The good old Sega Master System...
This poor console was heavily shadowed by the mighty Nintendo Entertainment System, but nonetheless it was still quite the entertainer. I remember my good old Sega Master System 2, with the built in 'Alex the Kid in Miracle World' game. I had this system not by choice, but by financial limitations. I had originally set my heart on the Sega Mega Drive, but it was still brand new at the time and was carrying quite a decent price tag so Sega’s 8bit counterpart I was stuck with. However I still enjoyed it and at first I was just plonked in front of the TV playing Alex the Kid for hours on end and let me tell you that game was frustratingly entertaining. Even though I kept making constant comparisons to Super Mario Brothers and complained about the slightly sticky controls, Alex the Kid in Miracle World was a decent built-in game and since it was all I had for the time being, I ended up getting pretty damn good at it. Funny thing is, back in those days a lot of the time you just accepted games for what they were regardless of their faults, since there wasn’t a great deal else to compare it to. Thankfully, the local video store had a decent selection of games available for hire and I continued to have fun by exploring the many available games. Even though the NES was better than the Master System and Super Mario was better than Alex the Kid, the Sega Master System still has its place in history; and let’s not forget that most of the great games we’ve played over time were made that good because their designers had some competition. With that in mind, lets take a closer look at one of the systems that attempted to edge their way into the Nintendo dominated market.
Sega Master System
In the mid eighties Nintendo had a strong grip on the videogames market and was quickly becoming the most recognisable name to be associated with videogame entertainment. The Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System was already a huge success and was selling strong across the globe, but it’s not often that the one single company dominates an industry and Nintendo had their fair share of competitors. One of these competitors was Sega, who also wanted a larger piece of the profitable videogames industry and decided to take on the all mighty Nintendo in 1985 by releasing their own 8bit gaming console that could be marketed world wide and try to give the NES a run for its money.
To get a better understanding of the Master System it’s best we take a look at its origins and the number of redesigns it received throughout its lifetime. The first incarnation of what we know as the Master System was released in Japan in 1985 as the Sega Mark III. (pictured above) The Mark III is the third evolution of Sega’s SG – 1000 series and was compatible with both of the previous systems, however due to its differently shaped cartridge it was not compatible with the Master System that was released world wide. The SG -1000 was Sega’s entry into the console market followed by the SG – 1000 II which retained all the original hardware but in a different casing. A SC – 3000 was also released which was a more hobby computer system rather than a gaming console, but nearly all games for the SG series were still compatible with one another. Each of these systems practically shared the same architecture, however the Sega Mark III received additional RAM and improved video hardware. The Mark III was a dual format machine and could play games from both cartridges and cards known as Sega Cards. Previously Sega Cards were played on the SG – 1000 series using the Card Catcher add-on, rather than having the card slot built into the actual system. The card slot was also used by the 3D glasses accessory. In 1986 the Mark III was redesigned and renamed the Master System (top image)and released to most parts of the world. A year later the Mark III was replaced by the Master System in Japan and featured a direct 3D glasses adapter, rapid fire unit and a Yamaha YM2413 FM sound chip. All of these additional features had to be purchased separately for the older Mark III system.
Even though the Master System did not create a significant enough impact in the videogaming market, Sega still decided to release another version called Master System 2 in 1990. This was only possible because Sega was having such good success with their new system the Mega Drive/Genesis. The Master system 2 was a slimmed down cheaper version of the original with the Sega Card Slot, composite video and rest button removed. In 1994 Tec Toy produced a compact wireless version of the Master system for the Brazilian market. This wireless version was an all one unit with the controller integrated into the system. The audio and video signal was transmitted using RF that was picked up by a module that plugged into the back of a TV set. A pink coloured version of the wireless system was also released in an attempt attract female consumers to the system.
Unfortunately for Sega, the Master System just couldn’t compete with the dominating force opposed by the NES in both the Japanese and American market. Nintendo already had a one year head start on the Master System in the American market and had impressed the punters with their first party titles. Not only was there top notch titles coming from Nintendo themselves, there was also strong support from third party developers and this is where Sega was severely crippled. Nintendo made their third party developers sign a contract that stated that if they wished to produce games for the NES they could not produce that same game for rival consoles. So the Master system missed out receiving games developed by big name developers such as Capcom, Konami, Namco and more. In 1988 the rights to produce the Master system hardware in America was handed over to toy manufacture Tonka. Given their lack of experience in the videogames market, Tonka made more of a mess of things by knocking back opportunities to release quality titles from other regions, and Sega eventually bought back the rights to the Master System, and gave the American market one more try by releasing the cheaper Master System 2. Unfortionately for Sega, it seemed the damage had already been done. In the European market however, things were the complete opposite, and the Master System took on great success thanks largely to Nintendo not selling the NES in most European countries. The strongest success Sega had was in Brazil where some games were even edited to suit the culture and a further 20 games were made exclusively for the Brazilian market.
