '84 so what do I know.



WWammy said:

The Sega Master System 2 was my first computer / gaming console prior to that I used to play on my neighbours Amstrad CPC.
So when I got the Master System I was instantly hooked as the graphics were really good in comparison to the Amstrad. The best thing at the time was that because everyone was poor we couldn't afford the £109 nes so we went for the £59.99 Master System .
It was the only console I had so I wasn't aware that consoles had not just variations in graphics but complete redesigns in gameplay like Sonic for Megadrive vs Sega Master system. That said I had a great time with it. I had Alex Kid , Sonic and Castle of Illusion. Fantastic games they were too .

I think the Americans retro gamers are lucky they didn't get to play the first time around as games. The way I had never played a Turbo Graphx before it came on the virtual console. I think this is one of the biggest attractions of the Virtual console the fact that we can play classics that we missed out on. Either because we belong to a new generation or because simply we didn't own the console at the time



E-dawg said:

@ Monmoya
Really? Thats interesting, but everytime I go into Gametraders, it's easy to find old NES games but never Master System games, nevertheless, I'm looking forward to Outrun.



Kawaiipikachu said:

E-dang .
In response to your comment in comment 28 the local gametraiders i go to got a small handful of SMS games but at the local Cash Converters they got plenty even once an SMS II on display .
But still i look forward to them arriveing .



SuperMichael64 said:

This is all a new little history lesson for me! Being born in 1991 and growing up loving all things Nintendo, I gotta say this Master system is like a new console to me.



DeadSoul2004 said:

I had a commodore 64 with the tape loading system and got a Master System as my first console from then I was hooked and Pro-Sega all the way (I even had the GameGear! It's still in the attic) - until I could afford it and got as SNES as my first Nintendo machine. Can't wait to see what they release on VC 500Pts is a bargain for the games.



KeeperBvK said:

Jeez. Pretty interesting to see so many people never having had any contact with the Master System. ^^ I used to have a Mega Drive with an official attachment that allowed you to use MS games (yeah, they used to make official stuff like that back in the days) and I was the only guy I knew of who owned any MS stuff. Everybody else either had an NES, an MD or an SNES. So much for the popularity in Europe... I guess it really was more of a UK thing.
Anyway: I never enjoyed the MS library nearly as much as the one for the other three aforementioned consoles, but still I deeply enjoyed games like Asterix, Lucky Dime Capers, Shinobi and G-LOC.



ChocoDK said:

I knew about the Master System back in about 2001 or 2002 when I was interested in the History of video games. I never took much interest in the console though but it will be nice to have it on the VC. Also very nice article and it was very informative. I really enjoyed reading it and learned new thinks so thanks for posting this.



Damo said:

KeeperBvK - the device you refer to is the Power Base Converter - I had one too, amazing piece of kit!



KeeperBvK said:

Thx Damo. Back when I had that thing, I didn't care for its name, so later on when I did, I couldn't find out what its name was. ^^
Ahh, brings back some good memories.
...and Power Base Converter is one seriously crappy name. g



Kelvin said:

KeeperBvK, a lot of those early Sega peripherals had dodgy names. I think one of the MS joypads was called "The Commander"!



Morbid said:

@Tim, Colour TV's were the norm but I only had a black and white portable in my bedroom. It didn't matter much on my beloved rubber keyed ZX Spectrum which had horrid colour clash anyway but it was a bugger when I started going up in the world! I still even had that awful TV when I got my Mega Drive! Sonic in black and white anyone? Luckily I finally got a portable colour TV for my next birthday!



Ryu-mithril said:

I've heard of the master system before and my mother bought me a genesis with a master system game at the time and I remember when I was 8 trying to explain the difference of the games to her and ultimately had to just SHOW her that they just wouldn't fit! lol



Dazza said:

Add the "rapid fire unit" to the list of funny names on the master system. This little device would plug into your joypad port and give your joypad the power of rapid fire!

