Hardware Focus - Sega Master System

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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