Welcome back, everyone. In the last article, we investigated the impressive for-the-time audio-visual capabilities of the Sega Master System. In this, we will look at the games that ran on it, and the console’s effect on the global gaming market. Let’s dive in.
By far and away the most important aspect of a gaming console is what games are available to play on it, and this is where SEGA could have become unstuck.
Due to Nintendo's insistence on platform exclusivity, many developers were unable to release games on the SEGA console. That said, Parker Brothers and Activision stayed with SEGA releasing games such as Montezuma's Revenge and Rampage.
What initially saved the Master System was SEGA’s impressive list of coin-op arcade games. SEGA wasted no time in creating arcade conversions for the Master System. The Console was marketed as “The arcade in your living room”, and since it was the most powerful console available at the time, its arcade conversions were the most faithful conversions on the market.
15 Master System Arcade Ports
Video by Lucas Rainford
As the Master System started selling well in the UK and European markets, other third-party publishers - those who had not been tied in by Nintendo - began releasing titles for the console. These developers included heavyweights such as Acclaim and US Gold.
Light Gun Games
Not to be outdone by Nintendo, the Master System also had a light gun, the ‘Light Phaser’. Since SEGA were not as constrained by the need to be as 'family friendly' as Nintendo, the games for the Light Phaser could be more graphic. A good example was the film tie-in Rambo III, which was very similar in both gameplay and tone to the arcade light gun game Operation Wolf.
No doubt inspired by the success of Duck Hunt on the NES, the Master System had something very similar - Safari Hunt - sans the condescending pooch.
10 Best Master System Light Phaser Games
Video by Retrodude
SEGA was well aware of the significance of having an easily identifiable mascot character such as Nintendo’s Mario, and to a lesser extent, Amstrad’s Roland. As such, SEGA created the character Alex Kidd. The standout title Alex Kidd in Miracle World started to become shipped with all Master Systems. Indeed, on later models - such as the Master System 2 - the game was built into the console’s memory and would be accessed by turning on the console without a cartridge inserted.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World Longplay (Master System)
Video by AL82 Retrogaming Longplays
Master System Exclusives
The Master System enjoyed a reasonably sized library of Master System Exclusive games. Some of these were exclusive to specific markets.
SEGA MASTER SYSTEM EXCLUSIVE GAMES
Video by Matt Flin
The ever-popular racing game genre was well supported by the Master System, with titles such as Road Rash and Chase HQ proving highly successful. The console’s impressive hardware ensured these titles looked and sounded noticeably better than similar titles on older hardware.
Racing Games: Master System (1985-1994)
Video by ES_Racer
Mega Drive Ports
By 1988 SEGA had released the 16-Bit Mega Drive / Genesis, and marketed it as the high-end console. The Master System continued to be supported for several years as the budget-conscious entry-level system. SEGA began to bolster the Master System’s games library by porting Mega Drive games to it, including some of the Mega Drive’s highest profile games, such as the iconic Streets of Rage.
Streets of Rage (Master System vs Genesis) Side by Side
Video by VCDECIDE
Third-party developers and publishers did likewise. Some games were more or less straight ports, different only in their reduced audio-visual fidelity. Others, however, differed significantly, becoming games worthy of being played on their own merits. This probably helped the Master System to remain relevant alongside its 16-Bit sibling.
Master System VS Genesis - 20 Games Compared
Video by Sega Lord X
One of the most notable of these was the Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog. It is doubtful the Master System would have been capable of replicating the blistering speed of Sonic on the Mega Drive, and so SEGA wisely went down a different path, opting for a slower-paced game with level designs more suited to careful, deliberate play. Some players who have played both actually prefer the Master System version because of this.
Sonic the Hedgehog Sega Genesis vs Sega Master System Playthrough
Video By CheesestringXX
According to Wikipedia: 313 game titles were released for the Master System. 15 were released only in Japan, 4 were released only in North America, 158 were released only in PAL regions and 22 were released only in Brazil.
According to SEGA Retro: With about 360 Sega Master System games officially released during the console's lifespan (including the Sega Mark III), the Master System has a sizeable set of games in its library, but not as many as its successors.
I’m unclear which number is correct, and whether either includes unlicensed games. Either way, this is a respectable library of games. It is worth noting that the number of titles released for NTCS regions - such as North America - is only about half that of the Master System’s total games library. This, perhaps, is reflective of the console's relative underperformance in the North American market. Speaking of which…
SEGA’s Master System was unable to unseat Nintendo’s NES and Famicom from their leading positions in the US and Japanese markets. By the time the Master System was released, the NES’s foothold on the North American market was simply too secure to be dislodged.
However, the Master System saw considerable success in the markets where Nintendo had underperformed - in particular the South American, European and UK markets, where it initially outsold the NES (although the NES may have caught up later).
The UK release and marketing of the Master System was handled by Mastertronic - and later Virgin. They had already built considerable experience with, and reputation within, the UK market due to their time with the ZX Spectrum.
Before long, the Master System became the best-selling games console in the UK and European markets. What’s more, it started to compete well with the already well-established 8-bit home microcomputers. Its comparatively superior graphics, sound and two-button controller gave it a clear edge compared to the older ZX Spectrum, Commodore C64 and Amstrad CPC 464 computers. Another bonus was its near instantaneous - and silent - loading times, a breath of fresh air for a market used to the long and ear-splitting loading screens of tape-based media.
Overall, the Master System sold a very respectable 10 - 13 million units worldwide. This number does not include the eight (8) million sold in Brazil, where both licensed and unlicensed versions saw considerable success. The Master System remained popular in Brazil for far longer than in other areas, in part due to Brazil’s video game ‘Grey Markets.’
Brazil's Video Game Gray Markets
Video by Cloth Map
To help support this market, a decent number of Brazil-exclusive titles were created, which were unavailable elsewhere.
Top 20 Brazil Only Sega Master System Games! - Region Exclusives
The Master System is perhaps an overlooked gem of a console. While its overall impact was less than that of the NES, it did reintroduce console gaming into markets that had largely turned their back on consoles after the Atari 2600.
Perhaps, however, the Master System’s biggest impact on gaming as a whole was that it provided SEGA with the confidence, capital, brand recognition and technical know-how to create their next home console, the far more influential 16-bit Mega Drive. But that is a story for a future article.
And with that, we say farewell to the SEGA Master System. In the next article, we will investigate the last hurrah of the 8-bit generation, the confusingly titled PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16. See you all there.
What are your thoughts regarding gaming on the Master System? Have you played it yourself? If so, was this on the original hardware or via emulation? Do you have any experiences you would like to share? If so, please feel free to share them in the comments section below.
PS - this article ended up using far more voiced videos than usual. This was not deliberate, it just turned out that way. What are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer this, so that you can gain a wider perspective and hear their views, or would you prefer that we use non-voiced videos as we have done previously? Please let us know in the comments or via PM or e-mail.
In addition to the superb YouTubers linked above, I would like to thank FatNicK and the people behind Wikipedia and SEGA Retro whose information proved invaluable in creating this article.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36(ish) 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 email at email@example.com
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