They say when you turn 30 you really start to be conscious that you’re an adult and you’re going to be an old adult quickly that what you think. I don’t know if this is true but if it is so we can say that from today the guiltily forgotten Sega Master System is officially adult. At its release in Japan, in October 1987, it represented the first true competitor for Nintendo for the domain of the console world: they call them the years of the console war, one of the many wars we’ve seen in gaming history and probably the most known and the most fascinatin. Surely the one that most of us better remember.
The story in a nutshell
They say (or better we all say) that 1983 video game crash killed the electronic entertainment market in North America, at least in the home console department. However 1983 on the other hand was probably the peak of the Golden Age of Arcades, an age when millions and millions of coins were slipped inside the cabinets for the joy of arcade machine producers.
At that time in the US, Sega Enterprises Inc, then subsidiary of Gulf and Western had the lion share in this particular market, with a revenue of eight zeros. To the Golden Age of arcades followed a peiod of decline and Sega had to find a way to compensate the shrinking income to survive in the market. Hayao Nakayama, the president of Sega Enterprises, consulted by Gulf and Western stated that the better way to improve the fate of the company was to enter the home console market, not in the US but in Japan, where this bind of market was blooming in those years.
So in 1983 on Ocotber 15th, Sega release its fist console, the SG-1000, the same day Nintendo released its Famicom. For a twist of fate the two companies that would have been rivals in the console wars during a whole decade, put on sale their first flagships the same day. After the release, Gulf and Western decision to abandon its non-core business led Nakayama and former Sega CEO David Rosen to buy the company, giving birth to Sega Enterprises Ltd. Soon after, in 1984 Sega restyled its SG-1000 releasing the SG-1000 II whose poor sales led the company, in October 1985 to put on market the Mark III.
At this point even the american marklet was ready for a new console so te Mark III landed in the US under the new name of Master System in 1986 with a tag price of 200$. The console had lukewarm sales (125k units) during its first year, topping the american Atari 7800 (100k units sold) but still far from japanese Nintendo with more than a million of units sold. Even though the Master System was technically speaking better than NES and advertised as a home arcade machine, the delay on Nintendo, the thin games library and the fact they had only two third party publishers, Activision and Parker Brothers, slowed down the sales.
The console was re-distributed in Japan, always branded Master System, but never harmed Nintendo dominance.
Sega brathed some fresh air when the console was released in Europe licensed to various company (Mastertronic, Master Games, Ariolasoft…) at the price of 99£ but some serious issues made it available only by December 26th, 1987 wne the christmas sales season as already over. However the Master System found in Europe a new home and in the Old Continent challenged Nintendo’s NES more than what it did in Japan and in the US.
In 1990, when the market had moved on 16-bit consoles, (Sega had released the Mega Drive/Genesis in 1988) the Master System was renovated and re-released under the name of Master System II. However the console was already in decline from a couple of years and in 1992 it was officially discontinued in North America.
When the lifespan of the console was coming to an end, the Master System found new life in Brazil, licensed to TecToy where, under various revisions, was still sold even after 30 years from the original release (it sold 150k units in Brazil in 2015), becoming one of the oldest consoles ever released.
After more than 30 years, Sega Master System had sold 13 millions of units, not including the later brazilians restyling that lift up the number of units sold to, at least, 15-16 millions.
The core CPU of all the SG-1000, of the Mark III and of the Master System, is the longeve Zilog Z80 chip, running @ 3.58 MHz in the early models and @ 4 MHZ in the Master System. In general the console is more powerful than its antagonist, the NES: it has twice the memory, a faster running CPU and more colors (32 from a palette of 64 in comparison to 25 from a palette of 54 on the NES). The Master System has also two game ports, one for the regular “Mega Cartridges” and one for the Sega Cards, a cretit card like cartridge with a limited memory of 256KB very similar to the Hudson Soft HuCards used in NEC’s PC Engine.
The sound is provided by a SN76489 PSG chip, while the jamanese version akso feature a Yamaha YM2413 FM chip.
The console was shipped with two regular controllers, derived from the Joypad Sj-152 of Mark III. The control pad is technically very similar to the NES controller with a directional pad on the leftand two buttons on the right but is cheaper and lighter than the rival one, and more prone to break. The first version of it features a hole in the middle of D-pad tu use with a small knob to recreate a sort of arcade stick.
A number of different controllers were developer for the Master System, the most famous of which was probably the Light Phaser, a light gun controller for shooting games like Operation Wolf. The there was the Control Stick, for an improved “arcade experience” and very useful for driving games such OutRun. Interestingly, the controller was compatible with a range of 8-bit computers such as VIC-20, C64 and the Atari line of computers (400 and 600) and the Atari 2600. Playing 2600’s Pole Position with the Control Pad is surely a great experience 🙂
Another interesting peripherals were the 3-D Glasses, released in 1987, compatible with eight 3D games, such as Zaxxon 3D and the Rapid Fire Unit, very handy for games where a lot of lead has to be loaded on enemies. Other less known conoltrollers were the Handle controller, shaped like a cloche and the Sports Pad, compatible only with three sport games (Great Ice Hockey, Sports Pad Football and Sports Pad Soccer)
The color palette includes 64 colors, 32 of which are selectable to design graphics with a resolution of 256×192, better than the contemporary NES. Some of the games took advantage of this and there some that are amazing compared to other 8-bit system games: one of this was Prince of Persia
Even though during the years the Master System games library has gained the popularity it didn’t have back then, we can say with no doubt that the amount of titles released is quite thin and some of them are quite rudimental ones. A total of 341 games were released including some modern homebrew. The last licensed american title released was Bomber Raid in 1989.
The Master System flagship back then was Alex Kidd, before Mega Drive’s Sonic became Sega’s mascot and the official rival of Nintendo’s Mario. Alex Kidd appeared in four different games and is by far the best selling group of games for the console (Alex Kidd in Miracle World was also bundle to the Master System II) with other important games being Hang-On (included in the original Master System), OutRun and Psycho Fox.
The Master System was also home of good arcade ports such as R-Type, released on a number of different platforms and Altered Beast.
Another important games series on the console is Wander Boy: the third installment, Dragon’s Trap is one of the most enjoyable game for the Master System. Some good RPG have been hosted on Sega’s machine, such as Phantasy Star, a saga that moved its first steps here, and Ys: The Vanished Omens (for sure hungrygoriya could say more about them 🙂 )
Unfortunately, Nintendo’s policy, who demanded to the developers NES exclusive games, killed the market and left Sega with just a few “killer apps”, even though according to Retro Gamer it had a “superb library of interesting ports and excellent exclusives”, at least for the PAL region.
After the restyling of 1990 and the discontinuation of 1992, the Master System fell a bit in the oblivions and still today is one of the “forgotten” consoles that has to be reconsidered. This was the console with which Sega cut its teeth in the gaming world and the experience it gained proved to be useful at the release of the Master system successor, the Mega Drive, renamed in the US as Genesis. With this new console, Sega for the first time put a high pressure on Nintendo than, even if with some delay, released its own 16-bit console in 1992, the SNES and won for the second time the console war.
Even though the Master System was never the most important console during its life, it was surely one of the most loved and the only real alternative to Nintendo’s NES. It could have been one of the best but unfortunately it came out when another giant was phagocitizing the market, leaving only the left-overs.