Does anyone remember the little screw-in joysticks you used to get for the master system joypads? I had to stop using them because they made my thumb sore!!



Baldasacoot said:

I could never use those. Much preferred the basic plain pad, or the lovely chunky joystick - the one with the massive bulbous hand grip. Surprisingly good, that was.

Also, did you know that the original Light Phaser for Mastersystem will only work on old CRT televisions? It doesn't work on new LCD or plasmas. Something to do with the scan lines on CRT screens.



Kelvin said:

Dazza, yeah, the screw-sticks were a very weird add-on. I had a Master System II first, and only got the original later, complete with a few of the older pads with the screw-sticks. Never used them, as even the huge spongy MS d-pad was better than those funny things.

I agree with Baldasacoot; the "Master Control Stick" was pretty good though. Bizarrely set up for left hand play (buttons on the left, stick on the right), and it looked ridiculous, with a flat base with tiny fire buttons and a huge mushroom-shaped joystick (a design later re-used by Sega for the 32X ), but it was a really good controller. Very responsive and the huge stick actually made control a bit more precise.

The steering wheel was an abomination though. Looked like a great big plastic H strapped to an upturned bucket.



Dazza said:

Does anyone remember the card based games? They were shaped like the TurboGrafx/PCE hucards and you slotted them in the front of the console. There weren't many of them available for the system and they were a lot cheaper as I remember so I snapped quite a few up. Here are the ones I remember having:

  • Ghost House
  • Hang On
  • My Hero
  • Spy Vs Spy
  • Super Tennis
  • Teddy Boy
  • Transbot

Does anyone remember any others? I thought they were ace

Shame the Master System II dropped the card slot



butanebob said:

The master system was huge in Australia! Aussie gamers are generally graphics whores and when the master system came out people were used to drab looking NES games. Needless to say the general public lapped it up like kittens under a cow udder.



Kelvin said:

Dazza, I think that may have been about it. There weren't many card games out, as the storage capacity was far less than that of a cartridge. Only the earliest games (and the 3D glasses) used the card slot. I think.



Dazza said:

I just had a quick Google and I think I must have missed F16 Fighter and Great Soccer which also appear to be card based games! Anyway if anyone wants to start a very easy to collect retro game collection this is it!



Psydswipe said:

I didn't realize so few people in the US were familiar with the Master System. While I know most kids had a NES, I had a Master System and still do along with around 40 games. The most popular game from the system is likely Phantasy Star but I never got that one. Some of my favorites are Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Shinobi, Black Belt, and Gangster Town. The system also has a great version of Monopoly (I know, big deal).

Something not mentioned in the article is that the system has a unique set of 3-D glasses. They aren't like the NES Rad Racer ones, these actually plug into the system's card slot as they are electronic. Sega didn't make too many games for the glasses, mostly generic stuff but there is a Space Harrier game in 3-D.

Also, the games came in the nice hard plastic cases that the Genesis would later make use of. I always thought those were great in comparison to Nintendo's cardboard boxes.



chiefeagle02 said:

I used to have one of these. It didn't work too well though. It's good to see MS games being made available on the VC.



President_Leever said:

Dazza: One noteworthy game is missing from that list, and that's Comical Machine Gun Joe. Only released in japan, but it's one of the best card games



GameAddict said:

Ah yeah, the good old Master System, I remember getting this when I was like 10 or 11 years old, I loved the games Golvellius: Valley of Doom, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa and Bank Panic, though I am not sure what I would think of them these days.



Hilanderous said:

I'm so excited for this, you wouldn't believe it! I've never played a master system in my life. I hope the games are great! What am I talking about, this is old school SEGA, of course they are!



Kirk said:

The Master System was the first console I had and I really loved it.
The games to look out for imo are:
Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa
Alex Kidd in Miracle World
Wonder Boy III: Dragon's Trap



kingv84 said:

The Master System was my first game console. I had fond memories of Alex Kidd, Aztec Adventure and those cool 3-D glasses that came with the console using the built-in shooter game. It was memories. Now am 24 and still playing games. Can not wait to play some old Alex Kidd was again.



