Updated: Sep 18, 2022
Welcome back, everyone. In the last article, we investigated the hardware and accessories of the SEGA Master System. Now we will take a look at the Master System's audio-visual chops, and how these translated into some of the best looking and best sounding games of the 8-bit generation. Let's dive in.
The Master System's graphical capabilities were noticeably better than that of its main rival, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). In particular, it was able to display 32 colours on screen from its 64 colour palette at any one time. For comparison, the NES could display 25 colours on screen at once. For a more in-depth comparison between the Sega Master System and the NES see here.
This difference in graphical capabilities was more noticeable with some games than others, and I expect the relevant talent of the devs had a lot to do with this. Aladdin, for example, showed this difference clearly. With some other titles, such as Shinobi, the difference was far more subtle.
Aladdin NES vs Master System Comparison
Was this why the Master System was marketed as the 'Aladdin Boy' in some regions?
Shinobi NES vs Master System Comparison
Left-Shinobi looks a little jaundiced. Right-Shinobi is keeping an eye on him...
Both videos by VCDECIDE
Indeed, the Master System arguably had the most impressive graphics of all the 8-bit home systems, and it was light-years ahead of most of the home microcomputers such as the ZX Spectrum. Particularly impressive was its ability to handle parallax scrolling, which helped grant its distinctly 2D games a sense of depth they otherwise would have lacked. It also featured a wealth of hardware scrolling capabilities which enabled some very distinctive scrolling effects.
Sprite flicker, a phenomenon also seen on the NES, was an issue for some Master System games too. As with the NES, this tended to occur when too many moving sprites occupied the same horizontal lines on-screen. This was distracting, and sometimes made games unfairly difficult by making it hard to see exactly what was happening. For example, an enemy bullet in a shoot 'em up that was invisible (AKA a 'ghost bullet') due to flicker could still harm you.
Another phenomenon was slowdown, which, as its name suggests, caused everything on-screen to slow down. This tended to happen when a lot was happening on-screen at once. Although many found this annoying, some players actually found this helpful, as it functioned as a form of slow-motion. This could make getting past particularly hectic sections of a game a little easier. Slowdown is something we will continue to encounter in the consoles and computers of the 16-bit era and beyond.
Games That Push the Limits of the Sega Master System
Sagaia at the 03:11 mark makes great use of parallax scrolling
Video by Sharopolis
As with all 8-bit systems, the Master System struggled with solid polygonal 3D graphics - it simply didn't have the digital horsepower to shift polygons at anything like a playable framerate. Wiseley, few (if any) Master System games attempted to use polygonal 3D graphics.
That said, the Master System was capable of the 'into the screen' sprite-based 3D seen in games such as Space Harrier. This capability was put to good use in several racing games too, such as Road Rash.
I think they have a bit of a height advantage...
Video by Happy Gaming Channel
As we saw in the previous article, a stereoscopic 3D accessory was created for the Master System, the Sega Scope 3-D Glasses. Two notable examples of 3D compatible games were Zaxxon 3D - the sequel to the isometric Zaxxon - and Maze Hunter 3D.
Only a handful of games were developed for the 3D Glasses, and stereoscopic 3D gaming never really took off (a theme we will encounter again later in the series.)
Unfortunately, there isn't a way to show these games in all their stereoscopic 3D glory. Also worth noting for retro enthusiasts is that the 3D effect allegedly doesn't work very well on non-CRT TV sets, and the 3D glasses are not compatible with the Master System II due to its lack of a card port.
Master System Longplay  Zaxxon 3_D
Master System Maze Hunter 3-D
Both videos by World of Longplays
As with most of the 8-bit systems, the Master System's sound effects and music had a distinctive sound - you could tell a Master System game was a Master System game just by hearing it. So too a ZX Spectrum game, an NES game, a C64 game, and so on.
These 'signature sounds' were the result of the limited hardware available at the time. Video game musicians of the era had to work with a very limited amount of memory and a limited number of sound channels. What's more, the sound channels themselves were limited in the sounds they could create. Since this meant that all the digital musicians on a given platform were bound by the same technical constraints, the music they created would always have a similar signature sound, which is not without its charm.
The Master System's sound was one of the most impressive of the 8-bit systems. This was especially true with the FM Sound unit attached, which increased its quality considerably, as you can hear in the video below. With the FM Sound unit installed the Master System's sonics were superior to those of the NES, although arguably not quite up to the standards of the Famicom Disc System.
SEGA Master System FM Sound Comparison
Video by d34dm34t retro
The Master System was also capable of digitised speech. It still sounded artificial, and remained a long way from the cinema-quality professional voice acting we hear in games today, but it was noticeably better than the digitised speech we heard previously on the 8-bit home microcomputers.
Conclusion of Part Two
Of course, all the graphics and sound in the world would count for nought if SEGA's games console didn't have an extensive library of high-quality games to play on it. SEGA saw to it personally that it did, which will be the topic of the next article. See you all there.
Thanks, Acknowledgements and Attribution
In addition to the fantastic YouTubers linked above, I would very much like to thank the superb SEGA Retro site for data regarding hardware scrolling and Jay McDonald from Retro Game Start for information regarding sprite flicker.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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