Over its life time the Master System managed to construct a gaming library of over 300 games, however sadly there are a great number of titles that fall under the “average” category. Nintendo did eventually release their stranglehold on third party developers but at that point it was much too late. Things most certainly would have panned out differently if Sega had a level playing field to begin with, but it wasn’t a total loss as Sega used the knowledge gained from both their failed and successful markets and took a different approach with their next system. You have to give Sega credit for going up against a company that had over 90 percent of the market share and a controlling hand over third party developers. Even though the Master system didn’t take off world wide lots of people still remember it as Nintendo’s competitor and not the little guy that failed, plus, we were graced with a number of classic like Wonder Boy, Golden Axe and Shinobi.
Back then, Sega had a reputation of designing their gaming systems with the ability to play games from its previous system, which was a brilliant idea because when a new system is released it already has a back catalogue of games to choose from. Knowing that the money you have invested into a library of games for the last system will not go to waste made the transition from one Sega console to the next a lot more appealing. It was a shame that Sega didn’t do this with the Saturn and the Dream Cast this was mainly due to these systems being complete ground up builds, as opposed to improving on previous hardware like the Master System. Thankfully the majority of gaming systems released today have backwards compatibility as a standard feature. The Japanese released Sega Mark III was compatible with the cartridge games from its predecessor console the SG 1000 II and the Sega Card games that were used by the Card Catcher add-on for the SG 1000. For the Mega Drive/Genesis the Power Base Converter was released that allowed SMS games to be played on the system. The first Power Base Converter plugged into the cartridge slot of the Mega Drive and featured the Sega Card slot as well. When the redesigned Mega Drive 2 was released a second converter was made to suit due to the first version fitting snugly over the circular section of the first Mega Drive. This second version didn’t feature the Sega Card slot and was simply a pass through cartridge which is basically all the Mega Drive needed to play Master System games. Compatibility between the two systems was made easy because essentially the Mega Drive is a built up Master System, only enhanced in many ways. When Sega decided to tackle the portable gaming market with the Game Gear the hardware used to build the system was the same as the Master System. So essentially the Game Gear was a portable Master System, meaning all that was needed to play Master System games was a simple pass through device. Sega released their Master Gear Converter which integrated with the Game Gear nicely by having Master System games plug in the same direction as the original Game Gear cartridges. Aftermarket variants were available but some of these have the Master System games pointing outwards making the Game Gear awkward looking.
Standard Controller: Striking a similar resemblance to the Nintendo Entertainment System controller with the same rectangle design and two button layout, the SMS controller still differs due the lack of start and select buttons and different D-Pad design. The number one button on the controller acts as the start button as well as being an action button. There were a few slight variations in the controller design, at first the controller cord exited out the side but this was later changed to the more common top exiting design. The older versions of the Master System controller had a thread in the centre of the D-Pad which could have a small joystick screwed in to suit personal preference. The thread was eventually removed in the later versions in an attempt to reduce manufacturing costs. The SMS controller plug used a 9 pin plug that was very common for gaming systems for this era and was compatible with the Atari 2600, Sega Mega Drive and a number of hobby computers. In Europe the SG Commander Pad was released which was an updated version of the original with a plus shaped D-Pad and built in rapid fire buttons. A special six button controller was also released to coincide with the Master System version of Street Fighter 2.
Manufactured by a UK company named WKK Industries, this officially licensed wireless Sega controller is astatically identical to the Mega Drive controller. The same three button layout and a separate start button makes this controller easily mistaken for a Mega Drive accessory, but regardless of its similarities it’s not compatible with the Mega Drive. An Infra Red wireless signal is used to relay information from the control pad to a receiver that plugs into the Master System controller port. A claimed four meters distance between the controller and the receiver was stamped proudly on the box, however being Infra Red that would mean that the four metre distrance would have to be a non obstructed one. QuickShot also released their own version of the wireless controller which, unlike the WKK version, came as a twin pack.
Light Phaser: It was basically standard issue for 8 and 16bit consoles to have a light gun available, and the Light Phaser was the official Sega item. The Light Phaser was modelled after the sci-fi Anime series Zillion and even though it had a connection cord exiting from the handle, there was demand from concerned parties to have the design altered. Due to its all black colour some people were worried it may be mistaken by police for a real firearm. Later versions of the Light Phaser had a hand painted neon orange tip to clearly indentify it as a toy, this version is now very hard to come by and is sort after by collectors. When compared to the NES zapper, the Light Phaser has a heavier construction and some users even claim that it has a more responsive trigger and accurate aim.