N_A_T_O said:

Cannot wait for Master System games to be released! This was the fist console I bought with my own money. Knocked spots off of the Atari 2600 I had before.
I have a nostalgic hankering to play Donald Duck: Lucky Dime Caper again.



Dral said:

I really hope we get 'Psycho Fox'. Still one of my all-time favourite platformers.



Charco said:

I never had a Master System as I had a NES, but I do remember playing Alex Kidd in Miracle World and Sonic the Hedgehog at a toy store display and being quite jealous of the impressive colour pallette in comparison to my technically inferior NES. Compare Double Dragon on the two systems on youtube and you will see what I mean!



Eltigro said:

I was looking forward to the Master System appearing on the VC. I have Sega Master System, but it, sadly, is no longer working. I have about 10 games for it which range greatly in quality and replayability.

Strangely, the one that I miss playing the most is Shanghai, a mah-jong tile game. I also have Choplifter, Rambo, Rocky, Afterburner, Great Basketball (misnomer), Enduro Racer and others...

I was always curious about the Master System. A kid at my Junior High had one and I wondered what it was like, how did it compare to my NES, what games did it have? I would occasionally see one in a pawn shop, but now about the only place you'll see one is on Ebay.



Dae said:

I'd love to see some of the card games come to the VC. Ghost House was a lot of fun as I recall, and I had been trying unsuccessfully to remember the name of Transbot for a while now. Thanks for reminding me!

Of course, I'd also love to see the original Phantasy Star released as well. I never did manage to finish that game. Hopefully I am not the only one who got extremely lost in those first person dungeons...



Eltigro said:

I got my SMS working again! I was bored one day, sitting there looking at my collection, and just decided to take the ole' Master System apart again. I took it apart, did nothing but look at it, seeing nothing obviously wrong burnt or dirty, put it back together. On a whim, I plugged it in and pushed the power button. The light came on! So I hooked it up the rest of the way, and plugged in Choplifter! Didn't work. I tried Afterburner, and it worked! So far, the only one that hasn't worked was Choplifter. I'll clean that one and it'll probably work again.

Yea for me!



Ricardo91 said:

Ah, the Master System, we barely knew ye. If it weren't for IGN retro's constant ass-kissing of this machine, I would hardly know anything about it. With it's color palette that trumped the NES's, this system may have stood a chance. But with Nintendo gaining a monopoly on the gaming market, and buying out all the major third parties in the process, the Master System didn't really have a fair competition. Even then, I'm surprised by how many good games the system got. Still waiting for: Golden Axe Warrior, Alien Syndrome, Phantasy Star, Space Harrier, Outrun, SMS Ninja Gaiden, and Afterburner.



Eltigro said:

I had to call in today because my son is sick. Maybe I'll play some SMS while he's napping!



2D_Dreamer said:

C'mon Nintendo/Sega. Where are all the Master System games? There's only five at the time of writing.

Please give us Outrun-3D (it's the best one on SMS) as it has a 2D mode you don't need the 3D glasses to play it. Also Shinobi, Psycho Fox, Power Strike 1 & 2, Choplifter, Zillion and many more that I want to see on VC.

If the SMS games don't sell well in America that should not stop the EU from getting more of them first. The console sold over a million in the UK alone (about the same as the NES) so lets have more SMS games on the EU VC please.



jesus_666 said:

2D_Dreamer: The Master System most certainly did not sell "about the same as the NES" in the UK, it absolutely obliterated it, the NES only started to make inroads during the last year or two of it's life here, whilst the Master System sold consistantly for the early years and then had an upsurge when the budget Master System II was released, the console lasted well into the mid 90s, years after the NES had disappeared from the shelves.



Bass_X0 said:

All the SMS games currently on the Virtual Console are published by Sega. Does this mean we won't see any third party SMS games for the time being? I really hope not.

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