Hardware Classics: Sega Master System

Everyone's favourite underdog

If you're reading this outside of Europe, then there's a very good chance that your perception of the Sega Master System is one of complete and utter failure. The 8-bit system wasn't even close to contesting the might of the NES in North America or the Famicom in Japan; although Sega at that point was a well-known creator of coin-op classics, Nintendo had completely locked out the market, and it wouldn't be until the Mega Drive / Genesis arrived on the scene that this situation would change. As Blake J. Harris' recent Console Wars book attests, during the 16-bit battle Sega was the underdog which challenged the might of its seemingly unstoppable rival and changed the face of the industry forever, but prior to that, it was very much lost in the 8-bit wilderness while Nintendo cleaned up with the NES.

However, those of you in Europe — the UK in particular — will spot a glaring inconsistency in this narrative. The United Kingdom was a notable stronghold for Sega even before the Mega Drive and Sonic arrived on the scene, and a region which Nintendo simply didn't take seriously at the time. This meant that the Master System was the de facto home console of the period for UK players, with the NES being something of an afterthought. It's a fascinating twist on the Sega vs Nintendo tale, and one which may come as a surprise to North American or Japanese video game fans.

As is the case with the NES, the story of the Master System begins way back in 1983 with the launch of the SG-1000 — Sega's first ever home console system. Never released outside of Japan, it struggled to make an impact in a market which was being rapidly consumed by Nintendo's Famicom console (both systems launched on the exact same day, fact fans). The SG-1000 II followed but was also something of a commercial failure in its homeland, and it wasn't until Sega released the Mark III in 1985 that things started to look a little more positive.

The machine was graphically more adept than the Famicom and was also capable of faithfully hosting some of Sega's most popular arcade titles of the period, such as Space Harrier, Shinobi, OutRun and After Burner. Add to this some amazing original games — such as Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap, Phantasy Star and the Alex Kidd series — and it was clear that Sega's 8-bit machine was more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Nintendo's platform.

There was just one problem — the North American and Japanese public weren't interested. By the time the Mark III launched in the US under the Master System moniker, Nintendo had tied up the market and put policies in place which forbade third-party publishers from releasing their titles on any format other than the NES — a similar strategy was in place in Japan, too. With the NES accounting for more than 80 percent of the North American games market by 1988, few companies were willing to risk Nintendo's anger by manufacturing titles for a rival console. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Sega of America handed distribution duties to toymaker Tonka, but this only made things worse — Tonka simply didn't have a clue about how to sell the Master System in what was an intensely competitive arena.

Tyler Esposito of Sega Master System.com and The Sega Channel sums up the situation in North America best. "Growing up in the USA, Nintendo was at the top of the video game food chain. I'd say one in every 100 kids, if they owned a console, owned a Sega. I remember walking into Toys R Us and Walmart stores in the early the 90s and finding bargain bins full of brand new Master System games on sale for $10 a pop. Nintendo literally devoured the market and pushed Sega out. It wasn't until the Genesis — and Sonic — came out that the public started to take notice."

However, over in Europe things were very different — although Sega's console very nearly failed there, too. Distributors duly placed orders with Sega for delivery in time for the busy 1987 Christmas period, but didn't get their stock until Boxing Day, which naturally resulted in angry shoppers, cancelled orders and a considerable amount of lost revenue. The situation was so bad that German firm Bertlesmann refused to work with Sega ever again, and it plunged UK distributor Mastertronic into a financial crisis which would eventually lead to Richard Branson's Virgin assuming control the company.

By 1988, the newly-christened Virgin Mastertronic had successfully positioned the Master System as the go-to console for serious games players who had grown bored of the primitive ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 home computers and wanted something with a little more bite. Its marketing of the machine focused on Sega's amazing range of coin-op ports, a highly effective move when you consider how popular arcade games were at that time. Nintendo's lackadaisical approach to the UK market meant that Virgin Mastertronic and Sega were essentially the only game in town, and as a result the Master System began to attract plenty of support from notable third-parties of the period, such as US Gold, Domark, Image Works, Acclaim, Virgin Interactive and Tecmagic.

When the Genesis launched and found considerable success, Sega of America tried to salvage the Master System in the US, hoping to market it as a low-cost alternative to its 16-bit hardware. It was to no avail, and the company would abandon the platform in 1991, with Sonic the Hedgehog being the final official release in that region. In contrast, the Master System was still performing admirably in the UK and France, and maintained a lead on the Mega Drive well into 1993. The remodelled Master System II allowed Sega to not only make the hardware at a lower cost, but also sell it to the consumer for less, too. The strategy Sega of America had attempted in the US worked a treat in Europe; many leading titles — such as Sonic 2, Streets of Rage 2 and Mortal Kombat — would be launched on both platforms, offering those on a budget the chance to join in with the leading software of the period. Elsewhere in the world, the console would become even more dominant — in Brazil, where it was sold by Tectoy, the Master System would shift five million units over its lifespan.

Depending on where you are in the world, collecting for the Master System today can either be as easy as falling off a log or incredibly tricky. Unsurprisingly, sourcing hardware and software in Europe is largely painless and cheap. However, the Japanese version of the system — the Mark III — is slowly rising in value as the years go by, and purchasing a North American Master System isn't as cost-effective as you might imagine, presumably down to the low numbers of units sold. If you're really serious about experiencing this underrated console for the first time, then it's highly recommended that you avoid the newer Master System II variant and instead go for the larger, more angular original. The Master System II only has an RF connection on the back, while the original can output in glorious RGB. It's also worth noting that the second model removes the reset button and support for Sega's short-lived "Sega Card" format, which delivered games on credit card-sized media similar to that seen on NEC's PC Engine system.

The NES and its Japanese sibling the Famicom would sell around 60 million units globally, while the Master System is only thought to have retailed between 10 to 15 million units. Taking these figures into account, it's easy to see why so many people consider the console to be a footnote in Sega's history, while the NES is seen as the beginning of Nintendo's dynasty. However, this isn't a fair reflection on what the Master System actually has to offer to receptive players; Sega's famous arcade ports are especially well done, while RPGs like Phantasy Star and Wonder Boy III rank as some of the finest releases of the 8-bit era. Sega's fallen mascot Alex Kidd is also responsible for some fantastic offerings on the Master System, with his debut Miracle World proving to be a solid rival to Nintendo's popular Super Mario Bros. outing. Without the Master System, there would have been no Mega Drive or Genesis — the console was a vital testing ground for a company which previously had focused almost solely on creating arcade titles. It's certainly true that a lack of third-party support damaged the Master System's chances of global super-stardom, but now is the perfect time to reassess the impact and appeal of this much-maligned platform.

Screenshot source: The Video Game Museum

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