Control Stick: An alternate controller to the standard supplied one, the Control Stick still basically performs all the same functions. Oddly enough Sega used a reversed position layout having the action buttons on the left and the joystick on the right. The joystick is a unique design and somewhat looks more like a transmission shifter from a car. Regardless of its unorthodox design the Control Stick was praised by SMS fans as the must have accessory.
The Sports Pad was another one of Sega’s controllers that used the reverse layout with the buttons on the left rather than the right. Instead of a D-Pad or a joystick a trackball is used to control movement. This controller was released in Japan and America (the image to the right is of the Japanese version)
with the American version having additional switches to allow compatibility with other games. The Japanese version didn’t have the additional switches but instead it came bundled with the Sport Pad Soccer game.
Rapid Fire Unit:
The Rapid Fire Unit does as the name suggests and enables controllers that do have rapid fire buttons as standard to have this feature. It works as a pass through device for the controller, with the Rapid Fire Module plugging into the system controller port. The controller then plugs into that.
The two switches allow you to select which button you want to have the rapid fire feature on. It wasn’t until late in the Master System’s life that Sega incorporated rapid fire buttons as standard in their SG Commander Pad but there was plenty of aftermarket controllers that offered it before that.
The Sega Hand Controller was the closest thing you could get to a steering wheel accessory for the Master System that was officially licensed. The Hand Controller is shaped more like a flight sim controller than an actual steering wheel, with the action buttons on each handle. This design means it can be used for both flying games that feature a cockpit view or motor racing games and was compatible with all games with no specific programming need in the games. This accessory was only released in Europe but there was other aftermarket variations made by companies like Hori. Some of these aftermarket versions had more than on plug meaning that they could be used on a number of different consoles.
3D Glasses: The 3D Glasses would have to be one of the most interesting accessories released for the SMS and today it’s an item sought after by collectors. 3D anything was all the rage back then, and Sega cashed in on this craze by releasing these 3D glasses. This accessory was only compatible with the Sega Mark III, Master System 1 and the Mega Drive Power Base Converter this was because the 3D Glasses used the SMS card slot to interface with the console. To produce a 3D effect the 3D glasses uses a shutter system that opens and closes each lens in the glasses at a rapid pace that creates a 3D sensation all in full colour unlike the cheaper alternative of using a pair of glasses with different coloured lenses. The down side to this system is the frame rate is dropped by 50 percent due to the opening and closing of the shutters which makes the image look as if it’s flickering. Plus these 3D glasses don’t work with modern flat screen TVs but that wouldn’t have been a major issue when this accessory was released. Only eight games were designed for this accessory most of which can be played with out the glasses
- Blade Eagle 3-D
- Line of Fire
- Maze Hunter 3-D
- Missile Defense 3-D
- Out Run 3-D
- Poseidon Wars 3-D
- Space Harrier 3-D
- Zaxxon 3-D
The Graphics Board was another one of those accessories that only got released in Japan and in Master Systems case will only work with the Japanese version of console due to the different game pack shape. The game pack containing the simplistic art programs was directly connected to the tablet via a cable. This cable was very short which meant that the user had to be fairly close to the system and the tablet could not be used for any other software. The Graphics Board works like a very crude PC tablet, so when the user draws something on the tablet using the provided stylus it would be translated into an image on the screen. Apparently this accessory was very hard to use and took some time to get used to. What you drew on the tablet didn’t exactly turn out as a direct representation on screen but considering the limited technology available at the time it was a fair effort of incorporating a graphics program with an 8bit gaming console, definitely one of the more unique accessories for its era.
- 8-bit Zilog Z80A. 3.546893 MHz for PAL/SECAM, 3.579545 MHz for NTSC
- VDP (Video Display Processor) derived from Texas Instruments TMS9918
- Up to 32 simultaneous colours available (one 16-color palette for sprites or background, an additional 16-color palette for background only) from a palette of 64 (can also show 64 simultaneous colours using programming tricks)
- Screen resolutions 256×192 and 256×224. PAL/SECAM also supports 256×240
- 8×8 pixel characters, max 463 (due to VRAM space limitation)
- 8×8 or 8×16 pixel sprites, max 64
- Horizontal, vertical, and partial screen scrolling
- Texas Instruments SN76489
- 4 channel mono sound (3 Square Waves, 1 White Noise)
- 3 tone generators, 10 octaves each, 1 white noise generator
- Sound (FM): Yamaha YM2413
- mono FM synthesis
- switchable between 9 tone channels or 6 tone channels + 5 percussion channels
- Included as built-in "accessory" with Japanese Master System (1987)
- supported by certain games only
- 64 kbit (8 KB) to 2048 kbit (256 KB), depending on built-in game
- 64 kbit (8 KB), can be supplemented by game cartridges
- 128 kbit (16 KB)
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Written by: Matthew Armitage